Mr. New York: Grover Whalen's Unique Diplomacy

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Grover Whalen, undated.

In this 1956 appearance at the Books and Authors Luncheon, Grover A. Whalen takes us from his childhood on the Lower East Side to his role in assuring that the United Nations would build its headquarters in New York City. 

The chairman of the Mayor's Committee for the Reception of Distinguished Guests recounts how, when he first traveled abroad, he found that New York was not seen as "a cultural city. It was simply a city that was after the money." His job was to smooth its rough edges and present a more polished version to its visitors. This began after World War I, with the reception of the U.S. troops and then President Woodrow Wilson's return from signing the Treaty of Versailles. He refers to matters of protocol, like Mrs. Wilson's anger at being asked to sit in a box at Carnegie Hall instead of being onstage with her husband and other foreign dignitaries when the terms of the treaty were explained.

Whalen defines his role as helping New York "to be understood," and sees the culmination of that effort in hosting the United Nations. Originally, there had been a movement to establish the organization in "some far-off place called Connecticut." At first Whalen prevailed upon Robert Moses to offer a part of the recently developed Flushing Meadow Park for the headquarters, but that was rejected. Then John D. Rockefeller offered the real estate where the current building sits. This way, he says, harkening back to his upbringing in the melting pot of the Lower East Side, instead of making their decisions in bucolic isolation, diplomats can "rub elbows with all of us," for we have "all the races of the world here." Whalen concludes by extolling, rather presciently, New York as "the center for information." 

Grover Whalen was born in 1886 on the very day Grover Cleveland was being married in the White House. This led his father, a staunch Democrat, to name his son after the President. Whalen got his start not in politics but in commerce. He was befriended first by John Wanamaker and then by John's son, Rodman, and rose through the ranks of the famous Wanamaker's department store. Whalen was recognized for his genius in the relatively new field of public relations and easily made the move into government when Mayor John F.  Hylan, who was notoriously ill-at-ease at public events, asked him to represent New York on certain occasions. Appointments to other branches of the municipal government were less successful. Whalen served briefly as Police Commissioner (1928-1930) and was noted for strict enforcement of Prohibition Laws. But his sanctioning of brutal tactics in suppressing the International Unemployment Day demonstration, as well as his much quoted defense of the department, "There is plenty of law at the end of a nightstick," led to his resignation two months later.   

Whalen is more fondly remembered for being the moving force behind the establishment of WNYC, the city-owned-and-operated radio station, in 1922, when he was Commissioner for Plant and Structures. 

Whalen was one of the moving forces behind the 1939 World's Fair, being intimately involved in its planning and also its "public face," even to the extent of being featured on a Time magazine cover featuring the event. His association with the Fair's emblematic "Trylon," a soaring spire which one ascended on the world's longest escalator, assured him the dubious immortality of being enshrined in the Harold Arlen-Yip Harburg song made famous by Groucho Marx, "Lydia the Tattooed Lady":

Here is Grover Whalen unveilin' the Trylon.
> Over on the West Coast we have Treasure Isle-on.
Here's Nijinsky a-doin' the rhumba.
Here's her Social Security numba.

But it was his role as New York City's official greeter that caught the public's eye. He was a ubiquitous figure, instantly recognized by his immaculately trimmed mustache and fresh carnation. As The Daily News recalled:

You didn't even have to be world-famous to get the Grover Whalen treatment when you came to New York. In his years on the job, Whalen presided at more than 1,000 public events, welcoming and hosting such as the supreme chancellor of the Knights of Pythias, the president of the Vienna Board of Health, Miss Brazil, the Miami American Legion Drum and Bugle Corps, the Mexican Red Triangles basketball team, the Irish and Scottish Damask Linen Advertising Association, the American Electrotherapeutic Association, the Allegemeiner Deutscher Automobile Club, and the French Boy Scout Singers.

The ticker-tape parade was another of Whalen's specialties. This is where his grasp of public relations and logistics came to the fore.  The New York Times describes the artifice involved in throwing one of these affairs:

The typical Whalen parade up lower Broadway began at 12:05 PM, just in time to catch the financial workers on their way to lunch. The curious crowds made even minor guests feel they were getting a great welcome. If the visitor was not impressed by throngs of hungry and enthusiastic New Yorkers, he never failed to gasp in astonishment at the deluge of shredded telephone books, ticker tape, and adding machine tape in his honor.

Whalen died in 1962, at age 75.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.