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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: ‘Beau James’ – the ‘Gentleman’ Mayor of NYC

By Tom Morrow

James John Walker, born June 19, 1881, was known colloquially as “Beau James,” was mayor of New York City from 1926 to 1932. A flamboyant politician, he was a liberal Democrat and part of the powerful Tammany Hall machine.

Walker at first decided that he would rather write songs and be involved in the music industry but he eventually entered politics in 1909 and subsequently passed the bar exam in 1912. He wrote the popular song, “Will You Love Me in December.”

Walker’s reputation as a flamboyant man-about-town made him a hero to many working-class voters; he was often seen at legitimate theaters and illegitimate speakeasies. His reputation for tolerating corruption made him suspect to middle-class and moralistic voters.

Gov. Al Smith was a staunch supporter since Walker backed many social and cultural issues that were considered politically important. Issues such as social welfare, legalization of boxing, repeal of blue laws against Sunday baseball games, condemning the Ku Klux Klan, and especially their mutual opposition to Prohibition.

Walker had to be willing to change some of his more unscrupulous ways or at least provide a cover for his indiscretions. Instead of ending his visits to the speakeasies and his friendships with chorus girls, he took those activities behind the closed doors of a penthouse funded by Tammany Hall.

In his initial years as mayor, Walker saw the city prosper and many public works projects gain traction. In his first year, Walker created the Department of Sanitation, unified New York’s public hospitals, improved many parks and playgrounds, and guided the Board of Transportation to enter into contract for the construction of an expanded subway system (the Independent Subway System or IND). He even managed to maintain the five-cent subway fare despite a threatened strike by the workers.

As mayor, Walker led his administration in challenging Prohibition by replacing the police commissioner with an inexperienced former state banking commissioner. The new police commissioner immediately dissolved the Special Service Squad. Since Walker did not feel drinking was a crime, he discouraged the police from enforcing Prohibition law or taking an active role unless it was to curb excessive violations or would prove to be newsworthy. His affairs with “chorus girls” were widely known, and he left his wife, Janet, for showgirl Betty Compton.

Increasing social unrest led to investigations into corruption within his administration, and he was eventually forced to testify before the investigative committee of Judge Samuel Seabury, the Seabury Commission. Walker caused his own downfall by accepting large sums of money from businessmen looking for municipal contracts.

With New York City appearing as a symbol of corruption under Mayor Walker, Then-Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt knew he had to do something about Walker and his administration. Knowing the State constitution could allow an elected mayor to be removed from office, Roosevelt felt compelled to do so but risked losing Tammany Hall’s support for the Democratic nomination. On the other hand, if Roosevelt did nothing or let Walker off, the national newspapers would consider him weak.

Facing pressure from Roosevelt, Walker eluded questions about his personal bank accounts, stating instead the amounts he received were “beneficences” and not bribes. He delayed any personal appearances until after Roosevelt’s nomination was secured. It was then that the embattled mayor could fight no longer. Months from his national election, Roosevelt decided that he must remove Walker from office. Walker agreed and resigned on Sept. 1, 1932.

He went on a grand tour of Europe with Compton, his Ziegfeld girl. He announced on Nov. 12, 1932, while aboard the SS Conte Grande, that had “no desire or intention of ever holding public office again.” Walker stayed in Europe until the danger of criminal prosecution appeared remote. There, he married Compton.

After his return to the United States, Walker acted as head of Majestic Records, which included such popular performing artists as Louis Prima and Bud Freeman. He died at the age of 65 of a brain hemorrhage on Nov. 18, 1946.

A romanticized version of Walker’s tenure as mayor was presented in the 1957 film “Beau James,” starring Bob Hope. This was a somewhat accurate depiction of Walker, who during his time as mayor had become a symbol of the jazz age romanticism The film was based on a biography of Walker, also titled “Beau James,” written by Gene Fowler.

A book also was the basis of “Jimmy,” a stage musical about Walker that had a brief Broadway run from October 1969 to January 1970. The show starred Frank Gorshin as Walker and Anita Gillette as Betty Compton. There also is a song about Walker in the stage musical “Fiorello!,” titled “Gentleman Jimmy Walker.”

Anyway you look at him, Gentleman Jim was one of New York City’s most colorful characters.

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