Telling a legend's tale

Frank Ferry took 13 years to research and write ‘Nucky: The Real Story of the Atlantic City Boardwalk Boss,’ a biography on the Atlantic City political boss. Johnson is the basis for the main character of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ series.

It took a while for Frank Ferry to realize he needed to write Enoch L. "Nucky" Johnson's biography.

Ferry knew Johnson. Their four-year relationship grew into a friendship before the Atlantic City political boss died in 1968. He knew people who knew Johnson. He had a love of local history. He had Johnson's unpublished memoir. No one else had written a book solely on Johnson.

A partner in the Atlantic City law firm of Farley, Fredericks & Ferry, Ferry had Johnson's memoir for 10 years before he read it, after Johnson died.

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"No one really focused on Nucky Johnson, which was surprising because he had such a colorful life, and he so dominated the politics down here, and not only here, but even throughout the state," said Ferry, who added Johnson was only a part of Nelson Johnson's "Boardwalk Empire" book, published in 2002.

In 2000, Ferry started waking up at

3 a.m. to do research and write a book that would serve as a biography of Johnson. Ferry filled his book with original sources of information, including FBI records, legal correspondence and personal recollections. While Ferry was writing his book, Johnson became a known figure in popular culture with the 2010 debut of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire."

Ferry's 13 year labor of love came to an end this month with the publication of his first book, "Nucky: The Real Story of the Atlantic City Boardwalk Boss," which was issued by ComteQ Publishing of Margate.

"It was a sense of satisfaction," said Ferry about holding the hardcover book in his hand for the first time. "There was a sense of accomplishment. It was a long road."

Johnson was a Republican powerhouse from Atlantic City, who dominated the state's political landscape in the early part of the 20th century. His political muscle helped make the building now known as Boardwalk Hall a reality.

Ferry did legal work for Johnson starting in 1964. Before he started writing his book, Ferry remembered he heard stories all his life about Johnson. Ferry was a law partner of the late Senator Frank S. "Hap" Farley, the late Murray Fredericks, and the late Paul J. Farley. They all knew Johnson. They told Ferry stories over the years about Johnson.

"My mother knew a lot about Nucky Johnson, and my father," Ferry said. "Everybody thought they knew Nucky Johnson, and when I started reading (the memoir), I started recalling past stories that I'd been told, and I started doing research on them, and sure enough, a lot of them were true. They weren't developed, but that's what I did. I went into more detail and brought the people back to life. A lot of people were mentioned in Nucky's original book, but there was no background on those people. You didn't know who they were" Ferry said. "When you start researching it, you find out they were a big part of his life."

The memoir passed through several hands before Ferry received it from Atlantic City attorney Donald D. Phillips.

In the book's acknowledgments, Ferry extends special thanks to the staff of the Atlantic City Free Public Library, in particular Pat Rothenberg and Heather Perez, for their efforts in consistently going above and beyond the call of duty in helping with research and sharing their expertise.

The HBO series and Ferry's book focus on Johnson, but other interesting people from Atlantic City's past could have received the attention, Perez said.

"You could tell just as interesting a story about 'Hap' Farley, or about Mayor (Tommy) Taggart, or about one of my favorites, Sarah Spencer Washington," Perez said. "Of course, part of it has to do with general interest in Prohibition, illegal activity, mobs and things like that. I'm sure the popular vote swung in that direction."

Ferry worked for more years with Farley than he did for Johnson, and it would have been logical for him to write a book on Farley first.

"I didn't know that much about Nucky Johnson to put into writing," Ferry said. "It would have been easier to do 'Hap'... but I wanted to do Nucky because no one really did Nucky, and I think it's an interesting story."

Ferry first met and represented Johnson in a U.S. Department of Justice case against him. Ferry successfully halted the government's action to collect a $20,000 fine stemming from Johnson's previous conviction for tax evasion in 1941.

"He was always dressed in a shirt and tie, and his wife was always made up. He was extremely appreciative and very, very friendly. He focused right on you when he talked," Ferry said.

Johnson would call Ferry or vice versa for the next few years. While doing his research, it surprised Ferry how much Johnson genuinely liked people. And people liked him, as well.

"When I have talked to different people over the years, they all liked him, and they would smile when they mentioned his name. He had that enthusiasm to make you feel you were important in his presence, not too many people in public life do that. Nucky had that quality, and 'Hap' had that quality, and they would do things right away for you. They wouldn't say, 'I'll look into it,'" Ferry said.

Nelson Johnson thought Ferry would write a Farley book, but he is not surprised Johnson captured the imagination of the HBO executives and Ferry.

"I can say somewhere around 1991 or 1992, I said to myself, 'This guy is a movie.' What I didn't foresee was a TV series. I wasn't thinking that anybody would be interested in doing anything on TV with him. I was hoping that Hollywood would look at this guy and say, 'What a multi-faceted personality he is, and he is a really, big character in the 20th century. Let's do something," said Johnson, who interviewed Ferry while doing his research for "Boardwalk Empire."

It took Ferry 13 years to write his first book, but people who enjoy "Nucky" will not have to wait long to see other works from Ferry.

The next work, also on Johnson, will be more a pictorial, coffee table book, said Rob Huberman, publisher at ComteQ. It is 80 percent completed and will be coming out in the spring, Ferry said. The third book will be about Johnson's successor, "Hap" Farley.

Contact Vincent Jackson:



The Real

Story of the

Atlantic City Boardwalk Boss'

By Frank Ferry



by calling


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