Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Hizzoner, The Honorable Ed Koch

Has anyone ever passed from this world under the weight of so many adjectives?  Brash, shrewd,  relentless, smart, tenacious, combative, ebullient, flitting, charismatic, feisty, slippery, egotistical, opinionated, pugnacious, colorful, self-promoting, private, combustible, witty, argumentative, gregarious, callous, loquacious, irrepressible, tireless, fearless, guileless, tough, determined, self-righteous, mischievous,  confrontational, funny, petty…  On and on it continues,  the endless profusion of descriptions!  But I’d add two I have seen nowhere.  I saw him as kind.  He was kind to me.  And generous.

I knew Ed Koch through at least five different channels, so our paths inevitably crossed from time to time.  In 1986, I produced a show for a gala dinner in L.A. saluting three premier mayors: L.A.’s Tom Bradley, Tel Aviv’s Shlomo “Chich” Lahat and Hizzoner, New York’s Ed Koch, but designed as a roast of the evening’s star, Mayor Koch.  Laden with comic talent, the program  featured Joan Rivers as the M.C., plus top-flight comedians Jan Murray, Dick Shawn and Slappy White.  Wanting a little more New York on the bill, I “imported” Dr. Ruth Westheimer, singing poet Steve DePass and the cast of “Mayor,” an Off-Broadway musical portraying one day in the life of Ed Koch. 

A Yiddish expression claims, "Man plans, God laughs.”  Shortly after waking on Tuesday, January 26, 1986, the day of the event, our weary group working on the show stumbled into the lounge serving as our production office to learn from a harsh TV bulletin that the space shuttle Challenger had “broken apart” over the Atlantic Ocean 73 seconds into its flight, likely taking the lives of all seven people on board.  No one and certainly not God could find a laugh in this unexpected turn of events.  Could we cancel the dinner gala?  Its planners decided to go through with it, but, we agreed, cancel the planned program—“the Koch roast.”  

Joan Rivers had made a point of telling me she doesn’t like last-minute changes.  That evening, she had to live with me whispering what came next… and next… in her right ear, as our bevy of stand-up old pros did their stock routines and shtick.  When Mayor Koch’s turn to speak came, it was impossible to tell whether he was retaliating for a roast that never was or speaking off the cuff: either way, he just sounded like Ed Koch.  Privately, the event concluded, the ballroom emptied, the New York-tongued mayor warmly expressed his gratitude and his “admiration” to us.

In the early ‘90s, I made a 60-minute documentary about a life-threatening  new wave of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.  When I described it to the mayor, he asked for a copy.  In time, I received a letter from him, excerpts from which follow: 
Dear Ray,
I finally got to watch your video “Freedom To Hate.”  It’s superb. …
Why WNET hasn’t shown it is a mystery to me. …
If you need a recommendation, you can always use my name as someone who saw it and thought it was superb. 
He told me I could use it any way I wanted.  PBS ran the documentary.

Last Thursday morning, I donned an uncustomary tee-shirt sporting a photo of the Mayor promoting—what else?—New York!  In a near déjà vu of the L.A. morning described above, as I walked into the next room the TV gave me the news of Ed Koch’s death.  My daughter Haley, who had given me the tee-shirt, called to ask if I would be writing about him. 

I went to my “Ed Koch” file for an answer.  I found in my notes of long ago that the proper way to address him formally was “The Honorable Edward I. Koch.”  Now there’s an adjective for him we all almost overlooked!  Honorable. 

At one time or another, I suspect all of the above-listed adjectives, and so many more, applied to him.  And I expect I and others will think of still more. Nevertheless, I believe he and his legacy all add up to one all-encompassing noun: Hizzoner
Ed Koch wasn’t the only mayor ever to be called Hizzoner, but to my mind and my certainty, he is the last one—he owns it.

How’d he do it?  As easily as rainfall.  Broadway producer Howard Erskine told me he got on an elevator delighted to find the mayor on it.  Having never met him and with only his trademark “How’m I  doin’?” in mind, Howard’s first words to him were, “Mayor Koch, I think you’re doing a great job!”  The mayor’s response?  “You bet your ass!”