The great screenwriter, novelist, boxing journalist and social activist Budd Schulberg died at age 95 on August 5, 2009. Six days later New York State’s inspector general issued a scathing report on the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, the bi-state agency created in 1953 to supplant the notoriously crime-ridden and inhumane hiring practices along hundreds of piers creasing the Port of New York and New Jersey’s 750 miles of shoreline. Yet this “reform” agency, as Ralph Blumenthal reported in the New York Times, soon sported “the same corrupt, self-serving methods of the pier-based gangsters it was supposed to pursue,” an inconvenient fact that took fifty-six years for responsible parties to discern. In seeking to encapsulate the Port’s tumultuous history, Blumenthal did what journalists and historians covering the waterfront have done for decades: he invoked Budd Schulberg’s Academy-Award winning screenplay for the classic 1954 film On the Waterfront, a film honored as a virtual documentary for capturing “the violence and heroics” of a now-distant era when “the gun and the knife ruled the nation’s shipping lifeline.”
As New Yorker journalist William Finnegan reported in 2006, the “collective image” associated with that superlative movie remains “so compelling that its scenes and characters have become part of the consciousness of the actual waterfront’s protagonists today.” Directed by Elia Kazan and starring Marlon Brando as conscience-troubled longshoreman Terry Malloy (in a performance that virtually reinvented acting for the screen), Waterfront remains the template for ruminations on crime, punishment and violence in the great Port and environs, which encompass Hudson County, New Jersey, home to the film’s stunning Hoboken locations and site of a brawling, cash and carry political culture long-driven by its notoriously violent waterfront industry.
Budd Schulberg’s final public appearance was made, fittingly, in his beloved Hoboken, where, on July 29, Budd was feted at a staged reading of Waterfront featuring cast member alumni of The Sopranos, the landmark Jersey-based mob saga deeply indebted to Schulberg’s archetypal story. The scene that evening was abuzz over the previous day’s arrest of Hoboken’s newly elected mayor in a federal sting operation so far-reaching as to be instantly touted as the most grandiose political corruption case in U.S. history. Yet residents of the Mile Square City had seen it all before: in the movie, that is. “There are scenes,” as one local informed the Jersey Journal, “where you can just change a few names and all of a sudden you’re here today.”
Having spent the past decade researching and writing a book on Hudson County, the West Side of Manhattan, the Port of New York and New Jersey, the great movie and the crusading “waterfront priest” who inspired Budd Schulberg to write it, I too marvel at the film’s enduring power to shape our understanding of waterfronts past and present. But the world that made On the Waterfront—or did Waterfront make that world?—is long gone. In Terry Malloy’s day between forty and sixty thousand men made or sought to make their livelihood as longshoremen in the Port of New York and New Jersey. Today dockworkers number fewer than 2,500 throughout the port, with none found working in Hoboken and precious few across the North River on Manhattan’s West Side, the Port’s historic focal points. That is not the only difference between then and now. Floating corpses of dockworkers–slain then tossed in the river, only to burble to the surface when the waters of April grew warmer—no longer haunt the West Side, whose inhabitants historically learned early to look the other way, ask no questions and never and I mean Never speak with outsiders. That world, treated in great detail in On The Irish Waterfront, is gone forever.
On the Waterfront remains compelling, however, far beyond its treatment of the grim codes of violence and silence that covered the Port for decades. The film brilliantly exemplifies the “spiritual front,” as I’ve dubbed the boundary-crossing collaboration between Budd Schulberg and John M. “Pete” Corridan, the Jesuit waterfront priest who coaxed and prodded Budd to rewrite his scripts in pursuit of a movie deal through three trying years. Rarely have two men of such disparate temperaments needed one another so deeply as this pair: a former communist finding his way to a kind of existential spirituality, and a priestly Jesuit ostracized by the same rank and file longshoremen whose liberation from union and political oppression he so ardently if futilely championed. As I explain in On the Irish Waterfront, Corridan and Schulberg enjoyed a kind of mutual conversion process, forging a spiritual politics that yoked social action and advocacy cinema to a moral renewal of the port grounded in personal witness; in convincing oppressed dockworkers to speak up and speak out. Yet on the waterfront of history these men were obliged to compromise their radical principles; in 1953 they lent crucial support to a new longshoremen’s union, more democratically organized than the old, but still vulnerable to the influence of prominent labor racketeers. Corridan also vociferously agitated for the creation of the Waterfront Commission, only to discover that mob control of hiring on individual piers was quickly transplanted to the Commission’s newly established hiring information centers.
Such bitter setbacks only served to hone these partners’ determination to create an indelible waterfront of memory on film. Between 1950 and 1953 Schulberg prowled the saloons and docksides of the West Side and Hudson County; practically living with a rebel dockworker and his wife in their tiny apartment while writing by day in the corner of a room at Xavier Labor School in Chelsea, headquarters of the Jesuit waterfront apostolate. A fiery speech delivered by Pete Corridan on the Jersey City waterfront in autumn 1948 provided the heart and soul of each script and treatment Schulberg prepared between late autumn 1950 and the onset of shooting in November 1953. With ardent backing from director Elia Kazan, Schulberg managed to vanquish the mercurial producer Sam Spiegel’s demand that Pete Corridan/Karl Malden’s “Christ in the shapeup” soliloquy (possibly the lengthiest monologue in the history of commercial filmmaking to that point) be pared down to near-insignificance. Yet if that scene proved untouchable Spiegel’s relentless urging that Kazan and Schulberg “open it up again” resulted in a sharpened overall narrative focus: the resulting masterpiece exemplified “cooperation in picture making,” as one reviewer extolled the collaborative genius manifest in On the Waterfront.
“Let’s open it up again” likewise served as a kind of mantra in the making of On the Irish Waterfront. Like other journalists, memoirists and historians of my generation who are products—or descendants–of the historic Irish waterfront or its urban/ethnic counterparts, I have long been attentive to the claims of tribalism, especially when that tribalism collides with an equally powerful allure inhabiting traditions of creative and personal freedom. It is my conviction that On the Waterfront engages these emotionally and spiritually volatile themes more powerfully and with greater clarity than any creative work born of the U.S. urban experience. In the process this film conferred upon its collaborators a kind of spiritual prowess not readily re-translated into the waterfront’s parochial idiom.
That was not from lack of trying by parties standing to gain via association with an artwork enshrined in the universal pantheon. The Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor was ever eager to cloak itself in prestige and integrity borrowed from the film; in 2007 the bi-state agency code-named a “major investigation” (of indeterminate outcome) “Brando.” On a bright October afternoon in the previous year I watched from Pier 40 at the foot of Houston Street in Manhattan’s West Village, as Budd Schulberg joined officials of the Waterfront Commission in christening a police cruiser the “John M. Corridan, S.J.” Whereas Schulberg remained at age ninety-two glowingly animated by his passion for stories and for social justice, the Commission’s purpose and identity was perpetually enshrouded (and misuse of agency vessels was among the malfeasances cited in the recent New York inspector general’s report).
A truly extraordinary confluence of events from mid-summer 2009–the roundup of dozens of Jersey politicos (aong with a half-dozen rabbis) charged with waterfront-style crimes; the death of Budd Schulberg, and the implosion of the Waterfront Commission–may finally prompt a second wave of soul-searching in the once-great Port and the surrounding global metropolis the port made. Earnest historians might suggest that hopes for the port region’s moral and political regeneration depend on a more rigorous understanding of its past than may be acquired via trading signature lines of movie dialogue. I remain more strictly devoted to storytelling as meaningful in itself; especially waterfront stories that gives themselves up only to the most assiduous diggers. We’ve been fortunate to open it up again, and for the first time, and we are delighted to share now with readers these stories extracted from the most tumultuous, eventful decade in the history of the great port; a fateful dispensation ending in the triumph and hope that was On the Waterfront.