At the height of Irish immigration to the United States, an Irishman arriving in New York would be met and squired to what amounted to a safe house, one of many scattered around the city. Soon, sometimes just days later, he would emerge as a policeman, a sanitation worker, or a longshoreman on the West Side docks—the three occupations controlled by the New York Irish. My great-grandmother’s rowhouse, still standing a few blocks north of the new Yankee Stadium, was one such sanctuary. Her near relations benefited no less than her off-the-boat guests. Her husband Patrick was a cop. Two of her sons, including my grandfather, headed for the piers.

The cozy paternalism of Irish New York didn’t stop at the water’s edge. In the depths of the Depression, my grandfather, by then nearly fifty years old, was convalescing in a New Jersey hospital from a burst appendix when he got an unexpected visit from a colleague. For weeks, the pier boss Mr. Sanders had been playing my grandfather’s number in the racket now socialized as the New York State Lottery. His number, the colleague explained, had hit. Had Mr. Sanders not looked out for Granddad, the family would not been able to pay his doctors, and likely would have completed their slide into penury.

There was a dark side to this care and feeding, as anyone who has seen On the Waterfront knows. The longshoremen pilfered from the cargoes they unloaded, stashing little Shangri-las of coffee and liquor and comestibles in hidey-holes on the piers, selling other goods to supplement their incomes. The officers of the International Longshoreman’s Association, a union in name only, dragooned the rank-and-file’s overtime pay, raked profits from the numbers game, and extorted fees from truckers waiting to haul the unshipped goods.

On the Waterfront
barely hints at the depth of the ILA leaders’ corruption, but does a fair job of showing how they got away with it. As Marlon Brando’s naive has-been boxer Terry Malloy discovers, the penalties for objecting to the system included exile, beatings, and assassination.

If Elia Kazan, who directed On the Waterfront from Budd Schulberg’s screenplay, told only part of the story, it’s because the movie restricts its orbit to the piers. As James T. Fisher makes clear in his new book, On the Irish Waterfront: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York, much of the city hierarchy was complicit in the silence, from the mayor to the Catholic establishment. When things got hot for ILA President-for-life “King Joe” Ryan or Ryan’s boss, “Mr. Big” Bill McCormick, the local monsignor would throw a Communion breakfast complete with a parade for his patrons. Fisher shows these widening rings of mob, city, state, and church power, and how these forces are wound into the film’s climax—a punch thrown by Karl Malden’s Fr. Pete Barry that jars Malloy into telling the law what he knows.

The tale—call it “The Making of the Making of On the Waterfront”—is a tangled one that sometimes overwhelms Fisher’s narrative skills, so that the reader is sometimes at a loss to remember what year it is or the significance of a particular gangland double-cross. Still, Fisher’s backstory to the film is more fulfilling than the usual cant: that Kazan made the movie to acquit himself of being a traitor to his kind, after he named names in the House Un-American Activities Committee investigation of Hollywood Communists. Schulberg, Fisher points out, already had a draft of the film before either he or Kazan appeared before HUAC. Instead, Fisher reveals how a Hollywood-born, bestselling Jewish novelist and a skeptical Greek Orthodox film director came to a tell a story grounded in papal encyclicals and Catholic social teaching.

The U.S. church had been friendly to the workingman’s cause at least since 1884, when Cardinal James Gibbon of Baltimore stood up to the Vatican to champion the burgeoning Knights of Labor. By the 1930s, there was a rival in the battle for working-class hearts and minds. The Communist Party’s New York headquarters in Union Square stood within blocks of thousands of longshoremen crowded into Greenwich Village and Chelsea tenements. In 1935, the Jesuit province founded a labor school at the nearby St. Francis Xavier parish and high-school complex on 17th Street. It was the first of 150 such schools that would open on Catholic turf around the country. “Originally envisioned as an institute where adults might discuss social problems in the Catholic idiom,” by the late ’30s, the school had shifted its focus to labor law and parliamentary procedure, writes Fisher, to empower good Catholic workingmen to join and run the unions.

It wasn’t until John Corridan, a courageous Jesuit known as Pete, was assigned to the labor school in the early 1940s that its impact was felt on the waterfront, and then only indirectly. Though a New Yorker and, in the words of Schulberg, “a tall, semibald, fast-talking, chain-smoking realist” (he left out hard-drinking), Corridan never gained the trust of the men he was sent to help, who bridled at the idea of a priest meddling in worldly affairs.

More damaging for a labor crusader, Corridan fundamentally misunderstood the longshoreman’s grievances. He demonized the “shape-up,” the daily selection of work crews from a horde of laborers gathered at the pier, as inhumane and prone to cronyism. Those guaranteed a day’s work had little desire to change what was for them a way of life. “The ‘shape,’” writes Fisher, “performed a kind of ritual reenactment of local social order; it was grounded in forms of authority, benevolence, and deference that were exchanged face-to-face and left obligations undisguised.” The system worked, in other words, for those who worked.

Unable to rally the longshoremen, the Jesuit went to the press. Corridan’s real-life punch came in a series of articles that ran in the New York Sun beginning in 1950, for which Corridan was the primary source. (Sun reporter Malcolm Johnson gets screen credit in the film.) Other exposés, also guided by Corridan, followed. Household names like Westbrook Pegler wrote columns hinting about the true identity of Mr. Big. The heightened attention drove the crime commissions and investigations that led eventually to the disbanding of the ILA. Soon Hollywood came calling.

Fisher’s chapter on the film’s success is titled “Redemption.” Kazan’s reputation was restored, Schulberg’s years of shopping the story around paid off, and Brando, after walking out of an early screening disgusted with his performance, won a Best Actor Oscar, one of six Waterfront won in all. Corridan, however, became a footnote. He hoped the film would exert pressure on the longshoremen and the establishment to throw the crooked union off the docks. It came too late and its impact was little felt on the docks. The kind of men Malden (who wears Corridan’s hat and coat in the film) found solidarity with in the movie shunned Corridan in real life. Soon, anyway, it was all moot: within a decade of the film’s release, container ships made the small, inefficient Manhattan and Jersey City piers—and longshoremen themselves—obsolete.

On the Irish Waterfront comes as Corridan’s belated redemption. The book places his force of personality and sense of mission at the very center of the film, and for anyone who takes the care to read this elegiac story, his work will outshine all its strutting players.


From the archives: Budd Schulberg, "Waterfront Priest" (pdf)

Related: James T. Fisher, "Beyond the Waterfront"

From the blog: Budd Schulberg, RIP
Karl Malden, RIP

Paul O’Donnell is a freelance reporter who often writes about religion and pop culture.
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Published in the 2010-02-26 issue: View Contents
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