Tag Archives: Boardwalk Empire

Historyville

I always have a good time when I do book events in Jersey City, or Hudson County in general, because as far as I can tell, EVERYBODY in Hudson County is some kind of historian. Everyone has a story related to Frank Hague or John Kenny and is happy to share it.

While I was at the Hudson County History Fair a short while ago, a couple of people came up to my table to chat about the relative merits of Hague versus Enoch “Nucky” Johnson. Naturally the talk turned to the HBO show Boardwalk Empire and the question, since answered, of whether the heavily fictionalized boss of the show would survive.  (The real life Nucky, of course, did a few years in the federal pen and then lived a quiet life as a political eminence gris until well into the Sixties.) Inevitably, the talk turned to That Episode.

Hudson County people know what I’m talking about. The episode shows Hague, in real life a moralist who never smoked or drank, puffing a cigar and knocking back a tumbler of whiskey while ogling a naked showgirl playing a ukelele. 

“My mother,” the guy said, “never gets up for anything anymore. When she saw that scene, she got up from her chair and demanded we call the show’s producers. ‘That’s not Frank!’ she yelled.”

No, it wasn’t. It’s astonishing to me that a show based on such a fascinating period of U.S. history could have turned out to be so tedious. But that was the problem: instead of going with the interesting facts, the show’s producers went in for tired Hollywood notions about gangsters. They even skipped the gangster convention of 1929, which Nucky hosted! How did the producers rationalize that decision?

Considering how he spent decades living like a pasha before the feds caught up with him, then served only about four years in the pen, I’d say Nucky got off pretty lucky. In his last years, however, Nucky Johnson was a diminished figure of some pathos. He was a kind of Dorian Gray, staying hale and hearty while his city decayed around him. The extent of the decay was revealed to the entire nation during the Democratic National Convention of 1964, when the delegates found hulking resorts full of tiny rooms and dodgy plumbing, devoid of air conditioning during a sweltering summer. Looking on from the background was grey-haired Nucky Johnson, who aside from building the Convention Center (admittedly a major improvement) had done nothing during the fat years to build institutions that could have helped the city survive the changes everyone saw coming. In the end, the boardwalk peacock looked rather more like Count Dracula.

Personally, I would have found that a far more interesting conclusion than just another stretch of bang-bang, but nobody asked me. I know Boardwalk Empire has its fans, but for me, there were lots of little sleeps before the fictional Nucky went on to the big one.

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Lunchtime with Nucky Johnson

For the past year I’ve been all over the place talking up my book American Dictators: Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine, but I’ve never done a book talk anywhere near Nucky’s old power base, Atlantic City. I’ve been to Jersey City and Hudson County many times to talk about Frank Hague, but up to now Atlantic County and Atlantic City — nada, Nucky or no Nucky

I’ll remedy that Friday, Nov. 14, when I set up shop on Atlantic Avenue at 12:30 p.m. to give the lunchtime crowd a taste of old Atlantic City and the colorful career of Nucky Johnson, the city’s best-known political boss. It’ll be in the NJ350 Pop-up Store that will appear at 1125 Atlantic Avenue, a short walk from the Boardwalk.

There will be a good-sized stack of American Dictators for sale, and I’ll be hawking some of my other titles as well. Prominent among them will be my new title, Let the Devil Speak: Articles, Essays, and Incitements. History and a visit to the Jersey shore all at once. How can you resist?  

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The Birthday State

So today marks the 350th anniversary of the signing of the land grant that awarded John Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret the lands between the Delaware and Hudson rivers. The property transferred via this very lucrative real estate deal was named after Carteret’s ancestral home, the Isle of Jersey. In other words, it’s New Jersey’s 350th birthday.

I wouldn’t want to be accused of crass commercialism or anything like that — heavens no! — but I can’t think of a better way to mark this by occasion than by buying a book or two that’s related to New Jersey history. Do I have any suggestions, you want to know? Funny you should ask! I can think of at least two, right off the bat!

First there’s American Dictators, my dual biography of the notorious political bosses Frank Hague (ruler of Hudson County for three decades and a national player with enough clout to intimidate presidents) and Enoch “Nucky” Johnson (who controlled all graft and bootlegging in Atlantic City during its heyday in the Roaring Twenties). Nucky, of course, is the inspiration for the hero of the highly fictionalized HBO series Boardwalk Empire, in which any even more heavily fictionalized Frank Hague makes an appearance every now and then. Personally, I find the nonfiction versions far more interesting, which is why I wrote the book.

Then there’s The Last Three Miles, my first nonfiction book, which covers the construction of the first superhighway project in the United States, and the bloody labor war that erupted during the completion of its final phase, now known as the Pulaski Skyway. If you’ve ever driven that not-quite legendary span, you might think it was designed by madmen. In fact, it was designed by extremely competent engineers who were working on the cutting edge of new technology, and who saw their work undone  at the last minute by political interference. Oh, I almost forgot to mention the sensational murder trial. Murder, politics, and traffic engineering — all the things that make the world go ’round.

Since none of this would have happened if Charles II hadn’t signed that piece of paper, I think it’s safe to say these books have been 350 years in the making. How’s that for a cover blurb?

 

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The Year of the Hat Trick

Sukarno had The Year of Living Dangerously. Ireland had The Year of the French. And now I will have The Year of the Hat Trick.

The reason for the name will become clear as the year progresses. Right now, in the every-journey-begins-with-one-small-step category, I’m running around the Internet, banging pots and pans together to announce that my upcoming nonfiction book, American Dictators: Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine, has both a website and a spanking new Facebook page.

More to come.

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The highway of the future is a thing of the past

It had to happen sooner or later. The Pulaski Skyway, subject of my book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway, will closed to eastbound drivers for two years of repair work. The state will close the span early in 2014, following Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife LAST3MILESStadium. Apparently two lanes of outward-bound traffic will remain open throughout the project, but anyone heading for New York City needs another plan.

If you want to prepare for the traffic delays, why not pick up a copy of The Last Three Miles and read about the design flaws and eleventh-hour political interference that made the Hudson County span the rollercoaster of terror it is today? Or marvel at the machinations of political boss Frank Hague, one of the biggest players in the Skyway saga, and the bloody labor war that broke out when one of Hague’s former allies, labor czar Teddy Brandle, clashed with the anti-union contractors building the causeway? It’s also available as an ebook and there’s an audio version capably read by the great Dion Graham, whose other audiobook performances put me in some damn flattering company. (He also played Rupert Bond in the later seasons of The Wire, which I never get tired of bragging about.) 

And while we’re on the subject of Hudson County and the Pulaski Skyway, this is as good a place as any to begin announcing that this coming fall will see the publication of American Dictators: Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine, due out from Rutgers University Press. I’ll have a website and Facebook page up for the book later in the year. It’s the cornerstone of what future generations will know as The Year of the Hat Trick, about which more anon.

   

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Nucky and me

Apropos my remarks on Boardwalk Empire, somebody sent me a link to a piece that’s a couple of months old, but still speaks for a lot of naysayers:

As long as nobody’s talking, there is a restless, melancholic beauty that can make you feel like you’re watching something of substance.

But therein lies the rub: the writing so far is kind of crap, and casting Steve Buscemi as the main character Nucky Johnson will either go down as one of the most interesting risks in television history or one of the most bizarre decisions since Charleton Heston played that Mexican guy in Touch of Evil. To the first point, I love movies that minimize cussing in period pieces and take advantage of all the weird things people said at any given time. I’m sure people dropped f-bombs in the 20s, but I also bet they didn’t drop as many; why would you when you could say, “I caught that hotsy-totsy dumb dora utterly splifficated in her flivver after they gimme the bum’s rush for breakin’ out the giggle water in the juke joint. Dollars to doughnuts, she ain’t no Mrs. Grundy!” Writers need to research their periods as meticulously as any of the other artists on the set, and the amount of profanity in BE is just plain lazy, particularly given the richness of the period lexicon. It would all be more forgivable if there were some fresheness to the story, but, man, this shit looks familiar. (Couldn’t they have at least tried to make the nighttime chase in the woods a little different from the better one in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies? It’s only been a year!) It’s hard to give a rat’s ass about anything that takes place onscreen, except when MacDonald and Graham show up, which is when you wish extra hard that they had better material.

Better material? Better material? Atlantic City was the southern pole of the New York area rum line, with schooners and freighters anchored just outside U.S. territorial waters selling crates of booze as fast as the contact boats could load them. Nucky was half gangster, half booster, strutting along the Boardwalk with a fresh-cut carnation in his lapel, dispensing favors and cash, cutting deals with Warren Harding one day and negotiating gangster disputes the next. Guy hosted a mobster convention in 1929 that drew Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Thompson-toting thugs from as far off as Detroit and New Orleans. If you can’t make a great film out of material like that, you need to find another line of work.

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Frankly (Haguely) speaking

The single worst line of dialogue in all of movies can be found in the 1962 western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when a newspaper editor says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” I hate the line for its smugly cynical attitude, its pseudo cleverness, and its hollow knowingness, but above all I hate it because it’s wrong. The facts are always more interesting than the legend. Always.

That’s why the more I learn about the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, the less interested I am in actually watching it. That’s despite — or because of — the fact that I’m fascinated by the role played by New Jersey and Atlantic City during Prohibition, the phenomenon of the urban political boss, and the career of Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, who reigned over Atlantic City during its hooch-soaked heyday. I’ve also written a book, The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway, in which one of the key players is Frank Hague, Nucky’s contemporary and the only man qualified to best him for the title of Greatest Political Boss. All of which is to say I know enough about the subject to be interested in seeing Boardwalk Empire, and interested enough in the subject to know I’m going to be disappointed by what I see.

First of all, casting Steve Buscemi as the strapping Nucky Johnson (renamed “Nucky Thompson” in the show) is miscasting on the scale of . . . jeez, I can hardly think of a comparison. How about casting Pee-wee Herman as Jake LaMotta? How about hiring a weasel to play a bear? Buscemi’s a fine actor, but Nucky is not his role. As for Nucky himself, he wasn’t the type to have competitors machine-gunned or sent out for a swim with Chicago galoshes. If Nucky took a dislike to somebody, he would make life so difficult for that person that the offending party would haul stakes and roll out of town.

Second, the recent episode in which Hague drops in on Nucky makes it pretty clear the show is really only interested in reshuffling stereotypes about political bosses, rather than diving into the messy, contradictory, fascinating reality. The episode shows Hague (at left) smoking a stogie and knocking back bootleg hooch while a tootsie serenades him on the ukelele, preliminary to a round of tomcatting under Nucky’s genial sponsorship. This is ridiculous: Hague was a teetotaler, a lifelong hypochondriac who never smoked and frowned upon sexual vice. (Operatives in his Hudson County machine were expected to be stable family men.) He opposed Prohibition and was happy to let bootleggers pay to operate within his jurisdiction, but in his personal life Hague was a good Catholic boy.

Turning Frank Hague into a stereotypical boss is not only lazy, it makes for lax drama. How much more interesting to show this abstemious dictator willing to deal with vice-sodden gangsters, but all the while quietly judging them and making sure they paid dearly for their operations. Hague and Nucky, both pragmatists from opposing political parties, worked together on a few occasions, notably to screw over one of  Hague’s longtime political foes in a gubernatorial race. I’m not saying Boardwalk Empire should traffick in the minutiae of New Jersey politics, but when I hear one of the lines its gives to Hague —  “I’m a simple man. All I need is a bed, the love of a good woman, and an envelope about so thick” — it’s pretty clear the show is interested in Hollywood notions of political bosses rather than the real thing.

It’s an old story: Filmmakers are drawn to a historical subject because it seems tailor-made for a film treatment, but getting the film made involves so much fictionalization that the end result bears little relation to its inspiration. I’ve long thought that the purest fiction in movies is always accompanied by the words “Based on a true story,” and it looks like Boardwalk Empire follows that tradition to the letter.

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