“Koch”: The Weirdly Well-Timed Documentary About The Complicated Ex-Mayor

The prototypical New Yorker died on the day a new documentary about him was released. It’s a decent, if superficial, survey of his life and work.

From a Labor Day parade down Fifth Avenue in 1981. Perez, file / AP

Ed Koch, mayor of my childhood — what a tainted legacy he has left upon his death at age 88. In showman-like form, Koch died on the day the documentary about him, Koch, by Neil Barsky, was released in New York. It must have saddened the ex-mayor not to go to the movie’s premiere earlier this week. He loved movies, and he loved attention.

After taking office 35 years ago, Koch brought New York back from its late-1970s apocalypse — the graffiti lessened, there weren’t piles of garbage in the streets, and crime began to go down. He made the city better, and then, by the time of his embarrassing ouster in 1989, worse again. He had several downfalls. A trio of hideous race-related crimes (the death of a 66-year-old black woman, Eleanor Bumpurs, by a white police officer as she was being evicted; the death of Michael Griffith in Howard Beach after he was chased by white teenagers onto a highway; and 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins, shot and killed by white kids) to which he had a tone-deaf response was what New Yorkers are most likely to remember. There was also his disastrously inept response to the AIDS crisis in New York City. And then there was all the corruption he was eventually shadowed by in his third term, even though none of it directly touched him. (That last one is confusing after all these years: Who was Donald Manes again, and why did he stab himself and then drive around Queens? I had to Google; here’s a good WPIX report from 1986 that the station reposted in the wake of Koch’s death.)

Koch is a good survey about his mayoralty and his recent thoughts on his tenure, and just listening to him talk vérité is fascinating — during a Yom Kippur break fast, his own relatives disagree with his right-wing stance on the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy; he refers to Andrew Cuomo as a “schmuck” after Cuomo doesn’t pay homage to him on the night of Cuomo’s victory in the governor’s race.

If you lived in New York during the Koch era, Koch is interesting and nostalgic to watch and remember. It does not, however, dig too deep. The slew of ugly race-related deaths are barely mentioned. The gay issues are delved into more, but it’s not confrontational. Barsky does directly asks Koch about his sexuality, for instance, and Koch gives his standard (in recent years) response about privacy, adding: “I have taken the position in response to the basic question: It’s none of your fucking business.”

That’s during a section of the film about AIDS and how Koch’s closetedness may or may not have affected his response to it. Koch’s rumored ex-boyfriend, Richard Nathan, is mentioned, and Koch says: “Richard Nathan was a friend of mine. He was publicly gay. He worked on my campaign. He wanted — as many people who worked on my campaign wanted — to be a commissioner. I said, sorry, we’re picking the best. And he left town.”

The 2009 Kirby Dick documentary, Outrage, asserted that Nathan and Koch were indeed lovers, and that after they broke up, Nathan did not feel safe in New York anymore, and therefore left the city. Hmm. Wouldn’t you like to know which is true?

It’s hard not to feel sorry for the solitary Koch as he wanders through the documentary. As he’s filmed in the back of a cab driving through Times Square, which he was instrumental in changing from pornville to touristville, he offers thoughts about the evolution, adding, “I’ve never been to a Red Lobster.” (He may be speaking for all of New York there.)

The Cuomo dis is particularly poignant, even though you can also imagine that, yes, it’s a busy night for the Governor-elect. But it represents a reversal: In the 1977 mayoral race, Koch triumphed over Mario Cuomo, whose “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo” guerilla operation didn’t work — Koch’s friend Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America, who was a popular New York political and social figure, was enlisted as his beard to counteract the homophobic campaign, and it worked. (HBO, please make a movie about the Myerson/Koch friendship!)

In the end, the heteronormative Cuomo dynasty defeats Koch, and here, Barsky’s direction and storytelling is extremely effective. It’s pathetic because Koch makes it so: He seems to keep showing up in places where people may or may not want him. As Andrew introduces his father during his victory speech, Koch walks down the hallway to his apartment — alone.

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