Boardwalk Empire Summary
Being a non-fiction book, Boardwalk Empire can't exactly be broken down into a simple three-act plot. Instead, it's probably easier to think about it in terms of the different eras of Atlantic City. Which is exactly what we're going to do. Boom.
B.A.C. (Before Atlantic City)
Atlantic City is founded by Jonathan Pitney, a small town doctor with big dreams. With the help of Samuel Richards, a wealthy businessman, Pitney convinces the government to approve a railroad that ends at his newly-founded island resort. Well played, Pitney, well played.
The Early Era
Things go badly for some time, and the resort is almost shut down after only one year due to a serious mosquito infestation. After a few years, though, the resort begins to thrive thanks to a high volume of working class tourists.
Atlantic City's first political boss is Louis "The Commodore" Kuehnle. Kuehnle sets the tone for everything that follows by establishing a mutually beneficial relationship between local politicians and criminals.
Kuehnle isn't anything compared with his successor, though, a dude by the name of Nucky Johnson. Nucky rules the city during its absolute apex, after Prohibition leads to a massive influx of visitors looking for booze. Eventually Nucky is sent to prison and relinquishes his power.
The next boss is Hap Farley. Hap actually becomes an effective state senator, earning the title of senate majority leader as well as Boss of Atlantic City. After an illustrious career, Hap is abruptly booted from office as the result of redistricting. See ya…
The Lost Years
The 1950s and 60s are bad times for Atlantic City. Many local businesses shut down and the city collapses into an urban wasteland. Those who remain pin their hopes on one crazy dream—legalized gambling.
The Casino Era
As it happens, this dream comes true. After the legalization of gambling in 1976, the city experiences another massive boom period, with super-wealthy businesspeople like Donald Trump investing boatloads of cash in fancy new casinos. Things are finally looking up for Atlantic City.
From Jonathan Pitney to Donald Trump, Atlantic City has gone on one wild ride.
Jonathan Pitney's Beach Village
- Born in 1797, Jonathan Pitney is your average dude. Not one to be deterred by ordinary beginnings, though, he grows up to become a doctor, obsessed with finding a "path to wealth and prestige" (1.1).
- New Jersey isn't much to look at in these days. And besides Cape May, a popular vacation spot, the southern part of the state is as bare as a baby's bottom.
- When he was younger, Pitney visited a small barrier island there called Absecon Island. Once a home-away-from-home for local Native Americans, the isolated (and barren) island is now home to the Reeds, a family descended from a famous Revolutionary War soldier.
- Pitney becomes convinced of the healing power of the ocean air, believing that it's his destiny is to transform this barren place into a "'city by the sea'" (1.12). Before this can happen, however, he'll need to get a railroad built to the island—otherwise, nobody will be able to reach it.
- So the dude starts hounding newspapers and politicians to garner support for his proposed railroad. He gets laughed out of every building he enters.
- Down but not out, Pitney turns to Samuel Richards. Richards comes from a super-rich and popular family that is "among the largest landholders in the Eastern United States" (1.26). Fancy.
- Richards gives Pitney his support, but not for the reasons you might expect. Though he doesn't care about Pitney's little health resort, he loves the idea of a new railroad being built through his land. That's big money, y'all.
- It's crazy how much easier it is to deal with politicians when you have a rich dude on your side. Funny how that works. In 1851, the pair receives the official charter for the newly-dubbed Camden-Atlantic Railroad.
- Pitney and Richards go about buying up as much land on Absecon Island as they can. A man named Richard Osborne helps them plan out the new town and coins its name—Atlantic City.
- The railroad officially opens in 1854. Although the line isn't finished yet (visitors have to take a boat to Atlantic City), Pitney's dream finally seems to be coming true…
- Or not. The first few years are disastrous: In 1858, "a plague of insects [...] nearly closed the resort down" (1.52), plus there's not even any fresh water on the island.
- After about twenty years, though, Atlantic City seems to have "gained a foothold" (1.59). Still, railroad fare is still too expensive for most people to afford the trip.
- Seeing this problem, Richards opens a new railroad that's half the price of the Camden-Atlantic line. Now that fare is affordable for the masses, Atlantic City is overrun with tourists—most of them working class folk from Philly.
The Grand Illusion
- The boisterous John Young is in the midst of a performance on his very own Atlantic City pier, dubbed "Young's Million Dollar Pier" (2.1). He sure sounds like a humble guy.
- We're getting ahead of ourselves, though. Richards's new railroad transforms the city, making it a must-visit destination for working class families throughout the Northeast. By the end of the 1800s, Atlantic City is booming. This leads to an influx of "building tradesmen and laborers" (2.9)—most of whom are Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants.
- At this time, most visitors stay in boarding houses. They're not quite as nice as hotels (and you have to share your bathroom—yuck) but they're pretty luxurious for the time.
- Naturally, the city's economy is seasonal. City officials are desperate to attract visitors during the off-season, even claiming that it doesn't snow it Atlantic City. Spoiler alert: It does.
- It's around this time that the first boardwalk is built. Although it's originally meant solely to make the city less sandy, the boardwalk eventually becomes integral to the city's economy. Our boy John Young plays a big role in this development. After buying his pier off a dude named John Applegate, Young transforms it into the most decadent thing the city has ever seen—and one of the most profitable, too.
- Meanwhile, Atlantic City's hospitality industry is shooting through the roof. Hoteliers like Benjamin Brown and Charles McGlade are changing the ways that hotels work, revolutionizing "newspaper advertising" (2.41) and the hotel experience itself.
A Plantation by the Sea
- This business boom wouldn't be possible without the scores of black workers that make up the bulk of the hotel workforce. Many of these workers used to be enslaved, having recently moved up North after the Civil War. Sadly, conditions up North aren't much better.
- In 1893, black hotel workers try to unionize against unfair working conditions, but their efforts are squashed immediately. This problem won't go away, however—by 1915, African-Americans "comprised 95 percent of the hotel workforce" (3.6). The big irony is that many of these workers were once highly skilled tradesmen, but were denied employment due to their race. Now these craftsmen and artisans are working below their pay grade as domestic servants. Ugh.
- That being said, black workers do have a better life in Atlantic City than in other Northern cities. This leads to an even greater number of black people moving here for work. The more black people arrive, however, the more white residents start to freak out.
- Although "Blacks were integrated throughout the city" (3.35) at first, this influx of workers leads to de-facto segregation, with black families forced to live in an undeveloped neighborhood called the Northside. Despite this terrible treatment, the black community fights to create more opportunities for themselves. The church plays a big role in fostering social connections and helping those in need.
- Later, black business leaders create social agencies to support the community. The first of these is The Old Folks Home and Sanitarium, later joined by the YMCA. But while the Northside community becomes self-sufficient in many ways, it still fails to receive adequate "education and healthcare" (3.55). The once-integrated schools are segregated after a black teacher is hired—when white parents complain about their kids being taught by an African American person, the school board rules that students must be taught by members of their own race.
- Similarly, black residents are barred treatment from white doctors. Given the rampant discrimination faced by prospective black doctors, this leaves black residents without access to good medical care.
- Besides all the outright racism, there's some other shady stuff happening in Atlantic City, too. Although prostitution is supposed to be illegal, it's quite common—and freely available—in here.
- Although the outside public is well aware of this, mostly due to frequent exposés from the Philadelphia Bulletin, no one seems to care. If a new article comes out, Atlantic City police confiscates the copies "from Boardwalk newsstands as quickly as the papers arrived" (4.4). Yes, you read that right—the police.
- Philadelphians make up the bulk of Atlantic City's clientele. The city of Philadelphia itself is pretty conservative, so leaders in that community are not very happy to have such a den of iniquity nearby. See, Philadelphia was founded by this dude named William Penn, a devout Quaker. Quakers, in case you don't know, believe in a morally steadfast branch of Christianity, hence the hand-wringing over Atlantic City's sins.
- By the end of the 19th century, Philly had grown from a tiny town into an industrial center with over one million residents—many of whom are immigrants lured by "the jobs created by the city's factories" (4.11). Unaccustomed to Philly's strict moralism, these blue-collar workers need some place to let off some steam. They need Atlantic City, where local politicians prevent the laws regulating prostitution, gambling, and booze from being enforced.
- In 1908, this issue is brought before a statewide investigation. The local sheriff stops the investigation in its tracks, though, rigging grand juries so convictions are all but impossible.
- Eventually, a tight relationship develops between local politicians and gangsters. This newly formed power structure is led by three men: "County Clerk Louis Scott, Congressman John Gardner, and County Sheriff Smith Johnson" (4.29). But we're not going to talk about them right now; instead we're going to focus on an upstart kid named Louis Kuehnle. A hotelier by trade, Kuehnle quickly becomes Smith's right-hand man.
- Kuehnle's father emigrated from Germany to New York, where he became a well-respected restaurateur. The family eventually made their way to Atlantic City, where they opened a popular spot called Kuehnle's Hotel; Kuehnle the Younger takes over the business by the time he's eighteen. Pretty impressive, right? Kuehnle quickly becomes a major player in the local scene, eventually earning the nickname of "'the Commodore'" (4.31). That sounds pretty important.
- In fact, our three bosses frequently meet on the front porch of Kuehnle's hotel. Although Scott is ostensibly in charge, everything needs to go through Kuehnle first—and after Scott's death in 1900, Kuehnle officially takes over the top spot. He sets up a system in which Sheriff Johnson collects and distributes cash between the local Republican Party (which Kuehnle leads) and the city's many criminal enterprises.
- With time, Kuehnle becomes powerful, not just in Atlantic City, but throughout New Jersey. Through bribery and voter fraud, he's able to rack up big vote totals for statewide Republican races, giving him a great deal of power within the party.
- Enter Woodrow Wilson. Before becoming president, Wilson is the governor of New Jersey, where he makes "a pledge to wipe out corruption at all levels of government" (4.43). Atlantic City ranks pretty high on that list.
- After his election, Wilson forms the "Macksey Committee," dedicated to rooting out corruption. Although it's a long, drawn-out process—interfered with at every turn by Atlantic City bigwigs—Woodrow finally manages to send Kuehnle to prison for a year. When Kuehnle returns from his long vacation, he discovers that his protégé, Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, has taken control of the city.
The Golden Age of Nucky
- Nucky's regular driver is out of town, so poor Joe Hamilton has to stand in this evening. Although he's known about Nucky's proclivities, he didn't quite expect to look back and see Nucky getting frisky in the back seat with one of his many gal pals.
- Nucky was born in 1883 in a small "bayside farming village" (5.4) just north of Atlantic City. He first became acquainted with the city's political system after his dad became a sheriff in the region. Although Nucky married his high-school sweetheart, Mabel Jeffries, tragedy soon struck and she died in 1913, leaving Nucky to focus even more on politics.
- The newly-crowned boss has learned a thing or two from the whole Woodrow Wilson debacle. Specifically, if he's going to maintain his hold over Atlantic City, Nucky will need to "become a force statewide" (4.15).
- This is where Walter Edge comes in. Although Edge was born and bred in corrupt Atlantic City, he's actually an honest dude—and a perfect candidate for governor. Some political shenanigans and plenty of voter fraud later, Nucky now has a trusted comrade for governor. Winning.
- In 1919, Congress passes the Volstead Act, which bans the production and sale of alcohol throughout the United States. Although you might expect this to hurt Atlantic City, it's actually the best thing that ever happened to the town. After all, it's not like Atlantic City ever cared about liquor laws before—why start now? Basically, "as far as Atlantic City was concerned, the 18th amendment [...] never existed" (5.25). Ha. And with this, more visitors than ever flock to Atlantic City. The city even becomes a popular spot for business conventions, for reasons that should be obvious.
- By the 1920s, Atlantic City is going wild. There are popular shows playing every night, tons of visitors ambling about the boardwalk, and—yes—enough illegal activity to go around. Nucky rules his town like a king, strolling the Boardwalk with his right-hand-man Louis Kessel and showing up at every major event.
- The most important key to this success is the structure of Nucky's organization. Nucky hand-selects each employee, making it perfectly clear that they'll need to stay "in the good graces of the organization" (5.61) to keep their jobs.
- Similarly, Nucky used ward leaders—low-level politicians who oversee individual neighborhoods—to further solidify his power. These ward leaders ensure that regular folk have everything they need to get by, and that they know that everything comes from Nucky.
- Not everyone is happy with Nucky's style, though (shocking, we know). An organization called "'the Committee of One Hundred'" (5.69) forms, dedicated to exposing corruption in Atlantic City. This has happened before, but never from Atlantic City residents.
- In the late 1920s, Nucky joins a group called the Seven Group. Founded by mobster Meyer Lansky, it consists of leaders from all of the East Coast's major crime groups.
- This relationship comes to a head in 1929, when Lansky's protégé Lucky Luciano calls a meeting of all of the major bosses. Where else but Atlantic City could this happen? Naturally, Nucky plays a great host. Though this meeting doesn't end with a group hug or anything, it does set the stage for the first nationwide crime syndicate. Hey—it's something, right?
Hard Times for Nucky and His Town
- Local bookie Ralph Weloff storms into the Ritz Carlton to meet Nucky. A new gambling operation has opened up without Nucky's approval, and the police are refusing to shut it down.
- It's now the mid-1930s and things aren't going so well. As with everywhere else, "The Great Depression brought hard times to Atlantic City" (6.4). To make things worse, Prohibition is over, which ends the city's booze monopoly.
- Led by Agent William Frank, the IRS and FBI have been monitoring operations since 1926. They're shocked by how brazen the illegal activity is, but are still unsure if they can bag Nucky. See, Nucky has always been obsessive about his finances, always paying taxes on his legal income and destroying all evidence of his illegal cash flow. He makes his lieutenants do the same.
- Unfortunately, though, not everyone takes Nucky's advice. The Tomlin family has "a virtual monopoly of the road construction and paving contracts" (6.14) but is awful at bookkeeping. Frank finds evidence of corruption in their records and sends them to prison, though they refuse to rat Nucky out.
- Nucky doesn't stay lucky forever, though, and Agent Frank nabs Joseph Curio, an attorney who worked with Nucky on a shady railroad deal, and offers him a plea deal to cooperate. Curio gives in, coming clean about Nucky's involvement in the deal.
- It's enough to put Nucky in prison, but Agent Frank isn't satisfied. He wants to get Nucky for tax evasion, which would be the holy grail of charges.
- Meanwhile, the FBI has taken a bite out of Atlantic City's illegal economy. Agent Frank and his compatriots end up serving "more than 40 indictments" (6.43) to brothel and gambling house owners by 1939. Nucky isn't going down without a fight, though, and after a major gambling boss named Austin Clark goes down, Nucky starts interfering with the investigation in any and every way possible.
- And guess what? It actually works. Although the State builds a foolproof case against Clark, the jury somehow acquits him. After some investigation, Agent Frank realizes that Nucky handpicked the jury. There was no chance of a conviction happening.
- Eventually, Agent Frank wises up and stops the nonsense. He does this right in the nick of time too, because Nucky's trial is about to begin. For the first time ever, Nucky loses. He's "sentenced to 10 years in jail and a fine of $200,000" (6.70). Although Nucky is released from prison four years later, he never reaches the heights of powers he once held. He lives a quiet existence until his death in 1968.
- With Nucky gone, the Atlantic City political machine needs a new boss. That boss in Frank "Hap" Farley.
- Let's go back in time for a second. During Nucky's trial, it becomes clear that his time at the top is over. Naturally this leads to a power struggle, with two men emerging as the lead candidates—our boy Hap and Atlantic City mayor Thomas Taggart.
- Born in Philly, Taggart is a lawyer who quickly rose through the ranks in the Atlantic City Republican Party. Taggart has a secret, however: He's gay. Although his friends and inner circle know this and accept him for it, it could become a big scandal if it reached the public.
- But then Taggart makes a mistake. Instead of going with his officially chosen running mate, Taggart tries to convince his bosses to go with a different dude. The bosses are quite displeased to have their authority flaunted like this.
- Enter Hap Farley. Hap is an Atlantic City native, born and bred within the city's political machine. He's also a really disciplined guy—"'monastic' best describes his devotion to Atlantic City's politics" (7.17). Although Hap went to school to become a lawyer, he quickly realizes that the real money is in politics, so he goes about making social connections with major political players, most notably by playing pickup games of basketball.
- In 1937, Hap runs for state assembly and wins handily. The battle for boss-hood has begun.
- By the end of 1940, Taggart's power has gone to his head. He starts wandering around the city "sporting pearl-handled six shooters on his hips" (7.34) like an olde tyme sheriff, vowing to end corruption. In truth, though, he's only trying to consolidate his power.
- Hap doesn't take this lying down. After making Taggart's homosexuality public, Hap has Taggart stripped of his power. With that, his road to ascension is wide open.
- His power solidified, Hap then turns to the state senate. He quickly becomes a major power player, fostering relationships with his fellow senators and holding a great deal of sway over the legislative process.
- Then World War II hits. This is a good thing for Atlantic City, as it becomes "used as a training center for tens of thousands of American GIs" (7.49). Unfortunately, this also mean that the vice industry will have to go underground for a few years.
- In 1943, Walter Edge is once again elected governor. This is huge deal for Hap and he becomes the majority leader for the Republican Party in the state senate. That's power, son.
- By 1950, the army has cleared out and the city's illegal businesses are back in full force. Led by three men—Jack Portock, Fred Warlich, and Francis Gribbin—the city's police force revolts, fighting for better wages by raiding brothels and gambling houses.
- Although this revolt is crushed, it plays a big role in "the Keafauver Committee" (7.69), yet another federal investigation into governmental corruption. Though the hearings do some minor damage to Hap's organization, it doesn't take long until it's business as usual once again.
The Painful Ride Down
- Hap is hosting an emergency meeting. It turns out that the Atlantic City Press (the city's sole newspaper) has "turned on Farley" (8.2), devoting constant coverage to his corrupt organization. Things aren't looking good for ol' Hap.
- Atlantic City itself is facing a similar fate. By the 1950s, the growth of modern technology has made weekend getaways to Atlantic City seem much less appealing to the average Joe. So much so, that by the 60s, many of the formerly successful hoteliers have left town. They're followed by much of the middle class, who flee the city's urban blight.
- In 1964, the Democratic National Convention is held in Atlantic City. As you might imagine, this is a disaster, revealing the sad fate of this formerly illustrious city to the American public.
- Things aren't going great for Hap, either. First, a Supreme Court decision changes the way that state representatives are chosen, which means that people outside of Atlantic City will be able to vote in his election.
- Meanwhile, the then-burgeoning Civil Rights Movement prompts Atlantic City's black population to become "involved in partisan Democratic politics" (8.35), which is not good for Hap.
- This is when the Atlantic City Press enters the picture. As the 1970s draw near, two journalists named Bernard Izes and John Katz make it their mission to expose Hap, taking out several of his lieutenants but falling short of the boss man himself.
- Then, in 1971, it happens: Hap is absolutely slaughtered in the primaries by his Republican opponent, a man named Joseph MacGahn. With that, the dream is over.
Turn Out the Lights
- Atlantic City is in dire straits. It's now the mid 1970s and this once-bustling resort town is a shadow of its former self, its tourism income nearly half of what it was in 1950. Ouch. The people in charge have one hope left, though—legalized gambling. The city's vice industry has been gone for some time now, but residents still hope that gambling will draw in new visitors.
- Unfortunately, Governor Brendan Byrne stands in their way. Byrne is the opposite of an Atlantic City politician, contemptuous towards corruption and immune to bribery. It'll be tough to get past him.
- Atlantic City tries to get gambling legalized in 1974. Their pitch is to allow cities across New Jersey to vote on whether they want it in their communities, rather than focusing solely on Atlantic City. The ballot initiative fails miserably and "it seemed all was lost" (9.37).
A Second Bite at the Apple
- Lea Finkler has just arrived at city hall. Finkler is a transplant from NYC and one tough old broad, known for tearing Atlantic City politicians to pieces on a daily basis. All she ever gets in response, however, are pleas to help build support among her peers for legalized gambling.
- Atlantic City isn't taking its 1974 defeat lying down. In a "stroke of genius" (10.6), they add a bit to the legislation that earmarks casino funds for the elderly and handicapped. Clever. Then, in 1976, they take their second shot. This time, things are a lot more organized; they even hire a "professional campaign strategist" for the newly named "Committee to Rebuild Atlantic City" (10.11) or C.R.A.C. Even Hap lends a hand.
- Thanks to a more focused and better-researched campaign—not to mention copious amounts of bribes, per usual—the measure actually passes. For the first time ever, gambling is legal in Atlantic City.
- The first organization to open a casino is a hotel company called Resorts International. Though it began its life as a paint company, Resorts International made a name for itself by building hugely profitable hotels in the Bahamas. They also happen to be a bit corrupt. Meyer Lansky actually helped them gain approval for their hotels from the Bahamian government, which basically means they paid a ton of bribes.
- It takes two years for the company to get its gambling license. The government actually "recommended denial of a permanent license" (10.59) after learning about the deal with Lansky, but Resorts International managed to fight the case. Gambling is back, baby.
It's a New Ballgame
- Atlantic City mayor Michael Matthews is in some big trouble. Word is that "several FBI agents appeared at city hall with a warrant" (11.2) for his arrest. That's never a good sign…
- Matthews was elected in 1982. The dude went power crazy from day one, though, acting as corrupt as his predecessors without giving anything back to the community. So an FBI agent posed as a mobster and made deals with Matthews, and the mayor ended up taking a $10,000 bribe. The government is serious about keeping corruption out of this newly-legal gambling mecca.
- Take Clifford and Stuart Perlman—owners of Las Vegas's Caesar's Palace—for example. Before opening their first Atlantic City casino in 1979, the brothers made their fair share of dealings with mobsters. These dealing eventually force the brothers' ouster from the company, although their casino is eventually opened.
- A similar thing happens with Steve Wynn, chairman of the Golden Nugget casino in Vegas. Although Wynn is life-long casino worker who actually doesn't have ties to the mob, his organization is almost infiltrated by Mel Harris, an Atlantic City native with "a social relationship with some mob figures" (11.43). When this comes to light, Wynn apologizes and vows to be more vigilant in the future. He still gets to build his precious casino.
- Basically, this all goes to show that times have changed in Atlantic City. With gambling now in the hands of the government, it's going to be a lot harder for the criminal underworld to get their cut.
The Donald Comes to Town
- Donald Trump is living it up. The dude is currently chilling on the bridge of his yacht (tastefully named the Trump Princess), staging a fake media scene in which Atlantic City welcomes him as a conquering hero.
- Trump's dad, Fred, was a bit of a real estate mogul himself. By the time Donald got out of school, his dad had built an empire "with rental income of more than $50 million annually" (12.10). Trump change ain't chump change, that's for sure.
- Little Donny wants to follow in dad's footsteps. Instead of focusing on the outer boroughs of New York, however, Trump the Younger focuses on Manhattan, buying up mega-expensive properties and making them more opulent than a Kardashian's birthday party.
- In fact, Trump only gets into the casino game on a whim. After developer Robert Maheu's plans for a casino fall through, Trump swoops in, buying his property on the cheap and building his first casino, Trump Plaza. Unlike his predecessors, Trump manages to be "licensed as a casino operator" (12.20) before he begins construction. This is quite unusual, and it shows just how much power this wig-wearing wacko wields.
- In 1985, Trump gets another big opportunity. In the midst of constructing its first $325 million casino, Hilton Hotels is denied a gambling license. Once again, Trump comes in and makes lemons out of lemonade. A year later, he does the same thing with Resorts International, opening his piece de resistance—the Taj Mahal.
- Thanks to a booming gambling industry and lots of hard work, "the rebuilding of Atlantic City" (12.49) is well underway. While it remains to be seen if this boom periods lasts, Atlantic City finally seems to be on solid footing.