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.]