The First Ladies of Gracie Mansion
Life with the Mayor was not always a joy ride.
He didn’t want to, and she didn’t want to, but the LaGuardias went along. Gracie Mansion was where the Mayor was going to live, like it or not. Such was the 1942 decree of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who was pushier than Fiorello himself.
The exquisite wood house had been built in 1799 as a country retreat by Archibald Gracie, a wealthy shipping merchant and co–founding father of the New York Stock Exchange. Designed in the Federal style and painted a soft yellow with green shutters, it was a jewel among jewels—set on an 11-acre sward rolling down to the East River, surrounded by orchards and gardens, five miles north of the city’s heat and yellow fever. John Jacob Astor, the richest man in America, had a similar estate next door; the Rhinelanders and Schermerhorns weren’t far off. Today the address is East End Avenue at 88th Street, but then it was heaven on earth.
Mrs. Gracie was the daughter of money and granddaughter of a Connecticut governor. Prolific and prominent, the couple had eight children; their powdered and petticoated guests included writers, royals, and politicians. As the very first lady of the mansion, Esther Rogers Gracie set a fine table, and a fine example.
Between 1809 and 1811, Gracie enlarged the house, adding bedrooms and fireplaces, a large parlor and pantry. He reconfigured the entrance hall, extended the veranda, and moved the doorway from the south to the east, greatly enhancing the river view.
But the War of 1812 brought ruin, and he was forced to sell his property in 1823. The mansion went to two other families and, in 1896, surrendered to the city. With neglect nibbling at its edges, this once-splendid preserve became a repository for shovels, sewing classes, and public restrooms. It became an ice-cream stand. It also became the Museum of the City of New York. But the lights went out at night.
What then? Moses knew. Proclaiming that the Mayor of New York should have no less a dwelling than the President or Governor, the ambitious Parks Commissioner persuaded city officials to authorize Gracie Mansion as a permanent residence for the Mayors of New York. Renovations began in January, undertaken by a WPA crew at a cost of $25,000. The timing was bizarre. Fiorello LaGuardia—the popular people’s Mayor who had successfully fought the Tammany Hall bosses—was trying to keep up morale and fill the city’s depleting coffers as New Yorkers coped with blackouts and sirens, absent sons and husbands. Even so, the “Little Flower” was no match for Moses.
On May 26, the La Guardias moved out of their sixth-floor, six-room flat on the edge of Harlem and into the mansion with their son and daughter, Fiorello’s nephew, and their cook, Juanita, and her son. As always, Marie LaGuardia took charge...even as the Mayor took off for Canada. As Marie Fisher, she’d been his secretary since she was 16; stalwart and sensible, she had orchestrated from behind the desk Fiorello’s campaigns for Congress and was a calming influence upon the tragic deaths of his first wife and infant daughter.
And as the very model of a wartime wife, she was probably the first and last First Lady to air her laundry. She hung the family wash on the line in the yard for all to see; she scoured and scrubbed on her very own knees, walked the dog, and raised the kids with irregular input from their father. After Fiorello’s death in 1947, she came out from under, endorsing candidates he might not (Adlai Stevenson, for one), sitting on boards, presenting awards. And reviewing the past. “There’s no private life in Gracie Mansion,” she later told columnist Cindy Adams. “But the worst thing was the roaches.”