New York City Mayor from 1954 through 1965 with sagaciousness, grace and dry wit as the keystone of a political dynasty: his father was a United States Senator; his son, who is known as Robert F. Wagner Jr., has been elected and appointed to city posts in his own right.
Mr. Wagner started his political career as a protege of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party machine that had controlled city affairs for most of 150 years. By 1961, he had broken with Tammany and its chief, Carmine G. De Sapio, and had defeated the organization. In defeating Tammany, he had espoused the self-designated Democratic reform movement, which he took over himself rather than becoming its servant.
His greatest political failure came in 1956, when at the urging of former President Harry S. Truman and other powerful Democrats, he ran for the United States Senate against the Republican incumbent, Jacob K. Javits. President Dwight D. Eisenhower's sweep of the state in the election helped Mr. Javits win; Mr. Wagner never got another chance to run for the seat his father had once held.
Mr. Wagner also failed in an attempt to gain the Democratic nomination for mayor in 1969, and in 1973 a deal that would have made him the Republican-Liberal candidate for mayor also collapsed.
Lyndon Johnson rewarded Mr. Wagner for his support in 1968 when he named him Ambassador to Spain, a post that Mr. Wagner held for nearly a year, resigning after the Nixon Administration arrived in Washington.
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter, whose New York campaign he had supported in 1976, named him the unofficial United States representative to the Vatican, a post he held until 1981.
Mr. Wagner had become as much a socially prominent figure in the city as a political one. His presence at nightclubs and social events, with his third wife, the former Phyllis Fraser Cerf, the widow of Bennett Cerf, the publisher and humor anthologist, was occasionally chronicled in gossip columns.
Mr. Wagner and his first wife, the former Susan Edwards, the sister of his roommate at Yale, were married in the rectory of St. Patrick's Cathedral in 1942. They had two sons, Robert Jr., born in 1944, and Duncan, born three years later. Susan Wagner died of cancer in 1964, and when Mr. Wagner announced in June 1965 that he was not seeking re-election, he said, with tears running down his cheeks, that he was quitting public life to honor her last wish for him.
In 1965, described by friends as lonely and depressed at his first wife's death, he married Barbara Jean Cavanagh, the sister of his former Fire Commissioner, Edward Cavanagh. The marriage ended in a civil divorce and church annulment in 1971. Mr. Wagner married Mrs. Cerf in 1975.
Robert Ferdinand Wagner Jr., as he was known for much of his life, was born on April 20, 1910, in Yorkville, where his father, who would be elected to the Senate in 1925, was already one of the most prominent lawyers and politicians.
He received a bachelor's degree from Yale in 1933 and later studied at the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration and the School of International Studies in Geneva. He received a law degree from Yale in 1937, the same year he was elected to the New York State Assembly.
In 1976, his law firm was merged into the firm that later became Finley, Kumble, Wagner, Heine, Underberg, Manley, Myerson & Casey. He was a partner there until 1987 and then joined Fischbein, Badillo & Wagner. In the 1980's he also served as a member of the city's Charter Revision Commission. In 1989 New York University named its school of public service for him.
Mr. Wagner is survived by his wife, Phyllis and his two sons, Robert and Duncan.more » « less