Tag Archives: The Last Three Miles

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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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.

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Coming this fall


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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Inky linky

Yours Truly is interviewed in today’s edition of The Record. The topic is the planned restoration of the Pulaski Skyway in Hudson County. The columnist, John Cichowski, is kind enough to give a mention to The Last Three Miles, for which I thank him as well.

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Icarus with a laptop

It’s not exactly a language peeve, but I do get a chuckle every time some freshly minted celebrity is described as enjoying a “meteoric career.” After all, a meteorite is a chunk of rock that falls to earth at an incredibly high speed, burning up as it descends, until it either explodes in midair or leaves a big crater in the ground. I think a meteoric career is the last thing anyone would want.

Disgraced New Yorker science writer Jonah Lehrer — now there’s a meteoric career for you. Elevated at an early age, destined for greatness, or at least lots of lucrative speaking engagements, book deals, and TED talks. First he was accused of recycling his own material. Then he was caught recycling other people’s material. Then he was caught making stuff up. Apparently he even fabricated a quote from Bob Dylan, whose detail-oriented fan base served as a pre-Google Google before the Internet was even a glimmer on the horizon. Cue Addison DeWitt’s line in All About Eve: “That was a stupid lie! Easily exposed!”

I’m not here to grind Jonah Lehrer into the dust, but I will be following this American Science series of posts about Lehrer’s career and what it tells us about Big Ideas journalism of the sort epitomized by Malcolm Gladwell — of whom Lehrer was once considered an intellectual heir.

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XXL History

David Armitage says “big” history is once again in style. Since he isn’t necessarily referring to page count or avoirdupois, I wonder if my book qualifies.

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Cry me a Chicago River

Still of Kelsey Grammer in Boss

Those with an appetite for trivia probably know by now that Kelsey Grammer marked the imminent second season premiere of his series Boss by pouting that he hadn’t been nominated for an Emmy. Not because Boss is a low-rated show on a third-tier cable channel that only picked up the second season because its other original programs barely appear on the radar. Not because the drama nominee lists are crowded with actors and shows that are not only far better but about to end their runs, so it’s now-or-never time to toss them a bouquet (Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad, end of story). Not even because it’s an unjust world and Emmy voters have short attention spans (they had five seasons to get it right with The Wire, end of story).

No, Kelsey Grammer thinks he got snubbed because he’s a Republican and those Hollywood libruls who keep Big Hollywood and other wingnut operations in 24/7 fits of indignation are never going to give conservatives a break. I’ll let Lance Mannion handle the Sisyphean task of shoveling away this latest dumpster load of conservative victimization porn and return to Boss itself, which I thought was absorbing and interesting in its first season, albeit with some serious reservations that might have me signing off before this second season is over.

Political bosses are a career interest of mine: Frank Hague, the preeminent twentieth-century American political boss, looms large in my first nonfiction book, The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway, and even larger in my second, which comes out next year. Boss is set in Chicago, the stomping ground (in every sense of the term) of Richard J. Daley, the only boss who matches Hague in terms of power and longevity. The titular boss is Tom Kane (Grammer), who must contend with imminent mortality (a degenerative brain disease), a personal life hollowed out by relentless ambition (dead marriage, estranged daughter), and a host of foes and fair-weather friends working to bring him down. 

No problem so far: any TV show that offers even a modicum of political sophistication or historical awareness is fine by me. There were some powerful scenes in the first season, and the moment when Kane cuts a turncoat down to size — bawling him out, then turning off the lights and leaving the office while the victim continues to kneel on the carpet, too frightened to move — belongs on Kelsey Grammer’s career highlight reel. But Boss, while set in the present day, has a level of violence more appropriate to a Mideast dictatorship than an American city. Frank Hague never hesitated to ruin his critics financially, or have them run out of town by his thuggish police force, but as far as anyone knows he drew the line at assassinations. Chicago politics can still be pretty rough, but early in Boss we see an inept minion losing both ears on a golf course, and by the end of the first season the amount of bloodshed is more Godfather than Plunkitt of Tammany Hall.   

The biggest problem with Boss, though, is Kelsey Grammer’s gloomy one-note performance as Tom Kane. Political bosses came (and come) in all shapes, sizes, parties, and temperaments. Democratic Hague came across as a cold fish, but his Republican contemporary, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, was the Boardwalk peacock of Atlantic City. Nobody can dispute Grammer’s chops as a comic actor, but his scowly jowly Tom Kane comes across as Richard Nixon channeled through Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather Part II. How about a dash of Jim Curley, or even Michael Flynn, to leaven all those prunes?

So I’ll be watching tomorrow when Boss gears up again. But like Boardwalk Empire (the HBO series, not Nelson Johnson’s book), the show is best viewed as a kind of alternate-universe SF story, in which people with links to our history do things that reflect Hollywood notions of gangsterism (or politics). As for Sideshow Bob’s little hissy fit — dude, after An American Carol you should be grateful people even remember your name.

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Turn and Facebook the strange

With my usual headlong rush to embrace new technology, I have started Facebook pages for my two books to date: the crime novel We All Fall Down and the popular history book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. If you pay them a visit, please be a mensch and click the Like button. It doesn’t mean a permanent commitment or anything. It’s not like there’s a Love button. It’s more like a “We’re good friends” kind of thing. No phone calls in the middle of the night — I promise.

And you know, in the coming months those two Facebook pages may have a couple more friends keeping them company. No details as yet, but gears are grinding and planets are aligning. More details as they develop.



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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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Look who’s blogtalking

I’ve been interviewed on blogs and I’ve been interviewed on radio, but this Thursday evening will mark my debut on BlogTalkRadio. The show is “Sian and Cathy’s Chat Time,” and it happens April 19 — that’s right, this Thursday — at 6 p.m. EST. Here’s the link. The topic will be . . . well, you know, me. Specifically my two books and the two others that are either in the works or trembling on the verge of printed reality. And just to make the event even more . . . um, eventful, I’m going to make the Kindle edition of my crime novel We All Fall Down available for free on Thursday and Friday, ’cause that’s how we roll down this way. 

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