The man who started the turn around in New York City passed away--but didn't leave the city, this morning at 2 AM. He had left his City Hall office for the last time on December 31, 1989, but vowed that he would never leave New York City. Always irrepressible and quick to link arms with religious leaders in the city, looking back, Koch used a line from Revered Martin Luther King to pun about his exit from the mayor's office in a 1997 interview: "All I could think of was, `Free at last, free at last, great God almighty, I'm free at last."'
A self-declared "liberal with sanity," Koch surprised his friends by developing a close friendship with John Cardinal O'Connor. In 2005 Koch wrote, "It is also fair to say that the preeminent religious leader in New York City is the cardinal archbishop of New York, whomever he may be...John Cardinal O’Connor, who was truly loved and respected by most who knew him and seen as a great source of spiritual and political power — I loved him — and to this day, I keep his Mass card on my desk."
"John Cardinal O’Connor’s impact on me was special. We were not only close friends, we wrote a book together entitled, His Eminence and Hizzoner. I recall saying to him at one of the half-dozen dinners we had each year, 'Your Eminence, there are lots of people who really don’t understand your positions on a host of matters and think you are too harsh instead of the compassionate person I know you to be.'
His response: 'Ed, tell those people when you explain my positions that those positions are 180 degrees diametrically opposed to yours.” And he laughed, and we continued our discussion.'"
In the book, His Eminence and Hizzoner, Koch wrote of his mother's multiple abortions and his consequent uneasiness about abortion on demand. He also wrote in support of tuition tax credits for parents with children in parochial schools. He offered that he was not against a proposed constitutional amendment permitting prayer in public schools. He wished that he had been able to learn more Hebrew and regretted that he didn't attend synagogue more often. Koch was also a champion of gay rights.
Soon after, Ed Dinkins was elected mayor, Koch recounted to the Cardinal about an unusual invitation that he got from the folks at Cathedral of St. John the Divine whose leaders had opposed Koch:
"I had been asked to participate that evening at a celebration at St. John the Divine to welcome the leaders of the Captive Nations to New York City. Eastern Europe was being set free with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
I replied to the woman inviting me that they should not invite me, but should invite David Dinkins, the newly elected mayor. I was never supported by their minister, Bishop Paul Moore; the parishioners of St. John’s had not supported me over the years of my mayoralty; indeed they found me not sufficiently radical left and had generally criticized me.
'No,' she said, 'we want you.'
I thought O.K., I’ll go and go I did. I had prepared one line, a refrain, which I thought would bring these heretofore captive leaders and the audience to their feet. It was: 'Communism failed and God prevailed.'
I proclaimed that mighty, weighty statement and there wasn’t even a jot of applause. I was shocked, and said so the following day to John Cardinal O’Connor. His response was, 'Why should you be surprised? God hasn’t been mentioned in that cathedral for years.'
Of course, he said it jocularly as was evidenced by his smile.
He was finished with public office, but he would never be through with the city. At age 83, Koch paid $20,000 for a burial plot at Trinity Church Cemetery, at the time the only graveyard in Manhattan that still had space. Many people may remember the burial scene in the cemetery portrayed in the movie "Married to the Mob." The funeral will be Monday at Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan.
"I don't want to leave Manhattan, even when I'm gone," Koch told The Associated Press. "This is my home. The thought of having to go to New Jersey was so distressing to me."
Not long after buying the plot, he had his tombstone inscribed and installed. The marker features the last words of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl: "My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish."
It also includes a Jewish prayer and the epitaph he wrote after his stroke:
"He was fiercely proud of his Jewish faith. He fiercely defended the City of New York, and he fiercely loved its people. Above all, he loved his country, the United States of America, in whose armed forces he served in World War II."
The movie "Koch" starts showing today at Lincoln Center Cinema and Angelika Film Center.