HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” stars Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson, a political boss who rules Atlantic City. The series is fiction; the story of a criminal overlord named “Nucky” is fact. His name was Nucky Johnson, and he turned Atlantic City into a playground for the likes of Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and the rest of the 1920s mob.
When envisioning the real-life Nucky Johnson, however, throw out any idea of the diminutive, squeaky-voiced Buscemi. Johnson was 6-foot-1 and close to 250 pounds, with a ruddy bald head and a booming, jovial voice. In his white suit and shiny spats, he strode the Boardwalk like he owned the place, because he did. In his dual role as county treasurer and sheriff, he collected tribute from every brothel, betting parlor and speakeasy in town.
The arrangement was great for everyone – the tourists, the cops, the hoteliers, everyone but the joyless hypocrites who didn’t know how to have a good time. “We have whiskey, wine, women, song and slot machines,” Johnson once said, in a classic explanation of why organized crime exists. “I won’t deny it and I won’t apologize for it. If the majority of the people didn’t want them, they wouldn’t be profitable and they wouldn’t exist. The fact that they do exist proves to me that the people want them.”
Enoch Lewis Johnson, high-living hedonist, unashamed friend to mobsters, hustlers and gamblers, came from rural WASP roots. His parents, of English-Scotch ancestry, farmed the sandy soil of the Pine Barrens. Johnson’s father became the Atlantic County sheriff, and passed the job to Nucky as a family heirloom. In 1909, the young man of twenty-five was sworn into office; just two years later he was the county Republican chairman.
Johnson held power by being creative on Election Day. Atlantic City had a high transient population of hotel workers who lived there only in the high season, and Johnson was padding the voter rolls with thousands of their names. Every election, these citizens were recorded as voting the GOP line en masse, regardless of whether they actually cast a ballot. In 1911, the Democratic reform administration of New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson indicted Johnson for voter fraud. A friendly hometown jury promptly acquitted him.
Johnson’s steady stream of payoff money turned into a gusher when Prohibition became law in 1920. His domain included some of the Jersey Shore’s best coves in which rumrunners could hide. Nucky’s police guaranteed protection for smuggled booze. Gangsters such as Luciano, Joe Adonis and Longie Zwillman showed their gratitude by wining and dining Nucky when they were in town.
Johnson was only in his thirties when his wife died, and after a decent period of mourning, discovered he enjoyed the bachelor’s life. The boss arose every afternoon in his hotel suite at the crack of 4 p.m. He ate a dozen fried eggs for breakfast, donned one of his hundred suits, pinned a fresh red carnation to his lapel, and went out to the Boardwalk to hold court with followers. Then he bounded into his powder-blue limousine and made the rounds of Atlantic City night life. A showgirl was always on his arm, while headliners such as Sophie Tucker and Jimmy Durante sat at his table. Johnson handed out $400 tips along with bon mots. His most quoted aphorism was a complaint that his best dates were already taken by smooth young musicians: “Every time I kiss a blonde, I taste a saxophone.”
Never one to care what society thought of him, Johnson was at his most daring during the celebrated national gangland conference of May 1929. The event got off to a rocky start when the mobsters tried to check into a restricted hotel, using Anglo-Saxon aliases that Johnson had supplied. A hotel clerk took one look at them and refused to put them up. Nucky came to the rescue. He then ordered the crowd of heavies back into their limousines and spirited them to his own hotel, the Ritz-Carlton.
The Atlantic City conference was a landmark in mob history, forging the first successful links in what became a national crime syndicate. The event was less fortuitous for Johnson. A newspaper photographer snapped him walking the Boardwalk with Capone, and no one believed it when the boss claimed the picture was a forgery. A barrage of bad publicity followed. In the late 1930s, the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt went after the boss. Treasury agents investigated him for the same crime that nailed Capone – tax evasion. He was an easy target, for he lived like a millionaire while drawing a county salary of $6,000.
More about Nucky and his downfall — along with other infamous Garden State gangsters such as Joe Adonis, Longie Zwillman, Nicky Scarfo, Vito Genovese and Albert Anastasia — can be found in “Notorious New Jersey.”