A slice of time from Atlantic City's 'Boardwalk Empire' era. Nucky Johnson and the Ritz.
They were a pair the envy of any Hollywood scriptwriter. The tall elegant boss man with a penchant for hand-tailored suits and a stranglehold on power, his valet-bodyguard wider than he was tall and loyal to the last detail.
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. It was the Roaring 20s and life was good. Nucky had breakfast with an ocean view. Louie handled the wardrobe and daily rubdowns.
Some of Nucky's guests were better known for rubouts. In 1929, when crime lords from across the land gathered in Atlantic City to sort out their differences, Nucky installed the likes of Al Capone in suites at the Ritz, or perhaps at the nearby President, spiking the ambience with a generous supply of bootlegged liquor and female companions. The seashore kingpin leased the entire ninth floor at the Ritz, where it was said he kept one closet stuffed with cash. He was a soft touch for both bigshots and people down on their luck until the IRS nabbed him and his signature red carnation in 1938.
The Ritz, though, coninued to dazzle in the sunshine.
The red-brick rectangular structure had opened at a cost of $6 million in June 1921, its prestigious name promising a new era of splendor by the beach. The grand hotels along the Boardwalk had all -- except for the Claridge, which would come nine years later -- been operating for years when the Ritz added its profile to the Atlantic City skyline. A gala party marked its debut, and with Nucky regularly entertaining political, showbiz and gangland celebrities, the Ritz was party central for many years. New York's natty Mayor Jimmy Walker favored the Ritz, as did seashore perennial Sophie Tucker. Metropolitan opera star Lawrence Tibbett serenaded Boardwalk audiences by belting arias from his beachfront suite.
Big-dollar card games added to the hotel's lure and lore.
Two decades later, the stakes had changed. Starting in 1942, the Ritz Carlton served a three-year hitch for Uncle Sam, as did its fellow beachfront hotels -- the Army Air Force had commandeered the town for training. In the fall of 1945, AAF Redistribution Station No. 1 restored private ownership to the Ritz, but the world had changed. In the 1950s, new motels grabbed the budget-conscious, while expanding jet travel ushered high-rollers to distant destinations. The Ritz and the city lost their luster. In 1958, giant hotelier Sheraton purchased the Ritz Carlton for just $4.25 million. In 1969, the hotel converted many rooms to apartments; two years later, it was all apartments.
The building still stands at Iowa and the Boardwalk. Gone are the rooms -- all on one floor -- dedicated to pantry service. No longer does a special elevator take patrons in bathing gear down to beach level and back up. There is no Merry-Go-Round Bar to spin guests packed under a canvas awning. And up on the ninth floor, the powerbroker is long gone from his perch overlooking the ocean, during a time when sin was a commodity and life a carousel.
Jim Waltzer's Tales of South Jersey, co-authored by Tom Wilk, is published by Rutgers University Press.
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