We Live in a Motorized Civilization: Robert Moses
Replies to Robert Caro
Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis
University of Southern California
In 1974, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. published Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, a critical
biography of Robert Moses’s dictatorial tenure as the “master builder” of mid-century
New York. Moses profoundly transformed the urban fabric and transportation system
of New York, producing the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, the Verrazano Narrows Bridge,
the Westside Highway, the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the Lincoln Center, the UN head-
quarters, Shea Stadium, Jones Beach State Park, and many other projects. However, The
Power Broker did lasting damage to his public image and today he remains one of the
most polarizing gures in city planning history. Caro’s book won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize
and was eventually named one of the Modern Library’s 100 greatest nonction books of
the 20th century. Prior to this critical acclaim, however, came a pointed response from
the biography’s subject.
On August 26, 1974, Moses issued a turgid 23-page statement denouncing Caro’s
work as “full of mistakes, unsupported charges, nasty baseless personalities, and random
haymakers.” In his statement, Moses denied having had any responsibility for mass
transit, dismissed his “lady critics,” and defended the forced displacement of the poor as
a necessary component of urban revitalization: “I raise my stein to the builder who can
remove ghettos without moving people as I hail the chef who can make omelets without
breaking eggs.” The statement also included a striking passage on what Moses perceived
to be his critics’ hypocrisies in the modern age of automobility: “One cannot help being
amused by my friends among the media who shout for rails and inveigh against rubber
but admit that they live in the suburbs and that their wives are absolutely dependent on
motor cars. We live in a motorized civilization.”
In the wake of Moses’s statement, Caro issued a (much shorter) same-day reply. The
following morning, The New York Times published an article reporting on their testy
Moses’s original typewritten statement survives today as a grainy photocopy
in the New York City Parks Department archive. To better preserve and disseminate it, I
have extracted and transcribed its text using optical character recognition and edited the
result to correct errors. In the pages that follow, I have compiled my transcription
Moses’s statement, followed by Caro’s reply.
Kaufman, Michael T. 1974. “Moses Rips Into ‘Venomous’ Biography.” The New York Times, p. 25,
August 27, 1974.
2Available at https://github.com/gboeing/moses-caro
Comment on a New Yorker Proﬁle and Biography
August 26, 1974
Robert A. Caro has written a biography about me, excerpts from which have appeared
in a four-part Prole in The New Yorker. The Prole seems to be a considerably digested,
amended, edited and expurgated version of the twelve hundred page biography.
I have sought the advice of close friends, most of whom told me to say nothing. On
the other hand, judging by inquiries, some comment seems to be called for. I have limited
it to less than 3500 words as against 120,000 in the Prole and 600,000 in the book. I
shall have nothing further to add, except to suggest that the critics remember Governor
Smith’s favorite remark in such contexts, “Let’s look at the record.”
It is dicult to address oneself at once to a whitewashed, Bowdlerized Prole with a
sensational, eye-catching title calculated to attract curious readers, and a biography. The
Prole is within bounds of current journalistic practice. The biography, on the other
hand, is full of mistakes, unsupported charges, nasty, baseless personalities and random
haymakers thrown at just about everybody in public life.
The biography tries to prove that I was a good boy who fell from grace, became
a politician and mistreated the poor. The author can’t even get the names and places
straight. There are hundreds of careless errors.
Many charges are downright lies, manufactured by early opponents who have waited
for an opportunity to satisfy ancient grudges and found this author a ready instrument.
Among personal, nasty, false, venomous and vindictive canards is one that I was roman-
tically linked with Mrs. Ruth Pratt, our rst Congresswoman, and that as a result my
wife took sick, became an alcoholic and a recluse, that I virtually abandoned her, joined
some kind of foursome and took a lady who subsequently became my wife to Florida.
My companion on the short Florida vacations was my daughter Jane. With respect to my
family life, the author’s innuendos are wholly untrue and scurrilous. Under the fair libel
laws they would be actionable.
For dirt and misinformation the author says he latched onto a brother of mine, now
dead. Similarly, he attacks by name, by sly hints of wrongdoing and conicts of interest
scores of prominent and respected ocials and citizens, many of them dead.
The author praises two reporters, Gleason and Cook of the Scripps-Howard press,
as sterling representatives of the journalistic profession, but fails to inform his readers
that they were called in by the district attorney and red in disgrace after being forced to
admit that they had fabricated a particularly vicious housing story.
I invite no prolonged controversy with the likes of Caro and his publishers. This
comment is not meant to spark controversy. It aims to make one statement which will
answer legitimate inquiries. If there were the slightest vestige of truth in the random
charge that poor, helpless, displaced persons met ruthless public works dictators who
sadistically scattered them to the worst rookeries, why do not Caro and his publisher
oer some plausible evidence? Ninety-eight percent of the ghetto folks we moved were
given immeasurably better living places at unprecedented cost. Usually a month after
the last relocation not a letter of complaint was received.
And what in ordinary English is the meaning of the words “Power Broker”? What is
a power broker? Does Fleishman of The New Yorker or Knopf, the publisher, or Caro,
the snooper, mean that I proted nancially? If that’s the implication why don’t they say
so? Do they mean I have been what in common political parlance is called an “operator”?
And what is an operator? Someone who is devious, serpentine, anfractuous? Do these
publishers use such words simply to attract gullible purchasers regardless of what there is
between the covers?
As to whether honest public service is a protable profession, let me say that I spent
most of my principal in order to remain in public employment. The story of my wealth
is ction. I had to borrow money from my mother to persuade busted contractors to
bring back material in order to open Jones Beach on time. I had to dun friends to keep
survey parties from starving when enemies cut o our funds in the State Legislature.
These tidbits escaped the author, Knopf and Fleischman.
There is no reliable evidence to be obtained from a few landowner malcontents who
proted less than they expected from our improvements. To nd out whether there
were any sizable numbers of families displaced to accommodate parks, parkways, bridges,
tunnels, power developments and suchlike, it would be necessary to make a thorough
impartial canvass, not to interview a few bellyachers at street corners or disgruntled truck
farmers on the edge of the City about to make hundreds of thousands of dollars from
proximity to new roads.
It would also be essential to determine whether any growth or prosperity on Long
Island east of the City line would have been possible without the facilities for travel we
built and what could have been substituted for cars, trucks and buses running on rubber
and paved roads. One can not help being amused by my friends among the media who
shout for rails and inveigh against rubber but admit that they live in the suburbs and that
their wives are absolutely dependent on motor cars. We live in a motorized civilization.
The current ction is that any overnight ersatz bagel and lox boardwalk merchant,
any down to earth commentator or bary, any busy housewife who gets her expertise from
newspapers, television, radio and telephone, is ipso facto endowed to plan in detail a huge
metropolitan arterial complex good for a century. In the absence of prompt decisions
by experts, no work, no payrolls, no arts, parks, no nothing will move. Honest public
ocials will be denounced as wheelers and dealers, oppressors of the poor, dictators,
xers and power brokers intolerable in a true democracy. Ocials who are not thin
skinned and have the courage of their convictions pay little mind to the gravamen or
such charges and don’t bother to answer allegations at length or defy all allegators.
What with poisonous critics, savage commentators, public relations advisers, speech
and ghost writers and equal time rebuttal spouters over the air, we are rapidly succumbing
to what Whitney Griswold of Yale used to aptly call “nothing but technological illiteracy.”
On the other hand, you don’t catch us minuscule, imitation Napoleons denying open
forums for dissidents to nd fault and enthusiasts to advocate causes. We simply ask that
the forums be properly conducted. Other victims of biographies have survived harder
impeachments. Critics claim to be anxious over the inuence of petty dictators dres’t in
a little brief authority. On the other hand, builders worry about government paralyzed
by lunatic fringes.
In this context I think of that kindly fuddy duddy, British Poet Laureate Sir William
Watson, who was much too decent for the critics. He was roused to fury only once. That
was when he could no longer stand the gibes of the wife of the Prime Minister and burst
out with the best verse he ever wrote, beginning:
“She is not old, she is not young,
The Woman with the serpent’s tongue.”
Here and there in the Proles there are broad hints that my associates and I were not
always ultra rened in our actions. They complain that we have not followed the Marquis
of Queensberry rules. They say that on occasion we quietly after hours smoothed the
paths for our parkways. They insinuate that old trees were whisked away by ingenious
stump pullers to allay the apprehensions of nervous environmentalists. If this be true,
tell it not in Gath. Publish it not in the streets of Askelon. As the city folk ride into the
open country we shall, I trust, be forgiven. The original railroad builders too were in a
sense fuel merchants and chopped down some spindly woods to stoke their engines.
By way of contrast I like to reect on the approach of one of our own distinguished
American philosophers and all-around tongue and bat athletes, Leo Durocher. Perhaps in
mild extenuation of his own occasional lapses from Amy Vanderbilt’s rules of etiquette,
Leo wisecracked, “Nice guys nish last.” It is well in this context to remember the
nameless, forgotten pitcher in Casey at the Bat, the anonymous hero who struck Casey
The parks and rights-of-way we snatched just ahead of the sales of big estates to
farsighted realtors bent on subdivision on the most protable terms permitted by pliable
zoning commissions would cost from ten to twenty times as much today as vacant land,
and where it was necessary to take houses, probably a hundred times. The critics and
second guessers say we were sometimes rude, arbitrary and highhanded. Maybe so, but
suppose we had waited. Critics are ex post facto prophets who can tell how everything
should have been done at a time when they were in diapers, in rompers or invisible.
We ditchdiggers do our best to live up to our oaths of oce with the slender talents
vouchsafed us. We enjoy our work. We accept its drawbacks without whining. We expect
neither full understanding by the Caros and Knopfs, nor unqualied popular acclaim
by The New Yorker.
We don’t ask anyone to be sorry for us. There is considerable confetti among the
brickbats. A park commissioner must have a cold heart on a balmy day at Jones Beach
not too pleased to be recognized by a few Beach acionados, or perhaps in the Central
Mall restaurant to get a friendly glance of the eye and even a wet smack from one of those
nice middle-aged ladies who fancy they owe him something. Perhaps these occasional
harmless little compliments represent only mistaken identity, but do the beneciaries of
our parks ever stop to ask the publishers for their autographs?
Charges of arrogance, contempt for the so-called democratic process, lack of faith in
the plain people, brutal uprooting and scattering of those in the way are as old as recorded
history. In such periods the left wingers, fanatical environmentalists and seasonal Walden
Ponders have a eld day. They believe that Steve Benét’s termites, who eat steel columns
and beams, will soon level the tall buildings and bridges of every metropolis and enable
us to retire to unspoiled and untrammeled nature.
Anyone in public works is bound to be a target for charges of arbitrary administration
and power broking leveled by critics who never had responsibility for building anything.
I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without moving people as I hail
the chef who can make omelets without breaking eggs. Those of us who engage in the
dangerous trade of public works expect such pot shots and, short of libel, take them
good-naturedly. This reminds me of the remark attributed to a departed statesman:
“Enemies—I have no enemies. I buried all those bastards long ago.” Any administrator
the critics don’t like is a small scale Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin.
The author’s thesis is that I was once a pilgrim who made progress, fell among
charlatans, lost his inspiration and never reached the Celestial City. This is a sad summary
to which most observers on reection are not likely to subscribe. I prefer to believe
that some of us may still be in demand when politicos of greater renement and more
sweetness and light have been found wanting.
The Caros think that those who have found it necessary to expand their activities to
meet the responsibilities imposed on them do so out of vanity and the yen to collect titles,
hats, badges, medals and diplomas as though they were Phi Beta Kappa keys of departed
scholars for sale in Bowery pawnshops. To be sure, there are sensitive folk who have
suered from ocial arrogance and dislike what the military call the habit of command.
The medieval ideal was of course Chaucer’s improbable verray, part gentil knight sans
peur et sans reproche, a breed which survives only in museum tapestries.
The author of much of this diatribe has no remote notion of how commissioners
are made. I like to recall riding in an elevator with several other ocials to a meeting at
the City Comptroller’s oce. As we left the car a chum of the elevator man asked him,
“Who are they?” The operator replied, “Commissioners. A dime a dozen.” The author
knows very well that most commissioners usually rise to the top by doing their menial
chores modestly, have the right political sponsors, are loyal, clean the windows, sweep
the oor and polish up the handle of the big front door. They polish it up so carefully
that they become the rulers of the Queen’s Navee.
To be sure, the builder is primarily concerned with bringing home the bacon. Ultra-
rened, nicky folk won’t eat oxtail ragout because of its lowly associations. Too much
renement can paralyze engineering. Sometimes it seems sheer madness to enter such
a thankless profession, but it has its compensations. In spite of these drawbacks it is
astonishing how many recruits leap to their feet as the bugler shatters the dawn with
the rst notes of reveille and they hear the irresistible clarion call to public service and
The author and publisher do not comprehend the obligations of leadership. It is
true that altogether too much limelight falls on the so-called stars as compared to the
rest of the cast and the workers behind the scenes. Esprit de corps, more commonly
called teamwork, is the most important factor in leadership and this can not be asserted.
It must be earned. It is not high aim, or courage, knowledge, wisdom, nor even the
ghting spirit that keeps enterprises of great pith from going astray in spite of treachery,
treasons, stratagems and spoils. It is personal, never-failing loyalty, not loyalty to abstract
principles, but unshakeable personal, never-failing loyalty which gives support in the
clinches. The greatest satisfaction is to nd you have loyal friends. The others are not
worth a tinker’s damn.
The author minimizes our recapture and reclamation of the neglected New York
waterfront, an accomplishment without parallel in any other great port city in the world.
He accepted as gospel yarns spun by Elwood M Rabenold, once a West Side legislator.
Rabenold boasted a Harvard accent superimposed on Pennsylvania Dutch. He high-
hatted and thereby won the undying enmity of Jimmy Walker, the Senate leader who
represented the next district. Rabenold seems to have disliked me because as head of the
State park system I charged him with being mixed up in Palisades real estate wheeling
and dealing. Caro unearthed Senator Rabenold who by that time had retired to a huge,
biblical Pennsylvania farm with herds of cattle on a hundred hillsides and was leader of
the Lutheran Church. I told Caro this man had been sent to Sing Sing for three years
for stealing as counsel from an incompetent old lady and had been disbarred from the
practice of law in New York. This author says Walker railroaded him but does not say
where or how. Walker had nothing whatever to do with it, but Caro seems still to regard
Rabenold as a reliable source of information.
A magnicent car the author refers to was my mother’s huge old Marmon, called
by her driver a Mormon. After her death I used it in the Long Island State Park system,
when I gave it to the Commissioner. It was worth under $1,000. Similarly, one of the
yachts was a ram runner equipped with airplane engines bought at a Sherri’s sale for
$300. It caught re on a trial trip, sank and was then equipped with heavy duty engines
and served the Commission some twenty years. Another magnicent luxury boat was
bought by me for less than a thousand dollars. I ran it. The magnicent meals dreamed
up by the author were cooked on sternos. My entire City Trust Company banking report
as Moreland Commissioner under Roosevelt and Lehman was written longhand in a
Western Union tower on Fire Island given me by the head of Western Union, furnished
by me, given the State and lost in the 1938 hurricane. The best boat the park authorities
had was bought from Charles P. Noyes, the realtor, for one-third its value when he was
selling the eects of one of his boys killed in a car accident. There are countless such
evidences in Caro’s book of his exuberant Oriental fantasies.
The stink bombs of some lady critics don’t suocate us. Several of these characters
said there was not one note of beauty and no vestige of good taste or culture at both
World’s Fairs at Flushing Meadow and that both were oensive and a total loss. The
huge task of reclaiming this fetid meadow blocked by the biggest ash dump in municipal
history, so well described in “The Great Gatsby,” and widening a foul, tortuous, muddy
brook into huge, beautiful lakes, all this was ignored by these ladies. I allude to those to
whom I refer. Wild horses would not drag from me the names of these representatives of
the not always fair sex.
I nd most critics, male and female, enormously diverting as they decide at lunch or
cocktail: which curtains to lower and shows to close, which actors to get the hook and
which public ocials to send to the hoosegow for getting their shhooks caught in the
cracker jar. These critics distribute with equal justice and impartiality the crowns of wild
olive and the kisses of death.
We badly need another William Cowper and another George Crabbe in our approach
to the press and television. They strove more than two centuries ago and couched their
indictments in forthright Anglo Saxon. Cowper was the tougher of the two. Crabbe was
aptly named. He learned about human nature by starting life as an ordinary midwife
and then got into Socratic midwifery and became a great writer, cleric and chronicler of
the age. Let me give you a claw of Crabbe:
“I sing of News, and all those vapid sheets
The rattling hawker vends through gaping streets;
Whate’er their name, whete’er the time they y,
Damp from the press, to charm the reader’s eye:
For, soon as morning dawns with roseate hue,
The Herald of the morn arises too;
Post after Post succeeds, and, all day long,
Gazettes and Ledgers swarm, a noisy throng.”
The author does not have the remotest notion of the independent corporate character
of a World’s Fair and confuses it with public business. He is even more ignorant of the
laws and practices of independent public authorities. In public authority nancing the
entrepreneur must sell its bonds on character, not on government guarantees against
loss. Any biography which rests on any other assumption is irresponsible and those
who aid and abet in publishing it are unreliable. The nasty Caro-Knopf charges about
patronage and favored banks and other institutions are made out of whole cloth, were
never sustained and even repudiated by the courts.
Caro asserts boldly, and of course without any credible proof, that I took funds
which could have been used to build mass transit facilities, and used them to build parks,
parkways and roads. The absurdity of such a statement is that there never were any such
funds available or, in any event, under my control. I never had anything to do with the
building of such facilities in any ocial or other capacity. In short, I never was in charge
of mass transit.
Various people, politicians and amateur strategists are repeatedly saying more should
be done for mass transit. I agree. But why don’t these people do something about it
instead or talking? Why don’t they secure the funds and build them as I did in the
areas I was charged ocially? As to selection of sites for housing, each one we built was
approved by the Board of Estimate and other bodies after long processing and, in some
cases, strenuous local opposition.
Similarly as to parks, parkways, bridges and other facilities, most of them encountered
serious opposition, and all were built, after ocial government approval, and in New
York City with the consent of the Board of Estimate.
On the personal side, Caro says, proving I don’t know what, that I am a bum speaker,
rushing through my text without stopping for applause and contemptuous of the audi-
ence. The little weasels who charge conict of interest think a Christmas present of a
bottle of old brandy from a contractor calls for returning it publicly with a big ourish as
an attempted bribe. The Caros always look for what the bootlegger in Scott Fitzgerald’s
Gatsby called “gonnections.”
The author’s thesis, as I have said, is that beginning as an idealistic reformer I became
a power broker and patronage dispenser and ended up a bitter, irascible, disillusioned,
arthritic old curmudgeon dependent on thick eye glasses and a big hearing aid and
sporting huge liver spots and a butler’s pantry or bulge in the midri, a resemblance
which will be greeted with derisive whoops and Bronx cheers from my buddies at the
beaches, bars and bistros.
Caro denounces just about everybody. Like Jeremiah, he nds no balm in Gilead
and, like Nathanael,
questions whether any good thing ever came out of Nazareth. It
may well be that The New Yorker can sell its Proles for two bucks, but I doubt that many
well-heeled readers win fork out $17.95, plus sachet, to read the unexpurgated Caro.
In appraising the qualications of a writer to become an authority on public works
there ls really no substitute for successful experience and results visible to the naked eye.
A foundation fellowship is no credential. It may only represent a poor investment and
the familiar triumph of hope over experience.
Caro’s engineering and transportation outgivings are ridiculously amateurish, naive
and infantile. He picked them up from a disgruntled young engineer with the City Plan-
ning Commission who indulged in nasty recriminations after he left the City Planning
Commission. Caro’s idea was that if rapid transit rails were put in the middle of the
Long Island Expressway which he didn’t like, the entire problem would be solved.
I never called Mayor LaGuardia any of the so-called names Caro maliciously mentions
and nobody will substantiate these miserable yarns. I did once say facetiously when the
Sainted Fiorello put on a highly dramatic performance that he reminded me of Rigoletto.
I am sorry I said it, although it was entirely innocent. I thought then and still do that he
was the best mayor in my time.
Better judges than the Caros and Knopfs have ridiculed the practitioners of public
works. In this context I always tip my hat to my cousin Frank Lloyd Wright. In his wilder
The name “John the Baptist” appeared here in the typewritten original, but was crossed-out and
“Nathanael” was handwritten above it. Nathanael is the correct reference to John 1:46.
projects of Welsh fantasy he really believed his own architectural interruptions at nature
lifted us to the hills whence cometh our light, enhanced the plains and swept us out to
the limitless sees. Frank’s comparison of himself as a skylark and to me as a blind night
crawler were of course just a quaint bit of Celtic humor. We take these things from the
Frank Lloyd Wrights because we admire them in spite at their idiosyncrasies.
Those of us who have comparatively little time left for constructive work and have to
husband their resources can not aord to waste muscle on keyhole snoopers, dirt dishers,
gossips, and embittered bums trying to get hunk on someone they dislike.
In all patriotic yarns there is supposed to be a hero like Arnold von Winkelried who
gathers the spears of the enemy to his bosom and saves the Swiss Navy. The role is not
for me. The spears in this instance are made of the paper unelegently known as bumwad.
They crumble on compact.
The New Yorker Prole series ends with these remarkable sentences: “It is impossible
to say that New York would be a better city if Robert Moses had not shaped it. It is
possible to say only that it would be a dierent city.” Assuming that the City changes,
however brought about, were as extensive as the author says, what would New York look
like without them? Surely it could not have been left in a powerless and brokerless state
of chassis and suspended animation.
The author says he is about to do a biographyFiorello LaGuardia. I suggest to Marie
LaGuardia that she be very careful.
Robert Caro’s Reply to Robert Moses
Robert A. Caro
Courtesy of Random House
August 26, 1974
One aspect of Robert Moses that my book attempts to portray is that of the smearer of
reputations, the purveyor of baseless innuendo and outright falsehood, the wholesaler of
defamation—in a public ocial who, through a ruthless and awesome public relations
machinery, practiced McCarthyism long before there was a McCarthy. I am not displeased
that the Commissioner has furnished this additional up-to-date documentation of all
this and would be pleased to let my book speak for itself were it not for his statements
and attempts to drag others into the picture.
I cannot, for example, let pass his attempt to destroy his brother’s reputation in death
as he did in life. As my book documents, no fewer than six separate ocials of the La
Guardia administration are aware of how Robert Moses hounded Paul Moses, a brilliant,
competent, respected engineer, out of public service and forced him down the road that
lead him to live out the last thirty years of his life in the most abject and humiliating
As for the story of Robert Moses and his brother’s inheritance, anyone can nd the
truth of what I wrote simply by examining the records and adavits of the surrogate’s
court and New York county supreme court, the liber numbers of which can be found
in the source notes of my book, page 1210. And I wish the Commissioner would stop
quoting Al Smith, a unique, great and wonderful man, in an attempt to bolster his own
broad scale billingsgate.
Mr. Moses asks, “What is a power broker?” If the Commissioner tells me which of
those two words he doesn’t understand, I will be glad to point it out to him in a dictionary.
A “power broker” deals in power as a real estate broker deals in real estate—and Robert
Moses has been the supreme dealer in power in New York City and New York State for
almost half a century.
It is slightly absurd (but typical of Robert Moses) to label as without documentation
a book that has 83 solid pages of single-spaced, small-type notes and that is based on seven
years of research, including 522 separate interviews.