On the Irish Waterfront

On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York

James T. Fisher
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 392
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt7z6t6
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    On the Irish Waterfront
    Book Description:

    Site of the world's busiest and most lucrative harbor throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the Port of New York was also the historic preserve of Irish American gangsters, politicians, longshoremen's union leaders, and powerful Roman Catholic pastors. This is the demimonde depicted to stunning effect in Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954) and into which James T. Fisher takes readers in this remarkable and engaging historical account of the classic film's backstory.

    Fisher introduces readers to the real "Father Pete Barry" featured in On the Waterfront, John M. "Pete" Corridan, a crusading priest committed to winning union democracy and social justice for the port's dockworkers and their families. A Jesuit labor school instructor, not a parish priest, Corridan was on but not of Manhattan's West Side Irish waterfront. His ferocious advocacy was resisted by the very men he sought to rescue from the violence and criminality that rendered the port "a jungle, an outlaw frontier," in the words of investigative reporter Malcolm Johnson.

    Driven off the waterfront, Corridan forged creative and spiritual alliances with men like Johnson and Budd Schulberg, the screenwriter who worked with Corridan for five years to turn Johnson's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1948 newspaper exposé into a movie. Fisher's detailed account of the waterfront priest's central role in the film's creation challenges standard views of the film as a post facto justification for Kazan and Schulberg's testimony as ex-communists before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

    On the Irish Waterfront is also a detailed social history of the New York/New Jersey waterfront, from the rise of Irish American entrepreneurs and political bosses during the World War I era to the mid-1950s, when the emergence of a revolutionary new mode of cargo-shipping signaled a radical reorganization of the port. This book explores the conflicts experienced and accommodations made by an insular Irish-Catholic community forced to adapt its economic, political, and religious lives to powerful forces of change both local and global in scope.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-5858-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Prologue: Pete Barry’s Punch
    (pp. ix-xv)

    Late in the Academy Award–winning 1954 film On the Waterfront, Father Pete Barry (Karl Malden) delivers a straight left to the chin of longshoreman Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), who is sent sprawling across a barroom floor. The pretext for the punch is Terry’s suggestion that the priest “go to hell” for demanding he relinquish his firearm, the first time in American film history a cleric had been addressed that way by a (nominal) parishioner. The rugged priest’s real purpose is to persuade Terry to attack Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb)—the mob-connected boss of a longshoremen’s union local—with...

  4. [Map]
    (pp. xvi-xvi)
  5. Introduction: The Port’s Irish Places
    (pp. 1-14)

    In 1524 the Florentine explorer Giovanni da Verrazano sailed through the narrows that now bear his name into the Upper Bay of New York Harbor. He found there “a commodious and delightful” navigable shelter sufficient to accommodate safely “any laden ship.” Eighty-five years later the British sea captain Henry Hudson piloted the Dutch East India Company’s three-mast Half Moon into this “Beautiful Lake.” Hudson was entranced by the “very good harbor for all windes” found in the future port’s “coliseum-like interior,” as it was aptly described by historian Russell Shorto. Between these journeys came other Europeans, including Esteban Gómez—a...

  6. Part I. Boys of the Irish Waterfront

    • 1 Chelsea’s King Joe
      (pp. 17-27)

      In 1912 a West Side boy named Joe Ryan “went down to the docks”—as he ritually testified in later years—to join his older brother Tom and throngs of Chelsea Irish working the magnificent new piers jutting into the North River. Although Joseph P. Ryan’s career as a working longshoreman lasted less than a year, in 1927 he was elected president of the International Longshoremen’s Association. Sixteen years later Ryan’s title was amended to “life president” (see figure 1). Political cartoonist Thomas Nast died a decade before Joe Ryan went to work on the piers, but the spirit of...

    • 2 The Boss
      (pp. 28-40)

      The most powerful political figure in the port was Frank Hague, Jersey City’s mayor from 1917 to 1947 and boss of Hudson County for even longer (see figure 2). “In no other American city did one man wield so much power,” historian William Lemmey rightly noted. “Hague’s career has no analogy in urban bossism.”¹

      The house in which Frank Hague was born in 1876 was later dubbed “the Ark” because a stagnant pond often swelled to surround the modest dwelling after rainstorms. John and Margaret Hague, immigrants from County Cavan, raised their eight children—Frank was the fourth—in the...

    • 3 Becoming Mr. Big
      (pp. 41-50)

      William J. McCormack was a “fabulously powerful” businessman and proprietor of what the New York Times described as “a vast and somewhat mysterious” waterfront empire. Born into poverty in a coldwater flat at Washington and West Tenth Streets in Manhattan’s West Village, Mc-Cormack always gave 1890 as the year of his birth. Waterfront insiders suspected he was older and with good reason: a baptismal record from St. Veronica’s church officially marks his date of birth as November 10, 1887. Bill was the youngest of four children born to Julia Frances Moran and Andrew McCormack, a Famine migrant from County Monaghan...

    • 4 The Longshoreman’s Grandson
      (pp. 51-64)

      Alone among the Irish waterfront’s reigning triumvirate Bill McCormack evaded the glare of hostile publicity—at least in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when domestic politics was roiled by the specter of war and the threat of totalitarian upheaval at home. Nowhere was the anxiety felt more deeply than in metropolitan New York, where Joe Ryan and Frank Hague served as lightning rods for dark fantasies of homegrown fascism and authoritarian Catholic rites of violence. In 1938 Felice Swados of the New Republic ominously brooded over Ryan’s “considerable body of private storm troopers.” A broader species of journalistic nativism...

  7. Part II. The Soul of the Port

    • 5 A Labor Priest in the Catholic Metropolis
      (pp. 67-84)

      The Jesuit labor priest Philip A. Carey never tired of describing to younger people the look and feel of the Great Depression in New York. “You couldn’t imagine the absolute degradation,” he told interviewer Debra Bernhardt in 1981:

      You couldn’t imagine that freight cars were [idled] on sidings from New York up as far as Poughkeepsie. You couldn’t imagine traveling on a train, and you were the only passenger on the entire train. And so the people began saying, “well, here you people are the clergy in the church. What the hell, it doesn’t mean a damn thing to you....

    • 6 The Crusader
      (pp. 85-101)

      Father John O’Brien’s most vivid memory of his cousin John Corridan ranged back nearly seventy-five years, to summers when the Shanahans and Corridans and O’Briens of the Upper West Side of Manhattan took a bungalow near other Kerry folk at Rockaway Beach, along the “Irish Riviera” on the south shore of Long Island in the borough of Queens. Older by a decade than O’Brien, John Michael Corridan taught O’Brien and his other younger cousins to play baseball and to analyze the lineups of the Giants, who played at the Polo Grounds in Harlem, where Corridan was born in 1911, and...

    • 7 Covering the Waterfront
      (pp. 102-119)

      On February 10, 1949, Pete Corridan offered a summary of three eventful months on the waterfront to a San Francisco Jesuit labor priest, George Lucy. A November wildcat strike by dockworkers in the Port of New York, Joe Ryan’s capitulation in grudgingly declaring the strike official, and Cockeye Dunn’s death row threat to obliterate the code of silence all figured prominently in his account; but an additional item brought Corridan himself to the forefront. “Here is how the picture stands at the moment,” the waterfront priest informed Lucy:

      The New York Sun, an evening newspaper, ran two front-page [series of]...

    • 8 The Hollywood Prince
      (pp. 120-138)

      Malcolm Johnson sold the film rights to his Pulitzer Prize–winning “Crime on the Waterfront” series in June 1949 to Monticello Film Corporation, an independent production company created solely for the purpose of turning the newspaper articles into a movie. Monticello planned to produce a full-length feature, reported the New York Sun, “in semi-documentary form. . . . [T]he picture is scheduled for production on actual locations in New York City.” Monticello’s head of advertising and publicity, Joseph Curtis, was the son of Jack Cohn, vice president of Columbia Pictures, and the nephew of Hollywood power broker Harry Cohn, Columbia’s...

    • 9 Meeting across the River
      (pp. 139-156)

      By springtime 1950 Joe Ryan sorely needed some new allies of his own. Unlike Pete Corridan, King Joe found no solace beyond the Irish waterfront. Ryan was, however, paying closer attention to his rapidly expanding public relations challenges. His disastrous televised debate with Corridan taught him to avoid direct confrontation with implacable Jesuits. It was time for the ILA to unleash its own waterfront priest, for whom Ryan needed to look no further than his pastor, Monsignor John J. O’Donnell of Guardian Angel church. In the aftermath of the television debacle in which Corridan left Ryan playing the fool, O’Donnell...

    • 10 Priest and Worker
      (pp. 157-170)

      At three o’clock on the morning of October 29, 1951, the Associated Press office in Manhattan received a call from Father Pete Corridan, informing the A.P. that he planned to make a 6 a.m. visit to the dockside meeting rooms of ILA Local 791, a stronghold in the wildcat strike that had begun fifteen days earlier on the Chelsea piers. The strike spread quickly across the port. The A.P., as Corridan expected, promptly notified all seven of the city’s daily newspapers of his visit. Corridan’s dramatic appearance at 164 Eleventh Avenue was reported in the evening editions of the New...

    • 11 An Intimacy with Violence
      (pp. 171-186)

      The Board of Inquiry charged by Governor Dewey to investigate the causes of the autumn 1951 wildcat strike concluded that both the ILA and the strike committee were “singularly free” of communist influence, a statement of the obvious. Without isolating a single factor most responsible for the strike, the board found that dockworkers were angered over the settlement reached between the ILA and the New York Shipping Association, the union’s crooked electoral practices, and the ILA leadership’s conduct of its internal affairs.

      The January 1952 report entered more contested terrain in claiming that the disputed contract was “validly ratified” despite...

  8. Part III. Waterfront Apotheosis

    • 12 A Season for Testimony
      (pp. 189-206)

      Anthony “Tony Mike” DeVincenzo worked as a longshoreman for twenty years on the Hudson County piers save for one day spent early in his career on Pier 90 at the foot of West Fiftieth Street in Manhattan. December 15, 1952, found DeVincenzo back in Gotham not on a West Side pier but in the New York County Court House on Centre Street, testifying at a public hearing conducted by the New York State Crime Commission. Since November 1948 a band of investigative reporters, radio and television commentators, and civic reformers—a disparate community mediated by one intensely driven waterfront priest—...

    • 13 “The Hook”
      (pp. 207-217)

      The year 1952 was high season for public testimony of many kinds. On April 10—the same day Pete Corridan submitted for his superior’s approval his written testimony for the New York State Crime Commission—the renowned film and theater director Elia Kazan answered a summons to appear at a public hearing of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in Washington. Kazan presented a written statement disclosing his membership in the Communist Party “from some time in the summer of 1934 until the late winter or early spring of 1936, when I severed all connection with it permanently.” Kazan had...

    • 14 Good Citizens
      (pp. 218-237)

      On January 18, 1953, Dorothy Schiff, the influential publisher of the New York Post, confessed that she had recently been hoodwinked by an “invitation” to “Hear a Hot Debate” between Father John Corridan and Joe Ryan at a venue on West Twenty-fourth Street in Manhattan. Schiff “visualized the meeting as a debate between the Saint and the Devil and could hardly wait for the evening to arrive.” But when Ryan failed to show, Corridan “decided not to come, either,” leaving Schiff wondering what she was doing at a locale on the far West Side that “is not a convenient place...

    • 15 Saving the Picture
      (pp. 238-249)

      On the Waterfront very nearly went unrealized. In February 1953 Elia Kazan was poised for a green light from Twentieth Century–Fox, where he owed a film to producer Darryl Zanuck. Late in the previous autumn at Kazan’s urging Budd Schulberg had sent the mercurial Nebraskan a thirty-seven-page outline with dialogue for a screenplay, “The Bottom of the River.” A prefatory note explained, “factual background drawn from Malcolm Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize winning reportage and current New York State Crime Commission investigations.”¹

      The storyline had evolved significantly since Schulberg’s original April 1951 version. The character Edie, who was Terry Monahan’s sister...

    • 16 The Mile Square City’s Moment
      (pp. 250-264)

      “Yesterday was a day among days,” Pete Corridan informed a reporter for the Newark Evening News on December 1, 1953. Corridan was interviewed in Hoboken, where a “movie, to be called ‘Waterfront,’ is rolling” on a city pier. The reporter linked the film directly to “a shrewd campaign on the priest’s part to make the waterfront reforms complete and irrevocable.” A major element of that campaign, the Waterfront Commission of the Port of New York, had just opened for business the previous day. The establishment of the bi-state commission was a personal coup for Corridan, who could be forgiven his...

    • 17 The Priest in the Movie
      (pp. 265-276)

      “We shot On the Waterfront surrounded by people, by spectators,” Elia Kazan recalled. “It was great; it was like a public trial.” Budd Schulberg likewise reveled in the tumult: “Hundreds of longshoremen were in the movie . . . and racketeers watching from the sidelines. It was unreal. What we were putting up on the screen was happening all around us.” They were also treating the most meaningful issues from the port’s recent past, defining its legacy even as the struggle for its future violently raged on. The shapeup scene in On the Waterfront vividly recapitulates Pete Corridan’s discernment process...

    • 18 “The Corruption Goes Deep”
      (pp. 277-287)

      Elia Kazan and his crew returned to Hoboken in late December 1953 after shooting the “Christ in the Shapeup” scene on the Brooklyn water-front. While away on temporary location the director was asked by a New York Times reporter to “take inventory”: “‘It’s good,’ he mused. ‘Good, I think.’ . . . Kazan paused. ‘I liked Hoboken. I’m glad we’ll be going back when we finish here. All that wonderful brick background. And the feeling and sight of New York’s skyline over here in the distance.’ His glance included Schulberg and Brando. ‘And we have this script, don’t we?’” In...

    • 19 The Poetry of Success
      (pp. 288-298)

      The New York Jesuits were badly stung by the repudiation of their controversial waterfront priest. The timing could not have been worse: while taking a beating locally from prominent waterfront Catholics for failing to reel in Corridan, the society was under fire nationally for America magazine’s sharp editorial turn against the rapidly self-destructing anticommunist crusade of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Just three days after the defeat of the ILA-AFL, John McMahon, S.J.—the New York Jesuit leader long heroically supportive of the waterfront priest—informed the editor of the magazine that the topic of McCarthyism was now off-limits, “not out of...

  9. Epilogue: Souls of the (Port) Apostolate
    (pp. 299-306)

    Father Pete Corridan remained affiliated with Xavier Labor School for thirty months following the release of On the Waterfront, albeit in a greatly diminished capacity. Two books published in 1955 sparked a very short-lived revival of his notoriety. Veteran journalist Allen Raymond’s Water-front Priest provided the first comprehensive account of the Jesuit’s public apostolate. Raymond was the son of a Methodist lay preacher who traded his Ivy League, New England pedigree for a hardboiled journalistic persona cultivated over decades as a “legman,” rewrite man, copyeditor, and reporter for a dozen urban newspapers, mostly in metropolitan New York. With his blend...

  10. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 307-310)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 311-358)
  12. Index
    (pp. 359-370)