Comparing HBO’s Nucky Thompson with his real-life counterpart Nucky Johnson
Three older gents sit on a Boardwalk pavilion bench and feed the pigeons.
“But I read it in the newspaper,” says #1.
“Don’t believe everything you read in the papers,” says #2.
#3 jumps in. “I saw it on television.”
#1 and #2 both look at him with arched eyebrows.
A good television show, of course, induces the viewer to believe the characters and events in its created world. Nucky Thompson, kingpin of the Atlantic City depicted in the compulsively watchable HBO series Boardwalk Empire, has a scripted agenda. Because the show is stellar, the script disappears.
In truth, Steve Buscemi’s iron-fisted yet tortured Thompson, born with the show in September 2010, shares the same species as, but is a different animal than, seashore boss Nucky Johnson, born January 1883. The screen character, for example, has a tolerance — at times, a preference — for bloodletting. But real-life Nucky’s town was hardly the savage land we crave and cringe at on cable. Certainly not instigated by the Boss himself.
“There was no crime in Atlantic City — they [the “organization”] took care of crime,” says local resident Richard Black, whose grandfather was a law enforcement official at the time.
The crime that Black means is the capital kind. While Nucky and company were “taking care” of crime, their own brand was devoid of splattered guts and severed body parts.
“There is no reason to believe that Nucky had to do many of the things he’s portrayed as doing [on Boardwalk Empire],” says local historian Allen “Boo” Pergament. “He established a network. The ward leaders, precinct captains, all their underlings . . . covered the city and were responsible for their districts. If you didn’t kowtow, they’d get the mercantile or the health department, and you’d be drowned in violations.”
Says Nelson Johnson, author of the book that spawned the series: “Nucky Johnson never needed to be violent with adversaries. The strength of the organization was so overwhelming that, if you crossed him, nobody came in your restaurant, nobody came to your bar.
“That’s real power — not having to get violent.”
In other words, buck Nucky Johnson and you lost your livelihood but not your life.
In Boardwalk Empire, Nucky’s minions are largely hidden, but viewers infer that an army of foot soldiers underpins the boss man. Onscreen Nucky shares the original’s insistence on natty attire and, to a lesser extent, a taste for nightlife and pliant women. (Thompson strikes us as less a party animal than a deft arranger of raucous soirees to accommodate “clients,” while Johnson reportedly liked to party hearty, period.) Both characters lost wives at an early age, had a brother who served as sheriff (though Nucky Johnson’s brother, Alf, held the post only briefly and with far less contention — ”I never even heard about him,” says Black), and are psychologically complex.
“Nucky was complicated,” says Nelson Johnson (no relation). “He could be sweet, then profane and nasty. He had a keen mind for politics . . . and a soft spot for those down on their luck.”
Nucky Johnson’s largesse is legendary, especially in the black community whose residents pegged him the “White God.” As a self-acknowledged benevolent dictator looking out for the locals and satisfying the appetites of vacationers (including crime lords drawn to Atlantic City’s “neutral turf”), Johnson never believed he was in the wrong, despite subsequent prosecution by the federal government for income tax evasion. “There was nothing but high praise [the feds notwithstanding] for Nucky,” says Black. “He was considered a good guy who cared about people.”
TV’s Thompson is not averse to peeling off dollar bills for his constituents, but does it with much less gusto. His overall personality and physical presence, in fact, are the antithesis of Johnson’s. Buscemi, slight of build and a master of quirk, does not play hail-fellow-well-met types. Vintage Nucky was well over six feet tall with a large frame, a booming voice, an unrestrained infectious laugh, and an iron handshake. His was a larger-than-life figure that strode the boards like a conquering Caesar, yet remained accessible to the common man.
A public discussion entitled “The Atlantic City Experience: The Roaring ’20s” will be hosted by the Atlantic City Free Public Library on Saturday, Oct. 13, in the Atlantic City Historical Museum
"You know what's great about drama? You can make shit up."
Placed in charge of Atlantic City’s two “colored” schools by 1921, Pennsylvania native Brock succumbed the following year at the age of 42, in the thick of a battle over whether or not to integrate the local schools.
"The book is the book, the show is the show, the book is what inspired the show and the show, with the benefit of some really creative people, is going to re-tell the story of Prohibition through the eyes of criminals. And the focal point of that is Nucky."
For our 2nd annual Then and Now issue, celebrating the Atlantic City region, we asked several members of the community about their experiences and memories.
His white hair tufted beyond tolerance, the minister stepped into the barbershop and its buzz of bonhomie. Combs raked scalps, scissors snipped furiously, and the scent of lilac water suffused the air. Twenty minutes later, the clergyman stood from the pedestal-chair and surveyed his reshaped dome. The dark skin of his forehead glistened below the white fringe. He paid the barber and paused on the black rubber mat. “Am I good for another dime?” The barber grinned. “You bet.” And so he did — 10 cents on number 357, a wager to be rewarded only if the digits corresponded, respectively, to the last number on each of the day’s win-place-show handles at Aqueduct Racetrack, some 90 miles to the north. The “numbers,” or “policy,” game was a lottery before lotteries were legal. Nearly everyone in town played it even...
Seashore history is slippery — some accounts place Capone and his fellow delegates at the President, and Nucky’s digs on the Ritz’s eighth floor — but by any measure, the 1920s roared extra loud in Atlantic City.
In the second part of "Nucky Johnson," the distinguished panel of Atlantic City historians go deeper into the life of the real man behind HBO's Nucky Thompson: Enoch "Nucky" Johnson.
Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, treasurer of Atlantic County, ruled the rackets and the Republican Party in Atlantic City. Former cabbie Louie Kessel ordered his master’s life. Home base was the posh Ritz Carlton Hotel at Iowa Avenue and the Boardwalk (near today’s Tropicana).