Atlantic County Superior Court Judge and author of two books on Atlantic City history — 'Boardwalk Empire,' which has been turned into a hit HBO series, and 'The Northside,' about the African-American experience in the resort town — Nelson Johnson talks to Atlantic City Weekly during the Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway in Galloway Township.
ATLANTIC CITY – Nelson Johnson did not set out to write a book when he came to Atlantic City. Nor did he know that his deep passion for the written word would cultivate and become bound up in a masterful work that exposed the truth about the city’s past and inspired a semi-fictional account in the form of a hit cable TV series, which will start its third season in the fall of 2012.
Nevertheless, Johnson’s New York Times bestselling book: Boardwalk Empire, The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City has unleashed the city’s former empire on the present day through HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, inspired by his work.
Saturday, Jan. 14, the Seaview Dolce Resort in Galloway hosted the author who gave a talk at this year’s weekend-long Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway, hosted by Stockton professor and former Atlantic City High School English teacher Peter Murphy.
Writers and participants gathered to hear from Johnson as he discussed his research process with regard to the book and how the empire unfolded along the way. He also encouraged writing tips.
Before taking to the podium, Johnson spent some time answering a couple questions for Atlantic City Weekly:
What character in the HBO series do you think you yourself would most identify with?
[Laughs] “Me? None of them! 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 [Thompson in the TV series, and Johnson in the book and real life] and they’re happy to have Nucky and I’m happy they have Nucky and its fun watching — but it’s not the book.”
Boardwalk Empire is a story of antiheroes. Are there any characters in particular whose actions might seem more forgivable than others?
[Boardwalk Empire creator] Terence Winter tells people that his Nucky is 70% the Nucky that I wrote about and 30% the Nucky that he created. And I’ll have to take the 70/30 split. The only place where I sort of part company with Terence is the violence because what the general public, and what’s difficult to appreciate today is that Nucky Johnson was so powerful in Atlantic City and had so much support that if you crossed him, you were done! So when you went to work the next day, you were fired, open up your business the next day, it could be a laundry, everyone would come in to get their clothes and nobody brought any back. You had a restaurant, nobody came in to eat. You had a bar; nobody came in to get a drink. So you didn’t cross Nucky because he could destroy you simply by sending out word that, you know, “Bill Jones is no longer a friend of the organization. I don’t want you to patronize him. I don’t want you to hire him. I don’t want you to do anything that helps him.” That’s power. Power is not having to be violent, power is getting your way simply by saying this is what [you] want. When you have to get violent then maybe you weren’t as powerful as you think you were. So that’s the biggest problem I have with the show, but other than that it’s a heck of a lot of fun watching, it really is.
In the midst of your research for the book, was there anything in particular that stood out as rather shocking or surprising? Something you didn’t know of that particularly intrigued you?
Two things: First, I knew Atlantic City’s history was very corrupt, but I didn’t have a real appreciation for the organic nature of the corruption, meaning a totally natural product of the community. When you have an economy that’s based upon a 10, 12, 14-week economy, at the most, that means the visitor has to be happy. That means the visitors’ tastes dictate the entertainment provided. The people coming out of Philadelphia, as Murray Fredericks said in the beginning of the book, they wanted booze, broads and gambling. So to do that you have to bend the law and so the corruption was a natural product of the town’s struggle to not only exist but then to flourish and become a major resort.
The second thing that really surprised me, because you sort of see it and it’s right there in your face but you don’t have an appreciation for it, was the indispensable nature of the black community. If you remove the black experience from Atlantic City’s history the town never even comes to exist.
Ninety-five percent of the hotel workforce from 1880 to 1930 was African American. Pull them out of the picture and what do you have? You don’t have a resort. Maybe you have Long Beach Island or Avalon, I’m not sure what you have, but you don’t have a resort. So those are the two biggest things that I kind of was like, wow, there’s stuff here to talk about, there’s something that needs to be told. So that’s what caught my interest in trying to write a book, because I didn’t set out to write a book, I was representing the [Atlantic City] Planning Board during the peak period of casino development approval and I went into City Hall knowing the place was corrupt, but I didn’t realize how dysfunctional it was. So I was determined, like, how can I make sense of this place? If I’m going to be here for a few years I need to understand why is it so screwed up. And my research led to a book. I didn’t set out to write a book, but that’s what came out of it.
If you could go back and ask Nucky Johnson one question, what would you ask him?
If I could ask him one question … that’s tough because I could think of a bunch of questions, but if you say I was to narrow it down to one question, one of the questions might be why — well, no, I know what his answer would be to that. I’m thinking of really big issues and really small ones because they all interest me. Well here’s a good question, the Atlantic Cape Community College auditorium was named after Walter Edge. Walter Edge was a governor, Walter Edge was a U.S. senator, and Walter Edge was governor again and Walter Edge got his start right in Atlantic City. I would like to know just how corrupt was Walter Edge because he wasn’t leaving Atlantic City in terms of moving up the ladder without Nucky’s help. So that would be a really interesting question if Nucky were ever to say, you know, give me the straight and skinny on Edge, how corrupt was he? Because he certainly benefited from corruption, the deal that Johnson made with Hague, certainly benefited from corruption, but how corrupt was he? You ask me a question like that though, I’d like for nothing more than to be able to sit down and interview him, but here’s what you don’t know, you don’t know if you’d get a straight answer either. “
That sounds about right based on the Nucky of history and Winter’s 70/30 split version of the Nucky many fans have come to know through the shows two seasons on HBO.
An animated and energetic Johnson spoke of Atlantic City’s rich history and that although he shared Nucky’s last name there was no relation though he wished there were because then he would have more stories about him to share.
Johnson reflected on his personal research and “nerd instincts” that took over as he began uncovering the empire that had essentially found him. He told the audience what it was like to pitch his idea at screenwriting expos in Los Angeles. He would start by asking his critics a question that they thought they knew the answer to: “Do you know where organized crime started?”
By the summer of 1912, Atlantic City had established itself as a premier vacation resort. Its sun, surf and Boardwalk, along with adult offerings of alcohol, gambling and prostitution, could satisfy a variety of appetites.
From Nelson Johnson and the original book to the Grammy-winning soundtrack, interviews with the cast and executives of the HBO show set in Atlantic City and the real stories behind the drama series.
In celebration of this weekend's Atlantic City Beer and Music Festival — which is promoting craft beers and the brewers who create them, we’re going to hop back in our hot tub time machine and explore the start of micro brewing. From the 1920s Prohibition era to 1970s England, there’s a sudsy story that’s led up to this weekend’s Beer Festival.
"You know what's great about drama? You can make shit up."
"The ending caught me by surprise even though I know the history to which it's adhering. I thought it was such a bold and dramatic move. You sort of figured the series was going to be about these two characters and then one of them dies suddenly at the end of season two."
This murder-mystery performance deals with the question of what guided Enoch "Nucky" Johnson's — depicted in Boardwalk Empire as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson's — "flotilla of booze" into Atlantic City's safe harbor at Rum Runner's Point during the Prohibition era.
Justified and True Blood actor Stephen Root will appear on Boardwalk Empire starting in season three as "recurring lawman," according to Hollywood Reporter. Root will play "Gaston Means, a former swindler and murder suspect who now works for the Department of Justice."
New York big-band leader Vince Giordano talks to Atlantic City Weekly about working on HBO's Boardwalk Empire and its GRAMMY-nominated soundtrack.
"Eddie lived in a kind of musically optimistic 1920s place even though he had a shitty childhood. His parents died when he was young but his grandmother raised him and he was little and scrawny so he got beaten up a lot. He learned to make jokes so he could avoid getting beaten up, so from then on he realized this singing and dancing thing could work."
"When I recorded the first two songs I got to record with the band, which I prefer — in the same room, we did it live. Coming from a musical theater background, I prefer to sing live because there's just this synergy when you have a band playing behind you."
“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.
"You can just be present and that’s what acting really is. It’s not acting, it’s just being. It’s living, and I really got to live as Lucy.”
“We couldn’t get anyone interested, one rejection after another,” Johnson tells Atlantic City Weekly.
Judge Nelson Johnson's latest book 'The Northside,' on Atlantic City's history of African-Americans, is missing key components says community leader. Johnson's previous book Boardwalk Empire was turned into the 2010 HBO series, the second season of which is filming now.
By 2000, Hammonton-based historian Nelson Johnson had compiled the first comprehensive history of Atlantic City between two covers, and enlisted the help of two New York literary agents in structuring and marketing the manuscript. His book, called Nucky’s Town (after political boss Enoch “Nucky” Johnson), presented a road map through the storied city by the sea, complete with detours, pitfalls, and pockmarks.
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