Sicilian Culture

The People, The History, The Culture

Fiorello Henry LaGuardia

1882 - - - 1947

Standing only a little over five feet tall Fiorello H. LaGuardia's impact on New York City far outweighed his physical presence. Beginning as a Congressman representing Greenwich Village, LaGuardia soon received a reputation for being a fiery speaker and an untiring advocate of his constituents. In his first bid for the City's top position he was defeated. However by the 1933 election, events in New York made his election on the "fusion" ticket a sure thing. Serving from 1934 to 1945 he was one of only three modern day mayors to serve 3 consecutive terms in office.

He guided the City thorough the turbulent and difficult period of the Great Depression and later oversaw the City's transformation into a vital component of The United States efforts in World War II. Propelled by boundless energy, LaGuardia initiated numerous reforms to combat urban poverty, rebuild decaying infrastructure, put thousand of New Yorkers back to work and laid the groundwork for what would become modern day New York.

LaGuardia was born on December 11, 1882, to Achille Lugi LaGuardia, an Italian immigrant, who would serve as a band master in the US Army, and Irene Cohen a Jewish immigrant from Austria-Hungary. Although born in New York City LaGuardia grew up in the southwestern territories that would eventually become New Mexico and Arizona. This exposure to the attitudes and way of life in the old west would influence LaGuardia for the rest of his life.

LaGuardia secured a position with the US Consular Service in 1901 and served in Budapest, Trieste and Fiume, Hungar. During his time with the consular service he fought to better the treatment of the immigrants then flocking to the United States. He urged the service to institute pre-departure medical exams to prevent the immigrants from the gut-wrenching experience of being denied admission to the United States on medical grounds.

In 1907 LaGuardia returned to New York and began to work at Ellis Island, the main port of entry into the United States. As a translator, LaGuardia called upon his knowledge of five languages to assist the new immigrants in their first steps to becoming US citizens. Simultaneously while at Ellis Island LaGuardia was attending Law School at night at New York University. He graduated in 1910 and soon after joined a law firm where he was known for representing immigrants, the poor and workers.

He also began to become involved in Republican politics. In 1914 he ran for Congress in the heavily democratic neighborhood of Greenwich Village, although he lost in his first bid he ran a second time and was elected on November 7, 1916 to his first public office. According to the reminisces of his second wife, Marie Fisher LaGuardia, Fiorello did not sit quietly during his freshman year in Congress as was expected of new Congressmen but energetically and enthusiastically took part in the everyday workings of the Legislature. LaGuardia would remain in Congress continually until 1932, except for his service during World War I as a Pilot and a term as President of the city Board of Aldermen.

In Congress, LaGuardia established a reputation as a progressive leader. During the 1920's he criticized what he saw as unfair immigration restrictions. He opposed prohibition and fought for labor unions. In 1932 he co-sponsored the Norris-LaGuardia Act, which restricted Federal courts from issuing injunctions to stop union activities.

In 1932 the mayoralty of New York was in crisis. Mayor Jimmy Walker had been forced to resign when wide spread corruption was found throughout city government. LaGuardia saw an opportunity and threw his hat in the ring to become New York's next Mayor.

LaGuardia ran in 1933 on a broad-based Republican-fusion ticket, pledging to clean up city government and break the stranglehold of the Tammany machine. When LaGuardia's coalition won, the new mayor quickly went to work to take control of the city's government. He lobbied the State Assembly in Albany and received a new city charter. He fought to take charge of the city's finances from the banks and balanced the budget.

With the City on a more solid financial rating, LaGuardia worked with the Roosevelt administration and received millions of dollars in direct federal aid from New Deal programs. These funds provided the city with temporary relief, and public works projects which created thousands of jobs. Within its first year the LaGuardia administration had built over 50 new playgrounds and planned 60 new parks, many in poor neighborhoods. Throughout his administration, slums were torn down and replaced with public housing and schools. Hospitals, Child and countless other social welfare projects were constructed to Health Stations improve the health and sanitary conditions of the City.

By building roads, bridges, and tunnels, LaGuardia transformed the physical landscape of New York City. The West Side Highway, East River Drive, Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, Triborough Bridge, and an airport bearing his name were all built during his mayoralty. Following up on campaign promises, LaGuardia launched attacks against corruption and organized crime. He reorganized the police force and other city agencies and cracked down on racketeers.

During World War II LaGuardia served as Roosevelt's director of the Office of Civilian Defense and created national programs for rationing. LaGuardia had aspirations of obtaining a military appointment. His hope was to gain more national exposure as a leader which would assist him in a bid for the governorship or the presidency after the war. The military appointment never arrived and after the war a frustrated and disappointed LaGuardia refused to run for a fourth mayoral term.

In 1946 he was appointed as the Director General of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, providing food, clothing and shelter to millions of Europeans displaced by World War II. He set about this project in true LaGuardia style. He traveled extensively throughout Europe. He met thousands of persons whose lives had been devastated by the war. He paid particular attention to the needs of the children that he found in orphanages and schools throughout the war ravaged continent.

LaGuardia's efforts to rebuild Europe were cut short when, despite his best efforts UNRRA was disbanded at the end of December, 1946.

LaGuardia returned to New York a different man. His appearance had changed dramatically. The once buoyant little figure had become thin, frail and gray. Over the next 9 months he would make innumerable visits to the hospital in an attempt to diagnosis the cause of this change and the ever increasing pain that the bravely suffered. Throughout this time he continued to write, correspond and broadcast his radio program. Ultimately he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Even so, almost until his final day he continued to receive guests and to adamantly speak about the direction he thought the City, the Nation and the World should be taking. In the end the disease proved to powerful for the man who saw himself as invincible. On September 20, 1947 "The Little Flower" died. His funeral at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine Attracted thousands who came to say farewell.

LaGuardia's years as mayor marked the emergence of modern New York City. His spirit for action transformed a city made up of individual boroughs into a single entity. His vision for the modern metropolis was imbued with a sense of humanity. He felt a modern city of tunnels, airports and bridges must also have adequate housing, schools and playgrounds. Throughout his twelve years in office he worked tirelessly to achieve those goals.


March 26, 1849: Achille Luigi Carlo LaGuardia, father of Mayor LaGuardia, born in Foggia, Apulia, Part of the Kingdom of Two Sicilies.
July 18, 1859: Irene Cohen, mother of Mayor LaGuardia, born in Trieste, Austria-Hungary.
June 3, 1880 Achille LaGuardia and Irene Cohen married in a civil ceremony in Trieste.
December 11, 1882: Fiorello H. LaGuardia born in New York City.
1901-06: LaGuardia served with Consular Service in Budapest, Trieste and Fiume, Hungary.
1907-10: LaGuardia worked as an interpreter in the U.S. Immigration Service at Ellis Island.
1910: LaGuardia received L.L.B. (law degree) from New York University.
January 1, 1915: As a Republican, LaGuardia appointed Deputy Attorney General of New York State, serving through 1917.
November 7, 1916: LaGuardia elected to Congress from lower Manhattan's 14th Congressional District.
August 15, 1917: LaGuardia commissioned first lieutenant in US. Air Service. Later, he was promoted to captain and major, serving on Italian-Austrian front in World War I.
March 8, 1919: LaGuardia married Thea Almerigotti in New York City; she died of tuberculosis in 1921.
November 1919: LaGuardia elected President of the New York City Board of Aldermen.
November 1922: LaGuardia elected to Congress from upper Manhattan's 20th district, and served five consecutive terms, through December 1932.
March 8, 1932: The United States House of Representatives passed the Norris-LaGuardia Anti-Injunction law which protected the right of unions to strike; it was co-sponsored by Congressman LaGuardia.
February 28, 1929: LaGuardia married Marie Fisher in Washington, D.C. hey later adopted two children -- Jean Marie and Eric.
November 1929: LaGuardia defeated by James Walker in New York City mayoral race.
November 7, 1933: LaGuardia elected New York City's 99th mayor.
June 25, 1935: Mayor LaGuardia opened a new baby health station in the Bronx heralding an expansion of health services throughout the city,
December 3, 1935: Mayor LaGuardia presided at opening of First Houses on Manhattan's Lower East Side, the first publicly funded housing project in America
July 11, 1936: Mayor LaGuardia joined other dignitaries at opening of the Triborough bridge, perhaps the best example of LaGuardia's tremendous  expansion of the city's infrastructure.
November 3, 1937: LaGuardia re-elected Mayor with largest majority in city's history.
April 30, 1939: LaGuardia addressed opening of the New York World's Fair at Flushing Meadow, Queens.
October 15, 1939: LaGuardia opened New York Municipal Airport #2, the airport in Queens soon became Fiorello H. LaGuardia Field.
November 1, 1939: On behalf of the city, LaGuardia signed a contract to acquire the Interborough Rapid Transit Company, completing the public takeover of the subway system.
May 20, 1941: LaGuardia named director of the Office of Civilian Defense.
November 4, 1941: LaGuardia re-elected as Mayor, becoming the first three-term mayor of Greater New York.
June 18, 1942: LaGuardia inaugurated a series of Sunday afternoon radio programs called "Talks to the People"
March-Dec. 1946: LaGuardia served as Director-General of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.
September 20, 1947: LaGuardia died at age 64 after a long illness.

Fiorello H. LaGuardia Collection

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