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Mayor of New York City
Fiorello Henry LaGuardia was born to Italian immigrants Achille Carlo LaGuardia and Irene Luzzato Coen in Greenwich Village, New York, on December 11, 1882. His father moved the family to Prescott, Arizona, after joining the Army and being stationed at nearby Fort Whipple, and Fiorello was educated in that city's public school system.
Fluent in both Italian and Yiddish, LaGuardia joined the American Consular Service as an interpreter in 1901. During his service at consulates in Hungary and Austria he also became fluent in Hungarian, German, French, and Croatian. Denied a promotion because he lacked a college degree, LaGuardia resigned from the Consular Service in 1906 in order to attend New York University Law School. He supported his law studies by working as a translator for the U.S. Immigration Service at Ellis Island. After graduating and being admitted to the bar in 1910, he opened a practice that specialized in protecting immigrant workers in the garment industry. After an unsuccessful run for Congress in 1914, LaGuardia became Deputy Attorney General of the State of New York, in which capacity he served from 1915 to 1917.
In 1916, running as a Republican, LaGuardia challenged the Tammany Hall-backed incumbent U.S. Congressman from the Lower East Side. His work on behalf of immigrant workers, combined with his ability to speak to many of those immigrants in their native languages, allowed him to defeat the incumbent by a narrow margin and become the first Italian-American Congressman. Taking his seat on March 4, 1917, he quickly became a vocal advocate for many Progressive Republican causes.
After the United States entered the First World War, LaGuardia absented himself from the House of Representatives and, on August 15, 1917, was commissioned a First Lieutenant in the Army Air Service. Serving as a bomber pilot on the Italian-Austrian front, he had risen to the rank of Major and been awarded the Italian War Cross by the time the war ended. He formally resigned from the House on December 31, 1919.
LaGuardia served as president of the New York City Board of Aldermen from 1920 to 1921 before being returned to the U.S. House of Representatives by the voters of East Harlem in 1922. He retook his seat in that body on March 4, 1923, and served until March 4, 1933. Still a Progressive, he took stands against child labor, Prohibition, and immigration quotas, and supported giving women the right to vote. His major legislation was the Norris-LaGuardia Act, co-sponsored with Nebraska senator George Norris in 1932, which protects the right of workers to join unions, as well as their right to strike against, boycott, and/or picket employers. La Guardia's stay in Congress was ended when he was defeated in his 1932 bid for re-election, one of many Republican casualties of the Great Depression.
Mayor of New York City
LaGuardia first ran for Mayor of New York City in 1929, but lost to Tammany Hall-backed incumbent James J. Walker. Corruption charges cut Walker's term short, however, and La Guardia decided to run again in 1933. This time he won, becoming the first Italian-American Mayor of New York City.
On his first day in office, LaGuardia delivered a radio address to the nation, declaring: "New York City was restored to the people this morning at one minute after midnight. It is my duty from now on to guard and protect and guide the complete, peaceful and undisturbed enjoyment of that possession." To that end, his first action as Mayor was to order the Chief of Police to round up the gangsters who had been terrorizing the city since the onset of Prohibition. LaGuardia's anti-mobster campaign was successful, and by 1936 almost all of the city's major crime bosses were in jail.
Having successfully fought political patronage to gain office, LaGuardia made it a point to find the best people for government jobs regardless of their political affiliation. One of the men hired was Robert Moses, who as Parks Commissioner oversaw many massive public works programs funded by President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, including the West Side Highway, East River Drive, Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, Triborough Bridge, Floyd Bennett Field, and what is now LaGuardia Airport. Those projects not only improved the city's infrastructure, they also provided jobs for thousands of New Yorkers. LaGuardia also improved the police and fire departments, and worked to standardize the city's subway system. And, in 1939, LaGuardia had the pleasure of welcoming the world to New York City via a World's Fair that provided a "glimpse into the future."
As early as 1937, La Guardia spoke out against Adolf Hitler. During World War II, he led the Office of Civilian Defense, where he worked with Eleanor Roosevelt, while still remaining in office. That job was turned over to a full-time director in 1942, but LaGuardia continued to serve President Roosevelt as chairman of the United States section of the Permanent Joint Board on Defense (United States and Canada) until 1946.
LaGuardia's many improvements to New York City made him very popular with citizens, but they also cost the city a lot of money. Federal funding all but ended during World War II, and by 1944 LaGuardia was having to come up with increasingly creative ways to pay the city's bills. Realizing that he had finally lost popular support, he chose not to run for another term in 1945, and left City Hall on New Year's Eve of that year.
La Guardia was known for the regular radio talks he gave while in office (during a newspaper strike in July 1945, he used his radio time to read the comics to New Yorkers). After leaving office, he continued on radio with two different shows, one of which was quickly canceled due to his proclivity for bold statements. In March 1946, La Guardia became the director general of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. He stayed in the position until December of that year. Suffering from pancreatic cancer, he died at age 64 in New York City on September 20, 1947, and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
LaGuardia was married twice. His first wife was Thea Almerigotti, whom he married on March 8, 1919. In November 1920 they had a daughter, Fioretta Thea, who died May 8, 1921, of spinal meningitis. Thea LaGuardia died of tuberculosis on November 29, 1921, at the age of 26. He married Marie Fisher in 1929; they adopted two children, Eric Henry (born 1930) and Jean Marie (192862).
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This page was last updated on September 19, 2017.