The Little Flower

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For those too young to have firsthand memories of La Guardia’s gaudy days at City Hall, he remains the lovable but eccentric figure of the newsreels, racing to fires, smashing slot machines, exuberantly reading “Dick Tracy” over the radio to children deprived of their Sunday funnies by a newspaper strike. But there was far more substance than style to Fiorello La Guardia. As his biographer exhaustively demonstrates, he transformed his city: clearing slums; building airports, parks, and public housing with funds tirelessly lobbied from Albany and Washington; ramming through a revised city charter; creating a nonpolitical civil service; and so drying up opportunities for graft that the bank holding the mortgage on the Tammany wigwam felt compelled to sell it out from under the organization.

Kessner is properly admiring of his subject, but not blind to his faults. La Guardia was a little man—just over five feet tall and wide enough to seem still shorter—and acutely sensitive about it. Once, when a remarkably heedless aide suggested that a candidate for a city job was “too small” to work in a dangerous neighborhood, the mayor came around his desk, jumping up and down and screaming, “What’s the matter with a little guy? What’s the matter with a little guy?” He was something of a bully, too, and relished dressing down subordinates in front of others. “If you were any dumber,” he once shrieked at a stenographer in the presence of a department head, “I would make you a commissioner.” But he was also relentlessly hardworking and scrupulously honest. “Beware of the nickel cigar,” he told motor-vehicle inspectors. “Accept no favors....Oh, they will want to know if you’re interested in fights or ball games. Look out, that’s the preliminary necking. If you succumb to the preliminary necking, you’re done.”

In Congress, La Guardia offered views on everything in a shrill voice. “It was like he owned the U. S.,” his widow remembered.

La Guardia himself never succumbed to any necking; when he died in 1947, his modest home was still mortgaged, and he had just eight thousand dollars in war bonds in the bank. It was power, not money, that drove him, and in the end, Kessner shows, it drove him too hard. Kessner’s study is sometimes clumsily organized, but his account of La Guardia’s final years is riveting.

Congress had never satisfied him. Neither did being America’s most celebrated mayor, and he had taken it into his head that he would succeed his sometime patron Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House in 1940, although his ethnic background, his irrepressible brashness, and his noisy disdain for party loyalty all militated against any party’s ever rewarding him with its presidential nomination. Then the war in Europe began, FDR won a third term, and La Guardia was left at City Hall to nurse his disappointment. Everything seemed to sour. Day-to-day duties bored him, and the cockiness that had once been winning lurched toward megalomania; he set investigators upon his critics and frantically lobbied Roosevelt for a big federal job that would keep him in the headlines.

FDR obliged by naming him director of the Office of Civilian Defense. He got the publicity he craved—“positively swollen with importance,” Rexford Tugwell wrote after hearing him deliver one of the fifty preparedness speeches he gave a month—but he was quickly forced out after quarreling with his staff and foolishly patronizing his codirector, the President’s wife.

He continued to beg for federal favors. “Dear Chief,” he wrote FDR in 1943, asking to be made a brigadier general, “Soldier La Guardia reports to the C[ommander] in C[hief] that he awaits orders. He believes General Eisenhower needs him now more than ever.”

The orders never came. La Guardia left City Hall in 1946 rather than run for the fourth term that no longer interested him and then was given the sort of position with which he might under other circumstances have rebuilt his reputation: rescuing millions of displaced persons from misery and starvation as director general of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. But the task just seemed overwhelming to La Guardia, weary and already suffering from the cancer that killed him ten months later. He resigned when he proved unable to persuade policy makers preoccupied with offsetting Soviet power that their decision to offer assistance only to those hungry people who happened to live under friendly regimes was as wrong overseas as it had been in New York when he was young and Tammany had bought its votes with bread.