American in the Making

A native of New York City, son of Italian immigrants, FIORELLO H. LA GUARDIA spent his boyhood in Arizona, where his father was bandmaster of the 11th U.S. Infantry, and his early manhood in Fiume, where as our Consular Agent he continued the self-education which was to make him one of the most creative statesmen of our time. In this, the first of three installments drawn from his autobiography, which he did not live to finish, we see the unforgettable interaction between his youthful experience and his mature legislation. The autobiography, edited by M. R. Werner, will be published by Lippincott in May.
La Guardia's story continues:

American in the Making, Part Two (May 1948)

American in the Making, Part Three (June 1948)

MY PARENTS were immigrants. Mother was born in Trieste, and Father was born in Foggia, Italy. I came along some three or four years after their passage through Castle Garden. Father was a musician. From what I learned later, the family had a modest but comfortable apartment in New York when I was born. Mother was a pretty little immigrant girl and had made friends in the neighborhood.

Two of these friends my mother had made by the time I came along were the mothers of sons who became associated with my activities in New York City. Mrs. Charles Kohler's son Charlie became a Tammany leader and a great influence in that organization. We always remained good friends, though I did put Charlie out of business. My mother's other friend was the mother of Dr. John Wade, who became during my administration Superintendent of Schools in New York, the greatest school system in the entire world. I had nothing to do with his promotion, but we developed a sentimental feeling for each other, though I did not meet him until I became President of the Board of Aldermen in 1920.

Mrs. Kohler was a sweet lady of Swiss origin. She was most kind to me at a time when I needed it. When I was a clerk in the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1906, at $10 a week, Mrs. Kohler managed to feed and house me within my modest income during the three months that I held that job. She also took up the cudgels in my behalf politically and otherwise. When I was running for Congress in 1910 from a district in Greenwich Village, Charlie Kohler was a Tammany big shot in that Congressional district. One Saturday night when nearly every corner was covered with a truck and red lights and a campaign meeting, Mother Kohler was coming home from her Saturday night shopping, loaded with bundles, bags, and baskets. She stopped at one of the street corner meetings to listen and heard a Tammany orator lambaste me, telling the people that I was an immigrant just arrived, nothing but a "wop," and not fit to represent the great Fourteenth Congressional District in Washington. My opponent, then representing that great district in Congress, was President of the National Liquor Dealers' Association. Mother Kohler shouted out: "That's not so, that's a lie! Fiorello was born right in this districtl And you wait till Charlie gets home, I'll fix him! Cut that out and tell the truth!" And did Charlie get it when he came home!

I was only a few months old when my father joined the Army. He was the leader of the 11th U.S. Infantry Band. We went through South Dakota, but of course I have very little recollection of our time there, just one hazy childhood memory of a prairie fire. From there the regiment was moved to Madison Barracks, Sackets Harbor, New York, and then to Arizona.

All my boyhood memories are of those Arizona days. To me that is truly God's country—I love everything about it. Perhaps my memories of Arizona are so pleasant because I had a happy, wholesome boyhood. My parents were of the doting kind—too much love for their children and not the best of judgment in guiding their education; something for which I paid dearly in later years when 1 had to make up the deficiencies.

Our first Army station in Arizona was at Fort Huachuca, where we arrived in the late eighties. Its location, miles and miles from urban civilization, its barren hills and bleak surroundings, made it exceedingly unpleasant and undesirable for grown-ups but a paradise for a little boy. We could ride burros. Our playground was not measured in acres or city blocks, but in miles and miles. We could do just about everything a little boy dreams of. We talked with miners and Indians. We associated with soldiers and we learned to shoot even when we were so small the gun had to be hold for us by an elder. My family had a two-room dobe house, with a detached kitchen. The kitchen had a canvas roof, and the house had plank sides and flooring. It sure looked great to a small boy.

From Fort Huachuca our regiment was moved to Whipple Barracks, near Prescott, Arizona. My memories of Prescott are that it was the greatest, the most comfortable, and the most wonderful city in the whole world, whatever anybody might say about New York or Paris. People were so nice. Father was popular in the town, and as children of the Army bandmaster, my sister and I, though little kids, performed for all sorts of benefits. I played the cornet; and Gemma the violin, while Father accompanied us on the piano.

Army life was quite different in the eighteen eighties and nineties from what it is today. The pay of an enlisted man was $9 a month. The food was real, honest-to-goodness he-man Army food. Soldiers were tough. They had to be to survive existing conditions. All the officers were West Point men. A first lieutenant was 'way past middle age before he was in line for promotion to a captaincy. The distinction between commissioned officers and enlisted men was great. And that distinction went all the way down to the kids on the Post. It never bothered me very much because I did not adhere to such rules. I would just as soon fight with an officer's kid as I would with anyone else. Many of my experiences as an Army brat were useful to me when as a legislator I had to study bills affecting our Army and could apply this firsthand knowledge.

I attended the public school in Prescott. I thought it was a grand school. At first we had three or four teachers and later on a staff of five or six. They came from various parts of the United States. From what I heard later, I was a headache to every one of them. I have had a great deal to do with teachers since then: twelve years as Mayor, with 38,000 of them in our school system. Maybe it is sentiment, but that bunch of Arizona public school teachers still seems to me about the best in the whole world. That does not mean that I was not walloped by them.

Lena Coover was my favorite, and I was taunted by the kids for being teacher's pet. She was the prettiest little thing. She looked so young. She came from Iowa Normal, and as the Prescott job was her first, she was jittery about it. We were quick to catch her nervousness. We made the most of it. She learned a lot from us, and I used to tell her in later years that we, and not the Iowa Normal School, made her a teacher. On the first day she corrected my arithmetic paper. Some of the examples were wrong, and she did not notice them. The next day I purposely gave some wrong answers. Again the paper came back marked correct. Like the fresh kid I was, I went up to her desk the next day and said, "Look here, teacher, you better learn arithmetic if you are going to teach us," and I pointed out the mistakes to her. Was her pretty little face red!

Well, she did learn arithmetic, and by the time we were through with her she could put us through the mathematical ropes. Miss Lena lives in Los Angeles, and I have seen her from time to time. The same mutual affection that existed during the time when I was the bane of her life exists today. She thinks I am a great statesman, and I think she is a great teacher, which just about makes us even.


WHAT I saw and heard and learned in my boyhood days in Arizona made lasting impressions on me. Many of the things on which I have such strong feelings—feelings which some of my opponents have regarded as unreasonable obsessions—were first impressed on my mind during those early days, and the knowledge I acquired then never left me. On some of those things I believe I am so right in my attitude that I remain uncompromising.

For instance, there is the professional politician. Though I have been in politics for well over forty years, I loathe the professional politician. I have never been a regular. I have fought political machines and party politics at every opportunity. This attitude had its origin in the loudly dressed, slick and sly Indian agents, political appointees, I saw come into Arizona. The first time I ever heard the word politician was at Fort Huachuca, when I was still a small child. The word was applied to those Indian agents. I learned afterwards that they got the jobs because they were small-fry ward heelers. I saw hungry Indians, and the little Indian kids watched us while we munched a Kansas apple or ate a cooky Mother baked. I knew, even as a child, that the government in Washington provided food for all these Indians but that the "politicians" sold the rations to miners and even to general stores, robbing the Indians of the food the government provided for them. That was my first contact with "politicians."

My Arizona days made a lasting impression on me of the tinhorn and his ways. Professional gamblers in the West were known as tinhorns. To me they have been tinhorns ever since. But there is one thing that could be said about the professional gambler of over half a century ago in the West: if he was alive, it was a fair assumption that he had not been caught gypping. Gamblers and saloonkeepers were an important part of pioneer Weston life, but they were never a reputable part of the community. I remember very well how it used to be said that a gambler or a saloonkeeper could not join the Masons or the Elks. Gamblers were tolerated and patronized but not accepted. If a tinhorn in the West was caught cheating, he would never play another game—and there was no coroner's inquest. When I became Mayor of New York, I did my best to make life difficult for tinhorns. They did not have to worry about being shot when caught red-handed, but they were made to fear the law.

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