Fiorello La Guardia
|2nd Director General of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration|
April 1, 1946 – December 31, 1946
|Preceded by||Herbert H. Lehman|
|Succeeded by||Office abolished|
|99th Mayor of New York City|
January 1, 1934 – December 31, 1945
|Preceded by||John P. O'Brien|
|Succeeded by||William O'Dwyer|
|Member of the|
U.S. House of Representatives
from New York
March 4, 1923 – March 3, 1933
|Preceded by||Isaac Siegel|
|Succeeded by||James J. Lanzetta|
March 4, 1917 – December 31, 1919
|Preceded by||Michael F. Farley|
|Succeeded by||Nathan D. Perlman|
|10th President of the |
New York City Board of Aldermen
January 1, 1920 – December 31, 1921
|Preceded by||Robert L. Moran|
|Succeeded by||Murray Hulbert|
Fiorello Enrico Raeffaelo La Guardia
December 11, 1882
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Died||September 20, 1947 (aged 64)|
New York City, New York, U.S.
|Resting place||Woodlawn Cemetery|
|Roosevelt Progressive (1916)|
LaFollette Progressive (1924)
Socialist Party of America (1924)
Progressive Labor (1926)
City Fusion (1933–41)
American Labor (1937–41)
Ind. Progressive (1937)
United City (1941)
(m. 1919; died 1921)
|Education||Timothy Dwight School|
|Branch/service||United States Army Air Service|
|Years of service||1917–1919|
|Battles/wars||World War I|
Fiorello Henry La Guardia (/ /; born Fiorello Enrico La Guardia,[a] Italian pronunciation: [fjoˈrɛllo enˈriːko la ˈɡwardja]; December 11, 1882 – September 20, 1947) was an American attorney and politician who represented New York in the House of Representatives and served as the 99th Mayor of New York City from 1934 to 1945. Known for his irascible, energetic, and charismatic personality and diminutive, rotund stature,[b] La Guardia is acclaimed as one of the greatest mayors in American history. La Guardia was frequently cross-endorsed by parties other than his own, including the Democratic Party, under New York's electoral fusion laws.
Before serving as mayor, La Guardia represented Manhattan in Congress and on the New York City Board of Aldermen. As mayor, during the Great Depression and World War II, La Guardia unified the city's transit system; expanded construction of public housing, playgrounds, parks, and airports; reorganized the New York Police Department; and implemented federal New Deal programs within the city. He pursued a long series of political reforms, curbing the power of the powerful Tammany Hall political machine and re-establishing merit-based employment and promotion within city administration.
La Guardia was also a major national political figure. His support for the New Deal and relationship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt crossed party lines, brought federal funds to New York City, and cut off patronage to La Guardia's enemies. La Guardia's WNYC radio program "Talk to the People", which aired from December 1941 until December 1945, expanded his public influence beyond the borders of the city.
La Guardia was born in Greenwich Village, New York City, on December 12, 1882. His father, Achille La Guardia, was a Catholic native of Cerignola, Italy. His father was an Italian immigrant to the United States and a non-practicing Catholic. His mother, Irene Luzzatto Coen, was a Jewish native of Trieste, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His maternal grandmother Fiorina (Luzzatto) Coen was a Luzzatto, a member of the prestigious Italian Jewish family of scholars, kabbalists, and poets. La Guardia's parents met and married in Trieste. Fiorello was raised an Episcopalian and practiced that religion all his life. His middle name "Enrico" was eventually anglicized to "Henry".
He moved to Arizona in 1890 with his family, where his father had a bandmaster position at Fort Whipple in the U.S. Army. La Guardia attended public schools and high school in Prescott, Arizona. After his father was discharged from his bandmaster position in 1898, Fiorello lived in Trieste. He graduated from the Dwight School, a private school on the Upper West Side of New York City.
La Guardia joined the State Department in 1901 and served in U.S. consulates in Budapest, Trieste, and Fiume. In 1906, he returned to the United States to continue his education at New York University. While studying at NYU from 1907 to 1910, he worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Bureau of Immigration at the Ellis Island immigration station. La Guardia was fluent in Italian, Yiddish, and Croatian.
He graduated from New York University School of Law in 1910, was admitted to the bar the same year, and began a law practice in New York City.
In 1914, La Guardia ran for U.S. Representative for New York's 14th district, which stretched across the island of Manhattan between 3rd and 14th Streets, encompassing Greenwich Village. La Guardia was defeated by Michael F. Farley.
La Guardia became Deputy Attorney General of New York in January 1915.
In 1916, he challenged Farley again, this time successfully. La Guardia took office on March 4, 1917, but was soon commissioned into the United States Army Air Service amid the American entry into World War I. He rose to the rank of major in command of a unit of Caproni Ca.44 bombers on the Italian-Austrian front.
He was re-elected to Congress in 1918.
In 1919, New York City Board of Aldermen President Al Smith resigned to become Governor of New York, triggering a special election scheduled for the fall. La Guardia narrowly won the Republican nomination over William M. Bennett, who had been the party nominee for Mayor in 1917. La Guardia's opponent in the November special election was Robert L. Moran, a Tammany Hall-aligned Democratic alderman from the Bronx, who had filled the seat since Smith's resignation.
La Guardia benefited from the presence of Michael "Dynamite Mike" Kelly, commander in the Irish heritage 69th New York Infantry Regiment, in the race. Tammany Hall tried to persuade Kelly to withdraw his candidacy and support Moran. When he refused, Tammany went to the New York Supreme Court and successfully sued to keep Kelly's name off the ballot.
When Election Day arrived, over 3,500 of Kelly's supporters wrote Kelly's name on the ballot. Another 129,000 votes were cast for Socialist James O'Neal. La Guardia won narrowly by 1,363 votes.
He resigned from Congress on December 31, 1919, to take office as president the next day.
In 1921, La Guardia made his first bid for Mayor of New York City, but was defeated in the Republican primary by Manhattan Borough President Henry H. Curran. Curran lost the general election to Mayor John Hylan in a landslide.
Running as a Republican, La Guardia won a seat in Congress from the Italian stronghold of East Harlem in 1922 and served in the House until March 3, 1933.
He gained a reputation as a fiery and devoted reformer. La Guardia sponsored labor legislation and railed against immigration quotas. 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.
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, a Democrat.
Main article: 1929 New York City mayoral election
In 1929, La Guardia ran for Mayor once again. This time, he received the Republican nomination, once again defeating William Bennett. However, he lost the general election to incumbent Jimmy Walker in a landslide.
Main article: Mayoralty of Fiorello La Guardia
Mayor Jimmy Walker and his Irish-run Tammany Hall were forced out of office by scandal and La Guardia was determined to replace him. La Guardia ran on the Fusion Party platform, which was supported by Republicans, reform-minded Democrats, and independents. La Guardia had enormous determination, high visibility, the support of reformer Samuel Seabury and a divisive primary contest. He also represented previously underrepresented communities, appealed to a wide range of cultural backgrounds with his lineage. He secured the nominations and expected an easy win against incumbent Mayor John P. O'Brien. However, Joseph V. McKee entered the race as the nominee of the new "Recovery Party" at the last minute. McKee was a formidable opponent, sponsored by Bronx Democratic boss Edward J. Flynn. La Guardia promised a more honest government, championing for greater efficiency and inclusiveness. La Guardia's win was based on a complex coalition of Republicans (mostly middle class German Americans in the boroughs outside Manhattan), a minority of reform-minded Democrats, Socialists, a large proportion of middle-class Jews, and the great majority of Italians, whose votes had previously been overwhelmingly loyal Tammany.
La Guardia came to office in January 1934 with five main goals:
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. The city was favored by the New Deal in terms of funding for public works projects. La Guardia's modernization efforts were publicized in the 1936 book New York Advancing: A Scientific Approach to Municipal Government, edited by Rebecca B. Rankin.
In 1935 a riot took place in Harlem. Termed the Harlem riot of 1935, it has been described as the first "modern" race riot, because it was committed primarily against property rather than persons. During the riots, La Guardia and Hubert Delany walked through the streets in an effort to calm the situation. After the riots, La Guardia convened the Mayor's Commission on Conditions of Harlem to determine the causes of the riot and a detailed report was prepared. The report identified "injustices of discrimination in employment, the aggressions of the police, and the racial segregation" as conditions which led to the outbreak of rioting. However, the Mayor shelved the committee's report, and did not make it public. The report would be unknown, except that a black New York newspaper, the Amsterdam News, subsequently published it in serial form.
La Guardia governed in an uneasy alliance with New York's Jews and liberal WASPs, together with ethnic Italians and Germans.
Not an orthodox Republican, he also ran as the nominee of the American Labor Party, a union-dominated anti-Tammany left wing group that supported Franklin D. Roosevelt for president beginning in 1936. La Guardia supported Roosevelt, chairing the Committee of Independent Voters for Roosevelt and his running mate, Henry A. Wallace, with Senator George Norris during the 1940 presidential election.
La Guardia was the city's first Italian-American mayor, but was not a typical Italian New Yorker. He was a Republican Episcopalian who had grown up in Arizona and had a Triestine Jewish mother and a lapsed Catholic father. He spoke several languages; when working at Ellis Island, he was certified as an interpreter for Italian, German, Yiddish, and Croatian. It served him well during a contentious congressional campaign in 1922. When Henry Frank, a Jewish opponent, accused him of anti-Semitism, La Guardia rejected the suggestion that he publicly disclose that his mother was Jewish as "self-serving". Instead, La Guardia dictated an open letter in Yiddish that was also printed in Yiddish. In it, he challenged Frank to publicly and openly debate the issues of the campaign entirely in the Yiddish language. Frank, although he was Jewish, could not speak the language and was forced to decline—and lost the election.
La Guardia's 1933 campaign coincided with the rise of racial and religious hostilities in Germany, and he supported a more anti-Nazi response while in office. He publicly supported groups that engaged in boycotts of German goods and spoke alongside Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, leader of the American Jewish Congress. In 1935, La Guardia caused an international stir when he denied a masseur license to a German immigrant, stating that Germany had violated a treaty guaranteeing equal treatment of American professionals by discriminating against American Jews. Despite threats from Germany (including a bomb threat against New York City's German Consulate), La Guardia continued to use his position as mayor to denounce Nazism. During his reelection campaign in 1937, speaking before the Women's Division of the American Jewish Congress, he called for the creation of a special pavilion at the upcoming New York World's Fair, "a chamber of horrors" for "that brown-shirted fanatic," referring to Hitler. He also led anti-Nazi rallies and promoted legislation to facilitate the U.S. rescue of the Jewish refugees. He also appointed more racially and religiously diverse judges to various New York courts, which was one of his most powerful weapons against Nazi prejudice. These appointments included Rosalie Loew Whitney, Herbert O'Brien, Jane Bolin, and Hubert Thomas Delany. LaGuardia would soon regret appointing the Catholic O'Brien, who engaged in reactionary politics on the bench including decrying support for the Allied forces against the Axis in 1941, leading to LaGuardia's condemnation of him with the famous line, “Senator, I have made a lot of good appointments and I think I am good ... but when I make a mistake, it’s a beaut.”
La Guardia criticized the gangsters who brought a negative stereotype and shame to the Italian community. His first action as mayor was to order the chief of police to arrest mob boss Lucky Luciano on whatever charges could be found. La Guardia then went after the gangsters with a vengeance, stating in a radio address to the people of New York in his distinct voice, "Let's drive the bums out of town." In 1934 he went on a search-and-destroy mission looking for mob boss Frank Costello's slot machines, rounding up thousands of the "one armed bandits," swinging a sledgehammer and dumping them off a barge into the water for the newspapers and media. In 1935 La Guardia appeared at the Bronx Terminal Market to institute a citywide ban on the sale, display, and possession of artichokes, whose prices were inflated by mobsters. When prices went down, the ban was lifted. In 1936, La Guardia had special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey, a future Republican presidential candidate, single out Lucky Luciano for prosecution. Dewey led a successful investigation into Luciano's lucrative prostitution operation, eventually sending Luciano to jail with a 30–50 year sentence. The case was made into the 1937 movie Marked Woman, starring Bette Davis.
La Guardia proved successful in shutting down the burlesque theaters, whose shows offended his sensibilities.
La Guardia's admirers credit him, among other things, with restoring the economy of New York City during and after the Great Depression. He is given credit for many massive public works programs administered by his powerful Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, which employed thousands of voters. The mayor's relentless lobbying for federal funds allowed New York to develop its economic infrastructure.
To obtain large-scale federal money the mayor became a close ally of Roosevelt and New Deal agencies such as the CWA, PWA, and WPA, which poured $1.1 billion into the city from 1934 to 1939. 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 two airports (LaGuardia Airport, and, later, Idlewild, now JFK Airport) were built during his mayoralty.
In 1943, La Guardia saved the Mecca Temple on 55th Street from demolition. Together with New York City Council President Newbold Morris, La Guardia converted the building to the New York City Center of Music and Dance. On December 11, 1943, City Center opened its doors with a concert from the New York Philharmonic—La Guardia even conducted a rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner."
1939 was a busy year, as he opened the 1939 New York World's Fair at Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, Queens, opened New York Municipal Airport No. 2 in Queens (later renamed Fiorello H. La Guardia Field), and had the city buy out the Interborough Rapid Transit Company and the Brooklyn–Manhattan Transit Corporation, thus completing the public takeover of the New York City Subway system. The U.S. arrival of Georg and Maria Von Trapp and their children from Austria that fall at Ellis Island who would eventually become the Trapp Family Singers was another significant decade-ending event that year in La Guardia's mayoralty.
Responding to popular disdain for the sometimes corrupt City Council, La Guardia successfully proposed a reformed 1938 City Charter that created a powerful new New York City Board of Estimate, similar to a corporate board of directors.
La Guardia was also a supporter of the Ives-Quinn Law "a law that would ban discrimination in employment on the bases of 'race, creed, color or national origin' and task a new agency, the New York State Commission Against Discrimination (SCAD), with education and enforcement." The bill passed in 1945, making New York the first state in the country to create an agency tasked with handling employment discrimination complaints.
In 1941 during the run-up to American involvement in World War II, President Roosevelt appointed La Guardia first director of the new Office of Civilian Defense (OCD). Roosevelt was an admirer of La Guardia; after meeting Winston Churchill for the first time he described him as "an English Mayor La Guardia". The OCD was the national agency responsible for preparing for blackouts, air raid wardens, sirens, and shelters in case of German air raids. The goal was to psychologically mobilize many thousands of middle class volunteers to make them feel part of the war effort. At the urging of aviation advocate Gill Robb Wilson, La Guardia, in his capacity as Director of the OCD, created the Civil Air Patrol with Administrative Order 9, signed by him on December 1, 1941, and published December 8, 1941. La Guardia remained Mayor of New York, shuttling back and forth with three days in Washington and four in the city in an effort to do justice to two herculean jobs. La Guardia focused on setting up air raid systems and training volunteer wardens. However Roosevelt appointed his wife Eleanor Roosevelt as his assistant. She issued calls for actors to lead a volunteer talent program, and dancers to start a physical fitness program. That led to widespread ridicule and the president replaced both of them in December 1941 with a full-time director James M. Landis.
The war ended the Great Depression in the city. Unemployment ended, and the city was a gateway for military supplies and soldiers sent to Europe, with the Brooklyn Navy Yard providing many of the warships and the garment trade providing uniforms. The city's great financiers, however, were less important in decision making than the 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 La Guardia a general and was unable to provide fresh money for the city. By 1944 the city was short of funds to pay for La Guardia's new programs. La Guardia was frustrated and his popularity slipped away and he ran so poorly in straw polls in 1945 that he did not run for a fourth term. 
In July 1945, when the city's newspapers were closed by a strike, La Guardia famously read the comics on the radio.
As a Congressman, La Guardia was a tireless and vocal champion of progressive causes, including relaxed restriction on immigration, removal of U.S. troops from Nicaragua to speaking up for the rights and livelihoods of striking miners, impoverished farmers, oppressed minorities, and struggling families. He supported progressive income taxes, greater government oversight of Wall Street, and national employment insurance for workers idled by the Great Depression.
In domestic policies he tended toward socialism and wanted to nationalize and regulate; however he was never close to the Socialist Party and never bothered to read Karl Marx.
When Mussolini's Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia on October 3, 1935, a Black protest of Italian vendors at the King Julius General Market on Lenox and 118th Street turned into a riot and 1,200 extra NYC policemen were deployed on "war duty" to quell the riot. In December 1935, at an Italian-American rally, attended by 20,000, in Madison Square Garden, La Guardia presented a $100,000 check to the Italian Consul General, part of a total $700,000 raised from Italian-Americans to help fund the invasion.
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 Vladimir Lenin. By 1946 he was praising Moscow. Unlike most progressive colleagues who were isolationist, 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 1946 President Harry Truman sent the ex-mayor as an envoy to Brazil, but diplomacy was not his forte. Truman then gave him as major job as head of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), with responsibility for helping millions of desperate refugees in Europe. La Guardia was exhausted and after seeing the horrors of war in Europe called for a massive aid program. Critics ridiculed that as worldwide WPA and the biggest boondoggle ever. He sided with Henry A. Wallace in calling for friendship with the Soviet Union, and attacked the new breed of Cold Warriors. He provided UNRRA funds to the Soviets despite warnings that the Kremlin used the money to rebuild its army. UNRRA shut down at the end of 1946. Despite his declining health La Guardia attacked the emerging "Truman Doctrine" that promised American financial help to stop the spread of Communism.
As Congressman, La Guardia was one of the first Republicans to voice his opinion against prohibition, urging that the Dry cause "would prove disastrous in the long run". This was breaking a taboo, given the fact that both parties "avoided taking a stand on prohibition issues" at the time.
La Guardia was a Scottish Rite Freemason and was a member of Garibaldi Lodge #542 in New York City.
La Guardia married twice. His first wife was Thea Almerigotti, an Istrian immigrant, whom he married on March 8, 1919. In June 1920, they had a daughter, Fioretta Thea La Guardia, who died May 9, 1921, of spinal meningitis. Thea died of tuberculosis on November 29, 1921, at the age of 26.
In 1929, La Guardia remarried to Marie Fisher (1895–1984) who had been his secretary while in Congress. They adopted two children:
La Guardia's sister, the writer Gemma La Guardia Gluck and brother-in-law, Herman Gluck were living in Hungary and were arrested by the Gestapo on June 7, 1944, when the Nazis took control of Budapest. Adolf Eichmann and Heinrich Himmler knew that Gemma was La Guardia's sister and ordered her to be held as a political prisoner. She and Herman were deported to Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. Gemma did not learn until her release that Herman had died at Mauthausen. Gemma was transferred from Mauthausen to the notorious women's concentration camp at Ravensbrück, fifty miles from Berlin, where—unbeknownst to Gemma at the time—her daughter Yolanda (whose husband also died in the camps) and baby grandson were also held for a year in a separate barracks. Gemma Gluck, who was held in Block II of the camp and assigned prisoner #44139, was one of the few survivors of Ravensbrück and wrote about her time there.
The Germans abandoned Gluck, her daughter, and her grandson for a possible hostage exchange in April 1945 as the Russians advanced on Berlin. After the liberation of the camps, Gemma later wrote, the Soviets were "violating girls and women of all ages," and the three struggled as displaced persons in postwar Berlin, because they did not speak German and had no identity papers, money, or means of documenting where they had been.
Gemma finally managed to get word to the Americans, who contacted Fiorello, who was then director of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and had been unable to locate his sister and brother-in-law since their disappearance. He worked to get them on the immigration lists, but asserted in a letter, included in the appendix of Gemma's memoir, that her "case was the same as that of hundreds of thousands of displaced people" and "no exceptions can be made." It took two years for her to be cleared and sent to the United States. She returned to New York in May 1947, where she was reunited with her brother only four months before his death. As he had made no provision for her, she lived the remainder of her life in very reduced circumstances in a public housing project in Queens until her death in 1962.
Gluck is one of the few American-born women interned by the Nazis, along with Virginia d'Albert-Lake.
A man of short stature, La Guardia's height is sometimes given as 5 feet 0 inches (1.52 m). According to an article in The New York Times; however, his actual height was 5 feet 2 inches (1.57 m).
He died of pancreatic cancer in his home at 5020 Goodridge Avenue, in the Fieldston neighbourhood of Riverdale, Bronx, on September 20, 1947, aged 64. La Guardia is interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
La Guardia was ranked first among the nation's mayors in a 1993 poll of historians and social scientists.
According to biographer Mason B. Williams, his close collaboration with Roosevelt's New Deal proved a striking success in linking national money and local needs. La Guardia enabled the political recognition of new groups that had been largely excluded from the political system, such as Jews and Italians. His administration (in cooperation with Robert Moses) gave New York its modern infrastructure. His far-sighted goals raised ambitions for new levels of urban possibility. According to Thomas Kessner, trends since his tenure mean that "people would be afraid of allowing anybody to take that kind of power".
In 1972, the United States Postal Service honored La Guardia with a 14-cent postage stamp.
New York's LaGuardia Airport, LaGuardia Community College, and other parks and buildings around New York City are named for him.
A strong supporter of Zionism, LaGuardia Street and LaGuardia interchange, both in Tel Aviv, Israel, were named in his honor.
A street in Rijeka, Croatia, is named after Fiorello La Guardia. La Guardia worked in Rijeka as a U.S. Consular Agent from 1903 to 1906, when the city was known as Fiume and was under Hungarian administration. It was during this time that Rijeka's port played a vital role in connecting the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the United States, featuring direct passenger service between Rijeka and New York.
Known for his love of music, La Guardia was noted for spontaneously conducting professional and student orchestras and was instrumental in the creation of the High School of Music & Art in 1936, now renamed the Fiorello H. La Guardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.
The “Tammany Hall” off-Broadway show in NYC depicts La Guardia’s 1929 mayoral run against Jimmy Walker.