Fiorello La Guardia was the first Jewish mayor of New York, although he was a practicing Episcopalian. And while La Guardia was a passionate reformer and courageous defender of the working classes, he was nominally Republican. La Guardia was a complicated man. Both a hero and a demagogue, his contradictory nature shaped his life and work. It also shaped the city of New York, as La Guardia transformed America’s biggest city between 1933 and 1945.
Often know simply as Fiorello—most notably in the eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Fiorello!”—the diminutive La Guardia lived up to his first name, which means “Little Flower.” Short and squat, he was an often-scruffy man, who spoke in a squeaky voice. But although not much to look at and often a petty, petulant man towards political opponents, La Guardia is now regarded as perhaps the greatest mayor in the history of New York City. He’s certainly left a large legacy—average mayors do not have musicals and prominent high schools and major international airports named in their honor. But who was hizzoner?
Fiorello H. La Guardia—the H is for Henry—was born in New York in 1882 to Italian parents; his father was Catholic and his mother Jewish. Naturally, Fiorello would grow up to be Protestant. His musician father, Achille, met his future wife, Irene Coen, at a dance in Trieste before moving to America. When Fiorello was just 3, Achille joined the US Army as a bandleader and the family left New York for an itinerant life. They ended up in Arizona, where Fiorello spent his teenage years. After school, Fiorello took a job with the American consulate in Budapest, Hungary.
Sent to work as the US consular official at the then Hungarian territory of Fiume (which is now Rijeka in Croatia), La Guardia took on and defeated the head of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in defense of the little man. When the Austro-Hungarian imperial archduchess Maria-Josepha came to Fiume she asked to see a ship full of emigrants bound for the New World. For the archduchess to be able to peer at those in steerage the ship would need to be boarded three days before it could leave; the emigrants would then have to wait in the cramped, abject conditions of the ship for 72 hours before leaving. All the required officials—the local Cunard agent, the port director, and the provincial governor general—agreed to this, except La Guardia. He would not subject the emigrants to the conditions. Nor would he bow to an archduchess. “I told them,” he later wrote in his memoirs, “to tell their precious Archduchess that maybe she could boss her people around but she couldn’t boss the American consul.”
Two years later, La Guardia, who now spoke four languages, returned to New York and took a job as a translator for immigrants at Ellis Island. Although he did not have an undergraduate degree, he was accepted to New York University Law School after passing his Regents’ exams. Once he passed the bar exam in 1910, La Guardia set up his own law firm working on immigration and labor law cases. In his office he put up a bust of Napoleon.
Although now a lawyer, his goal was always to work in politics. Disgusted by the corruption of the New York City Democratic Party run by Tammany Hall, La Guardia joined the Republican Party. In 1914, he won the party’s nomination for candidate for Congress for New York’s 14th district, which ran across Manhattan from 3rd to 14th Streets. The district was solidly Democrat, and La Guardia lost; but he won many more votes than previous Republicans.
La Guardia won election to Congress in 1916, winning a race in the poor, immigrant neighborhood of East Harlem during which he was often called “dago” and “guinea.” He soon proved himself an effective and progressive Congressman, despite his affiliation with the Republican Party that was widely seen as beholden to Wall Street and the American establishment. La Guardia left Congress and in 1921 ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary for New York’s mayoral elections. That same year, his wife Thea and daughter Fioretta both died.
In 1922, La Guardia decided again to run for Congress and chose East Harlem once more as a district to run in. The neighborhood was then largely Jewish and African-American and to win election La Guardia had to defeat the Democratic Party’s Jewish candidate, Henry Frank. La Guardia, who could not hide his Italian heritage, had neither hidden nor proclaimed his Jewishness, and in order to defeat him the Democratic Party accused him of anti-Semitism. Just before the election, a ”Jewish Committee” for Frank distributed leaflets claiming that “there are three candidates who are seeking your vote: one is Karlin the atheist, the second is the Italian La Guardia, who is a pronounced anti-Semite and Jew hater. . . . Our candidate is Henry Frank, who is a Jew with a Jewish heart.” La Guardia fought back. He challenged Frank to a debate “entirely in the Yiddish language,” a language Frank happened not to speak. After Frank didn’t show up to the debate, La Guardia won the election by 168 votes.
The first bill La Guardia introduced to Congress after his 1922 victory called for the death penalty for those who sold tainted food to the military—tainted food like that which had poisoned his father in 1898. He was strongly against the anti-immigrant Johnson-Reed Bill of 1924, which restricted immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe (read: Italians and Jews) and Asia “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.” Everything La Guardia opposed he did so strongly. In the mid-1920s he denounced Mussolini. By 1933, La Guardia was ready to once again run for mayor.
With the Democratic Party tainted by Tammany inflicted scandal, La Guardia secured the Republican and Fusion Parties’ nomination. He secured a broad coalition of votes from New York’s many ethnic groups, and came to office in January 1934. Although nominally a Republican, La Guardia became President Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite mayor and showed that party affiliation did not necessarily amount to much. Indeed La Guardia himself mistrusted parties while having faith in government.
La Guardia used his relationship with Roosevelt to change the way the federal government interacted with American cities by pressurizing Washington into granting New York huge amounts of federal aid. He used these funds to build many public works projects, including the New York City Housing Authority and the Triborough Bridge. With these projects, La Guardia worked alongside Robert Moses although the two men (both halachically Jewish) despised each other.
La Guardia was an early and outspoken critic of Adolf Hitler, who took power in Germany at the same time as he became Mayor of New York. La Guardia called Hitler a fanatic who was putting world peace at risk during a speech to the American Jewish Congress in 1937. This angered Germany, as did La Guardia’s suggestions that Hitler be put in the World Fair’s Chamber of Horrors. On both occasions the German Embassy lodged formal complaints with Washington; twice the Secretary of State apologized. When La Guardia spoke to an anti-fascist rally in Madison Square Garden in 1938, he said it was impossible “adequately to describe the brutality of [Hitler] and his government.” At a time of widespread isolationism in American politics and indifference to human rights violations, La Guardia called for the public to confront Hitler.
In 1939 La Guardia oversaw the historic World’s Fair. And in 1940 he won a third term—the first time in modern history anyone had been elected to the mayor’s office three times. He decided against running for a fourth term in 1946, and the following year was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. At 7 am on the morning of September 20th, 1947, La Guardia died in his sleep. When “the Little Flower” lay in state at the Episcopalian Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, almost 50,000 New Yorkers waited in line to pay their respects.
Fiorello La Guardia was a reformist who cleaned up New York politics sullied by the corruption stemming from almost continuous rule from Tammany Hall. But he didn’t raise the tone too much: opponents were routinely referred to as “crooks” or “bums” or “thieves.” Indeed La Guardia himself wasn’t above his own reproach. As he once told an aide, ”I can out-demagogue the best of demagogues.”