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The Spirited Ladies of Liberty Street

Chapter 1: End of summer, 1919
For one moment the night stood still. All was quiet outside the house. The three women left inside the modest two-story wood-frame home on Liberty Street made no sound of their own. Filtering through the front bedroom’s thin white curtain, the moonlight brushed past an ink sketch of a harbor scene before finding Kitty Dodd who lay awake and alone. In another moment feelings she had willed away would rush in, linking fear about an uncertain future with the feelings of deprivation long buried when she’d left Ireland to come to America.

Chapter 2: After the Famine, 1869
Colm Kelleher called his eldest daughter over to the window.

“Kitty, come look see.”

Colm gestured through the partially opened curtain. Kitty heard the disciplined footsteps of men, marching in synchronized rhythm. As the five-year-old reached the window to stand next to her father, a small formation of British military soldiers dressed in black and tan passed by.

“They’re getting exercise before they board ship in the harbor,” Colm explained. “There’s probably going to be a war in India, and we’ll be rid of them…for a while anyway. If you come upon them in the road, always look straight ahead. Don’t look over your shoulder. Don’t frown. Don’t smile. Don’t engage.”

Colm stopped, and twisted his fingers across his lips as though he were buttoning a coat.

“Always be aware that even out of uniform, the damn Brits are somewhere,” he added. “They own our land. They take our herds. They tax us to death. But one day, one day, there’ll be a reckoning, right Bridie?”

Colm turned to his heavily pregnant wife, the once girlish Bridget Power, tending to his three younger daughters still in nappies.

“We’ll have us a son next, won’t we,” he said, not so much asking, but stating a fervent hope as fact. “A Fenian who’ll make us proud and free.”

“Don’t go believing everything you read in The Irish People,” Bridie said, gently admonishing her husband’s yearning for liberation. The pro-independence newspaper alternated between supporting Prime Minister William Gladstone’s efforts at granting them rule and threatening violence if London’s Parliament didn’t give the Irish their independence.

“You take to blowing up ships in Cork Harbor or sabotaging the supply wagons the family builds, and the first place they’ll come looking at is the Power-Kelleher farm.”

Chapter 3: The Ax Falls, 1920
It might have been too warm day to hold a tea party, but Kitty didn’t care. She wasn’t intending to serve a hot liquid this August afternoon. In the months following the reveal of the clear poitin that she had finally figured out how to distill evenly on a gas stove instead of a peat fire, Kitty’s family had been quietly selling the alcohol in pint-size Ball jars to various friends and acquaintances outside their Liberty Street circle. Even John Monteverdi had tried the brew, and approved of its quality, much to Kitty’s delight.

But the satisfaction Kitty received from watching her family’s finances slowly improve was tempered by the very real possibility that New Jersey might go dry. Kitty watched with dismay as her best friend’s family struggled to make ends meet. Tom McNichols was dangerously close to losing his job as a Rheingold delivery driver. Like other breweries, wine distributors, and bars throughout the state and elsewhere, Rheingold’s management hadn’t come up with any kind of strategy to stop the gathering momentum of temperance leaders and the Anti-Saloon League which continued, state by state, to get the federal amendment ratified.

Three days ago, though, women had been given the right to vote. Passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution on August 20, 1920 called for a celebration, Kitty decided. Unknown to the ladies who had responded to Kitty’s invitation, this social tea was to be a coming-out party.

Chapter 4: Better Living Through Chemistry
The economic reality of Prohibition started to settle in. Factories that made glass bottles bought by distillers were forced to close while some of the hardest hit professions were those in the hospitality field. From chauffeurs to chefs, many lost well-paying jobs.

“Bet it’s been a long time since you’ve had a home-cooked meal,” Jim Ryan said, clapping his right hand on the back of his childhood friend Bill Grabowski.

As youngsters, the pair had grown up in the same tenement in Hell’s Kitchen, across from the piers. Both of them were the only offspring of single mothers. But despite their rough circumstances and the constant pressure to join a gang, both boys had tougher mothers determined their sons would graduate high school and amount to something. Jim used his math skills and love of horses to get listed with the racing association as a legal bookmaker. Bill put his one and only chemistry class to the most practical use he could imagine, and became a master mixologist. He honed his talent on Coney Island at Frankie Yale’s Harvard Inn for no other reason than he wanted to spend his days off at the beach with the girls.

“Remember that strawberry blonde?” Bill asked.

“And her friend we called the chocolate brunette?” Jim responded.

“That was a memorable lost weekend we spent under the boardwalk!”

“They were the days of our misspent youth.”

“But to tell you the truth, even though the country’s gone dry, I don’t wish I was back there,” Bill added.

Yale’s sawdust club drew a coarse crowd. Thanks to Jim, Bill had learned of a master bartender’s job at Ernest and Werner’s upscale German restaurant in Jersey’s Oranges. There, the clientele was more gentrified and more discerning about their liquor, too. But after the state ratified the Federal Prohibition Amendment, Bill was forced to take a lower-ranking job, with a pay cut, as the m’aître d’ at the sedate, bluestocking Essex County Country Club where teetotaler Thomas Edison was a member. When Jim heard Bill had Monday nights off, he invited him to Kitty’s for dinner.

Once inside, and the round of introductions made, everyone but Doris settled into whiskey sour cocktails in the living room. With John Dodd gone now a little over four years, the family drank socially among trusted friends and never to excess. Kitty opened the conversation by asking Bill about his early days on Coney Island.

“The Newark News tells a story about an up-and-coming gangster in Chicago who came from there,” she began.

Chapter 5: Doris, Drake, and Dutch
Doris Ryan and Clara Leinhart were best of friends. During Liberty Street’s annual spring and fall musicales, they made quite the comical pair as they marched side-by-side: Doris, delicately holding her shiny triangle and Clara, waving the heavily padded mallets of the family’s glockenspiel, occasionally hitting the right notes as her sisters pushed the ungainly instrument along.

Now on the verge of graduating from Orange High School, they were becoming young women in an age when hemlines were high and waistlines were low. The roomy dresses worn by flappers could be made to swish seductively, allowing for the occasional glimpse of a knee. Most dramatic was what the girls had done to their long tresses. While Kitty wore her thick white hair in a traditional bun and both girls’ mothers had shoulder-length hair swept in a Gibson girl up-do, the teenagers sported bobs. Doris, whose coal-black hair inherited the curl of the Ryan side of the family, had a Marcel wave, her hair falling in a series of soft waves that nicely framed her face. Clara had the classic Dutch bob with bangs and a blunt cut.

Doris had grown up noticeably different from the Ryans or Dodds. A mandatory junior-year poise class heightened Doris’s awareness that there was another way to live life than what her extended family was experiencing. She took to correcting her father and even her beloved Uncle Frank about using the proper fork at meal times. The upper-class young ladies in her high school made it painfully obvious that their fathers earned livings in respectable professions; several were bank presidents and a number of them commuted to high-level positions in New York City.

“I love my family,” Doris often thought, “and I’d die for my grandmother, even if she is a bootlegger. My father is a bookie and my uncles run an illegal bar. Why couldn’t my family have been in legitimate businesses that I could talk about? Was I switched at birth?”

Though the lights were off, the teenagers were not asleep. Still to be thoroughly discussed was a strategy for lobbying their mothers to let them to wear make-up. Suddenly, shots rang from outside the house. Then, a volley from within the Dodd home responded. The fusillade coming from her parents’ bedroom surprised Doris. When had her father purchased a gun? Downstairs, her uncles had been playing cards. Had they suspected something was going to happen tonight?

In the eerily still aftermath, Kitty tapped on Doris’s door.

“Are you girls alright in there?”

“Yes, Grandma,” Doris said. “Are you?”

“Yes, child. There’s nothing to worry about,” Kitty added, sending up a silent prayer of gratitude to Saint Anne. “This will all be taken care of.”

As Kitty returned to her own bed, she wondered just who had had been out there. Frank, Pete, and even Jim, had been prepared. But for whom? A Treasury agent? A rogue cop from the Oranges? Or, did the Dodds have an unknown enemy within the tightly-knit group of Liberty Street families?

Chapter 6: In Plain Sight, 1929
It was the last Sunday morning in April. Kitty had the Liberty Street house to herself. Frank and Pete were up and out early to take care of some unexpected maintenance at The Place. Lil, Jim, and Doris had gone to Manhattan for a visit. Her Lenox teacup filled with Black Rose tea from Monteverdi’s new selection of imported delicacies, Kitty sat at her kitchen table, engrossed in Lillian McNamara’s breathless account of the Queen of Resorts’ upcoming Diamond Jubilee. Loaded with photos, the feature story was prominently laid out in the Newark News’ weekly magazine for April 28. In just a few short weeks, the eyes of the world would behold a new Atlantic City:

Extravagant Boardwalk movie palace to seat 4,300!

WPG gets state-of-the-art radio studio!

Galaxy of stars from stage and screen generate pre-Broadway buzz on the Boards!

Dancers to cha-cha-cha in new ballroom for 5,000!

A hall for conventions the size of a gridiron!!!

Kitty looked closer.

The National Electric Light Association’s 50th birthday celebration for the light bulb will be the municipal auditorium’s first-ever convention. The honoree is the Father of Electricity, Thomas A. Edison, the man “who lit Atlantic City”!

Well, Kitty wondered out loud, what would the old man think of that?

While everyone from engineers to lobbyists were expected for the inaugural convention in June, Kitty noted wryly that Lillian McNamara’s account didn’t mention the other convention whose businessmen were slated to arrive May 13. Obviously, their industries were doing quite well if they were going to convene in Atlantic City, thought Kitty. Was theirs a jubilee, too?

Chapter 7: The Pursuit of Happiness
Not one usually given to premonitions, Kitty took her morning cup of tea to the dining room’s balcony and looked out over Atlantic City. At mid-morning, the resort teemed with activity. Kitty noted delivery trucks making their way to restaurants and hotels with Thursday deliveries. Down Pacific Avenue she saw tradesmen feverishly working to finish the new buildings scheduled to open for the resort’s official 75th gala anniversary. Kitty realized a train must have pulled into the station as she saw the long line of taxi cabs quickly whisking away groups of men in bowler hats, leather sports jackets, and bright green ties. Looking west, Kitty’s eyes finally spotted what she had been hoping not to see: a lone black limousine slowly heading across the causeway. Even before the doorbell to the Wizard’s Roost rang, Kitty knew she’d never see Al Capone again. He had made a courageous decision, Kitty thought, and she sent up a silent prayer to keep the big man safe while he stayed in the big house.

Frank walked into the suite’s dining room and Kitty turned away from the balcony to approach her son. Silently he handed over an envelope. Al’s note inside was simple:

Current conditions won’t last. Find new ways to expand your brand of better living. With admiration, Al