Back in the eighties, as a 13-year-old yeshiva boy in Long Island, I wrote a fan letter to Ed Koch, who was—and still is—a kind of icon in my family. After my dad died, my mom used to joke that he’d make a perfect husband (for her). So one day I decided to write Koch to tell him how much I admired him. A few weeks later, I received a glossy eight-by-ten photograph of the mayor, posed triumphantly against the New York skyline. At the end of the accompanying form letter the mayor had scrawled a short note. “Tell your mom she has good taste,” it said. For many years, I kept it in a cardboard box under my bed.
I met him in person several years later, at a small dinner party. By then Koch was in his seventies, retired from political life and a judge on The People’s Court. I was 24 and had just started a gay weekly magazine, QW. At the time, with the AIDS crisis raging, Koch was a controversial figure in the gay community, pilloried for his lack of attention to the crisis by activists. (Larry Kramer, who lived a few floors below his apartment on Fifth Avenue, used to heckle the mayor when they ran into each other in the lobby. “There’s the man who murdered all of Daddy’s friends,” he’d remark to his dog.) A few weeks before we met, QW had made headlines outing Phyllis Schlafly’s son. When we were introduced, Koch seemed understandably wary. But when I told him he could have been my stepfather, he started to relax. “I’m a god in the Five Towns,” he said. Halfway through dinner, he agreed to call my mom, who has dined out on the story ever since. By the time he clambered into his limo for the trip downtown, we’d become fast friends. At dinner, he’d discussed his pain at the fact that he’d become a gay punching bag. “I did the best that I could,” he said. “I had to work within the system. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve their hate.” I asked him if he’d sit for an interview to answer some of his critics, and to my surprise he agreed. The interview appeared as a cover story in QW a few weeks later. The illustrator contributed a caricature of the mayor, wearing a tie festooned with pink triangles. Koch liked the story but wasn’t thrilled with the art. “Pink isn’t really my color,” he said.
After that, we used to meet for dinner every few weeks or so. For three years in the late nineties, when I moderated his weekly “debate” with Al D’Amato for this magazine, we had a three-hour lunch every Thursday. The high-spirited senator could reliably be counted on to go through at least a carafe of wine; Ed usually contented himself with hot tea. One day, D’Amato departed halfway through our interview and returned red-faced 45 minutes later to entertain us with an Irish jig. “Very strange,” Koch remarked after lunch came to an untimely end. The next day, D’Amato’s assistant called to apologize, explaining that the senator had a reaction to a bad oyster. For years, that remained a running joke. Each time we sat down to lunch, Koch would turn to D’Amato with a wicked smile. “Al, I trust we’re avoiding the oysters today?”
Though he felt most comfortable in familiar haunts like the Four Seasons and Il Cantinori, Koch didn’t mind mixing it up a bit. When I got an invitation to a party at Indochine that read “Bring a memento from the eighties,” I decided to bring Ed. The Hilton heiress, in the first flush of her success, came over to say hello, teetering on six-inch Jimmy Choos. “Who’s your friend?” she asked. I introduced Koch as the former mayor of New York. Hilton was nonplussed, but Koch seemed even more baffled: “You said your name is Paris?”
When he started reviewing films for little papers like Our Town, he sometimes invited me along. We’d usually meet at his apartment, where he’d prepare a lavish spread of crackers and smoked sturgeon as a snack. Then he’d call down to his bodyguard driver, a stoic Irish former cop who would drop us at the front of the theater and speed away. Once, in the middle of a movie, I turned around and spotted him seated four rows behind us. “What’s your driver doing here?” I whispered. “Oh, he always comes with me to the movies, Koch replied. “I ask him to sit with me, but he prefers to sit alone.”
The truth is, being Ed Koch’s movie date was never an entirely relaxing experience. One outing was particularly unnerving. We had agreed to meet on 12th Street for what Koch had billed as a charming coming-of-age movie. It turned out to be a subtitled soft-core art flick about the sexual awakening of a gay 15-year-old in a small French fishing village. I remember slumping further and further into my seat as the film’s feckless young star proceeded to bed the town gendarme, a monsignor, and a boatload of strapping young mariners. Not surprisingly, the audience spent more time staring at Koch than the screen. When it was finally over, the normally voluble mayor waited a full five minutes before weighing in with his review. “I thought the mom was pretty good, didn’t you?”
Though his sexuality was clearly an issue, Ed and I never addressed the topic explicitly. He met a couple of people I was dating and asked about our relationship. Since he was several decades my senior, I felt a bit out of line asking him about sex. But I always assumed he was gay, and he never disabused me of that notion. He talked sometimes about being lonely and once asked if I could set him up with someone. I replied that there was no one in my Rolodex that I thought was quite up to par for him.
Around 1999, I was editing New York’s “Singles” issue and came up with an idea to have four celebrities run a personal ad on the cover: Ann Coulter, the model Marcus Schenkenberg, Star Jones, and Ed Koch.
When I called Ed to pitch him the idea, he was a bit dubious. Sensing an opportunity to have him come out once and for all, I pressed him. “What the hell am I supposed to write?” he said. I told him I’d come over and we’d write something together.
For the next few hours, we sat in his apartment, munching crackers and lox, and tried to put something together. “So, what kind of person are you looking for?” I asked. “Smart,” he replied. “Ed, we’d have to do better than that. Do you like blondes?”
After negotiations worthy of Camp David, Koch agreed to the following line: “Have belatedly concluded that everyone, straight or gay, needs a partner in life. How’m I doing?” He sensed I was not completely pleased. “Look, I’m meeting you halfway,” he said. “That’s the best you’re gonna get.”
He went on to receive over 100 replies to his ad, the vast majority of them from suburban women like my mom, a handful from gay guys, and one from a drag queen. I sent all the replies to his house.
“So, what did you think?” I asked. He laughed. “Did the drag queen send a picture?”
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