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.

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