“This is a city of nightlife,” the mayor-elect recently told Stephen Colbert. “I must test the product. I have to be out.”
If you happened to be in Section 41 of Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Hawthorne, N.Y., on the night Adams spoke with Colbert — well, first of all, you have some explaining to do. Secondly, you may have heard the ground rumble underneath somebody’s headstone. That somebody, or former somebody, 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 affection as the “night mayor of New York,” a well-earned nickname. During his nearly seven years as the city’s chief magistrate, he kept hours that would have shamed Dracula, never mind their shared taste for Bloody Marys.
Adams is still more than a month removed from his inauguration, but his nightly escapades, like Walker’s, already have provided news outlets with colorful copy. The New York Post recently reported on a three-hour dinner the famously vegan mayor-elect 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 various boldface names into the wee hours. “When you’re out at night, it helps decrease crime,” Adams told New York 1. “It attracts tourists to the city.”
Walker, a Tammany Hall Democrat who led the city from 1926 to 1932, surely would admire Adams’ after-hours ambitions. Handsome and impossibly slim (Al Smith, who shared a room with the future mayor in Albany when they were state legislators, said the sight of Walker in his striped pajamas reminded him of a candy cane), Walker saw no reason to apologize for his preference for speakeasies, Prohibition-era booze and illicit relationships over the prosaic business of running the city. When he was criticized for accepting a $15,000 pay raise — to $40,000 — he replied: “That’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 actor who performed with the Ziegfeld Follies. His favorite watering hole was a joint called the Central Park Casino, which wasn’t 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 he spent at least three nights a week there and conducted city business from an office within the premises. In a remarkable coincidence, a friend of the mayor, Sidney Solomon, was awarded a well-below-market-rate lease to the casino 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 just plain silliness, and nobody personified the spirit of the moment better than Jimmy Walker. It was also, of course, the era of Prohibition, and Walker was a perfect symbol of New Yorkers’ contempt for the parochial hayseeds, religious zealots and humorless reformers whom they blamed for the catastrophic mistake known as the 18th Amendment.
With every bottle of champagne the night mayor ordered, New York — a city of immigrants who saw Prohibition as native-born America’s judgment on their culture and values — raised a collective middle finger at people west of the Hudson and north of the Bronx.
Walker was equally disdainful of elite progressive reformers who tended to look down their noses at Tammany pols, even those like Walker who supported lunch-bucket issues like workers’ compensation, public housing and municipal hospitals. His voters loved it when he deployed his considerable wit against some starched collar reformer. During an interminable public meeting over which Walker was presiding, a representative of the good government group Citizens Union rose to deliver an unctuous homily about some reform promising political paradise on earth. Walker stopped him and asked him to repeat his affiliation.
“Citizens Union,” the speaker said.
“Citizen Union?” Walker asked, though he surely knew the group’s proper name.
“The Citizens Union,” the speaker replied, not hiding his exasperation.
“Aha,” Walker said. “Then there are two of you.”
As long as times were good, there was little reformers could do to shake New York’s love affair with the charming bon vivant in City Hall. Fiorello LaGuardia, a Republican who jumped on an electoral hand grenade in 1929 when Walker sought a second term, tried to tsk-tsk his way to victory, promising to be “a fulltime mayor who will sleep at night and work in the daytime.” He won 25 percent of the vote. Disconsolate, LaGuardia said he was through with politics and would retreat 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 — subsidized by the off-the-books generosity of his admirers — and the rot that he allowed to fester in the Police Department and other agencies suddenly seemed out of touch and indefensible. A succession of scandals led then-Gov. Franklin Roosevelt to summon Walker to a public inquiry in the state Capitol’s Red Room, more recently the site of most of Andrew Cuomo’s nationally televised Covid-19 briefings. It soon became clear that the glib mayor had no answers for FDR’s questions about the corruption that had overtaken his administration.
Facing removal from office, Walker quit as mayor on Sept. 1, 1932 and soon sailed for Europe.
But he couldn’t stay away from New York, never mind his disgrace. 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 tormentor, LaGuardia, who did not, in fact, retire to raise chickens but instead won the mayoralty 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 he decided to pursue politics for a living, young Jimmy Walker fancied himself 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 tarnish, and perhaps despite themselves, New Yorkers did indeed love Jimmy Walker in the December of his years. Still, his embrace of the good life lost much of its charm when New Yorkers were forced to wait in line for bread rather than for bathtub gin and a Charleston.
Eric Adams is delighting New Yorkers with his unabashed talk of returning glamour and excitement to New York’s nightlife. He may do well, however, to check the unemployment rate every few weeks before heading out for a post-midnight jaunt.
Terry Golway is a senior editor at POLITICO responsible for New York state political coverage out of Albany. He is a historian of New York, with a Ph.D. in U.S. history, and the author of more than a dozen books, most recently “Frank and Al: FDR, Al Smith, and the Unlikely Alliance That Created the Modern Democratic Party.”