Jimmy Walker

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James J. Walker
James Walker NYWTS.jpg
Mayor of New York City
In office
January 1, 1926 – September 1, 1932
Preceded by John F. Hylan
Succeeded by Joseph V. McKee
Personal details
Born (1881-06-19)June 19, 1881
New York City, United States
Died November 18, 1946(1946-11-18) (aged 65)
New York City, United States
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Janet Walker
Betty Compton (1933–1941; divorce)
Religion Roman Catholic

James John Walker, often known as Jimmy Walker and colloquially as Beau James (June 19, 1881 – November 18, 1946), 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. During a corruption scandal he was forced to resign.

Life and career

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 of students and dropped out of college before eventually graduating from New York Law School in 1904. Walker's father wanted him to become a lawyer and politician. Walker at first decided that he would rather write songs and be involved in the music industry but he eventually entered politics in 1909 and subsequently passed the bar exam in 1912.[1]

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 heavily opposed Prohibition.

Running for Mayor, 1925

After his years in the Senate, Jimmy Walker set his sights on the 1926 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 John F. Hylan who was the current Mayor of New York. 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.[2] On the other hand, his reputation for tolerating corruption made him suspect to middle-class and moralistic voters. Alfred E. Smith who was then Governor was his mentor.[1] Alfred Smith was a staunch supporter since Walker backed many social and cultural issues that were considered politically important. These included social welfare legislation, legalization of boxing, repeal of blue laws which prohibited Sunday baseball games, condemning the Ku Klux Klan, and especially Smith's and Walker's mutual opposition to Prohibition.[1]

Smith knew the secret to Walker’s winning the election and overcoming his tarnished reputation was for the Governor to guide Walker’s every move. Smith used his base in the strong political machine of Tammany Hall to secure this victory. Finally Walker himself had to be willing to change some of his more unscrupulous ways or in the least, provide a cover for his indiscretions. As with many of the things in Jimmy Walker’s life, he chose the latter. Instead of ending his visits to the speakeasies and his friendships with chorus girls, he took those activities behind the closed doors of a penthouse funded by Tammany Hall.[3] Walker defeated Hylan in the Democratic primary, and, after defeating Republican mayoral candidate Frank D. Waterman in the general election, became Mayor of New York.

Mayor, 1926-32

In his initial years as mayor, Walker saw the city prosper and many public works projects gain traction. In his first year as Mayor, 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). He even managed to maintain the five-cent subway fare despite a threatened strike by the workers.[3]

However, Walker's term was also known for the proliferation of speakeasies during the Prohibition era. 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.[4] His affairs with “chorus girls” were widely known, and he left his wife, Janet, for showgirl Betty Compton.

Walker won re-election by an overwhelming margin in 1929, defeating Republican Fiorello La Guardia and Socialist Norman Thomas. 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. This was one of the causes which led to Tammany Hall pulling their support for Walker.[5]

Scandal and resignation

Increasing social unrest led to investigations into corruption within his 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.[5]

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. For this, the police officers were given more money in their paychecks. After her testimony, Vivian Gordon was suspiciously found strangled to death in a park in the Bronx. This event demonstrated to New Yorkers that corruption could lead to terrible consequences and that Walker might ultimately, in some way, be responsible for her death.[6]

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's constitution could allow an elected mayor to be removed from office, Roosevelt felt compelled to act on this. But if he did this, he risked losing Tammany Hall’s support for the Democratic nomination. On the other hand, if Roosevelt did nothing, or let Walker off easy, the national newspapers would consider him weak.[6]

Facing pressure from Governor Roosevelt, Walker eluded questions about his personal bank accounts, stating instead that the money he received were “beneficences” and not bribes.[1] He delayed any personal appearances until after Roosevelt’s nomination for President of the U.S. was secured. It was at that time 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, and went on a grand tour of Europe with Betty Compton, his Ziegfeld girl.[3] Walker stayed in Europe until the danger of criminal prosecution appeared remote.[5] There, he married Compton.

Later life and legacy

After his return to the United States, for a time Walker acted as head of Majestic Records that included such popular performing artists as Louis Prima and Bud Freeman.[1] He died in November 1946 at the age of 65 of a brain hemorrhage.[7] He was interred in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York.

The grave of Jimmy Walker in Gate of Heaven Cemetery

When Walker was a member of the New York State Senate, he sponsored the “Walker Law” which legalized 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.

In popular culture

A romanticized version of Walker's tenure as mayor was presented in the 1957 film Beau James, starring Bob Hope.[8] This was a somewhat accurate depiction of Walker, who during his time as mayor had become a symbol of the jazz age romanticism.[5] The film was based on a biography of Walker, also titled Beau James, written by Gene Fowler. The book was also the basis for 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.[9] There is also a song about Walker in the stage musical Fiorello!, "Gentleman Jimmy".[10]

Footage of Walker is used in the 1983 Woody Allen film Zelig, with Walker being one of the guests during Zelig's visit to William Randolph Hearst's mansion 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".[11]

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.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Connolly, James. "Walker, James J.", American National Biography, Oxford University Press, February 1, 2000.
  2. David Wallace, Capital of the World: A Portrait of New Your City in the Roaring Twenties (2011) p. 11
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Young, Greg. "Mayor Jimmy Walker: a finer class of corruption". The Bowery Boys: New York City History. Retrieved May 27, 2009.
  4. Michael Lerner, Dry Manhattan (2008). pp. 160–70
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Jackson, Kenneth T., Keller, Lisa; Flood, Nancy, eds. The Encyclopedia of New York City 2nd ed. Yale University Press, 2010.
  6. 6.0 6.1 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.
  7. "Former Mayor Walker Of New York Dies". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. November 19, 1946. Retrieved March 17, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Beau James on IMDb
  9. Jimmy at the Internet Broadway Database
  10. Fiorello!: Production Songs on the Internet Broadway Database
  11. It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. p. 349.

External links

New York Assembly
Preceded by
John T. Eagleton
New York State Assembly
New York County, 5th District

Succeeded by
Maurice McDonald
New York State Senate
Preceded by
James D. McClelland
New York State Senate
13th District

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John J. Boylan
Preceded by
Jacob Koenig
New York State Senate
12th District

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Elmer F. Quinn
Political offices
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James A. Foley
Minority Leader in the New York State Senate
Succeeded by
Clayton R. Lusk
Preceded by
Clayton R. Lusk
President pro tempore of the New York State Senate
Succeeded by
John Knight
Preceded by
Clayton R. Lusk
Minority Leader in the New York State Senate
Succeeded by
Bernard Downing
Preceded by
John F. Hylan
Mayor of New York City
Succeeded by
Joseph V. McKee