‘Koch’ documentary reveals a life spent in the limelight

Being on the other coast, Ed Koch is someone I know mostly news clips and the odd article in “The New Yorker.” I’m not one to read this particular magazine from cover to cover so Neil Barsky’s documentary, “Koch” is educational and a bit spooky: The film comes out the same month that its subject died.

When he died on 1 February 2013, Edward Koch was 88. He had been the mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989. That was after serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1973 to 1977 for the 18th district and from 1969 to 1973, he had served as the representative for the 17th district.

Koch has served in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1946 achieving the rank of Sergeant and seeing the horror of the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge. Returning to the U.S., he went to City College of New York and the New York University of Law. He began his practice as a lawyer in 1949 and eventually became a partner.

His time as mayor was a long time ago, so why bring him up now? First-time direcotr Neil Barsky gives us the answer. In 2010 the Queensboro Bridge was renamed the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. The decision sparked some debate, which Barsky, a former “Wall Street Journal” reporter, records for us. For some, Koch was a “hero” and we’re not talking in the World War II vet sense. For others, he was “the consummate New Yorker.” Yet that was, one legislator argues on film “not the Ed Koch that the black community knows” and Koch’s tenure as mayor was “a tale of two cities” and “for blacks, Ed Koch was our nemesis.”

With archival footage, recent interviews with Koch and his supporters and detractors, Barsky takes us back to the time when the late Gerald Ford was president and New York City was on the edge of bankruptcy. Crime was rampant and a serial killer was on the loose.

What comes across is Koch was a man with a sense of humor and good on his feet. He was someone who “really represented the rough and tumble of New York” and perhaps was the kind of person his voters wished they were. From a poor hat check boy to mayor of one of America’s major cities. He said what he thought, even if it cost him a few votes.

Barsky also shows that Koch had an insatiable appetite for attention–media attention, theater attention and attention from other politicos. Yet he curiously lived a very private life. Although he had good friend and fellow Jew Bess Myerson campaign for him, they weren’t an item as people thought. Myerson was crowned Miss America in 1945. Born in the Bronx, she was the first Jewish winner of the title. When Koch was mayor of New York, she served as the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs. He says she was in his mind the first lady of New York, but they didn’t marry and people speculated whether he was gay.

During his run against Cuomo, the slogan “Cuomo not homo” was used to promote Mario Cumo during the 1977 Democratic primary for mayor, but the gay community didn’t feel the love of Koch during the AIDS crisis. He also received lots of criticism from the black community. Says one commentator, “He’s worst than a racist; he’s an opportunist.”

When Koch ran for a fourth term as mayor, he lost to David Dinkins–the first and only African American mayor for the city of New York. Dinkins only served one term and succeeded by Rudy Guliani, but Koch was out. Koch then went on to create a second life for himself. Now that life has ended, perhaps more will come out about his well-guarded private life.

For a man who courted media attention, who lived to be in the public spotlight curiously little is known about his private life and his loves. Was New York City his real mistress or fame? This movie doesn’t answer those questions, but it does give a fast-paced well-rounded view of an influential politician.

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