“Rising up from Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan,” declaims a tribute to the late senator from New York on the editorial page of the New York Times, “Mr. Moynihan made his way to academia, which set him on a passionate course into the world of politics.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan loved to say that he grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, and during his lifetime, he got many other people to repeat that claim. “After his father left home,” writes David Gergen in the March 31 U.S. News, “he wound up, virtually penniless, in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen.” From a June 2002 profile by Jacob Heilbrunn in the American Prospect: “By 1937, the family was in Manhattan’s rugged Hell’s Kitchen section, where Moynihan attended high school between shining shoes and delivering newspapers.” Sen. Joseph Lieberman, in a tribute to Moynihan on the eve of his retirement, called him “a product of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.” At a 1993 reception for the senator in New York, President Clinton, who didn’t even like Moynihan, called him “a son of Hell’s Kitchen.”
The truth, as Godfrey Hodgson observed in his biography, The Gentleman From New York, is that Moynihan “didn’t sleep a night in Hell’s Kitchen until he had a college degree and a commission in the United States Navy.” The Moynihan family did go through some rough economic times after his father deserted them when Pat was 10. They ended up in East Harlem, where Pat Moynihan graduated first in his class at Benjamin Franklin High School. It would be acceptable to call Moynihan a “son of East Harlem,” and such a description would have served just as well politically to display Moynihan’s working-class credentials. But “son of Hell’s Kitchen” it had to be.
The Hell’s Kitchen myth has survived repeated journalistic attempts to correct the record. Some of these appeared in the New York Times. In a November 2000 Moynihan profile for the New York Times Magazine, Slate’s own Jacob Weisberg pointed out, “The Hell’s Kitchen interlude … occurred in 1947, when Pat, on his way from the Navy to Tufts, worked as a substitute bartender in a saloon his mother ran for a time on West 42nd Street.” In today’s Times obit, Adam Clymer notes that Moynihan’s “childhood has been pseudo-glamorized by reference to an upbringing in Hell’s Kitchen, which in fact he encountered after his mother bought a bar there when he was 20.”
Yet the Times editorial page persists on repeating Moynihan’s “Hell’s Kitchen” canard. It’s an inadvertent tribute to a man whose brilliance, humor, boldness, and passion for public life were matched by a truly astonishing gift for seducing the establishment with blarney.