NEW YORK — The newly published author sat in a wheelchair in an ornate townhouse once owned by Franklin D. Roosevelt. He looked out at a room of people eager to hear tales from his 20-year run as a big city mayor.
But first, Thomas M. Menino had to will himself to stand. It was almost as if he were reenacting a scene from his memoir, when he climbed out of a wheelchair to address a service at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross a few days after the Boston Marathon bombings.
Menino summoned a deep breath. He pushed with both hands on the arms of his wheelchair and rose to his feet. The 71-year-old former mayor leaned on his old baseball-bat cane and took a few shuffling steps to his seat for a discussion of his book, “Mayor for a New America.”
The transition from mayor to author has been complicated. Menino has been weakened by cancer. And this week, just as he embarked on a book tour, laryngitis stole his voice.
But Tuesday night at Roosevelt House at Hunter College, as he sipped steaming lemon water and spoke in a gravelly whisper, Menino showed flashes of the mayoral gravitas that once permeated City Hall. When asked how Boston distributed aid money so quickly to victims of the Marathon bombings, he responded with a three-word quip that delighted the crowd of roughly 75.
“I’m the mayor,” Menino said.
The five-term mayor has embarked on a whirlwind media tour, coaxing his voice to cooperate as he stops at MSNBC, Fox, and CNN.
At the radio studios of WNYC, Menino laid the blame for Boston’s divisive school integration on politicians who kept “all the blacks in one area” and “forced” the judge to implement a faulty busing plan. Then a coughing fit interrupted Menino mid-sentence.
Menino plans to attend private book parties at Boston University and his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and is scheduled next week for a book signing and media appearances in Washington, if his health allows.
At the end of the month, there’s a signing scheduled at Barnes & Noble at the Prudential Center and an appearance with his successor, Mayor Martin J. Walsh, at the Boston Book Festival. It is a far cry from the schedule he kept just 10 months ago as he moved out of his fifth-floor office at City Hall.
“It’s quite different,” Menino said. “Now I get to be the critic.”
Having the kickoff at Roosevelt House somehow seemed appropriate, underscoring Menino’s connection to the long arc of progressive politics in America. The Neo-Georgian townhouse, sitting blocks away from Central Park, was one of the places where Roosevelt found a renewed sense of purpose after being paralyzed by polio.
The house later served as the launching pad for the political career of America’s longest-serving president. In the same upper room where Roosevelt laid the foundation of the New Deal, Menino sat near a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking East 65th Street.
“Putting your memoirs together is very difficult,” Menino said over the din of cocktail chatter. “It wasn’t ever about me. It was about the city of Boston.”
Former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg greeted Menino with the warmth of an old friend. In introductory remarks at the book party, Bloomberg described Menino as “one of the most successful mayors to ever run a city in the United States.” History, he said, will include Menino in the same breath as transcendent big city mayors the likes of New York’s Fiorello LaGuardia and Chicago’s Richard Daley.
“He really was the mayors’ mayor,” Bloomberg said of Menino. “When you get to heaven, my attitude is don’t stop and ask, just walk right in. You have earned this.”
Menino, wearing a dark suit and a light blue tie the same hue as Boston’s city flag, recounted anecdotes and lessons from the book. He talked about the response to the Marathon bombings, the imperative to be a sound steward of city finances, and the deliberate effort to win over constituents a conversation at a time.
“Unless people trust you,” Menino said, “you can’t do what you want to do.”
Laryngitis caused his voice to falter and crack. His wife, Angela, and his former press secretary, Dot Joyce, urged him on with gestures from the front row. They reminded him to sip his water and at one point, a throat lozenge was passed from wife to spokeswoman to mayor.
To distract from his rasp, Menino leaned on self-deprecating quips and his trademark grin that seemed to suggest, “I’m-the-mayor-what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it.”
Angela Menino said her husband frequently catches laryngitis in October, which often coincided with debates during election years. The former mayor has not been using a wheelchair in Boston, she said, but there was a lot of walking in New York.
The first audience question veered off topic when a woman asked about what she described as lack of access at Boston museums for the hearing impaired. After a brief discussion, Menino offered a solution:“Talk to the new mayor.”
The crowd included Menino’s daughter, Susan Menino Fenton; former top aide, Michael Kineavy; City Councilor Stephen J. Murphy; publicist George Regan; and actor Kevin Chapman.
Chapman is in New York filming the Detective Lionel Fusco role in the television series “Person of Interest.” He worked for Menino as neighborhood services coordinator in Dorchester for almost nine years and recalled rushing to overnight fires to help residents who lost their homes. “The biggest fear in the office was that at 3 a.m. the mayor would beat you to a call,” Chapman said.
As a New Yorker, Dana Matlin never had a chance to vote for Menino. Just the same, the 59-year-old came to the book party, lured by the mayor’s reputation. “I just wanted to hear what he had to say,” Matlin said. “I thought it was fascinating. I could see why he was so effective.”