A couple of months ago, the papers were full of the familiar suspects, the Gigantes and Gottis, the whole Genovese-Gambino crew. They were doing what they usually do at the waterfront, running their scams, their shakedowns. The Feds came in on cue, handing down their 68-count indictments, making busts, setting trial dates. This time, the waterfront would be cleaned up once and for all, the Feds said.
This is, of course, what cops like Dewey, Morgenthau, and Giuliani have always said about the waterfront, where the bad guys have included Lucky Luciano, Johnny “Cockeye” Dunn, Tough Tony Anastasia, Mickey Bowers, King Joe Ryan, and any number of Westies, who liked to do “the Houdini,” in which they disappeared bodies into the Hudson currents, the hands and feet never to be seen again except by little old lady beachcombers on Sandy Hook.
“Fifty years later, and it’s the same,” notes Budd Schulberg, who wrote the book – or at least the movie – On the Waterfront, which includes a young, beautiful Marlon Brando in a taxi bemoaning the destiny of “a one-way ticket to Palookaville” when he could have had “class” and been “a contendah.” Amused that the Post ran a photo of Lee J. Cobb, who played the crooked Johnny Friendly in the 1954 Oscar winner, alongside pictures of the real-life gangsters, Budd, who turned 88 last March, keeps up with the docks. “Something about the harbor, the transfer point between land and water,” he says. “Things get lost, and found. The potential for thievery is endless.”
On this particular sunny morning – more than 60 years since establishing the name Sammy Glick as an onomatopoeic synonym for sweaty, unchecked ambition in his all-time classic of Hollywood backbiting What Makes Sammy Run?, 45 years beyond the prophetic political drama A Face in the Crowd – Budd arrives at Chelsea Piers looking his usual spiffy self. His once-dense boychik curls now snow-white but still amply covering his well-tanned head, Budd, fond of a nautical aspect, is attired in a natty green blazer and cream ascot, with neatly creased slacks to match. A recently repaired Achilles tendon has slowed his footwork somewhat, but he’s coping stylishly, sporting a smart walnut walking stick with a gold-plated bird of prey at the knob. Father of two children in their early twenties, Budd, who doesn’t need glasses to watch a prizefight, even from the upper rows, says he hears “okay,” and still frets over making deadlines for $1,000 articles, is clearly a man who carries his punch into the late rounds.
Back in the early fifties, often in the inspiring company of Jesuit priest Father Corridan, who was waging a bare-knuckle crusade of the spirit to root out un-Christian malfeasance from the gangster “pistol” unions, Schulberg obsessively covered the waterfront, attending every session of Senator Estes Kefauver’s hearings into criminal activities of the International Longshoremen’s Association. This was before international cargo flights came to Idlewild Airport, before the invention of container shipping, back when 30,000 longshoremen manned 1,800 working piers, servicing 10,000 oceangoing boats a year, and everything was done by hand and hook – when New York was, as Lee J. Cobb says in the movie, “the fattest harbor in the world,” where nothing went in or out “without us taking our cut.”
“It’s hard to conceive of the power the ILA had. Every time a ship came in, it was a drama,” Schulberg says, walking past the former site of Piers 54 to 62, where the Grace and U.S. Lines ships once docked. “They worked in gangs, a bunch of tough guys in undershirts. If a ship had perishable goods, they could let that stuff rot. The smell never went away. The payoffs were tremendous. Thousands, hundreds of thousands per shipload. This was the fifties! The union ran the shape-up, they said who could work, who couldn’t, who’d make money, who wouldn’t. ILA local 791, which had the piers from 14th Street to 23rd, was called the Mother Local. If you controlled 791, you controlled the West Side; if you controlled the West Side, you controlled the harbor – that meant you controlled the East Coast, the Atlantic, and everything else. Those were the stakes.”
Our visit was the first time he’d really been over to the current sports-and-shopping-mall version of the Chelsea piers, Budd noted before heading for lunch at Moran’s, the erstwhile bucket of blood where the Westies rolled the head of the shylock Ruby Stein down the bar like a bowling ball. Not that Chelsea Piers was that alien. People were obviously making money here, or trying. The desperate lure of lucre and identity, the violent striving, the flush of success, the nagging creep of conscience, the often failed attempt to salvage decency in a corrupt world – these had always been his core concerns, Budd acknowledges. Certainly the new Chelsea Piers, with its parade of Cadillac Escalades, was not devoid of these constants. Besides, there were memories here, even beyond the years spent with Father Corridan.
“Look! There’s where my father worked,” Budd says, peering at the series of giant photos that adorn the Piers walls. Beside a shot of the Titanic survivors disembarking at old Pier 54 was a shot of the building on West 26th Street that once housed Famous Players, the movie company founded by Adolf Zukor, a former penny-arcade operator on 14th Street. Before moving his family to Hollywood in 1918, where he would help start Paramount and become one of the original moguls, B. P. Schulberg, Budd’s father, was Zukor’s No. 1 guy, writing features for Fatty Arbuckle and the virginal Mary Pickford, whom B.P. would name “America’s Sweetheart.” (Pickford once gave Budd a fluffy blanket for his birthday.) Famous Players remains one of Budd’s earliest memories: from the carriage ride down from the family apartment on Riverside Drive as a stammering young boy in his sailor suit, to the cigar smoke curling inside the former livery-stable studio, to the yellow-haired actress sobbing incomprehensibly on command. What struck him most, he says, was “how many people there were standing around in the dark watching so few in the light.”
Not many around have as much past as Budd or remember it so well; he’s a walking dossier of twentieth-century modernism. Watching a tourist boat glide down the Hudson, he recalls how in 1929, he and his family set sail from Pier 54 on a transatlantic voyage: “It wasn’t so much fun because George Bancroft was with us. He was one of my father’s biggest stars, a titan of the silent screen. He gave orders that his wife could only awaken him from naps by rubbing his cheeks with peach fuzz. You should have seen the send-off! We were mobbed everywhere. After he started to slip, he wanted a raise. My father said that wouldn’t be possible, but he was willing to renew his contract at the same rate, $6,000 a week. George turned it down – $6,000 in the middle of the Depression.
“He never really worked again,” Budd remarks, noting his own father’s unhappy demise. Once the old mogul employed Josef von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson, and the down-and-out Sergei Eisenstein – the auteur of Battleship Potemkin describing his idea for a movie set totally in a city of glass to young socialist Budd as the two whiled away an afternoon on a park bench. But B.P. gambled away all his money, dying “flat broke.”
That was Hollywood, Budd says. Like the waterfront, it never changes. After writing Sammy, which exposed, not without tenderness, the messy Glick-ish Lower East Side striving behind the thin scrim of Hollywood’s starry-eyed assimilation fantasy, Budd was more or less banished from tinseltown. It’s not like he wasn’t warned. B.P., while praising the book’s “honesty,” advised his son to destroy the novel, which would “mean the end of you in Hollywood.” Recently, however, Budd has been what he calls “a little warm of late.” Some of this owes to his recent deal with Ben Stiller to finally turn Sammy into a feature. Stiller, whose recent work reveals special graspy insight to make him a perfect Sammy Glick, would also direct the picture.
Also in play in the slow-motion plan to make Budd Tinseltown’s hottest 90-year-old is his Spike Lee project. Citing A Face in the Crowd as the major inspiration for Bamboozled, Lee dedicated the picture to Budd and asked him to take a bow in front of a packed preview house at the Ziegfeld Theater. At the time, Budd was writing a script for Lee about the 1936 Joe Louis–Max Schmeling fight. “Very excited” about the project, Lee often called Budd with suggestions. Recently, however, the frequency of Spike’s calls have dwindled. Knowing this hot/cold cycle to be the fate of many a screenwriter, including the protagonist of his 1950 best-seller The Disenchanted, based on a trip to the winter carnival at Dartmouth with his great friend, the dissolute F. Scott Fitzgerald (whose Social Security card he keeps framed in his office), Budd is not surprised. With seven decades of “development” in the can, he’s downgraded the Spike script from “expectant” to “hopeful.”
Rolling with such punches is a key to Budd’s longevity. At this rate, he figures, he might “last forever,” a prospect he views with mixed feelings. A recent Times obituary of 95-year-old Billy Wilder, a longtime friend, was yet another reminder of how he’s “relentlessly moved up the list of not yet dead.” The obit recalled the time Budd dropped by the director’s Beverly Hills house in the fifties: “Billy was very charming, the Viennese émigré’s charm, then he looks at me and says, ‘So?’ He wondered if I was trying to get him to do a picture. Out there everything is business. I said no, I really just wanted to say hello. Wilder started screaming for his wife, Audrey, to come down. ‘Budd just came over to say hello!’ he yelled. He couldn’t believe it. That’s always been Hollywood to me.”
But you don’t live forever by staying home, so Budd gets around, mostly to boxing matches, such as the Mike Tyson–Lennox Lewis fight in Memphis. Traveling alone, Budd was in high journalist form, knocking back his usual impressive bevy of vodka tonics, his notepad (purloined from the Yale Club) ready, lest Iron Mike reiterate his promise to eat the childless Lewis’s children or stomp the testicles of newsmen.
Later, following Tyson’s defeat, we found ourselves on the deserted streets outside the arena, running (Budd gamely keeping up) after the lone cab still plying the area. The taxi, driven by a grizzled African-American gentleman, was a creaking Dodge of late-seventies vintage. “Sure,” the driver said, he could take Budd to his outlying hotel. Whereupon eight other cab seekers, patois-speaking Lewis fans with Jamaican flags, arrived on the scene, stuffing themselves into the taxi. People were sitting on each other’s laps, arms and legs sprouting in every direction, and in the middle, peering through the cracked window, was Budd, a big smile on his face. Later, he would pronounce the cab ride “one of the best” of his entire life.
A few days after visiting Chelsea Piers, Budd went over to the book party for Jack Newfield’s recent memoir. He was, of course, treated as an honored guest, with any number of hardy perennial New York political and media notables – among them Fernando Ferrer, Jimmy Breslin, Al Sharpton, and Nick Pileggi – paying tribute. While accepting compliments gracefully, Budd says he finds such lionization “embarrassing … like I’m a museum piece.” Besides, fame is full of land mines. Also at the party was Victor Navasky, editorial director of The Nation and author of Naming Names, the 1980 book about the McCarthy-era House Un-American Activities Committee inquiry into the Communist presence in Hollywood. The book is not easy on Budd, who, along with Elia Kazan, director of Waterfront and Face in the Crowd, appeared at the hearings as a “friendly witness” – i.e., he named names.
It is one more thing that doesn’t change in 50 years, the hot button these hearings continue to push in the minds of the New York intelligentsia, especially the Jewish intelligentsia. These particular questions of conscience and loyalty, to both friends and ideals, raised by who did what at the hearings, will likely never be resolved. A wide-eyed delegate to the 1934 Soviet Writer’s Congress in Moscow where he met Maxim Gorky and Andre Malraux among many others, Budd was a member of the Communist Party from 1936 to 1940. He initially fell out with his Hollywood comrades over the Sammy book. “There were several meetings to decide whether I would be allowed to write it,” Budd recalls. “Finally, they said all right, but I’d have to submit the outline and subsequent chapters to John Howard Lawson, the party boss, for ideological review.
“‘I can’t do that,’ I told them. They said, ‘You have to.’ It was a strange situation. My father was telling me to abandon the book because I’m going to undermine Hollywood, and the Communists are telling me to abandon the book because it’s too individualistic and not proletariat enough. Finally, I just got out, went back East.” In the ensuing years, when he worked for the OSS gathering film evidence for the Nuremberg trials (personally serving a subpoena on Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl), Schulberg, noting that every single one of the Soviet writers he’d met in 1934 including Bukharin, Isaac Babel, and Gorky himself had either been killed or disappeared, came to regard his former colleagues as representatives of a murderous system. Calling himself a “premature anti-Stalinist,” he says this was the reason he was prompted to testify.
Once, Budd was willing to duke it out in the Lion’s Head about his testimony and call nemesis Lillian Hellman a Stalinist “toad” who’d scream about betrayal and then read about Soviet authors “stretched out on the rack at Lubianka Prison and go back on the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard.” Acknowledging it “would be inhuman not to express doubt” about naming names, especially to “that sleazy committee,” he remains unapologetic.
But clearly, the testimony has taken its toll. “It follows you around, it is such a fixation,” Budd says. Such was the case in 1999 during the uproar over Kazan’s Lifetime Achievement Oscar. “There were a lot of calls; TV shows wanted me to comment. Most of it was stupid, celebrity junk. None of them knew or cared much about what the real issues were. They talked to Rod Steiger, who said he would have never taken the Charley role in Waterfront if he knew I would testify – when I’d actually testified eighteen months before we ever asked him to be in the picture.” In contrast to many of the former forties “radicals” who would turn up as post-sixties neoconservatives, Schulberg remains what he says he’s always been, a liberal activist. Indeed, within days of the 1964 Watts riot, he was down in South Central, offering himself as a writing teacher to anyone who wanted to show up. The Watts Writer’s Workshop, which Budd founded, and its off-shoot, Harlem’s Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, continue today.
So it was a tenser moment than you might encounter at a typical book party – Budd and Navasky meeting in the penthouse of the old McGraw-Hill Building. In his book, Navasky puts forth the often-echoed, hard-to-ignore contention that Schulberg and Kazan used the testimony of Brando’s Terry Molloy against Johnny Friendly to justify their own actions. “That just infuriates me,” Budd says, still hot about it, pointing out that his original script did not have a testifying scene and it was only after longshoremen appeared before the Waterfront Commission that it was added. But even if the hatchet will never be sufficiently buried, everyone was far too civil to bring it up at a book party. From across the room you could watch Navasky and Schulberg, these two old lions, chat a moment, shake hands, go off to perhaps more felicitous conversations. Later, Budd said it was fine, he’d talked to Victor several times over the years, it had always been cordial – and besides, they were both boxing fans. Still, he didn’t mind getting into the car and driving away.
Over in Red Hook, these old acrimonies quickly faded. In the late fifties, with the rise of ILA local 1814 under the strong-arm/smash-nose thumb of the Anastasia brothers – Albert, Tough Tony, and Gerry Bang Bang – the Brooklyn “finger piers” supplanted Manhattan as the power on the New York docks. The majority of city cargo moved through here. These days, however, aside from the Columbia Street container depot and seemingly endless discussion of the federal “home port” designed to return the city to shipping prominence, the Brooklyn waterfront is a desolate stretch of collapsed piers, live-chicken dealers, and FedEx drop-offs. The vibe is still here, however (the Brooklyn U.S. attorney’s office filed most of the current indictments), and Budd, who haunted the Red Hook and Sunset Park docks back in the day, wanted to check out what was left.
Pleased to see that his favorite old bar on Conover Street was still open for business, albeit only one night a week, Budd inquired about the barge, freshly painted red, that was moored out at the street’s end. Told the barge was actually a waterfront museum, Budd was intrigued. A knock on the giant door brought a little girl, a lovely 11-year-old tomboy type. “Dad,” she yelled, “someone’s here.”
The barge owner, David Sharps, appeared, took one look at Budd’s white hair, and asked, “What year were you born, sir?”
“Nineteen fourteen,” Budd replied.
“Why, that’s the same year this barge was built,” said Sharps, with some wonder. “Well, then, you’ll have to come aboard.”
Sharps, who lives on the barge, in addition to curating the Waterfront Museum, is also a circus juggler. It was during a demonstration of his prowess, while his daughter drove her bike in circles over the plank floor, that Sharps was told his visitor was the author of On the Waterfront. This caused the juggler to drop a pin. “That is my favorite movie,” Sharps exclaimed. Once, he had shown a print of the film on the barge. “We opened up the doors, screened it under the harbor stars … If you were here, it would have been perfect.”
Genuinely touched, Budd said that if Sharps showed the movie again, he’d love to come. A great idea, Sharps said, except that there would be no movies this summer. The barge was showing wear and tear; it was to be floated to dry dock for some patch-up. “Yes,” Budd said. At 88, you always needed some patch-up.
“Come look at this,” Sharps said, opening the back end of the barge. The full expanse of the harbor was out there, the Staten Island coastline out to the Narrows. “Except for the bridge, it’s pretty much the way it must have always looked.” Sharps said he often stood at this door and imagined the old waterfront, a thousand boats coming and going, a mecca of commerce, the hub of the world. Budd peered out and said he knew what Sharps meant.
It was pretty late by then, and Budd wanted to catch the Jitney back to Quogue, where he has lived on Aspatuck Creek since the sixties. He loved walking around New York, he said, but the proximity of “all those hearts beating, those lungs breathing,” got to him. The country suited him better these days. There was time enough for one more slice of waterfront, so we drove over to the Bayonne docks.
The Jersey piers have always been rough, from the days of the ILA 1235, the Porter local, so-called on account of the large number of Portuguese members, and Carol Gardner’s all-black ILA 1233. It is the same today, to judge from the recent arrests of several alleged Genovese-family associates in the ILA 1588, including 66-year-old Sonny Aniello, 70-year-old Nicholas Furina, and 67-year-old Carlo Bilancione, among others. The charges involved “work-for-money schemes straight out of the Marlon Brando classic On the Waterfront,” said the Jersey Journal.
“It really is a totally different feeling,” Budd marvels as we drive up to the gate at the Global Terminal, where most of the arrested men worked. Looming above were several huge towers hoisting stacks of containers marked CHO YANG, CHINA SHIPPER, and MITSUI. “Now it’s just a couple of guys and some computers.” We want to get a closer look but we’re stopped by the gatekeeper.
“Where you think you going?” the guy asks, bounding out of his booth in his Tino Martinez Yankees T-shirt. Maybe 25, the gatekeeper wears his hair swept back in the old style, and there is a familiar bounce to his swagger. The way he cocks his eyebrows, you could say there is some Terry Molloy in him, at least Molloy without the sweetness that got to Eva Marie Saint. Maybe the guy is imitating Brando, or more likely he is imitating his longshoreman father imitating Brando. Told we want to get inside, he shakes his head. “No, can’t happen. Absolutely not.”
Has the guy seen On the Waterfront?
“On the what?”
“Yeah, maybe, so what?”
“Guy here wrote it.”
“No shit?” The dock worker smirks. “Big fucking deal. Get out.”
To which Budd says, “See, that’s the same – there’s no respect for writers.”