BY CAROL GREITZER | Knowing Ed Koch for well more than 50 years guarantees lots of memories — some good, some not so good — some surprising — some amusing. But as I listened or read about people’s recollections, I realized that these were mostly anecdotes from the mayoral years. And that doesn’t give the complete picture.
So I found myself saying to someone, “I knew Ed Koch before he was Ed Koch.” Before there existed the brash, in-your-face personality everyone conjures up when his name is mentioned. We met during the 1956 presidential campaign as members of the Stevenson-Kefauver Committee, which was located in one room at 224 W. Fourth St. Ed was one of the few people who would go out on the street as a stump speaker for our candidates (and did very well at it), whereas the rest of us took our campaign cards and went door to door to turn out the vote.
The election over, in December of ’56 the group convened to form the Village Independent Democrats. Most of the people were enthusiastic, but a few recommended a different strategy. Rather than become an insurgent club facing an uphill battle to defeat Carmine DeSapio’s “regular” Tamawa Club, Koch suggested joining Tamawa and “boring from within.” The fact that women couldn’t be members of that club and were relegated to a sort of ladies auxiliary was just one of the reasons Koch’s idea was rejected.
Rebounded after his ‘boring from within’ Tammany tactic tanked
Nevertheless, he and a couple of others left the group and did join Tamawa, only to return in frustration several months later.
While Ed was great as a stump speaker, on his return he was somewhat diffident (would anyone believe it if I described him as almost shy?) possibly because he was regarded with suspicion by some. Gradually, he became an active, accepted member of the club…but only one of several lawyers — and others — who articulated issues and debated endlessly at weekly meetings. All around town the joke was that V.I.D. meetings lasted till 1 a.m. That probably did happen on occasion.
In 1960 I decided to run for vice president in the club elections. But when I heard that Ed was planning to run for president, I said to myself, “If he can run for president, so can I!” And I did. And I won, maybe because some folks still felt uneasy about Ed. Then, in the tradition of unity that characterized V.I.D. at that time, I appointed Ed the club’s law chairman…and we worked together harmoniously ever after — or at least for several years.
Flash forward to 1962. Ed decided to run for the Assembly against popular Assemblyman Bill Passannante. Bill was a Tamawa member but he had a liberal voting record. By his own acknowledgement later, Ed was a terrible candidate, despite having an interesting, substantive, S.A.D. campaign — to change the laws on sodomy, abortion and divorce. It turned out that the Ed Koch who could speak effectively on behalf of others, was as yet unable to do so for himself. But he learned.
When he ran for district leader in 1963 he was more comfortable in the role of candidate. But the road to becoming a candidate wasn’t easy. After his dismal 1962 performance, many people began beating the bushes to come up with a suitable candidate after Jim Lanigan, who ran successfully with me as district leader in 1961, left V.I.D. and formed a club of his own.
Jack Kaplan, founder of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, told me he had a great idea. Why not get Jane Jacobs to run? he asked. I explained that party rules called for a male district leader and a female district leader, and that we needed the male. He didn’t seem to think much of that rule!
Ed campaigned with amazing energy and enthusiasm. In those days you could get into buildings pretty easily, except for some with doormen. In elevator buildings you’d ride to the top and work your way down, ringing Democrats’ doorbells as you went. In walk-ups, you’d go up, one floor at a time. Most folks opened their doors back then, particularly if a female voice responded when they asked, “Who’s there?” There were many amusing incidents. I recall one person who opened the door stark naked and said, “Oh. I thought you were someone else.”
My reports to the club were very straightforward, but Ed would embellish his, upgrading them to the level of entertainment. That was undoubtedly the start of the Ed Koch persona.
When we’d get back to the clubhouse every night after canvassing, we’d both give reports as to how the evening went. My reports were very straightforward, but Ed would embellish his. He didn’t exactly lie, but somehow, raconteur style, he’d work in a few side remarks that upgraded his reports to the level of entertainment. And that was undoubtedly the start of the Ed Koch persona other New Yorkers came to know and, mostly, love.
Winning that district leader race, even by only 41 votes, and then decisively winning the rerun gave Ed the confidence in himself that was not altogether evident earlier. When as democratic leaders we did the unthinkable — at that time — endorsing Republican John Lindsay for mayor, we had to go on trial before our colleagues — the Executive Committee of the New York County Committee, formerly known as Tammany Hall.
The meeting took place in a basement dining room at the old Commodore Hotel. We were represented by our club member Stanley Geller and were both confident that day. All they could do was expel us. But we knew, and they did too, that if they did so, our local County Committee members would simply re-elect us. So nothing really happened, and we emerged from the meeting, with TV cameras operating, into the rush-hour throngs of Grand Central. Events like this helped build up the Koch media archive, which, of course, was to become quite extensive in ensuing years.
On club nights in Greenwich Village, Ed was known to rush down to the Sheridan Square newsstand to check on the morning papers when he thought he might be in them. Back then there were seven dailies in New York, and the Village was geographically between the Downtown location of papers like the World Telegram, the Post and the Sun and the Midtown location of the Times and Tribune, so we got lots of coverage.
Some of the cultural changes in the ’60s had an influence on all of us living in the Village. The coffeehouses and music scene on Macdougal St. caused noisy crowds that became a campaign issue for the residents — mainly Italians. As a founder of the Macdougal Area Neighborhood Association (MANA), Ed developed a new, nonpolitical relationship with South Village Italians. He went to social functions and drank wine with people like Dina Nolan, Harry Risetto and John Perazzo. Dina was a warm, beautiful, earth mother type who took Ed under her wing and soon had him singing “Mala Femina” and other Italian love songs along with the group.
This informal side of him manifested itself even after he became mayor. When he visited me for weekends at Fire Island, he joined the barefoot crowd, helped in the garden and schmoozed with the local shopkeepers, just as we’d see him shopping at Balducci’s and, later, Citarella here in the Village.
But while the warm, friendly Ed was being nurtured, the witty, acerbic side was also beginning to develop. When some woman began haranguing him for not doing enough to stem cruelty to animals, he told her it was an issue he cared deeply about.
“In fact,” he assured her, “I think we ought to do something about the poor lobsters being thrown into boiling water!”
When Ed was running for mayor, some pundits complained that he had no executive experience. I laughed at that…because any time we had a project, like saving the colorful pushcarts on Bleecker St., or planning a Park on the Pier (POP) event to advocate for a recreation pier, Ed organized the committees and delegated authority. You get the posters. You get the drinks. You’re in charge of entertainment, etc. He did it quickly and efficiently; I knew it would serve him well when he became mayor. And I was right.
Ed once invented a toy for young children. It wasn’t exactly successful…but it must have given him the invention bug. Because then he invented Ed Koch.
Let me conclude with an incident that took place just a few weeks before he became mayor, but after he was elected. Several of us attended the wedding of Steve Berger and Cynthia Wainwright on a boat moored at W. 42nd St. That evening it poured and poured and never let up. Even when we left it was still raining hard. We couldn’t get a cab; a bus never came; and we walked all the way from the river to the Port Authority terminal where we could pick up subways or buses. Drenched as we all were, Ed was cheerful and philosophic about the situation.
“Can you imagine the mayor of New York not being able to get a taxi and having to walk in the rain?” he asked, both rhetorically and incredulously — simultaneously.
Knowing Ed, I’m sure it never happened again.
After being district leader, Greitzer was elected to the City Council in 1969, representing the Village, Chelsea and Midtown, holding office for 21 years until ’91.