Sunday, October 26, 2014

What Happened When I Judged a Book By Its Cover

The Big Crowd by Kevin Baker

by      February 2014
It was the book cover, a watercolor depiction of New York City skyscrapers, that drew my attention to "The Big Crowd." As I stood in the aisle of the bookstore reading the inside jacket, I realized the story was about former New York City Mayor William O'Dwyer and his younger brother Paul, a noted New York attorney. I knew I had to get the book because of the O'Dwyer link to my own family.

The O'Dwyers were friends of my grandfather, all of them from Bohola, a small town in County Mayo, Ireland. I recalled my mother telling me about the visits Bill made to their home on Madison Street in Brooklyn in the years before he became mayor.

"The Big Crowd" is historical fiction about the years between 1940 and 1953 when corruption was rampant throughout the city, and when the names of Murder, Inc. criminals filled the pages of the newspapers. This is a look at how sometimes the good guys make accommodations with the bad guys in order to get things done. I was young during these years but I do remember how Bill O'Dwyer fell from grace when corruption rumors surrounded him and especially when he married the fashion model Sloan Simpson(Slim Sadler in the book.).

In the 1980s, I happened to mention to a friend, a writer for the Irish Echo, that my sister and I were planning a trip to Ireland and, of course, would visit Bohola. He told me to call Paul O'Dwyer at his Wall Street office to let him know. I didn't see why, but I called anyway and left a message. A few days later Paul O'Dwyer called my home. He encouraged me to visit a group home for the disabled that he helped to establish in Bohola. Of course, I would. Then he went on to tell me he remembered my grandfather and an uncle who had moved to Cleveland and established an insurance firm. I was amazed at his memory for such details.

So it was with these memories that I turned the pages of this book. There are many familiar names here, some of whom, like Cardinal Francis Spellman, do not fare well. And Robert Moses, credited for the area's highway system who seems like an unpleasant person to do business with. "The Big Crowd" is historical fiction, but the barebones are accurate and a good history lesson.