I used to see him around town in the days when covering New York politics was still gaudy fun. “Hi … Donald Manes,” he would say, offering a thick hand, an uncertain smile. He told you his name each time he met you, as if he could not bear the hurt of your failure to remember him. Fifteen years ago, Manes was a lumpy slab of a man who looked incarcerated in a suit. His handshake was damp. His left eye was larger than the right and glittered brightly. When I saw him, he was usually with Matty Troy or Meade Esposito, a favored acolyte in the company of bishops. He always looked hungry.
Manes also tried too hard to affect a personal style. Inspired, I suppose, by Meade and Matty, he attempted to become still another edition of the happy hack, who professes ignorance of the grand political abstractions but knows everything about judgeships and contracts. The trouble with Manes was that you could always see the mask. From the moment he started coming around, there was something odd about Donald Manes. The man and the mask never fully came together.
I would see the mask most often in Jimmy’s on West 52nd Street. In the company of other pols and newspapermen, Manes and I would argue and drink, but we never became friends. He would tell jokes you had already heard. He would complain about — or defend — John Lindsay or Abe Beame. Occasionally, he would try to say outrageous things, to veer from the orthodox, but when pressed, he always backed away. Nothing seemed to him worth confrontation, and he would adjust his ideas, his style, even his mood, to suit the company he kept. Perhaps that’s why friendship with him was so difficult; you didn’t know which Donald Manes to befriend.
But there was another thing about Manes in those days. Too often, he carried a look in his eyes (even the glittering one) that said: Please don’t hurt me. That look was almost too vulnerable for the hard, judgmental politics of the time. It certainly demanded more pity than most of us possessed.
“You want politics to do too much, to make this a better world” he said to me once. “F’chrissakes, I’m satisfied if politics gets the garbage picked up.”
He was right, of course; in the ’60s and early ’70s, I wasn’t alone in expecting politics to do a lot of things that probably could not be done by anyone. To men like Manes, idealism was for saints and amateurs.
“I do this for a living,” he said once, with some heat. “This is my life, not my hobby!”
That attitude was at the heart of the system that later destroyed him and will almost certainly survive him. Today, in spite of the final blood and horror of the man’s life, there are hundreds of political New Yorkers traveling the same road as Donald Manes. These people enter politics for one basic reason: to make money.
Along the way, they make many contacts but few friends. They kiss an amazing amount of ass. They develop an extraordinary capacity for self-abasement (sometimes called loyalty). Usually, they rise slowly through the organization. Sometimes they even get to be county leader. Or borough president. Or both. And then at last the dough begins to flow.
Even in the early ’70s, Manes knew what he wanted — and what he’d have to do to get it. When Matty Troy got jammed up with the law, Manes was ready, made his move, and grabbed his piece of power. In at least one borough of New York, he’d kissed his last ass.
I saw him less often after that, but when I did, he still seemed uneasy; power hadn’t really settled whatever was seething in the back of his eyes. Sometimes in the summer, I’d run into him on Main Street in Westhampton Beach, where we both had houses. He was always friendly, in a practiced way, and we would chat about politics. But he was never relaxed. The colorful mask was drained and slipping, but he hadn’t yet devised a new one to replace it. The burly body was plumper, softer, yet he seemed drawn, almost gaunt. And in a town of summer tans, he had an unshakable indoor look. It was as if when he was a boy (long before his father killed himself) Donnie Manes had spent too many lonely hours at home making up with industry what he lacked in talent.
In some respects, he was becoming a cartoon of the man whose business is politics and who uses money to keep score. The public Donnie Manes appeared on talk shows, posed with Ed Koch, talked about moving from his base in Queens to run for higher office. But up close, there was a chilly aura of loneliness and loss around the man that touched me. I would say, “Let’s get together sometime,” and he’d say, “Yeah, let’s do that,” and of course we never did.
There was, as we’ve now all learned, more than one hidden agenda in his life. In the months ahead, we’ll hear many details of that part of the Manes story, as various rats and thieves who once called themselves his friends will shout a mighty perjured chorus of “Donnie made me do it.”
But there’s also a dark Balzacian novel buried somewhere in this man’s life. His story was made terrible and final when he reached into that kitchen drawer, his wife upstairs, his daughter nearby, and found that 14-inch Ekco Flint knife with its eight-and-three-quarters-inch blade.
But we will never have that story. The prosecutors will give us, as always, some of the facts and almost none of the truth. His wife, Marlene, must know much of the deeper truth, and so must his children and possibly even his psychiatrist. But it’s likely that much of this story will remain elusive; neither journalism nor grand juries are perfect instruments for such investigations.
I suppose that’s why, after January 10, I kept imagining Donnie Manes lying awake in the Queens night with his family asleep in the darkened house. In that solitude, in the city he had helped rule and in which he was now mocked, did Donald Manes whisper for help that wasn’t there? Did the old wounded anger boil and churn across the decades? What could his success have ever meant if his own father wasn’t there to see it? And why did the old man do it? Why did he kill himself? When the news came that Manes had at last accomplished what he had failed at in January, when it was clear that he had followed the dreadful example of his father, I was sure I heard child’s voice calling from the horror, saying Look what you made me do.
And I remembered a summer afternoon a few years ago, when a fierce gray summer storm came suddenly upon Westhampton Beach. People scattered, hurrying into shops, slamming the doors of their cars, emptying the streets. I was gazing out at the sheets of driving rain when I saw Donnie Manes coming slowly from the direction of the library. He was completely alone. He stopped near the corner and stood there by himself, the rain pelting him, hammering at him, the harsh hard punishing rain.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 26, 2020