There have always been cops and robbers, and good guys and bad guys, but New York City in the 1920s and '30s was a place of contrasts. We read of hoods and mobsters, and on the other side of the fence, fearless prosecutors. The crime-fighters made it their business to lock up racketeers who generated what seems to have been more corruption than any citizenry should have to bear. George Medalie would make anyone's list of knights in shining armor. He served on the Court of Appeals for the last six months of his life, and a fine jurist he was. But he is best remembered as a racket-busting prosecutor, and in his unofficial life, as a major figure in Jewish charitable causes.
George Zerdin Medalie was born November 21, 1883, on the lower East Side of Manhattan to Russian immigrant parents, Rabbi Aaron haim Medalie and Rachel Zerdin Medalie. His parents fled Russia with his older sister, Carmina, when they learned the Russian authorities had discovered Aaron was supplying information to the British government about pogroms against the Jews. Rabbi Medalie passed away when George was nine years old, leaving Rachel to raise Carmina, George, and their younger sister Sadie.1 To help support the family while he was a teenager, George worked loading watermelons on the docks. He met Carrie Kaplan, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Barnard College, at the Educational Alliance and they married June 30, 1910. They had a son, Arthur, in 1921 and two years later, a daughter, Gladys.
Judge Medalie graduated from Columbia University Phi Beta Kappa in 1905 and received his law degree from Columbia Law School in 1907. He began practicing law after graduation as well as teaching night school classes, including classes in commercial law.2 From 1910 to 1915 he served as an assistant district attorney and at the end of his tenure with the New York County District Attorney's office, entered the private practice of law at the firm of Wasservogel & Medalie in partnership with Isidor Wasservogel. The firm was disbanded in 1920 when Wasservogel was appointed to the New York Supreme Court, but Medalie continued in private practice until his appointment as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York in 1931.
He ran for Municipal Court Justice in 1915, a position he apparently won according to the popular vote, but not according to the Tammany Hall vote counters. "The Tammany district leader who had superintended the count looked on with paternal pride as the lawyer rose swiftly to a place among the best trial lawyers in New York. 'I am responsible for your success,' he [sarcastically] told Medalie. 'You wouldn't be where you are today if I had not managed that count.' "3 Medalie, though, was not as appreciative of this "career boost" as Tammany might have hoped. Between 1926 and 1928, he prosecuted election fraud, without compensation, as a Special Assistant Attorney General. In 1928, he was appointed Special Deputy State Attorney General to prosecute Secretary of State Florence E. S. Knapp on charges of misadministration of the State Census Fund for "padding payrolls," resulting in her conviction.4
Medalie first encountered Thomas E. Dewey in 1930 when he was brought in to handle a case for Dewey's law firm, on which Dewey assisted. As a result of this interaction, Medalie made Dewey his Chief Assistant when President Herbert Hoover appointed Medalie United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York the following year. His Profile in The New Yorker states that Medalie had been appointed as the result of "[a] factional fight in the Republican organization" and that he was chosen because he was not associated with either side.5 The article also notes that since he was not beholden to any particular Republican "boss" he was able to prosecute members of either party, Democrat or Republican, equally.
Medalie's relationship with Thomas Dewey lasted throughout his lifetime. He was involved in Dewey's election campaigns, including his first failed run for Governor in 1938 and his unsuccessful bid for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1940.6 In 1950, after Medalie passed away, Governor Dewey wrote a letter to Medalie's newborn grandson, George Robert, telling him that
"your grandfather, George Medalie, was one of the finest men who ever lived. He was my great friend and adviser, a wonderful public citizen and the greatest trial lawyer of his day. You have a tradition to uphold and I hope as you grow up, if your parents remember to show you this letter, that you will always know that you bear a name never excelled at the New York Bar, and that your grandfather was respected alike by people of all faiths, by Presidents and Governors, by the great and by the humble."7
During his tenure as United States Attorney, Medalie took up some of the slack for the New York County District Attorney's Office by pursuing certain criminals that were being overlooked by local officials, especially by prosecuting income tax violations and election frauds, as a deprivation of the right to vote under the United States Constitution.8 He is credited with being one of the first to use tax evasion charges as a tool for prosecuting criminals such as racketeers.9 Although his obituary in the New York Herald Tribune notes that he was "no friend of prohibition," the article goes on to point out that he set a record in 1931 by padlocking 942 violating establishments.10
As United States Attorney, he prosecuted some of the most infamous gangsters of the time, succeeding in getting indictments against "Dutch" Schultz, "Waxy" Gordon and Jack "Legs" Diamond. Although an indictment may sound like a rather pedestrian achievement, The New Yorker recounts a painstaking process of gathering information for the indictments, including examining over 500 witnesses concerning Dutch Schultz, some of whom refused to testify, and in the case of Waxy Gordon, surviving the interference of banks that warned Gordon of the investigation so he could withdraw his money. Interestingly, although Medalie was responsible for Legs Diamond's only conviction (his Profile in The New Yorker states that the conviction was for running a still), he had successfully defended Diamond against a charge of murder, arising out of an incident that took place inside the Hotsy Totsy night club, just a year before his appointment as United States Attorney.11
In 1932, Medalie was the Republican candidate for United States Senate from New York, running against Robert F. Wagner. He lost in that year's Democratic landslide. His obituary in the New York Sun noted that his performance as United States Attorney had been such that the Attorney General under newly-elected Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked him to stay on at that position. He later submitted his resignation effective November 11, 1933, his 50th birthday. President Roosevelt, a former classmate at Columbia Law School, accepted but included a personal note indicating that because Roosevelt himself was 51, he could not "help but feel that the excuse, that you will be a mere child of fifty has no sanction in law or in fact!"12 However, Medalie was eager to return to private practice, where he remained until he joined the Court of Appeals.
Judge Medalie was a member of the Advisory Committee on the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure appointed by the United States Supreme Court when the then-new rules of criminal procedure were in the process of being drafted.13 His commentary on the rules has been cited in several cases.14 His obituary in The New York Times notes that he devoted his time to several professional organizations, including serving as president of the New York County Lawyers Association from 1938-1940, and subsequently as chairperson of the group's committee on national defense. He was also vice president of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York between 1941 and 1943 and was a member of the executive and judiciary committees. Additionally, he was president of the Columbia Law School Alumni Association.15
On September 28, 1945, Governor Dewey appointed Medalie to the Court of Appeals on an interim basis. The President of the Federal Bar Association of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut stated that Medalie's appointment "instantly meets with the sincere approval of all members of the bar. . . . He will add luster to the great court to which he has been appointed."16 He filled the seat vacated by John T. Loughran, who resigned his position as an associate Judge and was appointed Chief Judge upon the death of Chief Judge Irving Lehman. Judge Medalie's term would have expired December 31, 1946. He had accepted the appointment and continued to serve despite failing health and warnings from his doctors about the toll Court work could take on his well-being.17 He passed away early on the morning of March 5, 1946 in Albany at the age of 62 from complications from a heart attack, having served on the Court for only half a year. He was buried in Mount Carmel Cemetery in Queens, New York.18
The New York Times' coverage of his funeral indicated that over 2,000 people attended the service including, notably, Governor Dewey; fellow Court of Appeals Judges John T. Loughran, Edmund H. Lewis, Albert Conway and Thomas D. Thacher; and former New York City Mayors John O'Brien and Fiorello La Guardia. The Rabbi of Temple Emanu-El delivered the eulogy, stating that Judge Medalie "had the capacity of mind and the strength of will to do justly and he had the capacity by which he was able to discern immediately the differences between right and wrong, good and evil, truth and falsehood. . . . He reached the pinnacle in his profession, but above all he reached a place in the hearts of men, women and children of this great city."19 Judge Medalie's association with charitable causes is a testament to that observation.
"Some people so quietly and so efficiently perform their tasks that it is only when we review their work that we realize the tremendous job they have been doing."20 This was said of George Medalie in 1945 when he resigned as president of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. The American Jewish Year Book notes that despite his remarkable professional accomplishments, Medalie might have preferred to be remembered for his work as the head of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. Most notable of all his charitable endeavors was his service to that organization, where he was a member of the board of trustees from 1930 until he died and was also elected president for four consecutive terms from 1941 to 1945.21 Under his leadership, the New York Federation and the Brooklyn Federation merged to form the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York which permitted the fund raising, as well as the general operation of the group, to be conducted on a citywide level. As the New York Enquirer noted, it was the largely the result of George Medalie's own efforts to unify these entities that when he passed control of the organization on to the next president, it had become "the world's largest philanthropic organization serving local needs." He characterized the years of his presidency "'as the most eventful and gratifying of my life.' "22
Judge Medalie also dedicated his time and effort to other types of public and community service. He served as a director of American Relief for India in 1945, an organization to help relieve famine and disease caused by the Second World War.23 The American Jewish Year Book lists many of the positions he held, for example, he served as a member of the Mayor's Committee on Unity and, during the depression, as chairperson of the Mayor's Committee on Unemployment Relief. He was also involved with several other faith-based organizations, including as director of the Joint Distribution Committee and the United Jewish Appeal, as president of the Washington Heights Young Men's Hebrew Association and as a trustee of his synagogue, Temple Emanu-El. In all, he left an enduring legacy both in the law and in his humanitarian pursuits.
Judge Medalie had three children, Arthur, Gladys and Alice, who passed away at the age of two.24 His son, Arthur Hamilton Medalie, is an analyst for an investment company in New York City.25 He and his wife, Shirley (Raisler) had two children, a daughter, Jeanne, and a son, George Robert, a cardiologist in Baltimore. Judge Medalie's daughter, Gladys Medalie Heldman, established World Tennis magazine and also functioned as its publisher and editor before selling the operation to CBS Publications.26 She helped form the women's professional tennis tour, organizing and arranging sponsorship for a separate women's (Virginia Slims of Houston) tournament. This tournament led to the establishment of the Virginia Slims Circuit in 1971, which evolved into the present WTA Tour. Gladys was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1979. When she died in 2003, Billie Jean King remarked that "[w]ithout Gladys there wouldn't be women's professional tennis as we know it."27
Gladys married Julius Heldman and had two daughters, Carrie (sometimes referred to as Trixie) and Julie, who were also tennis players, Carrie as a junior player and Julie as both a junior player and a professional. At the height of her professional tennis career, Julie Heldman was ranked 5th in the world and 2nd in the United States. She also won three medals in the 1968 Olympic games, while tennis was still an exhibition sport. After retiring from the game, Julie graduated from UCLA School of Law and now is president and co-chair of Signature Eyewear, Inc. in Inglewood, California.28
This biography appears in The Judges of the New York Court of Appeals: A Biographical History, ed. Hon. Albert M. Rosenblatt (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007). It has not been updated since publication.
Farley is 'Amazed' at Racket Issue, The New York Times, October 25, 1938 at 1, in ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
George Zerdin Medalie, http://www.courts.state.ny.us/history/bios/medalie_george.htm [accessed August 1, 2005]).
George Zerdin Medalie, Who's Who in New York, at 119 (1945).
George Zerdin Medalie, Alumni Federation Information Card.
In Memoriam, 295 NY vii (1946).
Memorials, Hon. George Z. Medalie, 20 J Natl Assn Ref Bankr 95 (1945-1946).
Photos, documents and letters from Judge Medalie's descendants, Arthur and Shirley Medalie.
Scrapbooks (1931-1945), six vols., at Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library (containing clippings relating to George Z. Medalie).
There Shall be a Court of Appeals, 150th Anniversary of the Court of Appeals of the State of New York, (1997) (booklet on file with the author).
Published Writings Include:
Racketeering Problems, out of print.
The Dead Hand in the Criminal Law, out of print.
Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, 4 Lawyers Guild Rev (3) 1 (June-July 1944).
Excerpts from Testimony of Hon. George Z. Medalie at Hearing on Child Labor Amendment, Albany, New York, January 23, 1935, out of print.
"A State Department of Justice," 69 US L Rev 545 (1935).
Book review, 4 Brook L Rev 120 (1934-1935) (reviewing James Edward Hagerty, Twentieth Century Crime ).
"The Shield of Silence," 12 Tenn L Rev 203 (1933-1934).
Book review, 43 Yale L J 681 (1933-1934) (reviewing Jules H. Barr and Simon Balicer, Cross-Examination and Summation ).
Grand Juries Value-Presentments-Fraudulent Bankrupts, 9 The Panel No. 2, at 16 (Mar-Apr 1931).
Book review, 32 Colum L Rev 161 (1932) (reviewing Pendleton Howard, Criminal Justice in England ).
Inter-State Exchange of Witnesses in Criminal Cases, 33 Law Notes 166 (No. 9) (December 1929).
Grand Jury Investigations, 7 The Panel 5 (Jan-Feb 1929).