The success of HBO’s hit series Boardwalk Empire has brought new attention to the history of gangsters and politics in New Jersey, a combination that has magic at the box office as they say. Boardwalk Empire is based on the Atlantic City of the 1920s and Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, an Atlantic City Republican political boss and so-called racketeer. He was the undisputed boss of the Atlantic City Republican machine from 1910 until his imprisonment in 1941. That machine ran Atlantic City during the days of prohibition.
What, say you, has this to do with Fort Lee? Well, my friends, our nascent film industry in 1912 produced--via D.W. Griffith--the first American gangster film, The Musketeers of Pig Alley. I wrote of this groundbreaking film in a previous archive piece. This film was shot on Main Street near the present day Fort Lee Post Office. This would be just a prelude of things to come for Fort Lee.
Once the movie industry left Fort Lee, the town took a major hit to the local economy. The building of the George Washington Bridge in the late 1920s seemed to bring about a spurt of economic activity that led to the borough building both Fort Lee High School and the Fort Lee Municipal Building - both of these magnificent structures were opened in the year of 1929--also the year the Great Depression visited America.
The bridge opened in 1931, but the Depression lingered, and the borough was in receivership, its finances a wreck. But one business that grew by leaps and bounds during this period was that of illegal gambling.
New York City’s reform Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, the Little Flower, vowed in coming into office in 1934 to rid New York of organized crime and gambling. The Little Flower appeared in newsreels of the day smashing slot machines with a sledgehammer. Thus a lot of the gambling activity soon came across the Hudson River to our very own Borough of Fort Lee, which became the Cicero of New Jersey. History buffs might recall that the legendary gangster Al Capone set up shop in Cicero, Illinois in the 1920s when then Chicago Mayor William E. Dever was cracking down on bootlegging.
In Fort Lee starting in the 1930s there was large-stakes gambling in the carriage factory, which was located about where the present-day Port Authority offices are on Bruce Reynolds Blvd. There were many more "dice barns" operating in and around the borough through the 1950s.
Higher stakes and more refined gambling took place at the Riviera Nightclub nestled atop the cliffs of the Palisades. There were tens of thousands of dollars riding on a single throw of the dice at the club. When the original Riviera Nightclub burned down on Thanksgiving night in 1936, owner Ben Marden immediately planned for a new art deco club about a half mile south, closer to the George Washington Bridge. That club opened in May 1937, a mere six months after the first club was destroyed.
There was too much money at stake in the gambling to not open the club as soon as possible. During World War II, the nightclub closed for a while, but it reopened better than ever under the ownership of Bill Miller in 1946 and ran successfully through 1953, when the Palisades Interstate Park condemned it for the construction of the Palisades Interstate Parkway.
According to Fort Lee native Tom Austin, whose father was a special security officer at Bill Miller’s Riviera Nightclub, in order to gain access to the second floor you entered a large janitor’s room at the end of the first-floor art deco bar and then you went by a large fan and plugged it into the wall wherein the opposite wall opened to a hidden stairway that led to the extravagant gaming parlor on the second floor. Tom’s History Press book Bill Miller’s Riviera America’s Showplace in Fort Lee, New Jersey is available for purchase at the Fort Lee Museum (1588 Palisade Avenue) during our current “A Night at Fort Lee’s Riviera Nightclub” exhibit which runs through February 2nd in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the closure of this landmark American nightclub.
But who really owned the Riviera? Truth be told, famous underworld figures Willie Moretti and Longie Zwillman had controlling interests in the club, and their contacts brought the best acts in America to the stage of the Riviera. Willie Moretti was a good friend of Frank Sinatra, and Sinatra made his famous comeback appearance at the Riviera September 1-15, 1953.
The singer in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather goes to The Godfather to get him out of his contract with a certain bandleader. Rumor has it that Willie Moretti went to Tommy Dorsey to get Frank Sinatra out of his restrictive contract with Dorsey in the early 1940s.
Moretti also was in charge of gambling in other areas, and he appeared famously at the televised Kefauver hearings in Washington. The hearings produced evidence that many Fort Lee housewives would rent telephone lines out of their houses or apartments to gangsters who would use the lines for illegal gambling.
Another famous Fort Lee resident and gangster was the head of Murder Inc., Albert Anastasia. Anastasia lived in a palatial mansion on the cliffs of the Palisades in the exclusive Palisades section of Fort Lee. Comedian Buddy Hackett moved into this house after Anastasia’s untimely death.
Prior to his death in a barber chair, Albert Anastasia had Willie Moretti killed on October 4, 1951, as Moretti had breakfast at Joe's Elbow Room Restaurant in nearby Cliffside Park, the present day site of Villa Amalfi Restaurant. You can see the famous photo of Moretti on the floor of the restaurant – the photo appeared in The Godfather.
Anastasia finally met his death on October 25, 1957 in the barber chair at the Park Sheraton Hotel in New York City. For a very funny take on Anastasia’s time in Fort Lee read the book Cutty One Rock by Fort Lee native and Poet Laureate Auggie Kleinzahler.
Other names “connected” to Fort Lee are Joe Adonis (buried in Madonna Cemetery) and Tommy Eboli. Writer Mark Seal did a wonderful piece for Vanity Fair in 2009 that centered on a 1971 visit made to Eboli's brother Patsy’s Fort Lee home by the cast of the classic film “The Godfather”. They made this visit during the shooting of the film in nearby New York City.
The site of the new development in Fort Lee off Main Street, Redevelopment Area 5, celebrates a 40th anniversary of sorts next year. In 1974 an organized crime figure attempted to bribe then Fort Lee Mayor Burt Ross to get help with a zoning issue on the property in order to make way for massive development of the site. Burt went undercover for the FBI at risk of his life and can be seen in a photo wearing a bullet proof vest in Borough Hall.
So long before the fictional "Sopranos" came to New Jersey, Fort Lee had its own date with organized crime, a time of mobsters, and gambling, and nightclubs and stars in a small community atop the bluffs of the Palisades. Join us this Sunday for our Gangs of Fort Lee Historic Jitney Tour as we visit both the film sites and real sites in Fort Lee associated with organized crime. The tours are free but seating is first come first serve. Tour signups are from 9 AM to 11 AM on Sunday October 20th at the Fort Lee Film Commission table at the Fort Lee Farmer’s Market in the plaza of the Jack Alter Community Center at 1355 Inwood Terrace. Tours run on the hour from 11 AM to 2 PM. For further info visit www.fortleefilm.org or www.fortleenj.org or call the Fort Lee Film Commission at (201) 693-2763. Don’t miss this tour cause that’s an offer you can’t refuse.