Tag Archives: Frank Hague

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.

,

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , ,

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?

 

Tagged , , , , ,

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?       

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Rising for the fall

Just finished my first official newspaper interview to promote American Dictators, which will appear in the Jersey Journal in advance of the Jersey City Library Book Festival, just around the corner on Sunday, Sept. 15. The writer, Chinedum Emelumba, got a lot of history poured into her ear, and it’ll be interesting to see how much of it ends up in the finished story. I also got in a few plugs for my upcoming second novel, Echo, of which more anon.  

Tagged , , , , , ,

James Gandolfini

Not many actors get to portray a character so perfectly that they burn themselves into popular culture. James Gandolfini played the conflicted mob boss Tony Soprano so well that not only did he become forever linked to the character, he added the entire Mafia family to the stockpile of things in which New Jerseyans take ironic pride — hey, we got Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, lotsa Superfund sites and we got Tony Soprano! I felt it when my California in-laws, who had always considered New Jersey something of a practical joke on the rest of the country, suddenly took a keen interest in places like Kearny and the Caldwells.

Shortly after the BBC began airing the show, I was talking on the telephone to a British investment banker with a great toff accent, who idly asked what part of the U.S. I was calling from. When I said “Hoboken” he gasped. “That’s where the Sopranos live!”

“Well, not exactly,” I said. “You know that bridge he drives across in the opening credits . . . “

Another gasp, this one a little louder. “I know that bridge! That’s the New Jersey Turnpike!”

I’ll spare you the details of how I gave a lesson in North Jersey geography to a Tory in the City of London, but I will say that even when the series was at its wobbly, self-indulgent, let’s-see-how-we-can-justify-staying-on-the-HBO-sugar-tit-for-another-season worst, I felt a link to The Sopranos. Partly it was commercial: the appearance of the Pulaski Skyway in the opening credits was an easy hook to use whenever I did author appearances in connection with The Last Three Miles. But it was in large part due to Gandolfini’s artistry.

Like Viggo Mortensen, Gandolfini excelled at conveying the sense of deep currents of thought and emotion going on beneath an impassive exterior. Silvio, Paulie Walnuts and the rest of the mob cast became cartoon characters as the show staggered through its last three seasons, but Tony Soprano stayed real, thanks to Gandolfini’s immensely subtle talent.  During the show’s first season, Gandolfini’s switching between the paternal and the predatory made “College” the most perfectly realized episode in the only perfectly realized season. One of my favorite moments in The Sopranos comes when a dirty cop on the mobster’s payroll complains about how he’s perpetually broke. Tony tells him he should stop gambling because he loses so much. “Yeah, well I got two bills on Rutgers this weekend,” the cop says, and Tony replies, in a tone that shows he can barely keep from rolling his eyes, “That’ll solve all your problems.” Gandolfini may have done booster commercials for the Scarlet Knights, but whenever I hear about the latest ups and downs in my alma mater’s Big Time Football crusade, I think of him delivering that line.

Gandolfini did good and even great work after The Sopranos: as a played-out hit man in Killing Them Softly he gave a much-needed shot of oxygen to a film that really should have worked much better than it did. His performance as the father in Not Fade Away, directed by Sopranos mastermind David Chase, showed he still had talent and artistry to burn. There have been a lot of tributes to Gandolfini in the wake of his untimely death, but I particularly like this one from Glenn Kenny, who explains exactly what made him so great in Not Fade Away. As for Kenny’s closing line, all I can say is yes.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.  

Tagged , , , , ,

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!

Tagged , , , , ,

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.”

Tagged , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , ,

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.

   

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,