1932 Fifty Years Ago

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NEW YORK CITY: On September 2 headlines in The New York Times trumpeted the not wholly unexpected climax to a series of giddy events: “Walker resigns, denouncing the governor; says he will run for the mayoralty again, appealing to ‘fair judgement’ of the people.” The governor denounced was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had, three years earlier, authorized an investigation into the corruption of the city government of New York, flourishing in the dark shadows cast by Tammany Hall. Walker called the investigations “un-American” and hinted that his opponents were in league with the “Socialists.”

Walker’s notion of appealing to the “people” seemed to be a good idea. He was an enormously popular man who embodied the qualities many of his contemporaries admired in the Jazz Age. He dressed extravagantly, dined elegantly, went to ball games, and marched in parades. He had a show-biz mistress. He was a wit. He had been a songwriter—“Will you love me in December as you do in May?”—and had received the ultimate accolade from Toots Shor himself: “When you waHced into the room, you brightened up the joint. ”

It is an understatement to remark that while living this golden existence, Walker neglected business. He raised his own salary from twenty-five thousand to forty thousands dollars and took seven vacations (a total of 143 days) during his first two years as mayor. Walker took office in 1926. He shunned the duties he found onerous and left the field open to an army of Tammany spoilsmen who were, after all, his friends and supporters. The extent of corruption was mind-boggling. Relatives, of course, went on city payrolls, businessmen paid tribute for services due them under the law, cops took bribes, beat up prisoners, framed the innocent. Judgeships were bought and sold. Political hacks amassed huge fortunes.

It could not go on forever. The New York Bar asked Governor Roosevelt to look into the matter of the appointment of magistrates, and thus began a series of probes under the general supervision of Samuel Seabury, a righteous man and an anti-Tammany Democrat. These investigations, undeterred by Walker’s mutterings about “Soviet sympathizers,” led inevitably to a hard look at the mayor’s own financial dealings. These, though no criminal act had been proven, were bizarre. There were slush funds (Walker called this money “beneficences” from friends) and letters of credit of dubious provenance. On the witness stand Walker gave a series of evasive answers to Seabury’s questions, and the jig was pretty well up. The mayor turned to Al Smith for advice and got it: “Jim, you’re through. You must resign for the good of the party.” On September 1 Walker sent the city clerk this statement: “I hereby resign as Mayor of the City of New York, the same to take effect immediately.”