Jimmy Walker
Walker in 1926
97th Mayor of New York City
In office
January 1, 1926 – September 1, 1932
Preceded byJohn F. Hylan
Succeeded byJoseph V. McKee
Member of the New York Senate
In office
January 1, 1915 – December 31, 1925
Preceded byJames D. McClelland
Succeeded byElmer F. Quinn
Constituency13th district (1915–18)
12th district (1919–25)
Member of the New York State Assembly
from the 5th New York County district
In office
January 1, 1910 – December 31, 1914
Preceded byJohn T. Eagleton
Succeeded byMaurice McDonald
Personal details
James John Walker

(1881-06-19)June 19, 1881
New York City, U.S.
DiedNovember 18, 1946(1946-11-18) (aged 65)
New York City, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
Janet Walker
(m. 1912; div. 1932)
(m. 1933; div. 1941)

James John Walker (June 19, 1881 – November 18, 1946), known colloquially as Beau James, was mayor of New York City from 1926 to 1932. A flamboyant politician, he was a liberal Democrat and part of the powerful Tammany Hall machine. He was forced to resign during a corruption scandal.

Early life and political career

Walker was the son of Irish-born William H. Walker (1842–1916), a carpenter and lumberyard owner who was very active in local politics as a Democratic assemblyman and alderman from Greenwich Village, belying certain accounts of Walker's childhood that stated he grew up in poverty. Walker was not the best student and dropped out of college, eventually graduating from New York Law School in 1904. Walker's father wanted him to become a lawyer and politician, but he decided that he would rather write songs and be involved in the music industry. He wrote the lyrics for a 1906 hit, "Will You Love Me in December as You Do in May?" with songwriter Ernest Ball.[1] Walker entered politics in 1909 and subsequently passed the bar exam in 1912.[2]

Walker was a member of the New York State Assembly (New York Co., 5th D.) in 1910, 1911, 1912, 1913 and 1914. He was a member of the New York State Senate from 1915 to 1925, sitting in the 138th, 139th, 140th, 141st (all four 13th D.), 142nd, 143rd, 144th, 145th, 146th, 147th and 148th New York State Legislatures (all seven 12th D.); and was Minority Leader from 1920 to 1922; Temporary President of the State Senate from 1923 to 1924; and Minority Leader again in 1925. In the Senate he strongly opposed Prohibition.

During his tenure as Temporary President of the State Senate, Walker was often seen on the floor accompanied by reformist activist, future urban planner, and key Al Smith ally Robert Moses. Moses, without an official position and therefore forced to kneel beside Walker's desk rather than sit in a chair, acted sort of as an advisor for Walker. He provided Walker with arguments and facts to be used against Republican adversaries on issues that, according to author Robert Caro, "Walker had no patience to master." Moses also delivered messages to Walker on Governor Smith's behalf.[3]

Walker was elegant and witty, but he was also willing to take down his opponents with no mercy. Ellwood Rabenold was a reformist elected to the State Senate as a Democrat. He was independent-minded and put the party's one-vote majority in 1923 in jeopardy. When Rabenold refused to support a bill that Democrats considered vital and then attacked Walker's character, Walker pledged he would "ruin" Rabenold and dedicated the rest of the term to forcing Rabenold out of politics. Walker would eventually succeed, showing no remorse for destroying his career.[4]

Running for mayor, 1925

After his years in the Senate, Walker set his sights on the 1925 election for Mayor of New York. Beginning with the 1925 Democratic primary for mayor, Walker knew that to ultimately win the mayoral election he had to defeat the mayor, John Francis Hylan. Walker's reputation as a flamboyant man-about-town made him a hero to many working-class voters; he was often seen at legitimate theaters and illegitimate speakeasies. Walker was a clothes horse: his valet packed 43 suits for his trip to Europe in August 1927.[5] On the other hand, his reputation for tolerating corruption made him suspect to middle-class and moralistic voters. Governor Alfred E. Smith was his mentor.[2] Smith was a staunch supporter since Walker backed many social and cultural issues that were considered politically important, such as social welfare legislation, legalization of boxing, repeal of blue laws against Sunday baseball games, and condemning the Ku Klux Klan. Their mutual opposition to Prohibition was especially important in their political relationship.[2]

Smith knew the secret to how Walker could win the mayoral race and overcome his tarnished reputation was for Smith to guide Walker's every move. Smith used his base in the strong political machine of Tammany Hall to secure victory. Finally, Walker himself had to be willing to change some of his more unscrupulous ways or at least provide a cover for his indiscretions. As with many things in Walker's life, he chose the latter. Instead of ending his visits to speakeasies and his friendships with chorus girls, he took those activities behind the closed doors of a penthouse funded by Tammany Hall.[6]

Walker defeated Hylan in the Democratic primary, and after defeating Republican mayoral candidate Frank D. Waterman in the general election he became mayor of New York.

Mayor, 1926–1932

Walker throwing a ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game, c. 1929

In his initial years as mayor, Walker saw the city prosper and many public works projects gain traction. In his first year, Walker created the Department of Sanitation, unified New York's public hospitals, improved many parks and playgrounds, and guided the Board of Transportation to enter into contract for the construction of an expanded subway system (the Independent Subway System or IND). Under Walker's administration, new highways and a dock for superliners were also built.[7] He even managed to maintain the five-cent subway fare despite a threatened strike by the workers.[6]

Walker's term was also known for the proliferation of speakeasies during Prohibition. It is a noted aspect of his career as mayor and as a member of the State Senate that Walker was strongly opposed to Prohibition. As mayor, Walker led his administration in challenging the Eighteenth Amendment by replacing the police commissioner with an inexperienced former state banking commissioner. The new police commissioner immediately dissolved the Special Service Squad. Since Walker did not feel that drinking was a crime, he discouraged the police from enforcing Prohibition law or taking an active role unless it was to curb excessive violations or would prove to be newsworthy.[8] His affairs with "chorus girls" were widely known, and he left his wife, Janet, for showgirl Betty Compton. The first U.S. arrival in New York City of the best known Anastasia Romanov impostor, Anna Anderson, in 1928 and the eventual public denial of her by the exiled Romanovs and return to Germany in 1931 also occurred during Walker's mayoralty.

Walker was re-elected by an overwhelming margin in 1929, defeating Republican Fiorello H. La Guardia and Socialist Norman Thomas.[9] Walker's fortunes turned downward with the economy after the stock-market crash of 1929. Patrick Joseph Hayes, the Cardinal Archbishop of New York, denounced him, implying that the immorality of the mayor, both personal and political in tolerating "girlie magazines" and casinos, was a cause of the economic downturn. It was one of the causes that led to Tammany Hall's pulling its support for Walker.[10] Walker's image was further solidified by quotes like "A reformer is a guy who rides through a sewer in a glass-bottomed boat."[11]

Walker endorsed Al Smith for the Democratic nomination during the 1932 presidential election.[12]

Scandal and resignation

Main article: Hofstadter Committee

Increasing social unrest led to investigations into corruption within Walker's administration, and he was eventually forced to testify before the investigative committee of Judge Samuel Seabury, the Seabury Commission (also known as the Hofstadter Committee). Walker caused his own downfall by accepting large sums of money from businessmen looking for municipal contracts.[10]

One surprise witness in the Seabury investigation was Vivian Gordon. She informed the investigators that women were falsely arrested and accused of prostitution by the New York City Police Department. Police officers were given more money in their paychecks. After her testimony, Gordon was suspiciously found strangled in a park in the Bronx. That demonstrated to New Yorkers that corruption could lead to terrible consequences and that Walker might ultimately, in some way, be responsible for her death.[13]

With New York City appearing as a symbol of corruption under Mayor Walker, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt knew he had to do something about Walker and his administration. Knowing that the state constitution could allow an elected mayor to be removed from office, Roosevelt felt compelled to do so but risked losing Tammany Hall's support for the Democratic nomination for president. On the other hand, if Roosevelt did nothing or let Walker off, the national newspapers would consider him weak.[13]

Facing pressure from Roosevelt, Walker eluded questions about his personal bank accounts, stating instead that the amounts he received were "beneficences" and not bribes.[2] He delayed any personal appearances until after Roosevelt's nomination was secured. It was then that the embattled mayor could fight no longer. Months from his national election, Roosevelt decided that he must remove Walker from office. Walker agreed and resigned on September 1, 1932. He went on a grand tour of Europe with Compton, his Ziegfeld girl.[6] He announced on November 12, 1932, while aboard the SS Conte Grande, that he had "no desire or intention of ever holding public office again."[14] Walker stayed in Europe until the danger of criminal prosecution appeared remote.[10] There, he married Compton.

The grave of Jimmy Walker in Gate of Heaven Cemetery

Later life and legacy

After his return to the United States, Walker acted as head of Majestic Records, which included such popular performing artists as Louis Prima and Bud Freeman.[2] In 1940 he had his own radio series on WHN, Jimmy Walker's Opportunity Hour, with Henry Gladstone serving as announcer.[15] He died at the age of 65 of a brain hemorrhage.[16] He was interred in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York.

When Walker was a member of the New York State Senate, he sponsored the "Walker Law" to legalize boxing in New York. He was honored a number of times over the years by the boxing community. Walker is a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame and was given the Edward J. Neil Trophy in 1945 for his service to the sport.

He also spent many summers in Atlantic Beach, New York, sometimes during his term as mayor, and afterward, for he was friends with its founder, William Austin.

A 1993 survey of historians, political scientists and urban experts conducted by Melvin G. Holli of the University of Illinois at Chicago ranked Walker as the third-worst American big-city mayor to have served between the years 1820 and 1993.[17]

In popular culture

A romanticized version of Walker's tenure as mayor was presented in the 1957 film Beau James, starring Bob Hope. This was a somewhat accurate depiction of Walker, who during his time as mayor had become a symbol of the jazz age romanticism.[10] The film was based on a biography of Walker, also titled Beau James, written by Gene Fowler. A song by Dean Martin, similarly titled "Beau James", presented a highly idealized and romantic interpretation of his tenure as mayor. A book was also the basis of Jimmy, a stage musical about Walker that had a brief Broadway run from October 1969 to January 1970. The show starred Frank Gorshin as Walker and Anita Gillette as Betty Compton.[18] There is also a song about Walker in the stage musical Fiorello!, "Gentleman Jimmy".[19]

Footage of Walker is used in the 1983 Woody Allen film Zelig; Walker is one of the guests during Zelig's visit to William Randolph Hearst's mansion, Hearst Castle, in San Simeon, California.

The 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, lists the exiles in Paris as "Jimmy Walker, and a few ex-presidents from South America and Cuba".[20]

Walker was referenced in "Last Call", the December 6, 2010, episode of the ABC television series Castle.

The political and criminal activity surrounding Walker's 1929 campaign features heavily in Tom Bradby's 2009 novel Blood Money.

In 2021, the off-Broadway play Tammany Hall depicted the 1929 mayoral election between Walker and La Guardia.

See also


  1. ^ Tyler, Don (2007). Hit Songs, 1900-1955: American Popular Music of the Pre-Rock Era. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company. pp. 33–34. ISBN 9780786429462.
  2. ^ a b c d e Connolly, James. "Walker, James J.", American National Biography, Oxford University Press, February 1, 2000.
  3. ^ Caro, Robert (1974. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York City, NY: Penguin Random House. pp. 136-37. ISBN 9780394720241.
  4. ^ Caro, Robert (1974. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York City, NY: Penguin Random House. pp. 139. ISBN 9780394720241.
  5. ^ David Wallace, Capital of the World: A Portrait of New Your City in the Roaring Twenties (2011) p. 11
  6. ^ a b c Young, Greg. "Mayor Jimmy Walker: a finer class of corruption". The Bowery Boys: New York City History. Retrieved May 27, 2009.
  7. ^ Allen, Oliver E. (1993). The Tiger: The Rise and Fall of Tammany Hall. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company. p. 237. ISBN 0-201-62463-X.
  8. ^ Michael Lerner, Dry Manhattan (2008). pp. 160–70
  9. ^ "Our Campaigns - New York City Mayor Race - Nov 05, 1929". www.ourcampaigns.com. Retrieved December 6, 2021.
  10. ^ a b c d Jackson, Kenneth T., Keller, Lisa; Flood, Nancy, eds. The Encyclopedia of New York City 2nd ed. Yale University Press, 2010.
  11. ^ Gunther, John, Inside U.S.A., Curtis Publishing Company, 1947, pg. 564
  12. ^ Kessner 1989, p. 235.
  13. ^ a b Golway, Terry. "The Making of F.D.R., 1932: A Rollicking New York Tale", The New York Observer, October 1, 2000. Retrieved November 3, 2013.
  14. ^ United Press, "Walker Quits Political Life", The San Bernardino Daily Sun, San Bernardino, California, Sunday 13 November 1932, Volume 39, page 2.
  15. ^ Ackerman (March 16, 1940). "Radio Review: Program Reviews - James J. Walker". Billboard. Vol. 52, no. 11. p. 8.
  16. ^ "Former Mayor Walker Of New York Dies". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. November 19, 1946. Retrieved March 17, 2010.
  17. ^ Holli, Melvin G. (1999). The American Mayor. University Park: PSU Press. ISBN 0-271-01876-3. p. 12.
  18. ^ "Jimmy". IBDB.com. Internet Broadway Database.
  19. ^ "Fiorello!: Production Songs". IBDB.com. Internet Broadway Database. Archived from the original on August 7, 2011.
  20. ^ It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. p. 349.

Works cited

Further reading

New York State Assembly Preceded byJohn T. Eagleton New York State AssemblyNew York County, 5th District 1910–1914 Succeeded byMaurice McDonald New York State Senate Preceded byJames D. McClelland New York State Senate13th District 1915–1918 Succeeded byJohn J. Boylan Preceded byJacob Koenig New York State Senate12th District 1919–1925 Succeeded byElmer F. Quinn Political offices Preceded byJames A. Foley Minority Leader in the New York State Senate 1920–1922 Succeeded byClayton R. Lusk Preceded byClayton R. Lusk President pro tempore of the New York State Senate 1923–1924 Succeeded byJohn Knight Preceded byClayton R. Lusk Minority Leader in the New York State Senate 1925 Succeeded byBernard Downing Preceded byJohn F. Hylan Mayor of New York City 1926–1932 Succeeded byJoseph V. McKee