Marc Estrin

Marc Estrin

ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT

Did you know that FDR was almost assassinated? Here’s the story (it’s all true, except for the six-foot talking cockroach), dug out of our American memory hole. It’s one of the many things I learned, researching Insect Dreams.

SURREALPOLITIK


The roach was tireless. He slaved away with an ardor and diligence available only to those with giant neurons and double ganglia. By Election Day, 1932, working full time and more, he had assembled a seven volume dossier on Mr. Hoover: every damning phrase and paragraph from every article in every newspaper and magazine across the land -- including his own words, so easily used against him. It was not yet our sleazy age of negative campaigning, focusing voter attention on sensational, irrelevant distractions. No, G’s research was solid history, economics, politics and sociology. It spoke truth about power to a population presumed intelligent. Tugwell and Moley and Berle spun this material out to the public -- again not in the current debased sense of “spin”, but carefully, logically, teachers that they were -- until the President was definitively snared in his own undoing.

Roosevelt 42 states, Hoover 6. Electoral College: 472 to 59. It is true that almost any Democrat could have beaten Hoover, he of the “Hoovervilles”, so frustrated and irate were the American masses. But the landslide was enough to give one pause. So much faith sits uneasily on any mere human being.

Yet FDR was at ease, apparently confident, during this most uneasy winter. Farmers brandished rifles when the tax men came to foreclose; apple sellers crowded the streets, but how many apples could “the common man” eat? People were hungry, marriage was rare, bank accounts were overdrawn. And on Roosevelt’s 51st birthday, January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.

FDR, tanned and relaxed from a twelve day cruise, disembarked at Miami, the day after Valentine’s, the day after all Michigan banks closed down by order of the governor. On the Ides of February, he rode in an open car to greet a crowd of 20,000 supporters at Bay Front Park. He rode in a light blue Buick convertible, along with Raymond Moley, who had come down to Miami to report on the Cabinet search, and with Gregor Samsa, who had been rewarded for his Herculean labors with a Caribbean cruise on the Nourmahal.

Gregor Samsa on Vincent Astor’s yacht. Now there’s an image to ponder! This child of the Jewish quarter of Prague, this circus freak, this erstwhile elevator boy and dumpster diver, this toiler in the innards of insurance. What a rise was there, my countrymen.

Seated in an open car, driving along a dark street on the way to the park, Moley remarked to his companions how easy an assassination would be. But FDR was fearless. “I remember T.R. telling me me that the only real danger is from a man who does not fear losing his own life. Most of the crazy ones can be spotted first.”

In the crowded, well-lit park, shortly after nine, Moley and Gregor hoisted the President-elect up on top of the back seat, where he could be seen. Roosevelt spoke entertainingly for two minutes to much laughter and applause, then lowered himself into the seat of the car to greet Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago, who was visiting his father in Miami.

Then, a popping in the air. Roosevelt thought it a firecracker, Moley a backfire. Gregor was the first to spot a short, swarthy man, standing on a rickety folding chair twenty feet away emptying a revolver in the direction of the President-to-be. After the first shot, a nearby woman grabbed his arm, and subsequent bullets made their wild ways through the crowd. The gunman was tackled and subdued by bystanders and Park Police while Secret Service men bulled their way toward the center of the violence. “I’m all right! I’m all right,” Roosevelt yelled. But Mayor Cermak was not all right, nor were four others. The mayor’s shirt was covered in red, and blood streamed from from lung to mouth. Secret Service shouted frantically for the car to evacuate, but FDR ordered the driver to stop so the mayor’s body could be lifted into this, the first vehicle which would be free of the crowd. He tried to find a pulse as Cermak slumped forward. “I’m afraid he’s not going to last,” he whispered to G, as the car made for Jackson Memorial Hospital. The man from Hyde Park coached his friend from Chicago: “Tony, keep quiet -- don’t move. It won’t hurt if you don’t move.” “I’m glad it was me and not you,” the mayor gasped. It’s true. Gregor was there. There is honor even among politicians.

In the ER waiting room, Moley approached Gregor. “I think it would be good for you to visit our would-be assassin. Find out if he acted alone or if there are others. Get back to the railroad car by 11:30.”

Armed with a hand-written note from Roosevelt, G took a cab back to the park and made his way to the 21st floor of the Dade County Courthouse, overlooking the scene of the crime. There, surrounded by Secret Service, was an unemployed bricklayer, one Giuseppe Zangara, 33, come to the United States ten years earlier aboard the steamer Martha Washington. So much was Gregor told. He went into the cell, and asked to be left alone with the prisoner. Secret Service reluctantly retreated. G could repeat the conversation almost verbatim.

“Hello, Mr. Zangara. I am Gregor Samsa, a friend of Mr. Roosevelt.”

“I am friend of nobody.”

“Mr. Roosevelt wants you to know he is all right.”

“Too bad. I am better kill him. Too crowded. Too much crowds.”

“Why do you want to kill him?”

“Because rich people make me suffer and do this to me.”

He lifted his shirt to show G a large, keloid scar on his flank and abdomen.

“Rich people make me to go out from school,” he continued. “Two months I am in school and my father come and take me out and say ‘You don’t need no school. You need to work.’ Six years old, he take me out of school. Lawyers ought to punish him -- that’s the trouble -- he send me to school and I don’t have this trouble. Government!”

“Do you hate the government?”

“Yes,” he answered, through clenched teeth. “Because rich people make me suffer and do this stomach pain to me.”

“The rich men make you suffer?”

“Yes, since they sent me to work in a big job.” He clutched his abdomen and groaned.

“Your belly hurts?”

“Because when I did tile work it hurt me there. It all spoil my machinery, all my insides. Everything inside no good.”

Zangara was barely five feet tall. At sixteen, he left home to carry a gun in the army. He had come to the conclusion that the real causes of exploitation -- and of his constant stomach pain -- were political leaders. He was going to kill King Victor Emmanuel, but he never got the chance. So he came with his uncle to America. He joined a union, and saved his money. In the prosperous twenties, he sometimes made $14 a day. Then his uncle decided to marry, and Giuseppe had to move out of the apartment they shared. From that time on, he lived in complete isolation, an angry hermit who took no part in the Italian community around him. A stranger to wine, women or song, his whole life revolved around his stomach pain.

When the depression struck, he took his savings and travelled from city to city with no clear goal. He wound up in Hackensack, N.J. where he lived in one $10 a month room and rented the room next door to prevent anyone from living near him. For the winter he moved to Miami.

By February, 1933, he had less than a hundred dollars to his name, and his stomach was pure agony. He decided he was going to get even, and kill Herbert Hoover.

“I kill that no good capitalist,” he told Gregor. “He make the depression. He make unemployment and the soup lines. He make burning in my stomach.”

“But Mr. Roosevelt works against Herbert Hoover. He is your friend.”

“Hoover and Roosevelt -- everybody the same. Hoover too far. Washington too far. I have only $43 dollars.”

“So Mr. Roosevelt came right to you, to Miami.”

“I read in the paper he is coming, and I don’t must go to Washington. I make Roosevelt suffer. I want to make it fifty-fifty since my stomach hurt I get even with capitalists by kill the President. My stomach hurt long time.”

Gregor was dealing with a nut case. This man could only act alone. Who would act with him? G probed a possible insanity defense.

“Did you know what you were doing when you shot at Mr. Roosevelt?”

“Sure I know. You think I am crazy? I gonna kill president. I no care. I sick all time. I think maybe cops kill me if I kill President. I take picture of President in my pocket. I no want to shoot Cermak, just Roosevelt. I aim at him, I shoot him. But somebody move my arm. Every American people mistreats me. You give me electric chair. I’m no afraid that chair. You’re one of capitalists. You is crook man too. Put me in electric chair, I no care.”

At the time of the interview, Zangara was charged only with four counts of assault with a deadly weapon. But three weeks later, when Mayor Cermak died, the charge was changed to first degree murder. Only thirty three days after the event, the wiry Italian got his wish. Strapped down in “Ol’ Sparky” at the Florida State Penitentiary, he railed at the observers, “Lousy capitalists -- go ahead, push the button.” They did.

On the train, Gregor reported his interview to a much-relieved Brains Trust. The President-elect was quite moved to hear, “I no hate Mr. Roosevelt personally. I like him, but I hate all presidents, no matter from which country, and I hate all officials and everyone who is rich.” 

“Do you think this was a political act?” Moley asked the roach. 

“He said he thought anarchism, socialism, communism and fascism were stupid. Also religion, God, Jesus, heaven, hell and any thought of soul. When I asked him if he believed anything he read, he said, “I don’t believe in nothing. I don’t believe in reading books because I don’t think and I don’t like it. I got everything in my mind.

“Did you get any sense about what he did believe?” Roosevelt asked.

“I asked him that. You know what he said?”

“What?”

“The land, the sky, the moon.”

The men and the roach sat in silence. Beyond the ticking telegraph poles, the moon shown full on the track back to Washington.