The colorful leader of the city from 1978 to 1989 was credited with staving off its financial collapse
Credit: Catherine McGann/Getty

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, whose folksy yet firm style guided the metropolis from 1978 to 1989, died of congestive heart failure in New York Presbyterian/Columbia Hospital early Friday morning, his spokesman confirmed to news outlets. He was 88.

Koch, who had a long history of cardiac problems, made repeated visits to the hospital in the past six months. His latest took place this week, forcing him to miss Tuesday night’s Museum of Modern Art premiere of a documentary film about his life, Koch, which opens in limited release on Friday.

What Hizzoner, as he was called, was famous for was doing things his own way. Take his 2009 quadruple bypass, following a heart attack and stroke. Afterward, to celebrate the success of the operation, the notorious contrarian took 20 of his physicians and their spouses to dinner at the Brooklyn steakhouse Peter Luger’s – famous for its artery-clogging specialities.

“Ed Koch was more than merely the mayor of New York City; he was the embodiment of the shining Big Apple: volatile and voluble, fast with a quip or a put-down, an ebullient practitioner of dukes-up chutzpah who liked to march at the head of every parade,” Time magazine reported in 1987, during the Democrat’s third term. By then, his administration had lost a lot of the luster it had shown at the beginning of his tenure, when he helped stave off the city’s financial crisis.

Yet even after leaving office the colorful Koch remained a formidable political force, and even presidential candidates sought his endorsement.

Edward Irving Koch was born in New York in 1924, the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants. His father, a furrier, went bankrupt in the Depression, and the Koch family eked out a meager living in Newark, N.J., where his parents had the hatcheck concession for an uncle’s catering hall. In 1941 they moved to Brooklyn. Koch served in the combat infantry in Europe in World War II, went to New York’s City College as an undergraduate, attended New York University Law School and finally, in the mid-’50s, came to Greenwich Village and began his public career.

First elected to City Council in 1967, he went to the U.S. House of Representatives two years later on behalf of New York’s 17th Congressional District, and he stayed there until 1973. Running for mayor on a “law and order” platform in 1978, he beat a wide range of candidates, including incumbent Abe Beame.

On issues, Koch pragmatically often swayed between liberal and conservative stances, though his catchphrase “How’m I doin’ ” was generally met with a positive response – at least initially.

As the ’80s progressed, he came under heavy criticism over the city’s mounting AIDS crisis. Protestors were particularly peeved that Koch, a lifelong bachelor who unyieldingly refused to discuss his sexuality, seemed to turn a blind eye to the epidemic overwhelmingly affecting the city’s gay male population.

In 1982 Koch ran for Democratic governor of New York, only to lose to Mario Cuomo (father of the current governor, Andrew Cuomo). He was also defeated as mayor in 1989 by David Dinkins, who himself was succeeded by Rudolph Giuliani and then Michael Bloomberg.

After being mayor, besides hosting TV’s The People’s Court from 1997 to ’99 and writing books (one of which was adapted into the off Broadway musical Mayor, which ran nearly 250 performances), Koch returned to the practice of law and also penned a newspaper column. For a time he even reviewed movies.

As always, he maintained a strong opinion.