A little girl's school lesson became a great dream for many – a world's fair in New York in 1939. However,"The World of Tomorrow" soon became a nightmare for its originator.
Damon Runyon informed his readers: "At regular intervals someone in our American cities feels the urge to put on a big show, usually in the name of an anniversary, but no great excuse is really necessary once the urge hits." The urge hit New York City big time, but, not before a questionable advent.
Arriving at her home in Jackson Heights just before supper, Jacqueline Shadgen sat on her father's knee. "Well, what did you learn in school today?" Joseph Shadgen inquired of his daughter. "Well, I learned that the United States is a hundred and fifty – eight years old this year, because the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776."
Joseph Shadgen expounded a quite different theory to Jacqueline: the United States should celebrate its birth with Washington's inauguration in New York City in 1789. And that anniversary fell only four years away. Joseph's wife announced he and Jacqueline should come for supper and yet an idea germinated in Joseph's mind throughout the meal. What if the city celebrated the momentous event with a world's fair.
An engineer by trade, this immigrant from Luxemburg thoroughly researched and developed his idea. He surveyed all five boroughs and settled on Flushing Meadows for the site. He spent hours detailing plans to carry through on his dream. Then, suddenly, the magnitude of a $40,000,000 project overwhelmed him. Shadgen decided to entrust his idea and follow-up research to a well-positioned business associate.
Joseph Shadgen and Edward Roosevelt first met at a Manhattan cocktail party. Roosevelt, a second cousin to the First Lady and a sixth cousin to the President, lived at the Seamen's House Y.M.C.A. Having worked in Europe for International Harvester for twenty years, the entrepreneur now served as the Y's recreational director four hours a day while searching for other business opportunities.
Over the next four hours at the cocktail party, Shadgen and Roosevelt discussed one of Joseph's many daydreams. Realizing wealthy individuals living in apartments had no suitable storage place for fine wines, Shadgen suggested developing a wine cellar in the basement of their multi-story skyscrapers. Roosevelt became enthusiastic over the concept and the two formed a tentative partnership.
However, the logistics for the wine cellar became daunting and Shadgen substituted the anniversary fair idea instead for Roosevelt's consideration. The proposal quickly entered New York's power structure pipeline.
Edward contacted his first cousin Nicholas Roosevelt, a member of the Herald Tribune's editorial staff. The former U.S. ambassador to Hungary appreciated the possibilities of the proposition and arranged a meeting with George McAneny, one of New York's most prominent bankers and civic boosters. Enticed, McAneny discerned if Chicago could entice millions to its Century of Progress exposition in the midst of the depression, imagine the economic opportunities for The Big Apple.
McAneny hosted a series of luncheons for the city's prominent civic leaders and money men. The idea for a fair caught on, but Shadgen and Roosevelt faded quickly into the background with each succeeding meetings. At one, Grover Whalen leaned across the table, condescendingly addressing the pair, "Mr. Shadgen and Mr. Roosevelt, I have great admiration for you. I congratulate you for spending so much time working for the good of our city."
On September 23, 1935, McAneny hosted a dinner at the Ritz, formally presenting the world's fair idea to sixty eminent citizens. McAneny insisted the proposed fair would not only stimulate New York's industrial recovery, but that of the United States as a whole.
The host then read a supportive telegram from President Roosevelt to the throng. "I have been very much interested in hearing of the possibility of an exposition to be held in New York in 1939 in commemoration of the inauguration of George Washington as first President. I hope you will keep me in touch with the decisions and plans."
A month later one-hundred and twenty-one investors, ninety-one listed in Who's Who in America, formed the New York World's Fair Corporation. Richard Whitney, the chairman of the bond drive to fund the fair, eventually wore No. 94,385 in Sing Sing for embezzlement in other matters.