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A flavorful account of New York City politics during the 1920s Jazz Age centering on the intersecting careers of the city's popular "Night Mayor," Jimmy Walker, and the state's patrician governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Mitgang's extensive use of newspaper quotes and legal transcripts helps paint vivid portraits of Walker, Roosevelt and the large cast of characters who played a part in Walker's fall from grace and Roosevelt's meteoric rise to four-term president.
Jimmy Walker, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Last Great Battle of the Jazz Age
Copyright © 2003 Herbert Mitgang
All right reserved.
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 somethingin 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.
Excerpted from Once Upon a Time in New York by Herbert Mitgang Copyright © 2003 by Herbert Mitgang. Excerpted by permission.
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