Steve Buscemi as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, corrupt Atlantic City politician and bootlegger
Atlantic City, Late Spring 1931
Series: Boardwalk Empire
Episode: “Eldorado” (Episode 5.08)
Air Date: October 26, 2014
Director: Tim Van Patten
Creator: Terence Winter
Costume Designer: John A. Dunn
Tailor: Martin Greenfield
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Tomorrow marks the fifth anniversary since the final episode of Boardwalk Empire aired. Set in 1931, the fifth and final season of HBO’s Prohibition-set crime drama took a seven-year leap to conclude the stories of Atlantic City’s corrupt ex-treasurer Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and those in his orbit, whether based on reality like “Lucky” Luciano (Vincent Piazza) or fictional creations for the show like Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol). Nucky himself is based on Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, the colorful and indeed corrupt politician from Atlantic City’s heyday in the roaring ’20s.
“Eldorado” gave the viewers one last day on the boardwalk with Nucky who, despite the bright sunshine, shares our sense that this may be his last promenade for more reasons than just his plans to leave town. Consider the name of the episode, which—aside from a passing reference as the name of a swanky new apartment building—is never uttered on screen but instead remains Nucky’s ultimate, and ultimately unachievable goal.
Luciano and his partners Meyer Lansky (Anatol Yusef) and Bugsy Siegel (Michael Zegen) had been embroiled in Nucky’s war with Dr. Valentin Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright), the series’ antagonist for two seasons running, and plan to end it with two gunmen taking one of them down—in public, to send a message. We immediately find ourselves following Nucky on his afternoon walk on the Atlantic City boardwalk, but we’re not the only ones tailing the dapper bootlegger as Nucky senses the foreboding presence of the two clunky and clearly armed men keeping a sinister distance behind him. Nucky makes the most of his lsat day, getting a sense of the future through a boardwalk TV demonstration, making amends for the present over Cokes with his estranged brother Eli (Shea Whigham), and finally dealing with the consequences of his past, particularly his Faustian deal with the Commodore decades prior that corrupted the then-teenage Gillian Darmody (Madeleine Yen) and ruined at least two Darmody generations to follow.
Between the flashbacks of then-deputy sheriff Nucky’s dealings with the Commodore in 1897 to his own recollections of the previous morning’s dawn swim when he was hoping to pass the point of no return, “past where there isn’t any choice… [though] you can’t know until you pass it… then it’s too late,” this terrific finale weaves in themes of the past and its consequences. Perhaps not only aware of his inevitable end, Nucky seems to welcome it, conducting end-of-life behavior like attempting amends with those he has most wronged, namely his little brother Eli and the troubled Gillian, both of whom have been reduced to considerably lower stations as a tangential result of Nucky’s past actions. He can’t undo what he’s done in the past, but he can work in the present to try to improve their futures—with gifts of cash (and a shaving kit) for Eli and tearful attempts at reassurance for Gillian, who has been idling for the better part of a decade in an asylum, in what AV Club reviewer Genevieve Valentine described as “one of the most nihilistic scenes the show’s ever given us.”
And suddenly, Dr. Narcisse and his bodyguard are shot down outside of a church in a fusillade of gunfire from two .45-toting gangsters, and we realize that perhaps Nucky may be in the clear after all as it becomes obvious that Luciano and the other heads of the newly formed Mafia commission planned to spare Nucky and take out Narcisse instead. It looks like our protagonist may reach Eldorado after all, gathering the last of his belongings before he gets a call that Joe Harper (Travis Tope), the teenage thief that Nucky has been treating like somewhat of a protégé, had been caught conducting his larcenous business in the Ritz-Carlton, Nucky’s erstwhile stronghold.
Nucky takes Joe out for some parting words of wisdom, handing him $100 to buy a 5-cent cup of coffee… but neither the cup of joe nor Joe himself are so easily bought. “Answer to everything,” Joe cynically grumbles about the cash. “No… just the best one I’ve got,” responds Nucky, who then watches with amusement as a stone-faced Joe tears up the bill. “Okay, kid, you showed me,” Nucky signs off, dropping off just the necessary nickel for Joe’s coffee. “Good luck. You’re gonna need it.”
Nucky strolls up the nighttime boardwalk and the pieces finally come into place, answering for us exactly when he had corrupted himself nearly 40 years earlier…the very minute in 1897 when he passed that point he had earlier described to his brother as “where there isn’t any choice” by betraying the vulnerable trust of the teenage Gillian Darmody and essentially selling her into the lecherous Commodore’s “service” in exchange for power. With the sense that our anti-hero could be beyond redemption, we also see the same two beefy gents in hats from before clearly watching him from a few paces ahead. New York gunmen? Is Nucky still a target? At least now we have the sense that he deserves it.
Of course, the threat is not from what’s ahead of him, but from what’s directly behind him… in this case a .32-toting Joe Harper just a few steps to his back, revealing himself to be Tommy Darmody, the teenage son of Nucky’s one-time protégé Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and, of course, the grandson of the all-but-destroyed Gillian Darmody.
“Who are you?” Nucky asks, but he already knows. “Tommy Darmody,” the youth responds, raising a Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless pistol—somewhat poetically, the same firearm his father had used while in Nucky’s service—and firing three bullets into his father’s former mentor, the final and fatal shot ripping through Nucky’s left cheek in a tragic mirror of Jimmy’s own death at Nucky’s hands a decade earlier.
As Nucky slumps in a corner of the boardwalk he had once dominated, the two hatted men run onto the scene and identify themselves as federal agents to Nucky as they apprehend his assassin, but the dying bootlegger couldn’t care less. Appropriately, his escape from the fate he deserved was prevented by a teenage Darmody, having damned himself so many years earlier via the corruption of another teenage Darmody.
Family drama aside, the circumstances of Nucky’s death remind me of Larry Fay (1888-1933), the real-life bootlegger who had inspired James Cagney’s character in The Roaring Twenties. The dapper Fay had established himself during the early years of Prohibition by earning more than half a million dollars importing whiskey into New York from Canada, using the revenue to buy into a taxi cab company and ultimately a Manhattan nightclub—the El Fay—with the gregarious hostess Texas Guinan (of “Hello, sucker!” fame) serving as mistress of ceremonies. Despite nearly 50 arrests, Fay managed to evade conviction and successfully involved himself in several legitimate enterprises, including a partnership of the Casa Blanca Club. It was at this club during a New Year’s Eve celebration that Fay, nearly broke from the Depression, was fatally shot in the evening hours of December 31, 1932, by the club’s doorman Edward Maloney, a former Prohibition agent who was disgruntled by the club’s widespread wage reduction that meant a weekly pay cut of $40.
A once-powerful gangster who reigned during the roaring ’20s, now past his prime as the country suffers through the Great Depression, shot down against a boisterous nightlife backdrop by someone he would rarely regard with a second glance.
What’d He Wear?
Nucky Thompson may have been out of the lucrative bootlegging business by the middle of 1931, but his dapper attire still communicated success. The former gangster dressed for the last day of his life in “Eldorado” in a charcoal-blue flannel three-piece suit, patterned with gray double-beaded track stripes. Though Steve Buscemi would wear similarly colored and striped suits throughout Boardwalk Empire, this appears to be the only appearance of this specific dark striped suit.
The size 38R suit was included in a ScreenBid auction with many other props and costumes from across the show’s run, where it was curiously described as “a black three-piece suit with the white pinstripes,” despite clearly appearing blue in the auction photos and on screen. The auctioned suit jacket includes special effect rigging over the right side of the chest with gunshot damage and blood stains from “our sad anti-hero’s final moments.”
Given his executive status and ambitions, it’s appropriate that Nucky Thompson wore suits made for the series by Brooklyn-based tailor Martin Greenfield, whose roster of clients includes at least six U.S. Presidents dating back to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Greenfield’s career as a tailor began in 1947 when the Czech immigrant and Holocaust survivor joined GGG Clothes as a “floor boy” in 1947, swiftly developing his skill and reputation as a tailor. Thirty years after he started at the East Williamsburg shop, Greenfield had risen to the position of Vice President of Production and bought out the company to establish Martin Greenfield Clothiers.
Boardwalk Empire began production on a massive Brooklyn lot in late 2009 and, with executive producer Martin Scorsese directing the pilot, the production was sparing no expense. Thus, costume designer John A. Dunn turned to the talented tailor who just happened to have a shop nearby: Martin Greenfield. “I like Nucky Thompson, Steve Buscemi,” Greenfield told Matt Welty in an interview for Complex. “He’s such a nice guy, and such a great actor, and he insists on coming to the factory to try everything on. He loves the clothing. When they ask him what do you like best in the show, he says, ‘the wardrobe.'”
The single-breasted charcoal-blue striped suit jacket from “Eldorado” has the short, wide peak lapels with straight gorges and sharp corners that were very fashionable in the early 1930s. The lapels end high on the chest, above the three-button closure. By 1931, the character has long since abandoned his former practice of pinned a red carnation to his left lapel.
Additional era-specific detailing can be found in the wide shoulders with their heavily and highly roped sleeveheads which, along with the suppressed waist and flared skirt, contribute to the strong silhouette often associated with English tailoring.
Nucky’s ventless suit jacket also has a welted breast pocket and straight flapped hip pockets.
One detail that remains consistent from Nucky’s opulent suits featured in the earliest episodes from the start of the roaring ’20s are the Edwardian-influenced turnback or “gauntlet” cuffs that consist of a semi-cuff slightly longer than an inch around the end of each sleeve, cut out at the vent where each cuff is finished with four buttons.
Gone are the days of Nucky’s bold orange, purple, and blue checked shirts. Now, hardly relishing the trappings of his past as a local politician and gangster, Nucky opts for more conservative shirtings like this white cotton with a subtle gray grid-check, made for the production by Geneva Custom Shirts of New York. The shirt has a plain front and double (French) cuffs, which Nucky fastens with silver squared links with light gray enamel-centered squares with rounded corners.
Unlike his shirts of past seasons with their distinctive detachable “keyhole-cut” white collars, Nucky dressed for the ’30s in the newly established and accepted style of shirts with attached collars, one of his few concessions to evolving fashions. According to Alan Flusser in his seminal Dressing the Man, “at one point during the 1930s, nearly half of all American men reportedly wore their dress shirt collars pinned,” making the good Mr. Thompson quite the contemporary dresser with his brass shaped-end bar that slides onto each leaf of his long point collar to connect them under the tie knot.
Nucky’s “old gold” paisley silk tie is also a Geneva product, perhaps colored to reflect the mythical El Dorado, or “Golden King”, of South American legend that gave the episode its title. While Geneva, the esteemed shirtmaker who made many of the show’s shirts and ties, does not include its neckwear on its site, there is a similar-looking “Gold Estate Paisley Tie” in woven silk available from The Tie Bar for aspiring Nucks, though it lacks the neat organization of ornately patterned circles and squares that alternate against a horizontally ribbed ground.
While Nucky’s suits underwent a shift in styles to reflect the times over the show’s setting from the early 1920s through 1931, the one constant was that all were three-piece suits with matching waistcoats. Nucky’s waistcoats—or vests, as we Americans colloquialize them—varied in style across the years, including single- and double-breasted, low and high fastenings, and the presence of lapels.
The matching waistcoat with this suit is a popular Nucky style with a single-breasted front with seven closely spaced buttons down to the notched bottom, where he wears the lowest button undone. The waistcoat has peak lapels and four welted pockets, but he does not wear a pocket watch as he seemingly abandoned this practice between the fourth and fifth seasons. Both the suit jacket and waistcoat share a matching two-tone navy striped satin lining.
In 1931, men were increasingly wearing belts with their trousers, though the best practice for three-piece suits remained—as it remains to this day—to wear suspenders (braces) with trousers worn with a waistcoat, serving the dual purpose of avoiding a belt buckle “bunching” under the waistcoat while also keeping the trouser waistband pulled up or, uh, suspended, well under the waistcoat to avoid the unpleasant “shirt triangle” when a trouser waistline falls too far below a jacket or waistcoat’s lowest buttoning point.
A well-tailored gent like Nucky exclusively wears suspenders with his three-piece suits, in this case a set of two-tone navy-and-blue twill suspenders that connect to buttons along the inside of his trouser waistband. The fabric of his braces are only briefly spotted when he puts his suit jacket back on after an afternoon of Cokes with Eli.
In addition to the buttons along the inside of his waistband, Nucky’s pleated suit trousers have belt loops that go unused and are only spotted in the auction photos that were featured on ScreenBid. The trousers have side pockets and two button-through back pockets and are fully cut through the legs to the bottoms, which are finished with turn-ups (cuffs).
Nucky’s shoes are burgundy calf leather six-eyelet oxfords with a perforated cap toe, identified by the auction listing as Italian in provenance though no maker is identified in the description nor is a maker’s mark visible in the photos provided of Buscemi’s screen-worn footwear.
We know that the famous multi-colored wingtips in the opening credits were sold by Forzieri, a Florence-based shop that currently includes the Santoni “Wilson” cap-toe oxford in dark brown leather among its collection, though they lack the perforation and the burgundy shade of Nucky’s kicks. While not Italian, Florsheim offers a five-eyelet burgundy oxford with perforated detailing along the cap toe (Amazon) that could add a Nucky-influenced panache to your wardrobe. Other alternatives include the Mezlan “Tyson II” five-eyelet oxford with a truly perforated cap toe box and a unique pebbled vamp (Amazon) and the inexpensive cowhide Urbane Shoe Co. oxford brogue (Amazon).
While it would take a substantial investment—which a good shoe deserves—you could nearly replicate Nucky’s shoes with the Allen Edmonds “Strand” cap-toe oxford in oxblood calfskin leather with six lace eyelets and single oak leather soles. The oxblood or dark chili calf leathers are close to the shade Nucky wears, but the cigar brown (Amazon) is also a suitable alternative.
Nucky wears navy socks with bold blue chalk stripes that add a dash of character to an otherwise tastefully conservative ’30s business suit. While general searching for striped dress socks tends to yield horizontally striped results, I did find a pair of blue-on-navy vertical-striped cotton/nylon socks (available on Amazon for $22.06 as of October 2019) made by Zanella, though I can’t tell if this is the same as the Italian luxury trouser brand Zanella.
Nucky’s dark brown Lords hat (or “Lord’s hat”) echoed his brown shoes, harmonizing the top and bottom of his outfit. A cousin of the classic homburg that was popularized by Edward VII after a trip to Germany in the 1890s, the Lords hat shares the homburg’s general shape and “pencil curl” brim, though the Lords hat has a pinched crown that differs from the homburg’s “gutter crown”, thus bridging the formality between the more formal homburg and the more businesslike fedora. Forum contributors at The Fedora Lounge have explained that the name derives from the English usage of “lord”, alternately referring to a wealthy landowner or more specifically the House of Lords, as opposed to the more ecclesiastical definition of the word.
Nucky wears a dark chocolate brown wool felt Lords hat that has a wide black ribbed grosgrain silk band. Gentleman’s Gazette suggests that the Lords hat can be differentiated by its unbound brim (as opposed to the bound brim of a homburg), though—as Nucky illustrates—Lords hats can also have edge binding to match the band.
What to Listen to
These closing scenes of the finale alone grace the viewer to a delightful sample of popular music in the waning years of Prohibition.
Nucky’s afternoon stroll along the boardwalk is interrupted by the welcome distraction of a vivacious platinum blonde barker (Rachel Kenney) promising a vision of “the world to come”: television. Scoring the scene is a contemporary-sounding rendition of “I’m a Dreamer, Aren’t We All?” with vocals by Johnny Gale, backed by Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks Orchestra.
A talented arranger and saxophonist, Giordano has made a career of specializing in recreating the “hot jazz” sounds of the roaring ’20s and subsequent decades, contributing era-perfect music for the soundtracks of period movies like The Aviator, Bessie, and Cafe Society, in addition to every season of Boardwalk Empire. A trademark for Giordano’s soundtracks is to feature a contemporary artist singing in an old-fashioned style against the ’20s-style arrangement, with artists including Margot Bingham, Kathy Brier, Neko Case, Elvis Costello, Nora Jones, Liza Minnelli, Leon Redbone, Regina Spektor, Patti Smith, St. Vincent, Loudon Wainwright III, Martha Wainwright, and Rufus Wainwright among the talented lineup whose vocals were backed by the Nighthawks Orchestra on the Boardwalk Empire soundtrack.
“I’m a Dreamer, Aren’t We All?” was introduced by Janet Gaynor in the pre-Code musical Sunny Side Up (1929), which also introduced the titular track that would be used in Paper Moon (1973). Less than two weeks after Sunny Side Up was released, self-proclaimed “King of Jazz” Paul Whiteman recorded a version of “I’m a Dreamer, Aren’t We All?” on October 16, 1929, with a vocal group that included a young Bing Crosby. The song was written by Ray Henderson with vocals by Buddy DeSylva and Lew Brown.
After the television demonstration prompts a flashback to Nucky’s young adulthood when he was protected from his shotgun-wielding father by his brother Eli, we return to 1931 as Nucky goes to see a down-and-out Eli living in a dirty single room over the boardwalk. Presumably over the radio in Eli’s room, we hear a vintage-inspired rendition of “I Surrender Dear”, this time featuring Elvis Costello with Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks Orchestra, followed by an actual era recording of Rudy Vallée and the Connecticut Yankees crooning “Begging for Love”, a fitting song given each brother’s unspoken desperation for the other’s approval or affection in this moment.
Penned by Harry Barris and Gordon Clifford, “I Surrender Dear” was a massive hit for Bing Crosby in 1931, launching the crooner to stardom as his first solo hit after leaving the Rhythm Boys, a vocal group that performed with orchestras led by Paul Whiteman and Gus Arnheim. It was Arnheim’s Cocoanut Grove Orchestra that accompanied Crosby as he recorded the song on January 19, 1931, paving the way for what would be a legendary solo career. Louis Armstrong, Sam Lanin, and Ben Selvin (with Helen Rowland) were among the other major artists to record the song that year.
The multi-talented Rudy Vallée would become one of the first pop stars. With his “Vagabond Lover” persona and smooth tenor voice, the dashing singer captured the hearts of many a flapper with his recordings of popular songs like “Deep Night”, “Honey”, and “As Time Goes By”. Written by Irving Berlin, “Begging for Love” was one of many hits that Vallée recorded with his backing band, the Connecticut Yankees.
At the Old Rumpus Burlesque Club, Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks Orchestra play “Tin Roof Blues” as Nucky arrives to pick up the last of his personal effects, followed by “Don’t Mind the Rain”, the latter accompanied by Angela McCluskey, the Scottish-born singer and lead vocalist of Wild Colonials. Apropos the Scottish performer, “Don’t Mind the Rain” was written by a UK resident, London-born composer Ned Miller.
The jazz standard “Tin Roof Blues” was first written and recorded by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in the spring of 1923, though many major jazz acts of the roaring ’20s recorded the song, including Louis Armstrong, Ted Lewis, Jelly Roll Morton, and Joe “King” Oliver after Armstrong split from his outfit. Walter Melrose, whose company published the sheet music, added lyrics to the song, though it’s most typically performed as an instrumental.
Following the Old Rumpus scenes, we—and the dangerous youngster Joe Harper—catch up with Nucky on the boardwalk while more vintage recordings from the era play in the background. Heard as “Joe” tears up the money that Nucky gives him for coffee is Paul Whiteman’s “Ragamuffin Romeo”, written by Mabel Wayne and Harry DeCosta and which Whiteman’s band performed the previous year in his Universal Pictures pre-Code “talkie hit”, King of Jazz (1930).
Nucky continues his solo nighttime walk along the lively boardwalk, lighting up a Lucky that turns out to be not so lucky as he finds himself facing the business end of Joe Harper’s .32. Nucky falls with three rounds in his face and chest to the dissonantly light and sweet “A Bench in the Park”, another Bing Crosby number though recorded in May 1930 while in Hollywood and still performing as one of Paul Whiteman’s Original Rhythm Boys with Harry Barris and Al Rinker. Interestingly, the hard-living Crosby had been causing problems at the time of the recording, culminating in his causing a car accident while driving drunk. Bing’s antics and his increasing dissatisfaction with Whiteman’s leadership led to his eventually establishing his solo career.
While the saccharine “A Bench in the Park” may juxtapose Nucky’s death—and why shouldn’t it? it’s not like whoever was playing it knew there was going to be a fatal shooting that night—the following track communicates an appropriately mournful mood as it brings the series to a conclusion through the end credits.
Echoing the Lee Morse recording that scored Nucky and Margaret’s final dance earlier in the episode, the final song of the series is Norah Jones’ rendition of “If You Want the Rainbow (You Must Have the Rain)”, written by Mort Dixon, Oscar Levant, and Billy Rose, which had been introduced by Fanny Brice in the 1928 musical My Man that also marked Brice’s cinematic debut.
The song itself is not necessarily sorrowful—indeed, a very upbeat version was recorded by popular radio star Annette Hanshaw the same year—but Lee Morse’s torchy rendition channels the sadness that followed the bandleader through her life.
Lena Corinne Taylor was born November 30, 1897, in Cove, Oregon, a small Grande Ronde Valley town with a population that never exceeded 500 until the 1990s. Her musically inclined family moved around much during her youth, though this transience did not stop a 17-year-old Morse from marrying local woodworker Elmer Morse in May 1915. The marriage bore a son, Jack, though Lena’s increasing popularity across the Pacific Northwest as a singing guitarist increased her desire for music career, and she left Elmer and Jack in 1920. That same year, Lena was signed to her first contract after she was noticed by a vaudeville producer in San Francisco, where she had accompanied her father to the Democratic National Convention.
Over the next few years, she gained notice for her talent in musical revues and her unique knack for yodeling and blues. Despite her personal success writing and recording her own songs for Pathé beginning in 1924 (billing her as “Miss Lee Morse” to assure listeners that the singer was female), her personal life fell apart as Elmer Morse finally filed for divorce on the grounds of desertion and abandonment. Though she gained custody of her young son Jack, whom she had left with his father five years earlier, she had little interest in being a mother and continued making progress to further her career, though her stage fright for playing in clubs led to the development of a drinking problem that left her unable to perform her debut in Ziegfeld’s Simple Simon in 1930. Ruth Etting was quickly called into substitute for the drunken Morse, and “Ten Cents a Dance” became Etting’s signature song rather than Morse’s.
Another troubled relationship, this time with pianist Bob Downey, ended after more than a decade when Downey left her for a stripper and Morse turned back to the bottle for comfort. After World War II, her new husband Ray Farese hoped to revitalize Morse’s career with a Rochester radio show. One of the most unique and prolific talents of the Jazz Age with more than 200 recordings to her name, Lee Morse died in December 1954 when she was only 57 years old and remains tragically underappreciated today.
How to Get the Look
Long past his prime at the top of Atlantic City’s underworld by mid-1931, Nucky Thompson takes a conservative yet still elegant sartorial approach for his final day on the coastal resort burg’s boardwalk . Outfitted by skilled local craftsman—in this case, Martin Greenfield Clothiers and Geneva Custom Shirts—Nucky can’t go wrong in his timeless dark charcoal blue striped three-piece suit, perfectly but not excessively detailed to follow the era’s fashions.
- Charcoal blue with gray double-beaded stripe lightweight flannel three-piece suit:
- Single-breasted 3-button long jacket with wide, sharp peak lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 4-button gauntlet cuffs, and long single vent
- Single-breasted 7-button waistcoat/vest with notch lapels, four welted pockets, notched bottom, and adjustable back strap
- Pleated high-rise trousers with belt loops, straight/on-seam side pockets, button-through back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- White with mini gray grid-check cotton dress shirt with point collar, plain front, and double/French cuffs
- Gold collar bar
- Silver-toned square cuff links
- “Old gold” paisley silk tie
- Navy-and-blue twill suspenders
- Burgundy calf leather 6-eyelet perforated cap-toe oxford shoes
- Navy blue-striped socks
- Dark brown wool felt Lords hat with black ribbed grosgrain silk ribbon and edges
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the whole series.
The past is past. Nothing can change it.