The great mayor : Fiorello La Guardia and the making of the city of New York /
Alyn Brodsky.
1st ed.
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2003.
xiii, 530 p., [16] p. of plates : ill. ; 25 cm.
More Details
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2003.
general note
"Truman Talley books."
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (p. 491-495) and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

"I loathe the professional politician"


Fiorello H. La Guardia was not only a man of many traits and attitudes; he was a man of many religions. His father was a lapsed Roman Catholic, his mother a nonpracticing Jewess, his first wife a devout Catholic, his second a Lutheran, and he himself an observant though unconfirmed Episcopalian. What a person believed theologically was to him of monumental unimportance. La Guardia's concern was not with one's religious orientation but with one's ethical orientation.

His father, Achille Luigi Carlo La Guardia, was born on March 26, 1849, to a government functionary and his wife in Foggia, at the time part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, where the trade and migration routes linking Europe, Africa, and the Middle East intersected. This might account for the difficulty in fixing the La Guardia ethnicity. The name is both Spanish and Italian; the family dates back to the Spanish conquest of the Sicilies in the fifteenth century. Having shown from early childhood an aptitude and great love for music, Achille decided to pursue a career in that discipline. He also showed an aptitude for mischief. One day he put a pointed object on his teacher-priest's chair, not to cause harm but simply to elicit a reaction. The reaction it elicited was the demand that he do penance by making the sign of the cross on the floor-with his tongue. Rage over being publicly humiliated became exacerbated when he complained about the priest to his parents and they replied they would do the same thing if he ever again misbehaved. He ran away, vowing never to return home and never again to partake of the Roman ritual. With an obstinacy he would pass on to his famous son, Achille kept both vows.

For the next twenty years he traveled the world studying music and acquitting himself admirably as a composer, arranger, accompanist, and cornetist. At the age of twenty-eight, he toured the United States as accompanist for the legendary opera diva Adelina Patti. After the tour, Achille decided to settle down in America. But first, like so many European immigrants, he returned to his homeland to find a bride. At a dance in Trieste he met Irene Coen, ten years his junior. The two fell in love at first sight, were married on June 3, 1880, in a civil ceremony, and sailed almost immediately for the United States. On the marriage certificate under the heading "Religion," Achille identified himself as nessuna -"nothing." His bride declared herself as-the word needs no translating- israelita .

Irene's mother, Fiorina (born 1833), was a Luzzatto, from a family of Sephardic Jews who may have settled in Trieste following the expulsion from Spain of the Jews when she was nine years old. After Italy's unification, Fiorina's family produced many university professors, civil servants, and military leaders.

Irene's father, Abramo Isacco Coen, was born, in the same year as Fiorina, in Spalato (now Split), a small trading center on the Dalmatian coast, which at the time belonged to Austria and is today part of Serbia. When the Coens became a part of the small Jewish community there cannot be determined; in 1942, the Mussolini government destroyed the community's archives. Possibly they arrived during the eighteenth century, following the expulsion of the Jews from both Venice and the Papal States. Thus, like the La Guardias', their emergence in Italy may be a consequence of the Spanish Inquisition. When Abramo Isacco was twenty-one his family relocated to Trieste, then emerging as a thriving commercial center. The Coens were merchants who never enjoyed great success but never suffered failure. Three years after settling in Trieste, Abramo Isacco married Fiorina; Irene was the first of their six children.

Born in Trieste on July 18, 1859, Irene claimed through her mother a pedigree that suggests that in becoming Achille's bride she was "marrying down." To her credit, Irene never believed it. She passed on to her famous son the unalterable conviction that all people were to be judged solely on what they were, as opposed to who they were.

Austrian by citizenship, Italian by culture, Irene was raised in the Orthodox Judaism of her father but did not remain active in the faith. She was at ease in Gentile as well as Jewish circles.

Irene and Achille's marriage was a happy one. On arriving in New York City, the two settled in Greenwich Village, long an area favored by Italian immigrants, where they took an apartment at 7 Varick Place, just two blocks south of fashionable Washington Square. It was there that their first child, a girl, Gemma, was born on April 24, 1881. Fiorello Enrico Raffaele was born nineteen months later, on December 11, 1882. He was named, respectively, for Irene's mother, Achille's brother, a civil engineer back in Italy, and Achille's father. In time, he would anglicize the Enrico to Henry and drop the Raffaele altogether.

Having already visited America, Achille La Guardia knew what arriving immigrants were to learn, to their profound disappointment and sorrow: The streets of America were not paved with gold. But this was no impediment to the incoming tidal wave of humanity that was part of the first great U.S.-bound migration. Between 1880 and the outbreak of the First World War, more than fifteen million from Eastern and Southern Europe-mainly Russia, Italy, and the dozen nations comprising the Austro-Hungarian Empire-increased the American population by more than 25 percent and, in the process, trebled the size of New York City. New York was not only assuming leadership in growth among all other cities of the Western world; it was assuming leadership in terms of criminal arrests, catastrophic illnesses, and deaths per capita, due to the overwhelming influx of destitute immigrants. But still they came. Horrendous as life proved to be here, it simply had to be better than the misery they'd left behind. Here they stood a better chance to improve themselves and thereby share, however humbly, in the glory and wealth that was the New World.


When Fiorello was almost three his father enlisted in the U.S. Army and was posted to the Eleventh Infantry Regiment as bandmaster at Fort Sully, a military oasis amid an expanse of barren scrublands peppered with Indian encampments in what four years later became the state of North Dakota. The post commander, Colonel Richard Dodge, took a liking to his bandmaster, assigning the family a house well apart from the company area-an honor indeed for an enlisted man. In gratitude, the third and last La Guardia child, who was born there, was named in the colonel's honor. Irene had a flair for making friends, transcending not only the barriers of culture but those of language as well. A tribe of Sioux Indians who lived just outside the fort brought her handmade blankets, moccasins, and beads. She, in turn, gave them sugar and staples.

In the fall of 1889, the Eleventh was transferred to Madison Barracks at Sackets Harbor, near Watertown, New York, on Lake Ontario's eastern shore. As with Fort Sully, Fiorello had no memories of life at Sackets Harbor-or perhaps he chose not to record them-but others did. The wife of the commissary sergeant recalled how little Fiorello "used to torment my girls by pulling their hair ribbons off and such pranks." She did go on to note, though, that "he was honest and truthful" and "such a quick, keen little fellow." Prefiguring lifelong character traits, he "had the instinct to take the part of the underdog," and "even in his play he was a leader, and many an argument was the outcome of his desire for leadership." Though the smallest, he "was the most persistent, and the other children eventually capitulated and followed."

His first teacher, Mrs. Estelle Littlefield, recalled that the young Fiorello "was impetuous and full of fight, and his vocabulary was well-stocked with words of profanity." An above-average student, he had "a rather volcanic personality," demonstrated when a group of visitors came to observe a lesson and Mrs. Littlefield began calling the student roll. Each replied with a pleasant "present"-except Fiorello. When he refused to respond, he was told sternly, "You're supposed to answer 'present.'" He responded, "You haven't called my name yet-which [is] not 'Fie-o-rello.'" Miss Littlefield realized he didn't mean to be difficult. He simply thought it was time she learned to pronounce his name properly.

* * *

In 1890, the Eleventh was transferred back to the frontier, this time to Fort Huachuca in the Arizona Territory. Located just north of the Mexican border, it was a stockade in the middle of an uncultivable, dust-blown desert. Recalled Fiorello, "Its barren hills and bleak surroundings made it exceedingly unpleasant and undesirable for grown-ups, but a paradise for a little boy." He would later say nostalgically, "All my boyhood memories are of those Arizona days." He "had a happy, wholesome boyhood"; he and his contemporaries "could do just about everything a little boy dreams of," such as learning to shoot "even when we were so small the gun had to be held for us by an elder."

When Fiorello was ten, the regiment was transferred 250 miles north to Whipple Barracks, still in the Arizona Territory. Situated on a high plateau just outside Prescott (population two thousand), the fort had originally been built to protect the town against marauding Apaches and other dangerous tribes by then either subdued or dispersed. Today a prosperous city, in La Guardia's time this former territorial capital could be placed in terms of economy and growth potential somewhere between moderately thriving and barely surviving-less a town with a glorious future than a romantic vestige of the once but quickly vanishing Wild West. To young Fiorello it was "the greatest, the most comfortable and the most wonderful city in the whole world." Prescott would always be his "hometown," where he spent his most formative, and happiest, childhood years. In the early 1920s, when president of the New York City Board of Aldermen, he reminisced, "Some of the lessons I learned about self-reliance in taking care of myself as a boy in Arizona are coming in handy now."

He learned more than self-reliance during his six years in Prescott. He learned that there was more than a semantic difference between the haves and the have-nots. He learned to despise purveyors of racial hatred and ignorance and to identify with the underdog and the downtrodden. He learned to hate social injustice and, perhaps the most acute of his hatreds, political corruption: "Many are the things on which I have such strong feelings-feelings which some of my [political] opponents have regarded as unreasonable obsessions-were first impressed on my mind during those [Arizona] days, and the knowledge I acquired then never left me."

The adult Fiorello La Guardia did not play by the rules if the rules were to him a contravention of fairness and common decency. This was especially true in his political life if those who might b, taken advantage of comprised the class with which he would always identify: the people. But before we examine what catalyzed La Guardia's attitudes, let us see how a Jewish-Catholic Italian family fared on the vanishing American frontier, where anyone belonging to any one of these categories was held to be, for the most part, an oddity, an emissary of Satanic forces, or a wayward pilgrim from an evil alien world-if not a combination thereof.

According to Gemma, the family suffered from an ambiguous social status. Though Achille ranked third among the regiment's NCOs, his pay was but nine dollars a month, augmented by giving private music lessons. He was welcomed in the homes of some of the regimental officers in his capacity as music teacher to their children, but he and Irene were not welcomed as visitors. They were socially unacceptable within the Army caste system. Not so to the townspeople, many of whom exchanged visits with the bandmaster and his wife.

Achille performed at every important municipal function-almost always, music of his own composition-accompanied by Gemma and Fiorello. Gemma he taught the violin, mandolin, and piano; Fiorello, the banjo, cornet, and trumpet, which became the boy's instrument of choice. A demanding taskmaster, Achille would scream at the children whenever they made a mistake, no matte, how trivial. Gemma invariably burst into tears. Her brother absorbed the reprimand and told Achille, "Keep on screaming, Papa, in this way I'll learn." It was also from Papa that Fiorello "learned" to be temperamental and excessively demanding in adulthood.

Besides teaching his children musical instruments, Achille taught them Hebrew prayers, out of love for his wife and respect for her religious traditions (and perhaps out of disrespect for his own) Though neither parent ever attended church or synagogue, they wanted their children to be like other native-born children, most of whom were Protestant, so they sent them to the Episcopal Sunday school. Fiorello would become an observant Episcopalian, but there is no evidence that he was baptized or otherwise received in that faith.

Fiorello was from earliest childhood a precocious speaker who insisted on being heard-another trait he carried into adulthood. Often he would break in on Gemma and her friends at play, announce peremptorily, "I am going to speak," and jump up onto a table. Recalled Gemma, "He would speak on how teachers should teach children, on how parents should treat children, on this and that. If we appeared to be interested and paid attention, it was all right. But if we didn't, oh my, it was terrible!"

Presumably the reason he wouldn't speak without a table was not the fear of going unheard but the fear of going unseen. Even among his shortest contemporaries Fiorello came across as midget-like. It didn't stop him from fighting bigger boys and opting to be walloped instead of backing down. Once, while fighting a schoolmate who was so much taller that Fiorello's fists couldn't even connect with his opponent's face, he ran into the schoolhouse sobbing uncontrollably-and reappeared with a chair. He plopped it down in front of his jeering tormentor, jumped up on it, and flailed away.

Achille insisted that his children, unlike the others on the post, attend the town public school because he believed they would receive a better education there. Fiorello, not a brilliant student but a bright one and quick to learn, "was a headache to every one of" the fire or six teachers. On his first day at the Prescott school he exhibited yet another of his character traits, the conviction that authority was always to be challenged. The incident involved Lena Coover. Prescott was her first job, and she "was jittery about it." Her pupils were quick to pick up on her nervousness and to make the most of it.


Excerpted from THE GREAT MAYOR by Alyn Brodsky Copyright © 2003 by Alyn Brodsky
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2003-03-31:
Brodsky has written the life of a New York City figure that ought to appeal to readers everywhere. Brodsky (Grover Cleveland) admires the half-Italian, half-Jewish congressman and mayor ("the last great paradigm of honesty and incorruptibility in American political history to date"), but he doesn't neglect La Guardia's (1882-1947) faults, which became especially apparent during his third term as mayor amid the turmoil of WWII. Brodsky has mined rich material about his subject's formative years in locales as diverse as North Dakota, the Arizona Territory and Italy (La Guardia settled in New York City, where he had been born, in 1906). Despite his disdain for social niceties, his outspokenness on political issues and his unimposing physical stature (5'2" and rotund), La Guardia reached the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican from a Tammany-dominated district in 1912, standing for open immigration, equal treatment for minorities, harsh measures against political corruption and other progressive measures. La Guardia interrupted his political career to serve in the military during WWI, flying combat missions and serving as a liaison with the Italians and other U.S. allies. A hero upon his return, he eventually served another decade in Congress. Brodsky outlines a rich, varied career that culminated with "the Little Flower" 's election as New York's mayor in 1933. Brodsky's admiration for his subject-to whom, he says, New York City owes its present greatness-remains intact, despite the mayor's increasingly authoritarian nature as he consolidated power: "many considered New York's mayor the nation's mayor." 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Library Journal on 2003-05-01:
In this first popular biography of Fiorello LaGuardia (1882-1947) in 20 years, the lively writing of historian Brodsky (Grover Cleveland) projects the dynamic essence of his subject, whose popularity rivaled Franklin D. Roosevelt's. Though the two became mutual supporters, FDR transformed the Democratic Party, while LaGuardia remained a progressive Republican who ran mostly without party support-and created the modern mayoralty while crusading against Tammany Hall and conservative Republicans. Brodsky shuns psychobabble but still shows that LaGuardia was caught between the Old World of his parents and the New World where he was reared. Identifying himself with his birth city, he became its "modern father." Brodsky outlines LaGuardia's career and is not shy about pointing out his shortfalls, especially the third term extremism that led to blunders after his national ambitions were thwarted. Political buffs will find this a captivating biography. Recommended for academic and all public libraries.-William D. Pederson, Louisiana State Univ., Shreveport (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews,
Publishers Weekly, March 2003
Booklist, April 2003
Library Journal, May 2003
New York Times Book Review, June 2003
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