Gotham Tales

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Live In: Kevin Baker’s New York

The novelist Kevin Baker is back with a meaty, sweaty romp through 1940s and 50s New York. He talks to Allen Barra about the Jewish mob, historical fiction, and how he grades Obama.

Fred Stein Archive/Getty

James Joyce bragged that if Dublin suddenly ceased to exist, it could be reconstructed, brick by brick, from the pages of Ulysses. Those wishing to reconstruct old New York would be well advised to study Baker’s City of Fire trilogy—Dreamland, Paradise Alley (2002) and Striver’s Row (2006)—which chronicles the rise and fall of America’s greatest city from the Civil War to the 1950s. (Paradise Alley won the 2003 James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction and the American Book Award.)

His new novel, The Big Crowd, is set amidst the violence and corruption of the crime-ridden New York waterfront of the 1940s. Baker talked to us last week from his New York City apartment.

A few years ago, Ron Charles wrote in The Washington Post, “Nobody makes historical fiction burn like Kevin Baker.” Many critics have given you similar praise. But do you feel that you’re being pigeon-holed by being called a historical novelist?

I’ve been lucky in general with the critics, save for a very few, whose names I am keeping in a safe deposit box. Seriously, yes, I’ve come to accept being called a “historical novelist” because there seems to be no way around it. But it’s a silly distinction, and one that tends to automatically demean one’s work in the mind of the general public, which associates “historical novelist” with someone turning out bodice rippers or Regency romances.

To go through the familiar examples, Was Tolstoy a “historical novelist,” when he wrote about events in Russia that happened decades earlier? Was Proust, when he wrote about a vanished Paris? Was Joyce, writing about one day in Dublin years before? Was Homer a “historical poet,” writing of a foundation myth that had been around for centuries? Where does one draw the line? And why should it even be drawn?

It’s a modern, Western attitude that values “looking ahead” above all else. It implies that we have nothing to learn from the past, that it should be dead to us. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The ancient Greeks worked their founding myths over and over again. Was Odysseus, for instance, a hero? An adventurer? A scheming demagogue? Mulling over these questions, going over our past should give us all sorts of answers to our future.

How does that relate to your new novel, The Big Crowd?

In The Big Crowd, I’m taking a look at both America in general and New York City in particular, when both were at their zenith. America was the predominant nation on the globe, and New York was the world’s capital, in just about every way imaginable.

Yet subtle cracks were already appearing. There were unresolved issues of social injustice that would undermine us, there were, in the case of my book (literally) unsolved murders that would surface and destroy seemingly impregnable leaders. There was a tendency to cede too much of our democracy to these leaders, elected or not, and trust them to do the right thing. We were blinded by our wealth and our power, absolutely certain they would remain no matter how careless we were about preserving those customs that made us wealthy and powerful in the first place.

I think it would be fair to characterize your political leanings as a modern New Deal Democrat. Or would you put it another way?

I think it’s very fair to classify me as a modern, New Deal Democrat—or better yet, to use the faith that dare not speak its name, a “liberal.” Of course, the New Deal itself did not sufficiently address such issues as civil rights, women’s rights, gay equality, etc.—but all of the seismic changes in those areas were already on their way, were helped on their way by the New Deal.

And that includes capitalism. We’re all capitalists today for practical reasons, because at least some form of capitalism is deeply imbedded in human nature. But if we accept the dynamism of capitalism that helps to generate so much wealth, we must also accept its volatility. Capitalism is like a very powerful car, a remarkable machine that—left untended—will run right over a cliff. It will run over everything else we, liberals and conservatives alike, value in society: stable neighborhoods, the environment, decent working conditions, universal health care, etc. It will even destroy itself in the end, reducing the free market to a monopoly.

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What would you say to those who believe that capitalism can by itself solve our problems?

Any objective reading of history shows that is not true. The market has never managed to replace the society around it.

So, the question arises, what do we do to keep capitalism on the road?

I think that some form of liberal society, which be definition includes capitalism, is the only political system that has been shown to have any success in the modern world.

What New Deal liberalism—what American liberalism—has done is to build up what, I think, Schlesinger, called “countervailing forces.” That is, democratic government and other, non-governmental forces—unions, citizens’ groups, philanthropies, and the like—that challenge capitalism and blunt its extremes.

These are vital. But, they also must be maintained and nurtured very carefully. The irony of liberalism is that, while it proved that it is the only viable political philosophy possible—that we will NOT all be saved by “the new Soviet man,” or the fascist will, or the invisible hand of the marketplace—liberalism itself concedes that its work is never done. History never ends. The same fights must be fought over and over again.

At the beginning of Obama’s administration you wrote in Harper’s that he might have more on common with Herbert Hoover than FDR. All in all, how would you grade Obama’s performance up to now?

I think that we can safely say President Obama is much more fortunate than poor Mr. Hoover was. He is, especially, much luckier in his opponents.

I don’t think President Obama’s performance has been very good, and I say that as someone who worked for his first presidential campaign; who donated money to it, and who voted for him more enthusiastically than I’ve voted for any presidential candidate in my life. I say it as someone who has enormous respect for the tremendous dignity and courage with which the president has handled himself, in the face of a disgracefully racist, irresponsible, and disrespectful opposition.

What the president has missed, I think, is the great opportunity that Franklin Roosevelt seized on, out of the despair of the Great Depression and the crisis of the Second World War. Mr. Obama had a chance to make fundamental changes in the course we have set, and he did not take that chance. Probably, he never intended to take that chance—which means he was rather disingenuous in his first campaign. Presidents should be judged by what they do not do, as well as what they do. In that respect, the very mild reforms Mr. Obama has instituted, the weak relief he has offered the country, and the tepid inspiration he has provided have all been immeasurably better than the available alternatives.

Yet in the end, he has simply not addressed some enormous, looming crises. Above all, I would say, the issue of climate change, which is visibly altering the world around us. He has not addressed in any real way the underlying structure of our economy, which more than ever draws our best minds into formulating new Ponzi schemes on Wall Street while constantly degrading and devaluing physical labor. He has left millions of homeowners to fend for themselves, and even his health care plan is really only a stopgap measure.

In all of these areas—and in the administration he hired to work for him—he seems indistinguishable from the Clintons. Which means that he had no real vision to begin with, just a desire to grab the corner office first. In an age when we needed a visionary, he is merely a careerist.

The New York City you recreate in The Big Crowd is a city of rampant corruption at nearly every level—it’s hard to separate the mobsters from the police, the politicians, and the union heads. Even the clergy seems to be on the take. Was New York dirtier then than it is now? Has the city cleaned up its act a bit?

Was New York dirtier then—1940s and ’50s—than it is now? Hard to say. In some ways, we’ve eliminated the “dirt” by making certain types of behavior legal or ethical when it never was before. Back then, you could not simply overwhelm the political system with money because you were the richest guy in town.

On the other hand, there was a terrible amount of corruption. Some of that was the way things had always been in the city, but it also had to do with the ghastly, failed social experiment that was Prohibition. This, for the first time, shifted the balance of power between the criminals and the politicians. Pols in New York and many other cities had long used the mob for various purposes, but they also controlled it (that’s why the Sullivan Law was put in, for instance. The cops, at the orders of their political bosses, could always have a gun planted on some criminal who got out of line, and stick him away in jail).

Prohibition changed everything by putting money like we’d never seen in the hands of professional criminals. It was repealed in 1933, but by that time the mob had infiltrated nearly every aspect of daily life and piled up huge reserves of cash. They particularly controlled Tammany Hall, the Democratic machine, but also all sorts of other political organizations. Vito Marcantonio, the fiery Communist congressman from the Bronx, was reputedly playing ball with the mob. The entire 1950 mayoral election, between Ferdinand Pecora of the Pecora Commission and Vincent I. Impellitteri was said to be an election essentially pitting the Genovese family against the Gambinos.

Now, I don’t think we should get carried away with the mob’s power. There were always people fighting back, great crime busters and reformers such as La Guardia, Tom Dewey, Frank Hogan, Murray Gurfein, etc. The mob’s power was never absolute, and its peak of power did not last all that long—in part because the mobsters tied their fortunes to institutions like political machines and labor unions just as those organizations were beginning to decline. But there was a lot of corruption, corruption at a level that would probably frighten us today.

The central event of The Big Crowd is one of the most famous gangland deaths of all, that of the mob informant Abe Reles, who either fell or was pushed from the Coney Island hotel room where he was supposedly being guarded by police. You try to answer one of the most intriguing mysteries in mob history, namely what exactly happened to Reles. How did you reach your conclusions about something that happened more than 70 years ago? And who did throw Abe Reles out the window?

Who threw Abe Reles out the window? Well, read the book and find out! I take my best shot at it, based on all the available evidence. It’s a very interesting little puzzle to look into, a great locked-door mystery. There are only so many people who could have pushed Reles out that hotel window, and you can learn a lot from who stood to gain, who got something and who did not, and all kinds of other little clues. Certainly, the various theories floated by the state—he was trying to play a practical joke, he was trying to escape—don’t hold water. You can read my conclusions and see if you agree or not.

I was influenced by the speculations of Burton Turkus, the prosecuting attorney who became known as “Mr. Poison” by the mob for all the killers he put away. In the end notes of my novel, I point out how much my theories of the case jibe with his in Murder, Inc., a memoir of breaking up the mob of that name that he wrote with Sid Feder many years ago.

I think a lot of readers of The Big Crowd are going to be surprised that so many mob figures—Lepke Buchalter, Abe Reles, Mendy Weiss, Charlie “The Bug” Workman, actually just about everyone in what has come to be known as “Murder Inc.”—were Jewish. If it’s a mob story set in the 1930s and 1940s, you almost automatically expect the hoods to be mostly Italian. Was there such a thing as the Jewish mafia? And if so, how powerful was it?

There are plenty of Italian mobsters in the book as well, and an occasional Irish one, too. But yes, there certainly was a Jewish mob. Of course, what you have to realize is that until really the postwar era, many New York mobs were multicultural. Sure, you’d stick mostly with what West Side Story called “your own kind,” but there were constant exceptions. “Murder, Inc.” was one of them—mostly Jews, but also some Italians, carrying out killings on the orders of both Jews and Italians. There was the famous partnership of Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. Arnold Rothstein, who was really more a mob bankroller than a mob leader, worked with all kinds of people.

Somebody—I think maybe Tyler Anbinder in his history, Five Points—notes that even before the Civil War there were big, sweeping gang fights between Irish immigrant hoodlums and Nativist thugs, the Bowery Boys and the Roach Guards, and the Dead Rabbits. Even the Nativist gangs were led already by a couple of Irish Catholics. In other words, ethnicity was already giving way to necessity.

Of course, the ethnic allegiances generally remained fairly strong. But it really wasn’t until the mob became overwhelmingly Italian in the years leading up to World War II that they became so strict. Jews by that time were assimilating well, the Jewish community really stressed education and getting into the professions, and so the Jewish mob was on the way out. You look at the statistics—Italians, Irish, everybody—there are plenty of success stories. But before the advent of the welfare state, most of these immigrants really aren’t getting ahead, en masse. The biggest exception is the Jews, which I attribute to the community’s absolute devotion to education.

As to how powerful the Jewish mob was? Not so much. They never really had the numbers, and there was a great deal of reluctance on the part of many gentiles to work with them. But then, everybody’s day passes. The Irish used to dominate organized crime in America. Later, the Italians did. Now, their time seems to be fading, too. Who’s next? Russians, Asians? There’s always a lot of mythology around all of gangland. We’ll see.