Friday, June 19, 2009

June 19: "I don't think the facts of this case call out for a period of incarceration…”

Do you know who this is?
-His nickname was ‘Beau James’.
-He fled the county on charges of corruption, but came back to work for government.
-He worked as a songwriter prior to entering politics.

The September 16, 1940 Time Magazine wrote:
“Last week New Yorkers rubbed their eyes at finding the names Walker-Roosevelt-La Guardia tied together again. After lunch at the White House, Mayor LaGuardia flew back to Manhattan and, as he explained upon landing, at 7,000 feet up in the air it suddenly occurred to him to appoint James Walker "tsar" of industrial and labor relations of Manhattan's giant cloak & suit industry. Salary: $20,000. Gravely David Dubinsky, head of the International Ladies' Garment Workers, and ardent pro-Roosevelt campaigner, hailed James Walker's "wide executive experience" as fitting him for the complex job of impartial labor arbitrator.”
Jimmy Walker, son of an Irish-born New York alderman, was born in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, New York, on June 19, 1881. Walker’s full name would be James John Joseph Walker, though he would acquire the nicknames of ‘Beau James’ and the ‘Night Mayor’. He would use his gift of talk, good looks, winning smile, and political connections to work his way through the New York political system, ultimately becoming the mayor of New York during the Prohibition years.

His education involved attending Xavier High School in New York City, then studied law at St. Francis Xavier College and New York University law school. He was admitted to the bar in 1912. Seven years earlier, in 1905, Walker had toyed with the idea of embarking on a songwriting career, and wrote the words to a number of Tin Pan Alley songs, including “There’s Music in the Rustle of a Skirt” and “Will You Love Me In December As You Do In May” – which became a popular hit song of the era. A 1907 recording is here, and the chorus line is:

“Will you love me in December as you do in May,
Will you love me in the good old fashioned way?
When my hair has all turned gray,
Will you kiss me then and say,
That you love me in December as you do in May?”
His father encouraged him to enter politics, and Walker began his climb up the political ladder. He served as a member of the state assembly from 1910 to 1914, then a state senator from 1915 until 1925. He would rise to the position of President pro tempore of the New York State Senate – where he would support liberal legislation - from 1923 to 1924. He resigned from the state senate in in 1925 order to begin his campaign to become mayor of New York City – a post he held from 1926 until his resignation in 1932. With the help of Governor Al Smith and the Tammany Hall organization, Walker would defeat incumbent John F. Hylan in the 1925 Democratic Primary for mayor.

It was the era of the “Roaring Twenties”, and Prohibition – a Constitutional Amendment forbidding the sale of alcohol – was in full swing, and it was unpopular in New York as well as most of the rest of the nation. Under Walker’s administration, Prohibition was not enforced, and the nightclubs stayed open – and the illegal liquor flowing. At one point it was estimated that there were between 30,000 and 100,000 illegal speakeasies in New York City alone. While Walker fulfilled the role of mayor by day, he frequented the nightclubs and speakeasies by night, hence earning his “night mayor” nickname. Walker had said:

"I like the company of my fellow human beings. I like the theatre and am devoted to healthy outdoor sports. Because I like these things, I have reflected my attitude in some of my legislation I have sponsored -- 2.75 percent beer, Sunday baseball, Sunday movies, and legalized boxing. But let me allay any fear there may be that, because I believe in personal liberty, wholesome amusement and healthy professional sport, I will countenance for a moment any indecency or vice in New York."
And in doing this, he was doing what the ‘common man’ of New York was doing. New Yorkers, in general, were not outraged by Walker’s behavior – he was one of them! He passed legislation favoring the workers of the city – including maintaining the five-cent subway fare despite the threat of a strike, legalizing Sunday entertainment such as baseball and boxing, and a host of other laws. He listened to everyone, and often responded to complaints ranging from government salary increases to poor with a winning smile, a nod, and humming a popular tune of the day. His personality was immune to verbal attacks – once when a rival unmercifully attacked him, Walker remarked to a friend, "That's odd. I don't remember ever doing him a favor."

His popularity – even though he was in Europe at the time - was such that when he divorced his first wife, Janet Allen, in 1933 to marry a showgirl. Walker found that his popularity was not unduly impaired. The showgirl was Betty Compton, who had been a member of the Ziegfield Follies, and would divorce Walker in 1941.

The mid-1920’s was a prosperous time for New Yorkers, and Walker supported a number of public works projects – providing jobs for the growing population of the city. He unified the public hospitals into a more efficient system, created the department of sanitation, and backed the adoption of an extensive transit system. He was popular enough to be returned to office in 1928, defeating his opponent, Fiorello LaGuardia.

Rumors – supported by exposure through the press - of fraud and political corruption reached the state legislature, and the legislature ordered Samuel Seabury to launch an investigation. Extensive corruption was revealed through the investigation, and it was known that politics demanded that heads roll. During the investigation Walker commented “There are three things a man must do alone. Be born, die, and testify.” As a result of the investigation, in 1932 fifteen charges were leveled at the mayor – Jimmy Walker. In order to head off a possible prison sentence, Walker resigned in September 1932 – before the hearings were closed. He went to tour Europe, living there for several years until the risk of criminal prosecution grew remote.

Walker stated of the investigation:
“I think probation would have been a more appropriate sentence. I don't think the facts of this case call out for a period of incarceration…”
Walker returned to the United States and in 1940 was appointed by Mayor LaGuardia as the ‘tsar’ of negotiations with the giant New York garment industry.

Jimmy Walker would pass away at the age of sixty-five on November 18, 1946, in his beloved New York City. He was buried in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, New York.

Walker reflected the decade during which he governed New York. The Roaring Twenties was more than a name of an era – it reflected the life-styles of those living in this fast-paced era. When the crash occurred, plunging the nation into the Great Depression, Walker would find that he too reflected the troubles faced during this time.


Herbert Mitgang: Once Upon A Time In New York: Jimmy Walker, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Last Great Battle of the Jazz Age


Bowery Boys Blog
Political Graveyard
Time Magazine


Walker 01. Jimmy Walker Pose, Library of Congress
Walker 02. Music Cover, Halcyn Days Music
Walker 03. Walker with a tea cup, Library of Congress ID # DN-0082506
Walker 04. Betty Compton, Movie Weekly
Walker 05. Walker in a hallway, Library of Congress ID # ichicdn n082550


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