The Little Flower

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Some twenty years ago a friend let me leaf through several photograph albums compiled by his grandfather, an Army surgeon who had spent the 1880s and 1890s stationed at dusty Western outposts, helping to keep a wary eye on the Indians, only recently subdued. There, among the tea-colored pictures of leathery one-time warriors, clusters of bored-looking officers and their still more bored-looking wives, and distant snapshots of the low-slung forts themselves, barely distinguishable from the sagebrush that surrounded them, was a striking portrait of a regimental bandmaster with bright black eyes, waxed mustache, and crisply barbered beard. Beneath it was the man’s grandiloquent signature, Professor Achille La Guardia.

I wondered idly, as I turned the big page, whether this showy Westerner could somehow have been distantly related to Fiorello La Guardia, the quintessential New Yorker who served three terms as mayor of his city. Not only were the two related, I now learn from Thomas Kessner’s big new biography, Fiorello H. La Guardia and the Making of Modern New York (McGraw-Hill, $24.95), but Fiorello was the bandmaster’s eldest son. Born in New York in 1882 but raised from the age of three on Army installations elsewhere, he did not move back permanently to the metropolis whose brassy symbol he became until he was twenty-three.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. The overwhelming majority of La Guardia’s constituents were brought up somewhere else, after all, and La Guardia’s variegated heritage could hardly have been tailored for broader voter appeal. His father was Italian—Fiorello means “little flower,” and his middle name was Enrico until he had it changed to Henry—but his mother was Jewish, and he was raised at least nominally as an Episcopalian.

Kessner argues persuasively that La Guardia’s Western boyhood was central to his development. Early exposure to crooked Indian agents helped inspire in him an aversion to politics-as-usual so strong that in 1941 he insisted that the International Who’s Who describe him as a “municipal officer” rather than a mere politician. His adolescent admiration for swift, frontier-style justice never left him either; it was no accident that he wore an outsized Stetson when he set out to tame New York’s streets. But it was his demanding father, who beat him regularly in a doomed effort to make him the second John Philip Sousa and urged his teachers to beat him too, who really shaped La Guardia’s character, inculcating in him an instinctive sympathy with the victimized, an unslakable desire to excel, and a deep suspicion of authority, along with a crippling inability to trust or confide in anyone, that made this famously outgoing man virtually friendless.

 

La Guardia became a Republican in part because Tammany corruption genuinely appalled him, but also because there was little room for an ambitious Italian in an organization run by Irishmen primarily for Irishmen. The GOP was not hospitable at first; it was run by establishment WASPs made frankly uneasy by an obstreperous recruit who was happy giving better than he got in the savage ethnic political wars that still mystified oldschool New Yorkers. “I can outdemagogue the best of demagogues,” La Guardia liked to boast, but he endured as many setbacks as successes before winning a seat in Congress in 1916 by just 357 votes out of 18,670 cast—his winning margin in part the result of his having lured flophouse voters to the polls with coffee and doughnuts before the fatally complacent Tammany men could get to them.

He had barely been sworn in when the United States entered World War I. La Guardia volunteered for the Army’s aviation section and ended up a major, though he had too little patience for smooth landings. “I can’t take the buzzard off and I can’t land him,” he told a member of his squad, “but I can fly the son of a gun.” He returned from one combat mission with two hundred bullet holes in his plane, and when King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy personally awarded him the Flying Cross, La Guardia called him Manny, to the delight of the newspapers back home.

Back in Congress he found the gentlemanly traditions of the House a strain. “Are you quoted correctly...,” an enraged general asked, “in calling me nothing but a beribboned dog-robber?” “No sir,” La Guardia replied. “I was not aware that you had any ribbons.” He was a master of dramatics, the “Belasco of politics” according to an envious ally. Once, to point up the hypocrisy of Prohibition, he invited the press to Room 150 of the House Office Building to watch him make illegal beer, and when opponents dared him to do it again out from under congressional immunity, he cheerfully restaged the whole thing in a Manhattan drugstore and was irate when no Prohibition agents turned up to arrest him.

La Guardia spent a dozen years in Congress, offering forthright progressive views on every conceivable topic in his loud, shrill voice. “It was like he owned the U.S.,” his widow remembered. “Nobody should do anything to it.”

“The function of a Progressive,” he told an interviewer, was “...to keep on protesting until things get so bad that a reactionary demands reforms.” But he never really was content to wait that long. He wanted to run New York, and he got his chance at last in 1933, when, in the depths of the Depression, enough city voters wearied of Tammany scandals to sweep him into office on a fusion ticket.