Fiorello La Guardia

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Fiorello La Guardia (1882-1947) (also spelled as Laguardia and LaGuardia, and pronounced la gward-ee-ah) was a liberal Republican statesman who served as Mayor of New York City for three terms from 1934 to 1945. Previously he was elected to Congress in 1916 and 1918, and again from 1922 through 1930. Irascible, energetic and charismatic, he craved publicity and is acclaimed as one of the three or four greatest mayors in American history. Only five feet tall, he was called "the Little Flower" (Fiorello is Italian for flower).

La Guardia, a nominal Republican who appealed across party lines, was very popular in New York during the 1930s. As a New Dealer, he supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt. and in turn Roosevelt heavily funded the city and cut off patronage from La Guardia's foes. In 1941, while remaining mayor, he became the national Director of Civilian Defense, but did a mediocre job. Unable to move into national circles, he left office at the start of 1946 and became briefly the director-general of United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.

La Guardia revitalized New York City and restored public faith in City Hall. He unified the transit system; directed the building of low-cost public housing, public playgrounds, and parks; constructed airports; reorganized the police force; defeated the powerful Tammany political machine; and reestablished merit employment in place of patronage jobs. He brought in vast sums of federal money.

La Guardia was a domineering leader who verged on authoritarianism but whose reform politics were carefully tailored to reflect and exploit the sensibilities of his kaleidoscopic constituency. He defeated a corrupt Democratic machine, presided during a depression and a world war, made the city the model for New Deal welfare and public works programs, and championed immigrants and ethnics. He succeeded with the support of a sympathetic president. He secured his place in history as a tough minded reform mayor who helped clean out corruption, bring in gifted experts, and fix upon the city a broad sense of responsibility for its own citizens. His administration engaged new groups that had been kept out of the political system, gave New York its modern infrastructure and raised expectations of new levels of urban possibility. He synthesized the human sympathy of Tammany ward-healers with the honesty and efficiency of the good government reformers.

The intemperate mayor was rough on his staffers and left no doubt who was in charge. He lost his intuitive touch during the wars years, when the federal money stopped flowing in, and never realized that he had created far more infrastructure than the city could afford. "La Guardia represented a dangerous style of personal rule hitched to a transcendent purpose," according to Thomas Kessner, La Guardia's biographer. "People would be afraid of allowing anybody to take that kind of power today."[1]

Early life and career

La Guardia was born in New York City to poor immigrants who came to America in 1880: Achille Luigi La Guardia, an Italian father who no longer practiced Catholicism, and Irene Cohen Luzzato, an Italian mother of Jewish origin. He was raised an Episcopalian and spent most of his childhood in Prescott, Arizona. The family moved to his mother's hometown after his father was discharged from his bandmaster position in the U.S. Army in 1898. Joining the US Consular Service in 1901, the young man served in American consulates in Budapest, Trieste, and Fiume (1901–1906). He returned to the U.S. as a translator for the U.S. Immigration Service at Ellis Island (1907–1910), while taking a law degree in night school.

Political career

La Guardia was appointed as the Deputy Attorney General of New York in 1914. He lost his first race for Congress in 1914, but was elected in 1916 from Greenwich Village. In the U.S. House of Representatives he developed a reputation as a fierce and devoted reformer. he was the first Italian-American in Congress; he was reelected in 1918 but did not seek reelection in 1920.

Military service

La Guardia served in the armed forces from 1917 to 1919, commanding a unit of the Army Air Service on the Italian front in World War I, rising to the rank of major. He was deputy commander of American aviation training in Italy, represented the Aircraft Board, and commanded the American pilots who flew with the Italians. In November 1919 the war hero was elected President of the New York City Board of Aldermen

In 1921 his new baby and then his wife died of tuberculosis. La Guardia, still in Congress, became depressed, and turned to a long alcoholic binge. He recovered and became a teetotaler. In 1929 he married Marie Fisher; they adopted two children, Jean Marie and Eric.

Congressman again

La Guardia ran for the House of Representative again in 1922, from the Italian stronghold of East Harlem. He won the election and served as a congressman until early 1933. He insisted that government must not lock out immigrants and that it must accord them equal opportunities to a decent life, and advocate for many reform measures, especially on behalf of labor unions. His major legislation was the Norris-La Guardia Act, cosponsored with Nebraska senator George Norris in 1932. It circumvented Supreme Court limitations on the activities of labor unions, especially as those limitations were imposed between the enactment of the Clayton Antitrust Act in 1914 and the end of the 1920s. Based on the theory that the lower courts are creations not of the Constitution but of Congress, and that Congress therefore has wide power in defining and restricting their jurisdiction, the act forbids issuance of injunctions to sustain anti-union contracts of employment, to prevent ceasing or refusing to perform any work or remain in any relation of employment, or to restrain acts generally constituting component parts of strikes, boycotts, and picketing. It also said courts could no longer enforce yellow-dog contracts, which are labor contracts prohibiting a worker from joining a union.

Never an isolationist, he supported using American influence abroad on behalf of democracy or for national independence or against autocracy. Thus he supported the Irish independence movement and the anti-czarist Russian Revolution of 1917, but did not approve of Lenin. Unlike most progressive colleagues, such as George Norris, La Guardia consistently backed internationalism, speaking in favor of the League of Nations and the Inter-Parliamentary Union as well as peace and disarmament conferences. In domestic policies he tended toward socialism and wanted to nationalize and regulate; he was never close to the Socialist party and never read Karl Marx.[2]

As a Republican La Guardia had to support Harding in 1920; he had to be silent in the 1928 campaign although he favored Al Smith. In 1929, he lost the election for mayor to incumbent Democrat Jimmy Walker by a landslide.[3] In 1932, he lost his House seat to James J. Lanzetta, a Democrat, but Walker and his Irish-run Tammany Hall were forced out of office by scandal and La Guardia became the reformers' candidate in 1933.

La Guardia won election as mayor on an anti-corruption "Fusion" ticket, which gave a winning coalition comprised of regular Republicans (mostly middle class Germans in the outer boroughs), a minority of reform-minded Democrats, some Socialists, a large proportion of middle class Jews, and the great majority of Italians.[4] The Italians had been loyal to Tammany; their switch proved decisive.

Mayor of New York: 1934-45


La Guardia came to office in January 1934 with five main goals:

  • Restore the financial health and break free from the bankers' control.
  • Expand the federally-funded work relief program for the unemployed.
  • Ending corruption in government and racketeering in key sectors of the economy
  • Replace patronage with a merit-based civil service, with high prestige
  • Modernize the infrastructure, especially transportation and parks

He achieved most of the first four goals in his first hundred days, as FDR gave him 20% of the entire national CWA budget for work relief. La Guardia then collaborated closely with Robert Moses, with support from the governor Democrat Herbert Lehman, to upgrade the decaying infrastructure.

To obtain the money he became a close partner of Roosevelt and New Deal agencies such as CWA, PWA and WPA, which poured $1.1 billion into the city 1934-39. In turn he gave FDR a showcase for New Deal achievement, helped defeat FDR's political enemies in Tammany Hall (the Democratic party machine in Manhattan). He and Moses built highways bridges, and tunnels, transforming the physical landscape of New York City. The West Side Highway, East River Drive, Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, Triborough Bridge, and an airport now bearing his name were all built during his mayoralty.

Fighting crime

The new mayor ran an honest administration and took a strong stance against organized crime, especially targeting gang leader Lucky Luciano, saying "Let's drive the bums out of town." In 1934, he conducted a search-and-destroy raid on slot machines operated by gangster Frank Costello, making thousands of arrests, swinging the sledgehammer and dumping the slot machines into water to show the media his toughness. Costello moved his base to New Orleans but continued to buy judges in New York. La Guardia was more successful in shutting down the burlesque theaters, whose naughty shows offended his puritanical sensibilities.[5]

La Guardia rarely followed Republican party lines. In elections he also ran as the nominee of the American Labor Party, a left-wing union-dominated anti-Tammany grouping that also ran FDR for President from 1936 before being taken over by the Communists in the 1940s. La Guardia supported Roosevelt, who was a Democrat, for president. He chaired the Independent Committee for Roosevelt and Wallace with Norris in the 1940 presidential election. He brought in Tom Dewey to run for Manhattan district attorney on the Fusion ticket in 1937. They won a resounding victory, but Dewey now grabbed the headlines away from La Guardia when it came to crime busting, and Dewey went on to become governor of New York state and the GOP nominee for president in 1944 and 1948/

La Guardia's massive public works programs were administered by his friend and ally Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, an important conservative. They employed tens of thousands of men and created highways, bridges, parks, swimming pools, and, indeed, much of the modern infrastructure of the city. The mayor built a major airport in Queens, now called La Guardia Airport. Responding to popular disdain for the sometimes corrupt City Council, La Guardia successfully proposed a reformed 1938 City Charter which created a powerful new New York City Board of Estimate, similar to a corporate board of directors.

He fiercely denounced Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. As early as 1934, La Guardia warned, "Part of Hitler’s program is the complete annihilation of the Jews in Germany." In 1937, speaking before the Women's Division of the American Jewish Congress, La Guardia called for the creation of a special pavilion at the upcoming 1939 New York World's Fair: "a chamber of horrors" for "that brown-shirted fanatic." [6]

1939 was a busy year, as he opened the New York World's Fair at Flushing Meadow, Queens, opened New York Municipal Airport #2 in Queens (later renamed Fiorello H. La Guardia Field), and had the city buy out the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, thus completing the public takeover of the subway system. When the newspapers went on strike he read the funny papers on the radio.

World War II

In 1941, during the run-up to American involvement in World War II, President Roosevelt appointed La Guardia as the first director of the new Office of Civilian Defense (OCD). The OCD was responsible for preparing for blackouts, air raid wardens, sirens, and shelters in case of German air raids. The government knew that such air raids were impossible but the goal was to psychologically mobilize many thousands of middle class volunteers to make them feel part of the war effort. La Guardia remained Mayor of New York, shuttling back and forth with three days in Washington and four in the city in a poor effort to do justice to two herculean jobs. After Pearl Harbor in December 1941 his role was turned over to full-time director of OCD, James M. Landis. La Guardia's popularity slipped away and he ran so poorly in straw polls in 1945 that he did not run for a fourth term.[7]

Unemployment ended and the city was the gateway for military supplies and soldiers sent to Europe, with the Brooklyn Navy Yard providing many of the warships and the garment trade provided uniforms. The city's great financiers, however, were less important in decision making than policy makers in Washington, and very high wartime taxes were not offset by heavy war spending. New York was not a center of heavy industry and did not see a wartime boom as defense plants were built elsewhere.

FDR refused to make him a general and was unable to provide fresh money for the city. By 1944 La Guardia was frantically juggling the books to pay the city's bills. His successors realized that New York City could not support his fabulous infrastructure and high wages and pensions for teachers, police and city workers without borrowing more and more until it faced bankruptcy, which came in 1975.

Recognition and Legacy

Historians have recognized La Guardia as the greatest mayor in American history, and perhaps the greatest in New York City, but some experts match him with Rudy Giuliani.[8]

In addition to La Guardia Community College and La Guardia High School, a number of other institutions in New York and streets around the world are named for him, La Guardia Airport, the smaller and older of New York's two currently operating international airports, honors his name.

He was the subject of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical Fiorello!.

Further reading

  • Bayor, Ronald H. Fiorello La Guardia: Ethnicity and Reform. (1993). 213 pp.
  • Brodsky, Alyn. The Great Mayor: Fiorello La Guardia and the Making of the City of New York. (2003). 530 pp. popular biography; excerpt and text search
  • Capeci, Dominic J. "From Different Liberal Perspectives: Fiorello H. La Guardia, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Civil Rights in New York City, 1941-1943," The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 62, No. 2 (Apr., 1977), pp. 160–173 in JSTOR
  • Caro, Robert. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. (1973) excerpt and text search
  • Garrett, Charles. The La Guardia Years: Machine and Reform Politics in New York City. (1961).
  • Hecksher, August III. When La Guardia Was Mayor: New York's Legendary Years. (1978).
  • Jeffers, H. Paul. The Napoleon of New York: Mayor Fiorello La Guardia 392 pp. popular biography online edition; also excerpt and text search
  • Kaufman, Herbert. "Fiorello H. La Guardia, Political Maverick" Political Science Quarterly 1990 105(1): 113-122. Issn: 0032-3195 in Jstor
  • Kessner, Thomas. "Fiorello H. LaGuardia." History Teacher 1993 26(2): 151-159. Issn: 0018-2745 in Jstor
  • Kessner, Thomas. Fiorello H. LaGuardia and the Making of Modern New York (1989) the most detailed standard scholarly biography
  • La Guardia, Fiorello H. The Making of an Insurgent: An Autobiography. (1948)
  • Mann, Arthur H. La Guardia: A Fighter Against His Times 1882-1933 (1959)
  • Mann, Arthur H. La Guardia Comes to Power 1933 (1969)
  • Zinn, Howard. LaGuardia in Congress (1959) online edition

External links


  1. Sam Roberts, "The Giuliani Years: History; La Guardia's Legacy Is Formidable, but it May Be Surpassed," New York Times New York Times April 18, 2008
  2. Howard Zinn, Laguardia in Congress (1959) pp. 267-70
  3. Joseph McGoldrick, "The New York City Election of 1929," The American Political Science Review, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Aug., 1930), pp. 688-690 in JSTOR
  4. Arthur H. Mann, La Guardia Comes to Power 1933 (1969)
  5. Andrea Friedman, "'The Habitats of Sex-Crazed Perverts': Campaigns against Burlesque in Depression-Era New York City," Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 7, No. 2, (Oct., 1996), pp. 203-238 in JSTOR
  6. David M. Esposito, and Jackie R. Esposito, "La Guardia and the Nazis, 1933-1938." American Jewish History 1988 78(1): 38-53. ISSN: 0164-0178; quote from H. Paul Jeffers, The Napoleon of New York (2002) p. 233.
  7. Erwin Hargrove, "The Dramas of Reform," in James D. Barber, ed. Political Leadership in American Government (1964), p. 94.
  8. He was first in Melvin G. Holli, The American Mayor (1993); Sam Roberts, "The Giuliani Years: History; La Guardia's Legacy Is Formidable, but it May Be Surpassed," New York Times New York Times April 18, 2008