Speakeasies

Bob Leach | Photo: Jonathan Fitzgerald

The HBO series Boardwalk Empire has brought the topic of Prohibition back into our living rooms, with its chronicle of the life and times of the criminal underworld in Atlantic City during the 1920s, a time in America when booze was illegal and money was to be made.

The story features the larger than life characters we have all come to know through popular entertainment: Al Capone, Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein, and Lucky Luciano — even Jersey City mayor Frank Hague gets his due. The opulent world, as seen through the creators of Boardwalk Empire, is replete with money, power, and showgirls — a time of bootlegging, rum-running, prostitution and Tommy-gun shootouts.

Jersey City historian Bob Leach has another take on the era. It’s a more humble view that hits closer to home, and it is one he will recount in his latest program, Jersey City Speakeasies. Leach replaces the extreme brutality and extravagance of Boardwalk Empire with stories of family restaurants, fraternal lodges and union halls.

For the record, Leach has not seen the show, but his sources tell him its description of Prohibition in Jersey City, and more specifically, of Hague, aren’t exactly accurate.

“I do not own a TV and have never seen [it]. But people like it and I won’t ruin a good story for anybody,” he says. “It has been widely reported that their depiction of Frank [Hague] is way off.”

The HBO series depicts Hague, played by actor Chris Mulkey, as a liquor-swilling whoremonger and brutal man. In the fourth episode, a twentysomething redhead is perched on his lap, with one hand draped around his neck and the other hand on his crotch.

“What do you tell a woman with two black eyes?” Hague asks. “Nothing. She’s already been told … twice.”

Leach says imagery like this falls into line with other pop-cultural takes on the era.

“Our sense of Prohibition has been shaped by Al Capone movies. My stories are local Jersey City tales — I tell about the ‘mom and pop’ Italian restaurants that made red wine in the cellar, like Pipi’s on Orchard Street,” Leach says. “But there are Capone-style places too, like the Sip and Summit at Journal Square [where people] entered via a phone booth from a cigar store next door.”

Leach has been telling stories about Jersey City for decades, but is just turning his attention to Prohibition now. He was born in 1937, four years after the repeal of Prohibition, and remembers his family talking about it.

“The so-called ‘dry years’ and speakeasies were often a nostalgic subject of conversation around the supper table,” he says, adding that the popularity of Boardwalk Empire has, in part, influenced his decision to start talking about the era.

“Since the premiere of a certain cable-TV show, I am getting lots of calls on the subject,” he says. “Now I will tell the old stories I heard as a boy.”

Leach says that his talk will include a “bona-fide Tommy-gun shooting.” The Tommy gun, officially known as the Thompson submachine gun, was the favored weapon of law enforcement and criminals during Prohibition. Its appeal ranged from Eliot Ness to Bonnie and Clyde.

“There were a few Tommy-gun murders in Hudson County, but not in Jersey City” he explains. “Mayor Hague would not permit it. My story will cover at least one murder — over the border in Hoboken in 1930.”

What more can the audience expect to hear?

“My stories are always described as colorful — but my stories are informative as well,” Leach says. “For example, I will explain how pharmacies legally sold whiskey. There will be a Q&A, in which I will answer the serious questions.”

The pairing between Leach and the cemetery may seem strange at first. But his relationship to the cemetery goes back to his childhood.

“When I was young and took roving walks around Jersey City, I often stopped in the graveyard to sit and relax and daydream. It was a lovely, ramshackle garden and every headstone was an imagined story,” he says. “I bought a grave plot there over 20 years ago.”

Eileen Markenstein, the president of the cemetery, is thrilled to host Leach.

“No one tells ‘old Jersey City’ stories like Mr. Leach,” she says. “He is Jersey City’s legendary storyteller.”

The audience can expect Irish songs and Guinness too. Markenstein has arranged for singer-songwriter Greg Greg to entertain following Leach’s participation in the program.

“Greg Greg is a ‘Jersey City son,’ born and raised, and has performed for free at many of our other events, including rock concerts, Earth Day events, and our ‘History Rocks’ event,” she says. “His grandparents, great grandparents, and great great grandparents are buried at the cemetery.”

Jersey City Speakeasies is not only about a good time; it’s also a fundraiser for the ongoing restoration of the historic cemetery.

“It is imperative that we hold fundraising events to continue operating and preserving the very special and historic cemetery,” Markenstein says. “We are an ancient burial ground filled with beautiful monuments, 200-year-old trees adorned with English ivy, various wild animals, and ancient wildflowers. We have an amazing labyrinth of underground crypts and tunnels just waiting to be further explored and studied.”

The cemetery, which huddles into the Palisade on Newark Avenue, is becoming an attractive venue for art, music, and culture in Jersey City. In the past two years, it has has hosted more than 20 cultural events, including art exhibitions, live music, walking tours, historical lectures, children’s activities — even Revolutionary War re-enactments.

Why this sudden interest in the cemetery, which only a few years ago lay abandoned? For Markenstein, the answer is simple.

“We are doing something amazing … and everyone wants to help,” she says. “We have welcomed the local art and music communities with a very unique place to show their art and play their music. Our historic Gatekeeper House gallery is a beautiful place to showcase our talented local artists and authors, and they in turn help us survive.”

With the recent loss of the Jersey City Museum and continued problems with the city’s entertainment ordinance, artists and musicians need venues more than ever.

“We are becoming a real cultural center for Jersey City’s thriving artist community,” Markenstein says. “We love them all for donating their time and talent to our events.”

Original post may be found here.

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