City Hall to silver screen: The filmic life of Ed Koch


BY JERRY TALLMER  |Fifty years is a long time to have known somebody, and it has been all of 50 years and more since we of the new weekly Village Voice were cultivated by a clean-cut, Uptown, reform Republican named John Vliet Lindsay and a Downtown, legal eagle, reform Democrat named Edward Irving Koch.

Each of these gentlemen, tall, gracious, idealistic Lindsay, certified WASP, and tall, gabby, balding Ed Koch, certified Hebe, repeatedly — and often at the same moment — found their way up a narrow flight of stairs to the rattletrap, floor-through, editorial office and birthplace of The VV at 22 Greenwich Avenue, next door to Sutter’s bakery, across 10th Street from the Women’s House of Detention.

There, at our desks, they each in turn, or both together, Lindsay and Koch, would shoot the breeze with editor Daniel Wolf, publisher Edwin C. Fancher, and even with me, certified culture vulture of the “back of the book” — the theater and arts section — of the paper.

I do not remember that we — Koch and I — ever much talked about movies. We talked about how to try to unseat the dark-eyeglassed Tammany Hall district leader Carmine De Sapio who, in conjunction with hard-driving, young Robert Kennedy, this crucial year of 1960, seemed to have a stranglehold on the entire looming Democratic National Convention.

I was to join Koch at the movies and report on how he created his reviews — at least that was the plan.

We all know how that turned out — and ended in Dallas, Texas, November 22, 1963.

Ed Koch’s three terms as mayor of New York City still lay distantly before us. And so did his career as film critic, much less my own as all-purpose critic, reporter, feature writer and editorialist for Dorothy Schiff’s New York Post for thirty-something years until disposed of by Rupert Murdoch in his night of the long knives.

Koch knew how to squeeze a nickel. Gracie Mansion be damned. To the end, he clung onto his $450-a-month, rent-controlled Greenwich Village apartment, from which you could spy all those rooftop water tanks that Joseph Kahn, veteran New York Post investigative reporter, loved to paint. I mean, paint pictures of. Koch let him come in every so often and do it, hanging out Koch’s window.

When Fancher and Wolf sold The Village Voice in 1970, Mayor Ed moved Dan Wolf, as an unpaid adviser — on race relations and everything else — right to a special desk in a room next to Koch’s own locale in City Hall.

Again, I doubt if Koch and Wolf discussed movies a great deal. Too much real-life, Spike Lee-type cinema unreeling on all sides.

So imagine my surprise when, one fine day eight or nine years ago I found myself wandering through a movie review in this paper, The Villager (not Village Voice), by one Edward I. Koch. And again the following week. And the next. And every week thereafter.

They weren’t movie reviews as such. They were reviews of other people’s reviews, and/or stuff like the weather that day, and what this reviewer — Ed Koch — had had to nosh during the picture, and whether the movie at hand had been worth the price of admission, and if the theater seat had been too comfortable, or not comfortable enough, and whether his weekend moviegoing companion had enjoyed it or hated it, and so on and so forth.

Finally, Karen Cooper, who founded and runs the invaluable, impeccable Film Forum on Houston Street, and takes film (particularly documentary film) very seriously indeed, had had enough. She wrote a long, angry dissection of the Koch critical process which The Villager printed in full, and then — by way of balance I suppose — The Villager’s then publisher John W. Sutter called me up and asked if I’d like to spend a Saturday accompanying Ed Koch to the movies and writing up how the former mayor went about creating his review or reviews of same. Koch would like to do it, John Sutter said.

I said, sure. I’m always interested in how things work. We picked a Saturday and a movie and a theater — the Angelika, I think — and one week later I was almost out the door on the way to the assignment when the telephone rang again. It was John Sutter.

“It’s off,” he said. “He changed his mind. He doesn’t want to do it. He’s afraid of what you might do to him.”

So now we’ll never know.

I’m sorry, Ed. You were many things, good and not so good, but as your old antagonist Al Sharpton said the night of the day you died, you were — unlike so many other people in your business — always authentic, always flesh and blood. And you played a supreme joke on the universe: You kicked the bucket at New York Presbyterian (where you’d arrived saying: “How’m I doing?” 88 years earlier), at 2 o’clock in the morning of the day that Neil Barsky’s “Koch,” a documentary all about you, was itself arriving at the Angelika movie theater on Houston Street.

That’s entertainment.