Once upon a Time in New York: Jimmy Walker, Franklin Roosevelt and the Last Great Battle of the Jazz Age


Once Upon a Time in New York is a real-life fable, the story of two towering men in an irrepressible time. It is at once the story of Roosevelt's first great test; the turning point of machine control in New York; and the battle that marked the end of the Jazz Age way of political life. It is an unforgettable portrait of Roosevelt's courage, with a cast of gamblers and gun molls, murderers and mistresses. More outrageous than today's headlines and as lively as the era it describes, Once Upon a Time in New York ...
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Once Upon a Time in New York is a real-life fable, the story of two towering men in an irrepressible time. It is at once the story of Roosevelt's first great test; the turning point of machine control in New York; and the battle that marked the end of the Jazz Age way of political life. It is an unforgettable portrait of Roosevelt's courage, with a cast of gamblers and gun molls, murderers and mistresses. More outrageous than today's headlines and as lively as the era it describes, Once Upon a Time in New York reads like a nonfiction novel.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In what could be considered a follow-up to his 1996 book The Man Who Rode the Tiger: The Life and Times of Judge Samuel Seabury, Mitgang has centered a robust portrait of Prohibition-era New York City on the downfall of the crusading corruption investigator's primary target, Mayor Jimmy Walker. A dandy and former Tin Pan Alley hack, Walker was a Tammany Hall machine politico and a tabloid reporter's dream. More interested in good times than in good government, the Night Mayor of New York always had a witty quip ready and was a frequent beneficiary of journalistic winks and nods. But as the Roaring '20s gave way to the Depression, Walker found himself and the Tammany machine under scrutiny. Mitgang cloaks his research in snappy prose as he follows the headline-making investigation ordered by Governor Franklin Roosevelt, himself a former Tammany man looking to enhance his national image by recasting himself as a "goo-goo" (advocate of good government). Mitgang's lively chronicle of Walker's public demise nevertheless maintains an affectionate tone towards Walker, ex-governor Al Smith, gambling supremo Arnold Rothstein and the many other mischief-making characters who peopled New York in the Jazz Age. "When the Times prints scandalous news," Mitgang quotes New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs, "it's sociology." Mitgang delivers some sharp social insight, but he never forgets that scandal makes good narrative. (Jan.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Veteran journalist Mitgang has written a flavorful account of New York City politics during the 1920s Jazz Age centering around the intersecting careers of the city's popular mayor, Jimmy Walker, and the state's patrician governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Walker, the creature of Tammany Hall, the city's controlling political machine, had captured the affection and support of the voters. Damaging revelations of widespread corruption in the city as shown by the investigations of a special prosecutor, Judge Samuel Seabury, however, darkened Walker's political horizon. A reluctant Governor Roosevelt was forced to show decisiveness by holding hearings to remove Walker from office, even at the risk of antagonizing Tammany Hall at the 1932 Democratic Convention, where Roosevelt hoped to capture the Presidential nomination. As flashy as ever, Walker resolved the problem with a dramatic, abrupt resignation. Recommended for larger public libraries and New York area collections.--Harry Frumerman, formerly with Hunter Coll., New York Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Herbert Mitgang's chronicle of the Seabury investigation is probably the most entertaining book about an independent counsel anyone is likely to write. How Seabury broke open Tammany Hall corruption in the Prohibition-era administration of Mayor Jimmy Walker offers many parallels to more recent special prosecutors. But, as Mitgang's storybook title suggests, ''Once Upon a Time in New York'' is less a story of law and precedence than one of a New York past and passing, in a time when a snappy line and a well-cut sleeve counted for more than who paid the tailor.
The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684855790
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 1/5/2000
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.57 (h) x 1.02 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Cast of Characters James J. Walker
Mayor of the City of New York.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Governor of New York State during Walker hearings, Democratic presidential candidate.

Fiorello "Little Flower" H. La Guardia
Ex-congressman, the New York mayor who defeated Tammany Hall's hacks.

Alfred E. Smith
Ex-governor of New York, defeated presidential candidate, Tammany elder statesman.

Samuel Seabury
Former State Supreme Court judge, chief counsel investigating Mayor Walker and citywide corruption.

Betty "Monk" Compton
Jimmy Walker's mistress, Broadway musical comedy actress.

Hon. Thomas "Tin Box" Farley
Sheriff of New York County, Tammany Hall Sachem.

Hon. James "Jesse James" McQuade
Sheriff of Kings County, Tammany Hall Sachem.

John F. Curry
Former sewer inspector, Chief Sachem of Tammany Hall.

Arnold Rothstein
New York City's gambling czar, murdered.

Joseph F. Crater
State Supreme Court Justice, disappeared, whereabouts unknown.

Miss Polly Adler
New York City's foremost vice "entrepreneuse."

Thomas C. T. Crain
District attorney of New York County, under investigation for incompetence.

Janet Allen "Allie" Walker
Jimmy Walker's loyal wife.

John "Red Mike" Hylan
Ex-mayor, Tammany loyalist, judge of the Children's Court of Queens County.
Paul Block

Wealthy owner of the Brooklyn Standard-Union, source of a secret brokerage account shared with Mayor Walker.

Grover A. Whalen
Official greeter, police commissioner.

Copyright © 2000 by Herbert Mitgang

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Table of Contents

Mr. Mitgang is certainly a most reliable guide, a true Gotham maven. All the colorful Jazz Age characters you would hope to see make their appearance: the gambler Arnold Rothstein and the madam Polly Adler, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack Dempsey, Walter Winchell and the saloonkeeper Texas Guinan...What makes it worthwhile are Mr. Mitgang's shrewd insights into local politics -- the implications of each player's chess move for future elections -- and the deft way he sets up the protagonists of his story and orchestrates them cunningly for the final showdown.
The New York Times
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Prologue: That Was a Time.... After a late dinner in their Manhattan hideaway on a star-kissed night in the autumn of 1928, Mayor James J. Walker and his showgirl mistress, Betty Compton, motored to Westchester in his chauffeured, silver-trimmed Duesenberg to hear Vincent Lopez's orchestra play dance tunes at Joe Pani's Woodmansten Inn. The nightclub was a favorite hangout for respectable suburbanites, revelers from New York City carrying their own silver flasks of Prohibition whisky, and members of the underworld and their women, some of whom were rumored to be their wives.

That evening Betty was in high spirits. She turned to Lopez and said, "I feel like Cinderella." Betty insisted on dancing and coaxed Walker out on the floor. He reluctantly agreed to take a few turns before going back to their table. She kicked off her satin slippers and asked Lopez to autograph them as a souvenir. The bandleader borrowed a fountain pen and did so to please Betty and his pal Jimmy, who asked her to restrain herself. He had only been drinking ginger ale at the club.

Suddenly, there was a stirring at one of the important tables nearby. A well-dressed man who seemed to know the mayor strolled over and whispered something in his ear.

Walker looked startled. He and Betty quickly rose from their ringside table and hurried to the cloakroom. Lopez left the bandstand and followed them as the mayor's car pulled up to the entrance. It was a little past midnight. Walker apologized for having to leave so early; after all, he was not called the Night Mayor of New York for nothing. He told the bandleader that they had to return to Manhattan immediately.

"Arnold Rothstein has just been shot, Vincent," the mayor said. "That means trouble from here on."

His instinct was on target; there would be even more trouble than he could possibly have imagined. Jimmy Walker's own conduct in and out of office was about to become the centerpiece of the greatest investigation of municipal corruption in American history.

All across the United States, journalists and other wiseacres would soon have a field day with the popular mayor's personal problems and public trials. Not since the notorious Tweed Ring was exposed in the nineteenth century would New Yorkers become so aroused and, strangely, amused. The indignant "Goo-Goos" -- the Good Government advocates -- smelled blood in the corridors of City Hall. Even so, it was hard to be considered an idealist at a time when idealism in government seemed old-fashioned. If you were an outspoken reformer in the freebooting 1920s, you were just not with it. A benevolent form of blinkered corruption bestrode the city.

Ben Hecht, the Chicago reporter who become a playwright (The Front Page) and screenwriter, observed: "Walker is a troubadour headed for Wagnerian dramas. No man could hold life so carelessly without falling down a manhole before he is done."

Before mounting the witness stand, Walker cheerfully said: "There are three things a man must do alone. Be born, die, and testify." Sharply dressed for his show-and-tell trial, wearing a blue double-breasted suit with a matching blue shirt, blue tie, and blue handkerchief, the mayor commented: "Little Boy Blue is about to blow his horn -- or his top."

While being cross-examined in the county courthouse in Manhattan by the intrepid Samuel Seabury, the anti-Tammany patrician who was the proud namesake of the first Episcopal bishop in the United States, Walker told reporters: "This fellow Seabury would convict the Twelve Apostles if he could." The mayor kept his cool -- and gained the applause of his cheering admirers with a wisecrack: "Life is just a bowl of Seaburys."

But the mayor's nightclubbing lifestyle was overshadowed as other major personalities were coming forward on the American political stage. In 1928 Al Smith was running for president and Franklin Roosevelt for governor; the following year, Mayor Jimmy Walker would run for reelection against Congressman Fiorello La Guardia. In these contests, the murder of politically connected Arnold Rothstein affected the power of Tammany Hall's Sachems, whose tentacles reached into every corner of the city -- and into every voting booth.

In the balance stood the man Roosevelt called the Happy Warrior -- Alfred E. Smith, the first Catholic to be nominated for president. Would a regionally divided nation be ready to put aside its religious and racial differences and vote for him? Would Al Smith be able to distance himself from his image as a social reformer who grew up on the rough-and-tumble sidewalks of New York and be accepted as a leader of national stature? He had called for repeal of Prohibition, a central issue around the country. But as H. L. Mencken astutely wrote: "Those who fear the Pope outnumber those who are tired of the Anti-Saloon League."

In the wings hovered one of the boldest personalities in the electoral history of the Empire City -- Fiorello La Guardia, a Republican Congressman in a Democratic town. He was of half-Italian, half-Jewish origin, a street fighter who reflected the hopes of the ethnic neighborhoods more than any other politician. The Little Flower, a former president of the city's Board of Aldermen, aspired to be the next mayor of New York -- if Jimmy Walker and the Tammany operatives stumbled.

Franklin D. Roosevelt observed the repercussions of the Rothstein assassination and the burgeoning investigations in New York City with the greatest personal interest. If the Tammany leaders did not erect any last-minute roadblocks, his dream of being nominated and elected as the thirty-second president of the United States when his turn came might become a reality.

Roosevelt was known for his eloquence, good looks, and recognizable name. No one who knew him could deny his personal bravery in making a comeback after polio had destroyed his ability to walk alone; in four determined years he had graduated from crutches to canes on Democratic political platforms. "If he burned down the Capitol," said the humorist Will Rogers, "we would cheer and say, 'Well, we at least got a fire started anyhow.'"

But some political analysts considered him a lightweight. In words that he would later have to swallow, Walter Lippmann, the influential columnist, declared: "Franklin D. Roosevelt is no crusader. He is no tribune of the people. He is no enemy of entrenched privilege. He is a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President."

In a bizarre way, the notorious gangland murder of Rothstein called attention to the weakness of the district attorney and the police department and touched off the trials of Jimmy Walker and Tammany Hall. Suddenly, Governor Roosevelt found himself facing down the kingmakers and corrupters within his own party in the City of New York. Would Roosevelt show that he was capable of independent behavior -- or would he cave in for political expediency? As a presidential contender, Roosevelt was about to have his mettle tested.

Copyright © 2000 by Herbert Mitgang

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