Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sinatra's Man Against the Mob

A friend of the old waterfront, Joseph Sciorra (of Queens College’s John D. Calandra Italian American Institute), was entrusted several years ago with a cassette tape of a rare old Frank Sinatra 78 rpm recording. He recently posted it on YouTube: Forty-eight seconds of the great singer in his prime, making a scratchily sincere endorsement for the anti-Mob candidate for Congress in Red Hook in 1946. Vincent ‘Jim’ Longhi was a young waterfront lawyer just back from the war that fall that the Sinatra booster record played from trucks all over Brooklyn’s 12th district on his behalf.


Longhi was thirty years old when he dared to run for congress in an anti-Mafia campaign. The Democratic candidate backed by the Camarda clan was traditionally a lock, leaving the forlorn Republican nomination wide open for Longhi, whose politics were closer to the leftist American Labor Party, which would also endorse him. “Since ninety percent of the workers on the Brooklyn waterfront were Italian,” he told me sixty years later, “and I’m an articulate young Italian about to be a lawyer, we could capture the Republican nomination, and we did.” It was a sign of how close a Republican majority finally seemed in 1946 that New York party leaders tolerated candidates as left-leaning as Longhi, who found “hundreds of longshoremen who remembered and worked with [martyred longshore leader] Pete Panto who thought, ‘Someday we’ll get the Mob out of there.’ They became my campaign workers. The campaign and the struggle against the Mob rackets became synonymous.”

Longhi's great hero, Pete Panto

Longhi had been drawn to waterfront politics through his father Joseph, a combative socialist who fled Italy to eventually become a docks organizer in New York when the International Longshoremen’s Association was an emerging union dominated by a former tugboat captain, President T.V. O’Connor, and the onetime head of the Five Points Gang, Paul Vacarelli, who “Irished” as Paul Kelly. “When my father married my mother,” Longhi recalled with a son’s awe, “he had a bodyguard of eleven men, eleven Italians with ice picks!”

Jim Longhi’s life took the first of its many unlikely jags when as a law student at Columbia he met Woody Guthrie on a New York City subway and ended up playing in a trio with Guthrie and Cisco Houston in the Merchant Marine. They enlisted together in 1943, a time when German submarines had sunk over seven hundred Allied merchant vessels and killed six thousand seamen in the North Atlantic. (New York’s wartime brownout was designed to give departing ships less of a targetable silhouette against the city’s lights for German U-boats preying offshore.) The singing trio were not spared the odds—Longhi had two feighters sunk beneath him; the Willy B. was torpedoed and chased by a U-boat in the Atlantic, and the Sea Pussy was ripped open by an acoustic mine off the African coast. He lost half his hearing in the war.

Back home from his improbable tour young Longhi’s congressional strategy was simple: The theme would be the racketeers, or “bucking the Mob.” The election would not be a door-to-door effort but would be fought on the piers. “We weren’t campaigning for parks or better schools but ‘Stop the shape-up. Stop the speed-up.’” These were the concerns of thousands of local Brooklyn longshoremen, whose lives were controlled through a half-dozen “Camarda locals” that covered the five miles of shore between the Brooklyn Bridge and Twentieth Street.

Longhi’s anti-Camarda campaign gained him the respect of local oddsmakers, attracted “intellectual” sympathizers such as the playwright Arthur Miller as well as an unlikely but dangerous ally. He soon found himself in a dark quandary, running such a strident campaign against the Camardas that he caught the eye of their waterfront rivals. Even as Congressman John J. Rooney called him a Communist “importation,” Longhi’s reform candidacy dovetailed with the ambitions of the Anastasia brothers. Albert Anastasia had survived the dismantling of Murder Inc., gaining his American citizenship training longshoremen for the Army in Pennsylvania during the war. With peacetime, he settled back into Brooklyn as powerful as ever, waiting for any sign of weakness to move against the Camardas.

“The Brooklyn waterfront was broken up into smaller locals, more easily controlled, and our fight was for one union, one local,” Longhi recalled near the end of his long life. “Simultaneously, you had the Lord High Executioner himself, Albert Anastasia, who wanted a palace revolution, knock off the big guy [the Camardas] and take control… Temporary alliances were made through Albert’s brother, Tough Tony. The Anastasias wanted to take Camarda and company down, that’s what we wanted to do, so in a sense we’re allies.” Longhi compared this “painful” coalition to the situation where “the American Democrats, who regarded Russia as a monster, could make temporary alliances so they could defeat the devil himself, Hitler.” The effects of the deal were immediately clear when Longhi’s campaign workers learned of a plan to silence him.

Albert Anastasia

Early one morning as he was belting out his stump speech to the crowd stamping into place for the shape-up, “My guys were tipped off” that Camarda men were stationed on the rooftops above him, poised to dump garbage cans filled with dead fish down on the candidate. Longhi’s workers relayed the news of the loaded cans along the ground until it reached Anastasia’s people. In a strange-but-true moment, the rooftop operation was stopped in its tracks on Albert’s private word and Longhi’s anti-Mob speech resumed.

Egged on further by Sinatra’s booster record that played all over Red Hook, Longhi had made a fight out of a mismatch by election day. “Longhi has been making a spectacular campaign,” observed the Times, “and is given a chance of election.” With the disparate endorsements of the Republicans, American Labor Party, and the Daily Worker, and despite the private approval of the Anastasias, Longhi lost to Rooney by a respectable five thousand votes.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Schulberg's Contender Speech

Among the shocks produced by Mike Johnson’s 1948 crime series in the old New York Sun was the allegation of an international crime ‘syndicate,’ at a time when J. Edgar Hoover himself was loathe to publicly admit the existence of such a syndicate, let alone a Mafia. If you are old enough to have watched the New York gangsters brought before Sen. Kefauver’s television cameras in hearings also inspired by Johnson’s crime series, or if you have seen any of the scores of Mob films and dramas made since the Sun series—from “On the Waterfront” to The Sopranos—you have been part of a national conversation that Mike Johnson bravely began.

The novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg was hired in 1949 to adapt Mike Johnson’s waterfront stories to the screen, and the first draft of his screenplay portrays a heroic reporter trudging intrepidly around the docks. It was only after Schulberg brought the project to Elia Kazan and they were able to incorporate the revelations coming out of the 1952 New York Crime Commission hearings, which Schulberg attended for 40 days, that their final film began to emerge. (Brought before the Crime Commission, ILA President Joe Ryan turned out to have spent thousands of his longshore union’s “Anti-Communist” fund on shirts, vacations, car repairs, dinners and funeral expenses.)

Schulberg ate it up, and, being a terrific reporter as well as novelist and screenwriter, found much of the material he would need to complete his movie with Kazan. He certainly was paying attention the day that a man named Dominick Genova described to the committee how he’d escaped death while riding with a waterfront associate in a taxi cab: It closely resembled what became his movie’s most famous scene, the tense cab ride shared by Charley the Gent and his subpoenaed brother Terry Malloy. One day, Genova recalled, his friend the trucker invited him to have dinner with his family:

We had dinner there. And he said to me, ‘Listen, I’ve got to meet somebody over this bar and grill,’ he says. ‘Do you want to come with me?’ I said, ‘All right.’ Well, we got in a cab and started to go to this bar, and suddenly he changed his mind and told the cab driver to go some place else. When we got to this other place, he started telling me what it was all about, that he had seen ‘Apples’ that day and ‘Apples’ had asked him to set me up.

Q. Asked him to ‘set you up’?

A. In other words, he meant to bring me some place where they could get at me. So he says, ‘Before I do anything like that—I always liked you; I want to hear your side of the story.’ So I told him about the milkman incident; told him why they were after me....So he said, ‘Well, in a case like that,’ he says, ‘they told me you’re marked ‘lousey’ up there,’ he says, ‘but I’m going to say that I missed you; that you wouldn’t go with me.’

Well, I quit the job there and didn’t have no part of him either.

Q. You haven’t worked on the waterfront since that time, have you?

A. No, I haven’t.

(Crime Commission testimony as quoted in Dark Harbor, p. 198)

In the film, moved by his brother’s “It was you, Charley” speech Charley the Gent relents and rides off alone instead of delivering Terry to his death, then turns up on a cargo hook in his camel’s hair coat.

Brando himself would later claim to have created this scene, but clearly it had an earlier inspiration. In the hands of Schulberg, it became art. (Budd’s father, B.P. Schulberg had produced the Twenties waterfront drama, Docks of New York, which has been beautifully restored on a new DVD from Criterion.)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Trolling Montero's

Hunker inside the old Montero’s Bar & Grill and peer out at the stroller parade that now rolls down Atlantic Avenue to the new waterfront playgrounds of Brooklyn Bridge Park. This is old waterfront in here, safe among the scrimshaw and dusty models of clippers and destroyers. The place’s dark walls are an evocative clutter of orange lifesavers for the Owls Head or SS Stonewall Jackson, and a poster identifying 140 colorful ship stacks that might appear in the harbor. IF THE CAPTAIN AIN’T HAPPY, AIN’T NOBODY HAPPY reads the sign opposite the bar of this sailor’s tavern opened on this spot in 1947 by Pilar Montero and her husband. Pilar was seen smoking at her bar in the afternoons well into New York’s smokeless age.

When I first got the idea to write a book about the old waterfront, hers was one of the most convenient places where I could step a little out of time and discuss past days on the Brooklyn docks with sociable witnesses, some of whom were more talkative than others. Montero’s traded its grill for a small pool table in the early sixties, and it’s still often the first stop for visitors coming ashore down the street—the crew of a Japanese Coast Guard ship passed through last weekend.

If Montero’s doesn’t attract the notice of many parents passing on their way to the park, another symbol of the old working harbor will soon be coming to greet them: In August, David Sharps, who runs the Waterfront Barge Museum in Red Hook, will bring his Lehigh Valley barge to Pier 6, where kids can tour it whose parents don’t make it all the way to Conover Street. (Sharps bought his Lehigh Valley Railroad barge for a dollar in 1985 when he was still primarily a clown and juggler and then had to pump 300 tons of harbor sludge out of its hull to make it a combination home and museum of the old harbor. A year ago, a Chelsea theater company staged a memorable performance of On the Waterfront aboard Sharps’s barge. His “Tug & Barge Week” (Aug. 26-31) at Pier 6 will offer tours of his floating museum as well as rides on a genuine tug.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Waterfront Jungle

As a thing to watch, Port of New York (1949) is stolid, head-cracking drama-- a dragnet story that seems not so much torn as neatly clipped from the day's headlines. "This is the Port of New York," announces the narrator, NBC News's Chet Huntley. "To the merchant, it's the biggest, busiest seaport in the world. But to others, it is a battleground, and a battle is constantly waged against illicit traffic and contraband and against the unknown forces that deal in the most dangerous of all contraband--narcotics." But, seen as dispatches from a historical battleground, the movie is more interesting. Beyond featuring Yul Brynner (with hair) as a cunning young narcotics dealer who runs a yacht club as a front for a heroin smuggling ring, the movie highlights the very different views of two federal law agencies in the late forties. At the same time that the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover was still reluctant to publicly admit the possible existence of organized crime in America, customs agents from the Treasury Department saw the tremendous networks who were smuggling heroin and other drugs into the ports. The main criminal case the film dramatizes, the real events around the S.S. Florentine, is a terrific tale, and much of the dicey investigating by the agents, following the drugs and the money, put them in harm's way along the Red Hook piers. A body thrown from a ship leads to a double-cross and ultimately a master-smuggler befriended by an undercover agent. With some jilted mols thrown in, at least on paper there are the makings for a good movie.

Port of New York is also interesting because it's the kind of film that On the Waterfront might have been. In 1949, the movie rights were first bought to Mike Johnson’s waterfront crime series in the New York Sun; the Hollywood offer came only weeks after the reporter had won the Pulitzer Prize for exposing racketeering and corruption around what he called New York's “Waterfront Jungle.” The original producers envisioned a movie very much in the docu-drama style. The original idea was for a story that followed its intrepid reporter all over the docks of New York. There is no romance in Budd Schulberg's original script, and no turncoat “rat,” either, that would develop along with the real-life government investigations that Johnson's work inspired: It would certainly be a forgotten film today, lucky to be on DVD at all, unless the reporter was played by Jimmy Stewart. Even so, chances are it wouldn’t have all the elements that On the Waterfront eventually had when, after a series of drafts by Schulberg in collaboration with director Elia Kazan, a masterpiece emerged five years after its original source material had won the Pulitzer. Port of New York is news from a "battleground," but Schulberg and Kazan's picture rises to something else.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Nose

The man happily washing up in this picture is the West Coast longshore leader Harry Bridges, often called The Nose, and more often called a communist--especially by the United States government, which tried several times to deport him. The rivalry of Bridges (and his ILWU) and the ILA's President Joe Ryan, beholden as he was to the East Coast racketeers who’d infiltrated his union, produced a longshoremen's dilemma that one historian characterized as "Reds Vs. Rackets."

Bridges, an Australian who'd gone to sea inspired by the boys' adventure stories of Jack London, had risen as a West Coast representative in Joe Ryan’s longshore union but broke with Ryan over his handling of the 1934 Great Strike in San Francisco. He founded the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and became ever after a focus of the FBI's attention. By the 1940s, he had grown quite skilled at eluding g-men, as he gleefully explained for The New Yorker's crime writer St. Clair McKelway, who had an affinity for scoundrels and characters, especially if they were good storytellers. Their conversation (really a long Bridges monologue in the Hotel Picadilly) is included in a superb new collection of McKelway’s journalism, Reporting at Wit’s End: Tales from the New Yorker (Bloomsbury Pr.):

“The F.B.I. men like to occupy the room next to yours in a hotel, if possible. If they can arrange this in advance, as they probably can, you’ll probably be assigned by the management to a room that has a room next to it with a locked door between it and yours. This locked door invariably has a space under it…usually they have your telephone rigged in such a way that their receiving instruments pick up not only what you say into your telephone but also what you say anywhere in your room. So you look under this connecting door yourself, and you listen. If you see two pairs of men’s feet moving around the room and hear no talking except in whispers, you can be fairly certain the room is occupied by F.B.I. men, or at least by men who are not acting like ordinary men in a hotel.” In addition to pranking the F.B.I. on his tapped phone, Bridges had become pretty practiced at spotting agents whenever he ventured out of his room: “I’ve seen so many F.B.I. men these past years that there are likely to be one or two I’ve seen before in the lobby of practically any hotel I am staying at. But if I don’t happen to see any F.B.I. men I know, I watch out for men holding newspapers in front of them in a certain peculiar sort of manner. They hold the paper so that it just comes to the bottoms of their eyes, and their eyes are always peering over the top of the paper.”

Bridges, the man Joe Ryan may have hated more than any other, can’t have been J.Edgar Hoover’s favorite person, either.

Monday, March 15, 2010


(From "Longshoremen and Their Homes," NYU lib. collection)

In August 1939, a month after the Brooklyn longshore leader Peter Panto stepped into a car and was never seen alive again, a work of patient advocacy appeared whose goals he would have mightily endorsed. "Longshoremen and Their Homes" was a project of the Public Housing movement, the then relatively recent idea that the working poor deserved a decent place in which to live, and that this should be the concern of the federal government. (It's interesting to read this hopeful document at a time when an ambitious scheme to develop the city's biggest New Deal-era Public Housing complex into condos was undermined by the 2008 crash.)

Greenwich Village, and the area around Sheridan and Washington Squares, was a far more desperate place during the spring of 1939, when researchers at Greenwich House completed this case study of 278 longshoremen living near the lower West Side waterfront. The research group’s Barrow Street ‘settlement,’ explains the foreword, was “situated…in a neighborhood blighted by some of New York City’s worst slums,” so they took it upon themselves to do something.

"Longshoremen and Their Homes" (NYU lib.)

The report profiles local dock workers raising families—what they earn, where they live, with the uncertainty of daily employment under the cattle-call hiring system:

"[B]etween the longshoreman and the job he is so eager to get stands another character, not to be confused with the longshoreman--the stevedore. Promptly at five minutes to eight the stevedore (or his foreman) strides out from a pier office to the great entrance doors, blowing a whistle. The huddle of expectant men shifts, takes on the shape of a horse-shoe, three and four men deep, facing the doors. Then the stevedore begins to shout, "Number three! Number seven! Number ten!' and so on. As he calls each number a group of twenty men breaks away from the horse-shoe and shuffles off on to the pier."

Beyond this, those who were regularly hired had to contend with the "speed-up," the inevitable (and dangerous) result of "two irreconcilable points of view" as the longshoremen were paid by the hour and the stevedore was paid by ton of cargo moved. "The amount of money the stevedore gets is fixed, and the more hours he has to pay his helpers, the smaller grows his margin....No wonder he is constantly pushing his men."

"Longshoremen and Their Homes" (NYU lib.)

When buildings like the ones pictured above eventually appeared in waterfront communities in Chelsea and Red Hook, the men who lived in these public housing complexes were better off than those profiled in the Greenwich House report. But it did not alter their relation to their union, whose corruption was unchanged by housing improvements. "Where does the graft come in?" wonders the Greenwich House report, before admitting, "It is difficult to discover the full extent of this kickback racket on the waterfront since it necessarily goes on under cover. Even those who suffer under it--the rank and file longshoremen--are afraid to make revelations since to do so may cost them their jobs."

Although the shape-up system is long abandoned, and the city itself has changed enormously since the thirties, many of the complaints listed in the Greenwich House report about waterfront work have persisted. The West Side dock workers told their interviewers that "Modern homes and pleasant parks and playgrounds would put an end to a lot of the crap-shooting and necking that go on in the dark doorways of the boarded-up tenements in dockland. And they think, too, that the gangsterism which flourishes there would lose much of its allure if the young people were given opportunities for sane recreation." 'Sane recreation' (in the form of bike paths and tennis courts) is exactly what has replaced the West Side's abandoned dockland. But elsewhere around the harbor (and around the country's ports) rank-and-file groups (http://lwcjustice.com/?page_id=16) are still trying to reform their wayward union, and, remarkably, still having to fight many of the same old battles.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Waterfront Cop

Bill O’Dwyer was already a former seminary student when he arrived in America from Ireland in 1910, and he would become a Brooklyn cop with a waterfront beat by the time his new country entered the Great War. This portrait from the New York Police Museum shows young O’Dwyer in his patrolman days, when he encountered the fierce but small-time gangs of that era before Prohibition would make real organized crime possible. Two decades after this picture O'Dwyer was Brooklyn District Attorney when a high-level gangster named Abe "Kid Twist" Reles came to his offices under escort. Reles described the outlines of a secretive national organization called the Combination. With Reles's testimony, O’Dwyer sent seven Combination leaders to death row, most notably, Louis Lepke Buchalter. (Newspapermen called the newly discovered organization 'Murder Inc.') Mysteriously, O'Dwyer never even arrested Albert Anastasia, a Brooklyn waterfront racketeer and Lepke's coordinator for most Combination murders (including the strangling death of dock leader Peter Panto in 1939). When his famous turncoat witness, Abe Reles, plunged to his death from Coney Island's Half Moon hotel in 1941, any case against Anastasia also “went out the window,” O’Dwyer insisted down the years.

Despite the Anastasia omission, O'Dwyer's Murder Inc. prosecutions would make him Mayor of New York in 1945. But it was Mayor O'Dwyer, the ex-waterfront cop, who presided during the scandals caused by Mike Johnson's Pulitzer-prize winning series, "Crime on the Waterfront," which ran in the New York Sun in 1948-49. His failure to prosecute Anastasia while Brooklyn D.A. as well as a wartime visit he'd had with the Mafia leader and Tammany liaison Frank Costello would haunt O’Dwyer's political career, most dramatically on national television in 1951, when he appeared before the Kefauver commission crime hearings in New York.

photo/Dave Attie

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Outlaw Frontier

Sixty years ago, the New York Sun's Malcolm "Mike" Johnson, a loyal union man himself, published his discoveries about the "labor gangsterism" then plaguing and "perverting" certain unions across the country. Crime on the Labor Front expanded on the work he'd done in a sensational series of articles on the New York waterfront, and in particular on the corruption of its International Longshoremen's Association, which, as run by "lifetime president" Joseph P. Ryan, made good cover for the racketeers who doubled as its officers. "The Port of New York, the greatest in the world, is an outlaw frontier," Johnson warned. As a reporter, he had seen the bloody invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, but was nevertheless shocked by the "outlaw" conditions he found surrounding Manhattan island after the war, in April 1948, when the murder of a North River hiring foreman inspired the first of his two hundred stories on waterfront corruption.

Johnson's crime series in the Sun caused a national scandal and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1949; the articles were almost immediately optioned by Hollywood (in what would become, many drafts later, the film On the Waterfront). Johnson's book, Crime on the Labor Front, investigating other mobbed-up unions in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Chicago, appeared in time to be waved and quoted by Senator Kefauver at hoodlum witnesses in the senate's 1951 crime hearings. "It is not only common knowledge that gangsters control the docks," Mike Johnson wrote, "but anyone interested can find out exactly which piers are bossed by which criminals." But when Johnson published this "common knowledge" on the Sun's front pages, detailing which gangs controlled which docks, he took his life in his hands.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Hiring Club

Although a scene like this was unlikely on the old waterfront (for that matter, it does not even appear anywhere within Ferguson Findley's 1951 book), dockworkers knew very real dangers--both from physical hazards of the job, where slingloads weighed as much as 4000 pounds--and from the racketeers who had infiltrated their longshore union and demanded daily tribute. The violence and dangers at the edges of the longshoremen's experience were rendered as implausible melodrama in books like Waterfront, which, after the scandals raised in the Kefauver hearings, was made into The Mob (with a young Ernie Borgnine as a union thug).

"In New York," the cop-narrator of Waterfront correctly explains, "longshoremen report to certain piers twice a day, once at five minutes to eight and then, if they didn't get a job the first time, at five minutes to one. That's what's known as the 'shape-up.' It has been called a vicious system. Maybe five hundred men report for a job that needs no more than a hundred. Who gets picked? If the waterfront is full of racketeers, and if the hiring foreman is in with them, then the longshoremen who work are all too often the ones who kick back part of their pay."

This photograph, of a morning "shape-up" (this one held at Manhattan's Chelsea Piers), comes from Charles Barnes' classic 1915 study, The Longshoremen (Russell Sage Foundation). The "shape" of course was made infamous by later investigators such as the Sun''s Mike Johnson, who called the ritual an "archaic and degrading hoax" that kept the men under-employed and powerless. But Barnes (observing the waterfront, where "Picturesqueness and magnitude unite in the handling of cargoes") was the first to record and present the daily spectacle in depth: Who were these men? Where did they come from and how dangerous were the jobs they competed for day after day? By the mid-fifties, decades after the shape was shelved by more enlightened ports like Portland, Seattle, and Los Angeles, New York finally abandoned the practice. It finally succumbed, despite the longtime collusion of ILA President Joseph P. Ryan and the New York Shipping Association on its behalf, under the weight of wildcat strikes by the rank-and-file membership, crime commission reports, and a crusading Hollywood movie whose hero turns against the racketeers.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Man Who Beat the Code

As a zealous and sincere young assistant D.A. in the Manhattan homicide bureau, Bill Keating challenged the idea that prosecuting waterfront murders was hopeless (witnesses were either mute or otherwise uncooperative, leading to mistrials). Keating quickly found that “The orderly, efficient dossier from which the storybook detective gets so much information is practically unknown in real life,” so he began to “compile facts about the enemy” for himself. In January 1947, when a hiring boss named Andy Hintz was shot on his West Village stairwell as he left for work, Keating got his chance to try a waterfront murder case. Instead of depending on the unlikely bravery of witnesses, the break came when the victim survived his attack long enough to be convinced to give a deathbed testimony against the racketeer Johnny “Cockeye” Dunn and his accomplices. After Hintz died and Keating won a dramatic jury conviction against Dunn for murder, he expected such waterfront prosecutions to become more routine. But caution returned to the D.A.’s office, forcing Keating to leak details about dock crimes to the Sun’s Mike Johnson, who was soon off and running with a 24-part series that scandalized the country in 1948. As Johnson says in his foreword to Keating’s book, “Without boat rockers the world would be a very different place and a terrible one.”

Keating's book is mainly a first-rate account of the education of a young boat rocker and the story of his triumphant dispatching of Dunn and company to Sing Sing’s death row. Keating ultimately left the D.A.’s office to work for a private organization, the New York Anti-Crime Committee. When his group exposed a secret police raid on an illegal wiretap ring, Keating went to jail rather than reveal his source. Written with the horseracing author Richard Carter, his is by far the best contemporary account of the criminal waterfront, in or out of print. “I find it far more exciting than any fictional detective thriller I have read,” wrote Mike Johnson, who had read a fair number, “because it deals in reality.”

The Man Who Rocked the Boat became the source for the film Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, which features a pretty fair reenactment of the Andy Hintz killing and of the trial of a racketeer played by a malevolent young Walter Matthau.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

They Covered the Waterfront

The ad for the Sun's great crime series, 1948

“At its best,” wrote Mike Johnson’s friend on the Sun, Robert Wilder, during the war, “ship news reporting was something of an anachronism, but it flourished, expanding into daily features in the New York press for the same reason that Hollywood film magazines clutter the bureau drawers of housemaids.”

It was news of the liners and their glamorous passengers that sold the maritime columns. As Wilder described his work routine, “[O]n almost any morning, a little knot of men gathered at seven o’clock on the Coast Guard pier of South Ferry, waiting for the cutter which took them to their jobs down the bay where incoming ships dropped anchor off the Quarantine Station of Rosebank, Staten Island.” There the corps of reporters and photographers would climb aboard the “transatlantic expresses,” the Mauretania, the Bremen, the Ile de France, and wait in lush press rooms for first crack at disembarking celebrities. But the waterfront reporter’s daily experience had at least as much to do with lesser known characters of the docks, the bargemen, cargo handlers, canal folk or tugboat pilots whose lives and pronouncements were often more interesting. Between boardings, Robert Wilder sharpened his writer’s chops profiling the members of the East River Chowder Club, ‘Battery Bill’ the Whitehall Boatman, or a canal veteran called Pookey, who’d once seen a snorting, cow-headed sea serpent swim the East River.

Wilder was not much longer for the reporter’s life when he published his splendid collection of pieces from his waterfront years, Out of the Blue: The Informal Diary of a Reporter (G.P. Putnam’s, 1943). (He would escape the Sun when Hollywood bought his second novel Flamingo Road, which became a vehicle for Joan Crawford to play a small-town Southern dancer.) His waterfront pieces veer between the well-wrought character studies perfected by his contemporary river men, Joe Mitchell and Meyer Berger, and a harder, more cinematic style: Describing the lack of fresh stories reaching his city room during the pre-dawn hours, he tolls off the enviable ones he’s missed that night, “Long since has a drunken dock walloper staggered up the carpetless steps to a flat on the West Side and kicked the teeth down the throat of his blowsy wife. Hours ago a pasty-faced, feverish-eyed punk walked into an uptown bar and grill and, with his fingers twitching on the butt of a cheap revolver, blasted the life out of three men before they had the chance to get their hands up.” Wilder’s prose sometimes soars into heaving metaphor, but for its author’s appreciation of both the low and the fancy, the sea stories of Battery Bill or the Scotch served neat aboard the Queen Mary, his is my favorite of the waterfront accounts.

Nearly eighty years after it first appeared, the most famous work of dock reportage is still Max Miller’s account of the ship reporter’s life in San Diego, I Cover the Waterfront (Dutton, 1932). Unlike Robert Wilder’s work, it remains in print. Miller begins with a self-deprecating portrait of himself as an old man of 28 who has so far failed to make a novel from the garbage boat skippers, tug pilots, sardine fishermen, and Navy divers he regularly turns into newspaper features in his studio above the tugboat office.

If Miller’s work were in fact a novel, you’d wonder why nothing sinister ever happens on his Western waterfront, where he’s known and liked by all, and the worst threat to his raffish paradise seems to be the discovery of his favorite swimming cove by outsiders. Miller has no explanation for hanging on so long in his scruffy job, still making the same waterfront rounds after six years (“I have been here so long that even the sea gulls must recognize me.”). But the charms of his work are obvious, whether going along on expeditions to Guadalupe Island to trap new elephant seals for the San Diego zoo or boarding liners from New York to stalk Jack Dempsey or Charlie Chaplin. Of the celebrity part of his job, Miller claims, “They are but shadows to me, shadows which arrive and disappear, shadows which would mean utterly nothing to me except for the aura of publicity given them elsewhere by others.”

Miller’s book of waterfront adventures became a Depression bestseller and inspired impressionable readers such as W.C. Heinz to seek a life in newspapers. Whether or not they’ve ever held a copy in their hands, most people still know the title I Cover the Waterfront and the song that followed (added to the movie version the next year). But when Billie Holliday sings about watching the dark horizon from “the desolate docks,” it isn’t a lament about marine reporting.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Deaths of Peter Panto

Since January 1941, when his body was dug up in a lime pit in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, the Brooklyn longshore leader Peter Panto has died many times in books and movies. Months after he was found dead, he rose again in a violent Broadway drama written by two former crime reporters. ‘Brooklyn USA’ took on the whole waterfront rackets problem, insofar as a stage play can ever pose much of a nuisance to criminals. For 57 performances it portrayed the excruciating ice-picking death of a Panto-like labor crusader named Nick Santo and featured characters with recognizably scummy antecedents in Murder Inc. –the organization widely assumed to have killed Panto. The single survivor of all the story’s prosecutions and deaths was a stand-in for Murder Inc.’s Albert Anastasia, a mob boss called simply ‘Albert’. “The murder of Santo in a wretched barber-shop late at night is about the most harrowing episode in the theatre for years,” wrote the Times’s Brooks Atkinson. “Nothing could distinguish racketeering from the popular game of murder and mystery better than this one sketch of demoniac violence.” Anastasia may not have been arrested in the death of Panto, but audiences were assured of ‘Albert’s’ guilt night after night.

The Panto killing reverberated through all later political movements along the docks. The longshore leader Pete Mazzie, a political successor who’d helped dig up his friend Panto with his own hands in early 1941, held his own in the goonish climate that immediately followed, briefly establishing a union hiring hall, for which he was kicked out of the corrupt International Longshoremen’s Association but continued to represent his dockers while working nights for the subway. When Mazzie organized the first formal meetings of Camarda-run locals in almost thirty years, Camarda men, their hats cocked like Hollywood goons, badly beat up the roomful of invited news photographers, union men, and Mazzie himself despite the presence of four hapless cops. The thugs neglected to destroy the film inside the cameras, however, and recovered pictures of the evening later ran in New York newspapers, including one of Mazzie, his head bloodily bandaged, pointing out the man who signaled the attack.

"Friday"(3/28/41). Compliments of Bill Mello

Panto’s story also drives Benjamin Appel’s pulp novel The Raw Edge (1958), where Panto appears as Pete Pironi, a Brooklyn docker who pushes back against the racketeers, in fatal defiance of the waterfront code. Some real names appear in the novel, but, Appel notes, “To stress their fictional aspect, I have deliberately used fictional pier numbers.”

Instead of the racketeer Squint Sheridan, there’s Squint Donahue, a gunman who’s moved up as a waterfront mobster on the West Side: “It was a hidden waterfront down in this part of lower Manhattan. Behind an endless wall of corrugated iron, olive green and grey, were the piers and the ships. Out of that iron wall the trucks honked, into that iron wall at the eight o’clock whistle the longshore work-gangs marched, like companies of soldiers, with their iron hooks.”

Over in dark, leafy Brooklyn there’s the coming clash between ‘Joe the Boss’ Dinetti and Pete Pironi, a troublemaking “wop money couldn’t buy.” The controlling Camarda family are instead called the Rosatis, and a version of the fateful meeting between the real Pete Panto and Emil Camarda is dramatized. For anyone who has walked around gentrified Brooklyn today, Pironi’s working-class neighborhood of the late thirties is an old-world departure: “He hurried home to Warren Street, dark between the night-gleaming windows. Faceless phantoms, kids in sneakers, ran in the gutter. On the stoops he saw the soft, whitish, chattering shapes of women, the men sitting separate from the female clucking, the excited ones arguing about Il Duce as they had argued the night before, the quiet ones peacefully smoking their black twisted cigars.”

In its stories and dialogue the book rides along on the testimony given before the New York Crime Commission, as did a shorter crime work by Appel, Dock Walloper, which follows the career of a West Side docker very much like Mike Johnson’s witness from the Bowers’ mob who testified in the Sun, “Joe”.

The Waterfront as War Front

The Normandie burns at its New York pier, 1942
(U.S. Navy)

Seven years before the Sun's Mike Johnson went down to the docks, a reporter named Edmund Scott made some scary discoveries on the West Side that he might well have turned into his own waterfront crime series.

Two days after Pearl Harbor, Scott went over to the West Side piers to play saboteur. His assignment for the newspaper PM was to dress as a docker and test the vulnerability of the port’s wartime defenses. Scott outfitted himself accordingly; it in fact took him longer to break in his new work boots, dungarees, work shirt and cargo hook than it did to get himself into the longshore union and aboard a combatant ship. He next walked along the West Side waterfront to 48th Street and 12th Avenue, “There were 30 or 40 men with longshore hooks, in knots of five or six. I sidled up to one, tapped a short, swarthy chap on the shoulder, and asked him if he could tell me how to get into the union.” The man obliged and pointed up the street to the storefront office of ILA local 824, the so-called “pistol local.” Pretending to be an unemployed laborer from Connecticut, Scott was able to buy a cut-rate union book for $26. The delegate then gave Scott a button, plain white with a picture of an American flag, “Wear this on your cap when you shape.”

The button did its work next morning and he was picked from the crowd at the French Line pier to unload furniture from the Normandie, the second largest ship in the world, recently renamed the S.S. Lafayette for transport work. It now made an especially pregnable point in the port as it was being stripped of its glamorous furniture and special fittings to make a more Spartan troop ship.

For two days, Scott wandered the Normandie’s enormous decks and hallways as a hypothetical enemy agent, “lighting imaginary fires” and “planting imaginary bombs,” his imagination working far harder than his body while he fooled with barrels of excelsior and smoked wherever he liked. In early January 1942, Scott turned in his alarming story, showing how easily anyone could buy into the union and have his run of waterfront cargoes aboard a combatant vessel. But to his editor the completed article seemed shockingly close to being “a blueprint for sabotage.” PM held the piece while reporting Scott’s findings to the Maritime Commission’s chief of Anti-sabotage, who angrily dismissed them.

Then, on February 9th 1942, probably through a worker’s carelessness with an acetylene torch, the Normandie caught fire below decks and burned spectacularly at its pier; PM finally ran the Scott piece next day, as crowds reviewed the ship’s burned hulk, “NORMANDIE COULD HAVE BEEN SABOTAGED.” Although the frightening footage of the Normandie went right into Alfred Hitchcock’s 1942 film Saboteur (Norman Lloyd smirks with pride as his cab passes the ship’s listing wreckage), the story of the criminal waterfront was largely abandoned during the war.