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Mobsters – Jimmy Walker – New York City’s Midnight Mayor
If New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker hadn’t been so likable, he would surely have been branded a villain.
Jimmy Walker was born in New York’s Greenwich Village on June 19, 1881, the son of an Irish immigrant who later became a political shaker and mover in Tammany Hall. Walker attended Xavier High School, a military school in Manhattan, and later New York Law School.
Walker’s first love, however, was music. Walker fell in with the Village bohemian crowd and turned to songwriting instead of practicing law. Two of the songs Walker wrote: “There’s Music In The Rustle Of A Skirt” and “Will You Love Me in December As You Do in May?” The later song’s melodic chorus made Walker an overnight sensation in Tin Pan Alley:
Do you love me in December as in May?
Will you love the good old fashioned way?
When my hair is gray
Then you kiss me and say
How do you like in December as in May?
In 1910, at the urging of his father and his mentor, Tammany Hall titan Al Smith (later Governor Smith), Walker ran for and was elected to the New York State Assembly, where he served until 1914. From 1914 to 1925, the now ambitious Walker was elected to the New York State Senate. Walker was so popular in the Senate that he was elected President Pro Tempore of the New York State Senate in 1923-1924.
During his time in the Senate, Walker was always smartly dressed and exuded a radiant, outgoing attitude. Walker was considered a bon vivant who spent more time bending his elbows than actually serving his constituents in the Senate.
American journalist Robert Caro once described Senator Walker in this way: , “the vivacity of a man of song and dance,” a spell which made him come into the Senate chamber like a merry breeze. The charming prince of politics . . . the judicious arguments of the witty men who sat around him, flashing like conductors. Beau James.
In 1925, Al Smith, now New York’s governor, thought Walker would be the perfect mayor for New York City, a city that now basks in the light of Roaring 20s debauchery. With Smith’s support and backroom maneuvering, Walker unseated the current mayor, John Harlan, who was seen as fairly competent, if not a little stubborn. Smith’s biggest obstacle was that Walker was known more as a party-goer than a shrewd politician. But “Beau James,” as the press now called him, promised Smith that he would mend his self-righteous ways if elected to the city’s top spot.
Harlan was a Democrat and so was Walker, so Smith had to call on some of his top hits to get Walker the Democratic nomination. That mission accomplished, Walker’s next hurdle was Republican Fusion Party candidate Frank Waterman in the mayoral race. Waterman basically called Walker a crook and said that if Walker were elected mayor, the New York City subway system would be mired in corruption because of Walker’s crooked connections in Tammany Hall. Walker laughed off Waterman’s comments, saying he chose the title “people’s mayor” because he liked to do the same thing the general public liked to do: gamble and drink illegal booze during Prohibition.
During his campaign, Walker boasted, “I love the company of my fellow men. I love the theater, and I am devoted to wholesome outdoor sports. Because I love these things, I have reflected my attitudes in some of the legislation I have sponsored — 2.75 percent beer, Sunday baseball, Sunday movies and legalized boxing. But let me assuage any fears you may have that because I believe in personal liberty, wholesome entertainment, and wholesome professional sports, I will not for a moment face any indecency or vice in New York.”
Yes, that’s right.
Walker partied in a blur during his first four years as mayor. The public loved the new mayor so much that it hardly caused a ripple when he left his wife, Janet, for showgirl Betty Compton, who was 23 years Walker’s junior. In 1928, Walker’s shenanigans fell out of favor with Al Smith, so Walker, cool cat that he was, befriended the new governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had been elected governor when Smith resigned for the presidency. Herbert Hoover is a Republican. After losing to Hoover, Smith’s power in Tammany Hall was greatly diminished. Roosevelt was the new Democrat in power in New York State, and the shrewd Walker took advantage of that fact.
That’s not to say Walker hasn’t accomplished anything in his first term as mayor. Walker consolidated New York’s hospital system, bought thousands of acres of parkland (including Staten Island’s Great Kills), and expanded the municipal bus system. The fact that some of his friends were given exclusive franchises to own city buses did not cause a ripple in Walker’s popularity. In fact, no one said a word that Walker essentially became a part-time mayor. “Beau James” almost never visited City Hall to conduct business, instead he was either at the racetrack, at the fights, or on one of the city’s 32,000 loudspeakers. While enjoying the nightlife, Walker imbibed his share of illegal liquor. Walker’s favorite cocktail was the “Black Velvet,” which is champagne poured on top of a hefty dose of Guinness stout.
In 1929, Walker was challenged by the fiery reformer Fiorello La Guardia. During a heated argument, LaGuardia was angered that Walker raised his own salary from $25,000 a year to $40,000 a year. Walked sneered back, “Hell, that’s cheap. Imagine what I’d make if I worked full time.”
Walker insulted La Guardia’s reputation as a “reformer”, saying: “Reformers are fellows who travel across the Channel in a glass-bottomed boat.” This means that a savvy politician knew well enough to look the other way when it was politically expedient to do so.
Walker didn’t know it at the time, but the beginning of his unraveling was the stock market crash of 1929. It was nice to act carefree and warm when the town was enjoying economic growth, but when people were unemployed and some even starving, Walker’s vicious abuse began to wear thin.
Walker faced his first real embarrassment when, in July 1930, he and his girlfriend, Compton, were present when the police raided a gambling house in Montauk, Long Island. As people were lined up against the wall and handcuffed, Walker told police something like, “Hey, I’m the mayor of New York City! You can’t arrest the mayor of New York City!”
The police agreed and Walker was released. But being “girlfriend of the mayor of New York City” wasn’t all that appealing. So the cops handcuffed Compton and took him to the local slammer. It took Walker several hours to get the right people to let Compton go.
Still, since the press reported the embarrassing incident, it left a big scar on Walker’s reputation, because it was clear that while people were starving and out of work, sometimes denied food and shelter, “Beau James” was suffering. old times for yourself. And New York City be damned.
Walker’s situation became desperate when the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Hayes, began to quarrel with the mayor. Hayes argued that the decline of New York City that led to the stock market crash of 1929 was mostly the fault of Mayor Walker, whose shady antics set a bad example for the rest of the city. Cardinal Hayes even accused Walker of looking the other way as hundreds of people sold girly magazines on 42nd Street. Walker foolishly took on Cardinal Hayes when he shot back, “I never knew a woman who was hurt by a magazine.”
Cardinal Hayes continued his attacks on Walker, and soon the Cardinal’s rants reached the office of Roosevelt, who was preparing to become President of the United States. As a result, Roosevelt was not very happy with Mayor Walker and was looking for a way to get rid of Walker’s political interference.
Walker had one foot in the political grave and the other on a banana peel when he was summoned before the Seabury Commission, chaired by Samuel Seabury, who was clearly disgusted by Mayor Walker’s excesses. The Seabury Commission was created to investigate police and political corruption in New York City.
On May 25, 1932, Walker, dressed as if he were going to jump, ascended the steps of the County Courthouse in lower Manhattan. A crowd of well-wishers applauded his arrival and shouted, “Atta boy, Jimmy! Tell ’em, Jimmy! Good luck, boy!”
Walker flashed his million dollar smile and raised his clasped hands above his head like a pro boxer after winning a fight. Then he entered the lion’s den and confronted Judge Seabury.
Immediately, a terrible tension arose between the two men, who could not be more different in personality and behavior. For two days Seabury spat his questions at Walker, and Walker responded with the utmost contempt. At one point, Walker yelled at Seabury, “You and Franklin Roosevelt are not going to raise yourselves to the presidency over my dead body.”
As Seabury asked Walker tough questions, it became apparent that “Beau James” had isolated himself from direct contact with any political blow. However, Walker was deeply embarrassed when it was revealed that his girlfriend Betty Compton had been paid in cash after some related businesses had been awarded lucrative contracts by New York powers that be; including Walker,
In addition, Walker’s brother, Dr. William H. Walker, who had a monopoly on workers’ compensation claims, appeared to have paid more than $500,000 over four years. Seabury uncovered evidence that William Walker had indeed subsidized Workman’s Comp claims and stashed the difference in his own coffers.
Even though Seabury was unable to pin any illegal actions on Mayor Walker, it was clear that Walker had suffered political blows from which he never recovered. As a result of the Seabury investigation, Seabury made a recommendation to Governor Roosevelt that Walker be removed from office for “gross impropriety and other political misconduct.”
Governor Roosevelt was only a few months away from the presidential election. And since Walker still had a legion of supporters in New York, Roosevelt was unsure of the best way to handle the Walker situation, and Walker took Roosevelt off the hook when he announced his resignation on September 1, 1932. Mayor of New York City.
Within days, Walker hopped on a cruise ship bound for Europe with showgirl girlfriend Betty Compton. In 1933, Walker divorced his wife and married Compton. Walker spent three years in exile in London with Compton. When he returned to New York, La Guardia was mayor and Walker was out of politics for good.
Escaping the political scene, Walker returned to his first love – the music industry – and became head of Majestic Records, a big-band record label that included such popular musicians as Louie Prima and Bud Freeman. In 1946, two years after taking control of Majestic Records, Walker died of a stroke at the age of sixty-five. Walker was buried at Gates of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York.
In 1957, comedian and song-and-dance man Bob Hope starred in a movie based on Walker’s life, “Beau James.” The film was based on Walker’s biography, also titled “Beau James,” written by Gene Fowler. This book also served as the basis for “Jimmy,” the Broadway play about Walker that ran from October 1969 to January 1970. In “Jimmy,” Frank Gorshin played Walker and Anita Gillette played Betty Compton.
The 1959 “Fiorello!” In the Broadway musical, the song “Gentleman Jimmy” was dedicated to the midnight mayor of New York City, Jimmy Walker.
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