The real life characters of Boardwalk Empire

Feature Michael Noble 21 Jan 2014 - 07:00

It may be ending, but there's life beyond Boardwalk Empire. Michael takes a look at some of the show's real personalities...

This article is light on programme spoilers but contains information about the lives of real life characters after the events of Boardwalk Empire

Losing a TV show at the height of its powers is something of a mixed blessing. While there’s mild relief (and it is very mild) that the programme won’t be milked dry of plot, that characters won’t be forced into ever more ludicrous twists of personality and that sharks remain securely unjumped, there is always the nagging sense that things could have gone on and that the dramatic environment had many more riches to offer before the shutters came down.

That is particularly the case with Boardwalk Empire, which has blended the fictional and the factual so effectively that it’s all too tantalisingly easy to picture how its characters would continue once the scripts stop coming in. Over four seasons, forty eight episodes and almost half a fictional decade, the show has presented a cast of compelling characters, of which the oddest were the ones that really existed. A handful, among them Al Capone and Arnold Rothstein, have been part of the main cast, but some of the most lasting impressions have been made by those who have made far fewer appearances. Here’s a selection of the most vivid.

 

Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel (4 episodes)

Not counting children, the then 18 year old Benny is one of the youngest characters to appear on the show and yet his is one of the real life names that loom the largest. Inspirer of a Warren Beatty-starring biopic, Bugsy's name is synonymous with that neonlit cityscape in which old-style Hollywood glamour came face to face with the bullets and bourbon of organised crime.

Siegel’s babyfaced appearance in Boardwalk Empire was a hint of where the show could have gone had it been given time to continue. He, alongside Mickey Cohen, provided the connection between the 1920s and 30s mobsterism of the East Coast and Chicago and the no less deadly gangsters of the West Coast, made famous by Chinatown and LA Confidential. Siegel was an expansive gangster, investing time, money and ruthlessness into whatever enterprise would earn him the biggest return. He moved from bootlegging to gambling to real estate with relative ease and saw the law and its enforcers as a simple irritation that had to be soothed. The largely corrupt LAPD was only too happy to oblige. But only up to a point. The difficulties he faced in California could be avoided outright by heading into the desert.

Siegel was, by repute more than reality, the 'founder' of Las Vegas, at least in the sense that we now know it. In reality, the settlement existed and was identified as a source of gaming revenue by Billy Wllkerson, the publisher of The Hollywood Reporter. Bugsy simply provided the money and the personality. 

And what a personality. In his time, Siegel consorted with movie stars, Nazis and some of the most powerful men of his day. In 1939, attempting to escape a little of the heat he’d created in the States, Siegel took a holiday in Italy with his mistress the Countess di Frasso. Fascist Italy was a pretty dangerous place for a Jewish man to hide out, even more so when you consider that his fellow guests at the villa included Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering. They didn’t get along but Siegel made it back to the USA in one piece. It was a temporary reprieve and after a short lifetime of living by the gun, he died by it when hitmen set upon his LA mansion. Their first bullet went through his right eye, a second through his neck. By the time the shooting stopped, the now ex-gangster was in pieces. Literally. It was, according to the LAPD, a ‘perfectly executed mob hit’. Whatever the ignominy of his demise, Bugsy’s legacy was assured and Las Vegas remains synonymous with the seedy glamour from which he made his millions. 

 

Andrew W. Mellon (4 episodes)

Prohibition made many men millionaires and it’s no accident that several characters on Boardwalk Empire are not exactly short of a few quid. Still, none of them can match Mellon, who, when adjusted for inflation, possessed a fortune of $50.5bn, which, Google fans, is about the same as Larry and Sergey combined. Mellon's moolah came largely from traditional industries, aluminium and oil, but it was his handiness with managing it saw him appointed Secretary of the Treasury (an office he still occupied at the time of his first appearance in Boardwalk Empire’s third season) in which role he served three presidents. He reformed the tax system, paid down a considerable chunk of the national debt and earned a great deal of respect for his public office, which it coincided with a time of general American prosperity. Some of that was down to luck and as any businessman knows, fortune runs in two directions. The crash of 1929 happened on his watch and his reputation took a few dents. In 1932 he left the Treasury but took up a rather cushy number as the US Ambassador to the United Kingdom.

Mellon was as canny at collecting art as he was at making money and by the early thirties had gathered the greatest collection of Old Masters and British portraits in the world. A late entrant into the classic canon of American philanthropist-capitalist, Mellon resolved to give away both money and art. He donated around $10m during his lifetime and used his money and art collection to found the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, established in his name by his children (and essentially with his money) still exists today and supports educational and heritage causes as well as the performing arts, conservation and information technology. One of its most prominent creations is the JSTOR scholarly library system, so the chances are that if you attended a university in the last twenty years you are a beneficiary of Mr Mellon’s largesse yourself. 

 

Eddie Cantor (6 episodes)

Dear Eddie. Among a very large cast Eddie Cantor stands out, chiefly for being a genuinely nice guy, a fact that was apparently as true in real life as it is in the show. Cantor, who was born in 1892 in New York, was of that generation (which included Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers) that moved from vaudeville to radio to cinema to TV. In a long career, Cantor appeared as a pioneer in every new outlet, becoming one of the earliest (and best paid) radio stars, an actor in silent movies and the talkies that followed them and a familiar face to American TV viewers in the 1950s. He was, unusually for the time, a composer as well as a performer and wrote Merrily We Roll Along, which was adapted into the theme music for animated series Merrie Melodies, in which a fictionalised version of Cantor made several appearances. Essentially, if there was a pop cultural outlet in America between 1920 and 1960, Eddie Cantor was involved.

His early career saw him perform frequently in blackface, which, although problematic now, was considered fairly innocuous back then (lest we become too smug, it’s worth remembering that The Black & White Minstrel Show ran on the BBC until 1978) but Cantor could be considered progressive by the standards of his day. In the early 1950s, he invited Sammy Davis Jr. onto his TV show and embraced him. When sponsors threatened the network, Cantor’s response was to invite Davis back a further four times. Of all the gangsters, businessmen and killers on Boardwalk Empire, the sweetly musical Eddie Cantor probably had the biggest balls.

Here’s a clip of him running through some routines. This is from 1923-24, sometime between seasons three and four…

 

George Remus (9 episodes)

George Remus was a lawyer, and a reasonably successful one, making $50k a year by the end of the 1910s. George Remus’ field was criminal defence, a practice that brought George Remus into contact with several of the era’s most enterprising villains. A man with an eye for detail, George Remus noticed that after the passing of the Volstead Act the criminals that George Remus was defending were getting richer. In scenes that anticipated Sting’s turn as the Ace Face in Quadrophenia, George Remus noticed how, upon being handed fines of $10,000 dollars for bootlegging, George Remus’ clients would simply reach into their pockets and hand over the cash. If, thought George Remus, idiots like this could be making money like that, what could a man with brains do? More pertinently, what could a man with brains and a law degree do? This proto-Heisenberg went from white collar professional to contraband supplier overnight, making his specialty picking holes in the Act and driving a coach and horses through every single loophole he could find. George Remus’ most lucrative discovery was that liquor that had been brewed or distilled prior to the Act was recognised as property and did not have to be destroyed. George Remus set about acquiring as much of this liquor as George Remus could. 

What’s more, alcohol could be sold if it was for ‘medicinal purposes’. Remus set out to stretch the definition of ‘medicinal’ beyond all meaningful limits. He was rather successful. By 1924 Remus was responsible for one seventh of all the medicinal spirits in the USA. He owned fourteen distilleries, employed three thousand people and made $25m a year, which was rather better than lawyering. George Remus revelled in his wealth and enjoyed displaying it in gestures of generosity that make Oprah Winfrey look like Ebeneezer Scrooge. One New Years’ Eve George Remus hosted a party at his Cincinnati mansion and invited 200 guests. At dinner, every one of them found a thousand dollar bill under their plate while George Remus and Remus’ wife handed out additional gifts, and we’re not talking Poundland party favours here. Mr and Mrs Remus’ gifts included $25,000 worth of jewellery for the gentlemen and a brand new Pontiac sedan for every lady. 

The happy times were short lived. In 1927, facing imminent divorce, George Remus pursued the car carrying his wife to the court. Forcing her driver to pull over, Remus opened the door and fatally shot her. He then went immediately to the police station to hand himself in. At his eventual trial, he pleaded temporary insanity and was described as a ‘dangerous psychopath…who is immoral’. George Remus was committed to an asylum but released after six months. The wind had been taken from George Remus’ sails and he lost the drive he had once had. George Remus lived to the age of 79, spending many of the final years of his life hanging around Florida dog tracks.  

Oh, and that third person thing? George Remus actually spoke like that. George Remus was probably an annoying man with whom to share a conversation. It’s probably why he had to keep getting the drinks in. 

Gaston Means (10 episodes)

There are liars, there are incorrigible liars and then there is Gaston Bullock Means. He’s appeared in almost a quarter of the episodes of Boardwalk Empire, often for a single scene, but he has been so memorably played by Stephen Root (unrecognisable from his role as Office Space’s Milton) that it’s easy to be fooled into thinking that he’s been an essential part of the main cast. Which is appropriate, since the real Means forged an incredible career as a confidence man who inveigled his way into some of the very highest circles and made it seem as though he belonged there. 

If Eddie Cantor was the ubiquitous Zelig of twentieth century entertainment, then Gaston B. Means was the same for crime. Although he presented himself as a cunning investigator (and was actually employed for a time by the fledgling Bureau of Investigation) his real skill lay in performing confidence tricks and generally being more slippery than a vat of sweaty eels. He spied for Germany during the First World War, at least while the USA was neutral, ‘helped’ a wealthy widow by draining her of her savings like a thirsty leech and made himself a key member of the Ohio Gang who surrounded President Warren G. Harding for purposes of exploitation and manipulation. Harding was one of four US presidents to die in office during the twentieth century and, according to Means, one of three whose deaths were not due to natural causes. In his 1930 book The Strange Death of President Harding, Means alleged that Harding’s own wife, Florence, poisoned the President as punishment for his philandering (including once instance of him being caught in flagrante n the Oval Office itself). The book, and Means’ allegations, have been pretty solidly rubbished, and it is of interest more for its revelations about its author than its subject. (True to form, Means didn’t even write the book himself, apart from the typically florid foreword, and even fleeced his ghostwriter out of her fee).

He’d already moved onto his next mark. When aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was kidnapped in 1932 Means persuaded socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean to give him $100,000 to secure the child’s safe return. The money disappeared into Means’ capacious pockets and Means disappeared into Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Sentenced to 15 years, he served a little over a third of them and wad prevented from serving them all by his death in 1938. Nevertheless, he was determined to have the last laugh and spent his final years mercilessly taking the piss out of his old adversary J. Edgar Hoover. The bureau chief was determined to recover the $100,000 and refused to consider the Lindbergh case closed until he had done so. Means led him on a merry chase from his prison cell, suggesting that the money was at the bottom of the Potomac. Hoover had the river dredged but came away empty handed. ‘Dammit Gaston’, he is reported to have said ‘stop lying.’ But Means couldn’t stop lying. It’s what he did best. ‘This is the last straw, Edgar’ he replied, clutching his heart in mock pity ‘you’ve lost faith in me’. Hoover’s rejoinder isn’t known, which is probably for the best. This is a family website. 

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