second read

Human capital

In O Albany!, William Kennedy pays homage to the hard-to-love city that is his novels' greatest hero
November 1, 2012

On January 16, 1928, William Joseph Kennedy suffered a misfortune of birth only slightly preferable to bastardy. Having drawn his first breath, he studied his surroundings and found himself a newly minted Son of Albany. The gravity of his situation may have been lost on him, but not for long. By the age of reason, in the Catholic sense, he must have accepted the sordid truth of his paternity. Albany was a bookie and a gambler, a bootlegger and a dipso, a pimp and a john, a boss and a stooge. “Of all the miserable, wretched, second-class, one-horse towns,” wrote the architect Henry Hobson Richardson, “this is the most miserable.”

Albany was far from the action, halfway between Manhattan and the Canadian border. Where its political climate was strictly smoke-filled backroom, its actual one, much of the year, was walk-in meat locker. A youngster like Kennedy might don a cassock and surplice in the morning, quaking for his soul as an altar boy; survive a pointless fistfight at midday; bring his robes to the “Chinaman” for laundering in the afternoon; and at night hang around street corners or grocery stores, looking for a good chance to sin. It would have been a decent enough life, growing up in the shadow of Irish Catholicism and political corruption—but for a kid with ambition, who needed it?

In 1956 Kennedy lit out for San Juan, Puerto Rico, taking a position as assistant managing editor of the Puerto Rico World Journal. In 1959 he became a founding managing editor of the San Juan Star, where he was Hunter S. Thompson’s boss, and one can see Kennedy portrayed by Richard Jenkins, as “Lotterman,” in Bruce Robinson’s 2011 adaptation of The Rum Diary. In Puerto Rico, Kennedy found himself engrossed in a picture book of 19th-century Albany. He had to face it: “[San Juan] was not engaging my soul, and that Albany picture book was.” In 1963, he went back to Albany for good.

Ironweed, the 1983 novel that made Kennedy’s name—it won the Pulitzer Prize the next year—is about a man returning to Great Depression-era Albany at Halloween. Though he bears no resemblance to Kennedy, Francis Phelan, a guilt-wracked, alcoholic hobo, illustrates how a man becomes magnetized to home, despite the compelling reasons to get lost. As the story begins, Francis, “[r]iding up the winding road of Saint Agnes Cemetery in the back of the rattling old truck . . . became aware that the dead, even more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods.” The neighborhoods of men and memory, the ever-changing anima of a city, are Kennedy’s perennial subjects, and never more explicitly than in the other book he published in 1983, the essay collection O Albany! Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels.

Kennedy’s remarkable project began in 1963, when an Albany Times-Union editor, Walter Hawver, asked Kennedy for a series showcasing the city’s neighborhoods. This Kennedy completed between 1963 and 1964. Later, revisiting those pieces at the request of Albany’s Washington Park Press, he “found them all misshapen by time and their prose as flat as Mesopotamian root beer.” Thanks to his insistence on revising them, what might have been a very minor, parochial pamphlet—the sort of thing you fan yourself with at the Historical Society—became a detailed portrait of America in microcosm, and proof that a penetrating eye can turn a one-horse town into a metropolis deserving of its place in posterity.

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In his overture, “Albany as a State of Mind,” Kennedy calls his project “an attempt to strike a balance as to Albany’s legend. Even iniquity has its charms: consider what Milton did with Satan.” Nothing in Kennedy’s Albany is sentimentalized, trivialized, romanticized, or demonized. He confers dignity on vagrants and prostitutes without turning them into glowing unfortunates. He can mull the causes and effects of political corruption without assuming the mantle of a thundering reformer. He was, after all, a reporter before he was a novelist, and the essays in O Albany! are products of a fact-finding mission that transformed into a newspaper position and in turn into a life’s work. Here, then, are some of the things he demanded to know:

“Why was I an only child in a vast family of brothers and sisters and untrackable cousins? . . . Why did my uncles marry so late or not at all? Was there such a thing as culture in Albany? Could you get rich without being in politics? Who was this Van Rensselaer fellow? Why was Eddie Carey called the Squire of North Albany and what precisely was a squire in Albany’s lexicon and why did Eddie live at the top of Van Rensselaer Boulevard and why had I always lived at the bottom in one of his houses? Why was the North End, my neighborhood, almost exclusively Catholic, and Irish, and Democratic?”

Kennedy’s intention was to answer a few of those questions—to learn more about “the city’s ethnic blueprints, its political history and the nature of its peculiar people”—but probably not to be consumed by them. Fate, and Albany, had other plans.

O Albany! is divided not chronologically but into six sections of loosely associated essays. The first and last, “The Magical Places” and “Closing Time,” are the loosest in this regard. The former serves to familiarize the reader with Kennedy’s avowed Albany boosterism; the latter consists of acknowledgments and parting reminiscences. The middle sections get right to the point. “The Neighborhoods” is a thorough guided tour. “Nighttown” is a trio of essays about the fine distinctions between a “sport” and a “swell”; how Albany negotiated Prohibition; and the murder of Jack “Legs” Diamond, Albany’s favorite gangster. The “fearless ethnics” who appear in Part Four, “Some of the People,” are Jews, Italians, Germans, and Blacks—the Irish being segregated in Part Five, “Long-Run Politics: Wizardry Unbound.”

This patchwork is a vastly more interesting way to learn about a city than the traditional chronological history, but it presents two difficulties. One is that the individual essays tend to jump around in time, and not just because Kennedy is writing about neighborhoods and institutions down through the decades. Almost as often, it is a function of his style, which is pleasingly torn between the journalistic and the literary, the present-day and the poetically historical. This tension of styles and techniques means that everything in O Albany! happens out of anything like order, and however vivid a sense of Albany the reader walks away with, he will never have a prayer of explaining the city’s chaotic progression from a “primeval and savage wilderness” opened up by “those agents of the first Patroon, and the Dutch West India company pioneers” to whatever shape Kennedy found it in in 1983.

The second difficulty is related, and similarly forgivable on the grounds that a great book is preferable to a merely educational one. As Kennedy has eschewed a chronological trudge, he is free to allow his own preoccupations, literary and personal, to guide his investigations. His account leans heavily on three famous Albanians: Erastus Corning 2nd, Daniel Peter O’Connell, and Jack Diamond. To know these names and what they mean is to know, perhaps, enough about Albany—and certainly enough about Kennedy’s Albany—even if they belong to just one century of its long history.

It is not unusual to hear in 2012 about machine politics, though the preferred phrase, for obvious reasons, is “Chicago-style politics.” Whether the latter term endures because Albany has been overlooked or because it has been let off the hook is a matter of speculation. The fact is that Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley served from 1955 to 1976, and Albany’s Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd was first elected in 1941 and made it to 1983, the auspicious year of O Albany!’s publication. That’s eleven terms. Though the record never made it into Guinness, it did wind up in Ripley’s, in July 1982, alongside “nineteen wingwalkers and a chicken that laid eggs for 448 straight days, believe it or not.”

The boss of Albany’s Irish-Democratic political machine was Dan O’Connell, who had grown up with Mayor Erastus’s father, Edwin, making Dan and Erastus’s “eventual union in politics . . . really the extension of a long friendship”—a family friendship, in any case, or even an existing alliance. Kennedy’s essays “The Democrats Convene” and “They Bury the Boss: Dan Ex-Machina” form an operating manual for machine politics. What did the machine provide? “[T]he job, the perpetuation of the job, the dole when there was no job, the loan when there was no dole.”

O’Connell got his start in politics after being elected tax assessor in 1919, and abuse of the assessor’s office played a major role in the machine’s control: Back a non-Democratic candidate for any office and one might find the assessment on his property higher than expected. Electoral fraud was, naturally, in the natural order of things:

One city water inspector was arrested passing out envelopes to voters at a polling place, and when searched he had 45 envelopes in his pocket, each containing $4. This looked rather like a man purchasing votes. But he said he was contributing to a charity fund to buy food and shoes for needy folks and the polling place was the best spot to find them. He was released, probably because such ingenuity could not go unrewarded.

At Dan O’Connell’s funeral, “only if you were seventy-nine years old . . . could you have voted for a Democratic candidate for mayor of Albany who hadn’t been of Dan’s choosing.” He and his longest-serving mayor had survived Governor Thomas Dewey’s corruption investigations. Corning had survived service in World War II—during a mayoral term. If these men had a lock on Albany politics, it was in part because Albanians encouraged it.

It is easy enough for a journalist to loathe corruption, even corruption that keeps the peace or keeps the people happy. It is harder for a novelist. The journalist Kennedy “[wrote] stories that complicated [the Mayor’s] life.” The novelist Kennedy was delighted when the Mayor approached him to collaborate on a book in which Kennedy would be able to say whatever he liked, as would Corning. The book never came to fruition, but an essay, “Erastus: The Million Dollar Smile,” did. The result is an excellent example of Kennedy’s candid, psychologically astute, and above all sympathetic portraiture. The essay gets to the heart of Kennedy’s essentially novelistic journalism. Whether because he retains some vestigial sense of Original Sin, or simply because he grasps human folly, he is capable of regarding any man as an equal, a potential friend, and certainly a fascinating subject for study—no matter how wicked.

Kennedy never met the gangster Jack Diamond, but one guesses he would have held his own there, too. Diamond, a Prohibition-era rumrunner, hijacker, and bootlegger, was killed under mysterious circumstances inspected carefully by Kennedy in “The Death of Legs Diamond.” Diamond’s criminal career, romantic life, and death are also given a monumental treatment in Kennedy’s novel Legs. The novel, narrated by Diamond’s lawyer, is a valuable study of how seductive a legendary figure can be, even if he is evil. The Diamond of Kennedy’s essay is a much smaller and uglier character, albeit still fascinating. To read the two treatments side by side is a lesson in how facts may undergird a novel, but, more important, in how to take the shine off a legend when dealing in reality.

Nowadays, rare is the work of nonfiction without a subtitle chugging across its jacket as long and noisy as a passenger train. O Albany!’s is as long and noisy as the worst of them, but it may be forgiven—partly because Kennedy was something of a pioneer in this, and partly because nobody would buy a book with “Albany” in its title unless it bore a subtitle promising the sensational. The trouble with Kennedy’s Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels is that it omits an important class of characters. Albany’s great buildings, in Kennedy’s telling, have a life of their own.

Take Union Station: In “The Romance of the Oriflamme,” Kennedy writes that it “was magical because it was more than itself, which is how it is with any magical man, woman, or building.” Kennedy ponders it from the vantage of a “child of modest means”: “The child knew only that trains passed over the Van Woert Street trestle and chugged up the Cut to the West, knew railroads had magic all right because in the kitchen there hung a sepia print of a grandfather and two granduncles standing beside Engine 151 on a clear day in the century’s teens.”

This rhapsody continues for two hundred words. Suddenly, Kennedy goes journalistically deadpan. The Station, “a gift of munificence from the New York Central to Albany,” is made of pink Milford granite, by the architectural firm “organized to complete the work” of the city’s aforementioned detractor, H. H. Richardson. The station opened its doors on December 17, 1900. A Times-Union reporter remarked upon its magnificent ceiling, chandeliers, mosaic floors. The inaugural ticket transaction is described, down to the denominations of coins given in change. Of his facts, Kennedy asks: “Trivial?” and answers, “As trivial as a day in December 1968 when Union Station’s closing was only days away.” He makes the reader fall in love with the place, only to reveal that he has been eulogizing it all along.

Many of the buildings celebrated in O Albany! are gone. Their impermanence fascinates Kennedy as much as their greatness does. The John Van Schaick Lansing Pruyn branch of the Albany Public Library, where Kennedy endured the “hallowed trauma” of reading profanity in Of Mice and Men, was also leveled in 1968, by a wrecking ball. If one is alarmed, in 2012, to find that public libraries resemble homeless shelters, he will be chastened to learn that the Pruyn back in young Kennedy’s day was a haven for “winos and vagrants, crazies and shopping-bag ladies, and ordinary knights of the road of the Depression years.” Perhaps encountering books and the low life under one roof was a tonic, enabling Kennedy to write books about the low life without sentimentalizing or trivializing it.

It is especially painful to read about Albany’s lost restaurants. Keeler’s (56 State Street) satisfied the appetites of John Philip Sousa, Grover Cleveland, Thomas Edison, and Augustus Busch, among others. How many others?

1,500 patrons were served daily by 178 employees—48 waiters, 6 busboys on every shift, 27 cooks and assistant cooks: fry cooks, broil cooks, sauce cooks, roast cooks, fish cooks, vegetable cooks, oystermen, pantrymen, a meat butcher, a fish butcher, bread chefs, pastry chefs, topped off by the head chef, bottomed off by the potwasher and dishwasher. There were 14 dining rooms, a laundry on the third floor to handle table linen by the ton, a full-time seamstress to repair rent linen, a complete bakery, a printing plant for the daily menus and souvenir postcards, a machine shop, and a carpentry shop.

There was the Kenmore Hotel, whose famous Rain-Bo Room hosted such musicians as Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Bix Biederbecke. There were saloons and bars that only seemed innumerable, except during Prohibition, when Albany boasted speakeasies that were actually uncountable: “All you needed to create a speakeasy was two bottles and a room.” Many, of course, were anything but humble. O’Connor’s, which Kennedy identifies as the largest, boasted a massive and ornate bar that came to be preserved in a Cohoes, NY, restaurant. The more common fate of such places was to be preserved only in booze-addled memories. The same goes for the houses of ill repute described in “The Gut: Our Boulevard of Bluest Dreams,” an essay about a vice-driven neighborhood that has passed out of existence.

Because Kennedy is obsessed with change, with the passing of great eras—Ozymandias is forcefully invoked in his farewell to Union Station—the structures he describes are, in their ability to accumulate history, to become vulnerable, and to pass away, every bit as human and sympathetic as the people who inhabit this history. They also serve as an oblique warning. The completion of the imposing South Mall (now generally known as Empire State Plaza) in the 1970s, a boondoggle Kennedy describes in “Everything Everybody Ever Wanted,” leveled an entire neighborhood and transformed much of Albany’s downtown into a featureless concrete office park. The old Albany gave birth to colorful, larger-than-life men like O’Connell and Corning. The coldly functional, Modernist expanse of Empire State Plaza incubates dull bureaucrats and grim-faced clock-watchers. Though he never says it outright, Kennedy seems to believe not that a city gets the buildings it deserves, but, funny as it sounds, that buildings produce the people they deserve.

By the time O Albany! appeared in 1983, Kennedy had already written four novels, The Ink Truck, Legs, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, and Ironweed. He has written five novels since then—his most recent, Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, an astonishing late-life critical success. Not one of these could have been written absent Kennedy’s lifelong project of getting to know the city he once despised. Many of the real people described in O Albany! resurface, wearing disguises and assumed names, in Kennedy’s novels. Yet it is a missed opportunity to treat O Albany! as a guidebook to the fiction. One wants to compare it to the New York chronicles of Joseph Mitchell, but Kennedy’s task was more difficult than Mitchell’s. He had to make us care about a place most could live without. If O Albany! is a guide to a mostly vanished place, it is also a blueprint for how other fallen, forgotten cities might be reinvigorated by the right kind of attention. It may be fascinating to view the “ruin porn” of places like Detroit, but it is anything but inspirational.

A book cannot save a city, but it can prove that a city is worth saving. It would be a fine thing if more writers and observers shared Kennedy’s magnetic attraction to home and his ability to transfigure it. It is easy, if one has talent, to ride it out of town and to laugh at those unlucky peasants left behind. Yet often one is forfeiting an incredible inheritance, a wealth of history and poetry unknown to outsiders. Ironweed’s Francis Phelan is a man tormented by ghosts of Albany past; he is doomed to wander Albany, despite himself. Phelan’s creator, however, collected ghosts as boon companions, and learned everything they had to tell. This is how a writer should honor his birthplace—by giving life and voice to the dead, for their good and for all of ours.

Stefan Beck is a contributor to CJR.