THE WATERFRONT PRIEST
An excerpt from the book “On the Waterfront: The Making of a Great American Film
John William Tuohy
“The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It’s about people” Cesar Chavez
"You want to know what's wrong with our waterfront? It's the love of a lousy buck. It's making love of a buck, the cushy job - more important than the love of man! On the Waterfront
The Malcolm Johnson expose series about crime and exploitation on the waterfront that had captured Kazan and Miller’s attention had come to Schulberg attention by way of Joe Curtis, the nephew of Columbia Picture studio boss Harry Cohn.
In early 1949, Curtis had come to see Schulberg on his farm in New Hope Pennsylvania. With him was Robert Siodmak, who had directed the cult classic film “The Killers” based on the Hemingway story. Although underrated during his career, cinephiles have come to consider Siodmak the primary architect of the American film noir genre.
Curtis and Siodmak had been watching the dramatic events unfolding on the New York waterfront, saw a film in it and wanted Schulberg to write the script. Curtis, as Cohn’s nephew, felt he could get the financing for the film based on Siodmak’s considerable directing abilities and Schulberg’s skill as a screenwriter. Schulberg liked the concept and considered writing the script, but first wanted to do some background research. He drove down to New York and met with Malcolm Johnson who directed him to see a Priest, Father John Corridan, the man who had sparked Johnson’s interest in the waterfront. In November of 1948, Corridan had contacted Johnson’s editor by letter. The editor turned the letter over to Johnson “You’d better go on over and contact this guy, he seems to know what he he’s talking about”
Johnson spent time with the Priest and learned that he had been raised in the tenement slums of New York, the son of Irish immigrants. His father, a New York City Policeman, died in 1921 when Corridan was nine years old, leaving the family with a $25 a month pension. His mother worked three part time jobs as a charwoman, but still the family was forced to enter the welfare rolls. Corridan, who worked several part time jobs through high school and New York University, eventually took a position on Wall Street as a financial correspondent. However, at the age of twenty, he read Rene Fullop Miller's The Power and Secret of the Jesuits and decided to join the order.
After fifteen years of study, in 1944, he was ordained a Priest and assigned, at age 35, to the Crown Heights Labor School in Brooklyn. There, his job was to recruit Catholic activists on the docks, with an emphasis on those “from the bottom of the pile” mostly second generation Irishmen and Italians toiling for below minimum wages on the waterfront.
A year later, in 1946, he was moved to the St. Francis Xavier Labor School, near the west-side piers of Manhattan.
The school was actually policy institute, run by the Jesuit order, and called for the curbing of excessive profit-taking through rate regulation, return to ownership of public utilities, progressive taxation, participation of labor in management decisions, a wider distribution of ownership through cooperative enterprises and legal enforcement of the right of labor to organize.
A social vision program, it was widely opposed by most members of the American church hierarchy and by the broader Catholic Church community in general. Founded in 1936 as the Xavier School of Social Studies, the school held its focus on the labor movement with a goal of concentrating its efforts on organizing Catholic workers in New York City away from the growing influence of the Communist Party.
Like most New Yorkers, Corridan knew little of life on the waterfront but under the tutelage of Father Philip Carey, rector of St. Xavier’s parish (which was affiliated with the labor school) Corridan learned how to deal with the longshoremen and to recruit activists that could confront and regulate both the corrupt ILA leaders and Communist militants. It was dangerous work, for the priests and the activists alike, and as a result, Corridan’s organizing was done with painstaking calculation.
It would take three years before he had established himself enough as a public figure in the media that he felt completely safe on the waterfront. The mob probably would not have harmed him, bodily, but they could (and did) use their considerable influence in New York politics to do whatever they had to do to stop him. At first, Corridan made his presence known at the docks but realized the tactic was useless, no one on the waterfront wanted to be seen talking to him in fear of losing their jobs or worse. As a result, contacts with longshoremen were often made in alleyways and basements away from the ILA and mob snitches who were everywhere on the docks.
Over the next few months, Corridan learned everything he could about the waterfront. He walked every pier, took a ferry across the river and looked at the docks from every angle, even once traveling into Manhattan to view the waterfront from the Empire State Building.
He began building an extensive intelligence network made up of a handful of longshoremen, altar boys, reporters, housewives and anyone else that would provide him with accurate information on the ILA and the mob. By the end of his first year on the docks, Corridan had collected sixteen filing cabinets full of information and reached the conclusion that the Mob and the ILA union had formed an unholy alliance to control the waterfront and the workers.
In a meeting arranged by Johnson, Bud Schulberg met with Father Corridan. He recalled,
“I went down and had lunch with Corridan at Billy the Oysterman’s, and he told me how men were getting killed, right there on the waterfront, and how nobody would talk about it. I swear Karl Malden looks like him, walks like him, talks like him. Corridan was a very tall man. Very tall and strong. Vigorous. Looked like a longshoreman. Talked like a longshoreman. Swore like a longshoreman. Worse than that. He called Big Bill McCormack, the Mister Big of the whole waterfront ‘a son of a bitch’ McCormack was a power behind the mayor of New York, Impelliteri. Whenever McCormack called city hall, (The mayor) would stop what he was doing and take the call” He gave me lessons on where to go, where not to go. There were rebel bars where Father John's people would take me. They told me: Don't ask. Don't talk. Just listen.
Father John had revolutionized my attitude towards the Church. In Father John, I found the perfect antidote to the stereotyped Barry Fitzgerald-Bing Crosby "Fah-ther" so dear to the hearts of Hollywood.
In west side saloons, I listened to Father John, whose speech was unique blend of Hell’s Kitchen, baseball slang, an encyclopedic grasp of waterfront economics and an attack on man's inhumanity to man based on the teachings of Christ as brought up to date in the papal encyclicals on the reconstruction of the social order. I was there so much that Walter Winchell in one column said that I was taking instructions on becoming a Catholic. The Jewish organizations got on my case. Father John had ticked off for me the various mobs controlling different sections of the harbor named the hiring bosses with criminal records and described the evils of the shape up system. He gave me chapter and verse on the wholesale pilferage from the ships cargoes and explained how ILA hoodlums extorted payoffs from the shipping companies...highly vulnerable to threats of work stoppages since the idle ship can earn no money.”
Longshoremen who were trying to change things had been coming to Father John up at St. Xavier's Labor school after dark for advice. "Father John knows the score" had become a popular saying by the time I came to know him well. Father John was furious that the waterfront story was so untold. Even The New York Times ignored it.”
What Corridan explained to Schulberg was that the ILA controlled virtually all of the hiring on the New York-New Jersey waterfront, 30,000 jobs, and that the ILA was completely, hopelessly corrupt, and dominated by the mob. Its President, Joseph Patrick Ryan, AKA “The King” Ryan, a crude, obnoxious little man, had come to power in 1927 and stayed there through his deep connections inside New York's powerful political machine, Tammany Hall.
For a cut of the unions' money, Tammany assured Ryan protection from the police and other criminal investigations. Furthermore, in exchange for control of a handful of his Manhattan and New Jersey locals, the powerful New York mobs paid Ryan and Ryan paid Tammany.
Directly over Ryan was William J. McCormack AKA Big Bill. It was from McCormack’s political patronage that Ryan drew his power. In turn, Ryan acted as McCormack’s eyes and ears on the waterfront, Tammany and the Mob. Everyone who was anyone knew Ryan, because Ryan wanted it that way, however only a handful of insiders knew who McCormack was or how powerful a force he was.
Ryan and his partner, the mob, got away with so much on the waterfront because they controlled hiring on the docks through the morning “Shape up.” The Shape up was a humiliating process where the front line hoodlum bosses decided who would work and who wouldn't work based on the amount the dockworker was willing to pay a kick back to be sure their name was called. This was the waterfront of 1949 that Budd, Schulberg, the prince of Hollywood, had strolled into.