On a recent spring afternoon I took a Circle Line cruise around Manhattan. As the ferry made its way from the pier in Hell's Kitchen down and around the tip of the island it passed miles of sterile waterfront where hundreds of piers once jutted brazenly into the waters of the East and North rivers, each one teeming with muscle and machines all engaged in disgorging the world's bounty from mighty ships. That New York is long gone. Instead, I saw sunbathers in boutique parks, a dozen duffers perfecting golf swings, a series of flashy glass boxes where apartments sell for a pirate's treasure, but no vestige of the sprawling, brawling harbor that once was the mightiest port in the world; a centrifuge of commerce and corruption.
If that world is familiar at all to modern readers, it can be attributed to the undiminished power of that cinematic masterpiece, On The Waterfront. In Dark Harbor, Nathan Ward pilots the reader skillfully back into that lost world by essentially giving us the story behind the story bestowed to us by Kazan, Schulberg, and Brando. Ward's book is both panoramic and intimate, giving us an overview of how vital that port was to the economic health of the world's largest economy. But he also spirals down to where his characters lived and thrived and died; the docks, the hiring sheds, the ships holds, the smoky backrooms, and the bloody gin mills of back alley New York.
Ward gives us the full roster of waterfront characters that inhabited and shaped the world. Murderous gang bosses like Cockeye Dunn, Mickey Bowers, and Albert Anastasia. Lowlife killers like Squint Sheridan, martyrs like Pete Panto and his unsung collaborators, including the Jesuit Father John "Pete Corridan" who inspired Karl Malden's character in the movie. Ward ties them to the major players of the day like Frank Costello, and Mayors Bill O'Dwyer and Frank Hague. The world the longshoremen lived in was rougher and tougher than the one portrayed in the film. Recalcitrant dockworkers are attacked with guns, ice picks, hand grenades; even flames are used as bargaining tools. Among the plethora of goons is one who earned the particularly chilling prison sobriquet, the Rape Artist.
It's a tale of epic sweep, but Ward is smart enough to center the struggle on two men. Joe Ryan, aka "King Joe," was the President-for-life of the powerful International Longshoremen's Association. All reports indicate Ryan was handy with his fists as a young dockworker and cunning enough to know there was no percentage in staying on the docks -- but plenty in controlling them. His rise to the top of the labor rackets was meteoric, and once he was ensconced nobody dared to challenge his authority. He had none of the snarling intensity of Lee J. Cobb's Johnny Friendly, but was rather a sing-songy Irishman with charm to burn -- at least until he was cornered.
Ryan sat fat and pretty for years until a waterfront-related murder served as a catalyst for a series of newspaper articles about corruption in the port. The reporter to land that dangerous assignment was Malcolm "Mike" Johnson, a writer who some years earlier had come to New York from Georgia, which was still burning with the pain of slavery and race wars. He had made his bones as a reporter by Klan-bashing so successfully that his bosses urged a retreat north as death threats threatened to become tangible.
He soon landed in one of those singular New York institutions, the New York Sun, the venerable broadsheet that had given the world stories by Edgar Alan Poe and the "Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus" editorial. As brilliant as Ward's description of the docks is, he is equally adept at describing another lost world -- the old-time, big city newspaper. Ward drops us into a newsroom run with steely rectitude by a character named Speed Keats (yes, he was related to the poet) who sent Johnson out to cover the waterfront murder and then backed his reporter's desire to keep digging. Johnson relished the assignment and worked his way into the fabric of the underworld that enveloped the docks.
What Johnson found was systemic corruption, but he decided to make Ryan the embodiment of the problem. The Sun series was a huge success, splashy and sensational and Pulitzer-winning. The story sent shock waves through the corridors of power, from City Hall to the nation's capital, to Hoover's FBI -- which was still belittling the notion of organized crime. Despite the scope of the series, the articles were aimed mostly at King Joe, and each one landed like a body blow, softening him up gradually but surely. Ryan, like many a scoundrel of his time, reacted to the attacks by swinging wildly with a red brush, describing any and all enemies as commies and radicals. Johnson, who again had to endure death threats because of his work, had the solid backing of Mr. Keats.
I wonder if, sixty years ago, men such as Ryan and Johnson -- powerful and prominent -- thought one day they would be lost, footnoted to a faded time. It's a safe bet that those they both presumed to fight for, the longshoremen, would have bet a year's pay that they would be the ones forgotten by history. The strength of Ward's endeavor is that all those men, the good, the bad, the powerful, and the obscure, are given their due in the pages of Dark Harbor.
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The War for the New York Waterfront
By Nathan Ward
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Copyright © 2010 Nathan War
All right reserved.
Chapter One "DOV'È PANTO?"
The pier where Pietro Panto worked jutted into the brackish current of the East River just upstream from the cabled span of the Brooklyn Bridge, looking across to the ferry sheds and the bottom of Manhattan. At five o'clock in the afternoon of Friday, July 14, 1939, Pete Panto left the Moore-McCormack pier, where he served as hiring foreman, and headed home to his rooming house near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. An affable, dark-eyed young man in work clothes and a fedora, he was wiry but strong, a black mustache above an easy smile that sometimes showed a gap in his teeth. In his room on North Elliott Place he was shaving for a date later that evening with his fiancée, Alice Maffia, when her younger brother, Michael, came to the room with word that Panto had a telephone call at the corner cigar store. Panto wiped his face and made his way downstairs, but when he returned from his conversation his mood had darkened. He seemed uncharacteristically spooked as he told Michael he would be meeting "two tough mugs" or "men I don't like" for an hour or so that night, warning, "If I don't get back by ten o'clock tomorrow morning, tell the police."
Panto left behind his wallet and an empty suitcase; his work clothes were still laid out on his bed when a car appeared out front around seven. He was dressed in his best suit and a dark hat for his later outing with Alice when he climbed inside and saw two men he knew from the longshoremen's union, Emil Camarda and Gus Scannavino, riding with someone less familiar. He took his seat with the others; then the sedan rolled away down North Elliott Place and into the summer evening, and Pete Panto was gone.
Panto had arrived on the Brooklyn waterfront sometime in the mid-thirties, a young longshoreman whose accent hinted he had divided his life between Brooklyn and southern Italy. Brooklyn was then home to dry docks and repair basins as well as warehousing and shipping terminals and the great Navy Yard. After a period of breaking-in along the docks, Panto got his union card in 1937, and at age twenty-six he secured a regular job at the Moore-McCormack line's Pier 15, at the foot of Brooklyn Heights.
The five-mile stretch of Brooklyn shore that ran south from the Brooklyn Bridge to Twentieth Street was overwhelmingly staffed by Italians like him, many of them recent immigrants who worked the less desirable cargoes. The six Italian "locals" of the International Longshoremen's Association were overseen by Vice-President Emil Camarda, a waterfront patriarch with a foot in the legitimate world and whose family used their union titles to act as middlemen in many of the docks' predatory side businesses. Some fourteen thousand dockers labored in "Camarda locals" such as Panto's, many of them in the area called Red Hook, which stretched between the Buttermilk Channel and the Gowanus Canal. The Camardas' home rule had the distant blessing of the union's quotable longtime president Joe Ryan, whose organization in Manhattan had been dominated since the teens by the West Side Irish. "Over in Brooklyn" was a favorite phrase of Ryan's to express his bewilderment with events across the East River, a shoreline he saw dense with alien Italians and Red insurgents kept in rough order by the Camarda clan.
As if his union weren't already welcoming enough to gangsters, Emil Camarda helped found Brooklyn's City Democratic Club, quartered in a Clinton Street building owned by a Mafia leader named Vincent Mangano. Inside, longshore union figures could do business with local mobsters under friendly cover of pinochle games. Mangano was committee chairman for the club's annual Columbus Day Ball, held at the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn Heights, whose program boasted pages bought by other syndicate men: Joe Profaci, Albert Anastasia, and Joe Adonis. Pete Panto soon discovered the direct connection between the political club and the waterfront rackets: longshoremen bought thousands of tickets to the ball as a suggested "donation" toward getting dock work; "eight or ten thousand" sold for a ballroom that held only "four or five hundred people," he told his friend the Brooklyn labor lawyer Marcy Protter. Often, the ticket money was already deducted from their pay envelopes. (A Brownsville mobster arrested for murder in 1939 was carrying several hundred unsold tickets, with the sellers' names-Hugo, Foxie, Battling Joe, Sharky-scribbled on the back.)
Beyond the ordinary pier crap games and policy lotteries that drained longshoremen's pay, Panto encountered other kickbacks and tributes: "In order to obtain work on a certain pier," he explained to Protter, "you had to enter into a form of contract to have all your haircuts at a certain barbershop, and you paid in advance, each month, for those haircuts." Likewise, every fall, many longshoremen were obliged to buy their wine grapes from a designated dealer at lush prices, whether they planned to make wine or not. Panto claimed that many longshoremen paid out almost half their wages in kickbacks to qualify for work, and that union meetings in the Camarda locals were almost never held. Dockers did whatever was needed to gain favor in the shape, including buying into the pier boss's "hiring clubs," taking loans from waterfront loan sharks, and accepting gang-cutting (fifteen men doing the work of a full gang of twenty, with the "ghost" pay going to the hiring boss), which compounded the risks in an industry where mangling injuries were common but insurance scarce. Longshoring ranked near tree topping among deadly occupations.
A man who can inspire loyalty in his crew is always useful, and Panto rose to hiring boss by 1939, despite his feelings about the racketeers. But he was soon rousing unity beyond his own pier, joining his local's Rank and File Committee of men attracted by the gains won on the West Coast docks by the radical Harry Bridges. "Pete Panto was a very dynamic person, and he was a good speaker in Italian, and he held a number of public meetings," Sam Madell, a longtime Communist organizer of Brooklyn longshoremen, later told an interviewer. "We are strong," Panto reminded his men, "all we have to do is stand up and fight."
In the spring of 1939, Panto led a series of increasingly large and rowdy meetings. Crowding before the piers at night, hundreds of men applauded his speeches demanding union democracy-regular shop meetings and an end to the shape-up and kickback system. In mid-June, 350 union men heard him speak about waterfront corruption, and he addressed a still-larger group on July 3. What the rank and file viewed as a reform movement, however, the Camardas and Joe Ryan saw simply as an insurgency, and union spokesmen vilified Panto as a dangerous Red even as Rank and File leafletters were roughed up along the docks. In early July, the casual threats Panto had heard around Columbia Street in Red Hook and dismissed with a grin escalated to a formal summons. Emil Camarda called him to his waterfront office.
When Panto arrived at the dock end of President Street, he noticed Camarda was accompanied by several hired men, "some of whom he knew by reputation," Marcy Protter reported. Panto refused to speak in front of these "henchmen," and Camarda sent them from the room, leaving the patriarch of the Brooklyn waterfront alone with the young leader of the dock rebels: "[I]n the course of the conversation," Protter explained, Camarda told Panto that "he personally liked Pete, and thought he was a very fine fellow, but some of the boys didn't like some of the things he was doing and saying, and he advised him that maybe it would be better if he stopped what he was doing."
Panto refused. Camarda's warning about "some of the boys" was deadly Red Hook code for the Mob's displeasure. Friends from the Rank and File Committee cautioned Panto that his life was now in danger, that he should never travel alone. Panto repeated that he would not be intimidated, but agreed to be more cautious about traveling unguarded. At his last meeting, days before his disappearance, he surrounded himself with some 1,250 longshoremen in South Brooklyn's Star Hall, which echoed with the rough eloquence of his Italian speechmaking and the catcalls of the men. But mixed clumsily into the crowd were observers sent by Albert Anastasia.
That summer, the World's Fair brought thousands to Queens to see the Trylon and Perisphere, the Belgium Pavilion Tower and World of Tomorrow. But it became a fearful season along the Brooklyn waterfront, where a graffiti campaign began with the dockworkers whose revolt Peter Panto had been leading when he vanished on July 14. It began within days, Dov'è Panto? ("Where is Panto?") scrawled in anger along the Red Hook piers, on freight cars, trucks, and warehouses, marking walls in the Italian longshoring neighborhoods, puzzling outsiders like a foreign code when it reached the blue-slate walks above the harbor. The plea spread from the water's edge to subway walls and the sides of downtown Brooklyn office buildings, and leaflets titled "Where Is Pete Panto?" littered the area near the Navy Yard.
Each sodden corpse that bumped to the surface of the rivers around New York was hauled out and checked against photographs of the smiling young hero of the docks. Panto's friends worried in the press that his body had been irrecoverably "weighted down with stones" on the harbor floor or swept along with the night tides that ran from Sandy Hook to Hell Gate. "Coppers are worried about Pete Panto, a courageous dockworker, who was bothering Brooklyn banditi," the gossip columnist Walter Winchell announced. "Police fear Pete is wearing a cement suit at the bottom of the East River." When the Communist Daily Worker put its writer on the mystery, he discovered that Panto had been immediately replaced by a more obedient hiring boss and that Italian longshoremen refused to speak for print except anonymously. "We are men with families," one explained, "and want to live."
Years before he inherited a jumble of unsolved killings on his office wall in 1939, the new Brooklyn district attorney, William O'Dwyer, had walked the dock beat as a Brooklyn patrolman during the early rum-running days of Prohibition. By the end of his eight years as a cop, he'd seen the "sporadic gangsterism" of the Kid Cheese gang and the Kilduff brothers give way to what he called the "gay lark," when "the criminal was made respectable" under the Volstead Act. Bill O'Dwyer's approach to his adopted city was tempered by his having been both a cop and, before that, a seminarian. The waterfront was about as far as an Irish immigrant could get from the cloistered life O'Dwyer had tried and abandoned before arriving in New York in 1910. A husky, dark-browed man whose soft brogue came and went as needed, "Bill-O" favored "a good meal and a good chin" with friends, and his circle steadily grew. The fact that he'd become Brooklyn DA in less than twenty years was in part a credit to the expansive force of his personality.
The clammy stone prison in Lower Manhattan popularly called the Tombs was connected to the Criminal Courts building by an iron walkway, along which families huddled below might catch a glimpse of their prisoner loved ones; this catwalk in turn had its own nickname, the Bridge of Sighs, after the gloomy limestone passageway in Venice. And far uptown from the Tombs, the Bronx County Jail was known to many inside as "the DA's singing school." In January 1940, one of Bill O'Dwyer's old friends from his patrolman days, John Osnato, was in a Bronx jail cell talking in falsely sympathetic tones to a Brooklyn hoodlum named Dukey Maffetore, who was known mainly for chauffeuring mysterious trunkloads for his bosses in a Brownsville, Brooklyn, mob. Maffetore had been named by another prisoner in the execution of one recently murdered criminal, Red Alpert. Lieutenant Osnato spoke to Maffetore in the intimate Italian dialect of his household, something seldom heard from city cops. In an era when interrogation subjects were commonly beaten and thrown around, Lieutenant Osnato was an early master of a subtler technique now called good cop/bad cop. "I don't know how much longer I can keep them outside," he'd announce to his panicked subject as fellow detectives pounded the door.
Osnato was already respected among the city's cops for having arrested young Al Capone in 1925 after a Christmas night shooting of Irish gangsters in Red Hook near the Gowanus Canal. (Seeing Capone and a friend come into the Adonis Social Club with two blond dates, the Irishtown dock leader Pegleg Lonergan had fatally remarked, "What the hell are them white girls doing with a pair of greaseballs?"); and in 1934, after gunmen brought off the largest American cash heist to date, $427,000, from a Rubel Ice Company truck, Osnato headed the enormous manhunt.
Osnato turned criminals into informers as naturally as Bill O'Dwyer made friends. In the case of Dukey Maffetore, the obedient chauffeur of dead "packages" for a Brownsville gang, Osnato and his partner were masterful in breaking him down with false kindness, playing on the hoodlum's love of family and sugaring visits to his Bronx jail cell with packs of Pall Mall cigarettes. The lieutenant brought news from the outside that Maffetore's superiors were living lushly, letting him take the blame for the murder of Red Alpert. When Maffetore finally weakened, Osnato appeared one afternoon in O'Dwyer's office to make the quiet announcement: "'The Duke' will talk to you."
Maffetore named a member of the gang's low-level "troops," "Pretty" Levine, who also began unburdening himself. This news pricked the confidence of his criminal superior, Abe Reles, a five-foot-two-inch killer and Brownsville gang leader whom O'Dwyer's office had sitting in Manhattan's Tombs for the same Red Alpert killing. As he waited in his cell, separated from his colleagues but surrounded by appalling rumors of their confessions, Reles began to consider the unthinkable option himself. He would need no prompting in person, since O'Dwyer's detectives had already created the climate of snitching. On the eve of Good Friday 1940, Reles sent a note to his wife, "Go and see O'Dwyer and tell him I want to talk to him."
At the time, Reles was a thirty-four-year-old leader in the Brooklyn underworld, and the likely whereabouts of Peter Panto was only part of a bloody catalogue of things he claimed to know. He had risen from petty hoodlum, crippler of shopkeepers late on their protection payments, and killer of car washers who tried his patience to become a senior figure in the syndicate execution ring overseen by Albert Anastasia. Cruel and boastful, with a character that one reporter called "queasy," Reles was also known as Kid Twist, a street moniker imaginatively attributed to his strong, thick-fingered hands and strangling prowess, but originally a thug homage to a boyhood gang hero on the Lower East Side. "This fellow is brave enough to stab in the back, or shoot a defenseless person, and, with a gang supporting him, might punch or kick an invalid or a near invalid," declared one Kings County judge, but he would "never stand up to a square man-to-man fight."
Reles was smuggled out of the Tombs under guard in the middle of the night, passing through the high, fat pillars of Brooklyn's Municipal Building at three in the morning and bluntly telling detectives when he reached the fourth floor that he was hungry. "We were cautious lest this announcement be part of a jailbreak plan," O'Dwyer later wrote of their predawn meeting in his office. "I sent out for a sandwich and coffee and watched him as he ate." While O'Dwyer thought he had scored the cooperation of a formidable Brooklyn gangster, the man eating the sandwich was a much bigger catch than that, poised to betray an organization (called the Combination by members) whose full national reach was still not suspected by most law enforcement. Before Reles began speaking, "I had no notion ... that there was organized crime all over the country," O'Dwyer later admitted. "I didn't know any more than anyone else knew." Reles warned him of the Combination's power, conceding he was probably a marked man whether he testified or not. "There ain't a man in the world they can't get if they go after him."
Excerpted from Dark Harbor by Nathan Ward Copyright © 2010 by Nathan War. Excerpted by permission.
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