“This is a city with nightlife,” the elected mayor recently told Stephen Colbert. “I have to test the product. I have to go out.”
If you happened to be in Section 41 at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, NY, that night Adams spoke to Colbert – well, first of all, you have something to explain. Second, you may have heard the earth rumble under someone else’s tombstone. That someone, or formerly someone, would have been James J. Walker, signaling his approval of Adams’ belief in life after dark.
Nearly a century ago, Jimmy Walker won fame and devotion as the “night mayor of New York,” a well-deserved nickname. During his nearly seven years as the city’s supreme magistrate, he kept hours that would have put Dracula to shame, no matter their common taste for Bloody Marys.
Adams is still more than a month away from his inauguration, but his nocturnal escapades, like Walkers’, have already given the news media a colorful copy. The New York Post recently reported on a three-hour dinner that the famous vegan, elected mayor enjoyed at an Italian hot spot on the West Side, not to mention pre-election visits to Zero Bond, a private club where he hung out with different names in bold into the small hours. “When you’re out at night, it helps reduce crime,” Adams told New York 1. “It attracts tourists to the city.”
Walker, a Tammany Hall Democrat who ran the city from 1926 to 1932, would certainly admire Adams’ after-hours ambitions. Handsome and impossibly slender (Al Smith, who shared a room with the incoming mayor of Albany when they were state legislators, said the sight of Walker in his striped pajamas reminded him of a candy cane), so Walker saw no reason to apologize for his preference . for speakeasies, booze from the Prohibition era and illegal conditions over the prosaic business of running the city. When he was criticized for accepting a $ 15,000 pay raise – to $ 40,000 – he replied, “It’s cheap! Think 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 Ziegfeld Follies. His favorite watering hole was a joint called Central Park Casino, which was not a casino at all, but a fancy restaurant and nightclub with a glorious Art-Deco ballroom made of black glass near East 72nd Street. It was said that he spent at least three nights a week there and carried out city business from an office on the premises. In a remarkable coincidence, a friend of the mayor, Sidney Solomon, was awarded a lease to the casino well below the market price late in Walker’s first term. Walker told Compton: “The casino will be our place.” And so it was.
It was the jazz age, the roaring twenties, a time of easy money, youthful rebellion and sheer folly, and no one personified the spirit of the present better than Jimmy Walker. It was, of course, also the era of the Prohibition, and Walker was a perfect symbol of New Yorkers’ contempt for the parishioners, religious zealots and humorless reformers whom they blamed for the catastrophic mistake known as the 18th Amendment.
With each bottle of champagne ordered by the night mayor, New York – a city of immigrants who saw bans as Native Americans’ judgment of their culture and values - lifted a collective middle finger against people west of the Hudson and north of the Bronx.
Walker was just as contemptuous of progressive elite reformers who tended to look down the nose of Tammany pols, even those like Walker who supported food package issues such as workers’ compensation, public housing, and municipal hospitals. His constituents loved it when he used his considerable wit against some stiff-necked reformer. During an endless public meeting chaired by Walker, a representative of the good government group Citizens Union stood up to deliver a blissful sermon on a reform that promises a political paradise on earth. Walker stopped him and asked him to repeat his attachment.
“Citizens Union,” the speaker said.
“Citizens’ Association?” Walker asked, though he certainly knew the group’s real name.
“That Citizens Union, ”the speaker replied without hiding his bitterness.
“Aha,” Walker said. “Then there is thaw of you.”
As long as times were good, there were little reformers who could do to shake up New York’s love affair with the charming bon vivant in City Hall. Fiorello LaGuardia, a Republican who jumped on an electoral grenade in 1929 when Walker was seeking another term, tried to tsk-tsk his way to victory and promised to be “a full-time mayor who will sleep at night and work during the day.” He got 25 percent of the vote. Inconsolably, 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 crashed in 1929, leading to the Great Depression. His penchant for conspicuous display – backed by the generosity of his admirers outside the books – and the rudeness he allowed himself to immerse himself in the police department and other agencies, suddenly seemed out of touch and indefensible. A series of scandals led to the then government. Franklin Roosevelt to summon Walker for a public inquiry in the State Capitol’s Red Room, recently the site of most of Andrew Cuomo’s nationally televised Covid-19 briefings. It soon became clear that the glib mayor had no answer to FDR’s questions about the corruption that had overtaken his administration.
Faced with his dismissal from office, Walker resigned as mayor on September 1, 1932, and soon sailed for Europe.
But he could not stay away from New York, no matter his disgrace. He returned a few years later, where he hosted a popular radio program and worked for the city as a municipal labor broker for $ 20,000 a year. He got the job through his former tormenting spirit, the good office of LaGuardia, who did not actually retire to raise chickens, but instead won the mayoralty in 1933. When Walker died in 1946, thousands of mourners gathered outside St. Louis. Patrick’s Cathedral on a cold November morning for his funeral.
Long before he decided to pursue politics for a living, the young Jimmy Walker imagined himself as a songwriter and entertainer, probably his true calling. One of his tunes, “Will You Love Me in December As You Do in May” (Beatles fans may recognize the existential theme), was a Tin Pan Alley hit in the early 20th century.
Despite the scandal and the stains, and perhaps despite themselves, the New Yorkers really loved Jimmy Walker in December of his year. Yet his embrace of the good life lost much of its charm when New Yorkers were forced to stand in line for bread rather than bath-gin and a Charleston.
Eric Adams delights New Yorkers with his rude talk of returning glamor and excitement to New York’s nightlife. However, he may do well to check the unemployment rate every few weeks before going on a trip after midnight.
Terry Golway is the Senior Editor at POLITICO and is responsible for the political coverage of the State of New York from Albany. He is a historian in New York, with a Ph.D. in American history, and author of more than a dozen books, most recently “Frank and Al: FDR, Al Smith, and the Improbable Alliance That Created the Modern Democratic Party.”