Ed Koch Goes Out in Style

The late New York mayor was feted by Clinton, Bloomberg, and more political luminaries at an Upper East Side funeral today. Lloyd Grove on the farewells—and a surprise mention of Viagra.

02.04.13 9:20 PM ET

Ed Koch would have been pleased. More than pleased.

“Ed would have been over the moon,” his longtime aide Diane Coffey declared at Monday’s funeral for New York’s tart-tongued, exhausting, and larger than life former mayor, at which everyone from the governor to the cardinal, plus hundreds of ordinary citizens, filled Temple Emanu-El to the rafters.

NY Daily News Archive, via Getty; AP; The New York Times, via Redux

“Ed has got to be loving all this attention,” agreed the current mayor, Mike Bloomberg, who noted in his eulogy that the 2,000 mourners included not only Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York, and occasional Koch detractor Andrew Cuomo, New York’s current governor, but also Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, former governors Eliot Spitzer and George Pataki, former mayors Rudy Giuliani and David Dinkins, and former president Bill Clinton.

That doesn’t even account for all the House members, Albany legislators, borough presidents, political allies, friends, and relatives who crowded into the posh Fifth Avenue synagogue to pay their respects.

 In other words, tout New York.

“In his own way, Ed was our Moses, just with a little less hair,” Bloomberg said, noting that this week’s Torah portion chronicles Moses’s exodus with the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt—much as Koch led New Yorkers out of “decay and despair” when he became mayor in the late 1970s, an era when the city was crime-ridden, filthy, and on the brink of bankruptcy.

“And just as Moses died right before he reached the promised land,” Bloomberg went on, “Ed died hours before the documentary about him opened in theaters. Leave it to Ed to find the best way to maximize publicity for a film about his life.” The audience erupted in knowing laughter as Bloomberg remarked, “Ed remained as relevant as ever, right up to his dying day.”

Koch’s simple oak casket—closed, in the Jewish tradition—sat on the bimah tended by an honor guard of New York cops. He was celebrated not only by Bloomberg and Coffey, but also by Clinton, the Israeli consul general, Koch's longtime political adviser John LoCicero, former law partner James Gill, and various nieces and nephews. Koch, a lifelong bachelor whose sexual orientation was a frequent subject of speculation (“It’s nobody’s business,” he sensibly argued), had no kids of his own.

Gill recounted how, whenever some citizens told Koch he should run again (having been defeated by Dinkins for a fourth term), Koch liked to answer: “No! The people threw me out, and now the people must be punished!” Coffey told about getting into a fierce argument with her boss, after which she refused to speak to him for several days. Finally, the mayor called her into his office and said he was sorry. Then, détente having been achieved, he threw open the office doors and called out to the staff: “I have apologized to her, but she was wrong.”   

When the eulogies were done, his casket was borne out of the synagogue by six police pallbearers as the organist played “New York, New York.” Outside in the bitter cold, the casket was loaded into the hearse as Bloomberg, Giuliani, and Dinkins, along with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, placed their hands over their hearts and a line of 50 or so white-gloved cops saluted crisply. Then bagpipers from New York’s Bravest struck up a dirge.

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Hizzoner passed into the next precinct, at age 88, in the wee hours of Feb. 1, in the midst of a demanding publicity tour to promote documentary filmmaker Neil Barsky’s Koch—including a final raucous Daily Beast interview that reignited his longstanding feud with Andrew and Mario Cuomo. (During Koch's 1977 mayoral primary against Mario, posters of mysterious origin appeared saying, “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo”.)

Koch was, Bloomberg told the crowd, “brash, irreverent, full of humor, and chutzpah.” And it’s hardly surprising that Hizzoner meticulously planned his own state funeral—up to and including erecting a massive marble tombstone, complete with epitaph and accompanying commentary, at Trinity Cemetery in upper Manhattan. “A Polish Jew in an Episcopal graveyard in a largely Dominican neighborhood—what could be more New York or even more Ed Koch?” Bloomberg asked.

Koch was an ardent supporter of Bill and Hillary Clinton, and the former president flew from Japan over the weekend to take part in the service. The famously loquacious Clinton told the crowd, “We were told not to speak long.” Then he held up a thick sheaf of papers. “This is not my speech. These are just the letters I got from Ed Koch when I was president.”

When the laughter subsided, Clinton enumerated the issues on which Koch offered his often-unsolicited advice, including his suggestion for how to dissuade young people from taking up the evil habit of smoking.

When Congress refused to pass federal restrictions on cigarettes, “He was mad, and said, ‘We got to do something!’” According to Clinton, Koch wrote a letter proposing to emphasize smoking’s impact on male virility. “This Viagra’s a big deal,” Clinton paraphrased Koch, no doubt risking a saucy headline in the New York Post. “Now politicians don’t like to talk about this, especially among young people, but young people are way more sophisticated than older people—they get this,” the ex-president continued, recounting Koch’s advice. “And it doesn’t work to tell them they’re going to get cancer or respiratory disease. Go after the virility argument.”