NEW YORK, Feb. 13 (JTA) Abraham Beame, the first Jewish mayor of New York, died Saturday at 94 of complications from open-heart surgery.
The son of Polish Jewish immigrants who grew up on the Lower East Side and attended City College, Beame was mayor between 1974 and 1977. His tenure was plagued by New York City’s worst fiscal crisis.
The hard-working Beame’s story is a quintessential tale of the 20th- century Jewish immigrant experience.
He was born in London to Polish Jewish parents who had fled Warsaw, then part of Russia.
His father, Philip Birnbaum, was a revolutionary who went directly to New York. His mother, Esther Goldfarb Birnbaum, stopped in England, where Abraham was born.
In New York, the family changed its name to Beame.
Beame’s mother died in 1912; his father soon remarried.
Nicknamed “Spunky” as a boy, Beame grew up in a tenement, where one of his early jobs was to go through other apartments waking people who had no alarm clocks.
At the age of 15, he met Mary Ingerman at a Lower East Side social services center. Seven years later, after he had earned his accounting degree from City College, the two were married.
The couple had few expensive tastes and lived plainly, even after achieving prominence.
From 1929 to 1946, Beame taught accounting and laid the groundwork for his career in the city’s political machine.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, both Beame and his wife were active in local Democratic politics. In 1946 he was appointed assistant budget director for New York City, and was promoted to budget director im 1952.
In 1961 he was elected city comptroller, and in 1965 decided to run for mayor.
But in a race that featured two telegenic candidates John Lindsay and William F. Buckley the 5-foot-2-inch Beame was defeated.
He was re-elected as comptroller in 1969, and ran for mayor again in 1973.
This time, the quiet, self-effacing Beame, who was backed by Democratic Party bosses, won.
Almost as soon as he took office, however, Beame was faced with a fiscal crisis caused by years of overspending.
Convinced that they city was a bad risk, banks and bond markets refused to lend money to New York. Services such as schools, libraries, police and hospitals were threatened.
As a result, Beame had to cut the city budget.
Eventually he cut 65,000 jobs, froze wages, reduced services and restructured the budget.
But even with such measures, it took years and both federal and state attention to get the city back on its feet.
Critics claimed Beame moved too slowly and indecisively to fix the crisis, but many people now praise Beame for running a scandal-free administration and allocating limited city resources fairly.
Beame also had to cope with the a citywide blackout in 1977, and the “Son of Sam” serial murders the same year.
But his tenure was not without its successes, including the 1976 Democratic national convention, which was held in New York after Beame lobbied fiercely for it. That same year, New York was the focus of the nation’s Bicentennial celebrations.
Beame was defeated in his 1977 re-election bid. Aside from trips to Florida and Israel, he spent the last two decades of his life in banking, and served on civic and corporate boards.