Ed Koch recently told Vanity Fair that his idea of perfect happiness was “sitting in a living room with his sister, Pat Thaler, and her seven grandchildren and just talking with them.”
The former New York City mayor, who some would call a loudmouth but was really often a blunt, charismatic speaker, told the magazine in its February issue that when he woke up each morning he would remind himself he was still in New York -- the city he loved so deeply -- and for that he would say, “Thank God.”
Koch died on Friday.
His death wasn’t from his greatest fear -- “choking on food with no one nearby to perform the Heimlich maneuver,” as he revealed to the magazine. The 88-year-old died early morning at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia Hospital from congestive heart failure, his spokesman George Arzt told the media.
Koch was admitted to the hospital Monday while experiencing shortness of breath. By Thursday, he was moved to the intensive care unit. Doctors wanted to closely monitor the fluid in his lungs and legs. Just two days earlier, reports were that Koch was released after receiving treatment for water in those affected areas.
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Koch was hospitalized four more times in the past five months.
“I want to be in Manhattan when I die. I would like it if people visited,” Koch told the Daily Beast in an interview earlier this month.
He was. And it is where he will get his final send-off. A funeral service will be held Monday at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan. The inscription on his headstone placed at Trinity Church Cemetery four years ago is “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish” -- the spoken words of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was killed by militants in Pakistan.
“My brain is good, but my body is deteriorating,” he told the Daily Beast. “I probably have another two or three years. Or I can pass tomorrow, but it doesn’t make a difference to me.”
Reviving New York
Edward Koch was born in the Bronx, N.Y., on Dec. 12, 1924. He studied at City College of New York and New York University Law School. His college years were interrupted when he went to serve in the U.S. Army as a combat infantryman, holding the rank of sergeant, between 1943 and 1946. For those years of service, Koch received two Battle Stars. He would later complete his law degree and began practicing as a lawyer in New York City when he was admitted to the bar in 1949.
Pretty soon, Koch would become a top political figure in New York City, serving as a member of the city council and then in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1969 to 1977. That was the year Koch ran for mayor of New York City, won the election and took office the following January. He was reelected mayor in 1981 and 1985. The years Koch spent as mayor were the most formidable for the city, but he triumphed.
At the time, New York City was plagued with crime and famously dirty. Racial tensions were high. The city was experiencing financial failures, and it was on the brink of bankruptcy. At the end of Koch’s three terms, there was a new New York where neighborhoods were being rebuilt and infrastructure was getting a face-lift.
The creation of housing programs led to the city financing more than 150,000 units of affordable housing to the tune of more than $5.1 billion. There was also the beginning of the transformation of cheap rentals into coops and condos.
Jonathan Soffer, who authored the biography “Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York,” reminisced by telephone Friday on what the conditions were like when Koch came into power. The city’s workforce had declined by tens of thousands.
“The city’s infrastructure, the management and agencies had lost so many people that they were barely at the point of functioning,” Soffer said. “Koch took over in extremely difficult situations.”
Soffer championed Koch not only for the city’s restoration, but for pioneering a centrist Democratic movement since adopted by subsequent administrations. Koch also helped influence the idea of the bustling Times Square as we have all come to know it.
Soffer explained that under the Koch administration, guidelines for zoning were created and so were the illuminated signs and the standard for how bright they should be.
“He wanted a Time Square that was bubbly,” Soffer said.
He continued, “I think New York City has lost one its great advocates for New York. While many New Yorkers disagreed with him -- and many strongly disliked him -- they know he was honest and forthright, and he cared deeply about New York City.”
But Koch's administration did face other difficulties that included corruption scandals and allegations of racial division. Of lesser importance, but the subject of much fascination, was his sexuality. There were rumors that Koch was gay.
The slogan “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo” was trotted out when he first ran for mayor against Mario Cuomo, a fellow Democrat who challenged him from the left on the Liberal Party ticket. Koch’s 1992 autobiography read, “Whether I am straight or gay or bisexual is nobody’s business but mine.”
But Koch's famously sharp tongue would later hurt him. Koch lost the 1982 gubernatorial primary (to Mario Cuomo, again) because he insulted the lifestyle of many in the Empire State, those in suburbia and upstate, when he described it to Playboy magazine as “sterile.”
Koch, definitely an urbanite, revealed he was happiest when he was at City Hall. He confessed to Vanity Fair, “I would like to be more accepting of the faults of others.”
He may not have been a statewide influence, but until the day he died, Koch was big in New York City politics. A Democrat, Koch supported Republican Rudy Guiliani’s mayoral run in 1993. Current Mayor Michael Bloomberg also scored Koch’s endorsement. (Koch also hosted a weekly show on Bloomberg Radio, owned by the billionaire media mogul.)
In a statement after Koch’s death, Bloomberg called Koch an “irrepressible icon, our most charismatic cheerleader and champion.”
“He was a great mayor, a great man and a great friend,” he continued. “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. We will miss him dearly, but his good works -- and his wit and wisdom -- will forever be a part of the city he loved so much. His spirit will live on not only here at City Hall, and not only on the bridge that bears his name, but all across the five boroughs.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo echoed similar sentiments. He had often turned to Koch for advice and guidance. Cuomo said he spoke to Koch on Thursday to wish him well. That friendship, Cuomo said, will be missed.
“No New Yorker has -- or likely ever will -- voice their love for New York City in such a passionate and outspoken manner than Ed Koch,” Cuomo said in a statement. “New York City would not be the place it is today without Ed Koch’s leadership over three terms at City Hall. Mr. Mayor was never one to shy away from taking a stand that he believed was right, no matter what the polls said or what was politically correct.”
Koch also appeared in movies and commercials and was a professor at several universities.
But Koch’s favorite occupation, according to him, was writing.