For most people with a living memory of Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague, it is either one of love or hate.
But the new PBS documentary based on the memoir “Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History” by Helene Stapinski aJersey City native and former Reporter staff writer, it’s a love/hate relationship with a city that once was and won’t be again.
The documentary was released last week, ironically at the same time as the 100th anniversary of Hague’s election as mayor.
Written and directed by Steve Fischler and produced by Rosanne Braun, the film takes Stapinski’s book one step farther and recreates in documentary what it meant to live in the Hague era.
Many people who grew up in Jersey City see Hague in a positive light, recalling the things he did to help their families, to get them jobs, or to provide them with health care. But there was always a darker side to Hague, and Stapinski’s book and the film help give shape to the cloud that hung over many people forced to live in that era.
Stapinski, 51, , said the one-hour film takes her memoir “another step” but also serves as a comparison for what Jersey City once was and what it is becoming today.
“It doesn’t just repeat what I wrote in the book,” she said.
The documentary includes old photos of Stapinski's family and archival footage, featuring her family, Hague, even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from whom Hague leveraged much of his power.
For portions of the documentary, Stapinski serves as narrator, and she is also interviewed, as are her family members, current Mayor Steven Fulop, and local columnist Earl Morgan.
The documentary brings to life the author’s saga of growing up in Jersey City in a family nearly overrun with crooks, petty criminals, corrupt politicians, mobster wannabes, and murderers.
This is a personal as well as historic film, dealing with her struggle to come to terms with the past as she moves on with her life as a writer.
A vision of past and present
The book, originally published in 2001, was controversial because it tore the scabs off old wounds, exposing parts of the dark Jersey City past some wish to forget or saw instead in more glorious light.
“If you put a blindfold on me and put me down in a part of Jersey City today, I might not know where I was.” – Helene Stapinski
But the film, more than the book, also serves as a touchstone for the past and shows how the city has changed.
Much of what Stapinski wrote about, and saw growing up, no longer exists. And Jersey City has become a much different place.
“If you put a blindfold on me and put me down in a part of Jersey City today, I might not know where I was,” Stapinski said, referring to the massive changes the city has undergone even from when she authored the book.
The film’s release also ironically coincides with the move to redevelop the Horseshoe area of Jersey City, which was the heart of Hague’s political empire.
Using additional research, the film is a kind of time capsule of a past Jersey City, but also a reminder that Jersey City has always been a hub of immigration, and filled with conflict over making room for new arrivals.
Controversial from the start
The book and the documentary go beyond merely reflecting darkness, and manage to convey a sense of what it meant to live in a city during that era, the compromises people made, and family members who fell deep into a shadow of gambling, theft, and even murder.
“I wrote the book at a particular time in my life,” she said. “I’m in a better place now.”
She said most likely could not have written the same book now.
One focus of the book and to some extent the documentary was her grandfather, “Beansie” whom she came to hate and fear, and later, perhaps, almost forgive.
Although Hague served as mayor from 1917 to 1947, he exerted influence on the city for years prior to his election and even after his leaving office. Beansie fell into the culture of that time, convicted of crimes for which he served jail time, and in her memory, was little better than a bully and a thief. Long after Hague died and with him the lawless era he epitomized, Beansie continued to be a threat and once, when she was 5, attempted to murder her family.
What gives the documentary strength is Stapinski’s first-person narration as she returns to the places she remembered as a child, such as the long gone Division of Motor Vehicles where her mother was employed.
Researchers for the documentary found additional material she said she would have loved to have had when writing the book, such as old photographs and home movies. There are additional stories that help deepen the vision of that era.
Political corruption still exists as the arrests in 2009 for Big Rig III attest, but in Hague’s time, she noted, everything was out in the open.
There were some ironic moments filming the documentary, such as the scene near Frank Hague’s grave in Holy Name Cemetery on West Side Avenue. Nelson Johnson, the author of the book that inspired HBO’s hit series “Boardwalk Empire,” was being interviewed on camera near the grave and his wife called him over. At this point, a limb from a nearby tree fell onto the spot where he’d just been standing.
“It was strange,” she said. “The sky was blue. There wasn’t any wind.”
Johnson has recently written a book called “Battleground New Jersey: Vanderbilt, Hague, and Their Fight for Justice,” and added his expertise to the documentary.
Once considered for a sit-com
In the works for since 2010, the film brought a sense of closure to Stapinski.
“It’s a great relief to have it done,” she said. “I love it.”
The book was optioned for a TV show shortly after it was published, and was kicked around for several years as a kind of comic drama. Stapinski eventually got to read the script and was horrified.
David E. Kelly was the sitcom king of the time and had a totally different vision than she had.
“I almost had a heart attack. It was sitcom. My family in it had no resemblance to my family,” she said. “It had gone through a number of writers who had watered it down. I was very grateful it never got made into a TV show.”
As a writer for The New York Times, she was doing a story about a book written about the Flatiron Building in New York. A documentary was being done from the book, and she was introduced to the director.
“He read my book and called me the next day,” she said.
Back when she published the book in 2001, documentaries were not as popular as they are today.
From 2010, she worked closely with the director, even writing portions of the script.
“But they took the lead,” she said. “Working that closely with four or five people you feel almost like you’re married to them.”
The additional scenes came from a variety of places, including Italy, which she only mentioned in the book.
There were interviews with people like Mayor Fulop about where Jersey City is today.
Jersey City is still the same in some ways
Although Jersey City is different from Hague’s time, she said, or even from when she grew up here, it is still the Golden Door and still has an influx of people from around the world.
It is also still an economic engine for the region, she said.
While Jersey City still has aspects of ugliness, it is no longer the ugly place she once called it.
She let most of the negative comments about the book roll off her back.
“Most of the people who commented never read the book or didn’t read it to the end,” she said. “I think I come around full circle in the book.”
One comment came from former Mayor Gerry McCann, who claimed at the time she would have no future.
She had, of course, crossed paths with McCann when she covered his trial and the conviction that forced him to resign as mayor in 1991.
“He was wrong. So he can stuff that in his pipe and smoke it,” she said with a laugh. “If fact, you can tell him I did this film just for him.”
Success seems to be inspiring success, and an extensive article she recently wrote for The New York Times on Marilyn Monroe has been optioned for film.
Today Helene is a well-respected journalist and author, living in brownstone Brooklyn with her husband and two children. Her brand new book “Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family and Forgiveness” will be published by Harper Collins to great fanfare this spring.
“Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History” was first aired on THIRTEEN on Monday, March 6. It will also air on NJTV on Saturday, March 18, at 7 p.m., and on WLIW-HD on Saturday, March 25 at 4 p.m. and on WLIW-HD on Thursday, March 30 at 4 a.m.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.