The Great Mayor

Review by Joseph Rosenberg

The Great Mayor: Fiorello La Guardia and the Making of the City of New York
by Alyn Brodsky
St. Martins Press, 2003

Fiorello La Guardia not only chased out the money-changers from the Temple of city government as mayor of New York, he also tossed out the slot machines, organ grinders and burlesque houses.

Memory is so ephemeral in these days of high-speed disgorgement of news and trivia that the true heroes of an earlier age are remembered only for micro-moments. Fiorello La Guardia is best remembered for the airport named for him, his reading the comics to New Yorkers during a newspaper strike and as he’s characterized in a sentimentalized Broadway musical. The “Little Flower” deserves much better.

From time immemorial, New York City was run like a corrupt third world country, even after the all five boroughs were included as a governing unit in the 1890s. On several occasions reform Democrats and Republicans combined forces to battle the corrupt Tammany machine, and as a result New York had some “fusion” mayors and congressmen, followed by a return to venality. These “fusion” tickets included various liberal and conservative parties including Socialists, Communists and Bull Moosers, and so “fusion” candidates appeared on the ballots under various headings.

This provided an opportunity for a progressive (Teddy Roosevelt-style) Republican to have a chance to defeat NYC’s Tammany Hall democratic monolith. Any New York City Mayor had to share power with the Republican-Conservative State Legislature and the City’s Legislative Branch, especially the upper chamber now called the Board of Estimates. For 12 years, from 1933 through 1945, the short, stocky, excitable son of Italian and Jewish immigrant parents ran roughshod over corruption, his own allies and inefficiency, as author Alyn Brodsky shows in admiring, critical, novelistic prose covering 490 pages.

Though born in New York City in 1882, Fiorello followed his father, an Army musician, to the American West and Europe. In 1901 he joined the American Foreign Service, becoming Consul for the US in Trieste, Italy, dispensing his brand of egalitarian justice. Returning to the US in 1906, he joined the Immigration Service, helping a wave of European immigrants enter the US. By 1910 LaGuardia struck out on his own as a lawyer and politico, getting elected to Congress on the Republican ticket in 1916. As a Congressman he enlisted in the US Army Air Service and became a Major and a life-long devotee of aviation combat.

As usual he was multi-tasking long before that term became popular; he was a Congressman, Army officer, intra-service coordinator of air combat in Italy, propagandist (he spoke many languages) and a smuggler for the Italians.

On his return to the US Congress, he took up Wilson’s desire for a League of Nations and voted with other Republican Progressives and Liberals like Bob LaFollete and George Norris.

In 1919 he became NYC’s second highest office-holder as President of the Board of Aldermen, serving until 1923. In 1923 he returned to Congress from a reconfigured district of Jews, Italians and Puerto Ricans who were leaving the island for New York. In 1933 he was defeated, but not before paving the way for FDR’s New Deal after the Presidential election and before FDR’s oath taking in March 1933.

Reeling from scandal, NYC voters turned to Fiorello as Mayor in November of 1933. La Guardia not only chased out the money-changers from the Temple of city government, he also tossed out the slot machines, organ grinders and burlesque houses. As an acolyte and friend of the New Deal, he got help building roads, housing and the subway system from the Roosevelt Administration and from FDR’s successor as Governor, Herbert Lehman.

In 1942 he headed the Office of Civil Defense with Eleanor Roosevelt while still Mayor. This task proved to be beyond his energies and he was reorganized out of the job in 1943. Sick and weary, the Little Flower wanted a military commission during World War II, but he had made too many enemies with his ad-hominem attacks, and Roosevelt had to tell his friend no. He decided not to run for a fourth term as Mayor and worked with the United Nations Relief, and became a newspaper and radio commentator until he succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 1947.

Like Baltimore’s William Donald Schaefer and Chicago’s Richard Daley he was involved in all aspects of his city, running around behind fire trucks, meddling in labor talks and haranguing anyone in his way, but he lacked the political machine of Daley and the institutional power of Schaefer. What Fiorello did, he did on pure energy and guile. He became a model for all mayors and the urban agenda.

Remarkably, despite his parents’ backgrounds, LaGuardia was an Episcopalian, thus allowing him to dream of becoming President before his friend Frank ran for a third term in 1940. But he had no real base in either major party and he continued running his city his way.

Fiorello LaGuardia led a life of public service unmatched by few and stood by his principles until his end. His Achilles heel, his thin-skin nature, led him to errors in judgment in his last term, but he always rebounded and tried to fix his errors. This roly-poly little man with his outsized Stetson hat and old-world clothes pioneered political correctness and lobbied for and wrote the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which gave labor unions the ability to organize.

Whether speaking Italian, Croatian, Spanish, English or Yiddish, LaGuardia spoke the common-sense language of an inclusive America and never stopped fighting for an ideal America. How we miss his ebullient soul today!

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This story was published on January 11, 2004.