Boadwalk Empire : an extract

Here is an extract from the prologue of Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times And Corruption of Atlantic City by Nelson Johnson:

Luxury hotels weren’t something she knew about firsthand. Until now, she had never been inside the Ritz Carlton. The closest she’d come to the grand hotel was when walking on the Boardwalk. But here she was in the anteroom of a large suite of rooms, seated in a chair that nearly swallowed her. She was frightened, but there was no turning back. She sat there trembling, folding and refolding her frayed scarf.

As a housewife and summertime laundress in a boardinghouse, she felt out of place and her nervousness showed. Flushed and perspiring, she noticed that her dress and sweater needed mending and she grew more self-conscious. It was all she could do to keep from panicking and running out. But she couldn’t leave. Louis Kessel had told her Mr. Johnson would see her in a moment and she had to wait. To leave now would be embarrassing and, worse still, might offend Mr. Johnson. If it weren’t winter, and if there weren’t so many unpaid bills, she never would have worked up the courage to come in the first place. But she had no choice; her husband had been a fool and she was desperate for her family. Louis Kessel appeared a second time and motioned to her. She followed him, not knowing what to expect.

As she walked into Mr. Johnson’s sitting room, he took her hand and greeted her warmly. It was several years since she met him at her father’s wake, but Johnson remembered her and called her by her first name. He was dressed in a fancy robe and slippers and asked what was troubling her. In an instant her anxiety vanished.

In a rapid series of sentences she recounted how her husband lost his entire paycheck the night before at one of the local gambling rooms. He was a baker’s helper, and during the winter months his $37 each week was the family’s only income. She went on and on about all the bills and how the grocer wouldn’t give her any more credit. Johnson listened intently and, when she was finished, reached into his pocket and handed her a $100 bill. Overwhelmed with joy, she thanked him repeatedly until he insisted she stop. Louis Kessel motioned, telling her there was a car waiting to drive her home. As she left, Johnson promised that her husband would be barred from every crap game and card room in town. He told her to come back any time she had a problem.

Enoch “Nucky” Johnson personifies pre-casino Atlantic City as no one else can. Understanding his reign provides the perspective needed to make sense of today’s resort. Johnson’s power reached its peak, as did his town’s popularity, during Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933. When it came to illegal booze, there was probably no place in the country as wide open as Nucky’s town. It was almost as if word of the Volstead Act never reached Atlantic City. During Prohibition, Nucky was both a power broker in the Republican Party and a force in organized crime. He rubbed elbows with presidents and Mafia thugs. But to Atlantic City’s residents, Johnson was hardly a thug. He was their hero, epitomizing the qualities that had made his town successful.

Originally conceived as a beach village by a doctor hoping to develop a health resort for the wealthy, Atlantic City quickly became a glitzy, raucous vacation spot for the working class. It was a place where visitors came knowing the rules at home didn’t apply. Atlantic City flourished because it gave its guests what they wanted—a naughty good time at an affordable price.


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