Dark Harbor

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.