Mayor Eric Adams’s very stylish — and very corrupt — predecessor

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How does Eric Adams, mayor of New York City, pay for his expensive clothes? The New York Times obliquely raised this question earlier this month in a report on Adams’s wardrobe.

The article generated controversy. Some criticized the Times for conducting a frivolous “audit” of the mayor’s closet. Others charged racism. “This nonsense about who pays for his suits and what kind of suits he wears … that’s the same game y’all played with Dinkins,” declared the Rev. Al Sharpton, referring to New York’s only previous Black mayor, David Dinkins — a criticism the Times story itself mentions.

In response, a Times spokesperson noted that the paper “has a long history of covering the fashion and style choices of the city’s elected officials.”

As the author of a forthcoming book about Jimmy Walker, the debonair mayor of New York City from 1926 to 1932, I can confirm the accuracy of this statement. In the late 1920s, every paper in the city reported on Mayor Walker’s sartorial splendor. For example, when he left town for a tour of the South, the Times reported that he packed “two dress suits and dinner coats, half a dozen business suits and morning coats, twenty-one shirts, half a dozen pairs of shoes, fifty handkerchiefs, seven hats, including three derbies; half a dozen pairs of pajamas, a dozen pairs of socks, about 100 neckties of hues to harmonize with handkerchiefs and socks, and two dozen pairs of spats.”

Mayor Jimmy Walker was much like Eric Adams, a charming, hard-partying everyman who preferred speeches and spectacles to the dull business of governing. Nicknamed the “Night Mayor” because of his fondness for theater and nightclubs, he changed clothes three times a day and openly caroused with his mistress, a Broadway star half his age. A gifted public speaker with an irreverent sense of humor, Walker peppered his speeches with one-liners and skewered his critics with wisecracks. In response to criticism of his wardrobe, he quipped, “I have searched the Constitution, all the statutes of the State and all the ordinances of the city and cannot find a word that describes the way the Mayor shall dress.”

Some opponents raised more serious allegations. Fiorello La Guardia, then in Congress representing a Lower East Side district, accused Walker of corruption and alleged that his administration had ties to the notorious gangster Arnold Rothstein. Again, Walker ridiculed the attacks. “Times have been altogether too good and opportunities too great during the last four years for the officials of this city to be annoyed with any petty graft,” he scoffed.

During the Roaring Twenties, most New Yorkers winked at Walker’s excesses. His flashy wardrobe and evening revelries befitted the booming stock market and glitzy nightclubs of the era. When La Guardia ran for mayor in 1929, Walker soundly defeated him.

But the public mood soured after the Depression set in. In 1930, New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt launched an investigation that exposed pervasive graft and mob connections in city government. As investigators pursued their inquiries through the ranks of the Democratic political machine, they discovered that the mayor had a secret million-dollar slush fund, established by corporations seeking favors from City Hall.

At last, outraged New Yorkers understood how the mayor paid for his extravagant lifestyle. After an interrogation by Roosevelt in Albany, Walker resigned in disgrace. The following year, New Yorkers elected La Guardia for mayor with a mandate to clean up corruption.

Sarah Maslin Nir, author of the New York Times piece on Eric Adams’s wardrobe, has read my book about Mayor Walker, so she’s well-aware of the history. She has also previously reported on Adams’s nightlife. In 2022, she revealed that he often dines at an expensive Italian restaurant, owned by friends who happen to be convicted felons, before heading to an exclusive club in NoHo. A spokesperson insisted that he personally paid his bills, but declined to provide receipts.

Adams later complained, “Dinkins and I are the only two mayors that people talk about how we went out at night.” Yet he unintentionally invoked Jimmy Walker’s nickname while defending himself. “I’m the nightlife mayor,” he boasted. “This is a 24/7 city. I’m obligated to go patronize my restaurants, patronize my theater.”

If the evidence against the mayor were limited to expensive meals and fancy clothes, one could be forgiven for taking umbrage at the Times’’s insinuations. But Adams has provided more cause for suspicion. The ex-con restauranteurs aren’t the only friends of his who have been indicted or convicted of felonies. Philip Banks III, the deputy mayor for public safety, resigned from the New York Police Department in 2014 after being named an unindicted co-conspirator in a bribery case.

When the Times reported on Adams’s suspicious campaign finances in 2021, he also blamed racism. “Black candidates for office are often held to a higher, unfair standard,” he complained, “especially those from lower-income backgrounds such as myself.” Since then, six Adams allies have been charged for funneling illegal donations to his campaign, and his former buildings commissioner has been indicted for taking bribes.

Finally, in November, an F.B.I. investigation into illegal campaign donations by the Turkish government implicated Adams himself. When he went to D.C. to discuss the migrant crisis with President Biden and congressional leaders, agents raided the home of his chief fundraiser. Informed of the search, Adams abruptly canceled his meetings and returned to New York. A spokesperson explained that he left “to deal with a matter.” The next day, F.B.I. agents confronted Adams and seized his cellphones and iPad.

The investigation is ongoing, and Adams hasn’t been convicted or even indicted, so we shouldn’t rush to judgment. But we should be suspicious. In light of the investigation and Adams’s unsavory personal connections, recalling New York City’s history and the last mayor who obviously lived beyond his means, it is perfectly fair, indeed it’s essential, to ask how Mayor Eric Adams pays for his lifestyle.

Michael Wolraich is the author of “The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age,” which will be published February 6, 2024.

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