Once Upon a Time in New York: Jimmy Walker, Franklin Roosevelt and the Last Great Battle of the Jazz Age , by Herbert Mitgang. The Free Press, 259 pages, $25.
It seems hard to believe: Once upon a time in New York, there was a man who burned with ambition but who seemed a little too light, a little too pleasant, ever to amount to anything. And then that man, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, found himself presiding over the political fate of a fun-loving, nightclub-hopping, charismatic Mayor of New York named James J. Walker.
The year was 1932. Like 1945, it has a false air of historical inevitability about it: Peering back at the now-expired 20th century, we assume that the Allied victory in World War II was inevitable; similarly, we assume that destiny was on Roosevelt’s side in 1932. But historians like the extraordinary Herbert Mitgang are here to show us that few things in the past should be dismissed as inevitable. Take, for example, Roosevelt’s all-but-forgotten dilemma as he prepared to campaign for the Presidency in mid-Depression America. He was a one-term governor who had yet to escape the shadow of his illustrious predecessor, Alfred E. Smith. Compared with Smith’s gritty, streets-of-New York persona, Squire Franklin Roosevelt of the Hyde Park Roosevelts seemed like a Hudson Valley dilettante who was simply building on Smith’s extraordinary record. Will Rogers summed up the chattering classes’ expectations when he said of Roosevelt: “If he burned down the Capitol, we would cheer and say, ‘Well, we at least got a fire started anyhow.’” And the great sage of the age, Walter Lippmann, reflected conventional wisdom when he famously described Roosevelt as “a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President.”
So he did. But Jimmy Walker posed a problem. And in this, Mr. Mitgang’s 19th book, Roosevelt’s dilemma is brought to life with vivid storytelling, terrific interviews and a great sense of a vanished New York. As Roosevelt prepared his Presidential campaign in early 1932, Walker, a fellow Democrat and a onetime colleague of Roosevelt’s in the State Senate, found himself answering questions about his personal finances and about the arrangements his cronies had made at the height of Jazz Age New York-an era the Mayor, with his hundreds of suits, taste for illegal booze and love of nightlife, personified. An independent investigator with presidential ambitions of his own, Judge Samuel Seabury, concluded that the Walker administration was rife with corruption.
And so, as New York City became a national symbol of municipal corruption and Roaring Twenties excess, Gov. Franklin Roosevelt found himself compelled to do something about Jimmy Walker … but what? Under New York’s state constitution, the Governor can remove a duly elected mayor. And yet if he dismissed Walker, Roosevelt risked losing Tammany Hall’s support for the Democratic nomination-at a time when his main challenger was none other than Al Smith, a child of Tammany who represented the machine’s forgotten commitment to social welfare. If Roosevelt did nothing about Walker, or let the increasingly tainted mayor off with a wrist slap, the national press would likely dismiss the Governor as the lightweight he seemed to be.
“Suddenly,” Mr. Mitgang writes, “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?”
Incredibly, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, Roosevelt found himself convening an informal trial of the Mayor of New York, with Walker as the star witness. Half of Mr. Mitgang’s wonderful, rollicking book leads to the following scene, a description of the first day of Walker’s trial: “The packed Executive Chamber in the Hall of Governors in Albany … suddenly fell silent.… A hush fell over the chamber as the tall erect figure of Governor Roosevelt appeared, framed in the doorway… As he moved through the dead silence, the creak of his leg braces could be distinctly heard.… When he finally reached the desk, his powerful hands gripped the arms of the high-backed leather chair. He tried to lower himself quietly, but his frail limbs, encased in the braces that were concealed beneath his trousers, demanded a long moment’s adjustment so he could unsnap the knee locks and get into a seated position.” Watching this drama unfold was the spats-wearing dandy, Jimmy Walker, who had once dismissed Fiorello La Guardia’s criticism of a mayoral pay raise from $25,000 to $40,000 per year by saying: “Why, that’s cheap! Think what it would cost if I worked full time!”
In an instant, as he snapped his knee braces into place and ordered the proceedings to begin, Franklin Roosevelt became a political heavyweight, a man of personal and political substance confronting a man who just as suddenly seemed silly and frivolous, a living, breathing human hangover from the nonsensical party of the 1920′s.
Herbert Mitgang, whose legendary career at The New York Times spanned 45 years, has given us a wonderful bit of popular history about a time, and a battle, that we only dimly recall, if we recall it at all. And yet, what characters filled this little drama! Not just Roosevelt and Walker, but Smith, La Guardia, Samuel Seabury, crusading journalist Lincoln Steffens and the gangster Arnold Rothstein (the man who fixed the 1919 World Series, and the model for Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby ). We also meet an obscure woman named Vivian Gordon.
Mrs. Gordon was an important witness in the Seabury investigation: She told investigators that police officers regularly arrested women for prostitution on false or trumped-up charges as a means of increasing their take-home pay. Then she was found strangled to death in Van Cortlandt Park. When her 16-year-old daughter heard the news, she committed suicide. Mr. Mitgang makes an important point in introducing us to Mrs. Gordon: Her terrible fate demonstrated to New Yorkers that political corruption has a human face, and can take a very human toll. It is easy to laugh about some of the outrages Mr. Mitgang describes-the $8,500-a-year sheriff who, in trying to explain how he came to accumulate nearly a half-million dollars, testified to the magical powers of a tin box he kept in a safe. And revisionists like myself point out that Tammany Hall’s operatives achieved great social good during the corrupt 1920′s. But then we run up against Mrs. Gordon and her 16-year-old daughter, their lives cut short because corrupt officials were afraid of the law’s avenging angels. Mr. Mitgang writes: “The fact that the murder had been committed in a neighborhood park, the reformers said, was a horrifying example of the cavalier attitude of criminals toward the Walker administration’s law-enforcement machinery.”
Mr. Mitgang actually begins this tale of political combat with another murder, that of Arnold Rothstein “on a star-kissed night in the autumn of 1928.” And here, Mr. Mitgang shows not only his knack for anecdote, but his talent for sweeping narrative. At first glance, Rothstein’s murder would seem to have little to do with the duel between Roosevelt and Walker. But Mr. Mitgang aims to re-create the New York that Walker symbolized-a “boozy era” that “succeeded in turning ordinary citizens into lawbreakers,” which led to a general corrosion of civic life. Rothstein, the all-powerful gangster, was as much a part of Jimmy Walker’s New York as the new Yankee Stadium, Lindy’s and Broadway. His murder, in the dying months of the Jazz Age, marked the beginning of Walker’s end.
Mr. Mitgang’s slender volume reminds us of how compelling well-written history can be. I would take issue with a few small points: He could have made a clearer distinction between Tammany boss Charles Francis Murphy, the man who threw the machine behind Al Smith’s social welfare program, and his crooked predecessors like Richard Croker. And I think he could have dwelled a bit longer on the political machine’s complexity: Yes, it produced thieves and scoundrels, but, as Mr. Mitgang notes, Franklin Roosevelt certainly appreciated the progressive, inclusive views of such machine-style pols as James Farley (for whom the General Post Office on Eighth Avenue is named) and Edward Flynn, the boss of the Bronx.
But those are minor quibbles. Mr. Mitgang has produced a popular history that reads like a thriller-and yet is bolstered by the scholarship and authority of a veteran journalist and historian.