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