Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia records
Collection REC0028 - RG 001. Office of the Mayor of the City of New York
Collection REC0028 - RG 001/RG 001.FHL. Office of the Mayor, Fiorello H. La Guardia
729.5 cubic feet (1,285 boxes and 341 volumes)
1864-1954, bulk 1934-1945
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In October 1984, a Ford Foundation grant allowed for the processing of the personal and professional papers of Fiorello H. La Guardia held across three institutions: mayoral records at the Municipal Archives; his personal papers, donated by his wife, Marie La Guardia, to La Guardia Community College; and a collection of congressional correspondence and some subject files and mayoral correspondence that had been donated by La Guardia to the Rare Books and Manuscript Division of the New York Public Library’s during 1939-1947.
The project commenced in November 1984 and was led by archivist Jacqueline Reisert Esposito with assistance by project archivists Richard Lord, Cathy Thompson, and Barbara Gilson. Archivists kept much of the original arrangement of the collection, but combined materials described in the Katsaros finding aid as “personal papers” and “subject files” into one series of subject files, as it was determined that the personal papers were not actually personal in nature, but were created during La Guardia’s time as mayor. During the span of the project, 150 cubic feet of previously unknown materials were uncovered in addition to the 500 cubic feet of known records already at the Archives. Materials were placed in new acid-free folders and boxes, mostly half cubic foot in size. Original folder titles, presumably devised by the La Guardia’s secretarial staff, were retained when possible.
In 1986, La Guardia and Wagner Archives received funding from the New York State Assembly to support the microfilming of the La Guardia collections held there, and at the Municipal Archives. Additional funding for microfilming was received in 1989 from the Municipal Archives Reference and Research Fund.
In 2018, the finding aid was revised and updated by staff archivist Alexandra Hilton. Significant work was done to clean-up data to accurately reflect and provide greater clarity of the collection’s contents. Some anachronistic terms - mainly those referring to race, ethnicity or gender - were modified.
Fiorello La Guardia’s terms as Mayor coincided with a particularly significant time in the city’s history, from the Great Depression through World War II. To deal with the problems of unemployment, relief and welfare, he established an entirely new relationship between the city and the federal government. He was an early proponent of measures such as public works and unemployment insurance to alleviate the hardship of the depression. The collection demonstrates how closely he worked with federal officials at every level as they sought to ameliorate depression-caused conditions.
Under La Guardia, New York was the first city to take advantage of federal housing money by establishing the New York City Housing Authority, which became the model for housing authorities throughout the country. The physical image of “city” today, is in large part a result of events and policies that originated in the 1930s. The creation of large tracts of public housing and urban highways are two of many such factors that appear throughout this collection.
Other prevalent topics include the following: The early stages of the civil rights movement, particularly the Harlem riots of 1934 and 1943; racketeering investigations; unemployment; labor unions and the Works Progress Administration (WPA); the American Labor Party and Fusion Party; relationships between the city and state and federal government; the war effort at home; civil defense; and military draft.
Additionally, the records provide an overview of his work prior to and after his time as mayor. The Prohibition series documents La Guardia’s staunch opposition to the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919. A series of records from his time as President of the Board of Aldermen detail investigations launched against the City Comptroller, foreshadowing reforms he would later institute as Mayor. Another series documents La Guardia’s post-mayoral position as Director-General of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, in which he was responsible for overseeing the distribution of food in Europe and organizing displaced persons’ camps.
La Guardia was brought up on western army posts, where his father served as an enlisted bandmaster from 1885-1898, and he was educated through the eighth grade in the public schools of Prescott, Arizona. Upon his father’s discharge, the family returned to Trieste.
From the age of 17 to 23, La Guardia was a member of the American Consular Service. He was stationed in Budapest, then in Fiume, with short assignments in Trieste and Croatia. When he returned to New York in 1906, La Guardia was fluent in Hungarian, German, Serbo-Croatian, Yiddish and Italian.
In 1910, after putting himself through New York University Law School, by taking evening classes while working as an interpreter at Ellis Island, La Guardia began practicing law on the Lower East Side. La Guardia joined his local Republican Club, which was more hospitable at that time to aspiring Italian American politicians than the Irish-dominated clubs of the Democrats. In 1915, three years after his debut as an election district captain in his native Greenwich Village, La Guardia was appointed a Deputy State Attorney General.
After that, his career turned to elective office, and the multilingual, Western-bred, Balkan-plated Episcopalian of Italian-Jewish descent started with the advantage of being a balanced ticket in himself. However, few persons felt neutral about La Guardia the campaigner, who combined the gut-fighting tactics of a political boss from the tenements with the issue-oriented politics of a “people’s attorney.” The “Little Flower” – the English translation of Fiorello – was found to be colorful, dynamic, contagiously self-confident and progressive, as well as a likely threat to Tammany Hall. In a habitually Democratic city, La Guardia, an irregular Republican but a Republican nonetheless, won 11 out of 14 campaigns.
La Guardia rose to prominence in national politics before entering City Hall. In 1916, he became the first Republican since the Civil War to be elected to Congress from the Lower East Side. He voted for America’s entrance into World War I in 1917 and took a leave of absence from the House to serve as a pilot bombardier on the Italian-Austrian front. Returning home a much-decorated Major in 1918, he was reelected to Congress but resigned the following year to run for President of the New York City Board of Aldermen. In 1921, La Guardia lost the Republican primary for Mayor. The next year, with the support of publisher William Randolph Hearst, he was returned to Congress, this time from the Twentieth Congressional District. Supported by a predominantly Italian and Jewish constituency, he served five consecutive terms until 1932.
In 1924, La Guardia supported the Progressive Party presidential candidacy of Robert M. LaFollette, and himself stood for reelection as a Progressive. The following year he showed further contempt for the GOP by endorsing the Socialist Norman Thomas, in New York’s mayoral race.
Although La Guardia returned to the Republican Party in 1926, he remained a maverick. The “power trusts” were one of his favorite targets; with Senator George W. Norris (Nebraska), he waged a successful fight to prevent the private development of Muscle Shoals by the industrialist Henry Ford. In 1928, La Guardia cosponsored with Norris a measure to permit the federal development of the project; it was pocket-vetoed by President Coolidge. One newspaper of the 1920s called him “America’s Most Liberal Congressman.” La Guardia summed up his own image of himself when he said in 1927, “I am doomed to live in a hopeless minority for most of my legislative days.”
In 1932, the Norris-La Guardia Anti-Injunction Act was passed. However, at the very peak of his congressional career, La Guardia lost his bid for reelection in 1932 – a casualty of the Democratic-Roosevelt landslide.
La Guardia had previously run for Mayor of New York City in 1929 against the popular Democratic incumbent James J. Walker and been defeated by nearly half a million votes. In 1933, when an anti-Tammany Fusion slate was formed under the leadership of Judge Samuel Seabury, whose investigations had led to Mayor Walker’s resignation, La Guardia was its nominee. This time he was elected. Reelected in 1937 and again in 1941, he was the first reform Mayor in New York’s history to succeed himself.
For the next twelve years, over the city’s radio station, before the legislature in Albany, at the Board of Estimate, and elsewhere, he identified good government in New York City with his name in dramatic fashion. La Guardia was a popular showman. The press, chronicling his every move and antic, made him the best-known chief executive in New York City’s history.
In 1934, he secured enabling legislation from Albany to balance the city budget through special taxes and structural reorganization, such as the consolidation of the five borough park departments into a single department. Two years later he threw his weight behind a successful referendum for a new city charter. The most advanced municipal constitution of its time, it provided for a deputy mayor, a smaller city council to replace the discredited Board of Aldermen, and a city planning commission. Through other legislation, La Guardia built the city’s first sewage treatment plants, improved the market facilities, and by 1940 achieved both the unification and public ownership of the city’s subways.
New York was vital for the New Deal’s recovery program, and La Guardia’s standing with the Roosevelt administration released a flow of federal funds for projects dear to him. La Guardia opened New York’s first major airport in northern Queens (later renamed LaGuardia Airport), and in 1942, the ground was broken for Idlewild Airport (later renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport) in southern Queens. La Guardia drew up blueprints and received grants from Washington for schools, playgrounds, swimming pools, bridges, roads, health centers, parks and the arts.
Besides raising the quality of urban life, La Guardia’s public improvements put men and women back to work in a time of mass unemployment. He reformed the relief system to include rent payments, food allotments, and grants to single men. Also with the help of federal money, La Guardia realized his long-standing ideas about slum clearance. By 1942 the New York City Housing Authority, which he had been brought into being eight years earlier, had constructed 13 public housing projects. He believed in “government with a heart.” He attracted and retained for considerable lengths of service, men of unique talent – among them Robert Moses, A. A. Berle, Jr., Newbold Morris, Rexford G. Tugwell, Paul Windels and Joseph D. McGoldrick.
As World War II approached, La Guardia hoped that President Roosevelt would appoint him Secretary of War, but that position fell to another Republican, Henry L. Stimson. La Guardia was instead appointed Director of Civilian Defense in 1941. Unhappy in this role, he applied for an Army General’s commission and was deeply disappointed when his application was rejected. The wartime Roosevelt administration wanted La Guardia to remain in command of the most important city on the home front.
La Guardia was 37 when he got married. On March 8, 1919, he married Thea Almerigotti, a native of Trieste; they had one child, Fioretta Thea. Both wife and infant daughter died of tuberculosis in 1921. La Guardia’s second marriage, on February 28, 1929, was to Marie Fischer, a native New Yorker who had been his secretary for 15 years. The childless couple adopted a girl, Jean, and a boy, Eric.
La Guardia left City Hall in 1945. Unwilling to retire, he served as Director-General of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in 1946. He died on September 20, 1947, at his home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx from pancreatic cancer. Funeral services were conducted at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where La Guardia had occasionally worshipped. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
- Elliott, Lawrence. 1983. Little flower: the life and times of Fiorello La Guardia. New York: Morrow.
- Jeffers, H. Paul. 2002. The Napoleon of New York: Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
- Kessner, Thomas. 1991. Fiorello H. La Guardia and the making of modern New York. New York: Penguin Books.
- La Guardia, Fiorello H., and M. R. Werner. 1948. The making of an insurgent, an autobiography, 1882-1919. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co.
- "La Guardia Is Dead; City Pays Homage to 3-Time Mayor." The New York Times, September 21, 1947, Late City ed., sec. 1. https://nyti.ms/2QYYL6T.
- Williams, Mason B. 2013. City of ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the making of modern New York. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.
- Departmental correspondence, 1932-1945
- Subject files, 1913-1949
- Office of Civilian Defense, 1936-1946
- Civilian Defense Volunteer Office, 1928-1950
- Selective Service Aide, 1908-1946
- Correspondence with federal officials, 1933-1945
- United States Conference of Mayors, 1933-1945
- Latin American Scholarship Committee, 1941-1954
- United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, 1944-1947
- American Society of Civil Engineers, 1940-1945
- Police Department, 1931-1948
- Invitations, 1933-1945
- Pre-administration and congressional career, 1903-1947
- Post-administration, 1945-1946
- Mayoralty campaigns, 1901-1949
- Board of Aldermen, 1920-1921
- Prohibition, 1919-1933
- Autobiography – World War I, 1910-1947
- Scrapbooks, 1933-1946
- Photographs, 1864-1947
- Oversize and separated material, circa 1934-1945
- Guide to the records of Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, 1934-1945
- Jacqueline Reisert Esposito
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Processing was made possible in part by the Ford Foundation.
- 2018: Significant revisions and data standardization by staff archivist Alexandra Hilton