Boardwalk Empire As History

How The Mafia Seduced Hollywood

(HBO)

For decades, the American Mafia and Hollywood have engaged in a sly quid pro quo: the Mob provides inspiration for the entertainment industry, while that industry, in return, romanticizes and humanizes made men. The latest evidence of this exchange can be seen on HBO, in the series Boardwalk Empire, which is thinly based on the life of Enoch "Nucky" Johnson (renamed "Nucky Thompson" in the show). Johnson, a monumentally corrupt Republican political boss, transformed Atlantic City during Prohibition into an emporium for illegal drinking, gambling, and sex. Although he was paid an official annual salary of $6,000, Johnson raked in an estimated $500,000 a year (about $10 million in today's dollars) from his partnerships with bootleggers, gambling dens, and brothels. Lucrative work, if you can get it. 

Boardwalk Empire captures some details of the era well. Imitating the real Johnson, Steve Buscemi's Nucky enjoys a lavish lifestyle while dressing like Beau Brummel, with a red carnation in his lapel. The character's love of big cars, sexy showgirls, and power -- gleaned from political deals with rival Democratic party bosses, including the legendary Frank Hague, the mayor of Jersey City from 1917 to 1947 -- also rings true.

But the series' depiction of Nucky's relationships with real-life racketeers, such as Al Capone, Charles "Lucky" Luciano, and Arnold "the Brain" Rothstein, are distorted and misleading. Onscreen, the ingenious Nucky usually emerges as the alpha among a pack of treacherous Italian, Irish, and Jewish rumrunners. The real Johnson was a mere vassal -- albeit an important one -- for Prohibition kingpins in New York and Chicago, such as Owney Madden, Joe "the Boss" Masseria, and Frankie Yale. For a substantial price, he provided them with protection from local law-enforcement agencies, as well as a place to unload their imported booze. But he was never an equal of the gangland barons who used his services. Johnson was a corrupt lone wolf, a man without a criminal organization behind him. Meanwhile, the 1920s big shots commanded teams of killers and

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