December 4, 2004

Lawyers’ Bookshelf: Vanishing Point: The Disappearance of Judge Crater and the New York he Left Behind

Published in: New York Law Journal | volume 231
Written by: Jeffrey M. Eilender

Long before there were ever any musings about Jimmy Hoffa’s remains at Shea Stadium, and in all deference to Amelia Earhart, perhaps the most celebrated missing persons case of the 20th century was that of Judge Joseph Force Crater, a New York Supreme Court Justice, who vanished from a Manhattan street one night in August 1930, and whose fate was never resolved.

Adding to the mystery was that on the day he had disappeared, Crater had destroyed various papers and left behind in his apartment $5,150 in checks he had cashed.

The tabloids were riveted by the search, with even the staid New York Times, in just the first month after his disappearance was reported, devoting fourteen front-page articles to the case. The New York City Police Department spent 50 years, off and on, attempting to solve the case before it gave up. Judge Crater was officially declared dead in 1979. For decades, audiences recognized the meaning of (the now forgotten) punch-line, "Judge Crater, call your office.’

What made the story fascinating was the wide-spread assumption that Judge Crater was a Tammany stooge who had been bumped off by gangsters to keep him silent about corruption or in retribution for some misstep, judicial or otherwise. Other theories were that Crater, who had a known penchant for show-girls, had run off with a mistress, or that he fled or committed suicide to avoid the impact of an impending corruption investigation.

Richard J. Tofel’s excellent book "Vanishing Point" is an almost moment by moment account of Crater’s last days, the investigation and tabloid obsession with the case. It also is a vivid portrayal of the social, political and legal worlds that Crater inhabited and then departed from. The book’s title not only refers to the point at which Crater "vanished," but to the vanishing of Tammany Hall from a New York no longer distracted by the Jazz Age, but now suffering through the Depression. Mr. Tofel posits that this last scandal provided the impetus for Fiorello LaGuardia’s reform politics supplanting the so-called machine.

Mr. Tofel not only brings to life Judge Crater (wherever he may be) but charts the rise of prominent New Yorkers, with whom either he or his case intersected, such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Al Smith, Fiorello LaGuardia, Jimmy Walker, Samuel Seabury and Robert Wagner, Sr., and lawyers who would dominate New York practice for decades to come, such as Simon Rifkind. Among the best parts of the book are the obscure tidbits Mr. Tofel provides about these personages. In so doing, Mr. Tofel also reminds us of the mundane and at times seemy political errands some purportedly had to engage in to achieve their eminent status. And, New York lawyers should find fascinating the depiction of a New York legal world which even from the vantage of seventy-years still seems familiar.

Crater’s key political connection was with Robert Wagner, for whom Crater worked as a law secretary, when Wagner was a Supreme Court trial Justice, and then a member of the Appellate Division. Crater was replaced as Wagner’s law secretary by Simon Rifkind, a twenty-five-year old Lithuanian immigrant, whom Crater selected for the post, and who was later a founding partner of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, and one of the most prominent litigators in New York, through the 1980s. Even after Wagner was elected to the Senate in 1926, he maintained a law-firm with Rifkind. Until his judicial appointment, Crater had practiced out of the Wagner firm’s offices at 120 Broadway, leasing space for his own work and serving as of counsel to the firm in appellate cases. As relayed in the book, Rifkind had met with Crater the day he disappeared, and played a pivotal role in the days immediately following the disappearance. The book suggests that Rifkind initially downplayed the disappearance, and perhaps withheld unsavory information about Crater to protect Wagner’s reputation.

Perhaps the most illuminating part of the book is not how Crater left the scene, but how he became a judge —- which Mr. Tofel makes clear had as much to do with religious factional politics as with Tammany corruption. At the time that he disappeared, Crater, 41 years old, had only been a judge for about four months. Crater replaced Joseph Proskauer, who resigned in January 1930, to establish what became Proskauer Rose. Then, as now, it was the governor who filled vacancies on the New York Supreme Court. But then Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a dilemma, because at least three different Jewish factions lay claim to the seat. Good Government forces, led by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York sought a candidate whom they had certified. Not coincidentally, all of the Democrats endorsed by the City Bar were, like Proskauer, Jewish. As Tofel wryly observes, "Even the Good Government types thought they understood the imperatives of ethnic politics in New York." Tammany had its own favorite, also a Jew. A third faction, led by Mayor Jimmy Walker and Lieutenant Governor Herbert Lehman, favored yet another Jewish candidate.

Governor Roosevelt was thus being asked to take the risky step of favoring one faction over another within the Jewish community. Helpfully, Senator Wagner visited Roosevelt on a Sunday, and suggested Joseph Crater, who was not on anyone’s list, but "was a Protestant, a loyal Tammany man, and —- most important —- someone for whom Bob Wagner could vouch[.]"

The "New York Law Journal" lauded Crater’s nomination, observing that he "has a recognized standing at the Bar as a lawyer of capacity and distinct ability." Later in the uproar of the investigation, when the appointment became controversial, Roosevelt disingenuously wrote to the New York Attorney General that Crater’s name had been among the names supplied by the Association, and that no one had pushed Crater in particular.

The only weakness in the book is that, although Mr. Tofel convincingly disputes some of the more common theories for Crater’s disappearance–which I will not give away, other than to say that it is reminiscent of Nelson Rockefeller–his own explanation seems less than plausible. However, Mr. Tofel does suggest a good reason for the $5,150 in checks left by Crater, and his hurried raising of cash in the weeks before he vanished. "The going rate for judgeships in Manhattan, it was said, was approximately one times the job’s annual salary," and at $25,000 per year, "Tammany had made the Supreme Court posts the largest plums on offer.’