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New York’s Finest

Yet by spring 1922, La Guardia was scouring Manhattan for a new congressional district to run from, settling on East Harlem, whose constituents were largely black and Jewish. He had neither hidden nor announced the fact that his mother was Jewish. The campaign, against a Jewish Democratic opponent, turned on charges of anti-Semitism. La Guardia fended off his challenger, Henry Frank, at the last minute by challenging him to a debate in Yiddish. Frank scoffed at the idea, predicting that the voters would send La Guardia back to his fancy house with its “sun parlor” in the Bronx (then synonymous with pastoral suburban living). La Guardia seized the occasion to explain that he had moved up to the Bronx and acquired this sun parlor for the purpose of hoping to cure “my poor wife.” He beat Frank by 168 votes.


La Guardia returned to Congress as a member of a national party led by Wall Street Republicans and Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. He continually revealed his contempt for it by fighting nearly everything it sought to advance. He was deeply opposed to the 1924 Johnson-Reed Bill, which ended open immigration from Europe and set an annual quota of 150,000 new arrivals, and fruitlessly offered amendment after amendment to modify it. In the next election of 1924, when the nomination was offered to him but on the condition that he support Coolidge, he left the party, and won as a Socialist. He continued to attack the meatpackers and the “bread trust”—a cartel of the large bread producers—and to fight for better conditions for farmers, miners, and strikers. In the mid-1920s he denounced Mussolini—by no means an automatic position for a prominent Italian-American leader to take. And when blacks and Puerto Ricans began moving into his East Harlem district, he fought for them, too, introducing a bill requiring that the governor of Puerto Rico—a presidential appointment then, and a patronage job—be a native-born islander, a longstanding demand of Puerto Rican political leaders. But, Brodsky writes, “constantly fighting for the Progressive cause in [a strongly conservative] Congress had after six years become by degrees frustrating and lonely.” Most of all, “his desire to be mayor was more than a political ambition. It was a political obsession….”

In 1929, La Guardia managed to secure the GOP nomination for mayor with the support of the party’s outer-borough rank and file, which had come to see him as its champion, but very much against the wishes of the party’s Manhattan-based elite, which cast about unsuccessfully for a candidate more to its liking. Because of this cleavage, La Guardia was soundly defeated by Tammany’s Jimmy Walker, who went on to become the city’s most famously corrupt and louche mayor. Back in Congress La Guardia had clearly begun to lose his popular appeal, as seven-term incumbents are wont to do. In 1932 he lost his seat to James Lanzetta in a Democratic sweep. The Puerto Ricans whom he had earlier successfully courted felt he had taken them for granted, while Tammany had been busy registering them to vote. He lost even the Italian neighborhoods in his district.

Here, then, was a twice-failed candidate for mayor, and now a loser as a congressional incumbent, something as rare then as it is today. How did he manage to be elected mayor the next year?

The answer has partly to do with the city’s convoluted political system. As La Guardia’s own Republican affiliation showed, party labels didn’t mean much. There were Tammany Democrats, New Deal Democrats, and radical Democrats; there were old-guard Republicans and progressive Republicans; and, because of New York’s unique election laws, which still exist today, there were more than two parties running. In 1933, there was a City Fusion Party and a Recovery Party, among others. The factions within the major parties were constantly making and remaking alliances with the smaller parties.

To make things more complicated, there were, in a sense, two incumbents. Walker’s ethical laxity having passed the point that even New Yorkers could accept, he was forced to resign before his term ended and was replaced by one Joseph McKee. But just months later, Tammany Hall called a special mayoral election and endorsed John Patrick O’Brien as mayor. O’Brien won, ensuring that as the incumbent he would be the nominee in 1933. But McKee had been popular during his brief mayoralty and, in that special election, he received an astonishing 234,000 votes as a write-in candidate. So for the general election, while O’Brien ran as the Democratic nominee, McKee was the Recovery candidate, with Franklin Roosevelt’s backing. La Guardia, who had the Republican and City Fusion lines, took advantage of the Democratic split.

But La Guardia was able to do so only because this time, he managed to unite the outer-borough and Manhattan wings of the Republican Party as he had been unable to do in 1929—and win the support of some important anti-Tammany Democrats as well. He had met Adolph A. Berle, a member of Roosevelt’s famous “Brain Trust” of core advisers, while he was in Congress.3 Berle was not blind to La Guardia’s faults—his short temper, his demagogic streak—but he held that if he was a demagogue, he was “certainly demagogic in the right direction.”

It was Berle who introduced La Guardia to the two men who would lend this tribune of the hoi polloi the imprimatur of the genteel: Judge Samuel Seabury, a reform-minded Democrat who was the descendant of John and Priscilla Alden, and Newbold Morris, a liberal Republican descended from Lewis Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Morris and Seabury, both tall and elegantly dressed, must have gazed warily at first upon this short, squat, unkempt man with a squeaky voice. But they were charmed and fascinated by La Guardia’s intelligence, his apparent commitment to progressive ideals, and his facility with the disarming and self-effacing remark. I’m “very proud to be here tonight,” he told an audience at Morris’s posh East Side Republican club, which had opposed him in 1929, “but I don’t know whether you ladies and gentlemen have decided to admit me to the Social Register, or whether you just wanted to go slumming with me.” Just after midnight on January 1, 1934, a small group—including the mayor-elect’s new wife, Marie, the woman who had managed his congressional office—gathered at Seabury’s house to see La Guardia administered the oath of office. He was fifty-one.


Alyn Brodsky, the author of several popular biographies—most notably of Grover Cleveland, whom he portrayed with far more sympathy than he is typically accorded—is fond of the Little Flower. He tells us that he was among the “kiddies” who grew up in New York listening to La Guardia reading the Sunday funnies over the radio during a newspaper strike. He moves through the phases of La Guardia’s life with methodical thoroughness (we reach page 285 before the mayoralty begins). It is a tribute, and in passages a gushing one, although Brodsky is admirably frank about La Guardia’s self-indulgence in his last years. As a writer, Brodsky is fluid and helpfully clear, and he describes the arcana of New York politics without getting tangled up in them—not a simple task. He does have a tendency to strain for metaphors (La Guardia attacked bossism “as an epidemiologist would attack an outbreak of bubonic plague”).

Brodsky’s is the fourth relatively recent (within the last twenty-five years) biography of La Guardia that I am aware of.4 There were others before that, as well as his memoirs and the reminiscences of a few contemporaries. Brodsky brings to light no freshly unearthed material, and the best of the La Guardia biographies is Thomas Kessner’s 1989 Fiorello H. La Guardia and the Making of Modern New York. Kessner was the first director of the La Guardia archives. His book, seven hundred pages long, remains, from both a scholarly and an analytical point of view, the book to read. While his portrayal of La Guardia’s personality is similar to Brodsky’s, he offers richer detail and writes with greater authority. Brodsky’s The Great Mayor, while it is also the product of an impressive amount of research, has a more emotional approach and his enthusiasm for his subject is apparent.

His portrait is strongest in its description of the vast changes Mayor La Guardia brought to New York. La Guardia inherited a New York in dismal economic condition. A preliminary 1934 budget of $551 million showed a deficit of at least $30 million. But the city was still run according to rules established decades before. La Guardia changed that swiftly: on January 2, 1934, his second day in office, he announced he was seeking a comprehensive Emergency Economy Bill, granting him the power to require city employees to work one month each year without pay and the ability, by executive fiat, to eliminate ten thousand city jobs. His emergency powers were to last two years. If Michael Bloomberg, the city’s current mayor, who inherited a similar, albeit less desperate, situation, had dared to seek a bill with such provisions, he would likely have been called a fascist.

The mayor needed the support of the state legislature in Albany for his bill to become law, but the opposition of powerful Democrats, notably Governor Herbert Lehman, led to the bill’s being voted down on two different occasions. But it finally won passage in a much-watered-down version which gave the mayor new powers but placed rigorous curbs on his ability to use them. In April 1934 La Guardia called it a “small, puny, anemic, undernourished, undersized baby,” but nevertheless, “I love the little brat” and “will try to nourish it into something useful.”

One impetus behind the bill was a demand from Harold Ickes, Franklin Roosevelt’s interior secretary, that La Guardia get his fiscal house in order before seeking help from Washington. In addition to his interior post, Ickes also led the newly created Public Works Administration, the New Deal agency that oversaw loans and grants to cities, which the federal government was about to make on an unprecedented scale. The larger impetus, though, was La Guardia himself.

La Guardia hated the idea of “going to bankers with my hat in my hand to borrow money for relief,” as was the precedent in New York. So he went to Washington. Officials there were ideologically sympathetic—Ickes and Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s trusted aide and relief administrator, and ultimately Roosevelt himself. Yielding to La Guardia’s constant pressure, they managed to grant millions of dollars in federal aid to New York. La Guardia’s intense campaign and its success radically changed the relationship between the federal government and America’s cities. During his tenure the federal government assumed vast financial responsibility for urban development. It is La Guardia’s achievement here that was a, or even the, defining character of his mayoralty.

Federal money built, among other things, the Triborough Bridge, the numerous public works projects we associate with the period (Jones Beach, the system of parkways around the city), and the public housing complexes constructed by a new entity invented by La Guardia, the New York City Housing Authority. Now the breeding ground of crime and alienation, these mammoth projects were then thought to be a good thing, and in fact they were a great improvement for most of their occupants over the slums they had been inhabiting.

The relationship between Washington and the city was remarkably efficient, but not, in one sense, easy. The men involved in the reconstruction of New York possessed enormous egos. La Guardia may have named Robert Moses as his parks commissioner partly as a payback after Moses, who had started a run for mayor and was competing with La Guardia for the Fusionists’ support, ultimately backed off and endorsed the mayor. But the two men deeply disliked each other. Moses wanted total control over virtually every construction project he was involved with—the Triborough Bridge, the parkways, and the rest—and La Guardia was naturally loath to give it to him. Moses had a habit of threatening to resign if he weren’t ceded absolute authority, and La Guardia, who mockingly referred to Moses as “His Grace,” learned to counter the bluff at their meetings by having on hand copies of a form that said, “I, Robert Moses do hereby resign as _, effective __,” which he would produce whenever Moses made unreasonable demands.

Moses hated Roosevelt, too. That was a feud that went back to the late 1920s, when both were in state government and quarreled over an appointment to the Taconic State Parkway Commission. Their enmity came close to preventing the Triborough Bridge from being built—Roosevelt wanted Moses removed from the project altogether—but they managed to compromise, and all three men grudgingly shared the stage at the bridge’s 1936 dedication.

La Guardia never let himself get bogged down by feuds because he was moving so quickly on so many fronts that no single one could occupy him for long. He attempted to consolidate the subway lines, which were then private and separately owned, although it was six years before he could do this. He attacked corruption in judicial appointments and managed to remove the worst of the Tammany hacks from the bench. His conviction that New York City should be a center for the arts resulted in the city’s first Municipal Arts Committee, a new high school for music and the arts, and the City Center, the performing arts hall on West 55th Street.

He also went after the mob, which at the time had achieved vast power under leaders like Frank Costello and Lucky Luciano (and which had bought off most of the city’s politicians and judges). He conducted this crusade with his customary zeal—but with limited success. He did manage to crack down on the mob’s lucrative slot machine business.5 There is a famous photograph of the mayor showily taking a sledgehammer to the confiscated machines as reporters gape.

But there were early signs of the megalomania to come. Citing an archaic provision of the city charter, La Guardia banned the sale of artichokes, because their distribution was controlled by a crime boss. There were signs of his prudery, too—he drove the Minsky brothers and their burlesque shows out of town, even banning the words “Minsky” and “burlesque” from appearing in advertisements. But he was able to retain the backing of the city establishment, who saw La Guardia as doing far more good than harm and who in any event feared the return of Tammany Hall. La Guardia was reelected easily in 1937, and this time, Roosevelt, who had backed McKee in 1933, remained neutral. This was widely seen as a sign that Roosevelt was privately backing La Guardia but refrained from doing so publicly because he would seem to be betraying his party.

La Guardia’s second term started out productively. It found him solidifying public control of the subways, breaking ground for his eponymous airport, preparing for and inaugurating the 1939 World’s Fair, creating a progressive City Planning Commission, a group of professional city planners who administered zoning rules, and building the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, from which he managed to exclude Robert Moses entirely. (At one point he went so far as to order the WNYC radio station director to kill a broadcast by Moses.) But by this time, midway through his second term, the city was forced to compete in the Little Flower’s mind with other ambitions.

It was not clear, in 1939, that Roosevelt would seek a third term the following year. La Guardia took steps to position himself as a presidential candidate. He toured through the West making the most of his Arizona youth and offering frequent comments to the press on the darkening state of the world. When it became clear that Roosevelt would run, Brodsky tells us, La Guardia was prepared to switch parties and become Roosevelt’s vice-presidential nominee (although he acknowledged to one associate that “the son of a wop who lives in a tenement doesn’t become vice-president”6 ). He was passionate about the US war effort and implored Roosevelt to give him something to do. He was named head of the US-Canadian Joint Permanent Defense Board in August 1940.

La Guardia charged into that job with his characteristic enthusiasm, but he did so partly because the mayoralty he had once coveted so obsessively was by now starting to bore him. Tammany had made small gains in the 1939 by-elections, and La Guardia was under a cloud among liberals that year because of his refusal to support Bertrand Russell’s appointment to the City College faculty. William T. Manning, New York’s Episcopal bishop, had commenced a virulent public-relations campaign joined by many Catholics against the appointment, denouncing Russell’s liberal views on marriage and sexual morality. La Guardia—a prudish man under the best of circumstances—responded by releasing a budget for the coming year which excised the $8,800 in funding for Russell’s job, remarking disingenuously that the decision to cancel the job was merely in keeping with his policy against filling vacancies. And he later ordered the city’s lawyers not to appeal the court decision that denied Russell the post.7

He feuded bitterly with Mike Quill, the powerful head of the transit workers’ union, over the status and contractual rights of transit workers under the newly unified subway system. It was a fight that La Guardia lost, at least in public opinion. He persuaded Roosevelt to name him head of the Office of Civilian Defense, which, in addition to the US-Canadian board and the mayoralty, meant he now held three essentially full-time posts. Nevertheless, the voters of New York reelected him to a third term, although their support was waning.

La Guardia, now plainly more enthusiastic about his war-related duties than his mayoral ones, was frequently dashing about the country, leaving others in charge of the city. Disparagement of this habit in the press finally reached its crescendo in February 1942, when La Guardia was forced to resign from the OCD. By then the strain was showing. Anyone who criticized his performance as OCD director was “some Jap or friend of a Jap”; dissenters in the press were “two-by-four editors” and “swivel-chair scribes.” He began to reward political supporters with overt patronage, and even cut a deal or two with Tammany leaders, such as the Bronx Democratic boss Ed Flynn. When C.C. Burlingham, another of the prominent reformers whose backing in the early days had been crucial to him, urged the mayor in 1943 to take steps to restore his “badly shattered” reputation, La Guardia’s heated reply was:

Frankly, C.C., I am getting sick and tired of the whole thing. If people like you cannot understand and instead of giving aid and help, continue to listen to gossip and spread it and directly, or indirectly heap abuse, then let the [city] go back to Tammany.

La Guardia’s fatigue was not solely temperamental. Associates began to notice around this time that the mayor was slowing down physically as well.

La Guardia decided not to run for a fourth term in 1946, fearing a likely rejection. But in retirement, he kept busy writing a column for PM, the famously combative liberal-left newspaper, and delivered commentaries on national and New York politics for ABC radio. By the spring of 1947, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His doctor chose not to tell him, reasoning that if he didn’t know, he would keep working at his customary pace and earning money, which he had never made much of, to leave to Marie. On June 15, he told his radio audience that he was “back in the repair shop.” In mid-September, when Newbold Morris brought around his brother-in-law, Judge Learned Hand, La Guardia, barely able to stand, managed to joke that he was “glad to meet an honest judge.” And on the morning of September 20, the great mayor died in his sleep.

  1. 3

    See Jordan A. Schwarz’s Liberal: Adolph A. Berle and the Vision of an American Era (Free Press, 1987), an excellent survey.

  2. 4

    The others, in addition to Kessner’s, are Little Flower: The Life and Times of Fiorello H. La Guardia, by Lawrence Elliott (Morrow, 1983), and Patience and Fortitude: Fiorello La Guardia, by William Manners (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976).

  3. 5

    Brodsky writes that there were “between twenty thousand and thirty thousand machines” in the city at the time, which would have made them ubiquitous. By comparison, in today’s New York City, there are roughly 22,000 restaurants.

  4. 6

    The La Guardias moved to Gracie Mansion in May 1942, after the City Council passed a law making the mansion the official mayoral residence. Until then, they lived in the five-story walk-up in East Harlem that they had occupied since the 1920s.

  5. 7

    A thorough and fascinating account of the controversy is to be found in Thom Weidlich’s Appointment Denied: The Inquisition of Bertrand Russell (Prometheus, 2000).

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