Earnest study of the famed New York “meddler” who spent a long life power-brokering, serving the public good in the bargain: an anti-Robert Moses, one might say.
Charles C. Burlingham, “CCB” to everyone who ever met him, grew up in the long shadow of the Civil War in a New York that had emerged as an international center of every sort of business imaginable. Conservative by sensibility but liberal by leaning, Burlingham lamented the loss of the old New York and the corruption that came with the new. Fittingly, perhaps, he chose as his profession the practice of admiralty or maritime law, governed by a code that largely derived from ancient seafaring laws of England. Yet even there the modern caught up to him; as admiring biographer Martin (Verdi at the Golden Gate, 1993, etc.) writes, Burlingham earned wide renown late in life as attorney for the defendant owners of the sunken ship Titanic, chief among them J. Pierpont Morgan, who, though forced to settle with the claimants in the aftermath of that tragedy, did so for $664,000 against $18 million, “less than 4 percent of that potential liability.” Morgan was grateful, and Burlingham was able to use the proceeds to expand his admiralty firm just at a time when New York’s importance as a port was ever increasing. Yet during all that time, Burlingham worked steadily to broaden his influence in political circles on both a local and national level; as Martin writes, “He had no power, no elective office or constituency at the polls, but he had influence with many who did,” including, still later in life, Fiorello La Guardia and Franklin Roosevelt. He was particularly skillful as a sort of fixer of legal matters, instrumental in advancing the careers of Felix Frankfurter, Benjamin Cardozo and other jurists. Martin closes his comprehensive biography by suggesting that Burlingham, a skilled practitioner of the arts of reasoned discourse, might fit in nicely today as a blogger—an opinionated shaper of opinion who, as one grudgingly admiring contemporary said, “was always aboveboard.”
A meticulously researched, substantial contribution to New York history.