About Fiorello H. LaGuardia

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.

LaGuardia shunned the traditional inauguration day ceremony, instead making numerous appearances, at each one vowing to “clean house and clean it thoroughly.” On his first day in office, he 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.”

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.

In 1945, the first three-term New York City mayor decided not to seek a fourth term, perhaps hoping to enter national politics. After leaving office, he hosted a weekly radio show and was appointed Director General of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Commission. LaGuardia succumbed to pancreatic cancer on September 21, 1947 at his home in Riverdale, Bronx.

From the NYC 100 Site