In December 1952 a Hoboken, New Jersey dockworker offered public testimony against his first cousin (“we were like brothers”), the city’s commissioner of public safety, and the leading Hudson County official of the International Longshoremen’s Association. “They eat and drink together and split up the money together,” alleged the longshoreman, whose testimony was credited with helping break the code of silence that prevailed for decades across the Port of New York and New Jersey. The story of this historic code of silence, the mysterious economic-political-religious system it reinforced, and a dramatic postwar insurgency against that machine and its bosses is told for the first time in On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie and the Soul of the Port of New York, a new release from Cornell University Press.
On July 23, 2009, Hoboken’s youthful, newly inaugurated mayor was indicted on federal corruption charges in a massive sting operation targeting numerous Hudson County politicos. Six nights later the legendary writer Budd Schulberg visited the “Mile Square City” to attend a staged reading of On the Waterfront, the classic 1954 film shot on location in Hoboken—which earned Schulberg an Academy Award for best screenplay–whose depiction of the port as a corrupt, lawless frontier now felt more timeless than ever in light of recent local events. Budd Schulberg died on August 6 at age ninety-five. Then, on August 10 the inspector general of New York State issued a blistering expose of rampant corruption at the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, the bi-state regulatory agency established in 1953 to help drive organized crime from the piers of New York Harbor. The prime mover instigating the agency’s creation was the Jesuit waterfront priest John M. Corridan, the central figure in On the Irish Waterfront and Budd Schuberg’s spiritual mentor, creative collaborator, and partner in activism that yielded both an immortal film (in which Corridan was played by Karl Malden) and the colossal failure that was the Waterfront Commission, a fact ruefully acknowledged by Corridan in 1955 but hidden from the public for over half a century.
Pete Corridan and Budd Schulberg fought to save the soul of the world’s great port; their struggle also deeply informs the current crisis, which is not—much recent punditry aside–rooted in New Jersey’s purportedly unique culture of political corruption but in the Port of New York and New Jersey’s historic customs and practices, born on the early twentieth century’s brawling Irish waterfront, later refined by fractious multiethnic coalitions in the near-total absence of public scrutiny. Corridan and Schulberg ignited the port’s first wave of soul-searching. The second act of that drama, only now unfolding, is rooted in stories revealed for the first time in On the Irish Waterfront.