Senior Stories

The Compassion of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia

Fiorello LaGuardia Stamp, Mayor LaGuardia

The Little Flower: Fiorello LaGuardia

Here’s a story about Fiorello LaGuardia who was mayor of New York City during the worst days of the Great Depression and all of WWII. He was adored by many New Yorkers.  They took to calling him the “Little Flower”. All because he was so short and always wore a carnation in his lapel. Mayor LaGuardia was a colorful character — he rode the New York City fire trucks, raided city “speakeasies” with the police department, took entire orphanages to baseball games, and when the New York newspapers went on strike, he got on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids.

A Fine Must Be Payed

One bitterly cold night in January of 1935, the mayor turned up at a night court. The court served the poorest ward of the city. Mayor LaGuardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told Mayor LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving.

But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “It’s a really bad neighborhood, your Honor,” the man told the mayor. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson.”

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said, “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions. Ten dollars or ten days in jail.” Even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it into his famous hat. He proclaimed, “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”

Famous Compassion: Mayor LaGuardia

The following day, New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered woman who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren. Fifty cents of that amount was contributed by the grocery store owner himself. While some seventy petty criminals, people with traffic violations, and New York City policemen, each of whom had just paid fifty cents for the privilege of doing so, gave the mayor a standing ovation.

American Dream: Second Generation American Journey

Someone beautifully said, “Sympathy sees and says, ‘I’m sorry.’ Compassion sees and says, ‘I’ll help.’ When we learn the difference, we can make a difference.”

Just like Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia…

A Timeline of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia Before He Became Mayor

  • Fiorello LaGuardia was born in New York City on December 11, 1882, to an Italian Catholic father and an observant Jewish mother.
  • Fiorello’s first job was with the U.S. Embassy in Budapest in 1900.
  • He later worked for the U.S. Immigration Service in New York City while he studied law at New York University.
  • LaGuardia was admitted to the bar in 1910.
  • In 1916, he became the first Italian-American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

A Vocal Opponent Of The Nazis

Fiorello LaGuardia belonged to the progressive wing of the Republican Party, opposing prohibition, supporting women’s suffrage and passionately campaigning against child labor. In 1932, he co-sponsored the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which restricted the power of courts to ban strikes. LaGuardia also became known as an early and vocal opponent of the Nazis.

Also in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s landslide victory swept away many Republican members of Congress, including LaGuardia. LaGuardia felt undeterred by this, and was finally elected mayor of New York City in 1933. He became affectionately known as ‘The Little Flower’ due to his 5 foot 2 stature and his compassionate attitude towards the people of New York.

Over the next twelve years he developed a reputation as an efficient and honest administrator. A supporter of the New Deal, LaGuardia expanded the city’s social welfare services and also initiated a program of low-cost housing. One of his best known remarks was, “There is no Democratic or Republican way to clean the streets.”

The First man Elected Mayor Of New York For Three Consecutive Terms

Fiorello H. LaGuardia was the first man elected Mayor of New York for three consecutive terms. Many people agreed that he was like New York’s most colorful Mayor since Peter Stuyvesant.

Dynamite and aggressive, he was a fighter by nature and constantly flew all over the country by airplane. He would take on anybody, no matter their size, including Hitler – even going as far to make brave public remarks that caused a stir.

Mr. LaGuardia, son of an Italian father, had climbed higher on the political ladder than any other American of Italian descent when he took office as Mayor on Jan. 1, 1934.

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

Fiorello LaGuardia’s Childhood And Start in Politics

Mr. LaGuardia’s parents came to the United States from Foggia, Italy. Although he was born on the East Side of Manhattan Dec. 11, 1882, Mr. LaGuardia was by no means a product of the city streets. The future Mayor of New York spent his childhood days at Fort Whipple, Ariz., and finished his education when he received his diploma from the high school at Prescott, Ariz.

After his father’s death, Fiorello accompanied his relatives to Budapest, where his mother’s body is buried in the Jewish Cemetery. He was just 19 when he obtained employment in the United States Consulate. A few months later he was sent to the consulate at Trieste as interpreter. When he was 20 he became consul at Fiume, then part of Austria-Hungary.

It was in 1929 that Mr. LaGuardia first ran for election as Mayor. He was beaten by Mayor James J. Walker by a few votes just off of a half a million. Three years later, in 1932, he was defeated for re-election to the House of Representatives in the landslide that saw the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Tammany Hall believed that it had put Mayor LaGuardia on the political shelf by his defeat for Representative in 1932. Conservative Republicans believed they were rid of him by his defeat for Mayor in 1929. Both were terribly wrong.

LaGuardia’s Time as Mayor

Early in 1937, Mayor LaGuardia created an international incident by making a speech before the women’s division of the American Jewish Congress in New York, where he characterized Adolf Hitler as a fanatic menacing the peace of the world and suggested that he be made a central figure in the World’s Fair Chamber of Horrors.

Interested in music from his childhood, Mayor LaGuardia sought out an anthem for this city, as he frequently attended the opera and concerts and on occasions led symphony orchestras. He established a series of Summer City Halls, at the Bartow Mansion in the Bronx, in the old Chisholm mansion in College Point Park, and at the former Arrow Brook Golf and Country Club in Queens. When the city purchased the Gracie Mansion on the upper East Side of Manhattan, it became the Mayor’s residence.

America’s Music Cities

His reputation for conducting what a majority of New York residents regarded as an honest administration stood him in good stead in 1937 when he was made the Fusion candidate for re- election, despite early Republican opposition. He won reelection easily, defeating Jeremiah T. Mahoney, Democratic candidate, by 453,374.

The death of President Roosevelt in April and the accession of President Harry S. Truman, who had been critical of Mayor LaGuardia when his appointment to a high post in the Army was under consideration, was a severe political blow to the Mayor.

Mayor LaGuardia’s Career After City Hall

After being re-elected twice, LaGuardia in 1945 refused to run for a fourth term as mayor. He was appointed director of the U.S. Office of Civilian Defense (1941) and director general (1946) of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.

On Dec. 31, 1945, Mr. LaGuardia moved out of City Hall after having served twelve years as Mayor. In that time he had drastically altered the city in many ways. Its physical plant, its governmental structure and its political and social patterns had all been changed substantially. A new city charter had been adopted in 1938; appointees of Mr. LaGuardia filled the board of magistrates and virtually every other long-term appointive office, and the power of Tammany Hall had been reduced to a shadow.

On April 8, 1947, Mr. LaGuardia was named as the winner of the annual One World Award for press and radio.

Famous Mayor LaGuardia Death

Mr. LaGuardia married twice. His first wife was Thea Almerigotti, and after her death he married Marie Fisher in 1929. She had been his secretary while he was a member of the House of Representatives. They adopted two children together, Jean Marie and Eric, who were 18 and 15 at the time of his passing.

After Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s Death The New York Times Wrote:

Fiorello H. LaGuardia died in his sleep at 7:22 A.M. yesterday. He was 64 years old. At the bedside were his wife, the former Marie Fisher, who had been his secretary while he was in Congress; their adopted children, Jean, 18 years old, and Eric, 15, and Mrs. LaGuardia’s sister, Miss Helen Fisher. The three-time Mayor of New York had been in a coma since last Tuesday night.

Many people described his passing as “a shock of awful finality.” The mayor was quoted, “In his death the people of the city, the State and nation have lost a great, patriotic American citizen.”

To mark the passing of a high official, the Fire Department’s 5-5-5-5 signal, repeated four times, was heard in fire houses throughout the city at 8:06 A.M. At 8:15 the announcement of Mr. LaGuardia’s death went out over the police teletype system. Custodians of all city buildings were directed to lower their flags to half staff.

LaGuardia Remembered in Writing

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was one of the most important and dynamic political reformers during the 1930s. Just some of the books written by him and about him include:

Historians have continuously recognized LaGuardia as the greatest mayor in American history, and perhaps the greatest in New York City, with many experts calling him a match with Rudy Giuliani.

Fiorello LaGuardia Dedication

Mayor LaGuardia had such an impactful effect on others. Therefore, it’s only expected to see his name dedicated by those he touched.

A number of institutions in New York and streets around the world are named after him. He was also the subject of the Broadway musical ‘Fiorello!’ which won a Pulitzer Prize.

Here is a list of institutions and places named after Mayor LaGuardia:

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