Charles Waldo Poletti was born on July 2, 1903 in Barre, Vermont. His parents, Dino and Carolina Gervasini Poletti, were both Italian immigrants, and his father worked as a stonecutter in a granite quarry. As a student at Barre High School, Poletti distinguished himself academically and socially. Well respected within the community, he was offered the opportunity to manage a store after graduation, but his principal encouraged him to apply to college. He won a scholarship to Harvard and supported himself in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by tending furnaces, waiting tables, and tutoring. In 1924, he graduated suma cum laude and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He then attended the University of Rome on the Eleonora Duse Fellowship and took classes in Spain. Poletti returned to study at Harvard Law School, graduating with an L.L.B. in 1928.
Poletti joined the New York law firm Davis, Polk, Wardwell, Gardiner, & Reed, which was headed by 1924 Presidential Candidate John W. Davis. He worked as an attorney until 1930, when he took a position as legal assistant to the St. Lawrence Power Development Commission. He took an interest in political affairs and worked in the 1928 presidential campaign of Al Smith, and then served as a counsel to the Democratic National Committee in 1932.
Governor Herbert H. Lehman named Poletti as his counsel in 1933, where he soon became the governor's trusted aid. Poletti headed the 1935 Conference on Crime and advised on issues of crime and welfare. In 1937, Lehman appointed Poletti justice of the New York State Supreme Court, and he was elected in the fall for a full fourteen-year term. At 33, he was one of the youngest to hold the position. A year later, however, Poletti resigned, taking a $12,000 loss in salary to run alongside Lehman as lieutenant governor. Poletti held the position from 1939 to 1942.
After Lehman's retirement in 1942, Poletti served as the 46th governor of the State of New York for 29 days until the newly elected Thomas E. Dewey took office. Although his term was very brief--the shortest of any New York governor--he was praised for his work; on his final day of office, he presented a program calling for a "Beveridge Commission" to handle social security planning after World War II.
Several days after Dewey took office, Poletti became an assistant to War Secretary Henry L. Stimpson, and received a commission as a lieutenant colonel. He worked for the Allied Military Government (AMG) for the rest of the war, serving as allied military governor of, successively, Sicily, Naples, Rome, Milan, and Lombardy, from 1943 to 1945. He was selected both for his understanding of politics and law and his Italian ancestry, which the Army hoped would help him relate to the Italian population.
After returning to the U.S., Poletti became a trustee of the Power Authority of the State of New York (1955-1960). The New York Power Authority's plant in Astoria, Queens, was named after him.
In 1960, Poletti became Vice President for International Relations at the 1964 New York World's Fair. He was responsible for overseeing the fair's international exhibits.
Over the course of his career, Poletti was awarded many honors, including the Legion of Merit (U.S.A.); Officer of Order of British Empire; Knight Grand Cross of Order of Crown of Italy; Commander of Papal Order of St. Gregory the Great; First Order of the Star of Jordan; Grand Officer of Order of St. Agatha (San Marino); and the Gold Medal of the City of Rome. He was also made an Honorary Citizen of Naples, Rome, and Milan.
Poletti died in 2002 at the age of 99.