ONCE UPON A TIME IN NEW YORK: JIMMY WALKER, FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT, AND THE LAST GREAT BATTLE OF THE JAZZ AGE, by Herbert Mitgang, Free Press, 259 pages, $25.00.
PEOPLE who knew Jimmy Walker, the mayor of New York City from 1926 to 1932, invariably used the same words to describe him: “beguiling,” “charming,” “dapper,” “boyish,” and so on. He was also, as veteran reporter and historian Herbert Mitgang reminds us in this book, “the centerpiece of the greatest investigation of municipal corruption in American history.”
Walker was one of the last great exemplars of the spoils system, in which victorious politicians handed out jobs and contracts, often after accepting large sums from those seeking them. Beginning in 1930, Samuel Seabury, a wealthy and ambitious lawyer (and the subject of an earlier volume by Mitgang), was called in to investigate–first the magistrates’ courts, then Manhattan District Attorney Thomas Crain, and finally the entire city government. Eventually, Seabury’s magnifying glass focused on one man–Gotham’s stylish mayor.
Seabury uncovered copious evidence of malfeasance in the Walker administration and handed over his findings in 1932 to New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, who turned out to be, in Mitgang’s eyes, the hero of the tale. Roosevelt was running for the office of U.S. president and took a risk by alienating New York City’s mighty Democratic organization, whose support he needed in the election. Yet he personally conducted the hearings with determination and skill, eventually forcing Walker to resign.
Mitgang’s list of sources (unfortunately, the book has no footnotes) shows how long he has been pursuing New York history and how well-connected he is. Among the people he interviewed are Thomas Dewey, Felix Frankfurter, Robert Moses, Eleanor Roosevelt, and many members of Seabury’s staff. This is history that goes back to the source and does it with style and authority.
JOSEPH GUSTAITIS is a writer specializing in popular history and a frequent contributor to American History.