Mayor of New York City
|In office |
1934 – 1945
|Preceded by||John P. O'Brien|
|Succeeded by||William O'Dwyer|
|Born||11 December 1882 |
|Died||September 20, 1947 |
New York City
Fiorello Henry LaGuardia (born Fiorello Enrico LaGuardia; December 11, 1882 – September 20, 1947) was the Republican Mayor of New York for three terms from 1934 to 1945. He was popularly known as "the Little Flower," the translation of his Italian first name, also perhaps a reference to his short stature of just 5 feet. A popular mayor and a strong supporter of the New Deal, LaGuardia led New York's recovery during the Great Depression and became a national figure, serving as President Roosevelt's Director of Civilian Defense during the run-up to the United States joining the Second World War.
LaGuardia was born in The Bronx to an Italian lapsed-Catholic father (Achille La Guardia), from Cerignola, and an Italian mother of Jewish origin from Trieste (Irene Cohen Luzzato), and he was raised an Episcopalian (most Italian Americans that are not Roman Catholic tend to be Episcopalian because of its similarity to the Roman Catholic Church). His middle name Enrico was changed to Henry (the English form of Enrico) when he was a child. He 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. LaGuardia served in U.S. consulates in Budapest, Trieste, and Fiume (1901–1906). Fiorello returned to the U.S. to continue his education at New York University, and during this time he worked for New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Children and as a translator for the U.S. Immigration Service at Ellis Island (1907–1910).
He became the Deputy Attorney General of New York in 1914. In 1916 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives where he developed a reputation as a fiery and devoted reformer. In Congress, LaGuardia represented then-Italian East Harlem.
LaGuardia briefly (1917-1919) served in the armed forces, commanding a unit of the United States Army Air Service on the Italian/Austrian front in World War I, rising to the rank of major.
In 1921 his wife died of tuberculosis. LaGuardia, having nursed her through the 17 month ordeal, grew depressed, and turned to alcohol, spending most of the year following her death on an alcoholic binge. He recovered and became a teetotaler.
'Fio' LaGuardia (as his close family and friends called him) ran for, and won, a seat in Congress again in 1922. Extending his record as a reformer, LaGuardia sponsored labor legislation and railed against immigration quotas. He was overwhelmingly defeated by incumbent Jimmy Walker in the 1929 mayoral election. In 1932, along with Sen. George Norris (R-NE), Rep. LaGuardia sponsored the Norris-LaGuardia Act.
LaGuardia was elected mayor of New York City on an anti-corruption "fusion" ticket during the Great Depression, which united him in an uneasy alliance with New York's Jewish population and liberal bluebloods (WASPs). These included the famed architect and New York historian Isaac Newton Phelps-Stokes whose patrician manners LaGuardia detested. Surprisingly, the two men became friends. Phelps-Stokes had personally nursed his wife during the last five years of her life, during which she was paralyzed and speechless due to a series of strokes. On learning of Phelps-Stokes's ordeal, so like his own, LaGuardia ceased all bickering and the two developed genuine affection for each other.
Being of Italian descent and growing up in a time when crime and criminals were prevalent in the Bronx, LaGuardia had a loathing for the gangsters who brought a negative stereotype and shame to the Italian community. The "Little Flower" had an even greater dislike for organized crime members and when LaGuardia was named to his first term in 1933, the first thing he did after being sworn in was to pick up the phone and order the chief of police to arrest mob boss Lucky Luciano on whatever charges could be laid upon him. LaGuardia then went after the gangsters with a vengeance, stating in a radio address to the people of New York in his high-pitched, squeaky voice, "Let's drive the bums out of town." In 1934, Fiorello LaGuardia's next move was a search-and-destroy mission on mob boss Frank Costello's slot machines, which LaGuardia executed with a gusto, 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 1936, LaGuardia had special prosecutor, Thomas E. Dewey, a future Republican presidential candidate, single out Lucky Luciano for prosecution. Dewey managed to lead a successful investigation into Luciano's lucrative prostitution operation and indict him, eventually sending Luciano to jail on a 30-50 year sentence.
LaGuardia was hardly an orthodox Republican. He also ran as the nominee of the American Labor Party, a union-dominated anti-Tammany grouping that also ran FDR for President from 1936 onward. LaGuardia also supported Roosevelt, chairing the Independent Committee for Roosevelt and Wallace with Nebraska Senator George Norris during the 1940 presidential election.
LaGuardia was the city's first Italian-American mayor, but LaGuardia was far from being a typical Italian New Yorker. After all, he was a Republican Episcopalian who had grown up in Arizona, and had an Istrian Jewish mother and a Roman Catholic-turned-atheist Italian father. He reportedly spoke seven languages, including Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, and Yiddish.
LaGuardia is famous for, among other things, restoring the economic lifeblood of New York City during and after the Great Depression. His massive public works programs administered by his friend Parks Commissioner Robert Moses employed thousands of unemployed New Yorkers, and his constant lobbying for federal government funds allowed New York to establish the foundation for its economic infrastructure. He was also well known for reading the newspaper comics on the radio during a newspaper strike, and pushing to have a commercial airport (Floyd Bennett Field, and later LaGuardia Airport) within city limits. Responding to popular disdain for the sometimes corrupt City Council, LaGuardia 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 was also a very outspoken and early critic of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. In a public address as early as 1934, LaGuardia 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, LaGuardia 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."
In 1941, during the run-up to American involvement in the Second World War, President Roosevelt appointed LaGuardia as the first director of the new Office of Civilian Defense (OCD). The OCD was responsible for preparing for the protection of the civilian population in case America was attacked. It was also responsible for programs to maintain public morale, promote volunteer service, and co-ordinate other federal departments to ensure they were serving the needs of a country in war. LaGuardia had remained Mayor of New York during this appointment, but after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942 he was succeeded at the OCD by a full-time director, James M. Landis.
LaGuardia was the director general for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in 1946.
LaGuardia loved music and conducting, and was famous for spontaneously conducting professional and student orchestras that he visited. He once said that the "most hopeful accomplishment" of his long administration as mayor was the creation of the High School of Music & Art in 1936, now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. In addition to LaGuardia High School, a number of other institutions are also named for him, including LaGuardia Community College. He was also the subject of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical Fiorello!. He died in New York City of pancreatic cancer at the age of 64 and is interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
LaGuardia Airport, the smaller and older of New York's two international airports bears his name; the airport was voted the "greatest airport in the world" by the worldwide aviation community in 1960.