Tag Archives: Hudson County

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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Back to the swamp!

My February calendar is clear (so far) but I’m back on the American Dictators promotional trail in March, when I’m set to appear at the Secaucus Public Library on Saturday, March 8, at 11 a.m. They love Frank Hague stories in those Meadowlands towns, and listeners of a certain age often have stories of their own to tell. Read all about it here.

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Meet me at the museum

The Hoboken Historical Museum, that is. That’s where I’ll be giving a talk on Sunday, June 24, as part of the museum’s program Driving Under the Hudson: A History of the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels. The event is keyed to the 85th anniversary of the opening of the Holland Tunnel, which in turn leads to the Pulaski Skyway and the Route One Extension — the subject of my book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. (The book, incidentally, now has its own Facebook page.) The entire project — recognized as America’s first superhighway — was built to carry Holland Tunel traffic out of Jersey City and across the Meadowlands as expeditiously as possible. As the book reveals, things didn’t go quite so smoothly as planned. There was a nasty labor war during the construction of the final stretch through Hudson County, now known as the Pulaski Skyway, that resulted in a murder trial, and the entire design of the Skyway was compromised by political interference and inexperience with the new field of traffic engineering. If you want to know why driving the Skyway offers all the scares of a rollercoaster ride with none of the pleasures, The Last Three Miles will give you the answers. If you want a look into a previously little-known chapter of the career of political boss Frank Hague, The Last Three Miles will open a panoramic view. And if you want a chance to say hellp and talk about the book some more, come to the Hoboken Historical Museum on Sunday, June 24, at 4 p.m.

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A bridge too close

There’s a very nice writeup about my book, The Last Three Miles, in the current issue of The Jersey City Independent, a newly launched online newspaper. Topics include the Skyway, Frank Hague’s relationship with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and the New Deal.

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On the road again

At last, I can offer a ray of hope to the millions of readers who missed my initial round of appearances on behalf of The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. I’ll be hawking my book at two October events that look very promising.

First, I’ll be standing ready at Booth Two of the Collingswood Book Festival, slated for Saturday, Oct. 4, in the Camden County burg of Collingswood, between Camden and Cherry Hill. I’ll be selling and signing copies of my book. Come by and say hi and buy lots of copies for your friends and family, because I’ve heard a lot about the general awesomeness of this festival and whatever proceeds I make from book sales will probably go for book purchases at other booths.

Next, I’ll be speaking Tuesday, Oct. 28, to a Frank Hague hometown crowd at the Brennan Court House, 583 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, N.J. The event, starting at 6 p.m. is sponsored by WomenRising of Hudson County. Call (201) 333-5700.

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