Thomas Kelly, author of "Empire Rising," joined Gotham
Gazette's Reading NYC Book Club on September 28 for a wide-ranging
discussion about the Empire State Building, political corruption, Irish
immigrant in New York and writing about New York City.
Gotham Gazette: Your book tells the love story
of two Irish immigrants: Michael Briody, an ironworker working on the
construction of the Empire State Building, and Grace Masterson, a
bohemian artist-type living on a houseboat on the Brooklyn waterfront --
something I don't believe you can do anymore.
Thomas Kelly: No, but you could then. She's
based on a great aunt of mine who did live on a houseboat.
Gotham Gazette: Both of these characters have a
connection to the Empire State Building. They are also somewhat involved
in the inter-related worlds of Tammany Hall and organized crime. The
setting seems to be a crucial part of the book. There's a lot going on
in the New York that Mr. Kelly describes, big development and labor
issues, the thriving Irish immigrant community, and, of course, money
and corruption in government. Why did you decide to write about New York
during this time period?
Thomas Kelly: My previous two books dealt with a
lot of the same themes but in a contemporary setting. I worked in
construction for about ten years, and that has reared its head in all my
James Elroy once asked, "How do you write about crime and not write
about the Kennedy assassination?" In New York City's history, as far as
construction, the Empire State Building is it. More than all the other
great projects -- the Brooklyn Bridge, the aqueducts, the water tunnels,
the other skyscrapers -- the Empire State Building represents New York
City to America, and America to the world.
For a novelist it's very rich territory -- this whole transition, the
mafia and the gangs becoming ascendant, and switching to an Italian and
Jewish thing from an Irish thing. The Irish have kind of made it by this
point: They've got the mayor, the governor, the police department and
the fire department. They're barely into law yet, but they're moving up,
As a novelist, all of this is going on on the macro level. On top of
that I put these characters, some of whom were based on family members.
Michael Briody was a great uncle of mine who met a certain fate in the
Bronx at that time. He was an Irish immigrant. It was one of those
things that gets whispered about. He's buried at St. Raymond's in the
Bronx. I went to visit his grave and decided to write a book describing
what happened to him. Of course it's fiction, but it's within the realm
Grace Masterson is based somewhat on a great aunt of mine. When I was
fairly well into the book, I found out this woman lived on a houseboat
in Williamsburg. My father's sister told me about this aunt they used to
visit in the 1920s, how they would take the train to Manhattan and then
the ferry across to Greenpoint. I thought, "Wow, this is great stuff!" I
already started the book, so I had to go back and put her there. For me,
she's a stand-in for the novelist. It's like getting that little bit of
remove from Manhattan: She's across the river, painting, taking in the
My family came in the 1920s from Ireland. I think about the Empire State
Building going up at the time. I wanted to write about family history,
and they sort of melded at that time. I don't want to write a nonfiction
story of my family. I just wanted to take a little bit of the truth and
imagine the world they lived in.
THE EMPIRE STATE BUILDING: PUNCTUATION POINT TO THE ROARING '20s
Gotham Gazette: Why does the Empire State stand
out as unique, as opposed to say the Chrysler Building, which was built
a couple years of earlier as the world's tallest building?
Thomas Kelly: For a lot of reasons. It's not
that much taller than the Chrysler building or 40 Wall Street. But the
Empire State Building is a much more massive structure. The Chrysler
Building has about 18,000 or 20,000 tons of structural steel; the Empire
State Building has 65,000. So it's three times as big, even though it's
only about 15 stories higher.
The Empire State Building was also the punctuation point to the Roaring
'20s. Those other buildings went up when things were still going crazy.
Then they demolished the Waldorf-Astoria hotel to build the Empire State
Building. The destruction of that building started the day the stock
market crashed. It's a symbol of ambition, drive and human endeavor.
It's going up and the city is falling into depression, as is the county
In addition, there's the involvement of Al Smith and the whole history
of Tammany and what it symbolized to Smith. So I felt it had a much
richer history than those other two buildings. There were a lot more
stories to tell.
Gotham Gazette: The other plot line in the book
is Tammany Hall. From the beginning of the book there's a sense that
Tammany Hall has created a well-oiled machine to make itself rich. But
there's also a feeling of an impending reformist wave. Fiorello
LaGuardia actually did get elected as a reformer several years later. So
is this, in a sense, Tammany's last hurrah?
Thomas Kelly: Tammany is a fascinating
institution for a lot of reasons. We see it today as a negative thing,
as these corrupt party bosses. But you have to understand Tammany. It
was started by Aaron Burr and staunch, Anglo-Protestants around the
At times, it was wholly corrupt, but it did a lot of things for a lot of
people, especially in the 19th century. There were no government
programs for anything at that time. Basically you had a barbaric
capitalist system, and if you didn't survive, nobody cared. Tammany and
other machines around the country provided services, jobs, they paid
doctor bills, they brought a turkey on Christmas. And the only thing
they wanted in return was your vote. They recognized this was democracy
and whoever gets the most votes wins. They very shrewdly capitalized on
that. At times they got out of control.
The 1920s fascinate me for a lot of reasons. It was the most
revolutionary decade in American history. People talk about the 1960s,
the sexual revolution. Nonsense. The 1920s, that was the real sexual
revolution; the '60s were like a rich kid aftershock. The modernization,
the movement from rural to urban. The country kind of exploded in the
1920s, in a lot of positive ways, and Tammany was in the mix of this.
The back story here is really Prohibition. In 1919, the politicians are
telling the gangsters what to do. By 1930 -- and this is what I tried to
get at in this book -- the paradigm is shifting. There's this noble
Protestant effort to keep the animals in the ghetto, but out of the
saloons, scrubbed, up to work early and praying to a Protestant God at
the end of the day. And this backfired horribly. It created, for the
first time and maybe the only time ever, a real power in the underclass
and the underworld in America. By 1930s, a real reckoning is at hand.
The balance is shifting, and the guys with the guns are saying to the
politicians, "Wait a minute, why should we listen to you anymore?"
That's what I wanted to get at.
The book lays out the back story of what led to the downfall of Jimmy
Walker a year and a half or two years after the book ends. Franklin
Delano Roosevelt is cunningly playing his angles, knowing that to run
for president in 1932 he needed Tammany locally, but nationally he
needed some distance.
MACHINE POLITICS, THEN AND NOW
Gotham Gazette: In your other books, you also
write about machine politics, which in some ways, are still with us. Can
you contrast the machine politics of the different eras?
Thomas Kelly: One anecdote that describes this
difference very strongly is that at the Democratic Convention in 1932, a
fellow named Jimmy Heinz, a big Tammany leader from Upper Harlem, had as
his roommate, very openly, Lucky Luciano. It's the equivalent of
Clarence Norman and John Gotti being roommates. That's not going to
Then, it wasn't seen as doing something wrong; it was seen as "there's
power to be exercised, we control it now, and this is how we're going to
exercise it." Tammany, and even some gangsters, would say, "Wait a
minute, you got your money from putting ten-year-olds in coal mines and
slave trading. Now we want to get our piece of the pie and we're the bad
The guys who ran Tammany Hall in 1920s had a very big say in who became
the Democratic nominee for president. They could deny someone, or
basically appoint someone. They had a lot more power.
But it's the same stuff now. The buying of judgeships -- that's how
Judge Crater [a state supreme court judge who is a character in "Empire
Rising"] got his judgeship. Now they try to hide it more, but it still
TAMMANY'S GOOD SIDE
Jacqueline Arasi: People could go to a Tammany
Hall location and get help, that's how they got to be known. They were
very nice -- even when I was passing out leaflets for La Guardia they
brought us coffee and cake. There was a real positive element to Tammany
Hall. I think it's a more positive history than a negative history.
Thomas Kelly: Absolutely, there was a real
positive element. Unfortunately, the negative history has been written
by their enemies, and you're looked at like you're abetting some sort of
criminal enterprise if you point out they did good things. For the
Catholics and Jews at the time, the Protestant churches would give out
money and say, "Sure we'll help you out; why don't you convert?" All
Tammany wanted you to do was to show up on Election Day.
When the demographics started changing in the 1880s and 1890s, when
waves of Italians and Eastern European Jews and Poles started coming,
Tammany was very smart. Guys like Charlie Murphy and Big Tim Sullivan
saw the writing on the wall. They reached out to those communities, took
care of them and brought them into the fold. They did a lot of things:
getting people jobs, bailing kids out of jail who had done something
stupid, and on and on.
Gotham Gazette: But Tammany wasn't just asking
for your vote. Aside from enriching themselves, they were involved in
things like widespread voter fraud and so on -- correct me if I'm wrong.
Thomas Kelly: Well, what's your definition of
The period I'm talking about in the book was a little more sophisticated
than it was 20, 30, 40 years before when it was guys with bats showing
up at voting booths. Again, it's one of those things -- there's no black
and white here -- people trying to survive and trying to get ahead. The
decisions they made are probably not dissimilar to the ones we'd make.
CONSTRUCTION AND CORRUPTION
Gotham Gazette: How much documented corruption
was there in the building of the Empire State Building?
Thomas Kelly: Well, there's almost none
documented, and much of what today we would consider corruption was
accepted business practice then. For instance, at that time if you
wanted to break a slab of sidewalk, you'd give a kickback to the
Two building code changes made the Empire State Building possible. One
was elevator speed, and the other was steel thickness. The technology in
steel had advanced so much by the 1920s that you could use much thinner,
lighter steel, which was much stronger than the old stuff. If you're
going up 102 stories, it's something you want. If you have people going
up so high, how can you do so without faster elevators.
The changes were mysteriously vetoed twice by Mayor Walker, and then,
after the materials were already ordered, he reversed himself. I find it
hard to believe, given what went on at the time, that there wasn't a
significant payment to somebody. I imagine a scene at the beginning of
the book with a million dollar payoff.
Walker's this great figure. He died broke, basically. The Protestant
experiment to keep the animals in line created power and corruption.
Walker rode that wave, and did it with a lot of charm, and people loved
him -- not just the Irish. He was a very charismatic guy; he was always
witty and good at tweaking the noses of the powers that be outside of
politics. He raised his salary from $25,000 to $40,000, which was a lot
of money back then. There was an outcry in the press, and he responded
by saying 'Well, imagine what I'd charge if I worked full time!'
But he was very popular. He brought in baseball on Sundays, got boxing
legalized as a state assemblyman. Then, at the end of the story, he's
going to Yankee Stadium and gets booed. Even he knew that the Depression
changed everything. All of a sudden it's not good times, people are
suffering. And there's this guy driving around in his Duesy with a
THE CHANGING CULTURE OF CONSTRUCTION
Gotham Gazette: The culture of construction is a
big part of the novel. Do you have a sense of how much that's changed,
how different it's going to be for the workers who, for instance, build
the Freedom Tower if they ever start building it?
Thomas Kelly: It's probably changed a lot less
than people think. Different materials, but a lot of the process is
exactly the same. There's a line I use in the book that, during the
1920s, building the skyscrapers is the closest peacetime equivalent to
war -- all the planning and energy that goes into it. They're still huge
undertakings. People still get hurt, people still die. It's hard work.
Gotham Gazette: Is it still mainly Irish, or has
Thomas Kelly: Construction unions in this city
have long been very tribal, and they still are, though less than they
used to be. I was a sandhog, and that's been Irish and West Indian since
the days of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. You have the third or
fourth generation working there.
The ironworkers are mainly Irish. Most come from Newfoundland -- they
call them "fish" or "newfies." There's this sort of exaggerated myth of
the Native American ironworker. Joseph Mitchell started it when he
started writing about it in the 1940s, and Gay Talese continued it with
"The Bridge," writing about the Mohawks. They were never more than five
percent of the union. They got into it because, when they were building
bridges upstate and Canada, the ironworkers brought some of the locals
into the union, and they happened to be Mohawks. It became this weird
reverse racism with some of these writers. Not to take anything away
from what these Mohawks did and still do, but it's kind of funny how
In the beginning, a lot of Swedes and Norwegians came off the tall ships
and were used to working in heights. They lived in Bay Ridge. There's a
little bit of everything now: Italians, African Americans, Puerto
Ricans. But still the biggest group would be Irish, and the biggest
subgroup would be the newfies.
It's different with different trades. For the carpenters, there used to
be about a half-dozen locals: the Jewish local, the Italian local, the
black local, the Irish local. There's always a lot more peaceful
co-habitation and intermingling than the negative stuff, but the
negative stuff gets the press. Building trades now are almost 50 percent
minority. I don't think Wall Street has gotten that close.
WORKING CLASS NEW YORK
Gotham Gazette: In the New York you describe,
the culture seems very much influenced by the working class. I don't
think many people would say that the working class is driving the image
of New York City today. What do you think happened?
Thomas Kelly: That's a 12-part lecture.
Let's focus on Manhattan. I hate it when everyone focuses on Manhattan,
but let's face it, when the rest of the world thinks about New York City
they think about Manhattan from about 96th Street down. In the 1930s,
that slice of Manhattan was filled with middle class, working class, and
poor people. It was a lot of immigrants and a lot of regular people,
families. What has happened -- and what is happening now at probably a
faster rate than ever -- is the displacement of the population that
can't afford it. I saw in the paper that 44 percent of the apartments in
Manhattan are $1 million apartments.
A friend of mine once said that he liked New York better when the
corporals ran the city. And what he meant by that was that you didn't
have to be a big shot to be treated like a big shot. The city was run by
the workers, and they felt invested in the city. Things have changed a
lot in that regard and not always positively.
I write mostly about that other New York, which for me is the real New
York. I try to go against the images of New York that go out to the
world. It's not Donald Trump; it's not Central Park South. It's a much,
much bigger story, and unfortunately over the last few generations less
and less of that story is being told. What's going on today with the
Dominicans and Bangladeshis, it's not much different from the story of
the Jews and the Italians and the Irish. They're hard-working people who
came to a crazy place from far away and want to make their lives better.
That story is ongoing. Unfortunately as it becomes less white, it
probably also becomes less attractive.
THE MYSTERY OF JUDGE CRATER
Kevin Baker: Any theory on the Judge Crater
Thomas Kelly: In the book I deal with the
disappearance of Judge Joseph Crater who, for those of you who don't
know, disappeared off the face of the earth in August, 1930. He became
one of the most famous missing people in American history, to the point
that if you didn't show up for work they'd say you pulled a Crater.
I have my version of what happened in the book. It's not a big part of
the book, but it's emblematic of the level of corruption at the time.
Judge Crater represents the audacity of the corruption. Someone said,
"Alright, we'll just disappear a state Supreme Court judge off the
street." That just doesn't go on in America. This isn't Columbia during
the drug wars. Things got so out of hand because of Prohibition.
RESEARCH VS. IMAGINATION IN HISTORICAL FICTION
Gotham Gazette: How much of your work is based
on research and how much on imagination?
Thomas Kelly: I think it was E.L. Doctorow who,
when asked how much research he does, said "just enough." A lot of
historical novels are written by historians. They're histories; they're
not stories. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to be meticulous about
detail, and I missed one or two. I had Babe Ruth batting fourth in the
Yankee lineup, when he wore number three because he batted third; and I
had him using a doughnut on his bat. Luckily, someone caught them for
me. These tiny details are important. As a storyteller you're creating
an illusion, and anything that jars people out of that is bad.
The great thing about the 1930s is that there were still enough people
who had been adults at the time. They were 90 when I talked to them, so
they would have been 20 at the time. I talked to a friend of mine's
great aunt who just died at 100. She was the daughter of Tammany Hall
district leader in Hell's Kitchen. I also talked to, I think, the last
guy alive who worked on the Empire State Building. He gave me great
details. He was 17 at the time.
The amazing thing about the Empire State Building is that they built it
in 13 months, and they built it on straight time - 40-hour weeks with no
overtime. This man told me that on Friday they would pick a floor, say
the 34th floor, and when the bell sounded on Friday afternoon they would
bring barrels of beer and girls up and they would drink and gamble and
have a casino in the sky.
He told me: "I'd leave around midnight, and come back Monday morning and
they'd still be there, then they'd go right back to work!" If they
hadn't done that, they'd probably have built it faster! That's a detail
you're not going to find in a history book.
The other thing I did was go to the public library and read the tabloids
of the day, which put you there in a way the history books just don't.
The tabloids of the 1930s, they make the New York Post seem like Readers
Digest. It's just blood and guts and sex; it's just pre-code America,
it's amazing. It was the Wild West.
IRISH IMMIGRANTS AND THE WARS IN IRELAND
Gotham Gazette: How much of the involvement of
Irish immigrants with the Irish Republican Army and the wars in Ireland
Thomas Kelly: In 1923, you had the Irish War of
Independence and following that immediately the Irish Civil War. One
side decided to sign a treaty with the British, which cordoned off a
part of Northern Ireland, something that we still deal with today. The
other side said we shouldn't give the British anything. It degenerated
into this nasty, ugly civil war that lasted 18 months. Only about 660
people were killed, but it wasn't armies; most of it was assassinations,
The losing side of this war became the second largest Irish migration to
the United States. That was during the 1920s, and that's when my family
came over. This was a very rural, very embittered population. They were
as angry with the Irish who sold them out as they were with the British.
They were mostly young.
When you look at the South Bronx, where a lot of them went, the second
or third generation Irish didn't accept them. The established immigrants
were like, "Who are these animals coming off the boat?" The Irish
weren't accepted by the established Irish.
This was a very impoverished population, and what's amazing to me is how
few of them got involved in the rackets. Very few of them became
gangsters at a time when there was plenty of opportunity to get involved
and make good money. So these really were committed soldiers to the
Gotham Gazette: Were they people who fled the
war, or people who moved to the United States with the specific intent
of carrying on the war?
Thomas Kelly: They were the losing side of the
civil war. A lot of them left because they couldn't get jobs or they
were shut out of opportunities in Ireland. Some of them just came here
and said, "the hell with Ireland," and never looked back; others
continued the struggle. This is sort of a twilight period for the IRA,
but there was still very much going on.
I get into this in the book with Michael Briody. He's trying to raise
money and send guns back. There was a committed cadre of people at this
time that was devoted to that struggle. I found notes of meetings of the
American political wing of the IRA where they had a debate over whether
they should open a speakeasy to finance their cause. They voted against
it because they didn't want to be seen as criminals. They were
A lot of them got involved in starting the subway union. Here is a great
New York story that hasn't gotten a lot of play. They were Irish, and
they went to the church, which said "Commies! Get out of here"; The
Ancient Order of Hibernians said, "What are you crazy?" So they ended up
going the Communist Party, which was Eastern European Jewish. This
combination of these Irish farmboys and Eastern European Jewish
intellectuals created the Transport Workers Union.
In the 1920s the subways were all privately owned railroads, and they
were some of the most vicious employers in the country. There were big
strikes that were viciously put down, violently put down. And one of the
ways they organized the unions was the Irish guys would speak in Irish
-- Gaelic. They would hold secret meetings. This was necessary because
spies for the companies called beakies were paid an extra dollar a day
to rat out anybody who was a union sympathizer.
So all that's going on, and I have these characters that are caught up
in these crosscurrents.
Gotham Gazette: Did the involvement of
immigrants in New York have much of an effect on the situation in
Thomas Kelly: No. It was a tragic lost cause by
that point. These guys were dreamers; they were madmen to a certain
extent. It was a pretty pathetic effort at that time.
And you can't underestimate the power of the idea of America and these
freedoms. Many of the Irish coming over here, they were fleeing not just
the Brits, but the Catholic Church, and now their fellow Irishmen.
That's what happens with this character. First he falls in love, and he
had never been in love. This guy joined the British army when he was 15
to fight World War I. He comes back and gets involved in the IRA, fights
against the British, fights the civil war. Now he ends up in America.
He's 30 years old, he's been at war his whole life. He falls in love
with this woman who is from where he's from; he's got this job he loves.
And all of a sudden he's like "Wow, maybe the past should just be the
And I think that sort of thing happens all the time in this city. People
come into Kennedy Airport every day leaving something like that behind.
Some of them think they'll get back to it. My grandparents never went
back. A lot of them never did.
WRITING ABOUT FAMILY
Gotham Gazette: You mentioned that your family
was the basis for some of the characters in the book. What did they
think of it?
Thomas Kelly: Well, for me all that matters is
my aunt Mae, my father's sister who died last year. She was quite a
character. She came over at seven years old and went on to become an
English teacher at Roosevelt High School. She was always the one who
gave me books, and inspired me to read.
My first two books were filled with a lot of profanity. The first book
has about 38 homicides. So the English teacher reads the first book and
says, "Obviously you're a good writer but the language is a bit rough."
She doesn't mention the 38 homicides -- how Irish is that?
So I really wanted to tip my hat to her, because a lot of the
inspiration was family stuff. So the F word appears once. She said she
really enjoyed the book. And I asked her if she noticed anything and she
said: "Yes, I can read it to my grandchildren."
But the real beauty of writing fiction is that you can say "Well, no,
that wasn't you." And it wasn't.
Sylvia Price: My grandparents are getting older,
and they don't remember much. It's hard to get them to talk.
Thomas Kelly: I couldn't get everyone to talk,
and you've really got to work your way into it. For many of these
families coming to America there's almost this insane need to be clean,
to be perfect, to be upstanding. They want to be accepted. It was that
whole "work hard and do the right thing, and don't allow yourself to
justify those stereotypes."
I would just start asking her about what it was like. For me, we had
this whole conversation about the iceman, and then the coal man, and
then Jimmy the tea man who came by horse and wagon to the Bronx. Just
details like that. From that, it would lead her to something else.
People are uncomfortable talking about themselves, and a past they'd
maybe rather forget. So it's kind of tricky. But I'm compelled to get
those stories, because I believe that when those people die, those
stories die with them.
WRITING ABOUT WORK, WRITING ABOUT NEW YORK
Gotham Gazette: You mentioned a problem you had
with Gay Talese's "The Bridge." Your book reminded me in many ways of
that book, about the building of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. The
day-to-day routines and interactions of the people who were working on
the bridge and, in your book, on the Empire State Building, seemed very
similar. What did you get out of that book?
Thomas Kelly: It's a great book, and the focus
on the Mohawks is legitimate. I wish there were more like it. I think
he's a fabulous nonfiction writer. He's very meticulous in detail, very
Gotham Gazette: Are there any other books that
you would recommend, either about this topic, or about New York in
Thomas Kelly: There aren't a lot of books about
work. It's kind of sad. In one of the reviews of "Empire Rising," the
guy reviewed it very positively, but said it was a throwback to whole
socialist-realist novels of the 1930s, like "Christ in Concrete." But
you can count these titles on one hand.
Who built the pyramids? A bunch of slaves. Who built the Roman
aqueducts? We don't know. What were their experiences? We don't know.
Book Club member: What are you working on now?
Thomas Kelly: I'm writing two pilots for
television, one for HBO and one for CBS. The one for CBS, One Police
Plaza, is kind of a cop thing: the West Wing meets the NYPD. The other
is about Manhattan at night, it's about a family. One brother's a night
watchman type and the other's a sandhog. It's about how the city is
changing. One brother is just home from prison after 15 years, comes
back to the West Side and it's like stepping onto the planet Mars.
I'm starting a new book. I want to do this epic thing about the rise and
fall of postwar New York. It opens in 1945 when the guys get back from
the war and ends around the time of the Knapp commission [on police
corruption] in the 1970s. It's a little more about cops and a little
less about construction. It's really about how the city evolved and
changed over that quarter century. I want to show cops in a place like
New York as those who have a front-row seat to history and use them as a
way to look at these big social changes.
Book Club member: Are you going to use family
members for source material?
Thomas Kelly: I had an uncle who just died who
was quite a character. He arrested the guy who killed Kitty Genovese. At
80 he was 6-foot-3, 220. I can imagine what it was like in 1963 trying
to keep a confession from him. Just the story of a guy like that,
starting in the 1940s, with all the stuff going on in New York, race and
class, money, and change.
The funny thing about New York is we don't have a Saul Bellow. There are
so many stories to be told. How do you wrap your arms around it? In a
way it's true, but I want to attempt broader stories and the way all
these worlds interact.
New York is a way that this interaction goes on, as much as it's
becoming polarized. Those guys living in the penthouses are still going
to have to get out on the streets and go past the kids from the
projects. That doesn't happen in a place like Greenwich, Connecticut. It
doesn't happen in a lot of places in the world. We have this forced
interaction that has made New York probably a much greater human
experience than other cities. We can't ever be LA.
From a storyteller's point of view there's a lot to be said about New
York. I feel like I could write for the next 1,000 years and not crack
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