Fiorello Henry La Guardia ( born Fiorello Enrico La Guardia, Italian pronunciation: [fjoˈrɛllo enˈriːko la ˈɡwardja]) (December 11, 1882 – September 20, 1947) was an American politician. He is best known for being the 99th Mayor of New York City for three terms from 1934 to 1945 as a Republican. Previously he had been elected to Congress in 1916 and 1918, and again from 1922 through 1930. Irascible, energetic, and charismatic, he craved publicity and is acclaimed as one of the greatest mayors in American history.
Only five feet, two inches (1.57 m) tall, he was called “the Little Flower” (Fiorello is Italian for “little flower”).
La Guardia, a Republican who appealed across party lines, was very popular in New York during the 1930s. As a New Dealer, he supported President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, and in turn Roosevelt heavily funded the city and cut off patronage for La Guardia’s enemies.
La Guardia revitalized New York City and restored public faith in City Hall. He unified the transit system, directed the building of low-cost public housing, public playgrounds, and parks, constructed airports, reorganized the police force, defeated the powerful Tammany Hall political machine, and reestablished employment on merit in place of patronage jobs.
La Guardia was a domineering leader who verged on authoritarianism but whose reform politics were carefully tailored to address the sentiments of his diverse constituency. He defeated a corrupt Democratic machine, presided during a depression and a world war, made the city the model for New Deal welfare and public works programs, and championed immigrants and ethnic minorities.
He succeeded with the support of a sympathetic president. He secured his place in history as a tough-minded reform mayor who helped clean out corruption, bring in gifted experts, and fix upon the city a broad sense of responsibility for its own citizens. His administration engaged new groups that had been kept out of the political system, gave New York its modern infrastructure, and raised expectations of new levels of urban possibility.
La Guardia was born in Greenwich Village in New York City to an Italian father and an Italian-Jewish mother. His father, Achille La Guardia, was a lapsed Catholic from Cerignola, and his mother, Irene Coen, was a Jewish woman from Trieste, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; his maternal grandmother Fiorina Luzzatto Coen was a Luzzatto, a member of the prestigious Italian-Jewish family of scholars, kabbalists, and poets and had among her ancestors the famous rabbi Samuel David Luzzatto.
It was in Trieste that Achille La Guardia met and married Irene. Fiorello La Guardia was raised an Episcopalian and practiced that religion all his life. His middle name “Enrico” was anglicized to “Henry” when he was a child.
He moved to Arizona with his family, where his father had a bandmaster position at Fort Whipple in the U.S. Army. La Guardia attended public schools and high school in Prescott, Arizona. After his father was discharged from his bandmaster position in 1898, Fiorello lived in Trieste. He graduated from the Dwight School, a private school on the Upper West Side of New York City.
La Guardia joined the State Department and served in U.S. consulates in Budapest, Trieste (Austria-Hungary, now Italy), and Fiume (Austria-Hungary), now Rijeka (Croatia), (1901–1906). He returned to the United States to continue his education at New York University. From 1907 to 1910, he worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Bureau of Immigration at the Ellis Island immigration station.
He graduated from New York University School of Law in 1910, was admitted to the bar the same year, and began a law practice in New York City.
La Guardia married twice. His first wife was Thea Almerigotti, an Istria immigrant, whom he married on March 8, 1919. In June 1920 they had a daughter, Fioretta Thea, who died May 9, 1921, of spinal meningitis. His first wife died of tuberculosis on November 29, 1921, at the age of 26.
In 1929 he married Marie Fisher (1895–1984) who had been his secretary while in Congress; they adopted two children, Eric Henry (born 1930) and Jean Marie (1928–62), the biological daughter of Thea’s sister.
La Guardia was the director general for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in 1946.
A man of short stature, La Guardia’s height is sometimes given as 5 feet 0 inches (1.52 m). According to an article in the New York Times, however, his actual height was 5 feet 2 inches (1.57 m).
He became a member of the Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia music fraternity.
La Guardia was a Freemason and was a member of Garibaldi Lodge #542, in New York City.
He died of pancreatic cancer in his home at 5020 Goodridge Avenue, in the Riverdale section of the Bronx on September 20, 1947, aged 64 and is interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.