Slashed Throats, Bullets: Q&A with Dark Harbor author Nathan Ward

In Book Review by Rachel Aydt

By Rachel Aydt

In Nathan Ward’s Dark Harbor: The War for the New York Waterfront (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010), he tells the true story of mob corruption and union muckrakers that ultimately inspired the film On The Waterfront. Malcolm “Mike” Johnson, our hero of the Ward’s story, is a gumshoe reporter who risked life and limb to write a 24-part series that ultimately garnered him a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting in 1949. The series ultimately inspired Budd Schulberg to pen the screenplay On the Waterfront.

Ward’s own research took him all over, carrying him on a ride with many surprising turns along the way. The book is a veritable treasure trove for any true-crime enthusiast: slashed throats, bullets taken every which way but loose, old-school-head-bashings with baseball bats, and tons of unsentimental burials at a chicken farm in New Jersey– all of which informed the true stuff that ended up in the movies. Longtime Brooklyn resident Ward tells us about it all…

Nathan, what got you interested in this story in the first place?

I got the idea for this book while I was writing a novel set during the Wall Street bombing of 1920. My hero, Mike Johnson, worked at the New York Sun, and in researching at the NYPL I saw in one of those “This Date in History” reference books that a real reporter for the Sun had won the Pulitzer for a 24-part front-page series on mob control of the docks in 1948. I was amazed that such a thing had happened then, and been forgotten, after inspiring an unforgettable film. I wrote a piece on it for the new-old Sun in 2004, then sold the proposal.

When did you feel like the book really came together for you?

I was lucky enough to interview Haynes Johnson, Mike’s son. This would have been impossible if Haynes hadn’t had a good relationship with his father, who he called by his first name. By the way, they were the only parent/ child Pulitzer Prize winners. Anyway, Haynes was such a trusting guy! We’d emailed back and forth, and he’d never met me, but when I went down to interview him he said “I won’t be there when you get there, so go on in. I’ll leave the door open.” I’m too shy to do that, and it’s a good thing, because when I arrived he was still shaken from having set off his own alarm by accident. He lives in a nice neighborhood in D.C., and I could have been arrested for trespassing.

Describe your research process a bit?

I did a lot of work at the municipal archive on Chambers Street [in downtown Manhattan]. In 1938, they took photographs of literally every block in the city. It was a WPA project, sort of like the first Google Maps! My book didn’t use photographs, but this project really helped me visualize what was going on up and down the waterfront, particularly on 12th Avenue, which is completely transformed now. I leaned pretty heavily on this when I was writing the “Jane Street” murder chapter.

How did Johnson get tied up in all of this?

Johnson’s boss told him to go down to the docks to research a new killing. His boss told him it sounded a lot like another murder that had occurred a year earlier. At the same time, there was a scrappy Irish prosecutor named Bill Keating at the Homicide Bureau of the Manhattan district attorney’s office who was new and zealous and wanted to prosecute the crime. He figured getting it on the front page of the Sun would get the attention of his boss in the DA’s office, which would light a fire under him. It did get on the front page, of course, and this is the series that ultimately landed on the front page for 24 days and garnered him his Pulitzer. Ultimately, the prosecutor gave Johnson access to all the files on the docks racketeer John “Cockeye” Dunn case that no one else had had access to.

What would Johnson be reporting these days? I mean, tabloid journalism has developed and changed so much–

The answer to this question isn’t as simple as it sounds: He may have had ideals, and didn’t suffer corruption lightly, but he wasn’t a Bob Woodward type–he was a generalist– at one point (when they needed him) he was the Sun’s nightclub reporter, as well as its war correspondent and general reporter. I think things are more specialized today, and I certainly can’t say he would be a blogger– he was too modest. There’s an account in one part in which a racketeer offers a bribe to “a reporter.” It’s only after you read it twice that you realize the reporter was Johnson himself.

How did your research change your understanding of On the Waterfront?

Everyone always says that the work was an allegory about Communism; that for Elia Kazan, the director of the film, this was an absolution of sorts for his “crimes.” I know now that this is a myth. In reality, Budd Schulburg, who co-wrote the film, went to the Crime Commission hearings every single day. I even found the famous cab scene in testimony. In Brando’s autobiography, he claimed to have written that scene himself. He even dismissed the film at the time because of the Kazan testimony thing, but it turns out it was all true. It all comes out of the same Crime Commission Hearings, which lasted for over 40 days. There are literally thousands of pages of this stuff.

How long did it take for you to write this book?

It took me four years. I turned it in last May and told my editors I had to wait for the last scene. I’d have to turn in 5 more pages. Last summer they performed On the Waterfront on a barge in Red Hook. Schulberg was supposed to come, but then landed in the hospital. They called him during the intermission, though. It still worked as my ending.

Rachel Aydt is a journalist and educator who lives in New York City.

About the Author

Rachel Aydt

Rachel Aydt is a full-time writer, editor and researcher in New York City. She worked on the staff at American Heritage Magazine, YM, Cosmopolitan and CosmoGirl. Rachel has also contributed to Time International and Inked magazines. Since 2001, she has taught writing classes at the New School University.