Araham D. Beame, the diminutive accountant who served as the 104th mayor of New York through the darkest days of the city's 1975 fiscal crisis, died today, a family spokesman said. He was 94.
Beame died of complications after open heart surgery at New York University Medical Center, said Howard Rubenstein. Beame had been hospitalized there since July of last year, Rubenstein said. Beame was the city's first Jewish mayor and the second ex-mayor to die in the last two months. His City Hall predecessor, John V. Lindsay, died in December.
Fought Lingering Criticism for 1974 City Crisis
Beame spent his last years defending his reputation from those who said he was a bean-counter who couldn't count — a man who, as city budget director, comptroller and finally as mayor from 1974 through 1977, failed to prevent a fiscal catastrophe. The crisis began when banks refused to buy city notes because the city could not provide enough information about uncollected real estate taxes. Before it was over, municipal job rolls, salaries and services were cut and a mountain of debt was made manageable by a complex partnership of union pension funds, banks and the state and federal governments. The city was "well on the road to recovery" by the time he left office on Jan. 1, 1978, Beame insisted. "I inherited a budget gap of $1.5 billion, and when I left we had a surplus of $200 million," he said.
An Unlikely Leader
Beame was an unlikely politician. He was 5-foot-2, soft-spoken and utterly without charisma — everything his predecessor, Lindsay, was not. Lindsay's movie star good looks and political savvy helped quell riots in the city during the tumultuous '60s. Beame was born March 20, 1906. While growing up in New York City, Beame worked in the family restaurant and earned extra money by knocking on doors to wake neighbors for work. Inspired by Horatio Alger books, he worked eight hours at a factory while attending high school. Despite his size, he was known for his toughness — his nickname was "Spunky." Beame's administration will always be remembered as the time the bill came due for decades of profligate government. In his own defense, Beame said he had warned for years against accounting gimmicks that hid the city's true financial condition and against using capital funds for day-to-day expenses. He said he cut 60,000 city jobs. At crunch time in 1975, Beame raised the transit fare from 35 cents to a half dollar, closed firehouses and imposed tuition on what had been a free City University. Beame's hopes of a second term were dashed by his third-place finish, behind Edward I. Koch and Mario Cuomo, in a six-candidate Democratic primary.