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New York’s Finest


During the great wave of emigration at the turn of the century, it was an occasional diversion for members of the European aristocracy to gather at various ports to watch the sweaty surge of human cargo boarding ship for America. In the spring of 1904, the Austro-Hungarian imperial archduchess Maria-Josepha was visiting Fiume, where she made known to the local constables her desire to observe the crowd of emigrants embarking for the New World. The SS Panonia was to sail on Saturday, but the archduchess would be in Fiume on Wednesday only. To accommodate her, the local Cunard agent, the port director, and Count Szapari, the provincial governor general, agreed that the emigrants would be boarded that day. This meant that they would be spending three days in the steerage hold before sailing—cramped and dark, a virtual petri dish of bacteria and viruses. Many passengers had contracted diseases there that prevented them from being allowed entry at Ellis Island, and they had been sent back on the next boat.

But the resident US consular officer in Fiume who was responsible for signing the certificate of medical clearance required of any ship before it left for America protested that such treatment stood in contravention of both the law and standards of decency. In an attempt to mollify him, local officials invited him to tea with her highness to view the embarkation at her side. The officer’s refusal was considered an insult to the Hapsburg crown. Washington, the consul was assured, would hear of this. “I told them,” Fiorello La Guardia would later write in his memoirs, “to tell their precious Archduchess that maybe she could boss her people around but she couldn’t boss the American consul.” The embarkation did not take place on Wednesday; the archduchess returned to Vienna disappointed.1

One can imagine a Frank Capra film based on the incident: the hero coming to the defense of the little people against the high-hats and showing American impatience with old European customs; the hero driven by his sense of rectitude, which could be said to carry a slight taint of self-righteousness—under the circumstances, forgivable. From his early years, first as a consular official, then as a lawyer, through his fourteen-year run as a left-populist member of Congress, and throughout his twelve years in office as mayor, La Guardia remained a passionate reformer and courageous defender of the working classes. From 1933 to 1945, through the Depression and World War II, he also transformed New York. The city would have modernized in any event, of course, but it modernized in the astounding way it did largely because of his will and imagination.

La Guardia’s achievements were vast in scope, from the physical and monumental to the cultural and social, and even, in the way that successful New York mayors have, the spiritual, as emblem and embodiment of the city he governed. Though a Republican, he was Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite mayor, and it was he more than any other mayor who pushed the federal government to deliver immense sums to the cities, drastically changing the relationship between Washington and urban America. Because of his friendship with the President the city was able to get money from the government. But in September 1947 the 45,000 people who waited in line to see him as he lay in state in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine were likely mourning a different La Guardia from the one who had served them in his last years in office. By that time, the great mayor of Alyn Brodsky’s title would less likely have been played in a Capra film by Jimmy Stewart than by Lionel Barrymore.

The change was apparent in the early 1940s, when La Guardia’s always strong sense of himself overwhelmed his early image. La Guardia the congressman, the indefatigable defender of free speech and civil rights, became by his third term as mayor of New York the man who supported the rejection of the politically controversial Bertrand Russell to a post at City College. The courageous early critic of Hitler and fascism a decade later did little to prevent followers of the anti-Semitic demagogue Father Coughlin from smashing the windows of Jew-ish shopkeepers in upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights: the gangs who did so were constituents—largely Irish Catholics, many of them police offi-cers—whose votes La Guardia did not want to lose. He picked fights gratuitously, and was condescending to the wise reformers whose support had been critical to his success and whose counsel he had once valued. When he was mayor, Rudy Giuliani used to invite comparisons of himself with La Guardia. Giuliani’s critics thought the comparison audacious, but, in truth, the two men were all too much alike, and in ways neither would like to acknowledge.

Still, La Guardia remains New York’s greatest mayor. It seems implausible today that a person could be both demagogue and hero. But the contradiction was at the heart of La Guardia’s character.


Fiorello Enrico Raffaele La Guardia was born in New York on December 11, 1882, to Achille La Guardia, a musician, born in Foggia near the southern Adriatic coast, and the former Irene Coen, a Jewish woman ten years his junior whom he had met at a dance in Trieste. Fiorello was three when his father enlisted in the US Army as a bandleader. The family led the itinerant life of the enlisted man—North Dakota, upstate New York, and, finally, two postings in the Arizona Territory, where Fiorello spent his adolescence. It was a geographical fact that Mayor La Guardia would exploit later, when, in anticipation of a possible presidential run in 1940, he undertook a speaking tour of the South and West sometimes outfitted in cowboy hat and chaps.

After the Spanish-American War broke out, Achille La Guardia took ill with a stomach disease caused by army- issued “embalmed beef.” Too weak to perform his military duties, Achille received an honorable discharge and returned the family to Europe. Fiorello was hired by the American consulate in Budapest, while Achille found work in a hotel on Capo d’Istria, an island off Trieste, where he died in 1904 of heart disease. A struggle with the government over the arrears of Achille’s pension—a total of $12.80 was finally awarded to Irene—left young Fiorello with, as Brodsky writes, “an irremediable disgust with and contempt for red tape” and a seething hatred of “the Interests—the vendors of that poisoned meat—who were the ultimate cause of his father’s death.”

Two years later, Fiorello returned to New York, and having mastered at least four languages, got a job as an interpreter to the arriving immigrants at Ellis Island. At the same time, he enrolled in New York University Law School, which, despite his lack of formal education, accepted him after he passed his Regents’ exams. While at law school, he served as an interpreter at Magistrate’s Night Court, White Slave division, where he learned a thing or two about the profitable relationship, in the form of bribes and shakedowns, the New York Police Department had struck with the city’s demimonde.

In 1910, after passing the bar exam, he set up his first office with a total capital of sixty-five dollars and a six-inch plaster bust of Napoleon. With a series of partners, he worked on labor and immigrants’ cases. He succeeded financially, but more important than that was the name he was making for himself among the voters of lower Manhattan (he made it a point to represent both Italians and Jews, two key groups). His goal had always been to get into politics. Within months of returning to New York he had joined the Madison Republican Club on West 14th Street. His choice of party was driven entirely by his sense of rectitude: whatever the two parties represented nationally, the fact was that, locally, the Democrats were the party of corruption and Tammany Hall.

But if he thought he was going to find a party eager to engage with Tammany, he soon learned otherwise. Partly on the strength of the reputation he had won trying to settle a fractious garment workers’ strike in 1912–1913 (with only partial success), in 1914 he secured the party’s nomination for Congress from the Fourteenth District, which ran the width of Manhattan from roughly 3rd Street to 14th Street. It was a solidly Democratic district, and Republican Party leaders mocked him when he expressed the hope that he might win. He lost, but won far more votes than expected simply because, unlike his predecessors, who knew they were bound to lose, he actually campaigned—a fact that made the leaders of both parties nervous. He also had natural gifts as a campaigner. When he tried again in 1916—a race in which he was repeatedly called “dago” and “guinea”—he won by 357 votes. As he strode into campaign headquarters on election night, he overheard a party worker telling his Democratic counterpart over the phone, “No, Joe, we didn’t double-cross you; we didn’t do anything for this fellow. You just can’t control him.”

Congressman La Guardia was effective, progressive, and incorruptible. He fought against the Wilson administration’s wartime Espionage Act. He opposed the Volstead Act, correctly anticipating the lawlessness that would result from Prohibition, and detecting the xenophobia of some of its supporters’ arguments. He supported the League of Nations, although he broke with Wilson, bitterly, when at Versailles Wilson agreed to hand over Fiume to Yugoslavia rather than to Italy.

Even at this early stage, La Guardia’s demagogic tendencies were evident, particularly while he campaigned. Up for reelection to Congress in 1918, this foe of the Espionage Act coyly insisted that during the campaign against his Socialist opponent, Scott Nearing, who had been indicted under Wilson’s Sedition Act for denouncing the war, “the question of patriotism must not be introduced into this campaign,” thereby introducing the question of patriotism into the campaign. Having briefly been a war correspondent during the World War, he didn’t miss the chance to wear his military uniform and medals while campaigning.

In 1919, shortly after starting his second term, he decided to leave Congress to seek the citywide office of president of the Board of Aldermen. This was the second most powerful position in the city, and a stepping stone to the mayoralty. In his campaign he shamelessly pandered to each ethnic group. To Italian audiences, he would attack the betrayal of Fiume; to Jews, he played up Wilson’s reluctance to speak out against anti-Semitism in Europe; to the Irish, America’s lack of support for Irish independence; to Germans, the harsh terms of Versailles. By about 2,600 votes out of nearly 330,000 cast, he won.

An election for mayor was to be held in 1921. The incumbent was a Tammany Democrat, John Hylan. The GOP put up Henry Curran, the Manhattan borough president. La Guardia defied the Republican bosses and challenged Curran in the Republican primary. It was a disaster—he carried just twelve of sixty-two assembly districts. This was the year he also spent watching his young wife, Thea, and infant daughter, Fioretta, die of tuberculosis. Why he would choose to run for mayor under such circumstances seems hard to understand, but if La Guardia struggled with the decision, Brodsky sheds no light on it.2 Fioretta died on May 3, and Thea in late November.

  1. 1

    The vignette opens the book under review, and it similarly appears in Thomas Kessner’s Fiorello H. La Guardia and the Making of Modern New York (McGraw-Hill, 1989), p. 21.

  2. 2

    Kessner offers more, at least with respect to how the tragedies affected La Guardia. He cites a friend who moved in with the La Guardias during Thea’s last days who wrote of “the sight of the distraught La Guardia bent over the lifeless woman, sobbing pitifully….” Mayor Hylan and some cronies showed up to pay respects but expecting, and creating, a mood more appropriate to an Irish wake. “‘What do you think this is,’ demanded a heartbroken La Guardia, flinging bottles across the room in a rage, ‘a German wedding?’” Still, Kessner notes, “Even his private scrapbooks contain few remembrances of his wife and daughter and no mention of their tragic deaths.” See Fiorello H. La Guardia and the Making of Modern New York, pp. 78–81.

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