Atlantic City is what it has always been: Naughty

In 1942, the Pentagon turned the city into a huge military base populated by thousands of servicemen.
In 1942, the Pentagon turned the city into a huge military base populated by thousands of servicemen.
Posted: May 15, 2009

FROM THE MOMENT Resorts International (now Resorts Atlantic City) opened its doors 31 years ago, there has been opposition to legal gambling's presence in Atlantic City.

Some critics cite the toll - gambling addiction and an increase in crime (especially prostitution) - casinos can take on society. Others have decried gaming halls and their attendant amenities as an affront to the town's glorious past as a wholesome, family-friendly destination.

Both groups are obviously well-intentioned. But those subscribing to the latter philosophy are also misguided, if not downright delusional.

A mythology about Atlantic City's past as a sort-of proto-Orlando has evolved through the decades. But the truth is that its current status as a filling station for peoples' baser desires is nothing more than a continuation of a legacy that began way before the vociferous gambling opponents were gleams in their parents' - or grandparents' - eyes.

To put it another way, Atlantic City is, was and, if the past is indeed prologue, always will be Sodom-by-the-Sea.

That the city was ever anything but a boardwalk-rimmed den of inequity is "absolutely a myth," said Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Nelson Johnson. He's the author of "Boardwalk Empire" (Plexus Publishing, $18.95), a definitive account of Atlantic City's naughty, bawdy and gaudy history and the three corrupt overlords who reigned during a good chunk of its 155-year existence.

According to Johnson, whose 2002 book is being developed as an HBO miniseries by Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese, from the time of its founding in 1854, Atlantic City's raison d'etre was to "give the people what they want."

To buttress his point, he cited a quote from the late Murray Fredericks, a local attorney who explained the town's vice-ridden history this way: "If people came for Bible readings, we would have given them that. But nobody asked for Bible readings. They came for booze, broads and gambling, and that's what we gave them."

Victorian roots

Atlantic City's position as Sin City USA (or as author-historian Vicki Gold-Levi has described it, "Las Vegas before there was a Las Vegas") was established during the Victorian Era, when less-than-noble pursuits, carnal and otherwise, were looked upon harshly by mainstream society.

By the waning years of the 19th century, vice had become as important to the tourism industry as the beach and ocean.

In "By the Beautiful Sea: The Rise and High Times of That Great American Resort, Atlantic City" (Rutgers University Press), a 1983 scholarly study of the city's early decades, the late Charles Funnell wrote of prostitution being so widespread and open that a visitor could avail himself of widely circulated directories listing such things as the ages, races and sexual specialties of the town's working girls.

The book notes the Aug. 9, 1890, edition of the Philadelphia Bulletin (whose yearly exposes of Atlantic City's vice rackets, said Johnson, were met with bemused indifference by civic leaders) identified the names and locations of 24 brothels, including "May Woodson's pestilence hole, and the 'Sea Breeze' ."

It was during this time that Louis "the Commodore" Kuehnle Jr. (1858-1934), the first of the city's three omnipotent rackets bosses, used political corruption to solidify the resort's reputation as a place where anything goes. But it was under his successor, Enoch "Nucky" Johnson, that Atlantic City reached its between-World-Wars apex as the nation's leading adult playground.

Nominally, the Republican Johnson (1883-1968) served for decades as Atlantic County's sheriff and undersheriff (office-holders couldn't succeed themselves, so he ping-ponged between the two jobs). But his real occupation was overseeing - and taking a cut of - the city's prostitution, gambling and (once Prohibition became law in 1919) bootlegging operations.

The 1920s really did roar in Nucky Johnson's Atlantic City.

Politics and geography

Flouting Prohibition was a natural for Atlantic City, reasoned Judge Johnson, who is not related to Nucky Johnson.

Before Prohibition, he explained, state "blue laws" had long made Sunday sales of booze illegal. "But Atlantic City was selling alcoholic beverages on Sundays when nobody else was. So it wasn't a big step to go from selling alcohol illegally one day a week to seven days a week."

The Volstead Act, which codified the prohibition of the manufacture and sale of alcohol, was all but ignored in Atlantic City. There were, said Johnson, two main reasons for that.

One was geographical.

In the 1920s, Atlantic City was relatively inaccessible. Rail was the main conduit to Absecon Island; automobiles were just becoming a middle-class fixture, and the roads leading there weren't particularly car-friendly. State and federal agents had a hard time getting to Atlantic City and, of course, being firmly in Nucky Johnson's pocket, local cops had no interest in enforcing Prohibition.

The other reason was political expediency.

Sure, the Republicans who ran Trenton back in the day would have preferred Atlantic City be on the straight and narrow. But Nucky Johnson, who ran his "boardwalk empire" from a suite at the still-standing Ritz Hotel (it's now a condo), controlled too many votes; to antagonize him would have meant political suicide.

"Beginning with Louis Kuehnle, and even more so with [Nucky Johnson], they had significant clout within the political system. So Atlantic City sort of became hands-off," said Judge Johnson. "More important, they delivered the vote to the Republican Party for generations."

Occasional state attempts to put the brakes on Atlantic City all resulted in the same inaction, he added. "You had a couple of governors who were ignored, and you had investigative committees. But their reports always came at the end of the summer season, so nothing was done."

Perhaps the ultimate expression of Nucky Johnson's clout came in May 1929 when he hosted a gathering of the most powerful mobsters in America. Organized crime legends such as Al Capone, Dutch Schultz, Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, Charlie "Lucky" Luciano and Frank Costello were among those who attended and pledged to end the interancine warfare that had long plagued the rackets and to conduct business in a spirit of cooperation.

Historians point to the convention as the beginning of modern organized crime.

Even after FDR repealed Prohibition in 1933, Atlantic City kept the party rolling.

Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific avenues remained lined with bordellos and betting parlors, from opulent card rooms to smoke-choked cigar stores where, for a penny or nickel, one could play the illegal numbers or bet on a horse race.

It took nothing less than the greatest conflagration in human history to at least partially close the wide-open atmosphere.

Army

arrives

World War II was the catalyst for something of a cleanup of Atlantic City, Johnson noted. In 1942, the Pentagon all but took over the city, turning it into a huge military base populated by thousands of servicemen.

"There were a very large number of soldiers in town, and the Army flat-out said, 'We're not gonna have our guys losing their money in your gambling joints,' " said Johnson.

Even Nucky Johnson, who would wind up convicted of racketeering in the 1940s, couldn't fight the Army. As a result, the storefront action was replaced by a slightly more discreet strategy: gambling still flourished, but behind closed doors.

"By the 1950s and '60s, nightclubs [such famed hotspots as the Club Harlem on Kentucky Avenue and Paul "Skinny" D'Amato's storied 500 Club on Missouri Avenue] had gambling rooms, but no longer had horse rooms or card rooms," Johnson said.

Stepping in for the fallen Nucky was Atlantic City's third and final "emperor," Frank S. Farley (1901-1977), an Atlantic County state senator for whom the Atlantic City Expressway service plaza and the state marina at Trump Marina casino are named.

While Farley wasn't immune to engaging in corruption and bossism, he at least had a more noble intent than his two predecessors, for whom lining their own pockets was always Job One, author Johnson explained. "Farley appreciated the income from the rackets, but he focused on bringing home the bacon from Trenton."

Atlantic City needed that pork barrel.

Unlike his two predecessors, Farley ruled a city that had seen its best days.

The ascension of Las Vegas and, in the 1950s, Havana, as centers of legal gaming, and the development of cheap air travel led to a severe decline in Atlantic City's fortunes. By the early '70s, even the town's vice industry was on the ropes.

In November 1976, New Jersey voters approved legal casinos in Atlantic City. Eighteen months later, Resorts opened its doors. And the breast-beating and lamentation over a lost world of wholesomeness and innocence - which never really existed - began. *

Chuck Darrow has covered Atlantic City and casinos for more than 20 years. Read his blog http://go.philly.com/casinotes.

E-mail him at darrowc@phillynews.com.

And listen to his Atlantic City report Saturdays at 1:25 a.m. with Steve Trevelise on WIP (610-AM).

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