NEW YORK — New York City mayors don’t just step up to a city-wide bully pulpit when they take office; they leap upon the national stage and steal the spotlight as much as any governor or president. Mayor Ed Koch, who died today of congestive heart failure at the age of eighty-eight, was no exception.
Though Koch began his career in public service as a United States congressman in 1968, it was his three-term mayorship, during some of the most tumultuous years in New York’s history, that came to define — and divide — the city he governed.
And if New Yorkers thought they were done with Koch after he’d lost the Democratic primary to David Dinkins in 1989, which ended his official political career, they were wrong. Koch’s life was a play in three acts, and the curtain was just rising on the third.
Whether in front of a radio mic, or under a boom mic, Koch hogged as much of the spotlight as he was given. Whether he was playing curmudgeonly political characters in film and on television, or speaking in countless documentaries, or even croaking out judgments on The People’s Court, Koch was, for better or for worse, unapologetically irascible.
And everyone knew Ed Koch, and every New Yorker has a story about him.
It was the summer of 1995 and I was a fresh-eyed off-the-bus New Yorker. It is a flashbulb moment I will never forget: There at the corner of Seventh Avenue South and Christopher Street was Mayor Koch wearing a seersucker suit and a fishing cap. Though I’d only arrived in the city just a few weeks prior, my opinion was already formed. I knew nothing of five-borough politicking at the time, and my only knowledge of Koch’s mayoral legacy was by way of late night talk shows and Saturday Night Live: I was elated.
Throughout the years, Ed Koch became my Where’s Waldo?. Whether crossing the street at Lincoln Center, holding a press conference at Grand Central Terminal, or hailing a cab in the rain on Fifth Avenue: Koch was a ubiquitous presence.
In the early aughts I even saw the mayor twice in one week on the same street in SoHo, but the antithetical receptions I witnessed in those two encounters define Koch’s divisiveness among New Yorkers.
I was sitting on a bench outside of Bathalzar on Spring Street. Koch, accompanied by two other men, was jaywalking between the stalled traffic. A cabbie two cars back pulled his upper body through his window and yelled in booming Brooklynese, “Ed Koch! Best fahkin’ New York mayuh evah! I love ya, mistah mayuh!”
Scorsese couldn’t have directed it better. Koch, who had been scowling with his face folded into his chin, lit up like a Broadway marquee. He spun around, shuffled toward the taxi and shook the man’s hand. And as the traffic began to pull away, he waved back to the others while he posed for photos with Japanese tourists.
Later that week, tucked into a booth at Aquagrill, Koch was holding court with his cronies. I’d seen him there many times and watched him working the room and pumping hands. Once secure at his table he’d deflate and curl his lip as people passed when he thought no one was looking.
But what follows next requires prefacing. The week prior while I sat at the bar enjoying my crab Benedict, I looked up from my paper and saw him leaving. As per usual he clasped hands and smiled at people who noticed him. In the corner of my eye I noticed him wagging his finger at the hostess, so I turned around to get a better view.
“Young lady,” he began. “When we go to Capsouto Frères they always send over a complimentary dessert or two. Oh, I know you give us desserts sometimes — but you know, we’re regulars. Maybe just give us something every time — that would be nice.” The hostess promised to speak to her manager. “You do that,” he said, then patted her on the back and walked away.
And here he was, back again at his regular table with his usual all-male cast of characters. Peripherally I kept watch as their entrée plates were cleared away, eager to see if the restaurant would follow the mayor’s dictates. I was telling my stool-mate what Koch had said seven days earlier when I looked over and saw the manager and waiter delivering five desserts to Koch’s table.
The mayor looked up without raising his head and said that they hadn’t ordered anything. “We have some tasty treats with our compliments for you all today,” the manager announced. And as she started describing the desserts, she leaned forward and began placing down a chocolate cake. The mayor cut her off and raised his hands.
“Oh, no, no, no. We don’t want it. Thank you, but I’ve had too many sweets this week and I have to watch it,” he said while flicking the offerings away. “Maybe just one. How about those cookies?” he asked.
The waiter placed the cookies on the table while the manager asked if they’d like the desserts to take home. She explained, “Since the rest of them have melting ice cream or sauces on top, we’ll just have to throw them away — I could take the ice cream off and you could take them with you, if you’d like.”
“No. I said, thank you and I don’t want them. Can we have the check, please?” Koch rubbed his forehead. As they walked away he mumbled, “Who the hell could eat all that?” Then he whispered low to his tablemates and laughed.
The man next to me was watching as well. “What a total asshole,” he said. “I never liked the bastard – closeted old queen.”
And as Koch rose to leave, he snarled back at the manager, “Don’t ever give us that much — we’re old men.” Then he turned to the table next to him, shook their hands, smiled and left.
I came to learn much more of Koch’s legacy over the years through research and overlapping cocktail party diatribes. Initially as an outsider it seemed that the man who was credited with pulling New York City out the financial crisis of the 1970s and creating low-income housing, was much-beloved by all. However, by that autumn of my first year as a New Yorker, I learned the other side of Mayor Koch.
Koch made few, if any, friends in the black community during his tenure and while Al Sharpton barely stopped short of calling him a bigot, he did say that the mayor took a “blind side to racism.” There was such racial tension between the African-American community and the mayor that while attempting to attend a funeral of a black teen killed by a white mob in Bensonhurst, Koch was pelted by epithets and forced to flee in his limousine back to Manhattan.
He often hop-scotched his way through political parties — supporting Hilary Clinton in one election, then to Mayor Giuliani, whom he later referred to as a “nasty man,” then switched allegiance to Mayor Bloomberg. But liberal New Yorkers are still unable to shake the image of Koch at the 2004 Republican National Convention wholeheartedly endorsing President George W. Bush for a second term.
But it’s the city’s gay community that harbors the most vitriol against Koch. Ironically, though he never publicly admitted it, it was believed to be common knowledge that Koch was gay. The rumors were so prevalent that he bearded a relationship with former Miss America, Bess Meyerson, during his first primaries in 1977.
It was a different time then, however, and most politicos and stars were closeted. Anti-gay sentiments were relatively acceptable in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and Koch did very little to improve upon them during a time when AIDS was ravaging the city’s gay community.
When asked by a reporter during his first mayoral election by The New York Daily News, about his sexuality, Koch responded, “No, I am not a homosexual. If I were a homosexual, I would hope I would have the courage to say so.” And even in the documentary on his life, which opens today, when asked about his sexual orientation, he barked, “It’s none of your fucking business.”
Although the mayor appointed openly gay members to his staff, proposed anti-discrimination legislation, and in 1983 he created the Office of Gay and Lesbian Health Concerns, many within the community said it was five years too late.
In hindsight, half a decade may not seem like a long time, but to a city in the grip of a “gay epidemic,” the panic to act was justified: at the end of Koch’s tenure over 30,000 New Yorkers had been diagnosed with the AIDS virus.
Gay activist and playwright Larry Kramer was one of Koch’s most vocal opponents. The mayor, when pressed, responded to the criticism saying:
“Kramer’s thrust was that I was afraid that if I showed concern, people would think I was gay. He wasn’t the only one who said that, of course. Listen, there’s no question that some New Yorkers think I’m gay, and voted for me nevertheless. The vast majority don’t care. My answer to that question on this subject is simply, ‘Fuck off.’”
Call it chutzpah or petulant straightforwardness but that “fuck off” frankness is what actually endeared him to New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers alike.
His most stalwart enemies even admitted that in person — and away from the podium — they could sit down to lunch with the mayor and in the end walk away enchanted by his crotchety charisma, and sated by free cake. If he let them have any.
Governor Cuomo, inadvertently summed it up best when speaking with reporters today, saying that “New Yorkers just loved the mayor, but when asked why, they say, ‘I don’t know…’”