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, jhefler@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, "Burlco Buzz," atwww.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.

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