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Why Koch holds on to these old battles is the movie’s key mystery. It may be that he doesn’t have much else to do. Koch lives alone in a downtown apartment, and though we see him enjoying his friends and family, we also see him arrive home at night to a dark front hall.
Koch took some political slights very hard. Wounds from the 1977 Cuomo fight, in particular, seem fresh. The documentary shows Koch and his team going to great lengths during that first mayoral campaign to cover up the press’s questions about Koch’s sexuality. There’s a shot of a sweaty, uncomfortable-looking Koch being asked why he isn’t married, then an adviser talking about the decision to have Bess Myerson, a former Miss America and New York City’s first commissioner of consumer affairs, “paired” with Koch. The suggestion was that they were an item: Koch even calls her “the first lady” in a clip that was shot at the time. In a contemporary interview, however, Koch says he had no romantic relationship with Myerson.
The film nods openly to the suspicion that Andrew Cuomo was behind fliers surreptitiously distributed throughout the city at the height of the 1977 campaign that read, “Vote for Cuomo, Not the Homo.” Koch says that he complained to Mario Cuomo about the signs, but nothing was done.
In an indication of how deeply the conversations about his sexuality upset Koch, the film suggests that his 1987 stroke was brought on by stress over the possibility that a story was about to appear in the press linking him to a man named Richard Nathan. When an interviewer, presumably Barsky, directly asks Koch whether he is gay, the response is convoluted, if resigned.
Koch’s recent career as an unremitting Israel hawk plays almost no role in this film. Instead, this is a movie about a deeply charismatic, racially divisive, brilliant mayor who has turned into a funny, sharp old man.
In one of the film’s last scenes, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg addresses the crowd at Koch’s birthday party. Bloomberg is wooden as he unveils a sign renaming the Queensboro Bridge after Koch. Koch, speaking after Bloomberg, is brilliant, delightedly quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the car ride home, Koch’s friend praises Bloomberg, saying that most mayors don’t go out of their way to promote former mayors.
Koch concurs. “I didn’t do a f**king thing for Abe Beame,” he says.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer at the Forward.