Mr. Big Stuff

Who do you think you are? Went the familiar existential refrain, from its roots in the Irish waterfront of history to an unlikely apotheosis at the top of the soul charts (Jean Knight; Stax label 1971).  So many descendants of the Irish waterfront grew up more or less like us, in the same kinds of places, same kind parochial schools, fielding the same rhetorically barbed queries (‘who do you think you are’); it’s a familiar enough generational cohort story, but such wonderfully vivid characters we’ve been blessed to find in the wake of book! Like us, these warm new friends revel in stories of the old days, having made their own way in a very different world from that of their forebears.

Thanks to friend, compatriot, ever-inspiring correspondent Bernard—might I add artist-raconteur–for this astonishing, one-of-a-kind photographic image of Mr. Big (Stuff) himself, Bill McCormack, arm draped over the bespectacled gent seated to his right, back row. The occasion was a 1933 Manhattan testimonial dinner for the newly appointed Collector of the Port of New York, Mr. Harry M. Durning. The photo captures a moment from early in Bill’s Mr. Big-hood, only three years removed from the long brutal climb that finally yielded him monopoly control of the stevedoring for all the produce shipped to the great metropolis via the Pennsylvania Railroad.

By the time his picture was taken, Bill McCormack had acquired the same concession from the Erie Railroad, which meant, as a longshoreman-informant would tell New York City anti-crime officials in 1950: if Mr. Big says you’re not gonna eat, you’re not gonna eat.

In 1933 Bill McCormack verged on a prodigious run such as are legends made. Story begins in Chapter 3 of Irish Waterfront, which is where this photograph would be located had I found Bernard earlier! Yet now, with this gift, Bernard has opened again the waterfronts of history and memory.

The image in the mirror more nearly evokes the characteristic McCormack look found in the few extant photos: as though he was always poised to break out into a roar of laughter, or wrath, or some frightful combo. The Irish-mythology origins of Mr. Big Stuffs are treated at length in Chapter 11.

I’ve never heard an audio representation of the man’s voice, but I guarantee it took several more generations before any McCormack would sport the boarding school accent flashed in anger by “Mr. Upstairs’ in a late scene from On the Waterfront (shot from behind; it’s the Sidney the butler shot). The abrupt appearance of this unidentified figure makes no sense cinematically, but Budd Schulberg had not spent five years helping Pete Corridan expose this Mr. Big of Mr. Bigs, only to relent in the name of filmic continuity. Could any such notion or idea been more remote for the gent in the black tie in 1933?

 

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