How Much New Yorkers Make, Then and Now

By

“The best way we can find to make money is to be Muhammad Ali,” wrote Frederick Allen, in his introduction to one of New York’s surveys of who takes home how much. “The second-best way to earn a living is to sue Muhammad Ali for divorce.” The salaries issue was an absolute smash when it first arrived in the spring of 1972. It was gossipy, un-putdownable, and patchily useful (if you were negotiating your own pay). Most of all, it answered a nearly atavistic question: What do your neighbors make? “Every aspect of life was evaluated by so many of us — the caste, the class, the salaries,” recalls Gail Sheehy, a frequent contributor to the magazine in that era. “I remember the uproar when the magazine first published what New Yorkers made for a living. It was so shocking — it’s one of the most sensitive secrets that we hold dear.” It’s true: Most people will tell you about their sex lives before they’ll tell you their salaries. The survey was conducted for six years running, from 1972 through 1977, and was revived for single installments in 1994 and 2005. Reporters who worked on it combed through public records and SEC filings, and made a lot of cold calls. Most people wouldn’t divulge. (Would you?) But some — enough — did.

The numbers in the 1972 edition seem tiny owing to inflation, which first took off in a major way the next year. Once you correct for that, it becomes clear that some salaries have multiplied like mad, and others have stayed noticeably flat.

Civil-service and politics jobs pay about as they always did. In 1972, August Heckscher, the parks commissioner, made $41,000, which comes out to $239,337 in today’s purchasing power. His 2017 equivalent, Mitchell Silver, makes $219,773. Many other civic jobs appear on the list, from the mayor to the district attorney, and their results are almost all comparable: They have tracked inflation closely, but that’s all.

Running a college pays better than it used to. In 1972, the president of New York University, James Hester, made $65,000 ($379,436 in today’s dollars). The salary of NYU’s current president, Andrew Hamilton, has not been revealed, but his predecessor, who left in 2015, earned $1.5 million in salaried pay. Total compensation, however, is hidden in the rent, because that job comes with a very nice apartment.

The top job at the New York Times pays better, too. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Sr., then the publisher, took in $150,000 ($876,000 in 2017 dollars). His son, Arthur Jr., made $2.95 million in salary and bonus in the same job last year, plus slightly over $2 million in stock options.

Unionized service jobs are paying a little better. In 1972, a doorman in Manhattan named James Cronin gave his salary as $7,072 ($41,283 in 2017 dollars). His modern-day counterpart in SEIU 32BJ makes $49,400.

The faces of TV news have seen a windfall. Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley each took home $250,000 a year ($1.46 million today). NBC’s Lester Holt reportedly makes $4.5 million; before his fall, Brian Williams made three times that, reports say, and still gets about $10 million a year.

The hot-dog business has seen a bump. Murray Handwerker, the president of Nathan’s Famous, was making $100,000 ($583,780 today); Eric Gatoff, who runs the company now, gets $1.02 million.

The cops are better off. A detective (the one who gave his salary in our survey was Frank Serpico) made $12,938 in 1972, which comes out to $75,525 in our dollars. That salary has risen to $104,100—and it’s probably worth it to us, both for keeping good cops from jumping to the suburbs and for getting the risk of bribery down.

Public-school principals are doing very slightly better. Barbara Weldon, of P.S. 6, made $23,120 in 1972 ($134,962 today). Seniority affects school salaries, but most public-school principals here now make between $140,000 and $160,000.

The most drastic change, unsurprisingly, is among pro athletes. John Riggins, in 1972, was a rookie running back on the Jets. He got $14,000 ($81,725 today). Now the league minimum for a first-year player is $465,000, and many get far more. It’s even more dramatic for stars: The Knicks’ Dave DeBusschere was getting $100,000 ($583,748 today), after helping lead the team to a championship two years earlier. Carmelo Anthony, who fronted the 2016–17 team, makes $24.6 million a year. The Knicks, this season, went 31-51.

*This article appears in the May 15, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

How Much New Yorkers Make, Then and Now