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Commentary & Opinion

What would Ed Koch have thought?

Picture of cartoon depicting Ed Koch signed by Ed Koch
Photo by Ralph Gardner, Jr.
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The New York Times ran a long story last week, an expose really, dragging former New York City Mayor Ed Koch out of the closet. Koch, who died in 2013, denied his homosexuality throughout his life.

The article seems to have excited a certain amount of controversy, less because Koch was gay than because of the Times’ decision to out him now. The story wasn’t exactly breaking news. Rumors about the mayor’s sexuality swirled around him for most of his long political life.

The question I kept returning to was what would Ed Koch have thought of the story? Would he have been indignant, mortified, relieved? Would he have issued one more denial or obfuscation? Would he respond that it was nobody’s damn business, as he sometimes did, or finally come out?

My memories of Ed Koch date back to high school when he’d greet voters as they entered or emerged from the Central Park West and 72nd Street subway station while I waited for the crosstown bus to school. If a teenager was tempted to think there was glamor to public service, the indifference with which many voters greeted their congressman tended to dispel that.

During junior year in college I interned in Koch’s Capitol Hill office. A line in the Times story, “His highest ambition was politics, and, as a general rule then, successful politicians were not openly gay,” reminded me of the time, shortly after I started working there when I bravely invited the congressman to lunch. Part of Ed’s charm is that while he was self-centered he wasn’t pompous or self-important. “I’ll take you to lunch,” he told me and did to the Congressional Dining Room.

At lunch I questioned him about one’s justification for seeking power. “I prefer to think of it as ambition,” he responded. And ambitious he was. In the course of running for mayor in 1977 he went, under the guidance of star political strategist David Garth, from being 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 an advance man for Ed’s father Louis Koch. But my assignments once included driving Miss Myerson to some meeting. She complimented my driving; at least I think it was a compliment, asking me if I’d ever been a cabbie. And I, cheeky 24-year-old that I was, boldly asked her why she masqueraded as the candidate’s girlfriend when people knew they weren’t actually dating. She surprised me, though probably no more than my audacity surprised her, by not denying the charge. She frankly admitted they were just friends but explained that she was happy to help Ed out because she believed in him.

One of many memorable campaign moments came in the final days of the runoff election for the Democratic mayoral nomination between Ed and Mario Cuomo when I helped staff a brief, very brief, stroll that Bess and Ed took while holding hands for local news cameras. Their route, basically describing a square, took them from the northeast corner of Lexington Avenue and 59th street in front of Bloomingdales; to the northwest corner; to the southeast corner; to the southwest corner. The entire walk, red lights included, took less than five minutes. But the jaunt achieved its mission: persuading voters, at least enough of them, that Ed was straight and perhaps even in love.

Once he became mayor I found unlikely employment as a spokesman for the Department of Correction but rarely saw him since Rikers Island wasn’t exactly the beating heart of municipal politics.

We rekindled our acquaintance years later after I joined the Wall Street Journal and wrote a couple of columns about him; he refused to relinquish the limelight without a struggle and had a hectic post-mayoral career as a lawyer, TV personality, film critic and even a judge on “The People’s Court.”

He also invited me to one of the monthly lunches he threw for friends and former staffers at Jean-Georges, a three-star restaurant at the Trump International hotel on Columbus Circle. It felt as if we’d come full circle from the lunch we had in Congress back in 1974.

I also attended the annual birthday parties Ed’s loyalists threw him at Gracie Mansion long after he left office and well into his eighties. They were basically Koch administration reunions. At one of them I had my photo taken with Ed and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who’d graciously opened the mansion to his predecessor, as the former mayor festively explained to the current one that I’d worked on his first mayoral campaign and shepherded his father around.

The last time I saw Ed was at some event in his honor at Lincoln Center a few months before he died where I was surprised to find the man who’d always been the center of attention seated in a chair and at least momentarily ignored. We chatted for a few minutes and he asked me what I was up to as he always did.

I was reminded of the occasion by that Times story. It said that he was deeply lonely in the latter years of his life. He regretted he didn’t have a partner. “I want a boyfriend,” he told Charles Kaiser, a former Times journalist and the author of “The Gay Metropolis,” Kaiser’s book about gay life in America.

I suppose what struck me, shocked me really, besides the fact that Ed was being overlooked when I spotted him was that he also seemed lonely to me. His larger than life persona might have petered out before his life did, and apparently at some cost.

So what would Ed Koch have thought of a Times story that outed him almost a decade after his death? I don’t think he’d have minded. He might even have enjoyed it. Nothing was more important to him than remaining relevant. The story, and its front-page placement, proved he still was.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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