Book Excerpt: Prologue


Jimmy Walker somehow or other seemed to be New York
brought to life in one person.
Ed Sullivan

_____New York paid its final tribute to Jimmy Walker on November 21, 1946.
The flags of civic buildings stood at half-staff, the business of the city was
suspended, and a Solemn High Requiem Mass was celebrated at St. Patrick’s
Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, the street the former mayor “loved so well.” In the
year of the mayor’s death, Fifth Avenue between Fiftieth and Fifty-first Streets,
where the cathedral faces Rockefeller Center, was in the heart of Midtown
Manhattan, the city’s transportation, communications, cultural, entertainment,
and fashion center. But when the cornerstone of St. Patrick’s was laid in
1858 this slice of the city was a remote outpost of settlement, a long, wearying
carriage ride from New York’s port and population center on the southern rim
of Manhattan Island. Mayor Walker had been born and raised down there,
near the Hudson River piers, and had boldly promoted the explosive growth of
Midtown, the city’s main engine of entrepreneurial opportunity.
_____The Great Altar of St. Patrick’s was resplendent with bouquets of autumn
flowers—asters and goldenrod—that November morning when the mayor’s
mahogany coffin was carried down the central aisle at 10:25 A.M. Four thousand
five hundred mourners, twice the cathedral’s normal capacity, packed the
pews and every open space in the massive nave and its side altars. Another ten
thousand New Yorkers, most of them middle-aged and older, stood outside on
the sidewalks and street corners to give a proper send-off to the most beloved,
if hardly the greatest of the city’s mayors, Beau James, who lived for the night,
moving gaily from one glittering party to another in his long, chauffer-driven
Duesenberg with chromium-plated wheels and doeskin upholstery.


_____Those attending the service “were people of importance in the three fields
of [Walker’s] pre-eminence, politics, the theatre and sports,” reported The
New York Times. There was current Mayor William O’Dwyer; former Mayor
Fiorello La Guardia, one year out of office; and New York’s senior senator,
Robert F. Wagner, Sr., Walker’s friend since their days together as young Albany
legislators. New York Yankee center fielder Joe DiMaggio and former
Yankee pitching ace Vernon “Lefty” Gomez, close friends of Jimmy’s, arrived
together. Founder and owner Tim Mara and his entire New York Giants football
team created a stir when they marched into the church as a solid phalanx
moments before the Mass began. Walker had followed both the Yankees and
the Giants with fervor. He had his own box at the Polo Grounds, right on the
field, behind the Giants’ bench, and he rarely missed a big game at Yankee Stadium, especially when Babe Ruth, now old and broken-down, was still swinging
for the seats. Two of the mayor’s proudest accomplishments as an Albany
lawmaker were the Walker Act of 1920, legalizing boxing in New York state,
and a bill—passed at the same time—permitting professional baseball games
on Sundays. “New York is the hub of the athletic wheel,” wrote New York Times
sportswriter Arthur Daley. “Unless it spins quickly and surely here, it doesn’t
spin anywhere. And Jimmy made it spin here.”
_____Sitting in one of the front pews, his eyes filled with tears, was Bernard
“Toots” Shor, the loud, backslapping owner and host of the legendary Midtown
restaurant where Jimmy Walker had gathered with his cronies after Friday
night fights at Madison Square Garden, then at Fiftieth Street and Eighth
Avenue, lighting up the room with his Gaelic charm and cutting wisecracks,
always delivered with a devilish smile. Sitting near Toots was Mike Jacobs, a
former ticket scalper at the Garden who was now the biggest boxing promoter
in the country. When Walker was riding high in his first term as mayor, from
1926 to 1930, Jacobs would meet him at the doors of the Garden and pilot him
to his seat with a full police escort. Jimmy was more fun to watch than the
fight itself, his friends claimed. “He’d duck, counter-punch and gesticulate in
restless fashion,” Arthur Daley described his antics. “Occasionally he’d finish
up more wearied than the boxers.” Walker loved boxing, he said, because it’s
“a sport in which you meet only one opponent at a time, and he is always in
front of you.”
_____Grover Whalen, Mayor Walker’s official city greeter, had flown in from
Los Angeles for the funeral. People smiled when they spotted him filing into
a front pew. Still a smartly groomed fashion plate, he awakened memories of
the lush years before the Crash of ’29, a time of soaring prosperity and city
pride. When Walker was mayor, in the second half of the 1920s, there was a
blaze of publicity and a tremendous ticker tape parade, organized by Whalen,

whenever a luminary like Charles Lindbergh, conqueror of the Atlantic, arrived
in town. Beginning in 1927, these parades through the city’s skyscraper
canyons had become national celebrations after New York City was hooked up
to the entire country by the coast-to-coast radio networks—NBC and CBS—
formed by communications kings David Sarnoff and William Paley, friends of
the mayor.
_____Largely unnoticed in the cathedral that gray morning were Al Smith, Jr.,
and William Randolph Hearst, Jr., sons of two of the titanic figures in Walker’s
life—one his political mentor, the other his longtime political nemesis, the
crusading newspaper mogul who had tried to prevent him from becoming
mayor. Three of the chief ushers were Charles S. Hand, Edward L. Stanton, and
Thomas F. McAndrews, the mayor’s secretaries. These hard-toiling loyalists
had attended to the city’s day-to-day business during Walker’s scandalously
frequent absences from City Hall—off on vacations in Havana or Palm Beach,
or simply home in his bed nursing a hangover.
_____Standing in the back of the church was an old-time welterweight named
Soldier Barfield, one of dozens of pugs Walker had known in their prime and
helped out on their way down. Jimmy Walker was the regular feature speaker
at the Boxing Writers Dinner and “never did he deliver anything but a stirring
address. He was the only man,” said Arthur Daley, “who could climb into the
ring at the Garden and deliver a speech that would hold the impatient fight
mob absolutely enthralled. . . . The proverbial pin could be heard dropping
once his sonorous voice slid liquidly through the microphone.”
_____Daley remembered Jimmy Walker as a memorable phrasemaker, quicker
on his feet than anyone he knew. In June 1938, Walker met Joe Louis, the black
heavyweight champion, after Louis knocked out Max Schmeling, the big German
hailed by the Nazis as evidence of the doctrine of Aryan supremacy after
he beat Louis in their first fight. Shaking his hand, Walker said memorably,
“Joe, you have laid a rose on Abraham Lincoln’s grave.”
_____City reporters had celebrated Jimmy Walker as the very expression of Jazz
Age New York; and that’s how much of the country saw him. “[To] we hicks
in the hinterland,” said New York Herald sports reporter Red Smith, “he was
the symbol of his city and his era. . . . To us he was New York”—its virtues and
vices, its sin and sophistication. “He was the debonair prophet of gaiety and
extravagance and glitter. He was the embodiment of all the qualities which
hicks like us resented and admired about New York.”
_____Walker’s “virtues,” wrote reporter Milton MacKaye, “were those of the
time” and of the city he governed: moral tolerance, sympathy for the underdog,
and an abhorrence of hypocrisy. “His vices were equally contemporary.
He was glib, vain, prodigal, luxury-loving, and amazingly indifferent to the

rules of common honesty. . . . He played all night and slept half the day, he
drank too much and steamed out at health resorts, he praised his Church and
ignored its commandments, he bought diamond bracelets at fifteen thousand
dollars a crack and would not pay his bills. Yet the city loved him.” As The New
York Times noted, “few men in public office stood as high in public regard
when he began his second term as Mayor of New York in 1930.”

At 11:20 A.M., the body of James John Walker was carried out of the nave and
down the marble steps from which he had regularly reviewed, with a boy’s
delight, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. People pressed in close to the coffin, a
few reaching out to toss a flower, but were met by a solid wall of blue, part of
a representation of three hundred of New York’s finest. A cortege was formed
and moved up Fifth and Madison Avenues, into the Bronx and out to Westchester
County for burial in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery at Valhalla, where,
two years later, Walker’s ailing friend Babe Ruth would be put into the ground.
Motorcycle patrolmen escorted the cortege all the way to the cemetery. With
seven priests reciting the final prayers for the dead, the Jazz Age Mayor was
lowered into a grave his family had only recently acquired.
_____Last to leave the burial site was Walker’s younger sister, Anna Burke. “Nan”
the family called her. A widow, she was the only surviving member of Walker’s
tight-knit Greenwich Village family; and she had been, at the end, the only
woman in his life. Walker had never stopped loving his second wife, Betty
Compton, after she divorced him in 1941 when he could no longer provide
the excitement she craved. She was the apple-cheeked chorus girl turned actress
he had openly cavorted with while he was married and mayor of the city,
sneaking away with her to the penthouse apartments of discreet friends for
weekend trysts. They had been married in Cannes, France, in 1933, just after
Jimmy divorced Janet Allen Walker, his wife of twenty-one years. Betty Compton
was the mother of Walker’s two adopted children, Mary Ann, age ten, and
James John Walker, Jr., eleven. When Betty Compton succumbed to cancer in
1944, Nan Walker Burke and her two older boys moved in with “Uncle Jimmy”
and his two children, filling to capacity Walker’s modest East Side apartment.
_____While he was mayor, Walker had received, under the table, over one million
dollars in “beneficences,” as he cagily called these handouts from well-heeled
friends, but his total worth had been reduced to $40,000, the consequence
of his earlier extravagance, but also of his continuing generosity to friends
and charities. In his last years, he supported his own and Nan’s family with a
salary he received as president of Majestic Records, a largely ceremonial position
he assumed after serving a four-year term as the impartial arbiter for

the city’s garment industry. Mayor La Guardia had provided him with that
$20,000-a-year sinecure, a kindness to an old political enemy in his time of
need. Walker disliked La Guardia personally, seeing him as a parading moralist,
closing down newsstands that sold sexually suggestive magazines. Yet
he supported most of La Guardia’s reforms and proclaimed him “the greatest
mayor New York ever had.”
_____In his fading years, Walker had become, once again, “toastmaster to [the]
town,” the most popular after-dinner speaker in the city. When New York
Times reporter S. J. Woolf met him for an interview in 1945, he had not seen
him for fifteen years and was surprised how good he looked. “He is still slim,
almost as young-looking as he was, still wisecracking one minute and sentimentalizing
the next. Age has not withered New York’s Peter Pan, nor have
setbacks soured him.”
_____But this was not the Jimmy Walker of old. He had drastically cut back his
drinking and found his greatest enjoyment in speaking to Catholic groups.
For most of his public life, his behavior had been, by his own admission, “in
direct denial of the faith in which I believed,” but lately he had returned to the
Church, finding solace in prayer and the sacraments. Every night at bedtime
he read a book of the saints to his children. “The glamour of other days I have
found to be worthless tinsel, and all the allure of the world just so much seduction
and deception,” he told a gathering at a Communion breakfast.
_____Though his hair had not gone gray and his cheeks were still ruddy, he was
in declining health, assaulted by paralyzing headaches that caused him to retire,
alone, to a darkened bedroom for hours at a time. When he collapsed at
home after a speech before a boys group in early November 1946, Nan summoned his doctor, and then a priest when he fell into a coma after a blood
clot formed in his brain. He was rushed to the hospital and never regained
consciousness. He left this world on November 18, 1946, at age sixty-five. Nan
was at his side, holding his hand. He would have liked that. She was the living
link to the days he had remembered most fondly: growing up in a lively,
working-class neighborhood, protected and encouraged by a strong father and
an indulgent mother, and feeling in his bones the energy and urgency of the
larger city—its call to bigger things.
_____His youthful dream was to be a songwriter, a player on the Broadway scene,
but the father he worshipped, a force in the local Democratic organization, had
pushed him into law and politics. With Manhattan’s Tammany Hall machine
solidly behind him, the slim young dandy made a rocketlike ascent, becoming,
in quick succession, a state assemblyman, a state senator, and president pro
tempore of the Albany Senate, where he guided into law Governor Al Smith’s
progressive reforms.

_____When sworn in as the city’s ninety-seventh mayor on January 1, 1926, he
was one of the most popular figures ever to rise to that office; even some of
Tammany’s fiercest critics expected solid things from him. A little over six
years later, on September 1, 1932, he was forced to resign, pushed out of office
on suspicion of rank corruption by members of his own party, led by his political
sponsor, ex-Governor Al Smith and current Governor Franklin Delano
Roosevelt. Party leaders had no choice. A sweeping investigation launched
by Republicans in the New York legislature, and conducted by Judge Samuel
Seabury, counsel of a joint legislative committee formed to investigate corruption
in New York City government, had unearthed massive graft and incompetence
in the Walker administration and in the municipal courts it oversaw.
_____Yet even in his hour of disgrace, Walker had a large and loyal following
in the city. Though emphatically competent, Seabury was a frigid inquisitor,
pompous and forbiddingly distant, and under his scorching cross- examination,
Walker had handled himself, if not with candor, with his usual wit and style.
“You tell him Jimmy,” supporters shouted the morning the smartly dressed
mayor stepped out of a black city sedan to enter Seabury’s packed hearing
room. The feeling among many New Yorkers, including some hard-eyed pols
like Edward J. Flynn, political boss of the Bronx and later a confidant of President
Franklin Roosevelt, was that Walker “was never personally dishonest,”
that he had been done in by some of his more “superficial and rapacious”
friends, rich and well-connected men he had unwisely trusted. In time, this
became Walker’s own professed version of reality. “No one can buy or sell me
but friends sometimes have made a fool of me.”
_____It is doubtful that Walker himself truly believed this. Years after Governor
Roosevelt’s own investigation made it impossible for him to stay in office,
Walker confided to Gene Fowler, the city newsman who became his first biographer: “I knew how to say ‘no,’ but seldom could bring myself to say it. A
woman and politician must say that word often, and mean it—or else.” While
Seabury had failed to trace a single “wrong dollar to Walker’s pocket,” Walker
was too bright and knowing—contra Flynn—to be duped repeatedly by those
close to him. He needed money, lots of it, to live the high life, and though
there may never have been explicit quid pro quos—this gift for that favor from
the city—he had egregiously violated the public trust. He did this through his
moral carelessness and inattention to the details of governance—and his lack
of vigilance over his own life and the lives of those officials he appointed or
retained to do the city’s business honestly and efficiently. This was inexcusable
if not unlawful behavior. In the end, Mayor Walker slid his neck into a noose of
his own making. The writer Ben Hecht had it right: “No man could have held
life so carelessly without falling down a manhole before he was done.”

_____Walker’s amorality also prevented him from making the quick comeback
his political friends had begun to plot on the eve of his resignation, just before
he left with Betty Compton for Europe, where they were married. His diehard
supporters counted greatly on the fact that Walker had not been officially
charged with a single crime. After returning from abroad, Walker should, they
advised, call in reporters, insist he had received an unfair hearing from Roosevelt,
and announce his candidacy for mayor in a special November election
called to fill his vacated seat. He should leave it to the people of New York to
decide if he had violated their trust.
_____It was an audacious gamble that might have worked. Walker had lost some
of his luster but was still electable; in fact, he remained electable until the day
he died. In a 1945 New York Daily News straw poll, 38 percent of New Yorkers
wanted him to be the next mayor. He received more support than any other
potential candidate, including La Guardia, who received only 25 percent of
the votes cast. And Walker won in all five boroughs. This was a reprise of the
1929 election, when he defeated Congressman La Guardia’s bid to unseat him,
winning every election district in the city, an unprecedented feat.
Walker’s style was undeniably a source of his popularity but in the month
he resigned, many New Yorkers remembered the substance, as well. Jimmy
Walker had gotten things done.
_____The sensationalism that has substituted for serious scholarship about
Walker has obscured some of his solid accomplishments. While not a pugnacious
reformer in the La Guardia mold, Walker made greatly needed improvements
in the city’s hospitals, struck down restrictions against African
American doctors at Harlem Hospital, built new schools, parks, and playgrounds,
established New York’s first municipal sanitation department and
the city’s first planning commission, and pushed through tunnel, bridge, and
highway projects to relieve vehicular congestion. He started or laid the groundwork for the West Side Highway, the FDR Drive, the Triborough Bridge, the
Queens-Midtown Tunnel, and hundreds of miles of new subway lines. New
York voters also associated him with two great civic accomplishments that he
had nothing to do with: the completion of the Holland Tunnel—The Highway
Under the Hudson, as it was called—in 1927, and the construction, beginning
that same year, of the George Washington Bridge, spanning the Hudson a few
miles north of the city’s first automobile tunnel. To millions of city voters, he
remained in 1932 “the living symbol of a glittering chapter in city history,” said
The New York Times.
_____The city never built more ambitiously or aggressively than it did during
Walker’s administration. Manhattan was turned into a gigantic construction
site, with steel girders climbing into the clouds, rivet guns hammering away,

and mud-caked laborers digging up the streets and moving entire buildings to
make way for more underground trains. Most of the activity was in Midtown,
which experienced an epochal rebuilding process that began just before World
War I and reached full momentum in 1927, Walker’s second year in office.
The changes were everywhere. The New York Central Railroad’s hideously unsightly train yard, a scar on the land extending for entire city blocks north of
West Forty-second Street, was made over into an arrow-straight boulevard of
regal apartment houses: Park Avenue, “Street of Dreams.” On Fifth Avenue, the
castellated mansions of the descendants of Gilded Age tycoons—the Vanderbilts,
Huntingtons, and others—were torn down and replaced by fashionable
shops and department stores, among them Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf
Goodman, making Fifth Avenue just below Central Park a Parisian-like shopping
emporium. Much of this was the work of Jewish real estate kings, up from
the ghetto. Jewish entrepreneurs also moved the city’s garment industry from
near Madison Square to just south of Times Square in Midtown, to be closer
to the out-of-town buyers of women’s fashions who came streaming into the
city by train, debarking at one of its imperial rail stations—Grand Central Terminal
or Pennsylvania Station—and staying at new, fashionably tall Midtown
hotels. In an astonishingly short span of time, the entire area around Grand
Central Terminal was turned into a new skyscraper city, a city within a city,
Terminal City, many of its office towers and hotels connected to one another,
and to the terminal, by underground passageways lined with smart shops and
_____These seismic changes in the cityscape were inspired and engineered
by businessmen of towering ambition, a number of whom, including Irwin
S. Chanin, Walter P. Chrysler, and Fred F. French, had risen from meager
circumstances. But they could not have been carried out without the active
encouragement of city government. Mayor Walker never tired of reminding
voters of this. He ran himself ragged attending the groundbreaking and ribbon
cutting of almost every major civic improvement in his nearly seven years
in office, even the installation of traffic lights on Park Avenue. He was perpetually
upbeat, reminding New Yorkers that they were living in the greatest city
in the world, at its maximum moment. “The great basis of Walker’s popularity
was his passion for making everybody happy,” wrote reporter Alva Johnston.
“In spurts he handled the city’s business impressively, but his chief task was
that of spreading sunshine in the metropolis.”
_____At cornerstone ceremonies and black-tie banquets, Walker displayed his
unerring ability to make people he had never seen before feel that there was
a special bond between them and him, a “bond of sympathy.” Listening to
Walker, whether at a B’nai B’rith convention or a quilting party, people felt he

was speaking directing to them, “Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of
New Yorkers, firmly believe that they are among Jimmy’s closest friends,” Alva
Johnston noted in the year of Walker’s resignation.
_____New Yorkers also remembered that Walker had been one of the only New
York politicians to demand the repeal of Prohibition the very year it went into
effect. In Albany, he had led the fight against the Eighteenth Amendment, and
as mayor he became “the embodiment of New York’s, and to some extent of the
nation’s dislike of Prohibition and Puritanism,” wrote Johnston. “He became
the foremost American champion of a man’s right to be himself. His life was
an antiseptic against hypocrisy; it was a standing rebuke to the Anti-Saloon
League and the Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals;
it was holy water to the devils of intolerance and persecution.”
_____Thirty-three years after Walker’s death a cabbie told the writer Thomas J.
Fleming, “This town ain’t been the same since we lost Jimmy Walker.”

But in 1932, Walker had too much going against him to be given a second
chance. Seabury’s revelations, Smith’s and Roosevelt’s opposition, along with
the Great Depression, which ended the biggest construction boom in the city’s
history, mortally wounded him. The Church finished him off.
_____The Catholic Church in New York City had for years been outraged by
Walker’s sexual escapades with actresses and chorus girls. During Walker’s
first term, the archbishop of New York, Patrick Joseph Cardinal Hayes, son
of sternly orthodox immigrants from County Kerry, Ireland, sent a prominent
layman to censure Walker for “bringing shame” on both his wife and the
church of his ancestors. Walker—forever his own man, giving orders, rarely
taking them—would not be lectured to; he named two esteemed Catholics,
benefactors of the church, whose sexual conduct was no better than his own.
“You go back and tell the cardinal to take care of his two altar boys and I’ll take
care of myself.”
_____That was all Walker heard from the Church until late September 1932,
when word got back to the cardinal that Walker was planning a political comeback.
Not long after this, Monsignor John P. Chidwick, a representative of Cardinal
Hayes, preached the funeral oration for Martin G. McCue, an East Side
Tammany leader, at Manhattan’s St. Agnes Church. Everyone of consequence
in the city’s Democratic Party was in the church that morning, including John
McCooey, Brooklyn’s political boss, and John Francis Curry, head of Tammany
Hall—the two Democratic powerhouses behind the effort to reelect Walker.
Curry, a devout Catholic who “would no more think of missing Mass in the
morning than he would think of missing the race track in the afternoon,”

was a close friend of Monsignor Chidwick, who had performed his marriage
_____In his funeral oration, the monsignor lauded McCue’s deep religious faith
and personal morality, offering his life as an example for all political officials.
“Not only in official life, but in private life, should a man be clean and pure.” To
the Democratic chieftains in the pews that morning these words were “charged
with meaning,” wrote New York Times reporter William R. Conklin, who
would write the inside story of Walker’s failed comeback. It was high drama,
“the spiritual government of the city arrayed against its temporal government.”
And it was virtually unprecedented. The Catholic Church of New York rarely
intruded in politics.
_____Monsignor Chidwick spoke with cool deliberateness. He personally knew
most of the Democratic district leaders who were at the funeral Mass, and
settled his eyes on several of them as he preached. They knew he spoke for the
cardinal, and that going against the Church was an unwinnable cause.
_____John Curry had an idea of what was coming even before he entered the
church that morning. He had had dinner with Monsignor Chidwick earlier in
the week. When he raised the prospect of Walker’s bid for reelection, Chidwick
told him that if that happened the Church would go after Walker hard. That
meant a public rebuke of Walker’s personal morality and an ecclesiastical censure
of his relationship with Betty Compton.
_____Word may have reached Walker, who was still abroad when the Democrats
met at Madison Square Garden to choose a candidate. His name was put
into nomination as a formality, and he cabled the convention, declining the
honor. Tammany’s new choice was Surrogate Judge John P. O’Brien, a clean but
colorless candidate. He won the special election for mayor in 1932, defeating
Acting Mayor Joseph V. McKee, a write-in candidate. La Guardia, a Republican
Party–City Fusion candidate, crushed O’Brien and third party candidate
McKee the following year.

It was the end of the Jimmy Walker Era.