Remembering Late Mayor Koch
|Mayor Ed Koch. Photo: www.coffeyphoto.com|
For a long time, I would see Edward Koch whenever I went into Ruth Ford’s guest room in the Dakota. At some point, long ago, Ruth tore the cover off of the Daily News—or was it New York Magazine—with his face on it, and put it in a frame. I don’t remember her ever commenting on it or on him, but she wouldn’t have framed a picture of Mr. Koch if she hadn’t liked him. The picture stood on the TV in the room that Ruth called her guest room, although there were almost never any guests. The only person in the room was Ed Koch. After Ruth passed away in 2009 and her apartment was cleaned out, I noticed the picture but I didn’t save it. Now I wish I had.
I wasn’t expecting Ed Koch to die when he did, as I’m sure he wasn’t either. But I was aware of his recent health troubles and when I heard the world ‘pneumonia,’ I had a bad feeling. I don’t think anyone sees death coming whether they’re young or old. I saw that with both Charles and Ruth. Ruth was always sure that she would be feeling better in the coming days, when in fact she was only getting older and closer to dying.
The death of Ed Koch on February 1st made me think back on that period of time in the city when he was everywhere. Abraham Beame was mayor of New York when I first came in 1974, and I was so busy absorbing all that was going on around me that I have no memories of him at all. Ed Koch, on the other hand, is another story. I was very much aware of him once he became mayor in 1977 and forever after. His outspoken feistiness (“How’m I doing?”) was impossible to ignore. But I was also aware him for more personal reasons.
One of the first people I met soon after coming to New York was Henry Geldzahler. At the time he held a very important position as curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and there is nobody I can think of who had more influence in the art world at the time than Henry. He was someone Charles and I saw frequently. He often came for lunch or dinner at the Dakota and I would do the cooking. On one of those visits, Henry gave me a gift of a white Stetson cowboy hat, which I still have. He was a very funny and intelligent man who looked much older than his years, partly because of his size and his beard, but also the way he carried himself. When I photographed him with his parents at the Met one evening, I thought that he looked older than his father.
Someone else I saw a lot of right from the beginning was Ira Cohen, who I first met in Kathmandu before I came to New York. Ira was another very colorful person to say the least, with his beard and his poetry and long flowing robes, always smoking a lot of pot and talking. He was a regular visitor to the Dakota for a long time.
When Ed Koch became mayor, one of the first things he did was appoint Henry Geldzahler to the position of Commissioner of Cultural Affairs for New York City. And then there was Ira, who always seemed very pleased to announce the fact that Mayor Koch was his first cousin and that they were both born in the Bronx.
Charles and I didn’t see much of Henry Geldzahler during the five years he spent in the Koch administration, but we picked up with him again after he had left his post. I remember visiting him at his house in Southampton, which was full of photographs and paintings, by Andy Warhol and many others, of Henry himself. Andy had produced a ninety-minute film with nothing in it but Henry smoking a cigar. I liked Henry and always enjoyed our visits. I remember a particular lunch that I made one day in Shelter Island, where Charles and I had rented a house. Henry came and I served a salad. He liked the dressing and asked what it was. I thought about what I’d put in it, and I said, “Vinegar, mustard, fresh garlic and—Honey?”
And Henry said, “Yes, Dear?”
After Henry’s death in 1994 from cancer, he was quoted in the New York Times (August 17th, 1994), comparing his job as cultural commissioner in the Koch administration to being "commissioner of wheat in Kansas." He said, “Culture is our best crop. It nourishes and excites.” I don’t think the mayor could have chosen a better person for that job than Henry.
After Koch’s death, the media was flooded with opinions about him. Every big newspaper in the world, it seemed, published an obituary for our former mayor. The New York Times called him “A 3-Term Mayor as Brash, Shrewd and Colorful as the City He Led.” The LA Times described him as “A one-man cheerleading squad who personified the witty and feisty New Yorker.” I read articles and blogs full of belated answers to his famous question, “How’m I doing?” And like most prominent politicians, the controversies from his years as mayor remained after his death. Should he have revealed the details of his personal life? Could he have done better when he was the mayor? The people writing about him seemed to either like him very much or loathe him, with not much in between. But nobody says he was boring, that’s for sure. Ed Koch spoke his mind, but unlike other mayors I can think of, he never came off like a dictator.
With all of the present conversations going on about what Ed Koch did and didn’t do as mayor, I think that ultimately most people only grew fonder of him over time. I personally did. There’s always more to story than we can know, and in a city of millions of people like New York, there was no way he was going to please everybody. In the end, I really believe that the positive overcomes the negative.
Watching his televised funeral, I listened to Bill Clinton saying how worried Mr. Koch was about Hillary during her recent hospitalization and blood clot scare. It felt strange to imagine that just a short time ago, he was just as vital as ever. Ed Koch was never far from the public eye, always arguing at round table discussions, speaking his mind without reservation the way he always had, whether the topic was political or one of his movie reviews. And his vitality made him seem ageless. He was a real New Yorker who truly and genuinely loved New York, and that was a big part of his appeal. He is now laid to rest in the cemetery plot he bought for himself. He took his personal life with him unrevealed, to the disappointment of some and with the approval of others. He made his exit with grace and died a gentleman, and he will be missed.
Edward I. Koch
May He Rest in Peace
Copyright Indra Tamang, 2013, all rights reserved.