Saturday, December 11, 2010

Hizzoner Fiorello La Guardia

Of all the men to serve as Mayor of New York - and therefore entitled by tradition to be affectionately referred to by New Yorkers as Hizzoner - few have brought as much actual honour to the office as Fiorello La Guardia, who was born on this day in 1882.

PhotobucketOf course, La Guardia had the good fortune to serve after one of the most corrupt mayors in New York's history, the as charming as he was dissolute Jimmy Walker, so it wouldn't have been difficult to shine by comparison*. Then again, he also had the misfortune to take office on the first day of 1934, more than two years before the Great Depression finally bottomed out. At least he didn't have to deal with Prohibition, although he was kept busy (as if he wouldn't have been busy enough anyway) cleaning up after the mess it had made.

Fortunately for the people of New York City their new mayor throve on challenge... As indefatigable as he was incorruptible, La Guardia refused to play partisan politics by working closely with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to implement the programs of the New Deal; that he was also able to work with both the notoriously imperious Parks Commissioner Robert Moses and the ambitious Thomas E. Dewey - with whom he launched a full-scale assault on organized crime - is a testament to the innate diplomacy and even toughness of the man whose name ironically meant 'The Little Flower'.

They were anxious times, and where Central Casting might have suggested a mayor who was suave and patrician so as to soothe the city's frazzled nerves, instead they got a garrulous ethnic who inspired people by kicking them in the keister and consequently did the job better than anyone before or since...

Having served three consecutive terms at New York City Hall - during which time he brought about the demise of Tammany Hall and the corruption it engendered, spent his evenings riding along with fire-fighters and police officers, personally officiated in municipal court where he meted out his own innovative brand of justice**, built both Floyd Bennett Field and later La Guardia Airport within the city limits, oversaw the 1939 World's Fair, and shattered the fortunes of mobster Frank Costello even as he personally shattered the slot machines that had built that fortune - La Guardia left office on the last day of 1945, having brought the city he loved through both the Depression and World War II with flying colours, while having concurrently served it as mayor and his country as Director of Civilian Defense***.

Retirement didn't agree with Fiorello La Guardia; he died in September 1947, never to witness his life being enacted on the Great White Way in the 1959 musical Fiorello!, starring Tom Bosley in a Tony Award-winning performance. Two recent books cast new light on his amazing career: both H. Paul Jeffers' The Napoleon of New York: Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and The Great Mayor: Fiorello La Guardia and the Making of the City of New York by Alyn Brodsky come highly recommended by the Pop Culture Institute.

*The same enviable situation a certain 43rd President finds himself in.
**A man was brought before him accused of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family; La Guardia first fined the man ten dollars, then fined all those present in the courtroom 50 cents each 'for living in a city where a man has to steal bread in order to eat'. The unfortunate fellow left court that day with $47.50!

*** That's a 133-word sentence, people!
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