ON THE IRISH WATERFRONT: The Crusader, the Movie, and the Soul of the Port of New York, by James T. Fisher. 370 pages, illustrated. Cornell
The movie “On the Waterfront” presented a simple tale of evil and redemption. The real waterfront was much more complicated.
At midcentury there were almost a thousand piers in New York Harbor, some worked by African-Americans, some by Italian-Americans, some by “Austrians” (dock talk for immigrants from east and southeast Europe). But power and corruption centered in the Irish-American zone on the West Side of Manhattan and the International Longshoremen’s Association and the corrupt alliance of Tammany Hall and the “Powerhouse,” the residence of the vicious and corrupt Cardinal Spellman.
The Catholic Church claims to be centrally directed and hierarchical, but the American branch especially was fragmented by the differences among the Catholic immigrants of different origins in Europe or Latin America; and by the partly autonomous religious orders that could, up to a point, create their own policies (apostolates is the term used by James Fisher).
The Jesuits created a labor ministry, with labor “schools” to try to raise the political skills and consciousness of the dockers. It was ineffective, so Spellman, who was antilabor and also one of the biggest and most exploitative employers in New York, let it alone.
“On the Irish Waterfront” is the story of Father Pete Corridan, who after World War II began to have some impact. Other things were changing as well. Returning war veterans were more independent-minded than their fathers and uncles; and various secular reform organizations were active.
The action that snapped the first key support in the structure, however, came from a brave widow (who gets only one sentence in this book), Maisie Hintz. After her husband was murdered, she and her son broke the omerta of the Irish waterfront, a code of silence that unlike the more famous Sicilian omerta, had never been breached.
It might even be said that the first breach was created by gangster “Cockeye” Dunn, who murdered Andy Hintz. Murder was done on the piers but it was never usual. The savage beating was the preferred method.
Once Maisie Hintz lighted up the dark, outsiders took a look inside. Crucially, the writer Budd Schulberg began hanging out and drinking with Corridan.
Here is where an already complicated set of urban political and economic interests becomes unbelievably entangled. Schulberg and the director Elia Kazan had testified as friendly witnesses to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, which ought to have made the reformers more vulnerable. Spellman and ILA president Joe Ryan were always ready to use the Commie smear to cover up their own crimes.
Leftists have sometimes hijacked the dockers’ story to portray the movie as a justification by Kazan and Schulberg for snitching, but Fisher demolishes that trope -- and who cares anyway? By reading the many drafts of Schulberg’s script, he shows that the testimony angle was there before Schulberg was called before HUAC.
More historically significant is Fisher’s persuasive demonstration that the “shape-up,” the dramatically evil institution used to exploit the longshoremen, was obsolete by the time Schulberg and Corridan began using it to whip the gangsters. No matter, it remained effective.
More controversially, Fisher claims Schulberg (a Jew) “helped move Roman Catholic activism away from obsessive anticommunism.” That would have been a good thing, but I was being raised Catholic in those days, and obsessive (and thoroughly dishonest) anticommunism was dominant.
Fisher, a lay historian, is a professor of theology and American studies at Fordham, and his book is published under the auspices of the Cushwa Center’s Studies of Catholicism in Twentieth-century America. I have learned to be wary of historiography about Catholicism from Catholic academies, but Fisher presents a rare (unique in my reading) combination of deep understanding of various currents of Catholic thought, sympathy and a hard-hitting willingness to call a spade a spade.
He needed all three, because his subjects refused to play their conventionally assigned roles.
Kazan, raised Orthodox, despised Roman Catholics (for good reason, it seems), but directed the most effective pro-Roman Catholic movie. Corridan, the Jesuit apostle to the dockers, angered them so much he could not meet them. Harry Bridges, the leftist dockworker from the Left Coast, allied with Ryan in the end. The New York communists were recognized by Corridan as the only group working for the welfare of the dockers while their priests were selling them out.
In a final irony, the fate of the docks had been determined before “On the Waterfront” was released. It created an enduring, positive, largely false image of the dockers in the American mind (so much so that “dockers” is the name of the best-selling brand of trousers).
The film was received with raves everywhere except on the docks. “Those directly affected,” writes Fisher, “took a different view.”