Swiss writer covered FDR re-election from New York

How well will people remember the 2016 US election campaign – and election day itself? Eighty years ago, a Swiss journalist reported on how Americans were fired up over the 1936 election – which pitted incumbent President Franklin D Roosevelt, a Democrat, against Republican candidate Alfred Landon. Here’s the report by Annemarie Schwarzenbach (1908-1942) .

This content was published on November 8, 2016 - 10:15
Annemarie Schwarzenbach, New York
Manhattan in the 1930s Albin-Guillot/Roger-Viollet

Election night in New York, November 3, 1936

November 3, 1936 was a great day for America. As every citizen and voter knows, it commemorates some of the more important dates in America’s history, such as Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency, the end of the Civil War, and perhaps also the Declaration of Independence. But those events are long past. The question now is whether Roosevelt will be re-elected to his second term or whether the opposing Republican candidate, Alfred Landon, might beat him at the polls. America’s future hangs on the answer to this question.

The unassuming overcast November day proceeded quietly. Already by noon, in the canyon-like streets of New York, lights had to be switched on, and towards evening a light rain fell. The air was warm, muggy, oppressive, and quite exhausting. The entire city seemed flagging, almost as though citizens, harassed by the election campaign, took a welcome breather a few hours before the decision was announced – anticipated for months and for which the whole nation had been prepared. Most businesses and offices closed, and the metropolis gave itself a holiday.

On many street corners people paused and gathered around to listen to speakers and then went on their way, leisurely strolling with wives and children. On other corners there was singing – lively country and western songs, used as propaganda by veterans’ and women’s leagues, and glorified by Republican committees. But such songs were too traditional to ever come across as nationalistic and party-political. The pundits on street corners also had scant success; the public had grown used to them for weeks and, besides, by now everybody had made up their mind which way they would vote. America, entirely understandably, was suffering from election fatigue. For months hardly any soothing jazz played on the radio, only Father Coughlan’s thumping demagoguery punctuated by the renegade Al Smith, former friend of President Roosevelt, ironically ridiculed, with both Coughlan and Smith castigated and factually brought to heel by elected representatives. For months there had been no newspapers without weighty economic analyses, no movie programs without weekly newsreels on the private and family lives of the presidential candidates, and in the papers hardly any column inches devoted to the Spanish Civil War, the depreciated Swiss franc, or the divorce proceedings of the American-born Mrs Simpson, about whom Americans at the moment are passionately curious, even during an election campaign.

Self-portrait photograph by Annemarie Schwarzenbach, using a Rolleiflex Standard 621 camera By courtesy

Annemarie SchwarzenbachExternal link (1908-1942) was a Swiss writer, reporter and photographer who travelled in the United States from 1936-1937 and again from 1940-1941. She observed the aftermath of the Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal in the cotton belt and mining towns of Pennsylvania. She spent time with activist Myles Horton in the Highlander Folk School and met the writer Carson McCullers in New York. Schwarzenbach’s journalism appeared in Swiss newspapers and periodicals. Her photographs show the influence of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lang and are archived in the Swiss Literary Archives in Bern. Her journalism has been translated into French, Italian and Spanish, but not yet published in English. This piece about election night in New York in 1936 was found among her papers in the SLA and has never been published.

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Press or propaganda?

For months the many thousand editors employed by press baron William Randolph Hearst attempted with difficulty to substantiate the view that Roosevelt had violated the sacred trust of the American constitution, that his ambitious plan for a new social and economic order, the so-called New Deal, threatens American freedoms, and thereby constitutes a true enemy of the American nation. The Hearst press wanted to convince its readers that Roosevelt is using tax-payers’ dollars – in particular, the tax dollars of the rich – and needlessly throwing them to the winds on hare-brained schemes and castles in the air, and that the dreadful problems of economic crisis and unemployment have been exaggerated by him out of pure malice, as justification for his frivolous policies. Or that such problems, in so far as they could not be denied, inevitably stem from divine will and must be treated accordingly in the fullness of American freedom, like a fever let run its course.

But where would a laissez-faire approach to the scourge of the great American Depression lead? When bank failures followed on each other’s heels, when dust storms choked and swept across the expanse of the American continent and laid waste fertile farmland, when rivers burst their banks and inundated the fields, when starving farmers swelled the ranks of the unemployed on the country roads, what then? When the freedom-loving financiers of Wall Street cannot stop the stock market from spiralling out of control? When employers and factory owners hand in glove with Hearst push for the right to free enterprise, their factories ring-fenced with electrified barbed wire to protect against striking workers – what’s to do? And when workers and so-called trade union leaders are duped by voracious power-hungry racketeers, fine gentlemen also exercised by American “freedoms,” like employers manoeuvring against regular government-backed trade unions – then what? Where will all this lead? Who stands to benefit from this fine old American ideal of freedom?

Hearst editors write their stuff, while journalists from the democratic daily newspapers, papers on the left, the mildly liberal, progressive papers refute them. It was a huge struggle. Millions of dollars on both sides were spent on it, and all knew America’s future hung in the balance. All deployed a multitude of more or less clever arguments, and honed their oratorical skills, delivered with apparent urgency and reason.

The Democrats were more populist: the Republicans had more money. In New York movie theatres, during the weekly newsreels, when Landon accompanied by his smiling wife and a number of young children appeared on the screen, the audience in the more expensive movie palaces applauded. In the small suburban movie theatres they rooted for Roosevelt. Nonetheless, on November 3, nobody really knew how things might turn out, and Americans of both political persuasions, fed up with the elections, sceptically shook their heads and hedged their bets. New York’s enormous stone metropolis came to life at night. The Stars and Stripes fluttered as cheerful, rousing music played, confetti and paper streamers floated through the air, restaurants served their Election Night Specials, clubrooms were illuminated, and crowds began to swell on Broadway and pressed in carnival mood towards Times Square. And then, across the whole city, in streets, in precincts, radios were switched on. And New York, America’s stony heart, tuned into the wavelength of the whole country and took note of the voices of its 120 million inhabitants.

Ladies’ choice

In one of the many women’s clubs, in a quiet, well-to-do neighbourhood, they held a private straw poll – everyone present, whether member or invited guest, placed her straw in one of two ready-to-hand wastepaper bins: for Landon or for Roosevelt. The mostly rather elderly, grey-haired, quietly distinguished ladies by and large plumped for Landon and were majestically triumphant. Generous to a fault, these American-style freedom-lovers assembled in a banquet hall, bedecked indiscriminately with banners and badges of all political parties. Above the entrance there even hung a red flag with hammer and sickle, and nearby a life-size caricature of Hearst, the press baron, with avaricious-looking countenance, decorated with a swastika on the left side of his chest. You could have been in a Moscow meeting hall, were the audience not a flock of such typically American, rather peculiar, politicized elderly ladies. The loudspeakers announced the results – every ten minutes a new victory for Roosevelt, and one of these formidable ladies gave a running commentary. Now and again she called upon one of the few males present, husbands or sons-in-law, embarrassing them with the rather sharp political repartee.

Finally from Boston, the most conservative city in America, a single Republican victory was announced and cheered on to loud applause, and a small-headed, quick-witted, agile professor leapt up and gave a short impromptu speech. The straw poll, he said, had resulted in some 90 votes for Landon and 75 votes for Roosevelt. But of these 75 he himself had contributed 72, which meant that apart from himself there should be only three other Roosevelt supporters among the assembly. One might have expected to hear from him some comforting words for Landon: “He has, God knows, need of comfort!” Roosevelt’s overwhelming victory surely implied that the “lower” social classes had voted for him... The assembly of downcast ladies drew cold comfort from this implication.

Dancing at Times Square

While hope flickered here and in similar conservative clubs, late-arriving election results from rural constituencies swung in favour of Landon, as the major newspapers, primarily the Hearst papers, expected – but Roosevelt’s re-election was secure. In an up-and-coming fashion designer’s workshop, a group of young “radicals” – socialists, communists, painters, journalists and writers – crowded around a small radio and heatedly discussed why Roosevelt’s re-election should be welcomed. Roosevelt had hitherto tried fairly to unite the interests of the American private sector with his social programs – a task those on the extreme right and on the radical left viewed suspiciously. All the same, in the fashion designer’s atelier, despite some fears, excitement and jubilation reigned. And while it was rather subdued (though not as genteel as the ladies’ club), outside on a sky-scraper on Times Square red neon circles of light climbed higher with every new victory for Roosevelt from city, state or electoral district. Around 1am, the defeated candidate Alfred Landon sent a congratulatory telegram to Roosevelt, clarifying his intention to go duck hunting. The radio announced that the president’s famous laugh was audible from the balcony of his Hyde Park house. In Times Square an incalculable crowd gathered, celebratory, dancing, embracing each other, pushing and shoving, floodlit and serenaded with music under a shower of confetti. It was no riot but a party to celebrate the free will of the nation resoundingly and powerfully given voice in this election.

Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s work was made available through the Swiss National LibraryExternal link. It was translated by Padraig Rooney, an Irish writer resident in Switzerland since 2002, and the author of The Gilded Chalet: Off-piste in Literary SwitzerlandExternal link (2015). Rooney has completed translations of Schwarzenbach’s American journalism into English, and is working on a related book.

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