Saturday, June 19, 2010

On The Waterfront by Nathan Ward

In the 1940s New York Harbor was still the world's greatest port, a collection of bays rimmed with more than nine hundred piers and noisily crowded with hundreds of express liners, freighters, ferries, lighters, garbage scows, car flats, battleships, yachts, floating elevators, coffee barges, and constantly whistling tugs. The Hudson was still known as the North River ( to distinguish it from the Delaware, or South River) along its length from the Battery, to the deep Midtown piers. This book is about that old waterfront, and its “criminal coloration”, where money washed in and out, and graft mingled the longshore Union with racketeers.

Touring the harbor today, it is hard to imagine their quiet frontages of rot and renewal ever knowing such a fearful time that a reporter could write, “It has been said, and with some justification that the waterfront of New York produces more murder to the square foot than does any other section of the country. Most such murders go unsolved." In 1948, the shooting of a young boss stevedore brought reporter Malcolm “Mike” Johnson of the New York Sun to the West Side docks where he soon learned that snaking around the watery edges of his town was a very different city than he had hitherto imagined; “Murder on the waterfront is commonplace”, he wrote, “a logical product of widespread gangsterism”.

When Johnson's 24-part series broke on the front page in 1949 no one greeted them with more disgust, and impervious equanimity, than life-time president of the International Longshoreman's Association, Joe Ryan, whose downfall ( if you could call it that) was still decades in the future (see : ).

N.Y. businessman Wiiliam J. McCormack - "Mr. Big"- also figured prominently in this sad tale, along with William O'Dwyer, the one-hundredth mayor of New York City. (whose exposures in this book might add significant material to their rather bare-bones biographies in Wikepedia.)

The estimated annual 'take' from waterfront rackets ( pay-offs, extortion, loan-sharking, number-games, tax evasion and theft) was $50 million, which might be considered a trifle compared to the OECD estimate of $11 trillion for the global black market (with its tax havens, shell banks,shielded trusts, anonymous foundations, dummy corporations, mispricing schemes and the like all administered by the "pinstripe infrastructure" of mainstream banks, lawyers, and accountants) today, but 'not so bad' considering inflation and the limited scope of dockside operations in N.Y.C. in the 1940s. Neither is there anyone remotely resembling the labor-crusading Jesuit priest John M. Corridan to raise a stink in these times of unlimited corruption.

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Marlon Brando came down to the wintry docks of Hoboken to try out as a longshoreman in late November 1953. For Elia Kazan, he had already played both the combustible brute Stanley Kowalski and the Mexican Revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata. Yet Brando refused the new part on first pass without reading the script, irked at his favorite director, he claimed later, for “finking” by cooperating with the Communist hunt in Washington. The lead in Kazan's waterfront movie went briefly to a real son of Hoboken, Frank Sinatra, before producer Sam Spiegal brought Brando on board through some world class flattering. So the film that had begun with Mike Johnson's crime series and survived attacks by Joe Ryan and rejections from nearly every major studio was about to begin filming when Brando asked screenwriter Budd Schulberg ( Arthur Miller refused to purge 'communist sympathies' from his script) to join him for a walk. The Nebraskan movie star was ready to see if he could pass as an ordinary docker.

Brando proposed that he cross Hoboken in character, making a kind of casual audition before the whole city. “I told him he could never walk through Hoboken without being recognized,” Schulberg wrote later in Vanity Fair. “Let's try it,” Brando- well known for his prep work- insisted. “Terry” walked from one end of Hoboken to the other, so convincing in his checkered jacket and shoulder-rolling gait that no one asked for an autograph, not even a group of Catholic schoolgirls whose rooms were no doubt filled with stashes of movie magazines. The two men managed to down beers undisturbed at one of the pubs where Schulberg had studied true Terry Malloys. Once the filming began and Brando was surrounded by working longshoremen and real ex-fighters on the windblown piers, he somehow became even more convincing. The film was shot over thirty-five frigid days, with some dockers ( in Fr. Corridan's group) acting as bodyguards against local hoods who didn't appreciate the film's criminal story line.

It was Joe Ryan himself who first branded the waterfront drama being adapted from Mike Johnson's crime series as Communist propaganda- years before the film opened or even involved Elia Kazan as director. So a cold war argument was soon launched over On The Waterfront's meanings and intentions. ( Some even insisted the movie's murderous dock boss Johnny Friendly was a stand-in for Joseph Stalin.) But audiences in 1954 would have known that the movie's thuggish setting was no metaphor, just as moviegoers of the Watergate era recognized every criminal reference in All The President's Men). On the Waterfront earned eight Oscars overall so Budd Schulberg's gamble, mortgaging his Pennsylvania farm to keep his project going, more than paid off.

Beyond the academy, the film and Brando's performance even passed scrutiny with many longshoreman. “They got a kick out of the movie”, remembers Artie Piecoro, who still has the broad shoulders and thick fingers from his nearly three decades on the Brooklyn docks. “We all like Brando and accepted him as a regular guy. I guess the Irish guys loved him even more, since he made them seem so tough." But a half century after its premier Jim Longhi still saw Kazan's film as a political betrayal.

Near the end of his life, Longhi was well aware how far he had come from his days doing dock injury cases as a waterfront lawyer in long-ago Red Hook. He cut an elegant, genial figure and could go from cultured conversation into one of his tales from the waterfront, where he had long ago helped Arthur Miller with his unfilmed screenplay about the life of Peter Panto.

“The hero in the story of the waterfront is the longshoremen themselves”, he explained, “whereas in the movie they're a bunch of sheep. The hero of this fight was Pete Panto, but in the movie, instead of writing a story about a young labor leader, a rebel, an uneducated Jesus Christ guy who said, “I'm gonna go out there and do it,' and said 'You gonna go along with this?' and they [the gangsters] said, 'Fuck you!' and they killed him. That's a hero and who did they [Hollywood] make a hero? A punch-drunk prize-fighter who doesn't know shit... it's a travesty of the subject matter.” (If anything might be ascribed to Elia Kazan's own experience as a government witness, it is his insistence that Terry Malloy triumphantly survive his betrayal of the racketeers. It is significant that in Budd Schulberg's novel Waterfront, published after the Award-winning movie, Terry Malloy comes to a more Panto-like end, ice-picked and stuffed in a barrel of lime in a Jersey swamp.)

Dark Harbor; The War for the New York Waterfront by Nathan Ward; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010


  1. In the early part of the century, a young man named Charles Barnes, then a fellow in social research from the New York School of Philanthropy, at work at the docks, compiled an astonishingly thorough and sympathetic study of waterfront workers, “The Longshoremen”. Barnes investigated everything he could about docker's lives... and analyzed as many injuries to longshoremen as he could verify, through combining often gruesome accounts he got from dockers themselves with more cryptic hospital, coroner and state records. For the months running up to Joe Ryan's mishap in the hold of the Celtic (1910-1911) Barnes could authenticate 309 longshore accidents on the Manhattan waterfront, 96 of them fatal: “Twenty-eight men were knocked or fell into the hold from the upper deck; 5 lost their footing while reaching out with their hooks from the lower decks to pull in a draft and fell to their death; 16 were hit by swinging drafts with fatal result.”

    The remaining deaths came from snapped booms, a rolling log, exploding chemical drums; being “dragged into a cog wheel of a winch or pulled around the drum end.” knocked by a swing to a lower deck, or crushed by a swinging load. While “leaning over the hatch coamings,” one unlucky gangway man had his head cut off by a falling box of tin.

    The 213 stories of non-fatal accidents Barnes collected recalled scaldings from steam-driven winches, plungings from the rigging or into darkened hatchways, fingers lost in the clash of heavy loads, or legs mangled in a draft of mahogany. Barnes's study confirmed that the ship's holds, where Ryan was hurt and where men often relied merely on the rattle of a chain to know if a load was dropping towards them, was the most dangerous place on the waterfront. Yet of the ninety-six deadly injuries he studied, Barnes could verify only five in which compensation was officially paid by the shipping company. Of the nonfatal cases, many of which incapacitated the longshoremen for months or ended their usefulness for dock work altogether, compensation was made more frequently, even if limited to buying the victim a wooden leg. Joe Ryan's treatment was therefore above average for a waterfront injury in 1912; for taking the falling lead- which crushed his shoulder-, he received $350, half of which went to his lawyer.

  2. Thanks for the plug, and for the quotations from Dark Harbor. Glad you liked it. My blog that goes with the book is

    Nathan Ward

  3. I'm really looking forward to Dark Harbor. William McCormack was my father's uncle and god-father and I wrote the Wikipedia page for him based on what little information I could find with the help of my father's memory. He worked for McCormack at Ttransitmix for thirty years and his father was a business associate of McCormack's going back to twenties.