The Habsburg Mayor
of New York:
In 1906, a twenty-four-year-old Fiorello LaGuardia debarked from a Cunard transatlantic liner and took his first independent steps in New York City. With an American passport and fluent English, LaGuardia had much more going for him than the hundreds of others who came ashore from the ship that had first set sail from the Habsburg port-town in Fiume, Hungary. But one thing he did have in common with his fellow shipmates was that when he touched American soil he had almost no money, no family, no job, and few connections. His out-of-work-musician father had died years before. His homemaker mother was living with his older sister and younger brother in Fiume (Hungary), paying rent with money his sister made teaching English and his brother made as an office clerk. LaGuardia had no high school diploma because, when his Italian-speaking parents had realized that the American Dream was out of their reach, they, like so many other immigrants, left their home in St. Louis and got back on a ship to return to Europe when LaGuardia was just sixteen. Nonetheless, within a few months of 24-year-old LaGuardia’s arrival in New York, he got a job as a Serbo-Croatian interpreter in Ellis Island. Within three years he passed the high school equivalency exam and received a law degree from NYU. The year thereafter he joined two law firms simultaneously, one specializing in Italian immigrant concerns, one specializing in Jewish immigrant concerns. Within three more years LaGuardia was named Attorney General of New York State. Two years after that he was elected to Congress. Seventeen years after that he was elected mayor of New York City, a position he would hold for three terms. Immediately upon leaving the mayor’s office he was made Director General of the post-WWII United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. The year after that he became a radio spokesman. And then, quickly and painfully, he died of pancreatic cancer in 1947 at the age of 64. Of all his dazzling accomplishments, undoubtedly it was his three terms as New York’s most beloved mayor that have left the biggest mark. And most assume that it was precisely the dynamism of bustling, immigrant-rich, early-twentieth-century New York (the New York that he would one day run) that explains how this Italian-American, five-foot-one nobody could step off a transatlantic steamer and rise so far.
The Habsburg Mayor of New York argues that much of LaGuardia’s meteoric rise had more to do with the non-American experiences he had working and learning in the Habsburg Empire the eight years before he got off that Cunard steamer than previously assumed. Much has been written about LaGuardia -- about his social housing projects, his fight against city corruption, his battle to make New York a modern transportation hub (think the airports, subways, and highways), and the charisma that got New Yorkers old and young, foreign-born and native, rich and poor to vote him into office so many times. But what has not been explored were the years leading up to his entry into the New York scene. The many biographies written about him mention the eight years from the age of 16-24 in passing at best.
The Habsburg Mayor of New York argues that his rise was possible because of his experiences in the worlds where he had flourished before arriving in New York.