Detective Mary Fitzgerald A First Among the Finest
by Sharon Bermon
On a beautiful cloudless day in May 1962, a tanned and handsome President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was in an exuberant mood. The night before, he was honored at a standing-room-only fundraiser at Madison Square Garden. When Marilyn Monroe, in a dress so tight she had to be sewn into it, sang “Happy Burthday, Mr. President,” it was the high point of the evening.
The next afternoon, Kennedy, still in New York City, was the featured guest at a reception at Gracie Mansion. Mayor Robert Wagner had invited dozens of mayors from around the country to meet the president, and JFK, working the crowd, approached an attractive woman standing with a group of men. He extended his hand and, perhaps flirtatiously, asked, “And who are you?”
The woman he approached, wearing a smart summer frock, replied “I’m Detective Mary Fitzgerald, NYPD.”
President Kennedy was clearly surprised. He asked her a few questions. How long she had been in the NYPD, whether her father had been in the NYPD, whether she had a brother in the NYPD – and after Detective Mary Fitzgerald answered his questions, he walked away without introducing himself to any of the male detectives standing with her.
It was understandable that President Kennedy mistook Mary Fitzgerald for a party guest. A 10-year member of the force, she was part of the security team assigned to guard the president. Her goal was to blend in – to look like any guest at an event – but there was always one important difference between NYPD Detective Mary Fitzgerald and other women at an event. Her fashionable but slightly oversize handbag concealed her official NYPD weapon, a Smith and Wesson .38.
(In 1943, the NYPD issued the first combination gun and make-up shoulder bag, which contained a holster for a .38 revolver, a lipstick in medium red, a compact, and a red plastic case of dry rouge. Mayor LaGuardia said, “Use the gun as you would use your lipstick – only when you need it – and use it intelligently. Don’t overdo either one.”)
A Rivercross resident since 1977, Mary exemplifies the Protect and Serve motto of police departments. As a member of the NYPD Intelligence Division, she guarded dozens of dignitaries over a period of 25 years, starting in 1958. At age 92, she remembers many of them:
Jacqueline Kennedy often came to New York, and Fitzgerald was assigned to guard her a number of times. She would pick up Mrs. Kennedy from her suite at the Carlyle Hotel and accompany her on shopping trips. When asked for details of her protective details – where she sat, how close she would be to the dignitaries she was guarding – Fitzgerald declined to give specifics.
Were her assigned duties arduous? Seemingly not. She has fond memories of shopping with Queen Sofia of Spain, who knew exactly what she wanted to buy, and headed first to the West Side for electronic gear and then to a store where she bought a large quantity of good quality but relatively inexpensive handbags for personal gifts. What was it like shopping with a queen? Evidently, part of Queen Sofia’s shopping strategy was to dress in an unassuming blouse and skirt.
Aliza Begin, wife of Menachem Begin, the Israeli Prime Minister, was another savvy shopper. She came here knowing that she wanted to go to Alexander’s, and it was Fitzgerald’s pleasant assignment to accompany her. And when the wife of the president of Mexico wanted to shop for clothes for her mother, Fitzgerald suggested Lord & Taylor, knowing it had a good selection of clothes for older women.
Fitzgerald had an advantage over male detectives and Secret Service agents. She could accompany a woman she was guarding anywhere, even into a ladies room, so she had many evening assignments. She accompanied Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to a United Jewish Appeal dinner, and went to see Lena Horne with Nancy Reagan. When President and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson were in the city, she was assigned (with a male partner) to a dinner. She wore a cocktail dress and blended with the guests so well that the man sitting next to her at the dinner asked her to dance. Asked “What did you do?” she answers, “I danced with him.”
When Jacqueline Kennedy was at Lincoln Center for a Philharmonic Hall opening, Fitzgerald was there – not seated with her, but “nearby.” When Neil Armstrong came to the city for a ticker-tape parade in 1969 after walking on the moon, Fitzgerald was assigned to City Hall.
One of Fitzgerald’s frequent duties was to deliver dignitaries to the United Nations. As a result, the United Nations Police knew her, and she was an invited guest, sitting in the General Assembly, when Nikita Krushchev made the memorable speech during which he banged his shoe on the lectern.
Clearly, retired detective Fitzgerald loved her job. When asked about her work, her reply was “It’s my nature to be protective of people.” Her comments about the people she worked with tell the story. Queen Sofia was a “very practical person and a very good shopper.” Aliza Begin was “an exceptionally compatible, very pleasant” woman. Jacqueline Kennedy endeared herself by giving Mary a signed, framed photograph. “I was on my way out of the hotel when a Secret Service agent brought me the photograph,” she says. It now has a place of honor in Fitzgerald’s living room.
How did Mary Fitzgerald become a police officer, the occupation that defined her life? After high school graduation, she was eligible to attend Hunter College, but her father had died when she was 15, and her older brother was conscripted to serve during World War II. At 19, she needed to work and support her mother. She operated a comptometer – an early mechanical calculating machine – but made little money and saw no opportunity to advance. A man in her office suggested that she take the exam for policewomen. When the test was offered in 1952, it was only the second time that women had been able to test for police positions. (The first was in 1948.) Approximately 1,000 women took the exam, and Fitzgerald received the fifth-highest score. She was hired. She was fast-tracked through the Police Academy and, after a month, was sworn in. In 1956, her commanding officer recommended her for promotion to detective, and she became an officer in the pickpocket squad. Two years later, she was moved to what is now the Intelligence Division, and stayed there happily until she had to retire in 1983 for medical reasons.
At 92, she is active and happy. At a recent birthday party at the home of Dr. Katherine Grimm, dozens of friends and a few former colleagues gathered to celebrate and toast her life and achievements. Deputy Director Lynda Marmara of Roosevelt Island Public Safety sent this message.
“Warmest birthday greetings to Retired NYPD Detective Mary Fitzgerald. I want to thank her for her years of dedicated service to the NYPD and the City of New York. Your place in the history of women and policing is fascinating and awe-inspiring. Thank you for pioneering and paving the way for future policewomen, and creating opportunities for women to achieve greater successes within the NYPD. I personally am profoundly grateful to you and the other pioneers. May this birthday and the years to come be truly The Finest!”