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If New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker had not been so likable, he would certainly have been branded a scoundrel.
Jimmy Walker was born in New York City’s Greenwich Village on June 19, 1881, the son of an Irish immigrant, who later became political shaker and mover in Tammany Hall. Walker attended Xavier High School, which is a military school in Manhattan, and later New York Law School.
However, Walker’s first love was music. Walker fell in with the Village’s bohemian crowd, and instead of practicing law, he turned to songwriting. Two of the songs Walker wrote were: “There’s Music In The Rustle Of A Skirt” and “Will You Love Me in December As You Do in May?” The later song made Walker a overnight sensation in Tin Pan Alley, with it’s melodious 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?
In 1910, due to his father’s prodding, and with the influence of his mentor, Tammany Hall titan Al Smith (later Governor Smith), Walker ran, and was elected to the New York State Assembly, where he served until 1914. Savoring the taste of political power, the now-ambitious Walker was then elected to the New York State Senate from 1914 to 1925. Walker was so popular in the Senate, he was elected President pro tempore of the New York State Senate from 1923 to 1924.
Throughout his term in the Senate, Walker was always smartly dressed and was imbued with a radiant, out-going attitude. Walker was considered a bon vivant, who spent more time bending his elbow in speakeasies, than he did actually serving his constituents in the Senate.
American journalist Robert Caro once described Senator Walker as: “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.”
In 1925, Al Smith, now Governor of New York, thought Walker would be the perfect mayor for New York City, a town now basking in the glow of the naughtiness of the Roaring 20’s. With Smith’s backing and back room maneuvering, Walker moved to unseat the present mayor John Harlan, who was considered quite competent, if not a bit stodgy. Smith’s biggest roadblock was that Walker was known more as a party animal than he was as a wily politician. But “Beau James,” as he was now called in the press, promised Smith he would mend his wayward ways, if he was elected to the top spot in town.
Harlan was a Democrat, and so was Walker, so Smith had to call in some of his outstanding chits in order for Walker to get the Democratic nomination. That mission accomplished, Walker’s next obstacle was Republican-Fusion candidate Frank Waterman in the Mayoral election. Waterman basically called Walker a crook, and said that if Walker were elected mayor, the New York City Subway system would be immersed in corruption, because of Walker’s crooked ties in Tammany Hall. Walker laughed off Waterman’s remarks and said he was running as the “People’s Mayor,” because he loved to do the same things the general public liked to do: gambling, and drinking illegal hootch during Prohibition.
During his campaign, Walker boasted, “I like the company of my fellow human beings. I like the theater 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 not countenance for a moment any indecency or vice in New York.”
In a blur, Walker partied his way though his first four years as Mayor. The public was so in love with the new Mayor, 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 lost him the favor of Al Smith, so Walker, the cool cat that he was, cozied up to the new Governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had been elected Governor when Smith stepped down to run for the Presidency against Republican Herbert Hoover. After losing to Hoover, Smith’s power at Tammany Hall was greatly diminished. Roosevelt was the new Democratic power in New York State, and the wily Walker took advantage of that fact.
That’s not to say Walker accomplished nothing in his first term as Mayor. Walker did consolidate the New York City hospital system, purchased thousands of acres for park land (including Great Kills in Staten Island), and expanded the municipal bus system. The fact that a few of his pals were granted an exclusive franchise to own the city buses caused not a ripple in Walker’s popularity. In fact, no one said a word that Walker became basically a part-time Mayor. “Beau James” was hardly ever in City Hall attending to business, and was instead either at the racetrack, the fights, or carousing in one of the city’s 32,000 speakeasies. While enjoying the nightlife, Walker imbibed his share of illegal beverages. Walker’s favorite cocktail was a “Black Velvet,” which is champagne poured over the top of a hefty serving of Guinness stout.
In 1929, Walker was challenged by the fiery reformer Fiorello La Guardia. During one heated debate, LaGuardia was incensed that Walker had raised his own salary from $25,00 a year to $40,000 a year. Walked quipped back, “Hell, that’s cheap. Imagine what I would be worth if I worked full time.”
Walker chided La Guardia’s reputation as a “reformer,” saying, “Reformers are guys who ride through a sewer in a glass bottom boat.” Meaning 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 undoing was the stock market crash of 1929. It was alright to act carefree and gay when the city was enjoying economic growth, but when people were out of work, and some even starving, Walker’s devil-may-care attitude began to wear thin.
Walker faced his first real embarrassment, when in July of 1930, he and his gal-pal Compton were present when the police raided a gambling house in Montauk, Long Island. While people were being lined up against the wall and handcuffed, Walker told the 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 they let Walker go. But being “The girlfriend of the Mayor of New York City” had no such pull. So the cops cuffed Compton, and led her to the local slammer. It took Walker a few hours to reach the right people, so that Compton could be released.
Still, since the embarrassing incident was reported in the press, it left a big scar on Walker’s reputation, because it was evident, while people were starving and were out of work, and sometimes denied food and shelter, “Beau James” was having a grand old time for himself. And let the city of New York be damned.
Things started to turn bleak for Walker, when the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Hayes, started taking pot shots at the Mayor. Hayes claimed that the decadence of New York City, which 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 while girlie magazines were sold by the hundreds on 42nd Street. Walker foolishly took on Cardinal Hayes when he fired back, “I never knew a woman who was hurt by a magazine.”
Cardinal Hayes kept up his attacks on Walker, and soon the Cardinal’s rants reached the office of Roosevelt, who was readying himself to run for President of the United States. As a result, Roosevelt was not too happy with Mayor Walker, and was looking for a way to rid himself of Walker’s political embarrassments.
Walker had one foot in his political grave, and another foot on a banana peal, when he was summoned before the Seabury Committee, chaired by Justice Samuel Seabury, a cantankerous man obviously disgusted by Mayor Walker’s excesses. The Seabury Committee was formed to investigate police and political corruption in New York City.
On May 25, 1932, Walker, dressed like he was going out speakeasy-hopping, mounted the steps of the county courthouse in Lower Manhattan. A throng of well wishers clapped at his arrival, yelling, “Atta boy, Jimmy! You tell ’em Jimmy! Good luck boyo!”
Walker flashed his million-dollar smile, and raised his clasped hands over his head, like a professional boxer after winning a fight. Then he entered the lion’s den and came face to face with Justice Seabury.
Right off the bat, there was terrible tension between the two men, who couldn’t be more different in personality and in demeanor. Over a two-day period, Seabury spat his questions at Walker, and Walker fired back with the utmost contempt. At one point Walker yelled at Seabury, “You and Franklin Roosevelt are not going to hoist yourself to the Presidency over my dead body.”
While Seabury hammered hard questions at Walker, it became evident that “Beau James” had insulated himself from direct connection to any political skulduggery. However, it was highly embarrassing to Walker, when it was discovered that there had been cash payments made to his girlfriend Betty Compton, after some connected businesses were awarded lucrative contracts from the powers-that-be in New York City; which included Walker,
In addition, Walker’s brother Dr. William H. Walker, who had a monopoly on Worker’s Compensation claims, seemed to have banked over $500,000 in a four-year period. Seabury uncovered evidence that William Walker had in fact padded many of the Workman’s Comp claims, and had secreted the difference into his own coffers.
Even though Seabury could not pin one illegal act on Mayor Walker himself, it was obvious that Walker had been blasted with political blows he could never recover from. As a result of the Seabury investigation, Seabury penned a recommendation to Governor Roosevelt which said that Walker should be removed from office for “gross improprieties and other instances of political malfeasance.”
Governor Roosevelt was just months away from the Presidential elections. And since Walker still had legions of supporters in New York City, Roosevelt wasn’t sure what was the best way to handle the Walker situation, Walker took Roosevelt off the hook, when on September 1, 1932 he announced his resignation from the office of the Mayor of New York City.
Within days, Walker hopped on a cruise ship to Europe, accompanied by his showgirl girlfriend Betty Compton. In 1933, Walker divorced his wife and married Compton. For three years, Walker spent his self-imposed exile in London with Compton When he returned to New York City, La Guardia was the Mayor, and Walker was out of politics for good.
Shunned by the political arena, Walker returned to his first love – the music industry — and he became head of Majestic Records, a big-band record label that included such popular musicians like Louie Prima and Bud Freeman. In 1946, two years after he assumed control of Majestic Records, Walker died of a brain hemorrhage and the age of sixty-five. Walker was buried in the 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 called “Beau James.” The film was based on a biography of Walker, also titled “Beau James,” written by Gene Fowler. This book was also used as the basis for “Jimmy,” a Broadway play about Walker, that ran from October 1969 to January 1970. In “Jimmy,” Frank Gorshin played Walker and Anita Gillette played Betty Compton.
In the 1959 Broadway musical “Fiorello!,” the song “Gentleman Jimmy,” was dedicated to New York City’s Midnight Mayor — Jimmy Walker.
write by allen