The New York Times ran a long story last week, a truly expository one, pulling former New York Mayor Ed Koch out of the closet. Koch, who died in 2013, denied his homosexuality throughout his life.
The article seems to have caused some controversy, less because Koch was gay than because of the Times’ decision to release it now. The story wasn’t really relevant. Rumors about the mayor’s sexuality swirled around him for most of his long political life.
The question I kept coming back to was what would Ed Koch have thought of the story? Would he have been outraged, mortified, relieved? Would he have issued a further denial or obfuscation? Was he going to answer that it was nobody’s business, as he sometimes did, or finally get out?
My memories of Ed Koch date back to high school when he would greet voters as they entered or exited Central Park West and 72n/a Street subway station while I was waiting for the bus from Crosstown to school. If a teenager was tempted to think there was glamor in public service, the indifference with which many voters greeted their congressman tended to dispel that.
During my freshman year in college, I interned at Koch’s office on Capitol Hill. A line in the Times story, “His greatest ambition was politics, and, as a rule, successful politicians were not openly gay,” reminded me of when, shortly after I started to work there, I bravely invited the congressman to lunch. . Part of Ed’s charm is that while he was self-absorbed, he wasn’t pompous or important. “I’ll take you to lunch,” he said to me and made it to the Congressional dining hall.
At lunch, I asked him about his justification for seeking power. “I prefer to see ambition in it,” he replied. And he was ambitious. During his bid for mayor in 1977, he went, under star political strategist David Garth, from a low-key, almost fuddy-duddy congressman in ill-fitting suits to a larger-than-life figure, the brash personification of New York to New Yorkers and the world. He also found himself a date to help conceal his sexual identity in former Miss America Bess Myerson.
I joined the 1977 campaign, often serving as a frontrunner for Ed’s father, Louis Koch. But my assignments used to be to drive Miss Myerson to a meeting. She complimented my conduct; at least I think it was a compliment, wondering if I had ever been a taxi driver. And I, a cheeky 24-year-old that I was, boldly asked her why she was posing as the contestant’s girlfriend when people knew they weren’t dating. She surprised me, but probably no more than my audacity surprised her, by not denying the accusation. She frankly admitted that they were just friends, but explained that she was happy to help Ed because she believed in him.
One of the many memorable campaign moments came in the final days of the run-off election for the Democratic mayoral nomination between Ed and Mario Cuomo when I helped staff take a brief, very brief walk that Bess and Ed took hold of hands for the local news cameras. Their route, essentially describing a plaza, took them from the northeast corner of Lexington Avenue and 59and street in front of Bloomingdales; at the northwest corner; at the southeast corner; at the southwest corner. The entire march, including red lights, took less than five minutes. But the escapade achieved its mission: to persuade voters, at least enough of them, that Ed was straight and maybe even in love.
Once he became mayor, I got an unlikely job as a spokesperson for the Department of Correction, but rarely saw him since Rikers Island wasn’t exactly the beating heart of city politics. .
We rekindled our acquaintance years later after joining the Wall Street Journal and writing a few articles about him; he refused to relinquish the limelight without a struggle and had a checkered career after mayor as a lawyer, television personality, film critic and even judge on the “People’s Court”.
He also invited me to one of the monthly lunches he hosted for his friends and former staff at Jean-Georges, a three-star restaurant at the Trump International Hotel on Columbus Circle. It felt like we had come full circle since the lunch we had at Congress in 1974.
I also attended the annual birthday parties Ed’s loyalists threw for him at the Gracie Mansion long after he left office and well into his eighties. These were essentially meetings of the Koch administration. At one, I took my picture with Ed and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had graciously opened the mansion to his predecessor, as the former mayor happily explained to the current one that I had worked on his first campaign for mayor and led his father around.
The last time I saw Ed was at an event honoring him at Lincoln Center a few months before his death, where I was surprised to find the man who had always been the center of attention. sitting in a chair and at least momentarily ignored. We chatted for a few minutes and he asked me what I was doing like he always did.
I was reminded of the occasion by this Times story. He said he was profoundly alone in the last years of his life. He regretted not having a partner. “I want a boyfriend,” he told Charles Kaiser, a former Times reporter and author of “The Gay Metropolis,” Kaiser’s book about gay life in America.
I guess what struck me, really shocked me, besides the fact that Ed was neglected when I spotted him, was that he also seemed lonely to me. His larger-than-life character could have disappeared before his life, and apparently at a cost.
So what would Ed Koch have thought of a Times story that uncovered him nearly a decade after his death? I don’t think he would have cared. He might even have taken advantage of it. Nothing was more important to him than staying relevant. History and its front-page placement proved that it still was.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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