In HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (second season premiering tonight @ 10 p.m. EST) Steve Buscemi’s character Enoch “Nucky” Thompson runs the New Jersey’s City of Vice with a gentleman’s demeanor and generosity, a gangster’s ruthlessness, and the ego and extravagance of a king.
His character is fictional, but it’s very closely based on a real historical figure: Enoch L. Johnson, also called “Nucky.” The creators of Boardwalk Empire went with a different last name to allow themselves some creative licenses, but most of what we’ve seen so far on the HBO show rings true to the Real 1920s king of Atlantic City. The show’s inspiration was a few chapters about Nucky Johnson in Nelson Johnson’s Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City. (Note: there are spoilers below)
Like the fictionalized Nucky, Johnson was a charming, smooth-talking man fond of wearing a fresh red carnation pinned to his dapper suits. He lived in the upper floor of the Ritz-Carlton hotel on the boardwalk, and was the second of three men to run the Republican political machine. He dominated everything in Atlantic City for 30 years, determining who got jobs, who was allowed to run businesses, and making sure he got a cut of everything. He also had a hand in the bootleg business, which was rampant all over America during prohibition (1919-1933.) The true value he created for Atlantic City though, came from his dangerous importation of the “real” alcohol everyone craved (bootleg alcohol was often vile-tasting, poor quality, watered down, and/or mixed with poison.)
Nucky’s refusal to honor prohibition laws in Atlantic City solidified the town as a ripe tourist location where all the vices the human appetite craves could be appropriately satisfied. The Atlantic City we have today owes its identity, good and bad, to Nucky Thompson. He took advantage of the coast guard’s inability to monitor the flow of booze from the ports, and was willing to participate with the burgeoning Italian-American organized crime leaders Lucky Luciano and Al Capone. The free-flow of quality booze in Atlantic City transformed it from a seasonal resort town, to a year-long vacation and business convention destination. To accommodate the large groups of business people flocking to the boardwalk, in 1926, Nucky built the Boardwalk Convention Center, the first large building ever constructed specifically for conferences.
About the entrepreneurial spirit behind Atlantic City’s vice industry, Nucky once said: “We have whisky, wine, women, song, and slot machines. 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 wouldn’t exist. The fact that they do exist proves to me that people want them.”
On Boardwalk Empire, we see Nucky help out two particular destitute women [one, the Irish Margaret Schroeder, is initially based on Mary Ill, a maid who asks Nucky Johnson for help with her alcoholic, gambling husband. Nucky Johnson slips her a $100, bans her husband from gambling sites, and gives her a house. In the fictionalized version, Maragaret Schroeder ends up as Lucky’s whip-smart paramour who has similar problems with her husband (which Nucky fixes with a murder,] and influences the Women’s Temperance League to help continue Nucky’s political power after women are given the right to vote in 1920. The real woman, Mary Ill, did stay a close friend of Nucky’s, and was active in local political groups.) The real Nucky was also keen to give a helping hand to poor people who asked, and attended every funeral in town, giving families a limo ride to the cemetery. He also routinely handed out money to panhandlers when he strolled along the boardwalk. Although his charity seemed like an altruism kindness, it was more of a political marketing strategy. As Atlantic City treasurer and leader of the Repulician party, he was insuring the votes of the poor through his generosity. Even though he a had a political motivation, Nucky definitely took care of the people of Atlantic City. Everyone got a turkey and a basket of food on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and loads of coal to help keep warm during the winter.
Nucky was born Enoch Lewis Johnson January 20, 1883 in a small New Jersey town north of Atantic City called Smithville. His father was Sheriff Smith Johnson, who was in cahoots with Louis Kuehnle, who set up the political and organized crime machine that ran Atlantic City, an institution known as “bossism” that Nucky took over in 1911 when Kuehnle was imprisoned on corruption charges. Previously an abstainer, Nucky started drinking and enjoying the company of showgirls and starlets after his first wife Mabel Jeffries died in 1912. Ne never remarried.
During the first season of Boardwalk Empire Nucky reveals his wife Mabel killed herself after she spent days nursing their stillborn son, but in real life shed passed away at 28 from tuberculous (or consumption as it was often called,) which the Nucky character uses as a lie on the show.
The real Nucky had a bodyguard Louis Kessel, who lived with Nucky on the ninth floor of the Ritz, and woke up his boss ever day up at 3:00 p.m. and then gave him a vigorous massage with wintergreen oil. Nucky then wore his silk robe to breakfast overlooking the beach. He’d dine on a quart of orange juice, six eggs, and a ham steak. After that, he dressed in his lavish suits, and his signature red carnation. During summer months, he sometimes dressed in a lavender suit.
To avoid winter blues, Nucky would rent an apartment in Manhattan, and spent times escorting beautiful women to the city’s best nightclubs, where he was tip generously.
Nucky’s reign ended in 1941, when he was sent to prison on tax evasion charges. He spent four years in jail, and upon release took a pauper’s oath, though for the next 20 years he still strolled the Boardwalk, attended charity dinners, and advised local business and Republican political leaders. He died December 6, 1968 in a nursing home, where he had spent his last years drinking Scotch and visiting with friends.
You can pre-order Boardwalk Empire on DVD and Blu-Ray, or purchase the already released Boardwalk Empire Soundtrack (full of rousing, 1920s tunes and Loundin Wainright III’s amazing version of Irish folk song Carrickfergus.)
Steve Buscemi as Nucky Thompson: