Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 886

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 886


This is the grave of Jimmy Walker.

Born in 1881 in New York, James John Walker came out of the Irish politics of the turn-of-the-century. His father was a working class guy, a carpenter who eventually bought a lumberyard and then went into politics himself, serving time both as an alderman and assemblyman from his home district in Greenwich Village. Walker later said he was a bootstrap guy, but this really wasn’t true. His father might well have been, but the family was upwardly mobile. His father wanted to send him to Saint Francis Xavier College, but he was a highly mediocre student, more interested in writing songs for Tin Pan Alley than studying. He dropped out at one point, but eventually went back and then went on to NYU Law, where he finished in 1904. He still tried the songwriting business, but gave up in 1909, when he ran for the state assembly, wining in 1910. He also finally passed the bar in 1912.

Like his father, Walker proved to be an adept politician. He was in the Assembly through 1914, when he was elected to the state Senate, staying there until 1925. In that last year, he was Minority Leader of the Democrats. In 1925, Walker decided to run for mayor of New York. John Francis Hylan was the incumbent, a larger-than-life figure initially supported by Tammany Hall, but who went too reformist for the machine. Walker was their choice to take him out after eight years in office. Hylan was himself somewhat of a fraud, a man fully supported by William Randolph Hearst’s alternative machine. In any case, Walker was not going to buck Tammany. Luckily, Hylan had developed a ridiculous clothing budget and an openness to tolerate corruption, which were also Walker’s personal vices, but hey, that was less known at the time by the general public. It’s not as if Tammany had any problem with any of it, but it opened the door for voters who might not want to vote Tammany but did not want to vote for the openly corrupt either. Walker defeated Hylan in the primary and became mayor.

Walker served 6 1/2 years as mayor, taking over at the beginning of 1926 and leaving office in the fall of 1932. He was a big infrastructure guy and being very close to Al Smith, had good relations with Albany. He was opposed to the kind of moralistic politics that dominated the Progressive operations. That first and foremost included prohibition, which Smith had no interest in helping enforce. It also included the legalization of boxing and the overturning of blue laws that banned baseball on Sunday. He worked to bring state money into the city and he supported social welfare legislation in Albany, where it could pass, and in Washington, where it could not with Coolidge and then Hoover as president. He created the Department of Sanitation, expanded the subway system, built a new dock for larger ships, improved the city hospitals, built modern roads for cars, and reconstructed many parks. Overall, a pretty good record.

But let’s be clear, Walker was no clean operator. He loved the ladies and he would take a bribe. The Cardinal of New York eventually denounced him from the pulpit after word that he allowed both illegal casinos and strip clubs came to light. Walker also took huge bribes from contractors. And knowing that Walker was not going to give up his womanizing, Tammany Hall paid for a special suite where the mayor could have sex with the chorus girls he picked up with discretion. And while I would not find this particularly bad, many did not like that Walker replaced the police commissioner with a handpicked incompetent so that Prohibition would not be enforced. Walker was popular, defeating the socialist Norman Thomas in 1929 for a second term (Republicans were so discredited here that they were nowhere to be found), but many of his opponents found Walker’s corruption distasteful to say the least.

In fact, Walker was so corrupt that FDR felt he and the reputation of New York City threatened his 1932 presidential campaign. FDR did not want to anger Tammany, but he also had to win the election. There was some kind of provision in the state constitution to remove a corrupt mayor and Roosevelt considered using it. Walker really didn’t have a leg to stand on, as he sorta kinda couldn’t explain the large deposits into his bank account. Moreover, in 1931, a prostitute runner and gangster-ally named Vivian Gordon was murdered. She was drunk at the time, but was also beaten and strangled, so it was no fall. This became a big story in the papers. It turned out that she was threatening to expose all the city corruption she knew about. Soon, attention focused on corruption within Walker’s office. There’s no reason to believe he had anything to do with the murder. But there’s every reason to believe that his tolerance of massive corruption created the conditions where someone could be murdered like this and get away with it.

In any case, Roosevelt and Tammany and Walker worked it all out where Walker would resign after FDR won the Democratic nomination. He held up his end of the bargain and soon left New York for a long European tour. He had already left his wife for a Ziegfeld Follies girl named Betty Compton and she went with him, not exactly erasing the appearance of scandal here. Basically he left Europe to be sure he wouldn’t be prosecuted.

By the time Walker came back to the U.S., the world was different and his political career was finished, though no one really cared about prosecuting him anymore either. So he went into that other field dominated by sleazy people–he became a record executive. He headed Majestic Records, which signed crooners such as Louis Prima, as well as Jimmie Lunceford, Bud Freedman, Slim Bryant, Eddie Howard, Mildred Bailey, and other mid-twentieth century acts. Walker wasn’t the guy in charge of signing these people. I think he fully admitted to not being a talent scout. But it was his company. He had some other roles too. Fiorello LaGuardia named Walker as a garment industry labor arbitrator, for instance. But he was much more known at this time in his life as a guy you could pay to give a good speech at your party than a serious political figure.

Walker died in 1946 of a brain hemorrhage. He was 65 years old.

In 1992, Walker was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame for his work in legalizing the sport in New York and his longtime support of it.

Jimmy Walker is buried in Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Hawthorne, New York.

If you would like this series to visit others in the “Non-participant” category of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Ray Arcel, who was trainer of Larry Holmes among many others, is in Frenchtown, Pennsylvania and Tex Ricker, who was a big-time boxing promoter perhaps most known today for being the founder of the New York Rangers of NHL, is in The Bronx. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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