February 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 1
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.
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.”
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.