Kennedy, Albany

William Kennedy was born on this day in 1928 in Albany, New York, and Prohibition was legalized on this day in 1920. The first book in Kennedy’s eight-book Albany Cycle is Legs, based on the legendary Prohibition-era gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond, who was murdered in Albany when Kennedy was three years old.

Legs Diamond got his start in organized crime with Arnold Rothstein, inspiration for Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby. As Fitzgerald tells his story through Nick Carroway’s eyes, so Kennedy tells the Legs story through the eyes of his lawyer, Marcus Gorman. Gorman tries to keep a Nick-distance from the high life of crime, but Legs is charismatic, electric with energy, good at “generating himself into yourself whether you wanted to receive him or not.” Their first business meeting, the day Gorman signs on as lawyer and confidant, takes place at the gangster’s mountaintop retreat in the Catskills. The agenda begins with champagne, followed by machine-gun target practice — shooting the face off rival gangster Dutch Schultz, drawn on the barn wall — followed by the offer-you-can’t-refuse, delivered softly:

“Let’s have lunch and toast your sharpshooting,” he said.
     “Oh, nonsense,” Alice said, “let’s toast something important, like the beautiful summer and having friends to dinner. Are you our friend, Marcus?”
     I smiled at Alice to imply I was her friend, and Jack’s, too. And I was then, yes I was. I was intuitively in sympathy with this man and woman who had just introduced me to the rattling, stammering splatter of violent death. Gee, ain’t it swell?

In his nonfiction history O Albany! Kennedy reflects that his hometown lured him into the role of booster and devil’s advocate:

Even iniquity has its charms: consider what Milton did with Satan. I once thought I loathed the city, left it without a sigh and thought I’d gone for good, only to come back to work and live in it and become this curious cheerleader I now seem to be. But I’m fond of things beyond the city’s iniquity. I love its times of grace and greatness, its political secrets and its historical presence in every facet of the nation’s life, including the unutterable, the unspeakable, and the ineffable.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at