“It’s a city of nightlife,” the mayor-elect recently told Stephen Colbert. “I have to test the product. I must leave.
If you were in Section 41 of the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, NY the night Adams spoke with Colbert – well, first of all, you’ve got some explaining to do. Second, you may have heard the ground rumbling under someone’s gravestone. That someone, or former someone, would have been James J. Walker, signaling his approval of Adams’ belief in life after dark.
Almost a century ago, Jimmy Walker gained fame and affection as “New York’s Night Mayor,” a well-deserved nickname. During his nearly seven years as the city’s chief magistrate, he kept hours that would have shamed Dracula, not to mention their common liking for the Bloody Marys.
Adams is still more than a month away from his inauguration, but his nighttime escapades, like Walker’s, have already provided the media with a colorful copy. The New York Post recently reported on a three-hour dinner the famous vegan-elected mayor enjoyed at an Italian West Side hot spot, not to mention pre-election visits to Zero Bond, a private club, where he spent from time with various names in bold until the early hours of the morning. “When you go out at night it helps reduce crime,” Adams said in New York 1. “It attracts tourists to the city.”
Walker, a Tammany Hall Democrat who ruled the city from 1926 to 1932, would surely admire Adams’ after-hours ambitions. Handsome and incredibly thin (Al Smith, who shared a room with the future mayor of Albany when they were state lawmakers, said the sight of Walker in his striped pajamas reminded him of a candy cane), Walker does saw no reason to apologize for his preference. for the underground bars, the alcohol of the Prohibition era and the illicit relations on the prosaic enterprise of the management of the city. When criticized for accepting a $ 15,000 – to $ 40,000 – raise in salary, he replied, “It’s cheap! Think about what it would cost if I worked full time.
He was a constant presence at Broadway openings and boxing matches, impeccably dressed and accompanied not by his wife, Janet, but his girlfriend, Betty Compton, an English-born actress who performed with the Ziegfeld Follies. His favorite watering hole was a joint called Central Park Casino, which wasn’t a casino at all but a fancy restaurant and nightclub with a glorious black-glass Art-Deco ballroom near East 72nd Street. He was said to spend at least three nights a week there and run town affairs from an office located on the premises. In a remarkable coincidence, a friend of the mayor, Sidney Solomon, secured a far below market lease for the casino at the end of Walker’s first term. Walker told Compton: “The casino will be our place.” And so it was.
It was the age of jazz, the roaring twenties, a time of easy money, youthful rebellion and sheer stupidity, and no one personified the spirit of the moment better than Jimmy Walker. It was, of course, the Age of Prohibition, too, and Walker was a perfect symbol of New Yorkers’ contempt for parish haybeans, religious fanatics and humorless reformers whom they blamed for the mistake. catastrophic known as the 18th Amendment.
With every bottle of champagne ordered by the night mayor, New York – a city of immigrants that viewed Prohibition as the original American judgment on their culture and values - raised a collective middle finger on the people in the world. west of the Hudson and north of the Bronx.
Walker was equally dismissive of elite progressive reformers who tended to look down on Tammany’s pols, even those like Walker who supported snack issues like workers’ compensation, social housing, and housing. municipal hospitals. His constituents loved it when he displayed his considerable wit against a starched-neck reformer. During an endless town hall meeting chaired by Walker, a representative of the good government group Citizens Union rose to deliver a smooth homily on reform promising a political paradise on earth. Walker stopped him and asked him to repeat his affiliation.
“Union of citizens”, declared the speaker.
“Citizens’ union? Walker asked, although he surely knew the proper name of the group.
“The Citizens Union, ”replied the speaker, not hiding his exasperation.
“Aha,” Walker said. ” Then there is of them of you.”
As long as times were good, there was little that the Reformers could do to shake up New York’s love affair with the charming bon vivant of City Hall. Fiorello LaGuardia, a Republican who jumped on an election grenade in 1929 when Walker was running for a second term, attempted to fight his way to victory, promising to be “a full-time mayor who will sleep at night and work during the day. “. He won 25 percent of the vote. Inconsolate, LaGuardia said he was done with politics and would retire to the countryside to raise chickens.
Things fell apart for Walker when the stock market collapsed in 1929, leading to the Great Depression. His penchant for ostentatious display – subsidized by the unofficial generosity of his admirers – and the rot he allowed to fester within the police department and other agencies suddenly seemed irrelevant and untenable. A succession of scandals led the governor of the time. Franklin Roosevelt summon Walker to a public inquiry in the Red Room of the State Capitol, most recently the site of most of Andrew Cuomo’s national television briefings on Covid-19. It soon became apparent that the flippant mayor had no answer to FDR’s questions about the corruption that had plagued his administration.
Facing impeachment, Walker resigned his post as mayor on September 1, 1932 and soon embarked for Europe.
But he couldn’t stay away from New York, no matter how disgraced he was. He returned a few years later, hosting a popular radio show and working for the city as a municipal labor mediator for $ 20,000 a year. He got the job through the good offices of his former executioner, LaGuardia, who, in fact, did not retire to raise chickens but instead won the town hall in 1933. When Walker died in 1946, thousands of Mourners gathered outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral on a cold November morning for his funeral.
Long before deciding to play politics for a living, young Jimmy Walker believed himself to be a songwriter and artist, probably his true calling. One of his songs, “Will You Love Me in December As You Do in May” (Beatles fans might recognize the existential theme), was a Tin Pan Alley hit in the early 20th century.
Despite the scandal and the tarnish, and perhaps despite them, New Yorkers did indeed love Jimmy Walker in the December of his years. Still, her embrace of the good life lost much of its charm when New Yorkers were forced to queue for bread rather than tub gin and a Charleston.
Eric Adams wows New Yorkers with his shameless speech about the return of glamor and excitement to New York nightlife. However, he would do well to check the unemployment rate every few weeks before leaving for a getaway after midnight.
Terry Golway is editor-in-chief at POLITICO, responsible for New York State political coverage from Albany. He is a New York historian with a doctorate. in US history and author of over a dozen books, the most recent being “Frank and Al: FDR, Al Smith and the Unlikely Alliance that Created the Modern Democratic Party”.