Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson with Paz de la Huerta as Lucy Danziger; photo: HBO
In an era when corruption was universal, lives were cheap, and everyone -- from politicians to prostitutes -- was getting stumbling-drunk on contraband cocktails, it took a lot for your story to stand out. As the third season ofÂ Boardwalk EmpireÂ kicks off on HBO, weâ€™ve selected some of the juiciest real life stories behind the television exploits of Nucky Thompson and crew. Read on for tales of the gamblers, grandstanders, and gangsters who shaped the United States under Prohibition.
The book behind the HBO series, â€śBoardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic Cityâ€ťÂ tells the story of the cityâ€™s rise from sleepy resort to gangsterâ€™s paradise. Utterly dependent on the pleasure-seekerâ€™s dollar, Atlantic Cityâ€™s success -- at any cost -- was everyoneâ€™s business, and nobody tolerated naysayers and critics. Author Nelson Johnson previously served as the attorney for the Atlantic City Planning Board and therefore brings a tantalizing insiderâ€™s perspective to the deals and dodges that birthed the modern city. The book traces the career of Enoch â€śNuckyâ€ť Johnson, the inspiration for Steve Buscemiâ€™s Boardwalk Empire character, who ran the local Republican political machine, and whose flamboyant, ruthless personality drove the transformation of his city. For fans of the show, the HBO tie-in edition includes behind-the-scenes production photos, and a foreword by executive producer Terence Winter.
Nucky Johnson was far from the only public figure exploiting the turbulent twenties for his own wealth and glory. Arnold Rothstein is mainly remembered today as the man who fixed the 1919 World Series: an event that shows up in popular culture from â€śThe Great Gatsbyâ€ť to The Godfather Part IIÂ as a symbol of Americaâ€™s loss of innocence. Yet in his biographyÂ of Rothstein, David Pietrusza shows that fixing baseball games was just the beginning of a breathtaking career of swindling, racketeering, smuggling, and violence, which turned the man known as â€śThe Big Bankrollâ€ť into one of New Yorkâ€™s most influential and notorious characters, right up until his mysterious murder in a Times Square hotel room in 1928.
Rothsteinâ€™s protĂ©gĂ© Salvatore Lucania, better known as Lucky Luciano, is the subject of Tim Newarkâ€™s biography â€śBoardwalk Gangsterâ€ťÂ -- a fascinating account that delves into government archives to tell the story of Lucianoâ€™s extraordinary life. Rising to power on the back of Rothsteinâ€™s demise, Luciano established â€śThe Commissionâ€ť to oversee the American Mafia, was convicted and imprisoned on charges of abetting prostitution, only to be released by the government during World War II, which needed his help to monitor the Mafia-controlled New York waterfront and prevent the landing of German and Italian spies. He was deported from America after the war, but continued to control his criminal syndicate from Italy, despite close police surveillance for the rest of his life.
Less well known gangsters, whose life stories nevertheless illuminate their time, can be found in Mike Dashâ€™s â€śThe First Family:Â Terror, Extortion, Revenge, Murder and The Birth of the American Mafia,â€ťÂ which traces the origins of American organized crime to the back streets of Sicily in the 1890s. The story of Giuseppe Morello, a one-fingered mastermind whose lethal reign ushered in the era of the Five Families, is a gripping, violent tale given weight by the authorâ€™s extensive research into government archives, prison records, and interviews with Morelloâ€™s surviving family members and associates.
â€śThe Bobbed-Haired Banditâ€ť was the tabloid nickname for the daredevil thief Celia Cooney, whose spectacular criminal career made her a celebrity and a symbol of the lawlessness of Prohibition-era New York. In their biography of Cooney, Stephen Duncombe and Andrew Mattson bring to life the woman whose life was labeled by William Randolph Hearst as â€śthe strangest, weirdest, most dramatic, most tragic human interest story ever told.â€ť
Of course, no collection of mobster lives could leave out Al Capone. In â€śCapone: The Man and the Era,â€ť Laurence Bergreen delves into the paradoxes of the archetypal crime boss, whose devotion to his family and self-perception as a latter-day Robin Hood jarred with his cold-blooded embrace of violence in the pursuit of power. This biography richly evokes both the glamour and the grit of Caponeâ€™s era, and presents Capone as a symbol of the larger paradoxes of Prohibition.
Weaving together all these characters, from the most notorious to the nearly forgotten, Daniel Okrentâ€™s kaleidoscopic â€śLast Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibitionâ€ťÂ presents the history of the era as an American tragedy, a still baffling moment of spectacularly bad governmental judgment, which unleashed a wave of contradictory impulses and unintended consequences. Okrent served as creative consultant on Ken Burnsâ€™ 2011 documentary series Prohibition, and through his cast of characters -- among them Susan B. Anthony, H. L. Mencken, Meyer Lansky, rabble-rousing preacher Billy Sunday, and anti-booze battle axe Carrie Nation -- he sets out to unravel the mystery of Prohibition and answer his own driving question (and the working title for his book): â€śHow the Hell did that Happen?â€ť