New York's 'Mayor for Life'

By Selle, Robert R. | The World and I, January 2002 | Go to article overview

New York's 'Mayor for Life'


Selle, Robert R., The World and I


Many seven-year-olds, asked what they want to be when they grow up, talk about becoming firefighters or policemen. Not so young Edward Irving Koch, who knew for sure at even that tender age that he wanted to be pacing a courtroom, hearing it resound with his arguments. He wanted to be a lawyer.

Nor did he waver from that desire. Not even the interposition of World War II swayed him. After two years at the City College of New York, from 1941 to1943, he was drafted into the U.S. Army where he served with the 104th Infantry Division. He was awarded two battle stars for his frontline combat, achieved the rank of sergeant, and was honorably discharged in 1946 after serving in a denazification unit in Bavaria, running down former Nazis and their property. He then enrolled in New York University School of Law and, after earning his LL.B. degree in 1948, began practicing law.

The three-term New York City mayor (1978--89), born and raised in the Bronx, remains an attorney to this day--a partner in the Manhattan law firm of Robinson Silverman Pearce Aronsohn & Berman. In addition to his lawyering, however, he said in an interview with The World & I, he has eight other jobs, including some 25 speaking engagements a year around the country, writing a political column for Newsday, hosting two radio talk shows and one television show, lecturing at Baruch College, and writing movie and restaurant reviews for two newspapers.

He ascribes the enormous personal drive that sustained his attainment of lawyerhood--not to mention his becoming a member of the New York City Council (1967--68) and a U.S. congressman (1969--77)--to his Polish immigrant parents, Louis Koch and Yetta Silpe, who ran a hatcheck concession for decades in Newark, across New York Harbor in New Jersey.

"I had parents who were very involved with their children," says the 77-year-old Koch, who was one of three siblings, and "my character was formed in great part by their involvement." He had a brother older by four years, who has since passed away, and a sister younger by seven years, who is now retired.

HIS ENTRY INTO POLITICS

Although his parents were Conservative Jews who experienced anti- Semitism firsthand in their native Poland and instilled a strong sense of Jewish identity in him, Koch grew up to be a nonobservant Jew. "As a boy, I thought the whole world was Jewish," Koch writes in his autobiography, Citizen Koch. "My world ticked to the beat of the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. It was more than a religion, it was a way of life, a way of looking at the world. It invested me with an unshakable sense of who I was. I am today a proud Jew, although I am not observant."

The acerbic, brusque, passionate, impatient, sardonic, and unorthodox Koch, a lifelong bachelor whose personality seems to epitomize the very soul of New York City, maintains a prodigious workload. He rises at 5:00 a.m., is at the gym by 6:30, and focuses nonstop for the rest of the day on his legal, media, and speaking commitments until after midnight.

Aside from his daily jobs, he has written many books and articles. His book titles include Mayor (1984), Politics (1985), His Eminence and Hizzoner (1989), All the Best (1990), Citizen Koch (1992), Ed Koch on Everything (1994), Murder at City Hall (1995), Murder on Broadway (1996), Murder on 34th Street (1997), The Senator Must Die (1998), Giuliani: Nasty Man (1999), and I'm Not Done Yet: Remaining Relevant (2000). His four 1995--98 books are detective mysteries featuring himself as mayor. He has also done commercials for health insurance plans, diet food, and Dunkin' Donuts bagels.

"I entered politics in a natural way when I moved to Greenwich Village [in the early fifties]," Koch says, "and there was a campaign to elect Adlai Stevenson president. I got involved, and that was my beginning." He says that he would get up on a soapbox on the sidewalk on behalf of the Village Independent Democrats, a local political club, every night and yell to passersby about the issues of the presidential campaign.

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