In the ’30s and ’40s, the mayor of New York City was the very dramatic reformer Fiorello La Guardia. And while he’s famous for a number of things, his relationship with comics represents one of the very best intersections of political and pop culture history.
I’ll admit to assuming that everyone knew about this—not because “New York is the center of the world,” but because everyone I talk to is enough of a comic book fan that I figured the stories about La Guardia had been imprinted on their brains as much as they have on mine. But I guess not.
La Guardia, despite acquiring the nickname “New York’s Little Flower,” was in no way a shy, retiring type. In fact, the first time President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met Winston Churchill in person, he wrote that Churchill “in many ways is an English Mayor La Guardia.” And boy did La Guardia hate Nazis. He was an early and loud enemy of Hitler and the Nazi regime, and warned that part of Hitler’s plan was to exterminate Jews in Germany.
So it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that La Guardia was a fan of Captain America punching Hitler right in the face. And since Captain America was published before the U.S. entered World War II and it became completely unacceptable to be a Nazi in America, there was a group of people who were very angry with Jack Kirby and Joe Simon. The result of depicting a Nazi getting punched in the face was a pile of hate mail and death threats.
The threats were reported to the NYPD, which responded by patrolling the office where Simon and Kirby worked. According to Simon’s memoir, the appearance of police protection was followed by a phone call from La Guardia:
I was incredulous as I picked up the phone, but there was no mistaking that shrill voice. “You boys over there are doing a good job,” the voice squeaked. “The City of New York will see that no harm comes to you.”
La Guardia had something in common with Kirby and Simon: they all had parents who were Jewish immigrants. (Another one of my favorite La Guardia anecdotes is that when an opponent accused him of being anti-Semitic, La Guardia didn’t mention his Jewish mother as much as challenge the man to a debate in Yiddish, which he spoke fluently.)
La Guardia’s squeaky voice has another famous connection to comics. In 1945, the Newspaper and Mail Deliverers Union went on strike. So La Guardia took some time during his Sunday radio show to read out Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie. His voice work leaves something to be desired, but he was extremely enthusiastic.
La Guardia wasn’t a perfect politician, but he was a colorful character who seemed to love personal touches as mayor. And he really, really seemed to appreciate comics.