Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 136
This is the grave of Fiorello LaGuardia.
Born in 1882 in Greenwich Village to a half-Italian, half-Jewish family, LaGuardia was raised Episcopalian because America. His father was in the military and he spent his several years in Arizona and then in Trieste when his father left the military. Quite the experiences for a late-19th century kid. Being quite cosmopolitan, LaGuardia had a lot of value for the nation even as a young man. In 1901, he joined the State Department, working at consulates in Budapest, Trieste, and what is today Rijeka, Croatia. He returned to the U.S. to get a college education and put himself through school while working as an interpreter at Ellis Island, an experience that I can barely imagine. This spawned him in him a passion for justice for America’s immigrant populations, centered of course in his city of New York. He acquired a law degree from NYU in 1910.
Now basing himself in New York, LaGuardia rose quickly in New York politics, particularly as an Italian Republican, giving that party somewhat from the ethnic populations who could challenge Tammany. He became New York’s Deputy Attorney General in 1915 and was elected to Congress in 1916. He really never served, as he became a major in the Army Air Service during World War I while still a member of Congress. He resigned in 1919. But he returned soon after, winning a seat in East Harlem in 1922 that he held until 1933. Republicans didn’t really have anything to offer his constituency, but LaGuardia did very well in an era where partisan considerations were at something of a low point. Most famously, he worked with Nebraska senator George Norris on the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which forbade injunctions to enforce yellow dog contracts that made refusing to join a union a condition of employment. God bless him for this. He personally favored Al Smith in 1928, but as a Republican, couldn’t say that out loud. In 1932, he lost his seat, being a Republican, he was swept away in the FDR election, as he should have been, for there was no good reason to be a Republican at that time if you supported justice for the American people.
Of course, this hardly stalled LaGuardia’s career. He immediately pivoted to take on Tammany Hall to be mayor of New York. And LaGuardia did support justice for the American people. He won the mayoral election in 1933 through a coalition of Republicans plus leftists plus Democrats disaffected with Tammany plus some Jews and Italians who usually voted for Democrats. And when he won, despite his party affiliation, he became a big supporter of Franklin Roosevelt. I have no good reason to explore LaGuardia’s politics more deeply so I remain curious why he remained a Republican through these years. Maybe commenters know. But he did, yet also rejected their presidential tickets. There’s a good reason for his support of FDR, as the president gave him 20% of the Civil Works Administration money in 1934. He used this money to work with Robert Moses and New York’s governor, Herbert Lehman, to remake the city. He also went very hard after New York’s gangs, believing they were a negative stereotype on the city’s Italians. LaGuardia worked with Thomas Dewey, named a special prosecutor, to throw Lucky Luciano in prison, which happened in 1936. Between 1934 and 1939, $1.1. billion of New Deal relief money came to New York and LaGuardia fostered his success with it. Roosevelt really liked LaGuardia and named him the head of the Office of Civilian Defense in 1941, which was designed to prepare America for the Germans engaging in a Blitz-like campaign on our shores. Somehow LaGuardia remained mayor and headed the OCD, working himself to the bone.
After Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt named a full-time director to head the OCD and LaGuardia returned to being mayor full-time. But the era was changing and he had been in the office a very long time. Sensing the winds of change leading him to an inevitable defeat, he decided not to run for a fourth term in 1945. Unfortunately, he also got pancreatic cancer, a horrible illness, and died in 1947, at the age of 64.
Fiorello LaGuardia is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.