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42nd Street: At the Crossroads

(Page 4: Jimmy Walker)

An excerpt from "Down 42nd Street: Sex, Money, Culture, and Politics
at the Crossroads of the World
"
by Marc Eliot

NO ONE BETTER EXEMPLIFIED the twentieth century's moral, cultural, and physical shift in the city's body politic than legendary mayor James J. "Jimmy" Walker, who first came to political light as a Tammany supporter of Governor Al Smith. A Democratic state senator in the early twenties, Walker was elected mayor in the fall of 1925, a halcyon time in America of easy money, easy virtue, and even easier vice. Walker personified the city's rebellious attitude against social restriction in an era that began with the passage in 1919 of the Volstead Act, which enforced the national ban on the sale (but not the private consumption) of alcohol. The purpose of the federal government at first seemed clear enough: to discourage the growing immortality that the nation's newest craze, nightclubbing, had produced, nowhere at the time more concentrated in New York City than on West 42nd Street, which by that year boasted dozens of thriving nightclubs. The day after Volstead, these became "speakeasies," establishments that no longer bothered with quality control, cleanliness, overcrowding, or curfews. By the time Walker was elected mayor, 32,000 speakeasies were operating throughout the city. Entirely in keeping with his political style of governing, he happily looked the other way at the city's booming, if illegal, bootlegging industry. While still a state senator he had helped pass legislation that legalized Sunday post-church entertainment, including baseball, boxing, and moviegoing, which forever endeared him to a working class grateful for anything that helped bring relief to their six-day, sixty-hour workweek, who in turn elected him mayor.

A party loyalist, "people's" mayor, and Broadway celebrity with as much charisma as any of its stars, for the longest time, no matter what he did—and he did a lot—in the eyes of his constituency Walker could do no wrong. Not when a then relatively unknown Congressman Fiorello La Guardia criticized the mayor's giving himself a raise in pay from $25,000 to $40,000. Walker's laughing and effectively neutralizing response was simply to raise his hands in mock astonishment and declare, "Why, that's cheap! Think what it would cost if I worked full time!"

Not even when the very married Walker's well-known penchant for Broadway's feather-clad chorus girls resulted in his leaving his wife for showgirl Betty Compton, a move actually celebrated equally among the me-too fantasists of the decade's high-society swingers and the daydreaming minimum-wagers. This was, after all, the height of the "anything goes" decade. Who was going to complain about what this mayor did on his own time when tax revenues from the seemingly never-ending private real estate deals brought an annual half billion dollars to the city, much of which Walker earmarked for better wages for city employees? "The people" loved him for that. They applauded when he announced that a gambling casino was to be opened in Central Park. They cheered when he dismissed critics who accused him of looking the other way while the sale of girlie magazines proliferated on 42nd Street. When asked about it, he simply shrugged his shoulders, hundred-watt-smiled, and said, "I never knew a woman who was hurt by a magazine." In his spare time—and he had a lot of it—he wrote pop ditties, one of which, the prophetic "Will You Love Me in December (as You Do in May)?," became a huge nationwide hit.

No question, he had the touch. Despite a sizable share of political corruption—the going rate during his administration for mayoral appointees was a Tammany-tradition standard first year's salary—and blatant womanizing, for most of his administration Walker proved a surprisingly effective politician. In 1928, for instance, when a subway strike threatened to cripple the city, Walker used his Irish charm and strong backroom influence to help effect a key settlement that allowed him to keep his spirited vow to maintain the traditional five-cent subway fare, New York's primal symbol of working-class freedom and democracy. It was this tough political victory as much as his freewheeling lifestyle that confirmed his place in the city's populist pantheon.

As 1928 came to a close, "Our Jimmy," as he was known to his constituency, was on top of the world, until his high-life popularity finally proved too top-hat heavy. Walker's fall began, perhaps not so coincidentally, in the days following the 1929 stock market crash. In the morally thick morning aftermath, subway-strike victories were no longer able to balance Walker's flamboyant lifestyle, which to many now contrasted a bit too vividly with the newly depressed economic reality. Almost immediately after the crash, the city's Patrick Cardinal Hayes publicly denounced Walker's personal ways, going so far as to suggest New York's economic downturn and the country's as just retribution for Walker's and other "wayward" leaders' immoral ways.

Things got worse quickly after that for him and the city. On the heels of the prelate's denunciation, worker riots broke out in Union Square, which brought federal troops into the fray. U.S. Attorney Charles Tuttle, who, like the cardinal, placed at least part of the blame for the city's growing social unrest on Walker for what he described as a borough slipping into moral anarchy, demanded an investigation of City Hall. Tuttle soon discovered what even the most casual observer would have: that there was, indeed, an alarming amount of corruption at all levels of the Walker administration, nowhere more prevalent than in the city's court system, most tellingly the women's court, and the police vice squad.

Early in 1930 Tuttle appointed a separate investigative committee, headed by Judge Samuel Seabury. Walker refused to testify, an action that was widely regarded as being tantamount to a confession of guilt. The situation was made worse when eight Democratic district leaders refused to waive immunity and testify. Early in 1931 a prospective witness was murdered, prompting Governor Roosevelt to expand Seabury's investigation to include the District Attorney's Office. By April, Walker's entire city government was under a cloud of deep suspicion.

A year later, in May 1932, after a series of delaying tactics, Walker was ordered by Roosevelt to testify before Seabury and answer all his questions. Walker and Seabury locked horns in court, a series of sensational sessions which saw the mayor effectively elude the judge's more pointed accusations. Ordered by Roosevelt to be more forthcoming, Walker managed to avoid being recalled until after the Democratic convention, held that summer in Chicago, where he openly supported Al Smith against the governor, who got the presidential nomination anyway (and would, of course, go on to win the first of his four national campaigns). That fall, Walker once again went before Seabury, but this time the judge was better prepared, and the mayor was finished. Roosevelt decided Walker had to go, but allowed him to resign. In September 1932 Walker left for an "extended vacation" in Europe, what amounted to self-imposed political exile. As he sailed out of New York Harbor that fall, he took along with him the last fading echoes of the once-roaring decade that had so dominated the city he'd ruled and loved.

Despite the grimmest morning-after of the first three decades of the twentieth century, despite the massive corruption and the worst economic collapse in the city's history, Walker's impact would not soon be forgotten. His visceral, if vicarious, workingman's link to New York's social glitterati lasted until he died in 1946 at the age of sixty-five; by then the fanciful accounts of his glory days having elevated him to folk-hero status. Twenty-five years after he resigned, eleven years after his death, Walker's life was made into a Hollywood romantic comedy starring Bob Hope in the title role as Beau James, the mayor of New York who happily sang and danced his way into the city's revisionist storybook history.

Copyright © 2001 by Rebel Road, Inc. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of http://www.twbookmark.com.

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