Late at night the lights burned in the governor’s study. Mario Cuomo was reading, he was writing, he was worrying, he was agonizing, he was brooding.

For as all the world knows, Cuomo, who died Thursday just after his son, Andrew, was sworn in for his second term as governor, knew misery and torment. He may have been a tough three-term governor, and yet he worried if his children, adults now, were learning enough in their work. He was in despair over poverty, hunger and pain. He was afflicted with doubts, persecuted by questions.

When he entered the Capitol here and saw a homeless man huddled in the foyer, should he stop and comfort him? Or should he rush upstairs to his office, where if he used his time just right he might help thousands? Is he motivated by vanity or by charity? Is he good enough to be president ”“ or an associate justice of the Supreme Court? Or ”“ separate question ”“ is he as good as he can be?

Mario Cuomo wondered about all this, and perhaps a few things more.

But inside the governor’s mansion, where all the anguish seldom was quenched, Cuomo sometimes let escape a sentimental side ”“ not confectionary, to be sure, yet just short of maudlin. A man who dipped into the writings of the ancient Hebrews and who drew strength from the thoughts of Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit religious speaker, could nonetheless be felled by a few bars of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” a 1940 song about a “pug-nosed dream,” a country dance held in a garden and a cottage built of lilacs and laughter.

In that song, a ballad that is the soundtrack of the private Mario Cuomo, there hides a poignant line: “There were questions, but my heart knew all the answers ”“ and perhaps a few things more.”

For in the end, for all the brilliance of his mind, for the eloquence of his tongue and the strength of his bearing, Mario Cuomo was ruled by his heart. That is what transformed him into the most enigmatic and perhaps most transfixing character on the American political scene in the 1980s and into the 1990s.

Indeed, from the start he was a puzzle, the sort of young man who excelled at baseball but once missed a routine fly because he was reading in centerfield. The best-defined but most elusive figure of his time, he was a devout Catholic who found Yom Kippur “a good day to look back and prepare to move forward.” He was a master of the English language, and yet didn’t speak a word of it until he was 8 years old.

In speeches he quoted Dante, Galileo, Lincoln and Johnny Szarzynski, who played basketball with him as a kid. But ultimately anyone who seeks to understand Cuomo may end up quoting Johnny Szarzynski as well:

“Mario,” his old friend said, “played hard and he played fair and he never missed Mass.”

But Cuomo was neither prude nor patsy. In basketball he had one jump shot but two elbows, and though he was taught to forgive, he never quite learned to forget. For decades a remarkable number of New York’s most influential, powerful and best-known figures, citing Cuomo’s vindictiveness, wouldn’t speak about him for quotation. Former Gov. Hugh Carey, who preceded Cuomo as governor and chose him as his lieutenant governor but clearly disliked him, wouldn’t talk about what he called “the deep, dark past.”

Cuomo never forgot being snubbed by the toffs of Wall Street’s leading law firms, who couldn’t imagine a name like his in little letters on the left side of their engraved letterhead. Maybe, he liked to say, the bitterness always fresh and the hurt always raw, he should have changed his name to Mark Conrad.

He never forgot that when his mother passed through Ellis Island, someone decided whether she was good enough to enter the country, or that when the family moved into Holliswood, three women told his mother that she was welcome there, but that she should please keep the tops on her garbage cans.

So Mrs. Cuomo’s son was driven ”“ perhaps to prove himself, perhaps to redeem himself, perhaps simply to excel.

Once he flew to California to speak to a broadcasters’ group and stayed in the hotel all day, clad in a bathrobe, taking and making telephone calls, eating chicken sandwiches in a room overlooking Disneyland, brushing aside entreaties to wander out. As a young man in Tieterman’s Ice Cream Parlor, he talked about philosophy, never about girls, and the night before he had a test his friends knew not to expect him. “This boy did not get into trouble,” said Tom Deneen, a childhood friend.

Eventually the classic New Yorker grew comfortable in the state capital on the Hudson, but according to William Kennedy, the Albany novelist, “he doesn’t hang out.” Most nights he spent at home with his wife, Matilda, the only woman he ever dated.

He was one part intellectual and one part intellectual bully. “He’s a brilliant debater,” said former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who beat Cuomo in a bruising mayoral race in 1977 and was defeated by him in an equally bitter gubernatorial primary in 1982. “He’s sometimes like a haiku: He sounds brilliant, but he’s often without substance.”

And often with a road map unlike any other in the political atlas. He was set to run for president and at the last moment pulled back. He was offered a Supreme Court post by Bill Clinton, a sometime rival, and withdrew.

And yet Cuomo was always something of a reluctant warrior, even when the prize was a young man’s dream.

In the early 1950s, Cuomo walked away from the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball organization, choosing instead what he called “Our Lady of the Law.” But before he departed, he left an unusual mark, and it is recorded in the archives of the Pirates farm system.

“I think Cuomo has the tools to go all the way if the best can be brought out in him,” Ed McCarrick wrote in May 1952 as the new outfielder was set to report to Brunswick, Georgia. “Like all bright fellows, he is sometimes moody and different from the ordinary person. It takes some time to get his confidence and to know the warmth that is in him.”

— David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette ([email protected], 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.