The last Irish-born mayor of New York William O'Dwyer

A bunch of people just ran to become New York City’s next mayor.  And you’d need to put all of these decent but bland folks together to come up with a figure as compelling and complex as William O’Dwyer, New York’s last Irish-born mayor who served from 1946-1950.

O’Dwyer -- and all of his inspiring achievements and shady connections -- serves as the inspiration for the character Charlie O’Kane in Kevin Baker’s big, new historical novel The Big Crowd.

Dubbed the literary world’s “sharpest chronicler of New York’s past” by Rolling Stone, this is Baker’s latest exploration of how the Irish have used ambition, politics, religion and occasionally murder to make a permanent mark on New York City.

“O’Dwyer’s story was fascinating to me,” said Baker, seated (appropriately) in the Dead Rabbit, a downtown Manhattan bar heavily inspired by 19th century Irish pubs.

The pub has the kind of look (albeit shiny and scrubbed) familiar to any of the Irish immigrants in Baker’s brilliant 2002 novel Paradise Alley, which features wrenching scenes aboard a Famine-era coffin ship, and which culminates in the New York City Draft Riots.

In The Big Crowd Baker fast forwards nearly a century, to explore how a poor boy from Mayo and his devoted brother reached the height of political power in post-World War II New York, only to see their lives unravel because of romantic entanglements and possible connections to one of New York’s great unsolved crimes.

“O’Dwyer always seemed to be like something Tammany Hall created,” adds Baker with a laugh. 
Who could resist a political run by a poor kid who grew up in a big Mayo family, came to the U.S. at the age of 20, put himself through Fordham and later served honorably in the Army during World War II, rising to the rank of brigadier general?

The famed Irish-dominated political machine Tammany Hall was still riding high in the forties when O’Dwyer first ran for mayor in 1941, losing to the legendary Fiorello LaGuardia.

Also that year (right around Election Day, in fact), a man was found dead outside of the Half-Moon Hotel in Coney Island.  The dead man turned out to be famed Murder Inc. hitman Abe Reles.

Reles managed to fall -- or be pushed -- out the hotel window despite the presence of police officers charged with protecting the onetime hitman, who’d turned snitch and was helping prosecutors jail other reputed members of Murder Inc.

Through the character Charlie O’Kane (whose devoted brother Tommy is loosely based on O’Dwyer’s fiery politician/activist brother Paul), Baker explores O’Dwyer’s possible ties to the Reles killing and broader police corruption scandals, which ultimately compelled O’Dwyer to resign (though he cited health reasons), following his reelection in 1950.

In the end, The Big Crowd is reminiscent of Peter Quinn’s excellent detective story The Man Who Never Returned.  Whereas Quinn laid out a theory for the long-unsolved disappearance of Judge Crater, Baker sets out a theory for Reles’ death.

Along the way, Baker takes us on a vivid tour of New York’s Irish underbelly, particularly the docks made famous in the film classic On the Waterfront. 

Baker’s cast of characters includes colorful figures such as “King” Joe Ryan, president of the longshoreman’s union, waterfront enforcer William McCormack, Murder Inc. hitman Lepke Buchalter and “American Pope” Francis Joseph Cardinal Spellman.

For all of its ties to reality, Baker stresses that while the O’Kane brothers are similar to the O’Dwyers, he’s also added his own twists.

“In the end, this is fiction,” says Baker, born in New Jersey and raised in Massachusetts, whose own family tree includes Murphys from the Bronx.

Ultimately, Baker came away from his extensive research admiring O’Dwyer’s accomplishments, but also feeling he’d become too lax when it came to corruption as well as the broader management of the city.

What is clear is that they don’t make mayoral candidates like William O’Dwyer any more.

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