Erastus Corning 2nd was elected mayor of Albany, New York eleven times, serving forty-two consecutive years, an unsurpassed tenure in American political history. Even before birth, Corning’s destiny as Albany’s “mayor for life” was scripted. As pillars of the WASP establishment, Corning men were expected to attend Groton and Yale and assume positions of leadership in industry and politics. One could say that the Corning family was noblesse oblige on steroids: an assumption that with wealth, power and prestige come social responsibilities. Yet the noblesse oblige represented by the Cornings had a dark side as their class established an oligarchy in Albany to preserve their status and power.
In the 1920s, the financial, institutional and industrial strength represented by the Corning dynasty forged an omnipotent alliance led by a salty tongued Irish working class political boss named Dan O’Connell. This unlikely union of the well bred Corning family and the O’Connell clan of Irish saloonkeepers initially bonded through cock fighting! Eratus’s father Edwin served as Lt. Governor in the late ‘20s and collaborated with O’Connell until poor health forced him to step away from politics.
When Edwin Corning died in 1934, Dan O’Connell became a surrogate father for the future mayor. As Albany’s political boss, O’Connell paved the way for Corning to assume the reins and become mayor at the age of thirty-two in 1941. Corning served until he died in 1983. Ironically, this powerful man who battled Thomas Dewey, sparred with Nelson Rockefeller and mentored Mario Cuomo, never enjoyed the power of self-determination.
A complex and lonely soul, Corning presided over a fiefdom of cronyism, corruption and stability. He mingled easily with the working class that the O’Connell-Corning machine kept obedient while enjoying the exclusive privileges of men in his social class. As other cities peaked with post war development and endured social turbulence in the 1960s, Albany remained virtually unchanged. And the citizens of Albany continued to return Corning to power.
Paul Grondahl, an award winning journalist with the Albany Times Union skillfully captured the “shadow" and “light” of Corning’s rule, as well as his convoluted private life in his book, Mayor Erastus Corning: Albany Icon, Albany Enigma. Originally published in 1997, Grondahl’s biography about Corning was just released in paperback by the State University of New York Press.
William Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Ironweed, writes in the introduction that,
“This is an important book for Albany, for anyone interested in political power. It widens our vision (with a view from inside City Hall) of the O’Connell Democratic organization, which controlled Albany from 1921 until the Mayor died in 1983, making it the longest-running boss machine in American political history.”Grondahl agreed to a podcast interview with me over the telephone about his book and Erastus Corning. Our conversation lasted forty-five minutes as we discussed the public figure, the political machine he served and his private life. Please refer to the media player below.
This interview can also be accessed via the Itunes store at no cost by searching for “Intrepid Liberal Journal.”