Eight years after it was first published, Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City, by Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson, has become the basis of a new HBO series, called simply Boardwalk Empire. Scheduled to debut September 19 with a pilot directed by Martin Scorsese, the series concentrates on the Prohibition years, when Atlantic City flourished under the control of mobster/Republican boss Enoch “Nucky” Johnson (renamed Nucky Thompson for the series and played by Steve Buscemi). Created by Sopranos writer Terence Winter, the series was shot in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Nelson Johnson, though, is pure Jersey. He still commutes from rural Hammonton—where he grew up—to his Atlantic City courtroom. We spoke with Johnson—no relation to Nucky—about his fascination with all things Atlantic City.
How did you become interested in the history of Atlantic City?
I was a lawyer representing the planning board, and things seemed so crazy. I wanted to make sense of it….The history was fascinating. Miss America, the Monopoly board, casino gambling, the ocean, the Boardwalk…. Nucky was just the most interesting part of it, though. I don’t think there was anyone in the twentieth century who wore both hats—organized crime and the Republican Party. He was able to cross back and forth between those two worlds.
What was the secret of Nucky’s success?
His father was in politics and that is where he chose to go. He made himself indispensible to the previous Republican boss, Louis Kuehnle, and when Kuehnle was pursued in court and finally caught by [then governor] Woodrow Wilson, Nucky was right there to succeed him. But Nucky was able to find what people wanted and give it to them, especially the middle classes who came down to Atlantic City to vacation. Gambling, prostitution, and just plain fun—and when Prohibition came, he got them booze. Meanwhile, he also controlled jobs for people who needed employment year-round.
What made Nucky different from other bosses?
When I did the book, I talked to many old-timers who knew Nucky. They said he was a chameleon. He was one way with the beautiful ladies and he was another when it was time to be tough. He was a glad-hander and then he was rough when he had to be. And he knew that even the boss was just one part of the organization. If you don’t deliver, then you, too, can be replaced.
How has Atlantic City endured as a destination?
One thing about Atlantic City is that it, like Nucky, has always looked for what its visitors wanted and tried to deliver in a creative way. At its peak, during Nucky’s time, it only had 60,000 to 70,000 residents year-round, but it was hundreds of thousands every summer—all of whom came to have fun.
Your next book is about the black experience in Atlantic City. How is that unique?
Atlantic City could not have become what it was without African-American labor. From 1900 through 1920, 95 percent of those who worked in hotels were black—primarily imported servants from the South….Everyone lived in harmony for a while, but by the Depression, the blacks were pushed to the North Side…where the community remains today. Nucky, though, always paid attention to the North Side, getting them jobs and at least some services.
Any fears that HBO won’t do Nucky right?
I have seen a little bit, and so far they have his complex character down. Look, it is being fictionalized and I don’t have any say in it. But he is such a rich character, and the story of Prohibition in Atlantic City is so good, that I don’t think they will have to stray all that far from the truth.