A tribute today to one of New York’s most colorful and beloved Mayors, James John “Jimmy” Walker (1881-1946). Almost all New York’s Mayors have been fascinating characters, worth writing about, but Walker’s life overlapped with the show biz world so we’ve wanted to add him here for a while.
Irish-American Walker was a second generation Tammany Hall Democrat. His father, a lumberyard owner, builder and contractor, was a New York State Assemblyman and Superintendent of Buildings in NYC. Jimmy had initially set out to be a Tin Pan Alley songwriter, but finally caved in to his father’s wishes and followed in his footsteps, in rapid order graduating from law school, then serving in the New York State Assembly and Senate, and then finally, as Mayor of New York City from 1926 to 1932.
Walker was closely allied with New York State Governor Al Smith, and they supported many of the same causes. Walker was instrumental in the legalization of professional boxing (the industry continues to honor him for that); he was a prominent “Wet” (i.e., anti-Prohibition); opposed Blue Laws; was for social welfare legislation; and publicly condemned the Ku Klux Klan. Walker was much beloved by the public. He was a diamond stick pin kind of guy, a man about town, whose nickname was “Beau James”. Dressed in flashy, expensive clothes, he was known to be a frequent patron of illegal speakeasies, and was often seen at the theatre. He left his wife for Broadway performer Betty Compton.
A corruption scandal forced Walker from office in 1932, and he went on to serve as director of Majestic Records for the remainder of his life. Walker’s colorful personality was the inspiration for many an entertainment over the years. The title character played by Lee Tracy in the movie The Night Mayor (1932) seems partially based on Walker. The character Frank Morgan plays in the 1933 musical Hallelujah I’m a Bum is quite clearly based on him, as well. Bob Hope starred in his biopic Beau James in 1957. Frank Gorshin played him in the 1969 Broadway musical Jimmy.
To learn more about Jazz Age show business consult No Applause, Just Throw oney: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous