I first met Mario Cuomo, the former New York State governor who died at 82 on Thursday, at Grossinger’s in the Catskills in 1982. He and Ed Koch were debaters before the New York State Broadcasters Association Annual Conference. Hearing of my Forward connection, Koch told me outright “tell your readers to rush to the polls and vote.”
Cuomo, his arm around my shoulder as we walked along a pathway, explained “The Jews need a Shabbos goy because they can’t do everything for themselves.”
Mario Cuomo as he appeared in Karen Leon’s 1987 cartoon
Whenever we met over the years, “the grandchildren” were always a topic of conversation as they were at the 1997 Creative Coalition Spotlight Awards at The Pierre at which son-in-law Kenneth Cole was an honoree, Mario Cuomo reminded me how he “spent the night under Jennie Grossinger’s portrait.”
The last time I spoke with the governor was at the June 25, 2013 Women’s Forum of New York Elly Awards Luncheon at the Plaza at which daughter Maria Cuomo Cole was an honoree. Former New York State First Lady and award presenter Matilda Cuomo touted her thirteen grandchildren — “all girls and one boy” — as seated at the VIP table, father Mario Cuomo was schepping nachas.
When I interviewed illustrator extraordinaire Al Hirshfeld, he and my daughter Karen compared the fine notes of drawing Mario Cuomo.
Masha Leon and Mario Cuomo at Grossinger’s
Of Gov. Cuomo’s many appearances and speeches, the one that continues to resonate, is his keynote address at The Lower East Side Tenement Museum 2004 gala focusing on his parents’plight as immigrants.
”My mother and father came here in the 1920s without skills or formal education speaking a regional dialect from the mountains of Salerno. With two children, nomoney, no work…suffering discrimination.”
At a 2001 American Jewish Committee’s Human Rights Award Dinner, he revealed how Harry and Ruby Kessler — Jewish immigrants from Poland — had “rescued my parents by giving my father a job and my family a place to live.” Cuomo stated: “The new immigrants will not be like my parents’ generation; they won’t be part of the huddled masses. The color and accent of most will be different, but the glorious good fortune of all Americans enjoy: a yearning to breathe free the air of opportunity.”