James J. Walker, Mayor of New York City, 1926-1932
By 1926, the Big Town had been engulfed in bad booze and hot jazz for over 5 years. It truly was an era of wonderful nonsense, and Jimmy Walker was the perfect man to preside over the close of what Paul Sann called "the lawless decade."
A graduate of Xavier High School, Walker was a Roaring '20's Irish dandy from Greenwich Village who took full advantage of all the city had to offer. Despite a 14-year legislative record in the New York State Assembly and State Senate (prior to his political career, he had achieved some prominence as a songwriter of such pop classics as "Will You Love Me In December As You Do In May"), Walker appeared quite disinterested in such a mundane activity as municipal governance. Nevertheless, he did manage to compile a few legislative victories during his tenure - in keeping with some of his favorite pasttimes, Walker wrote the bills that legalized boxing in New York and allowed theatres to remain open on Sundays. Along the way, he also championed the 5-cent fare, the 8-hour work day for women, workers compensation, and tenement laws.
None of this prevented "Beau James" from sampling a wide range of the city's speakeasies on a nightly basis. Inevitably, Walker's term became synonymous with the proliferation of speakeasies in New York City during the so-called Prohibition Era. Should anyone care to dispute Walker's lack of exuberance as an agent of the law authorized to enforce the nation's dry laws, walk that man or woman over to the '21' Club, where Gentleman Jimmy's private booth is still on public display in the club's wine cellar.
Walker was known to go to the cellar of the '21' Club to have a cocktail in peace as federal agents were raiding the premises above for contraband. The Mayor's booth has been preserved, and can be viewed today.
In fairness to the Mayor, no one should have been terribly surprised by his honor's predilection for the nightlife. On his very first day in office, he was 90 minutes late to his own swearing-in ceremony. The writers dubbed him "The Late Mayor." That moniker coincided rather neatly with his other nickname, "The Night Mayor," so-called because of his propensity to skip most mornings at City Hall after a night spent carousing. Time Magazine reported that Walker "seldom appears before noon, if at all." Whether he needed a break from the booze and the clubs or the affairs of his office, Mayor Walker managed to take seven vacations totalling 143 days in only his first two years in office. This included a trip to Italy to meet Il Duce, Benito Mussolini.
Beau James, looking quite dapper in the doublebreasted suit, spectators, and Panama.
Nevertheless, for most of his tenure, Walker managed to keep his critics at bay with an army of glib one-liners and flippant wisecracks that kept the public amused and enamored. One of his favorite sayings was that "A reformer is a guy who rides through a sewer in a glass-bottomed boat." He also was fond of saying that he'd "rather be a lamppost in New York than Mayor of Chicago." When Fiorello LaGuardia ran against Walker in 1929 as the Republican challenger, he criticized the Mayor's decision earlier that year to raise his salary from $25000 to $40000. Walker simply responded, "That's cheap! Think what it would cost if I worked full time!" He coasted to re-election by half a million votes.
Mayor Walker, shown here in a rare afternoon appearance, throws out the first pitch at a ballgame. Beau James sports his hat in the "Hollywood Brim" style, a rakish effect favored by dandies, movie stars, and racketeers of the era.
Eventually, the one-liners got stale and Gentleman Jimmy couldn't provide any real answers to some of the tougher questions put to him by Judge Samuel Seabury, who was charged with investigating corruption in city government. Particularly, he couldn't explain how he made $26,535.51 in oil stock deals with taxi-cab mogul J. A. Sisto without putting up any of his own money. Nor could he explain why an agent for a bus company provided him with $10,000 for a European trip in 1927, with an extra $3,000 in cash as overdraft protection. Meek explanations were offered, but they were more damning than the silence. When Walker couldn't explain how he came by $246,000 from a joint stock account he owned with a Brooklyn financier and publisher named Paul Block, Block testified that when his 10-year old son pointed out to him that the city didn't pay its Mayor enough money, Block decided "to make some money for Jimmy."
With testimony like this on the record, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt had little choice but to set up hearings to determine whether Walker should be removed from office. The Mayor, in one of his few politically astute moves, saw the writing on the wall, resigned on Sept. 1, 1932, and decamped for the Continent shortly thereafter.
At one point during the hearings, Walker's attorneys succeeded in having a temporary stay granted by the court. In this news footage (see the news reel footage here) we see a momentarily victorious James J. Walker leaving the courtroom, captured in his impudent rakishness for all time: The Night Mayor, resplendent in his sartorial glory.