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.
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 …