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The Cuomo Family Business

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Mario Cuomo with Andrew during the 1982 governer's race.  

Mario’s difficult childhood was one of the family’s foundational stories—all the kids know it. “My father was literally born on the other side of the tracks,” Andrew says, then dissolves into a laugh. They’ve been through this argument dozens of times, and, for once, Andrew concedes. “The poor neighborhood is a more dramatic characterization,” he says—then with a note of defensiveness adds, “The middle class may be more representative [of voters today].” These days, candidate Cuomo is sensitive to the authenticity of his own urban roots. His Queens may have been middle class, but it “was real,” he tells me insistently. “It was real. It was real.” The Queens of Andrew’s memory—he moved out twenty years ago—is a place to which the candidate, now a Westchester resident, wants to appeal. “I know the kitchen table in Queens,” he says. “I know those people, their faces. I know where they’re coming from, what they’re dealing with, and that orientation to people, to values, work, honor, handshake, relationships,” ticking off the themes as if they need no explanation.

Mario was ostentatiously selfless, devoted to causes greater than himself, which often meant ignoring the needs of those closer to home, a fault for which he berated himself while not doing much about it. “I can’t blame Matilda for being angry at my refusal to make money,” Mario wrote in his published diaries, a copy of which sits on Andrew’s desk. “She doesn’t see it as a commendable effort … she sees it as selfishness on my part.” But the greater hardship was Mario’s absence. His old friend and law associate Fabian Palomino recalled for Mario’s biographer a conversation from 1975. Mario mentioned that Andrew was graduating from high school. How is Andrew doing? asked Palomino. “You know, I really don’t know,” Mario replied. “I haven’t spent a lot of time with him in the last four years. I guess I’ve taken him to two or three ball games. Matilda made me take him.”

Mario’s early childhood was that of an ethnic sealed off in his own enclave—he didn’t speak English until school—and it marked him with a deep sense of his own foreignness, a by-product of which was shame. As a young student, Mario hustled to keep his mother and father away from other parents at back-to-school days: “I didn’t want them to know that my parents didn’t speak English well.”

Mario worked ferociously, racking up achievements that were supposed to cure the self-hate syndrome, as he later called it. He tied for first in his law-school class, and yet the elite firms didn’t call. “Not one interview,” he told me, still fuming at what he viewed as an ethnic slight. The result, one of his old colleagues said, was that “Mario never felt he was entirely American.”

Andrew suffered few of the internal torments his father endured; he never doubted his place in the American mainstream, nor in Queens, which in his experience was active and fun. There was parochial school and work and girls. Partly to support his father’s higher calling, Andrew worked constantly, paying for college at Fordham and then Albany Law School. He cut lawns. He pumped gas. He’s a gifted mechanic. “If you were a member of the Triple A,” Andrew says, “I was the person who would show up.”

With Mario gone, Andrew assumed the role of man of the house. “He was my mother’s rock,” says his younger sister Maria Cuomo Cole, who married the fashion designer Kenneth Cole. “In many ways, he grew up too fast,” Matilda tells me. “He was a little man.” She recalls that he greeted Maria’s dates at the door, dispatching paternal duties solemnly, if not always convincingly—“He tried,” Maria says. With baby brother Christopher, thirteen years Andrew’s junior and the youngest of the five children, his efforts were more successful. “Andrew kind of raised me,” Chris tells me. It was Andrew who dropped Chris off at Yale, handed him a bunch of cash, and delivered a fatherly talk about not screwing up. Andrew is still the key authority figure for Chris, now 40 and a co-anchor of ABC’s 20/20. “One of the greatest pleasures in my life is that he depends on me to tell him what I think,” Chris says.

If Andrew and his siblings missed their father, they didn’t dare blame him. “We knew he was doing important work,” says Maria. When he was home, Mario often led conversations on societal ills, and could be fun, though for Andrew’s father, a deeply religious Catholic, joy hovered just out of reach. “Old-fashioned Catholic guilt is the absolute best. It ruins everything,” Mario told McElvaine. For Mario, the only salvation was good works, which were to be undertaken with devotion, and a kind of hopelessness that they’d bring earthly satisfaction. In the Cuomo household, public service was the only route to respect, and the family heeded the call. Maria leads HELP USA, a low-income-housing organization that Andrew founded, and Matilda, at 78, helps lead Mentoring USA, an organization she started that provides guidance and tutoring for the underprivileged.


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