In the late 1970s when Edward I. Koch won his first term as mayor of New York, the city was in shambles, its coffers and confidence sapped by financial crises and a paralyzing blackout. It needed a fighter and found one in Koch, a well-practiced pol with the determination — and bite — of a bulldog.
He steered the city out of bankruptcy and restored its swagger, a one-man cheerleading squad who personified the witty and feisty New Yorker.
The three-term mayor of New York and perennial civic combatant, who rallied and riled the city in and out of office with his tenacious style and irrepressible opinions, died Friday of
Koch had been hospitalized Monday, a day before a documentary about him, "Koch," premiered in
For most of his adult life, Koch had lived alone in an apartment off Washington Square Park in
He juggled almost a dozen jobs — including law partner, columnist, author, radio show host, playwright, movie reviewer and lecturer — and appeared relentlessly in the media, a shtick-artist with one of the most recognizable New York accents in the world. When he wasn't bellowing at opponents on political round tables, he was hawking such products as diet aids and soft drinks in advertisements and popping up in screen cameos as himself, the quintessential New Yorker, alongside Carrie and the girls in television episodes of
His support was pivotal in Republican Bob Turner's victory in the September 2011 special election in the heavily Democratic congressional district that had been represented by Rep.
For his 86th birthday in 2010, New York's current mayor,
"He was a great mayor, a great man, and a great friend," Bloomberg said Friday in a statement. "In elected office and as a private citizen, he was our most tireless, fearless and guileless civic crusader. Through his tough, determined leadership and responsible fiscal stewardship, Ed helped lift the city out of its darkest days and set it on course for an incredible comeback."
New York Gov.
"He was the epitome of New York — loud, funny, opinionated, smart," said Arzt, who was Koch's City Hall spokesman and part of an administration alumni group that lunched with him every Saturday after he left office. "Ed was very much a straight-shooter, a champion of the middle class, a moderate Democrat akin to a Harry Truman. He defied categories."
In fact, Koch loved to enrage liberals by doing and saying the unthinkable — endorsing Republican politicians such
He invited controversy and enjoyed confrontation. He once wrestled an egg-throwing heckler to the floor before the police could move in.
Altogether, Koch wrote or co-authored 17 books, including eight autobiographies, two children's books and multiple mystery novels starring himself as the detective.
Koch opined freely, never mincing words: Movie tickets were too expensive; the
The only topics that remained off limits were his heroic service as an infantryman in World War II — he was awarded two battle stars — and his sexuality. A lifelong bachelor, he was dogged by questions about his sexuality, which he largely ignored, although he did on two occasions describe himself as heterosexual. "I ran in a total of 24 elections and won 21," he once told the New York Times. "I will not be a coward and say I am straight or I'm gay, because it's no one's business. I got where I am today not because of sexuality or gender but because people thought I was the best at what I did...."
In recent years, Koch appeared to mellow, seeking reconciliation with former rivals, but he refused to yield when it came to standards for public service. As recently as the summer of 2010, the octogenarian ginned up a campaign called "New York Uprising" to reform state government. Despite a history of heart disease that left him with two pacemakers and a degenerative spinal disorder that caused the once-strapping 6-foot-1 former mayor to be stooped in old age, he embarked in a Jeep on a campaign-style press tour around upstate New York to shame reluctant legislators in their home districts into signing a pledge to "clean up Albany."
This was shortly after Koch, ever the showman, revealed he had finalized plans for his funeral and penned his epitaph. His gravestone will declare his pride in his religion — "My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish" — and his "fierce" love of his city and country.
Edward Irving Koch was born Dec. 12, 1924, in the Bronx and spent his early years in Newark, N.J., where his family moved after his furrier father went broke during the Great Depression. Koch attended the City College of New York before being drafted into the Army; he eventually graduated from
The second of three children, Koch is survived by his sister, Pat Koch Thaler. A brother, Harold, died in 1995.
In 1977, he ran in a Democratic primary for mayor against six candidates, including the incumbent, Abraham Beame, and a rising Queens political star named Mario Cuomo. Nobody expected the nebbish from the liberal clubs of Greenwich Village to emerge ahead of the pack, but Koch squeaked by with promises of pragmatic solutions to save a bankrupt city.
As mayor, he persuaded Congress to give New York additional federal loan guarantees that gave him time to put the city's fiscal house in order. He balanced the budget, cut spending, negotiated new municipal labor contracts and seeded programs to rebuild neighborhoods destroyed by years of neglect and arson.
In 1981, with endorsements from both the Democratic and Republican parties, he was returned to office with 75% of the vote.
Koch's ubiquity became such a source of tension among City Hall journalists not wanting to miss a story that his press secretary eventually installed a buzzer in the room where they were stationed so she could warn them simultaneously if the mayor was on the loose.
His critics and friends agreed that one of Koch's biggest mistakes was to fall for his own media image. Such hubris led him to run for governor in 1982, wasting a year on what he later admitted was a foolish effort. Again he was up against Cuomo in a primary, but this time Koch lost.
After losing, he wrote "Mayor" (1984), a bestselling, tell-all memoir that took harsh shots at rivals and friends. In 1985, he was reelected mayor for the final time.
That third term was quickly swamped by corruption scandals and investigations involving Koch's political allies that sent some of his aides and cronies to jail. While he was never personally implicated in wrongdoing, his administration was tainted at a time when it was also facing monumental challenges associated with crack use, AIDS and homelessness.
When he sought a fourth term, he was defeated for the Democratic nomination by Manhattan Borough President David N. Dinkins, who became the city's first African American mayor.
Jonathan Soffer, a historian and author of the 2010 book "Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City," said Koch's loose lips continually caused trouble. During the 1988 presidential primary, he said Jews and other supporters of Israel would be "crazy" to vote for the
"Koch tried to say he treated everyone equally and was racially neutral," Soffer said. "But his rhetoric was perceived by some in the black community as racially biased."
When asked later how he felt when people expressed regret at his loss, he offered a classic Kochian meld of charm and chutzpah. "The people have spoken," he said, "and the people must be punished!"
In the end, Koch never stepped far from his old City Hall office.
"In many ways Ed Koch never stopped being mayor," Police Commissioner
Susman is a Times staff writer. Baum is a former Times staff writer.