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Fiorello Henry LaGuardia (born Fiorello Enrico LaGuardia; December 11, 1882 - September 20, 1947) (often spelled La Guardia [la 'gwardja]) 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, Fiorello , also perhaps a reference to his short stature. 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.
Mayor of New York
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 elected 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 1940, included among the many interns to serve in the city government was David Rockefeller, who became his secretary for eighteen months in what is known as a "dollar a year" public service position. Although LaGuardia was at pains to point out to the press that he was only one of 60 interns, Rockefeller's working space turned out to be the vacant office of the deputy mayor.
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 1941 he was succeeded at the OCD by a full-time director, James M. Landis.
According to Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, LaGuardia often officiated in municipal court. He handled routine misdemeanor cases, including, as Cerf wrote, a man who had stolen a loaf of bread for his starving family. LaGuardia still insisted on levying the fine of ten dollars. Then he said "I'm fining everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a city where a man has to steal bread in order to eat!" He passed his hat and gave the fines to the defendant, who left the court with $47.50.
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