I. A Tale of Two Screenplays
The year 2004 marked the 50th anniversary of the release of the classic film On the Waterfront, directed by Elia Kazan with a screenplay by Budd Schulberg. The occasion will predictably spur revived discussion in American and even foreign media (but little debate, for there is a difference), regarding Communism in Hollywood, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and the morality of testifying before legislative investigators on Stalinists and their penetration of the film industry. It is certain that the film will once again be criticized as a defense of Kazan and Schulberg’s decision to “name names,” i.e. to identify certain prominent, active, and strident defenders of Stalinism with whom they had shared, in the past, political sympathies. That action by the two men will be assailed, at has been for half a century, as a personal betrayal, an act of political cowardice, of “snitching,” that allegedly ruined the lives of innocent people who had done nothing illegal or immoral.
It is also certain that the playwright Arthur Miller will be held up by some as a virtuous and honorable alternative to Kazan and Schulberg, since Miller refused to testify before the supposed “inquisitors” and purported “witch-hunters.” Further, because these events have become encrusted over time with a variety of myths, it is highly likely that Kazan and Schulberg will, as they have in the past, be accused of “stealing” the conception for On the Waterfront, from an unsuccessful work of Miller titled “The Hook: A Play for the Screen.”
These legends feature throughout the extensive hagiographic literature on Arthur Miller, as well as his autobiography Timebends. The devotional literature on Miller is perhaps best exemplified by a recent biography, Arthur Miller: His Life and Work, by Martin Gottfried, issued in 2003. Gottfried, whose competence is limited to drama and criticism (his works include an official biography of Angela Lansbury), has created a narrative in which he also presents himself as an expert on the history of U.S.-Soviet relations, the affairs of the Communist movement in America, and the psychological motivations of various individuals whom he knew only from afar. But of all that, more anon. For now, suffice it to say that many presumptions, claims, and charges made by Miller are echoed and reinforced by Gottfried, as well as by other participants in the “Miller industry,” such as the British critic Christopher Bigsby.
The essentials of the Miller myth regarding On the Waterfront are simple. They begin with unarguable facts. Kazan and Schulberg made a film, which included an acknowledgement to Malcolm Johnson, a reporter for the old New York Sun, who had published a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles exposing racketeering on the New York docks. On the Waterfront was released to immense acclaim, starring a literal galaxy of American film talents: Marlon Brando as the Irish American ex-boxer and sometime longshoreman Terry Malloy; Karl Malden as a labor priest, Father Barry (based on a real figure, Father John Corridan); Lee J. Cobb as mob boss Johnny Friendly; Rod Steiger as Terry Malloy’s brother Charley; and Eva Marie Saint as Terry’s “accidental” love interest Edie Doyle.
The dramatic conflict within the film centers on whether Terry Malloy will testify before the state Waterfront Crime Commission about gangsterism inside the longshoremen’s union. Terry is a washed-up prizefighter who keeps pet pigeons and does small favors for gangster Johnny Friendly. But Terry inadvertently helps carry out the murder of Edie Doyle’s brother, a union dissident, by goons directed by Terry’s brother Charley, who is Johnny Friendly’s chief accomplice. Terry is torn between his loyalty to the corrupt machine, which includes his own brother, his desire to be left to himself, an attraction to Edie, and his sudden realization of the overwhelming wrongdoing around him. Edie introduces him to Father Barry, who urges him to testify. He does so, and although ostracized by his peers, cries out, “I’m glad what I done – you hear me? – Glad what I done!”
On the Waterfront is very possibly the greatest labor film ever made in America. The plot is almost unbearably affecting in its exposure of a system of total corruption, and is reminiscent, although not directly so, of Sean O’Casey’s powerful Shadow of a Gunman, in its representation of family loyalty and personal desire thwarted by external events. The preaching of Father Barry is awesomely righteous and challenging. On the Waterfront won eight Academy Awards out of 12 nominations. They included Best Picture and Director (Kazan), Best Story and Screenplay (Schulberg), Best Actor (Brando), Best Supporting Actress (Saint), Best Black and White Cinematography (Boris Kaufman), Best Black and White Art Direction-Set Decoration (Richard Day), and Best Film Editing (Gene Milford). Other nominees included Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, and Rod Steiger as Best Supporting Actor, and Leonard Bernstein for Best Scoring.
The action, dialogue, and characterization in On the Waterfront are so authentic it seems more a documentary than a dramatic motion picture. This is not surprising, as Schulberg had spent two years in the company of the real labor priest, Father Corridan, as he advocated for reform on Manhattan’s West Side piers. Schulberg had even written an amazingly candid and tough article for The New York Times, in 1952, describing life on the West Side docks, with follow-up reportage a year later.
However, it soon became common gossip among Hollywood liberals that the film was intended to justify Kazan and Schulberg’s testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAAC). Schulberg, who was long acquainted with the waterfront labor reform movement, had no reason to admit such a charge, and had stated the anti-Stalinist argument that the fate of the Czechs, whose democratic regime had been snuffed out by Moscow in 1948, meant more to him than that of Stalinists in Hollywood. Kazan, for his part, did not deny his intention to strike back at those who had ostracized him in the aftermath of his testimony, writing in his autobiography A Life, “when critics say that I put my story and my feelings onto the screen, to justify my informing, they are right.”
Miller and his acolytes, however, have gone one better, accusing his former close friend Kazan and, by extension, Schulberg, who did not know Miller at all, of appropriating his unproduced screenplay, “The Hook,” as the basis for On the Waterfront. Miller, whom even his worshipful biographer Gottfried admits was “evasive in his smart, sly way,” never directly makes the accusation; he never even mentions On the Waterfront in Timebends. Yet, as Gottfried notes, “instead he summarizes The Hook in such a way that the similarities all but leap from the page.” Miller has said of “The Hook,” it “was about longshoremen who were being victimized by this gangster union in combination with the ship owners… Of course they are both waterfront pictures… The one [i.e. On the Waterfront] succeeded the other [“The Hook”].”
Kazan admitted that Miller and he had worked together in a failed attempt to get “The Hook” produced in Hollywood, shortly Kazan began working with Schulberg on the waterfront theme. Gottfried, for his part, lamely tries to establish that Schulberg lied about having begun working on the topic separately and before he discussed it with Kazan. Yet Gottfried concedes that very little material in On the Waterfront can be traced to “The Hook.” Gottfried writes, “there is no serious paraphrasing of Miller’s screenplay in Schulberg’s, and for that matter the plot of The Hook is hardly worth borrowing.” But Gottfried, who is ever expansive when it comes to finding evil in the hearts of anti-Stalinists, goes on to accuse Kazan and Schulberg of something that at first glance might seem a far more serious charge: “they used Miller’s whole idea, the criminal corruption of labor unions,” etc. Apparently Gottfried was never informed that ideas, in whole or in part, cannot be copyrighted, or claimed as unique to an author.
In reality, “The Hook” has no more in common with On the Waterfront, in terms of authenticity of observation, quality of writing, or insight into the lives of the working class, than any two Western, war, science-fiction, crime, noir, or other genre films have with one another, and to accuse Kazan and Schulberg of stealing the waterfront labor corruption theme from Miller is as ridiculous as accusing Martin Scorsese of stealing Goodfellas from Francis Coppola. A reading of “The Hook” reveals it to be a middle-class intellectual’s fantasy of the lives of people he only knows from a distance: Miller’s proletariat is made up of incoherent, inarticulate, stumbling, groping men who can barely understand why they have a union, and who are the pawns of abstract, even mystical urges, rather than real social forces, in their confrontation with corruption.
“The Hook” is thus a quintessentially Stalinist composition. Gottfried writes falsely of Miller’s devotion to the Kremlin dictator at the end of the 1940s: “The Holocaust was recent and vivid and much more awful than anything then known of Stalin’s own crimes.” But the whole world, in truth, also possessed a vivid memory of such recent and awful Soviet crimes as the forced collectivizations and resulting famines of the early 1930s; the Moscow purge trials, which had astonished the globe; the Stalin-Hitler pact, which, with the Stalinist liquidation of the Red Army officers helped make the Holocaust possible by delivering a large section of Poland into Nazi hands; the assassination of Leon Trotsky; the postwar destruction of the democratic government in Prague; the Soviet blockade of Berlin, and the sudden Muscovite threats against Tito, who until 1948 was a hero of Communists everywhere. It was for these reasons that intellectuals of principle and talent, ranging from Edmund Wilson to Saul Bellow, joined the meagre ranks of anti-Stalinists, while armies of low-rent hacks acclaimed the Kremlin dictator.
Indeed, five years before the appearance of On the Waterfront, Carol Reed and Orson Welles (the latter once the darling of the Hollywood Communists), collaborated on The Third Man, a 1949 release, in which the Soviets are accurately portrayed as not much different from Nazis. The claim that Stalinist intellectuals did not know about Stalin’s abominations is specious beyond imagining; Stalinist intellectuals were required to publicly extol, explain, and otherwise apologize for said crimes, according to the party line. Nazis who claimed they did not know about the atrocities of Hitler were not believed; why should their Stalinist counterparts be excused when they offered an even more ridiculous excuse? Stalinist iniquities, as we shall see, were publicized in broad daylight, and wildly applauded as contributions to the betterment of humanity, while the Nazis frequently attempted to conceal the horrors they committed.
But the Stalinist essence of “The Hook” resides in its treatment of the longshoreman as dull clay, which can only be molded by the actions of “leaders.” Marty Ferrarra, the protagonist of “The Hook,” and a labor activist in the making, refers to his fellow-members, early on the script, as “cattle.” By contrast, Kazan and Schulberg’s On the Waterfront is truer to the ideals of the pre-Stalinist labor movement, and the reality of legitimate union struggles, in presenting the longshoremen as real, complicated human beings tragically degraded by their conditions of existence. Miller’s longshoremen are lumpen proletarians on the edge of the gutter, while Kazan and Schulberg’s are authentic working men.
Miller’s main character, Marty Ferrarra, is a Brooklyn longshoreman, whose name Gottfried consistently misrepresents as Ferrara – an understandable mistake, since Miller’s “Ferrarra” was itself a misspelling of the name of an Italian city. In this detail, like many others, Miller betrays his status as a tourist among the Italian-American dockworkers of Brooklyn.
In “The Hook,” the grievance of the discontented dockworkers resides much less in control over their union by gangsters than in imposition by the gangsters of a speed-up that endangers their lives. Miller’s longshoremen lack an ideal; they do not see their union as an end in itself, and, until the last third of his screen play, give no indication they ever considered it as such. By contrast, the aim of Father Barry and the reformers in On the Waterfront is to make the union a clean and healthy institution, for its own sake; the abuses committed by the gangsters are merely symbols of the betrayal of a noble effort. Father Barry refers to the labor organization as, in effect, a brotherhood that should be kept pristine: “What do you do now?... Is this all you do, just take it like this?... Huh? What about your union?”
Perhaps the greatest paradox in the debate over On the Waterfront involves the powerful but simple way in which Kazan and Schulberg give voice to the traditional solidarity of the pre-Stalinist labor movement, as when Edie Doyle asks Terry Malloy, “isn’t everybody a part of everybody else?” In this comment, there is a greater appeal to human companionship than is found anywhere in “The Hook.” Miller may have felt uncomfortable in writing about the battle for strong, militant, and clean unionism, since he had no experience of it. But “The Hook” gives a much larger impression of being a story about undeveloped, troglodytic subhumans who have not reached a high enough consciousness to think in such terms. Miller’s longshoremen are, in my opinion, objects, and devoid of the fire that makes men and women sacrifice for a worthy principle. But the goal of all labor movements has been to make men and women the subjects, rather than the objects, of their existence.
Thus, when a longshoreman is killed at work, in “The Hook,” the cause of his death is the speed-up, not opposition to the gangsters; a crucial contrast with On the Waterfront, where two men are slain for their resistance to the corrupt union bureaucracy. In addition, in “The Hook” Rocky, the gangsters’ stooge as a longshore hiring boss, inexplicably decides to support a reform movement, for no other reason than mute resentment, framed as conscience. Still, however, the impetus for reform comes not from the union rank-and-file but from a “leader.” Miller simply cannot imagine that the longshoremen themselves have an honest and admirable belief in their own power and their own organization. Although Miller was and remains a leftist, genuine collective action eludes his comprehension; as we shall see, he always sides with authority figures.
When, after only the 75th shot in the Miller screenplay, Marty Ferrarra has become disillusioned with union corruption, he reacts by seeking a job in a button factory and then by becoming a bookie, rendered as “booky” in the screenplay. (Miller’s spelling is eccentric, sometimes deliberately so; after apparently inadvertently misspelling “goon” as “goof” in “The Hook,” he refers to the goons as “goofs” for the rest of the text, although this characterization could not have been translated onto the screen). This evolution in Marty appears to reflect the sensibility of Miller much more than that of any regular longshoreman; when Marty, like Miller himself. is ill-at-ease in a situation he finds another situation, rather than bringing change to the one that discomfits him. None of the longshoremen in On the Waterfront suggest that the solution to their predicament lies in finding a factory job or as hiring out as a runner for the mob; indeed, Charley Malloy, the accomplice of Johnny Friendly in Kazan and Schulberg’s film, is a repulsive character, and Terry Malloy is pathetic as an ex-boxer reduced to serving the gangsters because of his mental incapacity.
Again paradoxically, On the Waterfront draws a sharp line between good people and evil people, while “The Hook” confuses the difference. When Marty becomes a bookie, the moral significance of this act is worked out in a series of brutal scenes involving his family, rather than his fellow union-members. He discovers the union members are paying off barbers and wine store owners for jobs, but his reproach is incoherent; he shouts “Shame!” at Piggy Doyle, one of those compelled to pay. Much of the action of “The Hook” is wasted in the subplot involving Marty’s life as a bookie, whereas in On the Waterfront, every scene, every action, every bit of dialogue contributes to the drama of Terry Malloy’s transformation from complicit bystander to active witness against evil. For this among other reasons, it is extremely doubtful that “The Hook” – which Kazan rightly called a “half-ass” screenplay – could ever have been produced as a film.
But Miller’s treatment of longshoremen’s families also contributes to the sense that his characters are lumpen elements. While Edie Doyle works hard to become a teacher, supported by her father in On the Waterfront, Piggy Doyle’s wife in “The Hook” has run away and he gets electricity for his apartment by stealing it from a neighbor. When the dockworkers in “The Hook” engage in protest, it consists of stealing coffee beans. Action meanders in “The Hook” as Miller seems to possess no more inspiration than to fill pages with trivial anecdotes about the longshoremen’s daily lives, as if that will give his work authenticity. When conflict between Marty and the corrupt head of the longshore local, Louis, penetrates a union meeting, yet another of many side elements is introduced, in the form of recent illegal immigrants who have joined the union and truckle to the gangster leadership. The screenplay reads as if Miller had sought to turn a series of leaflets into a movie, and, it seems to me, grows more and more tedious. The climactic confrontation in the union hall, when Louis tries to revoke Marty’s union membership, seems directly lifted from Clifford Odets’ 1935 opus, Waiting for Lefty, which by the time Miller wrote “The Hook” was badly dated, to say the least.
Much of the action of Waiting for Lefty, as in “The Hook,” focused on the anxieties of workers (in the Odets play taxi drivers), facing impoverishment. In Waiting for Lefty the corrupt union leaders are objectionable not because the union should better be run by the members, rather than gangsters, but only because they are reluctant to call a strike. Miller seemingly transposed Waiting for Lefty to the Brooklyn waterfront when he wrote “The Hook;” for Miller’s real story, although he may not have known it, is that of the ever-possible degeneration of Marty Ferrarra from longshoreman to bum. Marty tries to contribute to his family’s uplift by giving his daughter Irene a fountain pen, but in a major scene, the repossession of his family’s television and couch stands as a far more traumatic event than any of the forms of labor corruption he has witnessed.
Miller here displays a primitive economic determinism, a kind of second-hand “Marxism” that views working-class protest exclusively as a result of pauperization, immiseration, and other clichés. It is only after the television has been taken away that Marty, who has already gotten himself a police record as a bookie, decides to run for the union’s presidency, which would be funny if it were not so typical a cliché of the contemporary leftist intellect. Of course, Marty loses the election, but he is offered a position as the union’s new delegate, or pier steward. Since nowhere in the screenplay is the union’s internal functioning ever explained, an audience for “The Hook” as a film would have walked out of the theater baffled by much of what they saw. Certainly, the screenplay does not end with the triumph of union principles or reform; rather, it merely shows that a single individual has had the good luck to be rewarded or bought off, by those who are corrupt themselves, for his uneven spells of virtue. The fundamental contrast with On the Waterfront could not be more stark.
Miller padded his composition with numerous digressions about family life and meaningless wisecracks, perhaps because he recognized the dramatic weakness of “The Hook.” Nowhere in the screenplay is there any appeal to union reform as powerful as the sermons of Father Barry in On the Waterfront, such as that in the hold of a ship after the death of a second dissident, “Kayo” Dugan:
“Some people think the Crucifixion only took place on Calvary. They better wise up. Takin’ Joey Doyle’s life to stop him from testifying is a crucifixion. And dropping a sling on Kayo Dugan because he was ready to spill his guts tomorrow – that’s a crucifixion. And every time the mob puts the crusher on a good man – tries to stop him from doing his duty as a citizen – it’s a crucifixion. And anybody who sits around and lets it happen – keeps silent about something he knows has happened – shares the guilt of it just as much as the Roman soldier who pierced the flesh of Our Lord to see if He was dead… Every morning when the hiring boss blows his whistle, Jesus stands alongside you in the shape-up. He sees why some of you get picked and some of you get passed over. He sees the family men worrying about getting the rent and getting food in the house for the wife and the kids. He sees you selling your souls to the mob for a day’s pay… Christ is always with you – Christ is in the shape up. He’s in the hatch. He’s in the union hall. He’s kneeling right here beside Dugan. And He’s saying with all of you, if you do it to the least of mine, you do it to me! And what they did to Joey, and what they did to Dugan, they’re doing to you. And you. You. ALL OF YOU. And only you, only you with God’s help, have the power to knock ‘em off for good.”
Schulberg, who was Jewish, did not have to be a Catholic to understand the intrinsic power of the church’s appeal to morality, conscience, and justice.
II. The Martyrdom of Pete Panto
In the discourse that has developed around On the Waterfront and “The Hook,” much credibility has been attached to Miller’s claim that he was drawn to the issue of waterfront union corruption by walks in Brooklyn, where he claimed to have seen, in 1947, graffiti in Italian reading “Dove Pete Panto?” or “Where is Pete Panto?” According to Miller, “down near the piers… this mysterious question covered every surface… the sentence began showing up in subway stations and chalked on Court Street office buildings. Finally, the liberal press took up the cry, with PM, the progressive daily… explaining that Pete Panto was a young longshoreman who had attempt to lead a rank-and-file revolt against the leadership of President Joseph Ryan and his colleagues, many of them allegedly Mafiosi, who ran the International Longshoremen’s Association [ILA]. Panto, one evening during dinner, had been lured from his home by a phone call from an unknown caller and was never seen again. The movement he had led vanished from the scene.”
Panto, known to some as Pietro, to others as Peter, and to those who most sought to exploit his memory as Pete, appears several times more in Timebends. According to Miller, the author “took to wandering the bars on the waterfront to pick up whatever I could about Panto. It was a time when the heroic had all but disappeared from the theatre along with any interest in the tragic tradition itself. The idea of a young man defying evil and ending up in a cement block at the bottom of the river drew me on. It took only a couple of days on the piers to discover than men were afraid to so much as talk about Panto… Pete Panto had become heroic for me.”
Longshoremen in Brooklyn in 1947 had little incentive to discuss Pietro Panto, as he was known in their community, with a non-Italian stranger lacking standing among them. Although Miller never mentions it, Panto’s disappearance had occurred almost a decade before, on July 14, 1939. It was mentioned in The New York Times six weeks afterward, in an article referring to a local criminal investigation, headed “Amen Will Press Brooklyn Inquiry.” Panto, according to the Times, was a “Red Hook longshoreman who had been fighting terrorists on the docks.” A certain John Harlan Amen, a New York Special Attorney General investigating official corruption in Brooklyn, had received a petition asking for an investigation of the Panto case. The petition was signed by something called the Waterfront Committee for Democratic Action, headed by a woman named Muriel Draper.
Although there was never any evidence that Pietro Panto was a Communist, the entry of the Waterfront Committee for Democratic Action and Muriel Draper signaled the interest of the Communist Party in the case. The above-mentioned New York Times article appeared on a Sunday; the next day, August 28, 1939, the Daily Worker, the main Communist organ in New York, reported in fuller detail on the disappearance of Panto. Its article carried the more focused headline, “Urge Amen Probe in Disappearance of Anti-Ryan Stevedore.” The Communist daily noted the date of Panto’s disappearance, and said, “police agencies of Brooklyn, the Missing Persons Bureau, and the Alien Squad have combed all clues and pressed the search for Panto, to no avail.” The Daily Worker quoted a statement by Muriel Draper, chair of the Waterfront Committee for Democratic Action, as follows: “Pete was just an ordinary dock worker. He come home from his work on the Moore-McCormack piers on Friday, July 14, told some friends he was going to meet ‘two guys I don’t trust,’ and has not been seen since… Pete was also anti-fascist – he’d been back to Italy since the advent of Mussolini.”
The Draper statement appealed, to those interested in the case, to “get in touch with the Waterfront Committee,” but the Daily Worker printed no address for it. The Committee was an ephemeral effort, which left almost no trace (it never appeared anywhere in any investigative records on Communism accumulated by federal and state authorities.) Unfortunately for Pietro Panto’s memory, the Communists at that time were preoccupied with activities justifying the recently-signed Stalin-Hitler pact; thus the Daily Worker, on the day before The New York Times reported on the matter, had a box on its front page stating “Tomorrow’s Sunday Worker will contain cabled news from Moscow, London, and Paris telling of the reactions to the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact,” and exhorting “all Party members and friends” to distribute the Sunday edition throughout the city.
Muriel Draper (1886-1952), for her part, was a well-known Stalinist. Her most ignominious act was doubtless her signature on a statement published in the Daily Worker of April 28, 1938, hailing the verdicts (and death sentences) in the recent Moscow trial of Nikolai I. Bukharin and 17 other Soviet political figures. Therein she joined “such famous Russian and legal authorities,” in the words of the anti-Stalinist Eugene Lyons, as the Hollywood actor “Lionel Stander…, Dashiell Hammett [and] Dorothy Parker.” The list of endorsers of Stalinist “justice” against “the Trotskyite-Bukharinite traitors” totaled 150 prominent Americans. Draper was an active promoter of Soviet interests in America until her death.
In April 1940, The New York Times again reported on the Panto case. The mobster Abe Reles, alias “Kid Twist,” had become an informant to Brooklyn District Attorney William O’Dwyer, and the paper reported on numerous members of New York’s worst criminal gang, as named by Reles. They included Louis (Lepke) Buchalter, Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel, Harry (Pittsburgh Phil) Strauss, Joe Adonis, and Charles Lucania, better known as Lucky Luciano. Investigators also identified Albert Anastasia as “one of the higher-ups of the ring.” The Times noted, “Albert Anastasia and Joseph Florino are being sought by the prosecutor’s staff in connection with the disappearance of Pete Panto, Red Hook longshoreman, who had been fighting terrorists on the docks.”
Strangely, however, the Daily Worker’s reportage on the O’Dwyer investigation, appearing one day before The New York Times’ 1940 account, made no mention at all of Panto or Anastasia. The Waterfront Committee for Democratic Action had disappeared. But some Communist interest in the Panto case persisted, at least among the party’s few Italian-speaking followers. On July 20, 1940, a year after his disappearance, L’Unità del Popolo (People’s Unity), a New York Communist Party weekly aimed at Italian-Americans, published a “declaration by O’Dwyer,” in which the Brooklyn District Attorney stated on his 50th birthday that “the best celebration of my birthday will be to solve the murder of Peter Panto.” The article announced that a memorial for Pietro Panto was to be held on July 19 at a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Red Hook, with speeches by a prominent follower of the Soviet line, Congressman Vito Marcantonio of the American Labor Party, and Rev. Edward Swanstrom, who had published a book, The Waterfront Labor Problem.
L’Unità del Popolo also reported that Marcantonio had intended to address a similar meeting two weeks before, at a Knights of Columbus hall, but that Emilio Camarda, vice-president of the ILA, had “succeeding in terrorizing the Knights of Columbus” into refusing the use of their facility for the event. It further stated that a “Rank and File Committee” had been set up to hold the memorial.
A week later, L’Unità del Popolo reported on the Panto memorial meeting, in an issue that bore the auspicious headline, “The borders of true democracy are extended in Europe – The Baltic states agree to join the Soviet Union – A protest by [U.S. Under-Secretary of State] Sumner Welles against this free decision is an insult to all progressive Americans.” The Italian weekly was, like the rest of the Stalinist press in the U.S., mainly concerned to defend Soviet foreign policy, but it also described the memorial for “Pietro Panto, kidnapped and killed by camorristi [gangsters].” In this account, 200 dockworkers had come to the V.F.W. hall, where they encountered officials of the ILA locals spread out in front of the building, threatening them with dismissal and other punishments. But 200 police had also been sent to prevent the outbreak of violence, and the memorial was addressed by Congressman Marcantonio and presided over by Pietro Mazzei, described as Panto’s successor as rank-and-file leader in the union. The article also mentioned an English-language waterfront bulletin called “Shape Up,” distributed by the Communist Party, apparently to Irish longshoremen.
There the case stood until 1947, when Miller began, as he put it, “searching for a handle on Pete Panto.”
But in 1951, the long-past testimony of Abe Reles, who had died in 1941, in an incident described in newspapers as an attempt to escape from custody, during Reles’ disclosures, provided the basis for the most detailed version of the death of Panto, appearing in a book titled Murder, Inc. Co-authored by Burton B. Turkus, who had been Assistant District Attorney for Kings County (Brooklyn) during the 1939 inquiry, and veteran journalist Sid Feder, the volume includes a graphic description of the young longshoreman’s death. “In mid-summer 1939,” Turkus and Feder wrote, “Peter Panto was waging a determined war against gangster rule on the water front. For months, he had been whipping up the longshoremen to shake off the mobster grip. Panto was only twenty-eight… ‘We are strong,’ he urged the union men. ‘All we have to do is stand up and fight.’”
According to Turkus and Feder, Panto’s fate was ordained after he called a meeting of ILA local 929 on July 8, 1939, attended by 1,250 members. Panto insisted on an honest count in an approaching union election. “He was cheered for that – and the cheering did it. The applause was a sign to the hoods that their control of a very lucrative racket was menaced.”
In the Turkus-Feder account, Panto was visiting his fiancée, who bore the unfortunate name Alice Maffia, on the night of Friday, July 14. At 10 p.m. he went out to meet two men, on his way to a union committee meeting. He promised Alice he would return in time to make sandwiches for a trip to the beach in the morning. The couple planned to be married in October. But Peter Panto disappeared, without a trace. A year and a half later, Reles told what he knew about the case. Panto had been picked up by two men, described by Reles only as brothers, who took him to see “certain people.” The latter offered the longshore leader cash to end his activities, but he contemptuously rejected the suggestion. He was then hustled into a car along with at least four others, possibly including Albert Anastasia’s associates Joseph Florino and Tony Romeo.
Peter Panto was, Turkus and Feder said, a slender man of 163 pounds, but in the car he fought wildly for his life, nearly biting off the finger of one notorious gangster, Mendy Weiss, before he was strangled to death. He was then dumped in an empty lot in New Jersey. A lump of dirt and quicklime was eventually dug up by the investigators, who believed it contained Peter Panto’s corpse. According to Reles, Albert Anastasia had overall responsibility for the act.
The Panto murder figured in an inventory of crimes for which Albert Anastasia might have been charged – had Reles, the chief witness, not conveniently died in 1941. Anastasia was not indicted, and a grand jury investigation in 1945 led to the questioning of O’Dwyer himself. At that time, a certain “Peter Masi,” who may be the same person as the previously-mentioned “Pietro Mazzei,” complained to the grand jury about the continued domination of the Brooklyn waterfront by racketeers, and alleged a quashing of the investigation from within O’Dwyer’s office. “Masi” was described by Turkus and Feder as “the former associate of and successor to the murdered Peter Panto as leader of the rank-and-file dock labor.” Tony Romeo, who might have been called as a witness instead of Reles, and through whom the Panto case might have become the keystone of a trial of Albert Anastasia, was murdered in 1942.
It should be noted that Communist writers took up the Panto affair from time to time. As late as 1999, Roy Rydell, a veteran Stalinist activist in the waterfront labor milieu, recalled the case in the People’s Weekly World, successor to the Daily Worker (and nicknamed by critics of the party, because of its fantastic propagandist claims, the People’s Weekly World News, equating it with the supermarket tabloid known for reporting such stories as the allege sex change operation of Saddam Hussein.)
In the typically distorting idiom of the Communists, Rydell wrote, “Pete Panto, a rank-and-file longshoremen who had been calling meetings of longshoremen in Brooklyn, disappeared, and the New York Police Department and the district attorney never did anything about it. Panto’s body was later found buried in a lime pit, but no one was ever prosecuted for the murder.” Rydell described “Shape Up” as “a rank-and-file publication that appeared regularly on the New York waterfront and was distributed by the Waterfront Section of the Communist Party.”
Strangely, in Timebends, Miller refers to “The Hook” as “the screenplay about Panto’s doomed attempt to overthrow the feudal gangsterism of the New York docks,” although not one word of “The Hook” can be cited to support that description. Miller’s quest for information on the Panto case seems to have been carried out in a place far distant from New York itself, in a historical void. By 1947 there had been so many investigations of Brooklyn gangsters and there had emerged enough of a broad insurgency in the ILA that Panto was long-forgotten.
In 1945, a wildcat strike hit the New York docks, and the Communists, as described by Father John Corridan in an article by Schulberg for The New York Times, “did move in and try to take credit for the leaderless, rank-and-file strike.” This upsurge by the real longshoremen offered a powerful repudiation to the cult of leadership in Miller’s “The Hook.” But the longshoremen themselves, overwhelmingly Catholic and fierce anti-Communists, rejected the Stalinist ploy. When the longshoremen struck in defiance of Joe Ryan in 1951, again as reported by Schulberg, rank-and-filers bitterly declared, “The mob called us Reds and the Reds called us Fascists… [we faced] the Commies on one side and the mob on the other.” The situation was remarkably reminiscent of the Stalin-Hitler pact a decade before. But none of this was ever mentioned in Miller, for whom all knowledge of the waterfront began with the Italian graffiti he claims to have seen.
Furthermore, it is never mentioned in the literature that has grown up around On the Waterfront, Kazan, Schulberg, Miller, and “The Hook,” that the American Federation of Labor had joined battle against Joseph P. Ryan, the corrupt head of the ILA, and that the union was expelled from the A.F.L. because of racketeering in 1953, giving On the Waterfront the immediacy of daily newspaper headlines when it was released the year afterward.
To finish reading this article, click here.