Monday, August 25, 2014

1964 Democratic National Convention - Atlantic City N.J.

The 1964 Democratic National Convention - A Half-Century Later Atlantic City Finds Itself in a Similar Situation – By William Kelly

The 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City – 50 Years Ago, that took place from August 24-27th, was an historic watershed event for the island resort – a crossroads that led to the revitalization of the city – and it could be a cautionary tale as Atlantic City reaches another, similar crossroads, where it must once again reinvent itself.

That such a convention could be held on the boardwalk at all was the vision of Nucky Johnson, who was a driving force behind the construction of the Convention Hall – now Boardwalk Hall – which opened in 1929, the same year that he was the host for the first major meeting of mob bosses from around the country.

Some of them were business partners with Joe Kennedy, Sr., who held major ownership interests in major Canadian and European whiskey distillers, and didn’t mind doing business with the bootleggers during prohibition. Kennedy also held hidden interest in the Cal-Neva Lodge that startled the border between California and Nevada, with a casino on the Nevada side, which was purchased by Giancana and Sinatra, who brought in Atlantic City’s Skinny D’Amato as the manager.

In 1960 Joe Kennedy touched base once again with Sam Giancana, the mob boss who controlled the rackets in Chicago, Las Vegas and California, and got him to support his son Jack’s 1960 bid to be elected president of the United States.

Giancana’s good friends Frank Sinatra and Skinny D’Amato were quick to oblige, Sinatra contributing the campaign theme song “High Hopes,” and he introduced JFK to Judith Campbell Extner, who served as a mistress and courier between Kennedy and Giancana.

                                           Skinny D'Amato confers with JFK during the 1960 campaign 

Skinny D’Amato and Camden attorney Angelo Malandra took suitcases full of cash to West Virginia that was liberally distributed to Skinny’s friends in the West Virginia Sheriff’s Association, who counted the votes and often visited his 500 Club when they had their annual convention in Atlantic City.

One of Kennedy’s last hurdles to being nominated as the Democratic candidate at the 1960 Convention in Los Angeles was the West Virginia primary, where the Irish Catholic Kennedy was up against Hubert Humphrey, a protestant, so that became the major issue of the primary, which Kennedy won and dispelling that as an issue.

A couple of major decisions were made at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, including the addition of Lyndon Baines Johnson to the ticket as the Vice Presidential candidate, said to be done on the advice of Joe Kennedy, and naming Atlantic City as the site of the 1964 Democratic Convention, which some said was a payback to D’Amato and Sinatra for their support during the primaries.
Actually H. Hap Farley was the primary mover behind bringing the 1964 Democratic Convention to Atlantic City. As the political boss who took over after Nucky Johnson went to prison, Farley is best known for having the Atlantic City Expressway built, but he also lobbied extensively to bring both the Republican and Democratic Conventions to the boardwalk, but succeeded, despite being a staunch Republican, of only enticing the Democrats.

After winning the nomination and then the election, President Kennedy asked Sinatra to arrange for the entertainment for the Inaugural Balls, which he did, and Sinatra was looking forward to organizing a similar party for Kennedy in Atlantic City when Kennedy would be renominated for his second term at the 1964 Convention.

But then things went terribly wrong.

Kennedy appointed his younger brother Robert F. Kennedy as Attorney General and RFK targeted the mob bosses as part of a war against organized crime, and he singled out Sam Giancana, New Orleans don Carlos Marcello and Santo Traficante, of Tampa, Florida, despite their assistance in getting JFK elected and working closely with the CIA in trying to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

When J. Edgar Hover, the head of the FBI told RFK the attorney general that his brother the president was receiving phone calls and visits at the White House from Judy Campbell Extner, the mob moll who was also in bed with both Sinatra and Giancana, the president cut off his contacts with Giancana and began to distance himself from both Extner and Sinatra.

Then, rather than Castro being assassinated, JFK was shot and killed while riding in an open car through the streets of Dallas, and instead of JFK being renominated for a second term, LBJ was the president who was nominated to be the Democratic candidate at the 1964 convention on the boardwalk in Atlantic City.
After the resolution of who would represent the racially divided Mississippi delegation, the three biggest questions going into Atlantic City in August 1964 were who would be the Vice Presidential nominee, what was the still unreleased Warren Report on the assassination of President Kennedy going to say, and what was Robert Kennedy going to do?

No one knew who the Vice Presidential nominee would be until LBJ invited liberal Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey to accompany him on the flight to Atlantic City. Humphrey, who Kennedy defeated in the West Virginia primary, had presidential ambitions himself, but would do LBJ’s bidding, and sold his soul to resolve the Mississippi issue.

As for the Warren Commission Report, LBJ knew what was ready to go to press, and that it would conclude that JFK was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, a deranged loner, and there was no conspiracy, so that only left one big question – what was RFK going to do?

LBJ later said that from the moment JFK was murdered, he felt that RFK didn’t think he deserved to be president, and Johnson considered the possibility that RFK would try to lead a revolt at the Convention and attempt to hijack the nomination from him. If the convention atmosphere presented the opportunity, RFK’s name could have been introduced, and if LBJ didn’t win on the first ballet, anything could happen.

In order to avert this possibility, President Johnson took some unprecedented steps. As Kennedy family historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote, “The tribute to the fallen President was originally scheduled for Tuesday night. Johnson had it moved back to Thursday, by which time the nomination would be completed. He took other precautions, the most extraordinary of which was to send Cartha DeLoach and and FBI team of thirty snoops and wire tappers to Atlantic City. The ostensible purpose was to gather intelligence ‘concerning matters of strife, violence, etc. The real purpose, according to William Sullivan of the FBI, was to gather political information useful to President Johnson, particularly bottling up Robert Kennedy – that is reporting on the activities of Robert Kennedy.”

LBJ also thought that Robert Kennedy would try to wire tap his boardwalk hotel room, so he secretly moved to a more secure location – the nearby Margate beach house of Carroll Rosenbloom, the owner of the Baltimore Colts football team.

As RFK joined the other dignitaries on stage, Jackie Kennedy handed him a note.

As Schlesinger relates, “Finally Senator Henry Jackson, who was presiding, motioned him (RFK) to the rostrum. When Scoop introduced him, it hit, I mean it really hit, it just went on and on. I stood on the floor in the midst of the thunderous ovation. I had never seen anything like it. Ordinarily an organ in the background controls the pandemonium of a convention. This time they stopped the organ after a moment or so. But the demonstration roared on, reaching a new intensity every time that Robert Kennedy, standing with a wistful half-smile on his face, tried to bring it to an end. As Kennedy once more raised his hand to still the uproar, Jackson whispered to him, ‘Let it go on, just let them do it Bob, let them get it out of their system.’ He repressed his tears. Many of the audience did not. He seemed slight, almost frail, as the crowd screamed itself hoarse. It went on for twenty-two minutes. Finally he began to speak. At the end, the quotation: ‘When he shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine, that all the world will be in love with night, and pay no worship to the garish sun.’”

Bobby Kennedy Convention Speech About John F. Kennedy 1964 ElectionWallDotOrg - YouTube

These words, from Romeo and Juliet, were handed to him by Jackie, and preceded a short film about the life of John F. Kennedy, who would have certainly been renominated for a second term if fate and destiny did not intervene.

To commemorate the occasion, the city of Atlantic City named the plaza in front of the hall “Kennedy Plaza,” and a bust of JFK by renown sculpture Evangelos Frudakis was unveiled, a bust that was unveiled, a bust that is now partially hidden by a stage where summer concerts are held. 

Though young people today know Kennedy Plaza as the scene of free concerts and a nightly lightshow, the statute that stands there remains the last vestige of another era and a reminder of what might have been if Kennedy had lived to serve a second term.

William Kelly is a freelance writer and regional historian from Browns Mills, N.J. He can be reached at

Monday, March 17, 2014

Nucky Johnson's Lucky Irish Brick

Nucky – The Real Nucky Johnson and his Lucky Irish Brick

By William Kelly

Nucky and Nucky
                                         HBO Boardwalk Empire's Nucky Thompson 

                                                The Real Enoch Nucky Johnson 

There’s Nucky Johnson and Nucky Thompson.  Enoch “Nucky” Johnson is the once and legendary political boss of Atlantic City.

Then there’s his alter-ego - Nucky Thompson, also known as Steve Buscemi, the star of HBO’s popular cable TV series “Boardwalk Empire,” who effectively portrays a Hollywood impersonation of Nucky Johnson.

They are both always dapperly dressed, both wear red carnations in their lapels, and both wine and dine their way through the Roaring ‘20s and prohibition era without missing a beat, or a drink, but as is brought out in Frank Ferry’s biography “Nucky – The Real Story of the Atlantic City Boardwalk Boss” (ComteQ, 2012), their characters are vastly different.

Whereas TV’s Nucky Thompson is a greedy conniver and ruthless killer, the real Nucky Johnson was a kind and benevolent dictator who reined supreme not by muscle and violence, but by being convincingly persuasive and generous.  He ruled by consensus, took care of his constituents’ basic needs and constructed the basic social service infrastructure that is still used in Atlantic City today.

HBO’s Nucky Thompson is a creature of screenwriter Terrence Winter and co-producer and director Martin Scorsese, a character based loosely on the real Nucky Johnson, as portrayed in Judge Nelson Johnson’s book “Boardwalk Empire,” (Plexus 2002), a non-fiction historical account of the three political bosses who ran Atlantic City for the last century – Admiral Kuehnle, Nucky Johnson and Hap Farley. But Terrence Winter took the Nucky character and ran with it, while Scorsese sauced it up a bit. With Scorsese having done “Goodfellas” and Winter writing “The Sopranos,” you knew the HBO production would be a good mix of them both, and it is. But it bears little resemblance to the real Nucky Johnson and how he came to build the Boardwalk Empire.

Frank Ferry, a local attorney who knew Johnson as a neighbor and client, sets the record straight, and gives us not only a more accurate portrait of Nucky the man, but also sets the local scene – Old Atlantic City as it was, rather than how Hollywood reflects it on the tube.

The real Nucky was a lover not a fighter. He was a Piney, a Jersey Pine Barons hillbilly who was an expert shot with a Kentucky long rifle, drank moonshine whiskey and enjoyed bluegrass fiddle music. When his father was elected Sheriff of Atlantic County in 1887 the Johnsons moved to Mays Landing, the county seat, courthouse and jail. As Mays Landing also had a shipbuilding, maritime and fishing industry, Nucky got to know a number of sea captains who sailed the last of the old schooners, especially Captain Shepherd Hudson.

As Ferry tells the story, “When the school day ended, Nucky often perched himself on the wrap-around porch of a Victorian home, waiting with his schoolmates for the captain/father to come home. When a captain strolled in the door, Nucky asked him about his world travels, the people he met, and the countries he explored.”

Nucky’s favorite Captain Shepherd Hudson, when not sailing around the world, was a Republican state Assemblyman (1889) who may have sparked Nucky’s interest in politics.

                                             Nucky’s Lucky Irish Brick

Frank Ferry tells the story of Nucky’s Irish brick: “One afternoon when he was sitting on his friend’s porch, Nucky saw Hudson walking toward the house from the water’s edge carrying a handmade wire clam basket filled with bricks caked with Great Egg Harbor riverbed mud. When the captain reached the steps, Nucky asked him jokingly, ‘How long do you have to cook those bricks before you can eat them, Captain?’” 

“The captain stopped and countered Nucky’s joke with a tale that would hold dear for the rest of his life. These were ‘Irish bricks,’ for good luck, according to the captain. He explained that as ships left Ireland without a full cargo to keep the ship stable, some of them needed ballast in the hull to keep the ship steady while the vessel crossed the rough Atlantic. So the industrious Irish merchants in the foundries sold their defective bricks to the ship owners. The defective bricks had split when they were baked in high heat because they contained too much clay, but they were put to good use.”

“When ships from the Old Sod arrived in America and sailed up the Great Egg Harbor River to pick up cargo in Mays Landing, they didn’t need the Irish bricks as ballast anymore, so they dumped them along the river’s edge into the salt marshes. Legend has it that every Irish brick that is recovered brings seven years of good luck. With six bricks weighing down the wire clam basket, the captain said he was now carrying 42 years of good luck, which was more than he needed at his age. He reached into the basket and gave Nucky one of the Irish bricks and a blessing: ‘May you have all the luck you need and not all the luck this Irish brick will bring you.’”

“Nucky cherished that brick for the rest of his days. In fact, he once told his bodyguard that when life was rough, he would pull out that treasured brick, put it on the nightstand next to his bed, and then take a nap. When he awoke, he usually discovered that he had found a solution to the problem and the energy to tackle it. Since he didn’t want to use up all his good luck at one time, he put his treasured brick away for safekeeping so he would always have some good luck in reserve, much like a savings account in a bank.”

“Later in life when Nucky would reminisce about Hudson’s stories, he came to realize that their meaning ran far deeper than as the simple tales about life in faraway lands. Hudson’s adventures were parables about human nature and molding character. For the next 70 years, Nucky loved to drop anchor when making decisions and muse, ‘What would the captain do?’ How would he solve a problem or avoid creating an enemy?’”

While still a young boy, Johnson delivered some salt marsh reeds to the hotel operated by Admiral Kuehnle, the first real political boss of Atlantic City, then was himself elected Sheriff and later treasurer of Atlantic County, where the real power lies in the distribution of the money.

It’s was Nucky Johnson’s vision that Atlantic City become a convention town as well as a tourist resort, and he built what is now Boardwalk Hall, which opened in 1929, when the first big convention was held – a meeting of mob bosses from around the country, including Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano and Al Capone.
Nucky Johnson’s Atlantic City, like the Admiral’s, was an open city where vice was permitted but restricted, used to attract tourists and conventioneers, and while prohibition was the law of the land, Atlantic City was the major port of entry for smugglers. So the booze was plentiful and inexpensive,  prostitution was kept under control and gambling prospered at a dozen different casino clubs, all of which gave Nucky Johnson a piece of the action.

As host of one of the first major meetings of mob bosses Nucky ensured that they could meet and conduct their business without being bothered by the law, and like Nucky, they placed their biggest bet on developing casino gambling after prohibition ended, as they anticipated it would a few years later.

Nucky had met Al Capone at the first Gene Tunney-Jack Dempsey heavyweight championship fight in New Jersey, and when the two fought again in a rematch in Chicago, Capone invited Nucky to sit with him at ringside.

Al Capone is flanked by Meyer Lansky and Nucky Johnson in this composite photo produced for William Randolph Hurst, ostensibly of the mobsters strolling down the Atlantic City boardwalk in April 1929 on the occasion of Meyer Lansky's wedding reception. 

When Capone came to Atlantic City in April 1929, he was the hottest mobster in the country, being blamed for the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, and while he wasn’t arrested in Atlantic City, Capone turned himself in when he got off the train in Philadelphia, and spent time at Eastern Pen, where his cell is now a tourist attraction.

As with Capone, the feds eventually indicted Nucky Johnson for tax evasion, and held a trial in Camden in 1941. Nucky knew his luck had run out, as just when he needed it the most, he couldn’t find his Lucky Irish brick.

He was found guilty for tax evasion and was sentenced to ten years, more than Capone. Nucky couldn’t understand it, unlike Capone, he never killed anybody.  

Before being sent away Nucky did two things, - he went out to the Pines to drink some moonshine and hear some bluegrass music with the Albert brothers in Waretown, where Albert’s Hall now continues that tradition, and then he married Floss his longtime girlfriend.

Just as the HBO’s Nucky Thompson lost his wife early in their marriage, Nucky’s first wife, childhood sweetheart Mabel Jeffries died young too and he remained single until he was sentenced to jail. The day before he went to jail Nucky married his former showgirl girlfriend Florence “Flossie” Osbeck, which gave them an excuse to have a party. Since they were married Floss could visit him in jail, and while he was away, Nucky approved of his protégé Hap Farley taking his place as political boss.

A few years later, released early on good behavior, Nucky Johnson returned to Atlantic City an ordinary citizen, lived in a little cottage that is now a casino parking lot, and he let Hap Farley continue his leadership, building the Atlantic City Race Track – the first legal gambling in the area, constructing the Expressway and bringing the 1964 Democratic National Convention to the Boardwalk.

For years that stretched into decades, Nucky lived the quiet life of an ordinary citizen, often being stopped on the street or boardwalk by someone who recognized him, and wanted to thank him for some good deed he had done years ago. Same place, different time – that was a time when he owned the city and was one of the most powerful king makers in the country. 

 Flo - a friend? (can anyone identify this guy? - and Nucky in the later years, probably at the Five

Nucky and Floss continued to dine at their favorite restaurants, but instead of hundred dollar tips, his gratuities were more frugal, but up and coming politicians and movers and shakers always sought out his advice and he was given a place of honor at the head of the table at regular Republican Party meetings and dinners.

And after he died at a local nursing home in December 1968, Nucky Johnson’s funeral was held at the Gormley Funeral Home, run by the family of former State Senator Bill Gormley, who would be considered, at least for awhile, the successor to the Admiral, Nucky and Hap as the political boss of Atlantic City.

At Gormley’s during Nucky’s funeral, a man in the reception line stepped up and introduced himself to Floss as William Kramer, a Camden court clerk, who handed Floss a brick. As Ferry recounts it, “Floss said that Kramer saw Nucky’s obituary in the newspaper and decided to pay his respects. And he brought along Nucky’s briefcase to give to Floss,” along with its mysterious contents.

According to Floss, “Mr. Kramer told me that several weeks ago he was taking an inventory of the exhibits in the evidence vault in the clerk’s office and came across a black briefcase that had Nucky’s name on it. He said he opened it and the only thing inside was some newspapers from 1941 that highlighted his trail and an old red brick. He remembered Nucky had been looking for his briefcase at the end of his trial and nobody could find it. It was accidently placed in the evidence vault in the clerk’s office.”  Now he was returning it.
Floss took the brick from the briefcase and placed it in Nucky’s arm before closing the casket. “I put the Irish brick next to his right hand so he could feel it. I now know he is resting in peace and in a good place for all eternity.”

When she passed away three years later Floss was interred at the Zion Cemetery in Bargaintown, Egg Harbor Township, next to Nucky and his Lucky Irish brick, which may provide luck for Nucky’s spiritual soul in its journey after life, a lucky life if there ever was one.

 [BK Notes: I have located official references to a William C. Kramer, Camden Court Clerk, and for Captain Shephard Hudson, who heroically rescued the survivors of a collision of cargo ships off New Jersey.] 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

BE Soundtrack Hits

CBS NEWS/ September 20, 2013, 8:41 AM


Rock and pop artists grace "Boardwalk Empire" 

The idea of contemporary singers recording popular standards is nothing new. Artists such as Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon, Rod Stewart, Glenn Frey and Smokey Robinson have tackled that old-fashioned romantic sound in a departure from their usual rock and pop music roots. But lately there have also been modern-day artists specifically recreating the jazz sounds of the 1920s Prohibition era -- the most recent being British rock singer Bryan Ferry's "The Jazz Age," an album of solo and Roxy Music songs reworked with an orchestra.

That is also certainly true of the of music that is featured on the newly released"Boardwalk Empire Volume 2: Music From The HBO Original Series" (ABKCO), the follow-up to 2011's "Volume 1." This latest collection features mostly rock and pop artists paired with the fabulous Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks on songs of the period depicted in the hit show, which just had its season four premiereearlier this month.

Longtime fans of some of the rock artists on this new soundtrack may be surprised to hear their heroes in this light but ultimately pleased by them as well. There's David Johansen of legendary '70s punk group New York Dolls singing with gusto (and evoking a little bit of Louis Armstrong) on the big band stomp of "Strut Miss Lizzie"; punk poet Patti Smith does a very soulful rendition of "I Ain't Got Nobody"; and the National's Matt Berlinger -- known for his band's moody alternative rock music -- shows perhaps somewhat of uncharacteristic romantic side in the straightforward "I'll See You in My Dreams."

No stranger when it comes to performing romantic-sounding ballads (having previously duetted with Tony Bennett), rocker Elvis Costello handles the popular standard, "It Had to Be You." Meanwhile, St. Vincent and Neko Case deliver elegant and soulful performances of "Make Believe" and "Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out," respectively.

"Volume 2" doesn't entirely consist of modern-day rock acts. Liza Minnelli gives a brash, no-nonsense treatment of "You've Got To See Mama Every Night (Or You Can't See Mama at All)." And two of the actresses featured in the series, Kathy Brier and Margot Bingham, offer their musical contributions: the former on "There'll Be Some Changes Made" and the latter on "Somebody Loves Me."

Based on the performances from these contemporary artists, this soundtr


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Frank Ferry's new bio of Nucky Johnson released

Knucky Johnson (left) and Frank Ferry 

Inside the Knife & Fork during Frank Ferry's booksigning (photos Philadelphia Inquirer)

Author writes about the real Nucky Johnson, distorted on TV
January 21, 2013|By Jan Hefler, Inquirer Staff Writer

ATLANTIC CITY - Enoch L. "Nucky" Johnson, made famous by HBO's acclaimed Boardwalk Empire series, was actually a gentler soul than the gangster seen in the TV show, according to a lawyer who once defended him in a criminal matter.

Frank J. Ferry, a Ventnor lawyer, launched the sale of his long-awaited 306-page biography, Nucky, the Real Story of the Atlantic City Boardwalk Boss, at the historic Knife & Fork Inn, one of Johnson's old haunts, on Sunday.

Nearly 200 guests packed the book signing as a pianist played tunes from the Prohibition era - when Johnson was the Atlantic County treasurer and an influential Republican Party political boss who picked senators and governors.

It was a scene that could have been plucked from Johnson's world. Ferry and others wore red carnations in their lapels, a signature piece Johnson was never without. Raw oysters and Bloody Marys were served practically oceanside.

"We became friends," Ferry said, explaining how Johnson sought his help in 1964, when the U.S. Justice Department tried to collect a $20,000 fine Johnson had failed to pay after his 1941 imprisonment for tax evasion.

When they met, Johnson was up in years and suffering the early stages of leukemia and other ailments, said Ferry, a former assistant U.S. attorney who had served in Camden. Ferry placed a call to the U.S. attorney who once employed him and explained that Johnson was in failing health and had no assets. "Nucky had everything in his wife's name," Ferry said.

The case was closed. Ferry, now in his 80s, said he represented Johnson in minor tax matters over the next four years.

Johnson had tapped Ferry because the politician was acquainted with Ferry's law partner, Frank S. "Hap" Farley, a former state senator who succeeded Johnson as political leader and chairman of the Atlantic County GOP.

Ferry said Johnson was charismatic. In conversation, he "would totally focus on you, and not look around the room."

Over the last 13 years, Ferry researched and wrote the self-published book. He read transcripts of FBI interviews with Johnson, trial testimony, and a memoir a confidant had kept. He also recalled stories told by his mother, who also knew Johnson.

During that period, he also gave an interview to Nelson Johnson, a judge who wrote the non-fiction book upon which the HBO series is based. The judge is not related to Nucky Johnson.

In its loose adaptation, HBO's main character is named Nucky Thompson, and he orders violent assassinations.

Ferry doubts that ever happened. He said the series was so inaccurate he stopped watching it.

His book, published by ComteQ, a small company in Margate, is dedicated to "preserving and celebrating [Johnson's] colorful life and legacy," Ferry said. He called his subject "one of the great political bosses" of the 20th century. He also refers to him as "part mobster, part philanthropist."

Publisher Rob Huberman said Ferry's book was "not sensationalized. . . . Frank spoke to different people over the course of decades" to come up with a more accurate story of a man who once was the "go-to" person.

Richard Squires, a former Atlantic County executive, said he met Johnson at a Republican Club banquet a few years before Johnson died in 1968 at 85. Squires, who attended the book signing, said Johnson was seated on the dais and received applause from the crowd even though he had retired years earlier.

Squires recalled how Johnson shook his hand and asked the newly elected official: "Boy, are you in politics, too?"

"It was just like meeting Clark Gable or Jimmy Stewart," he said.

Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224,, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, "Burlco Buzz,"

Friday, January 18, 2013

Terence Winter Interview

In this interview Terrence Winter says that he hopes Boardwalk Empire continues for a few more seasons so they can get up to the 1929 mob meeting in AC.

He also says they are soon to be where President Harding dies, but his death in bed is boring, but actually he died of food poisoning, eating oysters or clams on a train in California, and it might have been a political assassination. Although John Dean of Watergate fame doesn't mention this possiblity in his bio of Harding, Clarence W. Barron, the publisher of the Wall Street Journal, expressed foreknowledge of Harding's "sudden" death.

In reality, President Harding visited Atlantic City on occasion, and when there played golf at the Seaveiw Country Club, once playing a round with ten year old Sonny Fraser, the son of the Seaview golf pro. Harding lost a bet that Fraser wouldn't play the round in under 100 strokes, and he did, and then went on to become personal secretary to Hap Farley, the political boss who took over from Nucky Johnson.

The real Boardwalk Empire is even more interesting than the fictional Nucky Thompson one.

- Bill Kelly

Terence Winter on What’s Next forBoardwalk Empire

Boardwalk Empire fans can rest assured, Nucky Thompson has gone over the edge and will be full-on gangster in season four. And as anyone who's watched Sunday's season three finale knows (and those who haven't should read no further unless spoilers aren't a concern), characters like Al Capone, Chalky White, and Richard Harrow are also becoming valuable allies for the man who really runs Atlantic City. To find out more about what's in store for the large cast of characters, we turned to the man who runs Boardwalk Empire, Terence Winter.

The slogan this season was that you can't be half a gangster — but it could have also been that you can't have half a protagonist.

I'm not sure I agree. What do you mean?

Nucky's finally becoming a whole person: He finally realized that he needs to actually care about the people in his life. He didn't know Chalky White's phone number. He didn't know that Eddie Kessler had a wife and children. He didn't know that Margaret had fallen in love with Owen. He had underestimated his brother Eli. He thought he was being political and astute about maneuvering relationships, that his understanding of politics elevated him above other gangsters, but all of his various alliances were borne of opportunity, not trust. He didn't have real relationships.

Then yes. In a broad sense, Nucky has changed. When the guy on the boardwalk says, "Hey, you're Nucky Thompson," Nucky doesn't answer. That's a very different Nucky from when we first met him. He's not a glad-handing politician anymore. He's had some clarity about what matters, who matters, and he's realizing it might be a good idea to have coffee with the people who are responsible for his life, and ask how their weekends were. When we say, "You can't be half a gangster," it's not just about shooting people. He can't be half a gangster in the sense that he can't be half in this life, or half pay attention. He has to pay attention to this business in a deeper way, which is odd for a guy who basically made his way up as a politician, which is supposedly based on personal relationships, but only in the most superficial sense: "What can you do for me?" That was all selfishness and opportunity. So when he says to Eli, "I don't want anybody coming close to us that we don't already know," he's outlining how he's going to do business in a different way, and I'm really looking forward to exploring that version of Nucky in season four.
When exactly does the season finale take place?

June of 1923.

In two months, then, Nucky's M.O. would have to start to change anyway, since President Harding dies in August of 1923.

Yeah. Unfortunately, that's going to happen off camera, because I don't know how interesting a guy dying in bed is. [Laughs] But [Attorney General] Harry Daugherty is still going to be in office for a while, although he's a vastly different incarnation under Coolidge, and that's when we'll time jump to in season four, in mid 1924, the late spring, when Coolidge is already firmly in charge. And by then, the corruption in office isn't a secret anymore, and Daugherty will be under a big spotlight. The Teapot Dome will be in the headlines, and that's going to affect his ability to shuck and jive, and that will trickle down to Nucky. That will certainly be one of many challenges he faces — some will be political, some will be criminal, some will be personal difficulties, but all of the things he'll face in season four will be different from the past, and they will be equally challenging.

But no Gyp Rosetti. Did you decide to end this season without a cliffhanger before you knew if Boardwalk would be renewed for a fourth season, so it could serve as a series finale if need be?

You know, I didn't think about that. I'm always optimistic that we will continue, and I'm not a huge fan of cliffhangers to begin with. They always feel sort of cheap to me: "We're not going to tell you what happens to guarantee you come back next September!" If you tell a compelling enough story, people come back anyway.

Have you given any thought to how many subplots or characters you'll have in season four? Some critics felt like there were too many this season, many of whom would just vanish to the point where the audience would forget about them. Even Nucky couldn't remember who Chalky was [when he was concussed] ...

That's great how you put that: Nucky doesn't even remember Chalky. [Laughs] He didn't even remember Eli, either. But that's the nature of the show. We have such a huge cast, and so many different storylines going, so one of our rules is leave them wanting more. That way, when you do see them, you're happy they're there. Everyone's got their favorites — some people want more Al Capone — but there's no way to get them all in one episode. Some of the episodes are bigger than others, and sometimes we aren't as successful as when we drill it down to two people. It's like music, and we have to go with what sounds right. Or it's like cooking — a dash of this, a dash of that — and we're making a meal. But with so many characters, somebody's going to get disappointed every week, and there's not a lot to be done about that — unless we kill off half the cast. And that would upset a lot of people, too. I look at this as one big piece, like one big novel, and these episodes are but chapters of that novel.

You've said before you'd like to have six seasons. What's the bigger picture — the formation of the Big Seven, the gangster conference in Atlantic City, the beginnings of a national crime syndicate? Are all these subplots to serve a greater whole?

Hopefully we'll get to six, if not more than that. Six at minimum to be fully satisfied. And yes, if we get that far, I want to show the Big Seven. Nucky almost alluded to that in episode nine, that he was sort of thinking along those lines, so hopefully we'll get there, or even the end of Prohibition. So yes, I'm thinking of a bigger picture. Certain people will come and go, and minor players or certain people we meet along the way will come to prominence in later years. Even just this season, Chalky's future son-in-law had a minor story in episode two and then came back in a major way in episode eleven. In season four, Chalky will rise to prominence a great deal. And you know the history of 1924: Al Capone will take over Cicero and come into his own. It's the year he wages war with Dean O'Banion, and we know how that ends.

Will Van Alden be pulled into the North Side wars?
He'll be put in the middle of that. I'm a huge fan of history and it's certainly fascinating and rich to depict. But the challenge and fun of it is to mix it into that world, say with Van Alden and Dean O'Banion. I have a rule: I will not alter the basic history of a real-life character to suit our fictional needs in a big way. Lucky Luciano did get arrested in 1923 on a drug charge, and he did get out of it by giving up his stash of heroin, but the circumstances of that are fair game: What did they do with the heroin? Were the cops dirty? And Al Capone and Nucky Johnson were definitely friendly. There's a photo of them on the boardwalk together, that people dispute whether or not is real or part of a smear campaign, but they did know each other well. But it would be ludicrous by 1924, if during that time, he took a bunch of trips to Atlantic City, so for us next season, the Capone story doesn't go to Atlantic City a lot. He's got to interact with Nucky in a different way.

Was it really necessary to dwell on all of Van Alden's efforts to be a door-to-door salesman? Some of the detours — Van Alden selling irons, Margaret teaching sex ed — took a long time to play out. Some critics found the pacing too slow, the subplots too excessive.

Hey — if Van Alden going bananas on his boss was a sitcom, I would watch it every week! [Laughs] I'm sorry not everyone found that interesting. To me, it was worth all of that. Margaret, her story, and the whole birth control arc was a journey. We picked her up and set her adrift. She has all this money and no purpose, she finds meaning doing a greater good, and the ironic twist is that she finds herself pregnant. Where she goes beyond that, you'll have to tune in! But the thing is, what we're doing, these are all parts of a whole, and it all connects, whether you know it or not. It's not haphazard or random, and we're not going to abandon things that set up or add flavor or are part of a bigger piece.

Does any of the criticism ever help, though? Do you ever adjust the show based on critic response?

I tend not to read reviews; there's too much out there in cyberspace. I mean, they even recap Jersey Shore! [Laughs] I get it, they have a lot of space to fill up, but I've not done that, no. Critics who do the weekly recap, I find that kind of absurd. That's like reviewing chapters in a novel. Obviously, this has to work episode to episode, but the endless analysis of every little thing? You have to watch the whole season, you know? You can't just pick out things randomly, and those that do, they don't understand that we're setting up something really big. I write the show the way we want to see it and I'm happy with what we put out.

What are the challenges of revitalizing the gangster genre, or introducing new types of characters to this genre?

For television? The latitude we have on HBO and the technology we have, we can do everything as good, if not better, than in a movie. We've done things as big and spectacular as feature films. The challenge is the genre itself, because there are only so many variations on particular themes, so we're really finding what's new and fresh there. There are only so many ways you can walk into a speakeasy and shake a guy down, so to find what makes it different is our big challenge as the series as the series progresses. Each episode that passes, that's one less episode we can do it that way, and the writers room gets harder and harder with each passing season. But that's the job.

So when you're writing a character like Gyp Rosetti, how do you make sure he's not like Joe Pesci was in Goodfellas?

He's Italian and hotheaded and violent, and people are going to make comparisons. Other than giving him a monocle, or other odd character traits, there's only so many different versions of a gangster you can do. If this were a western, it would be like horses. Of course, you see things that have been done in the other movies, but the trick is to make each character as fresh as you can. And people really responded to [Bobby]. I knew they would. If I was confident about anything, Bobby Cannavale in your movie or TV show is going to work.

Richard Harrow is a character we don't often see in this genre. That's pretty fresh — and a fan favorite.

But even Richard Harrow, somebody once pointed out to me, was a type of character in some other story or book. I don't remember which one, but something else referenced a guy like him, and I was completely unaware of that. I think he's unique for us, though. In some ways, he's a lone wolf, and even the people who know him can't know him completely.

He had the romantic relationship subplot, which may or may not be able to continue now that he's dropped a child on Julia's doorstep.

He's probably got a lot of explaining to do. I've found in my romantic life that showing up at 2 a.m. covered in blood is not a good idea. [Laughs] Chicks hate it when you do that. Take a shower at least. Wash the kid up. 

Gillian's not going to be too pleased with that custody arrangement, if she's still around.
Without giving too much away, she will absolutely be around.

Speaking of kids, what did you think about Birdwalk Empire

I love it! I have two little kids who watch Sesame Street all the time, and for me, that was one of the best honors the show could have gotten, to be on Sesame Street. It was awesome. We even went and visited the set, which was cool, even though Big Bird was asleep when we got there. They sort of had him in storage. But it was great. Very flattering.

If you went on set for Birdwalk, did you also go on set for Wolf of Wall Street?
They've been filming at the same studio where we shoot the show, so I have. I was on the set for two different days. I got to see them shoot a sequence on a yacht, a big action sequence that will involve special effects, and I got to be there when Rob Reiner was shooting. It's always great to see a film you wrote come to life.

How much input does Marty Scorsese have on Boardwalk these days, especially when he's busy directing a film like that?

You know, when he's directing a movie, he's completely in that zone, but I generally speak to him about once a week, usually on a Sunday night or a Sunday afternoon. That's when we catch up. He gives input mostly remotely, through e-mail and phone and intermediaries. But even if he's working on four or five things at a time, he has this amazing ability to focus and compartmentalize, and he remembers everything. Marty and I talk all the time, who we like, who we don't like, but he knows every actor who's ever lived and ever will live. He knows actors who haven't even been born yet. That's how good the guy is.

What was his reaction to the Taxi Driver homage a few episodes back?

You know, I told him it was coming, and that it was a blatant homage. I said, "I hope you enjoy it!" And he did. We also had a couple of Little Rascals homages this year, and Three Stooges, but they were so subtle. The Three Stooges one was a line, "Normally parties bore me, but not this one," which is a line Curly says right before he gets hit with a pie. I stole that for the New Year's Eve party scene. And then Little Rascals, that's when Van Alden's boss tells him, "Now George, be reasonable," which is from when Spanky's told, "Now Spanky, be reasonable," although I don't know if that qualifies. You were talking about highbrow cinematic references, and I'm talking about stuff I shouldn't even be confessing! [Laughs] Oh, and one more thing — when Harrow brings Tommy to the door, that's from the last shot of The Searchers, when John Wayne comes back. That's our little inside joke.

You're developing another HBO project with Marty, about the seventies. So if it goes forward, you'd have two period pieces on HBO.

Yes, yes. I think four or five might be the limit, though. [Laughs] It's taking place in the seventies, in 1973, the beginnings of punk, disco, and hip-hop, in New York City, the height or the depth of the craziness in terms of the crime and political corruption and a really interesting time to be in New York and in the music business. I can't stop thinking about fun cameos we could have, because it's the beginning of everything from the New York Dolls to the very early Ramones to Grandmaster Flash, the list goes on. We'd want to show CBGB, so maybe we'll probably rent the building and recreate it, so it can live, God willing, another ten years.  

How much of a gangster are you?

I could cheat on my taxes or something, possibly, write off a dinner that I didn't really have. That's about as far as I'd go. But gangster, or gangsta? Because that's a world of difference, from what I understand from the kids. [Laughs] I'm not really gangsta. Not at all. I just write about them. It's fun to pretend, at least on paper. But in real life, not so much.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Nucky Thompson and Nucky Johnson


HBO/Heston Collection

The Character: On the HBO series ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ Steve Buscemi plays Nucky Thompson, treasurer of Atlantic City and bootlegger in prohibition-era New Jersey. Nucky is a major player in the organized crime world, orchestrating some of the biggest bootleg shipments in the country with the help of his sheriff brother Eli and his enforcer, Jimmy, a former soldier who looks up to Nucky as a father figure. Nucky is a charismatic guy, but get on his bad side and you’ll probably wind up dead.

The Inspiration: Nucky Thompson is inspired by Enoch L. Johnson, a political boss and racketeer living in Atlantic City, who controlled the Republican politics in his town and was a heavy-hitter in organized crime, including bootlegging, prostitution, and gambling. Like Nucky Thomspon, Enoch Johnson wore a fresh red carnation on his lapel every day, rode around in a powder-blue luxury car, lived in a suite of rooms in the Ritz-Carlton, and helped Walter Edge win the senate election. And also like Thompson, Johnson’s first wife suffered an untimely death and he was eventually pursued on charges of tax evasion.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Boardwalk View from Across the Pond

Under the boardwalk

Chris Philpott – View from Abroad

Today marks a week since Sky's new SoHo channel came on the air, launching with repeats of Mad Men and The Sopranos, and new episodes of Game of Thrones. How much have you been watching the new channel? What shows are you most excited to see? Or waiting to see in the next week or so?

I'm going to try not to blog about SoHo too often since not everyone has Sky, but Boardwalk Empire is too good to ignore. In the past week I've watched Game of Thrones, Rescue Me, Weeds, How To Make It in America, Six Feet Under, and TV movies Too Big To Fail and Superheroes, as well as a few other bits and pieces.

One of the shows I've been most excited to see isBoardwalk Empire, the period drama set during America's prohibition era and starring Steve Buscemi, which started last night with a two-hour premiere. SoHo also showed the entire first series over the weekend, which was a decent opportunity to think back over the tale of Nucky Thompson so far.

It seems to me that Boardwalk Empire isn't really about Nucky, per se. He's a known quantity - the poster boy for the phrase "absolute power corrupts absolutely", the man who automatically hands out cash as a way of making problems disappear (and how interesting it was that his solution to Teddy Schroeder's foray into pyromania was to hand him some cash and say "don't get caught, kid"), the politician who doesn't truly care about anyone except himself; as he said to Margaret during the first series, after she admitted she was being selfish, "I never hold that against anyone."*

Far more interesting are characters like Jimmy Darmody (the incomparable Michael Pitt), Margaret Schroeder (Kelly McDonald), and creepy prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), each of whom has undergone radical changes since arriving in Atlantic City and falling in with Mr Thompson.

The entire first season was about the story of each character - Darmody, the former soldier who becomes a violent henchman; Schroeder, the morally upstanding citizen who ends up turning a blind eye to the immoral behaviour of her sugar-daddy; and Van Alden, the staunchly Protestant man who falls into temptation, self-flagellates to a photo of Schroeder**, kills a co-worker, and impregnates Nucky's former mistress (and as we saw last night, is hiding that fact from his wife).
The thing they all have in common is that they've been changed, even irreparably damaged, by their association with Nucky Thompson - and while Nucky is the sun at the centre of this solar system, their journeys are what keeps me interested in the show. Sure, it's interesting to watch a dramatisation of the early years of prohibition and the gangster resurgence of the 1920s, but it's always investment in characters that keeps me coming back.

In a way, that's the real genius of Boardwalk Empire. It tells the tale of prohibition from the viewpoint of those trying to skirt the law, implying that we're meant to sympathise with the crooks, while simultaneously showing us the downside of getting involved in that lifestyle.

When we see Margaret deceiving election fraud investigators against her better judgment or see Van Alden showing his wife around before going back to Lucy (as we saw last night), it's clear that downside is, and those characters are, infinitely more interesting.

A few other quick thoughts before wrapping this up:

- Richard Harrow might be one of the most interesting characters on the show - he certainly became a favourite of mine last season, despite only a few short appearances. But that scrapbook he's keeping, with pictures of happy families glued into a Bible, can't be too healthy, right? I'm predicting an episode where he takes Angela and Tommy hostage and drives them to Detroit or something.

- Van Alden's wife is surely the biggest wet blanket in the world, right? Though Michael Shannon might be the standout performer in the series - last night being no exception. His droll delivery of the line "I'm sorry you had to see that", after Mrs Van Alden merely saw a list of wet venues, showed even he was enthusiastic for a weekend with his wife as I'd be with a weekend of Masterchef Australia reruns.

- Last, before you get excited about the Commodore's takeover of the boardwalk, don't forget that Nucky outsmarted him once before, plus Jimmy and Eli aren't the most reliable sidekicks - I think the odds are in Nucky' favour at this point.

What did you think of last night's Boardwalk Empire? Is the show more interesting because of Nucky Thompson, or because of the Jimmys, Margarets and Van Aldens of the show? And how much have you watched on SoHo in the past week?

(*) Before you say "oi, Nucky looked after Jimmy and looks after Margaret, he cares about them", even those examples are selfish acts - Nucky just wants to feel as though he has a son after his own was taken from him.

(**) One of the most disturbing scenes in the first series, and so much worse than anything else he might have done while looking at that photograph. By the way, is his marriage to Mrs Van Alden the most bizarre marriage ever shown on television? I dare you to try and name a marriage that was more dysfunctional.