High Times In A Wide-Open Town

By Stuart Mitchner

In May 1929 delegates to an Atlantic City convention worked out a fourteen point agreement that was a distorted mirror image of President Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” treaty negotiated ten years earlier at Versailles. Led by Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and other mobster kingpins, this particular summit also dealt with war and peace, armaments, and the spoils of war.

As viewers of HBO’s series Boardwalk Empire know, the meeting was hosted by Atlantic County treasurer Nucky Johnson, the model for Boardwalk’s Nucky Thompson. In Prohibition Gangsters: The Rise and Fall of a Bad Generation (Rutgers Univ. Press $24.95), Marc Mappen quotes an editorial in the Atlantic City Daily Press naively asking “Did these gangsters merely have reason to believe that here they would be undisturbed and here they could foregather without any police interference, a supposition that turned out to be the correct one?” The editorial “lambasted the town’s lax law enforcement,” for permitting “a gangster convention to be held under their very noses.” Of course that was why Atlantic City was the ideal setting. Nucky Johnson had the police in his pocket.

Woodrow Wilson also makes an appearance in the opening pages of Steven Hart’s American Dictators: Frank Hague, Nucky Johnson, and the Perfection of the Urban Political Machine (Rutgers $23.95), which points out that each man “owed his ascension, ironically, to the efforts of Progressive reformer Woodrow Wilson during his attenuated term as governor of New Jersey.”

The most detailed discussion of Wilson’s role in inadvertently boosting the careers of the bosses is in Nelson Johnson’s Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City (Medford Press $16.95), the series tie-in edition featuring a foreword by writer and executive producer Terence Winter, along with excellent photographs of the major figures in the hit HBO series that has been renwed for a fifth season. You’ll find pictured therein Michael Pitt as Jimmy Darmody; Gretchen Moll as his mother, Gillian; Kelly Macdonald as Margaret Schroeder; Michael K. Williams as Chalky White; and Michael Shannon as FBI agent Nelson VanAlden, but you won’t find the names of these characters in the index because they’re all fictional. The “real people” are the Commodore, Louis Kaestner (based on Louis Kuehnle and played by Dabney Coleman), the gangsters, Al Capone (Stephen Graham), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg). (Online various Boardwalk Empire sites suggest that Jimmy Darmody had a role similar to that of Johnson’s right-hand man Jimmy Boyd).

Above all, of course, there’s Nucky himself, a revelation as portrayed by Steve Buscemi, arguably the most accomplished and admired character actor in film today. It was a daring and imaginative piece of casting, and according to Winter, who made his name as one of the main writers on HBO’s The Sopranos, “If we were going to cast accurately what the real Nucky looked like, we’d have cast Jim Gandolfini.” The idea was to move as far from the real-life Johnson as possible (in terms of criminal activity, the move follows a dark course). As described in Nelson Johnson’s book, Nucky stood 6 feet 4 inches with broad shoulders, “a ruggedly handsome man with large, powerful hands, a glistening bald head, a devilish grin, friendly gray eyes, and a booming voice.”

One piece of personal history the real and fictional Nuckys have in common in addition to corruption, high living and abuse of power is that both are widowers whose wives had died young. It’s worth noting, as well, that Nucky and his wife attended the State Normal College in Trenton, which became Trenton State, now The College of New Jersey.

Nucky left after a year to work for the Commodore, but his wife ended up teaching there.

WILSON THE TSUNAMI

In Steven Harts’s American Dictators, Woodrow Wilson’s “passage through the governor’s office” had an effect on Atlantic City (“America’s Playground”) “akin to a tsunami.” The “wide-open town” overseen by Commodore Kuehnle was in Wilson’s eyes “a stain on New Jersey’s honor” and during his gubernatorial campaign he used the city’s “graft-sodden political machine as a prime example of the bossism he meant to eradicate.” Once he became governor, he saw to it that a committee was formed to “root for evidence of electoral fraud” in the city. Although there was clear evidence of graft, particularly on the predominantly African American northside “where voters were paid $2 a head to cast their own ballots and those of deceased citizens,” both Nucky, then the county sheriff, and Kuehnle were eventually acquitted. However, another probe by Wilson led to the Commodore’s prosecution and imprisonment and the making of Nucky Johnson.

Thus, Hart writes, just as Wilson’s “pet reforms paved the way for Frank Hague’s acquisition of dictatorial powers,” his campaign to bring down Kuehnle “opened the way for a younger, even more venal successor.” By this time, Nucky was not only county treasurer but secretary to the Republican County Committee, with “control over the party’s agenda and membership.”

BOOKING BOARDWALK EMPIRE

Evidence that Boardwalk Empire has evolved into something more than a spin-off of The Sopranos is in the appearance of books like Boardwalk Empire and Philosophy edited by Richard Greene and Rachel Robison-Greene (Open Court Books 19.95), which according to one reviewer turns “the Boardwalk into the School of Athens,” with contributions by, says another review, “sixteen philosophical bootleggers.” Then there’s Boardwalk Empire A-Z: A Totally Unofficial Guide to Accompany the Hit HBO Series by John Wallace (John Blake $10.95), billed as “the quintessential A-Z of the HBO show—from Atlantic City, Babette’s Supper Club, and Capone, to the Ziegfeld Theatre.”

Finally, a most unlikely and improbable and no doubt fanciful entry in the Boardwalk Empire publishing sweepstakes is the Chalky White Children’s Book collection, which is profanely introduced on Huffington Post by Michael K. White, who plays Nucky’s African American partner in crime (and is still best known for the role of Omar in The Wire). Titles include The Littlest Bag of Heroin in Town, Klan Man, Klan Man, Where Are You?, The Stumbly Wumbly Whore, and Chalky’s favorite, Who Did Daddy Whack Today?

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