Mayor Jimmy Walker: a finer class of corruption

Jimmy Walker, Hollywood version of a mayor

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Mayor: Jimmy Walker

In office: 1926-1932

Has a New York mayor ever reflected the decade he governed more perfectly than Jimmy Walker? Although John Hylan was actually the 1920s more effective mayor, it was Walker who embodied the Jazz Age spirit in his style as well as the tragic Depression-era change of fortune in his downfall. He glamours us today because he’s both a movie star and a rebel; but the corruption of his regime is equally as striking–and even disturbing–in its grandiosity.

Walker is easily one of the most notorious mayors of New York, but today we can appreciate his brashness, his independence and class just as we can lament his subservience to diabolic Tammany-era politics. He wasn’t the last disgraced mayor the city would see in the 20th century, but his abdication neatly defines the modern era’s defining fall from grace.

Jimmy, born June 19, 1881, was a New York boy, and a golden one at that. Raised in Greenwich Village among the bohemians, he was also the son of an Irish immigrant who became a well-connected Democratic assemblyman. Walker’s first passion seems to be music; in 1905 he stormed Tin Pan Alley writing songs such as “There’s Music In The Rustle Of A Skirt” and “Will You Love Me in December As You Do in May?” with its melancholy refrain:

Will you love me in December as do in May,
Will you love in the good old fashioned way?
When my hair has all turned gray,
Will you kiss me then, and say,
That you love me in December as do in May?

Below: In an odd ceremony with the mayor of Albuquerque

He had even less hesitation in announcing a political career, especially as Father had connections to a certain Al Smith, governor of New York. An adopted son of Tammany Hall, he elected first to the state assembly in 1910 and then to the state senate in 1914. Young Walker sought Smith’s guidance and the governor soon took a fancy to the smooth, impeccably dressed young man who shone like a new penny on the Senate floor. As he was described by Robert Caro:

“Pinch-waisted, one-button suit, slenderest of cravats, a shirt from a collection of hundreds, pearl-gray spats buttoned around silk-hosed ankles, toes of the toothpick shoes peeking out from the spats polished to a gleam. Pixie smile, the ‘vivacity of a song and dance man,’ a charm that made him arrive n the Senate Chamber like a glad breeze’ The Prince Charming of Politics…..slicing through the ponderous arguments of the ponderous men who sat around him with a wit that flashed like a rapier. Beau James.”

Smith took him under his wing, maneuvering him through the entanglements of state politics, shielding Walker when his excesses got the better of him. He was a philandering cad and a boozer, even then. When an opportunity arose to challenge the successful John Hylan for mayor of New York, Smith wanted Walker to run, but only if he would change his ways. Walker changed them all right; instead of partying out at speakeasies with chorus girls, he moved the whole production to a private penthouse funded by Tammany favors.

The election in 1925 was fierce. First, Smith had to dispense of Hylan in the Democratic primary — and in the halls of Tammany. The two split the storied political machine, but eventually, Walker won out. Next, he faced the Republican-Fusion candidate Frank Waterman in the general election, who cried of potential Tammany corruption to the new subway system if Walker were elected. (Waterman would, of course, be right.) Beau James, however, went unabated. He ran as a people’s mayor, someone who enjoys the same pleasures as those voting for him.

“I like the company of my fellow human beings. I like the theatre and am devoted to healthy outdoor sports. Because I like these things, I have reflected my attitude in some of my legislation I have sponsored — 2.75 percent beer, Sunday baseball, Sunday movies, and legalized boxing. But let me allay any fear there may be that, because I believe in personal liberty, wholesome amusement and healthy professional sport, I will countenance for a moment any indecency or vice in New York.”

Right! Walker was one of the people. Everybody bought it but nobody believed it. He swept into office because, in 1925, New York was prosperous. He was a Jazz Age mayor for a Jazz Age city.

Once elected, of course, Walker countenanced all sorts of indecency and vice. He was frequently in Europe on vacation. When he was in town, it was rarely at City Hall. The lavish new Casino nightclub in Central Park became his unofficial headquarters, with Ziegfield dancer Betty Compton at his side. (Walker’s wife was out of town, frequently.) City business was often discussed with the pop of a champagne cork.

Some things got done that first term: the New York hospital system was consolidated on his watch, he purchased thousands of acres designated for park land (including Great Kills in Staten Island), and grew the municipal bus system, greatly benefiting more than a few friends who happened to own the bus company given the exclusive franchise.

He managed to turn on his old ally, the former governor, scrubbing City Hall of any Smith loyalists, granting more jobs to his type of Tammany men, filling their own pockets but allied to the charming man in charge.

How did he stay so popular? This was the late 20s and people wanted the mayor to reflect prosperity and confidence. He also gave back in symbolic gestures. Even as the new subway system became clogged with corruption, he staved off a strike while keeping the fare at five cents, thought at the time to be an incredible concession.

He easily won the election in 1929 against a largely outmatched Fiorello LaGuardia. Tammany was in place and unstoppable, but the voters still chose not to look askance at Walker’s dalliances. Even the newspapers were charmed. The New York Times wrote of his “great personal charm, his talent for friendship, his broad sympathies embracing all sorts of conditions of men,” then recommended him under the guise that “the Mayor that he has been giving only a hint of the Mayor that he might be.”

That hinted-at mayor never materialized, because the Stock Market crash plunged the city’s fortunes into ruin and exposed the weaknesses of a government consumed with greed. Suddenly, having an extravagant, indecent mayor didn’t seem like such a good idea.

Archbishop of New York Cardinal Hayes, once dazzled, now condemned the mayor’s amoral ways, opening the flood doors for others to lay the city’s problems was Walker’s feet. Eventually, the accusations reached the ear of Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A commission led by Justice Samuel Seabury exposed deep veins of corruption throughout the city’s legal system and police force. Innocent citizens, often women, would be charged with crimes and forced to pay steep fines to get out of jail time. (Many times they couldn’t pay, and off they went, dozens at a time.) Neighborhoods, most often Harlem, would be routinely raided and have its residents taken in, wild charges conjured for a maximum penalty.

This would line the pockets of dozens of judges and vice squad officers. Newspapers dubbed it the Tin Box Parade, “after one testified that he had found $360,000 in his home in a ‘tin box…a wonderful tin box'” (Caro).

Walker himself was brought to the stand to testify, the judge warning those in the courtroom not to look the mayor in the eye, lest they succumb to Walker’s sensational charm.

After months of epic battles on the stand — Walker eluding hot button questions about his personal bank accounts, delaying appearances until after Roosevelt’s nomination for president was assured — the embattled mayor could fight no longer. With Roosevelt mere months from his national election, he needed to be rid of Walker. Walker obliged in the classiest way possible: he resigned on September 1, 1932, and went on a grand tour of Europe with his Ziegfeld girl.

He was never charged with a crime. He was barely even held accountable for anything. Back in New York three years later, he held a series of smaller posts, including one for the New York garment industry that was assigned to him by new mayor LaGuardia, his former rival.

Nothing stuck to him. He died in November 1946 of a brain hemorrhage, just two years after returning to his first love as the head of a big-band record label with a stable of artists that included Louis Prima and Bud Freeman. Ten years later, Hollywood decided to do something very redundant and make a movie of his life, starring Bob Hope as Beau James. It would follow a screenplay only slightly less glamorous than the real thing.