Knucky Johnson (left) and Frank Ferry
Author writes about the real Nucky Johnson, distorted on TV
January 21, 2013|By Jan Hefler, Inquirer Staff Writer
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
treasurer and an influential
Republican Party political boss who picked senators and governors. Atlantic
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
"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
attorney who had served in U.S. .
Ferry placed a call to the Camden
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
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
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." Margate
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
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. Atlantic
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, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, "Burlco Buzz," atwww.philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.