1920s Atlantic City: the real ‘Boardwalk Empire’
If you’re a fan of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, you’ll know that the character of Nucky Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi, is loosely based on real-life Atlantic City kingpin Enoch ‘Nucky’ Johnson. Treasurer of Atlantic County during Prohibition era, the real Nucky’s empire flourished in the racy, roaring 1920s.
On my last visit to Atlantic City, I went in search of the real ‘boardwalk empire’ and found a few corners old Nucky would recognize:
The Boardwalk: Originally built to keep sand out of hotel lobbies, AC’s world-famous Boardwalk now extends nearly nine kilometers. Dapper Nucky would never have gotten up before noon to surf or pedal a bike but he would recognize the rolling chairs for hire. Legendary music venue Boardwalk Hall was built in 1929 and has hosted performances by Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Lady Gaga, Kanye West. Other attractions have changed since Al Jolson was a lifeguard but the ocean breezes are still scented with vanilla fudge and salt water taffy.
The Ritz-Carlton: Right on the Boardwalk at Iowa Avenue, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel (1921) once hosted everyone from presidents to Al Capone. Designed by the architects who did New York’s Grand Central Station, the Ritz was famous for its revolving bar shaped like a carousel. Nucky lived and held court on the Ritz’s 9th floor, reputedly with a closet stuffed with cash. Today the Ritz is private condominiums but a peek into the lobby conjures images of the celebrities, gangsters and showgirls that once thronged it.
Rumrunners’ houses: Prohibition-era Atlantic City’s vice industry was fuelled by illegal alcohol, brought in by smugglers who navigated the salt-marsh shoals by night. Many boats sped straight into waterside houses where boxes of booze could be unloaded secretly in garage-like docks. A few of these old rumrunners’ houses can be spotted in the marina at historic Gardner’s Basin. Visitors today can get there by jitney, Atlantic City’s mini-bus service, in operation since 1915.
Miss America Pageant memorabilia: The glamour of bygone eras is on display in the lobby of the Sheraton Atlantic City Convention Center Hotel, home to a collection of Miss America Pageant gowns, shoes and other memorabilia. The Sheraton’s lobby is first stop on the Road to the Crown Walking Tour which celebrates the pageant and its return to Atlantic City. Don’t miss the beaded flapper dress and Lady Liberty headdress worn by 16-year-old Margaret Gorman, winner of the first-ever pageant, held 1921.
Knife and Fork Inn: Boardwalk Empire fans will want to eat at the former gentlemen’s club and speakeasy where the real Nucky and ‘Commodore’ Kuehnle conspired over seafood and steaks. The Knife and Fork’s original upstairs dining room–complete with bottle-hiding banquettes and raid-warning wall buttons–was recreated as a set for the HBO series. I’ve eaten there several times; both the food and atmosphere are tops.
Irish Pub: When someone in Boardwalk Empire says they’re staying at the Elwood, they’re talking about 164 St. James Place, an address now called the Irish Pub. This mahogany-paneled tavern just off the Boardwalk serves good, casual food along with spirits and beer. In true Roaring 20s style, the bar never closes. It’s open 24 hours, 365 days a year. Rooms are still available; singles start at $25 a night.
Lonely Planet named the Jersey Shore a Top 10 U.S. destination for 2014. Whether you take a 1920s theme tour or explore on your own, Atlantic City’s scandalous past is a big part of its appeal.
For trip inspiration, entertainment calendar and accommodation links, see Visit AC.