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195 of 206 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Valuable History
When HBO wanted to develop a crime series with the unenviable task of following "The Sopranos," they turned to Martin Scorsese to produce it. The great director chose to base the show on a history book by Nelson Johnson, BOARDWALK EMPIRE, first published in 2002 and now re-released in paperback. The cable drama, starring Steve Buscemi, is shooting this fall in New York...
Published on September 28, 2009 by Bookreporter

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34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Complete history, suitable for a motivated, niche audience
If the subject matter intrigues you, this book will probably be worth a read. However, don't expect high drama or strong narrative (and certainly not anything as spicy as the HBO series). Johnson does an excellent job reconstructing key eras in Atlantic City's (and New Jersey's) past, and is at his best when explaining the multifaceted politics-meets-racket machine that...
Published on January 17, 2011 by Dennis J. Boccippio


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195 of 206 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Valuable History, September 28, 2009
By 
Bookreporter (New York, New York) - See all my reviews
When HBO wanted to develop a crime series with the unenviable task of following "The Sopranos," they turned to Martin Scorsese to produce it. The great director chose to base the show on a history book by Nelson Johnson, BOARDWALK EMPIRE, first published in 2002 and now re-released in paperback. The cable drama, starring Steve Buscemi, is shooting this fall in New York and will air next year, with Scorsese directing the pilot.

When people hear the name "Atlantic City," they most likely think of gambling and casinos. But probably not many know that it was the birthplace of the American Mafia. On the Boardwalk today is a picture of a smiling Big Al Capone in a snazzy one-piece bathing suit on one of its historical markers. Few cities can boast of that. In just 30 years of the 19th century, Atlantic City went from being a 10-mile strip of sand dunes to a city based entirely upon two things: tourism and vice.

Nelson Johnson, a New Jersey politician and judge, decided to write the hidden history of Atlantic City; the result is this fascinating and meticulously researched book. Decades-long visitors to the resort like myself, as well as first-time travelers, will find it a good read. He based BOARDWALK EMPIRE on an amazing fact. For the first 70 years of the 20th century, Atlantic City was controlled by just three political bosses who were also, for lack of a better term, gangsters: Louis "the Commodore" Kuehnle, Enoch "Nucky" Johnson (no relation to the author) and Frank "Hap" Farley.

We have often heard of how gangsters historically corrupt elected officials and the police with bribes and payoffs. Atlantic City was different, though, because the gangsters and the Republican Party was one and the same organization. Atlantic City was a one-party city for decades. And here's the really odd thing: the vast majority of the public did not seem to mind because the Republican ward system was effective not only in turning out votes, but also in meeting the needs of the people. Nucky fed the poor. Eventually, the corrupt Republican leaders of the city would dominate and control the entire state of New Jersey.

Johnson takes us back to the earliest days of the resort, when it was filled with more flies and mosquitoes than people. A local doctor named Jonathan Pitney wanted to make some money, so he thought of creating a "health" resort on Abescon Island in the middle of the 19th century. Resorts of any kind were unheard of then, but Cape May, New Jersey, became the nation's first, catering to rich people. By 1870, a rail line linked Philadelphia, the nearest metropolitan area, to the island; Pitney's dream came true, just not the way he expected it.

Atlantic City became the first resort that viewed working class people, mostly from Philly in need of a little diversion after a six-day work week in the factories, as vacationers. The booming resort sought to give the workers what they wanted, which could be summed up in three words: booze, gambling and sex. Atlantic City was born.

The only business on the tiny island was tourism, and the cardinal rule was that the tourists had to go home happy so they would return with their cash the following season. Johnson quotes a local man who said it best: "If the people who came to town had wanted Bible readings, we'd have given 'em that. But nobody ever asked for Bible readings. They wanted booze, broads and gambling, so that's what we gave 'em."

By the 1890s, a Philadelphia newspaper identified 100 brothels on the island, but the cops looked the other way. As long as the payoffs were made to the local Republican machine, racketeers could operate in the open, which is amazing considering that this was Victorian America. Hookers and illegal casinos, and selling booze on Sundays (also unlawful at the time), were vital parts of the town's economy. When a reformist governor threatened to send the state militia in to clean up Atlantic City, boss "Commodore" Kuehnle reassured the local merchants. Johnson writes, "...If the governor did send down the militia, then Kuehnle would have the local whores greet them at the station."

Finally, a way to end war! Of course the militia never arrived, but then America went totally insane after World War I and passed the 19th Amendment prohibiting alcohol. This ushered in the glory years of Atlantic City, which already had seen the rise of huge Beaux Art and architecturally beautiful hotels that lined the Boardwalk like giant sand castles. "Prohibition didn't happen in Atlantic City," according to one expert. There was no need for speakeasies, booze was sold openly, and the famous beach became a major trafficking route for East Coast contraband.

At this time, Atlantic City was ruled by its most flamboyant "decadent monarch" in the person of Enoch "Nucky" Johnson. The author writes, "In his prime, he strode the Boardwalk in evening clothes complete with spats, patent leather shoes, a walking stick, and a red carnation in his lapel. Nucky rode around town in a chauffer-driven, powder blue Rolls Royce limousine...had a retinue of servants to satisfy his every want, and an untaxed income of more than $500,000 a year." He was also a virtual underboss of the Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel New York crime family, the founding fathers of the Mafia. When, in May 1929, organized crime groups from around the country decided to meet to create a nationwide "syndicate" and divide up the turf, there was no question where they were going to hold their meeting. Atlantic City was a wide-open town for gangsters, and Nucky was the perfect host, both gracious and generous.

The repeal of Prohibition and the changing American leisure and travel patterns after World War II sent Atlantic City into a long period of decline. And in reading these pages, Johnson's narrative achieves a bit of a wistful feel. I was reminded of the great Louis Malle 1980 film, Atlantic City, which captured perfectly that time. Burt Lancaster's character says at one point, "You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean back then." But still, the graft, corruption and one-party rule continued unabated until 1971, by which time the once famous resort had nearly become a crumbling ruin.

Johnson takes his history straight through the battle to pass legalized gambling in Atlantic City during the late 1970s and the early decades of the casinos. He is firm in his belief that not only did gambling save the resort from certain death, but it has the potential to make Atlantic City great again. Some might argue this, pointing out that the resort might have been built on a vice, but it is still depending upon a vice to survive. Legalized gambling has hardly been the panacea that proponents promised. Some of the meanest streets of America in terms of poverty can be found just blocks from the casinos. And at night, hookers, another part of the resort's heritage, ply their trades on those sometimes dangerous streets, often within sight of the glittering neon casinos.

Modern-day Atlantic City is filled with ironies like that and ghosts galore. Existing like an afterthought within the shadow of a huge casino tower is the Ritz Hotel, now a condo, which was once the most exclusive spot on the Boardwalk. Nucky, who at one time ruled Atlantic City from the entire ninth floor of the Ritz, would be happy to see the huge casino next door, but extremely disappointed that he was not getting his share of the take.

Nelson Johnson has written a valuable history in BOARDWALK EMPIRE. Reading this book will be good background until we find out what Steve Buscemi does with the role of Nucky Johnson.

--- Reviewed by Tom Callahan
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65 of 70 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Killer Read!, September 30, 2002
By 
James I. Manion (Shepherdstown, WV United States) - See all my reviews
Extremely solid research---the author says it took twenty years, and that is apparent. Johnson tells it all---from salacious anecdote (what the Reading Public demands!) to scholarly relating of broader historical movements to Atlantic City's unique and amazing (some might say "weird") story. So well written, it reads like a novel. From "The Commodore" to "The Donald", Johnson particularly excells at character description. Absolutely brilliant---Highest Recommendation.
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46 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars NO GAMBLE, January 15, 2003
By 
Robert Wallis (Vancouver, WA USA) - See all my reviews
I have been interested in this most amazing city for about 30 years now. I thought that I had nothing else to learn about the city until I read Boardwalk Empire. Thank you Mr. Johnson for bringing a lot of new information to light in a most enjoyable fashion. Once started, it was hard to put this excellent book to rest. I highly recommend this book to anyone remotely interested in urban America. This book is a sure thing.
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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Shore Bet, May 28, 2003
I am pleased to be the first reader from Atlantic City to review this book. It goes without saying that it was of special interest to me. Throughout my life I have met several of the key figures in this book, so it was fascinating to learn more about their lives.
I enjoyed reading this book very much and would recommend it to anyone interested in Atlantic City. It was well written and researched. Nelson Johnson repeats facts when they become relative to another incident. This makes it much easier to keep track of the players and how one event or person influences another years later.
Johnson helps local residents understand why a unique racial tension still exists in this small northern city. This may not be apparent to readers unfamiliar with the area.
If I were to change anything about this book, it would be the last few pages. It ends with Nelson Johnson giving his opinion on the future of Atlantic City and how it can avoid its mistakes of the past. It is my feeling that this possibly belonged in a separate conclusion but not as the ending to the last chapter.
History buffs and political junkies will love this book.
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34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Complete history, suitable for a motivated, niche audience, January 17, 2011
By 
Dennis J. Boccippio (Huntsville, AL United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
If the subject matter intrigues you, this book will probably be worth a read. However, don't expect high drama or strong narrative (and certainly not anything as spicy as the HBO series). Johnson does an excellent job reconstructing key eras in Atlantic City's (and New Jersey's) past, and is at his best when explaining the multifaceted politics-meets-racket machine that was Atlantic City, and the people that dominated it.

Balancing this are a tendency to start strong with narrative, then devolve to "note card transcription" modes of storytelling; these are at their worst during the chapters on Atlantic City's decline and early-casino organized crime forays. In these portions of the city's story, strong or dominant individual figures aren't present to capture and focus attention, and Johnson's writing style takes the already complex and muddy "histories" and renders them sometimes intractable.

Readers who are committed to following the story through to its end won't be disappointed, but may find themselves a little frustrated for having to slog through some portions of the tale. Those who stick it through only for the first half of the book (from Commodore to Nucky) but get bored and put it down, won't be at a great loss.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Boardwalk Empire: A Classic, May 15, 2010
By 
Michael Storm "Perky1" (Palm Beach Gardens, FL) - See all my reviews
This is an absolutely wonderful book. It starts from the very beginnings of Atlantic City from when it was just an empty sand pit of an island to almost the present day. The style of writing is very colorful and the characters are facinating. I am really looking foward to the author''s future books and the HBO series based on his book. I would definitely recommend that people read this book, especially if you live in the area, as I have and if yu really want to understand why Atlantic City was and has developed the way it has. The book is very well researched and contains many sources of information for anyone who wants to do further investigations. I really hope that the people who currently run Atlantic City and the people in the casino industry read this book.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very Interesting, February 14, 2012
By 
RM "Book Lover" (Wildwood, Missouri, United States) - See all my reviews
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I originally bought this book for my husband. We don't get HBO, but he had heard about the show and decided reading the book was the next best thing. Then he waited impatiently for the show to come out on DVD which it finally did around Christmas. After watching a few episodes, I decided it would be worth while to read the book myself. I grew up in New Jersey and went to Atlantic City many times with my parents. All I knew was the beach, the boardwalk (wonderfully tacky) and the convention center where my dad attended the teacher's convention. I had no idea how Atlantic City came to be or how the influence of people like Nucky Thompson effected it's growth and development. What a compelling story. There's just enough detail and so many fascinating characters that it's hard to choose the most interesting. Don't confuse this book with the HBO show. It's the real story of Atlantic City with all it's warts.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Read and A Breath of Fresh Air, August 22, 2007
By 
Reader Rabbit (Rockville, Maryland) - See all my reviews
We've all read books outlining the history and politics of such places as Las Vegas, New York and Hollywood. This book takes on a topic that is very rarely given any attention, the birth and life (and seedy underbelly) of Atlantic City.

I first visited AC when I was a boy in the late 1960's. My mother (now 85) always regaled me with stories of how glamorous AC was when she was growing up. I could never reconcile that image of the city with the one I saw, that of stark urban decay on the one side and the gleaming casinos on the other. The book lays it all out, from the earliest days to the politics that brought gambling to the east coast.

I read the book on a one week vacation in Brigantine Beach, the beach town right next to AC. I found the book in a beach house that my father-in-law had rented and read it in about 3 days. I found it fascinating. It is strange to say of this type of book that I couldn't put it down but it was virtually the case.

The book has it all, history corruption, politics, do-gooders, sex/affairs, the mob, entertainment, bootlegging etc., etc.

I was not aware that the book was being considered as the basis for an HBO series but I will be sure to watch it if it materializes. Read the book, you'll like it.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Boardwalk Empire, December 26, 2002
By 
Nelson Johnson's account of Atlantic City reflects his long and intense twenty-years of research. His "heroes and villains," quite often the same person informs readers that in Atlantic City all that glitters was not gold, but gold-plated. The racketeers and politicians all tended to land on their feet even when faced with the "law" as it was at that time. The book is fact-filled, concise, and tells the true story of how A.C. became casino city. Mister Johnson accompishes this without boring the reader. It is well-paced and worth reaing.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The facts behind the "as based on" HBO series, September 28, 2010
The writer of the HBO series, Terence Winter (who also wrote the foreword for this edition of the book), was recently interviewed on public radio and explained how and why the HBO show deviates from many of the facts in the book "Boardwalk Empire." Last names were sometimes changed and certain information had to be imagined or created in order to allow the plot to veer away from the events in the book.

None of this takes away from the entertainment value of the series but potential buyers of this book will get an added perspective and accurate historical detail."Boardwalk Empire" is an excellent way to round out the very entertaining cable television series.

The book primarily covers the years from 1920-1970. Not surprisingly, Terence Winter (again, writer of the HBO series) also wrote many episodes of The Sopranos and director Martin Scorcese steps to the helm and directs the first and possibly many more episodes of the cable show ( but guest directors aren't uncommon for cable series). In the show, Steve Buscemi plays Nucky but Winter has admitted that James Gandolfini would have fit the actual body type and appearance of Nucky.

But back to the book "Boardwalk Empire."From prohibition to prostitution, the book doesn't pull any punches and is a detailed and accurate recreation of the history of Atlantic City. Nucky Johnson is shown as a strictly matter of fact business man. He provides what people want, primarily alcohol, gambling and sex. But if the public had wanted other things Nucky would simply have gone with public sentiment. His choices were based on what brought him the most profit -and it was as simple as that, although being in power was not so simple.

Having seen the first episodes of the series, I am able to compare both the book and television show. I'd urge you to buy the book. It made me yearn to visit Atlantic City in its heyday. Women dressed in their finest outfits before strolling on the actual boardwalk. I'd love to have revisited that time - if only to understand the thrills that drew people to Atlantic City.

Since I've now seen the series, it is impossible to write about "Boardwalk Empire" without comparing it to the film version. I have to admit that the HBO show recreates Atlantic City's mixture of people and often weird attractions, from side shows to palm readers - and it does make a difference seeing and hearing the combination of sights, sounds and dialogue.

"Boardwalk Empire" reveals how the area was a place where families came, with children enjoying themselves by day and adults venturing off to enjoy other pursuits at night. You won't get a truly balanced historical take on Atlantic City without reading the book and the series should motivate viewers to want to learn more about the history of Atlantic series. Reading "Boardwalk Empire" is well worth the time.
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