The Roaring ’20s, bootlegged liquor and a one-time Atlantic City party central.
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 (near today’s Tropicana). 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.
[Editor’s note: Plans are in the works to offer tours of the historic Ritz buildi ng in Atlantic City, which is currently condominiums.]
Jim Waltzer’s ‘Tales of South Jersey,’ co-authored by Tom Wilk, is published by Rutgers University Press.
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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
"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.
Laciura also learned that “Nucky would get up around 4:30 in the afternoon and Lou — Eddie — would make sure that he had his dozen eggs, pound of bacon, coffee and toast — that’s what he had every ‘morning.’
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.
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