'Empire Rising' Author Explores New York Irish's 'High Noon'

IN HIS OWN WORDS: WRITER THOMAS KELLY

WGT Arts Writer Doug Chandler recently interviewed author (and former political operative and construction worker) Thomas Kelly, focusing on Kelly's new book, "Empire Rising." The novel, his third, explores the Irish experience in New York City during the early 1930s. Here are highlights of comments made by Kelly to WGT.
Gasper Tringale
Tom Kelly, as seen in a publicity still promoting "The Rackets," his second novel.

On his choice of reading as a child: "Oh, everything. I liked a lot of Dickens and Jack London, Steinbeck and all sorts of stuff. I always liked a lot of the big, old 19th-century novels, early 20th, more of the realism - big, sprawling stories I always liked about worlds I didn't know about."

On his education at Fordham University and Harvard School of Government: "I was always interested in history and politics, and it just seemed like a good way to get a better job. Even back then, I wanted to be a novelist, but I didn't feel secure in the idea of going to school to become an artist. The education to me was something to fall back on if the writing didn't pan out."

About tackling his first book without any training or experience: "Well, I had no confidence. That came after years. If I had confidence, I would have started when I was 16. It took me 10 years to get the confidence and, even then, 10 years until I got a book published."

What readers might learn about Irish-American history from "Empire Rising": "Certainly, what it was like in 1930 to be both an Irish immigrant and an Irish American and how those were, as they've always been, fairly distinct experiences. You had the American-Irish Johnny Farrell and Jimmy Walker and what-not, who were really running the show, and then you had the Michael Briodys and the Grace Mastersons, who were newly arrived immigrants with all the insecurity that comes with that — certainly not quite established in the way that the ones who've been here for a while had been."

"In some ways, certainly, there more avenues open to the Irish because of the ones who came before them at that time. But the guys who ran the show at the time, the old guys, if nothing, they would be good mathematicians. And they understood that when the Italians started coming in numbers and the Eastern European Jews and other groups started coming in big numbers, they needed to accommodate them because, otherwise, someday, the match wouldn't work out and they'd lose their power. So they were smart enough to spread the wealth, so to speak."

'The early fights for fairness and equity in American society were naturally fought by the Irish.'

On the status of the Irish in New York: "The last time we had an Irish mayor and an Irish governor was a long time ago. It used to be when we pretty much always had an Irish mayor, and we had a few Irish governors. ... But I think the Irish, obviously, are still very big in the church. They're still very big in the union movement. And, to their credit, they've become very big in the financial sector and the legal sector and even insurance — these big three that they'd been kept out of for a century because they were Irish, because they were Catholic. So, again, it's just another level of their success and evolution. And I think it's the same with all groups. Jews are probably a little different. ... They never had the huge numbers that, say, the Irish and the Italians did, and they always had more of an emphasis on education and getting ahead, culturally I think.

On how the Irish led the way for other immigrants: "For some of the Irish, it was almost like, 'Who do you think you are getting an education?' It took a while to break through that. You look at the Italians. They're maybe a generation behind the Irish, and another generation behind them are Puerto Ricans, and the generation behind them are Dominicans. I think it's a natural progression for groups that come to American. ... For the Irish, it took longer; they were here longer. But I think that a lot of what the Irish did as an immigrant group was break down all those barriers. I think they were the most discriminated-against immigrants. They came at a time when there was absolutely no recourse. There were no statutes against discrimination, there were no social welfare programs, there was none of that, and they were at the forefront of creating a lot of huge social change in America. Their contribution is almost always ignored, it seems, but they were literally the ones on the barricades, forcing America to say, 'Well, are we really serious about those ideals? Are we all really created equal?'"

On the Irish in the labor movement: "Tammany Hall was a huge force for social change, for welfare programs, for education and the poor. The Church — a lot of these institutions that came to represent the underclass and fight for them — were heavily infused by the Irish. Look at 1850, when they first started coming, what was here? There was just horrible discrimination. They were reviled because they weren't Protestants; many of them didn't even speak English at the time — people forget that. So I think a lot of the early fights for fairness and equity in American society were naturally fought by the Irish, because they came here first in the biggest numbers, and so a generation or so later, when the Eastern European migration and the Italian migration came, the Irish had already kicked down some of the walls. Which isn't to say that the Irish didn't turn around and discriminate against who came behind them at times — they obviously did but I think they made it easier in general. So I'm really writing about the grandchildren of those people in this book — in 1930, like I said, they were much more established — and then there was this dichotomy of the established ones vs. the fresh immigrants, the losing side of the civil war and what-not that came over in the 1920s."

Library of Congress
Aviator Amelia Earhart with Irish-American New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, whose experience being Irish in the 1930s Kelly says contrasted sharply with that of immigrant Irish.

On the presence of bias in American society: "Listen, they'll always be discrimination; it's part of human nature. For instance, I was out in California a few weeks ago, and I was going around with a friend of mine doing a little shopping, we stopped at a store. It's called American Eagle Outfitters, I think — they make these sort of faux retro T-shirts — and in the window, there's a T-shirt. Instead of "I Love New York," it said, "I" and then there's a shamrock and a mug of beer. ... And then there's another; it's a green shirt with writing across it and a shamrock on it, and it says, 'The Stumble Inn.' And I'm like, 'Alright, can you imagine if they did a shirt with the Star of David and they said, 'The Penny-Pincher Inn,' or if they did a shirt with some kind of African-American that said, 'The Lay-About Inn.' So, in a weird way, success has enabled them to become the one ethnic group that people can mock in positions of power like that and not think they're doing anything wrong. So that's a mixed blessing: On one hand, it means you've made it. On the other hand, it means, 'C'mon, if nothing else, can't you come up with something new?'"

On his most admired public figures: "For me, Martin Luther King, more than any of them. I'm liberal, but I'm very much pragmatic. I think liberal has become a dirty word in America for a lot of reasons, some very calculated and some deserved. Certainly, John F. Kennedy, but that's almost a cliché. But for me, more than anyone, Al Smith. Talk about a guy who was the first one over the barbed wire. Almost all of FDR's New Deal legislation was either ripped off or inspired by Al Smith's legislation when he was governor of the state of New York, so certainly I'd rank him high above most."

On his choice of reading as a child: "Oh, everything. I liked a lot of Dickens and Jack London, Steinbeck and all sorts of stuff. I always liked a lot of the big, old 19th-century novels, early 20th, more of the realism — big, sprawling stories I always liked about worlds I didn't know about."

alsmfdr.jpg - 32.4 K
FDR Library
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, left, and Alfred E. Smith, far right. "Almost all of FDR's New Deal legislation was either ripped off or inspired by Al Smith's legislation when he was governor of the state of New York," says Kelly.

On his education at Fordham University and Harvard School of Government: "I was always interested in history and politics, and it just seemed like a good way to get a better job. Even back then, I wanted to be a novelist, but I didn't feel secure in the idea of going to school to become an artist. The education to me was something to fall back on if the writing didn't pan out."

About tackling his first book without any training or experience: "Well, I had no confidence. That came after years. If I had confidence, I would have started when I was 16. It took me 10 years to get the confidence and, even then, 10 years until I got a book published."

What readers might learn about Irish-American history from "Empire Rising": "Certainly, what it was like in 1930 to be both an Irish immigrant and an Irish American and how those were, as they've always been, fairly distinct experiences. You had the American-Irish Johnny Farrell and Jimmy Walker and what-not, who were really running the show, and then you had the Michael Briodys and the Grace Mastersons, who were newly arrived immigrants with all the insecurity that comes with that — certainly not quite established in the way that the ones who've been here for a while had been."

"In some ways, certainly, there more avenues open to the Irish because of the ones who came before them at that time. But the guys who ran the show at the time, the old guys, if nothing, they would be good mathematicians. And they understood that when the Italians started coming in numbers and the Eastern European Jews and other groups started coming in big numbers, they needed to accommodate them because, otherwise, someday, the match wouldn't work out and they'd lose their power. So they were smart enough to spread the wealth, so to speak."

On the status of the Irish in New York: "The last time we had an Irish mayor and an Irish governor was a long time ago. It used to be when we pretty much always had an Irish mayor, and we had a few Irish governors. … But I think the Irish, obviously, are still very big in the church. They're still very big in the union movement. And, to their credit, they've become very big in the financial sector and the legal sector and even insurance — these big three that they'd been kept out of for a century because they were Irish, because they were Catholic. So, again, it's just another level of their success and evolution. And I think it's the same with all groups. Jews are probably a little different. ... They never had the huge numbers that, say, the Irish and the Italians did, and they always had more of an emphasis on education and getting ahead, culturally I think.

'Their contribution is almost always ignored, it seems, but (Irish immigrants) were literally the ones on the barricades.'

On how the Irish led the way for other immigrants: "For some of the Irish, it was almost like, 'Who do you think you are getting an education?' It took a while to break through that. You look at the Italians. They're maybe a generation behind the Irish, and another generation behind them are Puerto Ricans, and the generation behind them are Dominicans. I think it's a natural progression for groups that come to American. ... For the Irish, it took longer; they were here longer. But I think that a lot of what the Irish did as an immigrant group was break down all those barriers. I think they were the most discriminated-against immigrants. They came at a time when there was absolutely no recourse. There were no statutes against discrimination, there were no social welfare programs, there was none of that, and they were at the forefront of creating a lot of huge social change in America. Their contribution is almost always ignored, it seems, but they were literally the ones on the barricades, forcing America to say, 'Well, are we really serious about those ideals? Are we all really created equal?'"

On the Irish in the labor movement: "Tammany Hall was a huge force for social change, for welfare programs, for education and the poor. The Church — a lot of these institutions that came to represent the underclass and fight for them — were heavily infused by the Irish. Look at 1850, when they first started coming, what was here? There was just horrible discrimination. They were reviled because they weren't Protestants; many of them didn't even speak English at the time — people forget that. So I think a lot of the early fights for fairness and equity in American society were naturally fought by the Irish, because they came here first in the biggest numbers, and so a generation or so later, when the Eastern European migration and the Italian migration came, the Irish had already kicked down some of the walls. Which isn't to say that the Irish didn't turn around and discriminate against who came behind them at times — they obviously did — but I think they made it easier in general. So I'm really writing about the grandchildren of those people in this book — in 1930, like I said, they were much more established — and then there was this dichotomy of the established ones vs. the fresh immigrants, the losing side of the civil war and what-not that came over in the 1920s."

'It's not some Irish carpenter's fault that America's got problems with race.'

On the presence of bias in American society: "Listen, they'll always be discrimination; it's part of human nature. For instance, I was out in California a few weeks ago, and I was going around with a friend of mine doing a little shopping, we stopped at a store. It's called American Eagle Outfitters, I think — they make these sort of faux retro T-shirts — and in the window, there's a T-shirt. Instead of "I Love New York," it said, "I" and then there's a shamrock and a mug of beer. ... And then there's another; it's a green shirt with writing across it and a shamrock on it, and it says, 'The Stumble Inn.' And I'm like, 'Alright, can you imagine if they did a shirt with the Star of David and they said, 'The Penny-Pincher Inn,' or if they did a shirt with some kind of African-American that said, 'The Lay-About Inn.' So, in a weird way, success has enabled them to become the one ethnic group that people can mock in positions of power like that and not think they're doing anything wrong. So that's a mixed blessing: On one hand, it means you've made it. On the other hand, it means, 'C'mon, if nothing else, can't you come up with something new?'"

On his most admired public figures: "For me, Martin Luther King, more than any of them. I'm liberal, but I'm very much pragmatic. I think liberal has become a dirty word in America for a lot of reasons, some very calculated and some deserved. Certainly, John F. Kennedy, but that's almost a cliché. But for me, more than anyone, Al Smith. Talk about a guy who was the first one over the barbed wire. Almost all of FDR's New Deal legislation was either ripped off or inspired by Al Smith's legislation when he was governor of the state of New York, so certainly I'd rank him high above most."

On the state of unions today: "In the old days, they attacked the unions with dogs and clubs and machine guns, and that sort ran its course, and now it's really fought with lawyers. The government of this country is insanely biased against unions in ways that aren't always obvious. The labor legislation in this country is very pro-management. The decline in the number of union members is not any fault of the unions as much as it is the difficulty in organizing this country compared to any other industrialized democracy. Whenever there's money involved, there's going to be greed, and you need a counterbalancing power, and the unions have been that. It's harder for them to operate in society today because of legal restrictions and what-not, but they're certainly still a force for good. Occasionally, there are stupid union leaders. There is no such thing as a stupid union, because it's just a bunch of people getting together to better their lives. I don't think every business in America should have a union. But I think when there are abuses and exploitation of labor, which there pretty much continuously is, it's good for the workers to have some kind of recourse, and the only they've only gotten that, in any legitimate sense, is through trade unions."

On the policy issues that concern him most today: "I try to be more of a storyteller and a lot less of a politician. I just think we need in this country and in the world to address issues of equity as much as efficiency. We've become very much a corporate culture, and that's not all bad, but I think in a sort of bizarre way we've de-legitimized the idea of the individual in a way that's totally anti-American. ... We've become a society where everyone's sort of pushed to think the same and dress the same and talk the same. I don't think there's any great diabolical reason behind this; I just think it's a way to sell more stuff, it's a capitalist society, and that's fine. If I was going to argue for anything, it would just be more equitable pay for teachers and cops, construction workers — the people who do the real work of society."

On Tammany Hall: "There was a system in place. Obviously, it wasn't too negative a system, because they built the Empire State Building in 13 months and a lot of other great stuff got built. But if you wanted to be in business, you played ball — you kicked back a certain percentage — and that was life in the big town. It had been that way for a long time. We might look at it a bit askance today, but it was looked at in those days as basically just the cost of doing business. ... (Those in Tammany Hall) were a force for social change. They were a force for defending the underclass. At various periods throughout their existence, the corruption became excessive, but even at its worst, there was a lot of other good things they did. They provided jobs, they provided food, they provided services, they provided all the things that in our society no one else provided to the poor until the New Deal came along. So, absolutely, it was more a positive than a negative."

'(Those in Tammany Hall) were a force for social change. They were a force for defending the underclass.'

On the responsibility falling to writers of historical fiction: "I think the responsibility is to get it right, and that's a very obviously large description. For me, it just needs to ring true; it doesn't have to actually be true. I mean, it doesn't have to be factual; it has to be true, if that makes any sense. ... There's got to be a truth to it, but I don't think you need to be a slave to the facts."

On the casting of Johnny Farrell if "Empire Rising" were to be made a film: "I'll tell you, that's the one thing I never think about. They exist in my head in a certain way, and any actor is never going to live up to that."

On the struggle in Northern Ireland: "I just hope that peace comes and lasts. I think that, now, there's been a peace process and it's probably in a period where it's not going so well, but I'm optimistic that it will keep going. I don't believe in violence. Hopefully, people could just come to an accommodation and live together."

On surviving construction workers who built the Empire State Building:"They're all dead, as far as I know. I talked to one guy a while back, but I believe he passed away. About five, six years ago, I spoke to a guy. But guys who did that kind of work back in that day lived pretty hard lives. The youngest then would have been, say, 17 at the time, like this guy was, and that means he'd close to 90 now — actually, 93. Most of them have been long gone. It doesn't mean there's not someone — there were thousands of guys who worked on it — but not that I could find."

On charges of segregation in the construction trades: "It's not fair to talk to me. The sandhogs have been more or less half Irish, half West Indian for over 100 years, so there's always been more integration than people thought. And the other side of that is, what are these white kids supposed to do? Just because you're born with blue eyes and testicles doesn't mean you're going to be a doctor or a lawyer. These are blue-collar people, working-class people, who need jobs, too. The funny thing is, unions get sued for lack of integration all the time. When was the last time they sued a Wall Street bank for lack of integration? Is it really helping minorities to get them jobs as laborers, or maybe we should try to get them jobs as investment bankers. So there's a lot of hypocrisy built in that whole structure of dealing with inequality. The ones who usually get held accountable the most are the ones who really haven't been responsible for it; they've been victims of it, too. ... It's not some Irish carpenter's fault that America's got problems with race. ... Could it be his union's fault, though? "The building trades, as far as I know right now, are almost 40 percent minority in New York City. Compare that to anything in the business world. They're lucky if they have 1 percent or 2 percent."

On "America's Mayor" Rudy Giuliani: "I was not a fan. ... Listen, certainly some things he accomplished. He should always get credit for changng the perception that the city was unmanageable. But I think in the long run he became a bully. What the Bloomberg administration is proving is you can be a decent guy and still be a strong, assertive manager; you don't have to be a bully." WGT

This feature was edited by Gerry Regan and produced by Joe Gannon.

Copyright © 2012 GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@garmedia.com

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Tags: 1930s, Book, Irish-American, KELLY, Review, THOMAS

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