Wendell Willkie is one of those historical figures honored in and around Bryant Park that like William Earl Dodge and Gertrude Stein, may not be immediately recognizable to the everyday public, but if that sends ’em scrambling to their encyclopedias or, more likely, Google, that’s not altogether a bad thing. Personally, I only knew about Willkie because he was mentioned in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, the one where the rabbit is battling a gremlin on a WWII fighter plane.
Paul Fjelde’s 1957 bas relief celebrating FDR’s Republican opponent in the 1940 Presidential race appears on the Bryant Park wall on West 40th Street, commemorating the former location at 20 West 40th of the Wendell Willkie Building, demolished for a Republic Bank Building annex.
Wendell Willkie was nominated for president on the Republican ticket in 1940, with backing from the New York Herald Tribune, and earned 45% of the popular vote against FDR. Willkie later went to work for FDR during World War II, serving as a roving ambassador. He remained active in politics — entering the 1944 race despite his collaboration with FDR — and was known for his philanthropy and civil rights activities in his remaining years. He died of a heart attack at 52 in New York in 1944.