Jimmy Walker, the Night Mayor of New York
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
For better or for worse, they don’t make ’em like Jimmy anymore.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
By Pooja Bhatia
As New York City gears up for a mayoral election on November 5, is there any question that outgoing mayor, the ultra-Type A, super-manager Michael Bloomberg, is gunning to be the greatest mayor in the city’s history?
He’d have to unseat Fiorello LaGuardia, whom historians seem to agree was the city’s best. After the Depression, the “Little Flower” brought New York back from the brink of economic disaster and created huge public works and infrastructure projects. Bloomberg will also have to contend with more recent mayors like Rudolph Giuliani, and Ed Koch, along with likely next mayor of NYC, Bill de Blasio.
No one puts Jimmy Walker’s 1920s mayoralty on the list of the greatest, but we love him anyway. Especially now that he’s not governing anything. Naughty and natty, Walker was the antithesis of Bloomberg, and the mayor New York City deserved and adored while the Twenties still roared. He dumped his first wife, a one-time vaudeville singer, for a musicomedienne (otherwise known as a showgirl). Known as the Night Mayor, Walker caroused till the wee hours and rarely got to the office until noon — if he made it in at all. (He was more than an hour late for his own swearing in.) The Tammany Hall stalwart wore pinstripes and sometimes spats, his suits always cut close to his lean figure.
Gentleman Jimmy presided over good times in the city, indulging the speakeasies and imbibing inside them.
And he was quick with a quip. Challenged for reelection in 1929, he was called out for raising the Mayor’s salary from $25,000 to $40,000.
“Why that’s cheap,” Walker said. “Think what it would be if I worked full time!”
Gentleman Jimmy presided over good times in the city, indulging the speakeasies and imbibing inside them. At one point toward the end of his tenure, Mayor Walker led a We Want Beer Parade. Legalizing beer would increase the city’s tax base, he said. Of course! One hundred thousand New Yorkers came out.
In retrospect, it’s amazing that he lasted six years, staying in office until 1932: “No man could hold life so carelessly without falling down a manhole before he is done,” a contemporary observed. And so Jimmy fell — but only after the city fell deep into debt. The ensuing investigation by the “goo-goos” (the Good Government guys) revealed that the mayor had accepted a million dollars in bribes. Walker took it in stride — “there are three things a man must do alone,” he said, “be born, die and testify” — but once on the stand, his smooth tongue stammered. He resigned before he could be removed from office by then-governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, and several days later set off for Europe.
Five thousand supporters went to see him off, cheering wildly. New Yorkers loved their Jimmy, perhaps too much.