Harold Blake, Loyal to Robert Moses Until the End, Dies at 91


This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

During the Depression, Harold Blake’s father, who had retired with a disability pension from the New York City Sanitation Department, instilled in his son the value of a civil service job: It was secure. So when Mr. Blake was finally offered one, after working for a failed brokerage on Wall Street and a trucking company, he jumped at the opportunity.

It was a clerk’s position at the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority paying $2,580 a year, $300 more than a comparable job in city government. Nevertheless, a neighbor who worked for the city advised him not to take it.

“You don’t want to go to work for that guy Moses,” the neighbor warned. “He’s a slave driver.”

Mr. Blake ignored the advice and in 1952 joined the authority, a quasi-public agency run by Robert Moses, the imperious urban planner immortalized in Robert A. Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1974 biography, “The Power Broker.”

When Mr. Moses was ousted from the authority by Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller and became president of the 1964-65 World’s Fair in New York, Mr. Blake joined him as his executive assistant. He returned to the authority as personnel director in 1971 and remained in contact with Mr. Moses almost daily until Mr. Moses’s death in 1981 at 92. By then many other former colleagues and supporters had abandoned him.

Mr. Blake died of the new coronavirus on May 10 at a Manhattan hospital. He was 91. His death was confirmed by Dave Gentile, a nephew by marriage.

In an email, Mr. Caro said of Mr. Blake: “He helped me know and understand the poignance of Robert Moses’s last years, when Moses had been stripped of power. He told me once, ‘It’s sad to see’ — and he helped me understand how sad it was. Loyal to ‘RM’ to the end, he was bitter about those who, once his power was gone, dropped him.”

In “The Power Broker,” Mr. Blake described William J. Ronan, a Rockefeller ally who deposed Mr. Moses with the creation of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, as having a “smug, college-professor look,” which Mr. Moses tolerated, he said, because he wanted “to stay in public life, so what do you do? Swallow your pride.”

Harold James Blake was born on April 5, 1929, in Greenwich Village and never left the neighborhood. His Irish-born mother, Mary (Lennon) Blake, was a hotel chambermaid. His father, Patrick, opened a candy store in the Village after retiring from the Sanitation Department.

Harold graduated from St. Alphonsus High School in Manhattan, served in the Army stateside during the Korean War and earned a degree in business administration from New York University after attending classes at night. He retired in 1987.

In an interview in 2016 with the New York Public Library Community Oral History Project, Mr. Blake said that he had few regrets; that contrary to Mr. Moses’s image as “a bulldozer, I couldn’t have worked for a nicer man”; and that after nine decades “the more I live the more I enjoy seeing the Village change.”

His only lament had to do with the World’s Fair. He was so busy, he said, “many of the exhibits I never set foot in.”

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