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.
This gritty examination of the corrupt New York City waterfront provided by Ward, a former editor with American Heritage and Library Journal, has all of the local color, rich detail, and notorious gangland figures of Elia Kazan’s film masterpiece, On the Waterfront. Ward parallels the 1948 muckraking efforts of Malcolm “Mike” Johnson, a legendary New York Sun reporter, to uncover three decades’ worth of unsolved rubouts on the West Side docks. Instead, he discovered, in Ward’s words, “a city apart, with its own bosses, language and codes, bankers, soldiers, and even martyrs.” Johnson found widespread corruption linking the city fathers, police, and waterfront racketeers. Ward serves up some stirring profiles of characters like “suave” lawyer Jim Longhi, with a radical past; shrewd, politically well-connected union boss Joseph Ryan; Father John Corridan, the anticorruption “waterfront priest”; and stoolie Abe Reles, whose plunge from a Coney Island hotel window ended an early probe into the bloody antics of Murder Inc. Extremely valuable to all interested in 20th-century New York City, the book tells a bitter truth: despite Johnson’s three-week-long scandal-baring newspaper series, which stirred the pot, nothing loosened the iron grip of the mob on the waterfront. (June)
This work gives us the best kind of historical narrative—a book that brings an era to life and pulls the reader into its time and place. Ward exposes the gritty reality of the early 1940s New York City docks, a world in which organized crime infiltrated both labor unions and the broader labor pool—taking any and all goods in impudent fashion and usually in concert with complicit local business leaders. (Many readers will recognize this as the world portrayed in the film On the Waterfront.) We see the human dilemma of the docks, with dockworkers trying to make a decent life for themselves by standing up to organized crime. Such bravery usually resulted in their murder by the mob, which held unprecedented control over vast regions of the docks. At the center of Ward's book is the story of the courageous investigative work of one reporter, Malcolm "Mike" Johnson of the New York Sun, exposing the many layers of the corrupt waterfront. His work finally led to conditions in which the mob's grasp was loosened and the powerful and corrupt were brought to account for decades of graft. VERDICT A necessary purchase for all general, New York, or labor history collections, and for all who love a story well told. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/10; Nathan Ward is former Social Sciences editor, LJ book review.—Ed.]—Jim Hahn, Univ. of Illinois Lib., Urbana
Former American Heritage editor Ward reveals the seedy history of the old New York waterfront, a brutal, dangerous environment ruled by corrupt union officials and the mob. The author focuses on New York Sun investigative reporter Mike Johnson's Pulitzer-winning series of articles in 1948, which uncovered the graft and terror tactics that characterized life on the docks. These tactics ultimately brought down International Longshoremen's Association "president for Life" Joseph Ryan and improved conditions for the embattled workers. Packed with colorful characters including the murderous thug "Cockeye" Dunn, fearsome "Tough Tony" Anastasio, dapper Abe "Kid Twist" Reles and Charlie "The Jew" Yanowsky (who was ice-picked to death), the book reads like classic noir. Beleaguered laborers marinate in dirty saloons, murders abound, death threats fly and the nation is forced to reckon with the reality of organized crime as sensational TV government hearings drag the dirty business into the light. Arthur Miller was inspired by the murder of a reform-seeking longshoreman to write a screenplay about the milieu. More famously, writer Budd Schulberg's take on the issue became the classic Marlon Brando film On the Waterfront (1954), whose principal characters and situations were inspired by actual people and events. Ward's most engaging characters are the tough, streetwise priest John Corridan, a plain-talking rabble-rouser who courageously walked the docks and agitated for justice-Karl Malden memorably played the figure based on Corridan in Waterfront-and the congenitally crooked union boss Joe Ryan, a blustery operator who hid his misdeeds behind a smokescreen of anti-communist rhetoric. The author deftly marshals vast amounts of research to tell his story, including original interviews with players from the era, and he richly evokes the atmosphere of mid-century New York. A lucid, illuminating history of the epicenter of organized crime in America. Agent: Ed Breslin/Ed Breslin Agency
For a writer of history, there is always a risk in telling a story that's been told before. In this case, the bar is especially high, because Ward presents a tale that has been told not just often but quite well, first by [Malcolm] Johnson and then in the Oscar-winning movie. To make his challenge even greater, Ward brings no huge trove of new information to his account, and he offers no novel grand view to reshape our thinking of this chapter in American history. But he does have a few weapons at his disposalnamely, meticulous reporting, a keen eye for detail and an elegant writing styleand he uses them to make the tale seem new again.
The New York Times