The Secrets Ed Koch Carried


Edward I. Koch looked like the busiest septuagenarian in New York.

Glad-handing well-wishers at his favorite restaurants, gesticulating through television interviews long after his three terms as mayor, Mr. Koch could seem as though he was scrambling to fill every hour with bustle. He dragged friends to the movies, dabbling in freelance film criticism. He urged new acquaintances to call him “judge,” a joking reference to his time presiding over “The People’s Court.”

But as his 70s ticked by, Mr. Koch described to a few friends a feeling he could not shake: a deep loneliness. He wanted to meet someone, he said. Did they know anyone who might be “partner material?” Someone “a little younger than me?” Someone to make up for lost time?

“I want a boyfriend,” he said to one friend, Charles Kaiser.

It was an aching admission, shared with only a few, from a politician whose brash ubiquity and relentless New York evangelism helped define the modern mayoralty, even as he strained to conceal an essential fact of his biography: Mr. Koch was gay.

He denied as much for decades — to reporters, campaign operatives and his staff — swatting away longstanding rumors with a choice profanity or a cheeky aside, even if these did little to convince some New Yorkers. Through his death, in 2013, his deflections endured.

Now, with gay rights re-emerging as a national political tinderbox, The New York Times has assembled a portrait of the life Mr. Koch lived, the secrets he carried and the city he helped shape as he carried them. While both friends and antagonists over the years have referenced his sexuality in stray remarks and published commentaries, this account draws on more than a dozen interviews with people who knew Mr. Koch and are in several cases speaking extensively on the record for the first time — filling out a chapter that they say belongs, at last, to the sweep of history.

It is a story that might otherwise fade, with many of Mr. Koch’s contemporaries now in the twilight of their lives.

The people who described Mr. Koch’s trials as a closeted gay man span the last 40 years of his life, covering disparate social circles and political allegiances. Most are gay men themselves, in whom Mr. Koch placed his trust while keeping some others closest to him in the dark. They include associates who had kept his confidence since the 1970s and late-in-life intimates whom he asked for dating help, a friend who assisted in furtive setups for Mr. Koch when he was mayor and a fleeting romantic companion from well after his time in office.

The story of Mr. Koch that emerges from those interviews is one defined by early political calculation, the exhaustion of perpetual camouflage and, eventually, flashes of regret about all he had missed out on. And it is a reminder that not so long ago in a bastion of liberalism, which has since seen openly gay people serve in Congress and lead the City Council, homophobia was a force potent enough to keep an ambitious man from leaving the closet.

Even members of his family never knew, Mr. Koch told gay friends through the years, and close aides knew not to press. “Ed Koch compartmentalized his life,” said Diane Coffey, his longtime chief of staff, adding that the two had never discussed his sexuality.

Yet as much as he hoped to silo his private identity, his efforts to obscure it helped set in motion much of the last half-century of New York politics. Mr. Koch coyly positioned himself as a sought-after heterosexual bachelor in his 1977 mayoral victory, defeating Mario Cuomo and redirecting a Cuomo family dynasty to Albany. He struggled to manage the AIDS crisis — which some administration officials initially deemed a “gay issue” from which he should remain distant — in ways that cannot be disentangled from his closeted status.

That he seemed to share so much of himself with his constituents — blustering, badgering, letting few thoughts escape his consciousness unsaid — only magnified the tensions around what he did not reveal, an unyielding conflict that could lead to unsettling moments.

During a particularly stressful time in his third term, aides remembered, Mr. Koch stunned senior staff members assembled in his City Hall office one day with a sudden declaration: “I am not a homosexual.”

His team was unnerved. No one in the room had asked about this subject. “You can see how much pain he’s in,” his first deputy mayor, Stanley Brezenoff, told another aide once the mayor was out of earshot.

For the gay friends in whom Mr. Koch confided, during and after his time in office, completing this record of his life is something of a collective unburdening. Some had nudged Mr. Koch for years to come out, suggesting he might be happier for it, that the city might be better for it. Their failure disheartens them to this day.

For the loyal lieutenants who protected Mr. Koch and feel compelled to protect him still, the topic remains uncomfortable. To them, some facts will always be best left unconfirmed.

“He was our father,” George Arzt, his longtime spokesman, said. “You don’t ask a father those questions.”

In the politically energized Greenwich Village of the early 1970s, Mr. Koch had established himself as a reform-minded Democrat, a Bronx-born son of Polish-Jewish immigrants and self-styled enemy of the party machine.

An Army veteran and lawyer before reaching Congress in 1969, Mr. Koch pushed progressive social policies that befit his job representing one of New York’s bluest enclaves. But his liberal leanings had their limits.

In 1973, David Rothenberg, an activist and friend of Mr. Koch’s who would later run for local office himself, came out of the closet in a television interview. Many who knew Mr. Rothenberg applauded him. Then he bumped into the congressman on the street. “Why did you do that?” Mr. Koch asked.

“I thought it was curious,” Mr. Rothenberg said recently. “I think he was asking: Was I hurt by that? Were my fortunes hurt?”

The question of whether Mr. Koch would ever come out was not a question at all to his friends in the Village. His highest ambition was politics, and, as a general rule then, successful politicians were not openly gay. He had come of age amid the “lavender scare,” the homophobic midcentury purge that had driven thousands of gay people from government service.

But the life of a congressman in the 1970s — shuttling between Washington and New York with minimal media scrutiny — allowed Mr. Koch to cordon off parts of his identity. During this time, he was involved in a sustained romantic relationship with Richard W. Nathan, a high-achieving, Harvard-educated health care consultant, according to on-record interviews with six people who knew about the pair. These include Mr. Rothenberg and Arthur Schwartz, the boyfriend of a senior Koch aide at the time, as well as four people whom Mr. Nathan told about the relationship: Leonard Bloom, a former city health official who befriended both men; Frederick Hertz, a close friend of Mr. Nathan’s; Dr. Lawrence Mass, a co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis; and Noemi Masliah, a relative of Mr. Nathan’s. (Mr. Nathan died in 1996.)

Mr. Koch, though early in his political ascent, was by then around 50; Mr. Nathan was in his 30s. There was something thrilling, Mr. Nathan said privately then, about being courted by a powerful man. At a moment’s notice, he could get a call that the congressman was catching a flight from Washington in time to make a dinner date.

Mr. Rothenberg first learned the two were involved after attending a potluck dinner at Mr. Koch’s apartment around 1976, one of a series of get-togethers the congressman hosted for supporters when he began plotting his mayoral run. Mr. Nathan and Mr. Rothenberg were the last guests there, helping to clean dishes, when Mr. Koch pointedly asked Mr. Nathan to stay behind for a while.

“Like I was chopped liver,” Mr. Rothenberg joked recently.

When Mr. Rothenberg got Mr. Nathan alone a short while later, he made sure he had understood the scene correctly. “Richard looked at me, and he said, ‘Well, I’m seeing him,’” Mr. Rothenberg remembered.

For Mr. Koch, the relative freedom of semi-anonymity did not last. Hoping to energize his long-shot dream of becoming mayor, he persuaded the city’s most sought-after campaign operative, David Garth, to steer his 1977 race for City Hall.

Mr. Garth, renowned for elevating political underdogs, believed that Mr. Koch could win, but he had his concerns: He needed to be assured that rumors about the bachelor congressman’s being gay were not true. Mr. Koch told him they were not.

Unsatisfied with Mr. Koch’s word, Mr. Garth personally investigated several leads about purported dalliances, though he turned up nothing. One day, the combustible Mr. Garth stormed into a campaign office to confront Ethan Geto, a Koch friend whom he knew to be an openly gay political fixture. They made their way to the basement.

“Is he a fag?” Mr. Garth demanded, veins flaring, according to Mr. Geto. “If that sonofabitch lied to me and he’s a fag, I would never have taken him on.”

Mr. Geto feigned ignorance. “He says he’s not gay,” he told Mr. Garth, “I take his word.” (“Of course I knew,” Mr. Geto said in a recent interview. “I had known for many years.”)

At the least, Mr. Garth recognized that his candidate had a perception problem. And Mr. Koch’s most glamorous surrogate — Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America — was called upon to solve it.

The candidate and the beauty queen became strategically inseparable, their pinkies entwined at public events, inviting welcome-if-misguided tabloid speculation about an imminent engagement. Mr. Koch himself called her his “first lady” and hinted at how lovely it might be to get married at Gracie Mansion. (Ms. Myerson and Mr. Garth both died in 2014.)

Still, the whispers continued. Adversaries deployed the “Greenwich Village bachelor” label, less as a euphemism than a slur. Signs appeared in Queens, the home borough of Mr. Koch’s opponent, Mario Cuomo, urging New Yorkers to “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo.” Mr. Cuomo denied responsibility.

With his lead in the polls appearing tenuous days before the vote, Mr. Koch was unequivocal in his media appearances. “I don’t happen to be homosexual,” he told WNEW, after a day of dismissing questions about whether Ms. Myerson’s outsize presence was intended to dispel rumors about him. “But if I were, I would hope that I wouldn’t be ashamed of it. God makes you whatever you are.”

Among some gay allies, the response stung. Misdirection was one thing; this felt almost taunting. “The most hypocritical cover-up,” Mr. Geto said.

As the election drew closer, Mr. Koch also seemed determined to distance himself from Mr. Nathan, expressing wariness when Mr. Nathan was discussed for a top health care post in the future administration. “I can’t do that,” Mr. Koch said, according to Mr. Schwartz, who hosted Sunday brunches for the team.

On Nov. 8, 1977, Mr. Koch held on to win the election. Shortly afterward, Mr. Nathan told friends, associates of the new mayor unsubtly urged him to find work outside New York. At a party after the inauguration — where Mr. Koch arrived with Ms. Myerson, according to Mr. Rothenberg — Mr. Nathan sounded resigned to his fate.

He would start a new life in California. He would not stick around only to be blackballed in his own city.

“The gauntlet has been drawn for me,” Mr. Nathan told Mr. Rothenberg.

And with that, the only long-term relationship anyone in Mr. Koch’s orbit could remember was over.

So much about being mayor — the purpose, the pageantry, the built-in audience — was everything Ed Koch could have wanted.

He moved from his $475 rent-controlled apartment in the Village to Gracie Mansion, where he held court daily with interesting people who laughed at his jokes.

“One person asked him who the ‘first lady’ really was,” Rozanne Gold, his live-in chef, wrote in a June 1978 diary entry, recounting the overheard groaners of a typical Gracie Mansion gathering. “He replied, ‘I rotate them all the time.’”

Yet for all its commotion and a revolving cast of visitors, life in the mansion could be isolating.

Often enough, it was staff, from City Hall or the residence, who kept the mayor company, listening to Linda Ronstadt records and watching him skirt another star-crossed diet plan with meringue cookies and chocolate mousse.

“There were weekends where the two of us would just sort of be ambling around the mansion,” Ms. Gold said.

When companionship seemed to elude the mayor, friends tried delivering some directly, if discreetly. Herb Rickman, a top aide who served as the official liaison to the city’s gay community, arranged for occasional double dates at his own Park Avenue apartment, according to Mr. Schwartz, a former food editor for The New York Daily News who was Mr. Rickman’s boyfriend at the time. (Mr. Rickman died in 2013.)

With his police detail waiting downstairs, Mr. Koch would join the pair and “whomever it was that we were fixing him up with,” Mr. Schwartz recounted. Then he and Mr. Rickman would leave to spend the night at Mr. Schwartz’s apartment so Mr. Koch and the other man could be alone.

The setups did not appear to amount to much, Mr. Schwartz said. Nor did the couple’s attempt to introduce him to a banker friend whom they considered a possible match. “Too boring,” the famously self-regarding mayor ruled after meeting the man, who in a recent interview did not recall being terribly taken with Mr. Koch, either.

More publicly, the mayor wrestled with gay rights as a cautious ally. He seemed at once determined to demonstrate allegiance to gay New Yorkers where he felt he could — in certain conditions, on certain issues — and sensitive to the political risk involved in doing so.

In smaller settings, the mayor would sometimes share disarming fragments of himself with gay friends, even some journalists he trusted.

David W. Dunlap, a former New York Times reporter who chronicled gay life in the city, remembered a 1985 lunch during which the mayor seemed emotionally consumed by a documentary he had just seen about Harvey Milk, the trailblazing gay officeholder in San Francisco.

Mr. Koch was especially moved, he told Mr. Dunlap, by the images of Mr. Milk’s friends revisiting his assassination. Mr. Dunlap left the encounter wondering if Mr. Koch had been trying to tell him something about himself. “What he saw in Milk was perhaps, albeit a tragic figure, a fulfilled one,” Mr. Dunlap said in an interview.

In other moments, Mr. Koch was more direct.

Mr. Kaiser, another former reporter and the friend whom Mr. Koch would later ask to help find him a partner, said the mayor came out to him at a private dinner around the same time. He described the scene in a 2019 edition of “The Gay Metropolis,” his history of gay life in America.

Mr. Koch opened the meal with a question: “Do your parents know that you’re gay?”

They do, Mr. Kaiser replied.

“Too late for me,” the mayor said.

Those close to Mr. Koch had long described him as a master partitioner. But as his time in office wore on, amid overlapping crises of politics and public health, his finely crafted dividers began to crumble.

Gay men were dying by the hundreds, then the thousands. The disease was menacing every corner of the city, ravaging Mr. Koch’s own neighborhood. And New York’s broadly popular mayor, who won a third term in 1985 by more than 60 points, seemed unwilling to spend political capital on the issue.

Despite the increasingly urgent situation, some city officials were blunt with activists: Voters already had their suspicions about Mr. Koch. He had to proceed carefully before throwing himself into a “gay issue,” as some advisers saw it.

“Come on, you get it,” Mr. Rickman, the senior aide, told Mr. Bloom, according to Mr. Bloom, a former city health official and onetime friend of Mr. Koch’s who had joined the board of Gay Men’s Health Crisis. “This is a difficult issue, given the rumors.”

If Mr. Koch had for a time sought a fragile balance between advancing gay rights in targeted ways and maintaining some distance from the community, the AIDS emergency was simply too vast, too merciless in its march, to accommodate triangulation.

It is impossible to know just how Mr. Koch’s personal identity might have colored the city’s approach to the disease. The administration did start a division of AIDS services and eventually facilitated a needle exchange pilot program. But years into the crisis, private citizens were still scrambling to fill a vacuum of services for the sick, from bedside care to medical information to meal delivery.

The City Hall point person on AIDS in the mid-1980s, Victor Botnick, was a young political loyalist who had begun as a teenage volunteer on Mr. Koch’s congressional campaign. Activists found him oblivious and unhelpful. “We can’t get out front on this,” Mr. Botnick would say, according to Mr. Bloom, nodding at perceptions of Mr. Koch’s sexuality. (Mr. Botnick, 32 at the time, resigned from the administration in 1986 after allegations of excessive city-funded travel and an admission that he had lied about graduating from college. He died in 2002.)

The city’s first comprehensive AIDS plan was not issued until 1988. Pleas for increased funding and the full use of the executive bully pulpit often went unheeded, a reticence that advocates found especially maddening. If New Yorkers had learned anything about Mr. Koch by then — through a fiscal recovery, a transit strike, a Broadway musical adapted from his memoir — it was his capacity to drive attention to the causes dearest to him.

“In a city at the epicenter of this disease, one would expect regular statements from you,” Richard Dunne, the executive director of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, wrote in a July 1987 letter to Mr. Koch. “Indeed, one would expect AIDS to be on your agenda every day. Yet in your most recent State of the City address, AIDS wasn’t even mentioned.”

By the end of that year, city deaths among people with AIDS approached 10,000.

While Mr. Koch long chafed at the consensus that cities like San Francisco managed the disease more effectively, those who spoke to him about AIDS at the time could come away unpersuaded that he grasped its horrors.

Even people like Mr. Bloom, once a regular dinner mate, struggled to get on his calendar for a meeting about AIDS. When he finally did, Mr. Koch was visibly uncomfortable.

“Ed was looking at the ceiling, he was looking at the floor,” Mr. Bloom said, recounting a mid-1980s session with the mayor, senior city officials and Mr. Dunne, his colleague at Gay Men’s Health Crisis. “When the meeting was over, Richard and I said to each other, ‘It’s like he wasn’t even paying attention.’”

As his third term teetered, the mayor began betraying the psychic strain of the job as never before, particularly when he worried his privacy might be punctured. It did not help that several Chekhovian guns seemed to fire in succession: Ms. Myerson, the would-be “first lady” whom he had given an administration post, became enmeshed in a bribery scandal that reinforced escalating concerns about corruption in his government. Mr. Nathan, who would seethe for years from California, had mentioned his past relationship with Mr. Koch to Larry Kramer, the playwright and activist who fiercely criticized the city’s AIDS response. Mr. Kramer was by then actively working to out the mayor, telling reporters about his conversation with Mr. Nathan and urging them to write about it.

City Hall kept tabs on efforts to chase the story, with Mr. Koch plainly fearful about what might be exposed. In August 1987, before a scheduled appearance at a forum on AIDS, the mayor couldn’t sleep. His nerves confused his staff.

“I couldn’t understand why Koch was so upset,” Mr. Arzt, his press secretary, remembered. “He was scared that Larry Kramer would be in the audience and yell something out. I said, ‘So what?’”

The forum was uneventful. Mr. Kramer was not even there. But the toll on the mayor was real. Walking out afterward, Mr. Koch complained of a headache. He stepped into his car with Mr. Arzt. “My speech is slurred,” Mr. Koch said suddenly. “I think I’m having a stroke.”

He was correct.

Mr. Arzt draws a straight line between Mr. Koch’s pre-forum anxiety and the stroke, which sidelined him for only about a week. Mr. Koch later speculated, more generally, that a fourth term would have killed him.

In his final, futile re-election campaign in 1989, Mr. Koch unfurled a denial about his sexual orientation that went beyond his stock deflections. “It happens that I’m heterosexual,” he said in a radio interview that March.

Two weeks later, an estimated 3,000 AIDS activists descended on City Hall, some with signs mocking the mayor’s pronouncement. “And I’m Cary Grant,” one read, beside a headline declaring Mr. Koch straight. A new chant was born, too, wafting over Lower Manhattan as hundreds of protesters faced arrest:

“AIDS care’s ineffectual. Thanks to Koch, the heterosexual.”

Like many politicians, Mr. Koch looked like a younger man after leaving office — his face less creased; his shoulders looser; his burdens lifted, to a point.

He tended to a resilient public persona as a television pundit and author, throwing himself back into city life as a private citizen and neatly sorting his circles of friends: He lunched with former political hands, gossiping about the news of the day over steak or Peking duck. And he entertained at dinner parties with an assemblage of younger gay friends, quizzing them on their relationships and occasionally telling them they could do better.

“With other gay people, he seemed completely comfortable as a gay man,” Mr. Kaiser said. “He went to every gay movie, so the chauffeur had to know.”

Mr. Koch grew close to Maer Roshan, an editor at the gay weekly NYQ and later New York magazine, who became a regular platonic movie date and social wingman.

They met Paris Hilton at Indochine. They ate lox and crackers at Mr. Koch’s apartment. They absorbed art-house cinema and attracted stares when the content was explicit, as with a French film about the sexual awakening of a gay teen that Mr. Roshan likened to soft-core pornography.

“He’s like 10 feet tall, and everyone knows who he is, and it was a very select audience for this particular movie,” Mr. Roshan said with a laugh. “You can feel everyone’s eyes on your back.”

Still, old sources of angst occasionally encroached on Mr. Koch’s post-mayoral life. He shared an apartment building with Mr. Kramer, who mumbled to his dog about “the man who killed all of daddy’s friends” when they passed in the lobby. (Mr. Kramer died in 2020.)

With some distance, onetime allies also felt compelled to share distressing memories they had carried around. Mr. Geto, who had protected Mr. Koch in 1977 by lying to Mr. Garth, his campaign guru, finally decided to tell the former mayor about it over dinner.

“He looked very rattled and shaken,” Mr. Geto said, adding that Mr. Koch did not exactly thank him. “He said something along the lines of, ‘You handled it right.’”

Mr. Koch experienced another jolt after phoning Mr. Bloom in the mid-1990s. A mutual friend had died of AIDS, and Mr. Koch called to offer condolences.

“Do you know who else died of AIDS a few weeks ago?” Mr. Bloom asked Mr. Koch.

“Who?”

“Dick Nathan.”

Mr. Koch said nothing. Then he ended the call.

In his final years, Mr. Koch could seem like the first and the last of a kind.

He had become a pioneering New York character on his own terms, the mayor whose civic cheerleading and abundant ego still paced the political class. He also belonged to perhaps the last generation in the city for which being openly gay felt politically prohibitive.

Mr. Koch’s gay friends hoped he might burnish one legacy by transcending the other — and maybe even show the city itself how much it had changed.

Mr. Roshan suggested to him that coming out could be a “capstone” to his standing as a titan of contemporary New York. Mr. Geto wondered in a documentary interview how “incredibly invaluable” it might have been if a popular figure like Mr. Koch had been out years earlier.

Mr. Kaiser impressed upon him, more pragmatically, that his chances at a proper relationship would multiply if he finally took the step.

Mr. Koch did try to date a little, asking friends like Mr. Kaiser and Mr. Geto to introduce him to someone, and sometimes found short-term romance — cooking for one companion at his apartment, the man recalled recently in an interview, before a courtly invitation to bed. But there was no second date. Nothing seemed to stick for long.

Mr. Roshan offered some high-visibility help, devising a personal ad as part of a 1999 New York magazine “Singles” issue in which Mr. Koch agreed to appear. The proposed script read, “GWM” — a shorthand for “gay white male” — “interested in politics, seeks same for love and friendship,” according to Mr. Roshan.

Mr. Koch balked, Mr. Roshan said, citing “family that didn’t know,” and drawing up revisions that hedged his sexuality. “Have belatedly concluded that everyone, straight or gay, needs a partner in life,” the final version read.

In an interview, Mr. Koch’s younger sister, Pat Koch Thaler, said that while the two did not discuss his sexuality, the family would have been supportive no matter what he told them. “He didn’t ask me about whether I was gay or straight or bi, and I never asked him what he was, either,” Ms. Thaler, 90, said, adding, “It wouldn’t have mattered one way or the other.”

Friends suspected that Mr. Koch’s reluctance, even long after being openly gay would have posed a political issue, owed largely to his grudges and his pride: He did not want to give activists like Mr. Kramer the satisfaction of seeing him come out, after they had tried so hard to see him outed. (Shortly before his death, Mr. Koch could still simmer at old foes, once defending the imprisonment of members of the dissident Russian band Pussy Riot by comparing their actions to those of ACT UP, the organization that Mr. Kramer helped found.)

Publicly, Mr. Koch often said his silence served a higher principle, setting a precedent that might protect other politicians against those inclined to “torture everybody running for office.”

Privately, pressed by those close to him about his hesitation to come out, Mr. Koch would simply repeat, “I don’t want to.”

“That’s as far as that conversation ever got,” Mr. Kaiser said.

As his health faltered in his final years, Mr. Koch made clear he was lonely, suggesting that finding a partner was the only pursuit of his life that he counted as a failure. Old age was probably not so bad, he said sometimes, “as long as you have someone.”

Mr. Koch still showed up at lunches with friends from his City Hall days as long as he could, well into his 80s. He also began preparing for his death, choosing a burial plot near a subway station so he would be easy to visit.

By the end, he seemed to recognize that there would be no partner visiting him there. He had made his choices — rational and noble ones, he might have persuaded himself — to live all his other dreams in the city he loved. And he could convince himself, on the right day, that the city loved him back.

For his 86th birthday, then-Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg hosted Mr. Koch and his old friends and staffers at Gracie Mansion and announced a decision that some local gay activists are still working to reverse: the renaming of the Queensboro Bridge in Mr. Koch’s honor.

A beaming Mr. Koch was nearly overcome. He toasted the city as it is seen from the Queensboro in “The Great Gatsby,” with its “wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”

He raised his left hand toward his heart, pointing at himself, watching the people watch him. He smiled again.

“Isn’t that wonderful?” Mr. Koch said. “And that’s my bridge.”

Kitty Bennett contributed research.


Soruce : https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/07/nyregion/ed-koch-gay-secrets.html

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