(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 were engaged in a variety of underworld rackets, including bookmaking, loan-sharking, robbery, and extortion. These underworld notables took no orders from Johnson, and he had no voice in their operations.

The big bosses weren't the only ones to profit from Johnson's activities. So did Atlantic City's business and hotel magnates, who heartily endorsed his conversion of the family-oriented summer beach town into a year-round Sodom when Prohibition began in 1920. Johnson's vice palaces gave the town an edge over rival New Jersey resorts in attracting tourists, big spenders, and mammoth conventions and allowed Atlantic City to remain competitive with other east coast hot spots. Although the series would have viewers believe that Atlantic City was the eastern seaboard's mecca for organized crime, rumrunning, and illegal imbibing, an inexhaustible supply of liquor and beer also gushed into speakeasies and night clubs in New York, Philadelphia, and nearby cities, and as well as across the nation. Johnson's domain on the Jersey Shore was only a sideshow for major bootlegging gangs fighting for dominance in larger and more profitable markets.

Besides getting these details wrong, Boardwalk Empire misses a much bigger story. Although Prohibition is the historical fulcrum for the series, the show ignores that social experiment's most enduring consequence: it catalyzed the transformation of a handful of unsophisticated, thuggish Italian-American gangs into well-oiled regional and national criminal corporations. At the onset of Prohibition, Joe Bonanno, Capone, and Luciano were all ambitious but minor hoodlums. A decade later, they were underworld leviathans. Bootlegging was integral to this transformation: it gave individual mobsters a crash course in how to run intricate supply chains for producing, importing, and distributing illicit goods, as well as training in the management of small armies of smugglers, truckers, mechanics, cargo handlers, and gunmen. The experience also taught the newly minted millionaires how to launder all that loot and bribe cops and political strongmen such as Johnson.

As operations became more complex, the new Italian-American crime bosses, who had previously operated independently, decided that they needed to impose some sort of order and a national decision-making process on their cohorts. So in 1931, Luciano, who by that time was the chief of a gang that survives today as the Genovese Family, created a formal structure for the nascent American Mafia. Taking the Sicilian Mafia as a model, he formed some 20 borgatas (gangs) across the nation that functioned under the same general rules and principles. He restricted membership to men of Italian heritage and mandated that soldiers adhere to the code of omerta: a sacred oath to obey their borgata and family leaders and never to cooperate with the authorities, under penalty of death. Luciano also established clear lines of command and control, with an emphasis on the survival and prosperity of each gang rather than of individuals. To forestall strife between the families, the mobster created a commission -- a board of directors composed of leaders from important borgatas who would peacefully resolve disputes and formulate nationwide policies. To demonstrate its independence from the ancient Sicilian Mafia, the new American network called itself Cosa Nostra (Our Thing).

Over time, Cosa Nostra diversified into many white-collar enterprises: running labor rackets and financial frauds and rigging bids in the garment, construction, waste removal, stevedoring, and trucking industries. Largely untouched by law enforcement until the mid-1980s, entrenched mobsters exacted a heavy toll on Americans through incalculable hidden taxes on clothing, construction, food, and other essential items. Take, for example, trash collection for non-residential buildings in New York City. Through their control of two trade associations, in the 1950s the Gambino and Genovese borgatas were effectively able to fix prices and outlaw competition for garbage pickups from every office building and business in the city, ranging from huge department stores to mom-and-pop bodegas. When the racket was finally exposed in the late 1990s, the Mob was reaping almost $1 million annually in overcharges. 

Rather than systematically dealing with the complex chronicle of the birth and rise of the American Mafia during Prohibition, Boardwalk Empire only hints at the broader context, with Nucky's exhortation to his mistress that violence and alliances with gangsters are necessary tools to ensure the financial security of his immediate family. The show focuses on valorizing its leading character by depicting him as a caring, humanitarian member of the larger Atlantic City community: he doles out cash to needy widows and workers, he's a devoted father to his mistress' children, and he helps black people who are threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. 

This character -- the honorable gangster who does good as well as evil -- is a familiar one in Hollywood. As the Mafia's fortunes have shifted over time, fictionalized accounts of the Mob have subtly but consistently encouraged the public to accept and even embrace it as a colorful aspect of the nation's cultural landscape. Novels; television shows such as The Sopranos; and films such as the Godfather series, Goodfellas, Prizzi's Honor, Analyze This, The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, and Bugsy all made their cutthroats into high-living, charming rogues. Bosses are depicted as dedicated criminals who survive by a code of honor that emphasizes loyalty and obedience. Such representations imply that the gangsters' quest is a dark but familiar version of the American dream: the immigrant's fight for wealth and respect. 

Of course, Francis Ford Coppola's Oscar-winning Godfather films are the gold standard for such sham reinterpretations of Mob life. Using Mario Puzo's 1969 novel as his foundation, Coppola fashioned a riveting yarn of life and death centered on the crime family of the fictional Mafia boss Don Vito Corleone, played by Marlon Brando. Although the book and the movies are filled with murders, brutality, and betrayals, most of these acts protect the crime family. Violence and secrecy, the series implies, enabled early Italian immigrants and their descendants to acquire the justice, financial success, and dignity that a hostile, Wasp-dominated United States denied them. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), a World War II veteran and the son of Don Vito Corleone, is compelled by fate and blood ties to succeed his father. Protecting and enlarging this kingdom becomes his inherited duty -- even if it requires whacking disloyal friends and his own brother.

The film pits the supposedly scrupulous and well-intentioned Corleones against nefarious, drug-dealing Mafia adversaries who serve only to highlight the Corleones' positive attributes. In reality, however, there is no evidence that the Mob ever enlisted any good guys. No family took a stand against drug dealing, for example; all American Mafia bosses were culpable in flooding the United States' inner cities with heroin. 

Given this whitewash, it's no surprise that some of the films' biggest fans have been members of the Mafia itself. After seeing The Godfather in 1972, Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano -- a young recruit who would one day acquire Mafia fame as a killer, and, later, a top-level turncoat -- was exultant. "I left that movie stunned," Gravano reminisced in Underboss, the journalist Peter Maas's biography of him. "I mean, I floated out of the theater. Maybe it was fiction, but for me, then, that was our life. It was incredible. I remember talking to a multitude of guys, made guys, everybody, who felt exactly the same way. And not only the mob end, not just the mobsters and the killing and all that bullshit, but that wedding in the beginning, the music and the dancing, it was us, the Italian people!" Indeed, the trilogy's musical theme soon became a sort of private national anthem and a popular choice for Mob parties and weddings.

The Godfather's positive spin on the Mafia was no accident. Before production began, Joseph Colombo, the head of the Colombo borgata, warned Paramount against depicting Italian-Americans as depraved or degenerate criminals. In 1970, Colombo, claiming that he was campaigning against bias among law-enforcement authorities, formed a spurious civil rights group, the Italian-American Civil Rights League. As head of the 45,000-member organization, he persuaded a dozen prominent elected officials to lobby the film studio to portray Italians more positively in the film than Puzo had in his novel. Aware that the Mob's union goons could sabotage on-location shoots, the producers mollified Colombo by eliminating the terms "Mafia" and "Cosa Nostra" from the dialogues, substituting the euphemisms "family" and "syndicate" instead. The studio even hired several of Colombo's underlings as extras.

More recently, The Sopranos has reinforced this whitewash of Mob life in more subtle ways. Some aspects of the show do accurately reflect the conduct of contemporary Mafiosi: the profanity-laced conversations, the trademark casual savagery, the compulsive whoring of the main character, Tony Soprano. But genuine made men would never behave like Tony. He personally stalks and kills victims -- chores normally shunned by a boss and left to ordinary soldiers and wannabes. Tony leaves himself exposed by strolling down his driveway to pick up his newspaper each morning and by driving around town without a bodyguard -- no top-tier mobster would last long if he did such things. Worse, Tony confides in a psychiatrist -- and a female one, at that. No self-respecting Mafioso would unburden himself to a stranger, let alone to a female shrink.

It is no secret that Hollywood producers and writers often scramble essential facts to heighten story lines in Mafia tales -- even while maintaining that they are based on biographies and actual events. Blockbuster hits such as The Godfather and Boardwalk Empire are aimed at mass audiences, not experts. On the rare occasion that Hollywood has opted for accuracy, it has produced financial flops. Long before he portrayed the endearing, benevolent Don Corleone, Brando starred in the 1954 movie On the Waterfront, one of the few American films that accurately confronted the Mob. Brando played a gruff longshoreman involved in union racketeering, violence, and corruption. Compelling scenes hammered away at the daily "shape-ups," meetings in which workers were forced to pay kickbacks for jobs; the rigged union elections; and the cold deaths of union reformers, who found themselves tossed from rooftops. The movie was critically acclaimed, but not a moneymaker, and Hollywood did not repeat the experiment.

Italian filmmakers have proved more courageous. In the last decade alone, they have produced a spate of hard-hitting depictions of Mob life, including Gomorrah, a vivid portrait of the Neapolitan crime world; The Sicilian Girl, an accurate profile of a young woman who, despite death threats and vilification, testified against the Sicilian Mafia after her father and brother were slain in a Mob war; Il Divo (The Star), a biography of Giulio Andreotti, the seven-time prime minister of Italy, who was allegedly connected to the Sicilian Mafia; and Joe Petrosino, a TV movie about Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino, an Italian immigrant and New York City police officer who was assassinated by the Mafia in Palermo in 1909 while investigating New York-based gangsters. Perhaps after centuries of being victimized by the Mafia, the average Italian -- unlike the average American, who loves a tale about a gangster with a heart of gold -- has no sympathy for the so-called Men of Honor.

Whatever the cause, Italian media's efforts to portray the Mafia remain more incisive and realistic than those produced in America. In real life, the escapades of Atlantic City's Nucky Johnson ended in the 1940s, when he was convicted of income tax evasion and imprisoned. Boardwalk Empire's Nucky Thompson may prove luckier. In the first season of the HBO series, he inadvertently hinted at the licenses American productions take when he advises a colleague, "Never let truth get in the way of a good story." Sure enough, Hollywood never has.

 

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  • SELWYN RAAB is the author of Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires and is a former reporter for The New York Times.
  • More By Selwyn Raab