Fiorello Henry LaGuardia: 99th Mayor, 1934-1945 [1882-1947]An anecdote from early in actor Burt Lancaster's career as an entertainer, describing how New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was from Lancaster's childhood neighborhood, and how the mayor exhibited politics similar to Lancaster's own politics later in life. From: Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, Alfred A. Knopf: New York (2000), pages 37-38:
The son of immigrants of Italian and Jewish ancestry, Fiorello LaGuardia, or "Little Flower," is widely regarded as one of the best mayors in New York City history, whose tenure redefined the office. LaGuardia had a long distinguished career in public service, beginning when he was 17 in the U.S. Consulate Service in Europe, where he became fluent in Yiddish, German, French and Italian. Upon graduating New York University Law School in 1910, LaGuardia practiced law and was appointed Deputy Attorney General. LaGuardia was elected to Congress in 1916 on a Republican ticket, interrupting his term to serve as a decorated pilot on the Italian front in World War I (his plane was named the Congressional Limited). He was elected President of the Board of Alderman in 1919 and returned to Congress in 1923, winning reelection repeatedly. After losing the mayoral election to Jimmy Walker in 1929, he successfully ran for mayor again in 1933 on a fusion ticket against Tammany Hall...
For the next twelve years, the 5 foot 2, sometimes belligerent chief executive dominated life in New York City. He fulfilled many of his pledges, ferreting out corruption in city government and bringing in talented professionals. LaGuardia earned a reputation for placing the city's interests ahead of political considerations. Although technically a Republican, he worked closely with the New Deal administration of President Franklin Roosevelt to secure funding for large public works projects. The federal subsidies enabled New York City to create a transportation network the envy of the world, and to build parks, low-income housing, bridges, schools, and hospitals. He achieved the unification of the city's rapid transit system, a goal that had long eluded his predecessors, and reformed the structure of city government by pushing for a new City Charter. He presided over construction of New York City's first municipal airport on Flushing Bay, later appropriately named LaGuardia Airport...
LaGuardia's psychological effect on New York City was equally profound, restoring faith in city government by demanding excellence from civil servants. He was perceived as ubiquitous, always first to appear at a fire or natural disaster; he sometimes dropped in at city agencies unannounced, periodically conducted the municipal orchestra, spoke weekly over the radio, and once used that medium to read the comics to New Yorkers during a citywide newspaper strike.
Heading north in November to "winter" at home like an old circus hand, Burt returned to a jubilant East Harlem. La Guardia [Fiorello Henry LaGuardia], "America's most liberal congressman," the half-Italian, half-Jewish gadfly who had argued against nativist hysteria for a larger, braoder vision of immigrant America, had just been elected mayor of New York City. He stubbornly continued to live in a tenement apartment on 109th Street and Fifth Avenue, three blocks north of the Lancasters. When he championed Roosevelt's New Deal, East Harlem residents gained in "solidarity and empathy," recalled neighbor Jim Giorgi. What would later seem in Hollywood like extreme behavior from [Burt] Lancaster was very like La Guardia's. "The Little Flower," about five feet, four inches tall, freely admitted he was "inconsiderate, arbitrary, authoritarian, difficult, complicated, intolerant--a somewhat theatrical person." He also liked humiliating people and would routinely test a new victim to see if he would fight back. "Arguments based on precedent," according to biographer Thomas Kessner, "made him seethe," and Helen Harris described his "elecrifying" speeches at the tenement house, where he denounced "tin-horn gamblers and sin generally." The only thing that could stop and quiet him was music.
As Burt refined his routines at the settlement house and plotted his next circus season, La Guardia took office on January 1, 1934, in one of the worst winters in New York history... More than eighty percent of East Harlem housing, including the Lancaster building, lacked central heating and fuel chits were distributed, redeemable at an East River pier for hundred-pound bags of coal, which people hauled home through the snow-blocked streets in baby carriages, wagons, or on their backs. Eighteen million Americans were out of work and East Harlem claimed the largest number of unemployed of any neighborhood in a city that itself had the greatest number of people on some form of relief (one estimate was 23 percent). La Guardia insisted that it was the duty not of charitable "hell-fearing millionaires" [i.e., wealthy Christians, who had been doing most of the giving] but of government--of society--to give direct relief. Lancaster would vividly remember the soul-destroying side of chits and queues: "The Depression brought change," he said later. "Despair. Hating the dole."