Tag Archives: Enoch “Nucky” Johnson

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 Four Questions

And the voice of J. D. Rhoades was heard throughout the land: post four questions relating to yourself as a writer, along with an image and link for your latest book. Then invite three other authors to do likewise the next Monday.

1. What am I working on?

I’m in the middle of polishing an essay collection called Let the Devil Speak: Articles, Essays, and Incitements. (Historian Rick Perlstein and music writer AMERICANDICTATOTSFRONTMichael Gray have given me the most awesome cover blurbs.) I’m also plotting out a sequel to my first crime novel, We All Fall Down, that will take the heroine to some pretty harrowing places. I’m also doing preliminary research on a couple of likely nonfiction projects that will be a decisive break from the political boss/political machine orientation of my first two nonfiction books, The Last Three Miles and American Dictators.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I like to think my fiction is distinguished by its level of realism, its intensity of emotion and its preference for unconventional protagonists and points of view. A big part of the impetus for writing We All Fall Down was my wish to create a woman cop who reflected the ones I’ve met on the job. With that in mind, I decided to complicate the picture by making Karen McCarthy an unattractive woman who under regular circumstances would probably be ignored by most men. Giving someone like that a job that makes her impossible to ignore opened up lots of intriguing possibilities.

3. Why do write what you do?

That question assumes I have a choice. I go in for crime stories, partly from taste and partly because newspaper work and the things I observe on the job provide fuel for my imagination. Part of the inspiration for We All Fall Down was a trial in which a jeweler was accused of using an armed robbery at his store as an excuse for killing his wife during the gunplay. (The novel’s opening chapter has nothing to do with the case, I was just struck by the idea of using a crime to cover up another, even bigger crime.) Echo was in part an angry response to some sexual assault cases I knew about, as well as a local sex-crime case in which many locals (smart people I had never suspected of Neanderthal tendencies) sided with the aggressor, a local pillar of the community. I like fantasy and science fiction but I have no gift for writing either. I tend toward hyper-realism in my fiction.

 4. How does your writing process work?

My pattern with fiction is to start with a scene and play with ideas and plotlines that lead to and away from it. Once the novel’s first quarter and final scene are Cover 2a - 5in 72dpi - front for screenfixed in my mind, I start writing in earnest. I don’t work with outlines in fiction — I like to surprise myself. (Nonfiction is a different matter. Structure is your best friend when writing a large nonfiction work.) While working on something I usually develop odd fixations on certain pieces of music that have no obvious connection to the project. I let them play themselves out, because writing is a conscious and subconscious activity. Once a project is finished, I put it aside to cool off before revisions. There are always revisions, and coming back to the project after a brief interval allows you to see things and make new thematic connections.

This past fall saw publication of my latest nonfiction book as well as my second crime novel. American Dictators: Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine (Rutgers University Press) is a dual biography of two men I consider the ultimate political bosses in terms of power and influence: Frank Hague, master of Jersey City and Hudson County, and Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, the preening Boardwalk peacock of Atlantic City. (He is the inspiration for the heavily fictionalized Nucky Thompson in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire.) The book has gotten some very good notices and even rated a mention in the New York Times. Echo (Black Angel Press) is my black diamond: the darkest, most hard-edged novel I will probably ever write. It’s proved to be much less popular than We All Fall Down, which doesn’t surprise me because it’s a much harsher book, but I think its heroine and her sister are the two best female characters I’ve written to date. It’s also produced the most extreme reactions of any novel I’ve written: some thought it was a knockout, but one friend resolutely refuses to say anything about it one way or the other. (She’s still willing to associate with me, so I guess that’s a positive sign.) Joyce Carol Oates was the presiding spirit for the project.

As for tagging some other writers and authors — any volunteers? Bathsheba Monk, any irons in the fire? Anybody else?       

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Get yer pre-orders here

Here’s a nice way to start the summer: American Dictators: Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine is now available for pre-order through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Powell’s Books.  

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Mark your calendars!

My upcoming nonfiction book American Dictators: Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine is on page 3 of the Fall-Winter 2013 catalog for Rutgers University Press. Mark your calendar for the official October publication date. After all, there are only eight shopping months left before Christmas!

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Coming this fall

AmericanDictators

Rutgers University Press just sent me the prototype cover for American Dictators: Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine. I’ve also just gotten two terrific advance blurbs from some well-regarded nonfiction writers, which I’ll pass along in a little while. But meanwhile, I just want to contemplate this cover for a bit. By “contemplate,” of course, I mean “gloat.”

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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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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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Getting bossy

If you’re free the evening of Monday, May 17, I’ll be at the Union Free Public Library to talk about “New Jersey’s Notorious Political Bosses,” specifically the ones I consider the most interesting: Frank Hague of Jersey City, and Enoch “Nucky” Johnson of Atlantic City.

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you know that Hague is a major figure in my book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. He is not simply one of the most powerful political bosses of the twentieth-century, he is also one of most influential and least understood figures in New Jersey and national politics. One of these days I’ll be able to interest a publisher in a full-length Hague biography, but until then I’m happy to say — nay, boast — that The Last Three Miles brought new information on Hague into the light.

Johnson is in many ways equally interesting: Hague’s contemporary, and his mirror image. Hague was a Democrat, willing to tolerate bootleggers as long as they paid their way, personally abstemious, and cunning enough to fight off a number of state-level corruption investigations. Johnson was a Republican, committed to running Atlantic City as a wide-open town catering to every vice, a friend to gangsters of every stripe (he even hosted a convention attended by the likes of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano), and he was finally brought down by a federal investigation.

The talk will be at 7 p.m. I’ve appeared at the Union library before, and they know how to do it right. Did I mention that admission is free? Come by and say hello.

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