Volume 74, Number 9 | June 30 - July 6, 2004

Why Ed Koch became mayor and not a Met

By Erica Stein

Ed Koch never would have become mayor if he hadn’t been so lousy at baseball.

At least that’s the way Koch and his sister Pat Koch Thaler tell the story in their children’s book, “Eddie: Harold’s Little Brother.” The book recounts the former mayor’s youthful athletic incompetence and the guidance of his older brother, Harold, who encouraged him to participate in a public speaking contest at school. Eddie wins the award for excellence in public speaking (for a speech about his experiences in baseball) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Koch rose to political prominence in Greenwich Village, where he still lives today, going on to become a three-term mayor of New York City from 1978-1989.

The former mayor says he and his sister decided to write the book for Penguin Putnam because “We’re a very close-knit family,” Koch said. “My brother died when he was 75. My sister and I are both writers — I’ve written autobiographies and mysteries and all kinds of articles, and she’s written about topics close to her heart — and we decided to write this book about my relationship with our brother. And every word of it is true.”

Set in the Bronx in the mid-1930s, the book focuses on the relationship between Koch and Harold. “I was awful at sports and I wanted to play baseball,” said Koch. “My brother was an Adonis. He was a jock. I envied him and I loved him. He made them take me. He would tell them, ‘If you want me’ — and everybody wanted him on their team — ‘you have to take Eddie too.’ And then eventually it got to be too much and he told me I couldn’t play any more. ‘You’re no good,’ he said. And I started to whimper and I told him I wanted to play. He said I had to find something I did well. So I asked him what do I do well? He says, ‘You talk good.’ And that’s how I became mayor.”

Although Koch has written or co-authored more than 12 books — he also writes movie reviews for The Villager — and Koch Thaler was associate dean of Professional and Continuing Studies at N.Y.U, neither had ever written a children’s book before, which, according to Koch, has its own challenges. “You never talk down to a child. You have to treat kids with respect,” said Koch. The authors had a ready-made focus group in Thaler’s seven grandchildren, who were read the book by their grandmother and, according to Koch, enjoyed it. “It’s remarkable to see Pat’s kids,” he said. “They’re so much smarter than we were.”

Koch describes the writing process as a true collaboration, both between himself and Koch Thaler and with James Warhola, who illustrated the book. Warhola, who has illustrated many children’s books including “If You Hopped Like a Frog,” is best known for “Uncle Andy’s,” which he also wrote. “Uncle Andy’s” is the story of Warhola’s childhood visits to see his father’s youngest brother, Andy Warhol.

Warhola’s book was popular with both kids and pop-art aficionados, and its vibrant watercolor illustrations attracted Koch and his sister. “Our editor at Putnam gave us the works of three illustrators to look at,” Koch said. “The publisher has the right to choose who illustrates the book, but they allowed us to make the choice. We picked James.” To get the illustrations to reflect the parks, houses and schools of Depression-era New York, the authors spent hours with Warhola, telling him what kind of stores, clothes and buildings they remembered from their youth.

Koch said he and Koch Thaler are both very pleased with the result. “I love it and so does my sister,” he said. “This is a book for klutzy kids and how it’s O.K. not to be good at everything. I was a klutzy kid and my brother was the oldest. He protected me from bullies. Later, when he grew up to be a carpet designer and wholesaler, he’d come to see me speak when I was mayor. The moral of the book is very simple: there’s something everyone can do well.”

The brother-sister team have already written another children’s book for Putnam, which will focus on their relationship. It will also be illustrated by Warhola. “We asked them if he was free,” Koch said. “His stuff is just great — I even look the way I did when I was a kid.”

“Eddie: Harold’s Little Brother” (Putnam, 32 pages, color illustrations, $16.99) will go on sale Sept. 1


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