Ed Koch’s favorite moment as mayor of New York City, fittingly, involved yelling.
Suddenly inspired to do something brash about a bitter mass transit strike that crippled the city in 1980, he strode down to the Brooklyn Bridge not far from his City Hall office to encourage commuters who were forced to walk to work instead of jumping aboard subway trains and buses.
“I began to yell, ‘Walk over the bridge! Walk over the bridge! We’re not going to let these bastards bring us to our knees!’ And people began to applaud,” the famously combative, acid-tongued politician recalled at a 2012 forum.
He took his own advice, too. Days later, he walked from Manhattan across the Queensboro Bridge — formally renamed in his honor in 2011 — and was greeted with cheers from commuters trudging alongside and by crowds on the Queens side.
Koch’s success in rallying New Yorkers in the face of the strike was, he said, his biggest personal achievement as mayor. And it was a display that was quintessentially Koch, who rescued the city from near-financial ruin during a three-term City Hall run in which he embodied New York chutzpah for the rest of the world.
Koch died at 2 a.m. Friday at the age of 88 from congestive heart failure, spokesman George Arzt said. The funeral will be Monday at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.
Koch was admitted to NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia hospital on Monday with shortness of breath, and was moved to intensive care on Thursday for closer monitoring of the fluid in his lungs and legs. He had been released two days earlier after being treated for water in his lungs and legs. He had initially been admitted on Jan. 19.
After leaving City Hall in January 1990, Koch battled assorted health problems and heart disease. But he kept going until his death: working at a law firm; churning out movie reviews, appearing on all-news cable channel New York 1’s weekly politicalWise Guys broadcast; hosting a radio program and speaking out on subjects from A to Z.
A World War II Army veteran, former City Council member and congressman from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, he was elected the city’s 105th mayor at a time when the city was still grappling with the fiscal aftershocks of a financial crisis that had almost left it bankrupt. He would serve three terms marked by economic resurgence, racial discord and, finally, municipal corruption scandals.
The larger-than-life Koch, a tall man with a nasal honk of a voice who breezed through the streets of New York flashing his signature thumbs-up sign, won a national reputation with his feisty style. “How’m I doing?” was his trademark question to constituents, although the question was completely rhetorical. The mayor always thought he was doing wonderfully.
Former mayor David Dinkins, who succeeded Koch, called the former mayor “a feisty guy who would tell you what he thinks.”
“Ed was a guy to whom I could turn if I wanted a straight answer,” he told Fox 5 News on Friday.
Bald and bombastic, paunchy and pretentious, he was quick with a friendly quip and equally fast with a cutting remark for his political enemies.
“You punch me, I punch back,” Koch once memorably observed. “I do not believe it’s good for one’s self-respect to be a punching bag.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, head of the National Action Network and an African-American community leader who often battled Koch, said in a statement Friday that although they disagreed on many things, the former mayor “was never a phony or a hypocrite. He would not patronize or deceive you. He said what he meant. He meant what he said. He fought for what he believed. May he rest in peace.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a national black leader who also battled with Koch, similarly tempered his comments Friday. “He helped a lot of people. I have an appreciation of his work as a public servant,” said Jackson in a formal statement.
The mayor dismissed his critics as “wackos,” waged verbal war with developer Donald Trump (“piggy”) and mayoral successor Rudy Giuliani (“nasty man”) and once reduced the head of the City Council to tears.
“I’m not the type to get ulcers,” he wrote in Mayor, his autobiography. “I give them.”
When President George W. Bush ran for re-election in 2004, Democrat Koch crossed party lines to support him and spoke at the GOP convention. He also endorsed Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s re-election efforts at a time when Bloomberg was a Republican. Koch described himself as “a liberal with sanity.”
In a statement, Bloomberg said the city “lost an irrepressible icon” and called Koch its “most charismatic cheerleader.”
“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,” Bloomberg said.
Koch was also an outspoken supporter of Israel, willing to criticize anyone, including President Obama, over decisions Koch thought could indicate any wavering of support for that nation.
In a WLIW-TV program The Jews of New York, Koch spoke of his attachment to his faith.
“Jews have always thought that having someone elevated with his head above the grass was not good for the Jews. I never felt that way,” he said. “I believe that you have to stand up.”
Under his watch from 1978 to 1989, the city climbed out of its financial crisis, thanks to Koch’s budget cuts and other tough fiscal policies, and subway service improved enormously. But homelessness and AIDS soared through the 1980s. Many critics charged that City Hall’s responses were too little, too late.
Koch said in a 2009 interview with The New York Times that he had few regrets about his time in office but still felt guilt over a decision he made as mayor to close Sydenham Hospital in Harlem. The move saved $9 million, but Koch said in 2009 that it was wrong “because black doctors couldn’t get into other hospitals” at the time.
“That was uncaring of me,” he said. “They helped elect me, and then in my zeal to do the right thing, I did something now that I regret.”
Koch was a champion of gay rights, taking on the Roman Catholic Church and scores of political leaders.
A life-long bachelor, Koch offered a typically blunt response to questions about his own sexuality: “My answer to questions on this subject is simply, ‘F— off.’ There have to be some private matters left.” He blamed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for campaign posters that proclaimed “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo,” when Koch lost the 1982 Democratic gubernatorial primary to then-lieutenant governor Mario Cuomo, the current governor’s father.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., called Koch “a true friend and trusted adviser.”
“Ed Koch personified the spirit of New York. New York’s Mayor For Life is now New York’s Mayor For Eternity,” King said in a statement.
Koch was fast-talking, opinionated and sometimes rude, becoming the face and sound of New York to those living outside the city. Koch became a celebrity, appearing on talk shows and playing himself in movies including The Muppets Take Manhattan and The First Wives Club and hosting Saturday Night Live.
In 1989’s Batman, the character of Gotham City’s mayor, played by Lee Wallace, bore a definite resemblance to Koch.
When Koch took over the mayor’s office from accountant Abe Beame in 1978, one thing quickly became apparent — with this mayor, nothing was certain. Reporters covered him around the clock because of “the Koch factor,” his ability to say something outrageous anyplace, anytime.
I, Koch, an unauthorized biography written by then-City Hall reporters Arthur Browne, Michael Goodwin and Dan Collins, told how a reporter new to the political beat wondered about Edward I. Koch’s middle initial. “His favorite personal pronoun,” another reporter immediately quipped. (Actually, it stood for Irving.)
After leaving office, Koch continued to offer his opinions as a political pundit, food critic and judge on The People’s Court.
Koch remained a political force in Albany well into old age. He secured a promise in 2010 from then-aspiring governor Andrew Cuomo and a number of state legislators to protect the electoral redistricting process from partisanship. Koch then vocally protested when Cuomo and others reneged on that pledge two years later.
Even in his 80s, Koch still exercised regularly and worked as a lawyer for the firm Bryan Cave.
At an 80th birthday bash for the former mayor, Bloomberg said Koch was “not only a great mayor and a great source of advice and support to other mayors, he happens to be one of the greatest leaders and politicians in the history of our city.”
He had been in the hospital twice in 2012, for anemia in September and then for a respiratory infection in December. He returned twice in January 2013 with fluid buildup in his lungs.
He had undergone surgery in June 2009 to replace his aortic valve and gallbladder surgery a month later. He had a pacemaker inserted in 1991 and was hospitalized eight years later with a heart attack. In early 2001, he was hospitalized with pneumonia.
Koch was born in the Bronx on Dec. 12, 1924, the second of three children of Polish immigrants Louis and Joyce Koch. During the Depression, the family lived in Newark, N.J.
The future mayor worked his way through school, checking hats, working behind a delicatessen counter and selling shoes. He attended City College and served as a combat infantryman in Europe during World War II, earning his sergeant stripes.
He received a law degree from New York University in 1948 and began practicing law in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, where his political career began as a member of the Village Independent Democrats, a group of liberal reformers. He defeated powerful Democratic leader Carmine DeSapio, whose roots reached back to the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine, in a race for district leader.
Koch was elected to the City Council and then to Congress, serving from 1969-77 as representative for the “Silk Stocking” district that was then known for its millionaire Park Avenue constituency.
The liberal Koch was the first Democrat to represent the district in 31 years. But his politics edged to the center of the political spectrum during his years in Congress and pulled to the right on a number of issues after becoming mayor.
His answer to the war on drugs? Send convicted drug dealers to concentration camps in the desert.
Decaying buildings? Paint phony windows, complete with cheery flower pots, on brick facades — though he later spearheaded a much-applauded city housing program.
Overcrowded city jails? House inmates on floating prison barges.
Championed by the New York Post under then-new owner Rupert Murdoch, Koch defeated incumbent Beame and Mario Cuomo in the Democratic primary to win his first term in City Hall. Like his hero Fiorello LaGuardia, the fiery fusion party mayor who ran the city from 1933 to 1945, Koch ran on the Republican and Conservative party lines in the 1981 mayoral election.
He breezed to re-election in both 1981 and 1985, winning an unprecedented three-quarters of the votes cast. At the time, he was only the third mayor in city history to be elected to three terms.
While mayor, he wrote three books including the best seller Mayor, Politics and His Eminence and Hizzoner, written with Cardinal John O’Connor, who died in 2000. He wrote seven other non-fiction books, four mystery novels and three children’s books after leaving office.
Early in his second term, Koch flip-flopped on his pledge to remain at City Hall and decided to challenge Mario Cuomo for governor. But he lost after mouthing off about life outside his hometown. “Have you ever lived in the suburbs?” Koch told an interviewer who asked about a possible move to Albany. “It’s sterile. It’s nothing. It’s wasting your life.”
Koch’s third term was beset by corruption scandals. Queens Borough President Donald Manes — a close ally — committed suicide in March 1986, after having resigned over kickback and patronage allegations. Bronx Democratic leader Stanley Friedman and three others were also tarred. Koch’s commissioner of cultural affairs, former Miss America Bess Myerson, stepped down in the wake of a scandal involving her boyfriend and a judge overseeing a legal case concerning him.
As the pressure grew, Koch suffered a minor stroke in 1987.
The administration was also beset by racial unrest, first after the 1986 death of a black youth at the hands of a white gang in Howard Beach and three years later after a black teen was shot to death in Brooklyn’s tough Bensonhurst neighborhood by a group of whites.
Six weeks after the second slaying, Koch lost the Democratic primary to the city’s eventual first black mayor, David Dinkins. Koch later said the simmering racial tensions didn’t lead to his defeat.
“I was defeated because of longevity,” Koch said. “People get tired of you. So they decided to throw me out.”
The man who bragged that he would always get a better job but New Yorkers would never get a better mayor, left his City Hall office for the last time on Dec. 31, 1989.
Looking back, Koch said in a 1997 interview: “All I could think of was, “Free at last, free at last, great God almighty, I’m free at last.”
He was finished with public office, but he would never be through with the city. At age 83, Koch paid $20,000 for a burial plot at Trinity Church Cemetery, at the time the only graveyard in Manhattan that still had space.
“I don’t want to leave Manhattan, even when I’m gone,” Koch told the Associated Press. “This is my home. The thought of having to go to New Jersey was so distressing to me.”
Not long after buying the plot, he had his tombstone inscribed and installed. The marker features the last words of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish.”
It also includes a Jewish prayer and the epitaph he wrote after his stroke:
“He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith. He fiercely defended the City of New York, and he fiercely loved its people. Above all, he loved his country, the United States of America, in whose armed forces he served in World War II.”
Fittingly, an obituary in Friday’s New York Times paraphrased comments by longtime Koch friend and political adviser Maureen Connelly in concluding that the former mayor “is survived by New York itself.”