Wednesday, July 29, 2009

James J. Walker: will they still love him?

Walker on the cover of Time. Image from

Despite being targeted by an investigative commission that had been uncovering corruption in New York City for years, mayor James J. Walker was nonplussed when he was finally called to court to give some answers in 1932. There were even flowers spread on his path into the courthouse, certainly an unusual display for a public official accused of graft. A roaring '20s dandy, Walker is a prime example of personality trumping political competence.

James John Joseph Walker was born in Greenwich Village, New York in 1881. He entered the New York Law School in 1902, but left three years later. Walker aspired to be a songwriter, and met with some success. In 1908, he wrote the lyrics for the hit song "Will You Love Me in December As You Do In May." When he failed to produce additional hits, Walker returned to law and was admitted to the bar in 1912.

Prior to that, in 1910, Walker was elected as a Democrat to the New York state assembly, with backing from the Democratic Party machine Tammany Hall. He served until 1914, and the next year he was elected to the state senate. He became the minority leader in 1921. As a state politician, Walker certainly solidified his popularity with the electorate by supporting measures to ease restrictions on sports and entertainment, including allowing movies and baseball games to take place on Sundays.

Most notably, he fathered a bill in 1920 to legalize professional boxing in New York. The legislation called for the major players in the sports, such as the fighters and referees, to be licensed. A state board of commissioners would have the power to revoke licenses if necessary. The sportswriter W.O. McGeehan encouraged passage of the bill, using something of an unfortunate example when he told Governor Al Smith that the sport was "conducted as honestly as American politics and I venture to say more honestly than the stock market." The bill was signed into law in May of 1920.

In 1925, Tammany and Smith backed Walker as their candidate for the mayor of New York City. The only catch was that a Democrat, John F. Hylan, had already been in office for two four-year terms. Not willing to go quietly, the introduction of Walker led to what Smith referred to as "a little family quarrel" but what was in fact quite a nasty bout of mudslinging. Smith said Hylan had a "blind subservience to a super-boss" and also accused him of secretly meeting with members of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1924 Democratic National Convention. Hylan shot back that Walker would allow thieves and prostitutes to run rampant in the Big Apple; he also described the party as a family, if something of a dysfunctional one. "The Governor has walked deliberately into our city and made trouble in a happy family," he declared. "A few grafting politicians, Wall Street, and the traction gang have tried to get your mayor by the throat, but I have stood like the Rock of Gibraltar running the city for the interests of all the people."

Hylan dropped out of the race in September, leaving Walker to face off against Republican candidate and fountain pen manufacturer Frank D. Waterman. Walker's platform included the advocacy of new highways, expansion of subway system, and maintenance of the subway's five-cent fare; Smith also stumped for him, touting Walker's work for housing, child welfare, soldier bonuses, and other issues. Perhaps more influential, Walker's support of entertainment initiatives earned him plaudits from movie stars, musicians, and sports fans. Irving Berlin wrote him a campaign song which featured the lyric "Win with Walker, he's a corker."

The campaign was also not without its dirty tricks, including one that left Waterman fending off accusations of anti-Semitism. Staffers sought to make a reservation at a hotel Waterman owned in Florida using the false name of Robinowitz. The hotel sent a written reply explaining, "Our clientele is such that the patronage of persons of Hebrew persuasion is not solicited." Walker easily won the general election.

Walker's inauguration in 1926 was notable for a few reasons. In the first of several incidents of tardiness that would earn him the nickname "The Late Mayor," Walker was one and a half hours late for the event. He was also the first mayor to have his inauguration speech broadcast by radio. When he abandoned the microphone to help a woman who had fainted in the crowd, many New Yorkers worried that the dead air signified that he had been assassinated.

Walker's tenure in office was marked by a lackadaisical attitude toward schedules and duties, and historians have offered the opinion that his legislative experience did not adequately prepare him for the administrative tasks of the mayor's office. He also earned the nickname "The Night Mayor" for his propensity to hit the night life, including a well-known but generally ignored affair with a showgirl named Betty Compton. In one incident, Walker is said to have been with Compton in a Montauk casino when the joint was raided by police, and managed to escape by running into the kitchen and disguising himself with a cook's outfit.

The two nicknames directly corresponded with one another. Time reported that Walker "seldom appears before noon, if at all." Sometimes he arrived hung over, and, suddenly a stickler for punctuality, would be short with visitors if they spent more than their allotted five minutes proposing a measure for the city. Needing a break from whatever work he did manage to do, Walker took seven vacations totaling 143 days during his first two years in office. In 1927, he traveled to Italy and personally met the country's dictator, Benito Mussolini.

Walker had made no promises to end the graft and proliferation of speakeasies that were thriving in Prohibition-era New York, the latter thanks in part to police officers willing to take payoffs to turn a blind eye to the establishments. The citizens of New York, if not the nation, seemed to take a similar attitude toward Walker's laziness and affair with Compton. When he went to Philadelphia in November of 1926 as part of a New York City delegation to the Sesquicentennial Exposition, crowds there declared him "our next President."

Walker was known for having an easygoing charm that was able to boost the adulations. His sayings included, "A reformer is a guy who rides through a sewer in a glass-bottomed boat" and "I'd rather be a lamppost in New York than mayor of Chicago." When the Republican candidate Fiorello La Guardia challenged him in 1929, he made the accusation that the city's judges were corrupt and the District Attorney, Thomas Crain, was a dolt. He also criticized the mayor's decision earlier that same year to boost his salary from $25,000 to $40,000. "That's cheap!" Walker responded. "Think what it would cost if I worked full time!" Walker won re-election.

Walker's turn in court was still several years away, but the events that would lead to that event began a month after the election. Then, magistrate Albert Vitale was honored at a dinner attended by judges, city officials, and mobsters. The event did nothing to help Vitale, as he had already admitted to taking a $19,500 loan from mobster Arnold Rothstein, who was murdered in November of 1928. It helped spur the formation of an investigative committee, headed by Samuel Seabury, an anti-Tammany Democrat and unsuccessful candidate for the 1916 gubernatorial election.

The investigation focused on the legitimacy of 50 magistrates in Manhattan and the Bronx under the committee's jurisdiction. Seabury assembled a team of young lawyers who he felt would not be corrupted by Tammany Hall, and the commission heard from over 1,000 witnesses in 1930. Magistrates were questioned in private, and many resigned when asked if they would repeat their testimony publicly. One, George Ewald, paid Tammany $10,000 to get his seat. Others had been appointed in exchange for favors. "This evidence presents a situation which is a scandal and a disgrace, as well as a menace, to the City of New York," said Seabury. The investigation also targeted Crain for his practice of letting people charged with serious crimes plead to misdemeanors. The commission determined that Crain was merely incompetent, not corrupt.

Reverend John Haynes Holmes and Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, acting on behalf of the City Affairs Committee, charged Walker with ignoring corruption, appointing incompetent officials, and poor administration of the city government. Walker's own response to the assessment was that the City Affairs Committee was subject to Socialist influences. Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, hoping to secure Tammany backing for his own political ambitions, was at first reluctant to take on corruption in the city and declared that there wasn't enough evidence to remove Walker. However, when the Republican-controlled legislature called for an investigation into the city administration in March of 1931, Roosevelt approved $250,000 for a committee. Seabury joined the effort again as counsel.

The most disturbing aspect of the city government uncovered by the investigation was the outright framing of innocent people by the police department's vice squad. Most of the victims were women accused of prostitution. It was made clear to them that their options were to go to jail or fork over enough cash for their freedom. Other officials were found to have amassed much more money than they should have. Sheriff Tom Farley resigned after it was found that he had accumulated $400,000 after six years in an $8,000-a-year job. Russell T. Sherwood, a financial agent who shared a lockbox with the mayor, fled the city after he was subpoenaed to explain how he had made $700,000 after serving five years with a $10,000 annual salary.

When Seabury looked into the mayors financial records, he declared Walker's letters of credit "the fatal blow to Tammany Hall." He discovered that politicians and businessmen in the city had maintained a slush fund for Walker in exchange for favors, and that the club kept Walker's name off the record by referring to him as the "boyfriend." On one occasion, publisher Paul Block opened a Wall Street brokerage account with Walker, earning the mayor $246,692.72 even though the mayor never invested any money in it. On another, he received $26,535 in bonds from a stock broker interested in taxicab securities. John A. Hastings, a Democratic state senator and one organizer of the Equitable Coach Company, paid for one of Walker's vacations while aiming to gain control of the city's bus routes. Walker was also found to have accepted other gifts, such as the renovation of his childhood home on St. Luke's Place and a railroad car.

When Walker was summoned to court to answer questions about the finances, his popularity was still going strong. Time opined that his admirers "really would not care if it were proved that 'Jimmy' had stolen the Brooklyn Bridge." Walker's charm might have kept the galleries wooed, but it didn't work on Seabury; in fact, he had been warned against looking directly into Walker's eyes to help escape whatever wiles the mayor would employ. Seabury resolutely kept up the questions about the shady financial dealings in the city, and Walker's confidence slipped. Not long after the proceedings, he was booed at a baseball game at Yankee Stadium.

Seabury recommended to Roosevelt, by now the Democratic nominee for the 1932 Presidential election, that Walker was unfit for office. Walker sent his own defense to Roosevelt in the form of a 27,000 word letter in which he said the prosecution was politically motivated. "I have lived my life in the open. Whatever shortcomings I have are known to everyone--but disloyalty to my native city, official dishonesty or corruption, form no part of these short-comings," he said. It was also reported that Walker would seek the Democratic nomination for Governor if he were to be ousted. Ultimately, Walker unsuccessfully tried to get a court injunction in his favor and resigned from office on September 1, 1932, with a single sentence: "I hereby resign as Mayor of the City of New York, said resignation to take effect immediately."

Not long after his resignation, Walker took off for Europe with Betty Compton, whom he would later marry. Another Tammany man, John P. O'Brien, took his place, but the Seabury commission essentially marked the death blow for the political machine. In 1934, La Guardia was elected mayor with backing from Roosevelt, and the city slipped from Tammany's grasp. Roosevelt's New Deal program further weakened the institution, making people less dependent on Tammany for jobs. The machine had something of a recovery in the 1950s, but ultimately faded out of existence in the 1960s.

Walker's flight was a handy way of taking another European expedition while letting the controversy and his own tax status return to manageable levels. He returned to New York in 1935, doing law work and hosting a short-lived radio program. In 1937, he got a job as an attorney with the city's Transit Commission to prosecute grade crossing infractions. Seabury also happened to be on the commission as a judge, and suggested that Walker be on the payroll for 60 days before claiming a pension, saying it was not to be used as a "refuge from disgrace."

The next year, Walker visited FDR in the White House. In 1940, La Guardia named him labor arbitrator of the Manhattan garment industry. He continued his devotion to boxing by regularly speaking at the annual dinners of the Boxing Writers Association; he received the Edward J. Neil Memorial Award for Outstanding Contributions to Boxing, and in 1940 received another award for his years of service to the sport. Following his death, the award would be named after him.

Walker also briefly returned to the musical world, becoming president of Majestic Records in 1945. The next year, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Ultimately, he remained a popular figure. A movie about his life starring Bob Hope was produced, and in 1992 he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Sources: The New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division, The National Parks Service, The Political Graveyard, "Paints Hylan Klan Servant" in the Evening Independent on Aug. 28 1925, "Word Battle Grows Hotter" in the Evening Independent on Aug. 31 1925, "Hylan May Run On Independent Ticket" in the Evening Independent on Sept. 16 1925, "Hylan Won't Run" in the New York Times on Sept. 30 1925, "Hail Mayor Walker As 'Next President'" in the New York Times on Nov. 13 1926, "Again, Walker" in Time on Mar. 5 1928, "Subway Jam" in Time on May 14 1928, "His Honor's Honor" in Time on Jun. 6 1932, "New York's Mayor Assails Accusers" in the Evening Independent on Jul. 29 1932, "Walker, If Removed, To Run For Governor" in the New York Times on Aug. 1 1932, "Walker Again" in Time on Aug. 30 1937, "Jimmy Walker, Tsar" in Time on Sept. 16 1940, "Former Mayor To Head Majestic Records" in the Christian Science Monitor on Feb. 16 1945, "The Late Mayor" in Time on Nov. 25 1946, A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring '20s by Roger Kahn, The Boxing Register: International Boxing Hall of Fame Official Record Book by James B. Roberts and Alexander G. Skutt, New World Coming: the 1920s and the Making of Modern America by Nathan Miller, Big Town, Big Time: A New York Epic edited by Jay Maeder, The Epic of New York City: A Narrative History by Edward Robb Ellis, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom by Conrad Black, Mackerals in the Moonlight: Four Corrupt American Mayors by Gerald Leinwand


Anonymous said...

His public works overshadow his financial flaws. He helped the masses more than FDR

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