by Nate Hopper
In 1941, almost exactly five months after Hitler had offered to end the war and a few nights before Christmas, a 2,750-pound German bomb fell into a married London couple’s wooden kitchen, which was already “flimsy.” But the bomb did not explode. Alf Fry and his wife waited four weeks for the bomb to be dug up from the clay, dismantled, and hauled away. But before that, they came to call the bomb “Max.”
Max’s impotence was both normal and odd. As the war progressed, bombs that large — named, quite literally, blockbusters — were more commonly used by the Royal Air Force in night raids on German military centers along its rivers or in Berlin. One killed 200 in Berlin’s fashionable Hotel Bristol. And those R.A.F. bombs, which needed to be craned into the planes’ bomb bays, were notoriously volatile. Sometimes, they would not explode at all when deployed. At other times, they unexpectedly would, even if being dropped in safe zones with their detonation devices disarmed, and fall “to earth like a fiery comet.”
But Max, an early and light edition (the R.A.F. bombs tripled in size over the course of the war, from 4,000 to 12,000 pounds; propaganda would claim the latter could blast an area of ten city blocks), only destroyed a flimsy kitchen and a Sunday morning later that January, when about a thousand neighbors needed to evacuate their homes at 7:30 a.m. for his disposal. It only took an hour and a half.
At 29, John Horne Burns, who the Times recently named “the great (gay) novelist you’ve never heard of,” finished The Gallery on April 23, 1946. He then fell upon his typewriter and, he said, “wept my heart out.”
The Gallery’s narrator travels along much the same path that Burns himself took as a G.I. in the war. And in the novel, he recounts his time at an American cemetery at Saint-Jean de Fedhala, in Morocco. To enter, a visitor or mourner had to bribe its gardener with two cigarettes.
“The graves are plotted in neat rows,” he remembered. He saw “how close and still bodies can be laid together in the earth. Over each rectangle a white cross spreads its rafter arms. Most of the crosses have dogtags affixed to them, giving each its relief from anonymity.” He found some unmarked graves, and imagined that “underneath must be the bodies of those who were blown apart by artillery or drowned while still wading ashore.” Or, maybe, were bombed.
In the beach town’s garden, after dark, “there was also the largest woman in captivity, the French secretary to Fedhala’s doctor,” who also looked after the doctor’s child. “We called her Blockbuster.” She weighed 190 pounds, which she “carried” with “offishness,” and “she insisted on deferential treatment to discriminate her from the Ayrab wenches, who were far more natural and amenable to reason.”
The Brockton Blockbuster was mostly a right arm.
Its power was first seen on the baseball diamond at Brockton High School (hence the locative) in the hometown of its owner, then known as Rocco Francis Marchegiano — later simplified to Rocky Marciano. His family would describe it as “rocket-like.” It was later more frequently called “murderous,” when the Brockton Blockbuster became the six-time undefeated heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
At birth, he was 12 pounds. He grew into a “stocky” boy on his mom’s Italian cooking. Then he was 188 pounds, when he fought Joe Louis on Oct. 26, 1951. By then, his arm had swept floors in a shoe factory and moved into pulling tacks from its shoes, punched Army bags filled with stuffed rags as he waited for a deployment to the Pacific front that never came (Marciano was honorably discharged about a month before John Horne Burns wept on his typewriter), and fought in 35 pro bouts, one of which, said his brother, ended with him “sheering” his opponent’s “front teeth off at the nubs.”
In the eighth round of the Louis fight, the Blockbuster’s left swiped across Louis’ jaw, causing Louis to stumble to the mat. After a beat, Louis made it up first to his right knee, grasping onto the lower rope, and then all the way up. The Blockbuster bounced around, his head sometimes burrowing into Louis’ chest, and threw uppercuts and pushed Louis back to the outside. Within minutes, he threw a left, and then the right uppercut, which cued him up for a final blow. Louis collapsed through the ropes, done. That right ended his comeback. It made the Blockbuster famous.
About a year later, in the Brockton Blockbuster’s first attempt at the heavyweight title, the right collapsed then-champion Jersey Joe Walcott into an unconscious heap on the lower rope. While he sat there, still nearly upright, the Blockbuster threw a gratuitous left. As the count finished, Walcott fell into a crumpled fetal position, the crown of his head touching the mat.
The Brockton Blockbuster did not lose once in his 49 professional bouts, 43 of which were knockouts, though reporters did call one victory on points dubious and “a miscarriage of justice.” That fight was against a boxer named Roland LaStarza; the Blockbuster’s manager, Al Weill — who also was said to have masterfully, patiently timed the Louis fight till Louis was weak enough — was the fight promoter for the Madison Square Garden, where the match took place. In a rematch three years later, the Blockbuster’s right sent LaStarza through the ropes; LaStarza endured a few more punches before the fight was stopped. Later, it was revealed that the Blockbuster’s punches had broken blood vessels in LaStarza’s arm.
Though he also once nearly killed a man in the ring, the Brockton Blockbuster was generally considered a warm, gentle man when he wasn’t fighting. In 1956, he had promised his wife he would retire before the month of May arrived. And on April 27, having retained his title the previous September with a knockout, he announced his retirement. His left eye looking swollen and bruised, Marciano said that he felt “perfect physically.” His brother would say that he retired because he’d come to hate the smell of the gym.
In the July 14, 1962 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, the magazine published an unapologetic confessional by a white man known pseudonymously as “Norris Vitcheck.” He said that he was a real-estate speculator who worked often in primarily white neighborhoods in Chicago. But, as he initially introduced himself, he preferred the “perhaps slightly” more “odious name” of his work: block-buster.
He summed up his business:
“My function, which might be called a service industry, is to drive the whites from a block whether or not they want to go, then move in Negroes.”
This is how he did it: He targeted “old, middle-class blocks” where “whites already… have been conditioned to insecurity by the inexorable march of the color line in their direction.” He would then buy one of the homes on the block, with a promise to the owners and their neighbors: “Relax. I’m selling this through a white real-estate man. I won’t even talk to a Negro.” Then, he sold the home to “a Negro.” One by one, the white owners would sell — “whether or not they can afford to move.” Within months, non-whites occupied the entire block, as “Vitcheck” and the “more than 100 in Chicago” who devoted themselves to this work made a profit three times over:
“You may believe your home is worth $15,000, for example. If I bust your block, I will expect to buy it for $12,000 cash… The myth that “Negroes lower property values” persists — so whites run, and we block-busters clean up. Within a few days comes profit No. 2: I advertise and sell it to a Negro not for $15,000, but for $18,000… [Then] the easy-payment plan, I believe it is called — that is, $150 to $200 a month until the contract is fulfilled. When is that? This is profit No. 3, the big one. The contract is fulfilled when I have been paid principal and interest totaling $36,000.”
Other block-busters — “If I operated so crudely, frankly I wouldn’t have consented to write this report,” said “Vitcheck” — sped up the process by having “Negroes with noisy cars” drive through the neighborhoods or a poor “Negro mother” walk through with their children or have people make phone calls to local houses asking for people like “Johnnie Mae” — or simply whispering and warning: “They’re coming!”
For his work, whites called “Vitcheck” a “nigger lover,” “vulture,” “panic peddler,” and “Communist and un-American.” One man said he “sold out” his “own race!” But at the end of his story, “Vitcheck” defended himself in a series of questions directed at his naysayers: “Am I really the basic cause of whites’ fleeing?” And: “Would you help remove the pressure on ‘busted’ areas by welcoming a Negro family into your own block?” And: “Whatever the faults and whatever the social stigma I endure, I don’t believe I am hypocritical about all this. Can you honestly say the same?”
In 1974 and 1975, the two Milstein brothers played the New York City Planning Commission against its own city-agency brother in the Board of Standards and Appeals. They’d dreamed up a 43-story tower for the Broadway stretch between West 62nd and 63rd Streets, right across from Lincoln Center, despite it being far more “dense” than what the area’s special zoning district permitted. Other contractors were in the midst of building similar structures within the set guidelines; Paul and Seymour wanted bigger, while lawmakers feared that if the two prevailed, city zoning would be rendered pointless. One Times editorial, beneath the headline “Lincoln Blockbuster,” expanded the threat’s purview: “It is also quite clear that the whole city loses if the Milsteins win.”
Which they did. The brothers maneuvered between the two city agencies, like boys traversing climbing rings on a playground: letting go of one right before its momentum turned against theirs and then latching to the other. They skipped the standard practice of submitting plans first to the Planning Commission, instead jumping straight to the Board of Standards — only to withdraw their application right before the board ruled and rerouted the process back to the commission, where, eventually, a 5–2 vote favored their special permit. (One commission chairman in favor was John Zuccotti, who later became their zoning lawyer.) The vote was not for a 43-, but instead a 34-story building — with 609 units, still much larger than its surrounding competitors and 50-percent more dense than any other building constructed in the city since 1961. They named the resulting building 30 Lincoln Plaza.
This was what the brothers imagined and executed over frequent lunches together at the Rainbow Room. By the time the 30 Lincoln Plaza attempt began, the Bronxite and “frog”-voiced Paul, who wore pinstripes and jewels around his pinkies, had already won a similar gambit with the two agencies less than a decade earlier for his 42-story Dorchester Towers, which consumed the trapezoid between Amsterdam Avenue, West 68th and 69th Streets, and the slant of Broadway. Afterward, the chairman of the commission sued the board to attempt to overturn its variance; he later remembered that the brothers “beat us bloody in court.”
Among the brothers’ other properties — among them the Biltmore, Roosevelt, and Milford Plaza Hotels — they came to own 1,964 units in the Lincoln Center Special Zoning District. They raised prices. By 1979, residents lamented the area was becoming a “carbon copy” of “the Upper East Side.”
In 2010, nine years after the quieter, elder Seymour died, residents attempted to stop 30 Lincoln Plaza from transitioning into condo units. Their argument hinged on the tower’s original construction, alleging that the Milsteins forwent city permits and added an extra floor, making the building seven feet too tall and five feet and six inches too wide. Because of this lie (and that zoning violations face no statute of limitations), the approximately 20 tenants contended, the transition must not go forth.
The building now consists of condos.
In early December, 2011 — a year after the renters of 30 Lincoln Plaza protested and just shy of 70 years after a dud bomb fell into a welcoming London kitchen — approximately 45,000 residents of the German city of Koblenz were evacuated, including seven nursing homes, two hospitals, and a local prison. A live British blockbuster had been discovered in the bisecting Rhine River when its water levels shrank back that November. The fuse was corroded.
The defusers craned in 350 sandbags to surround the submerged bomb. And then, with the city emptied, as the lead defusing expert later explained, “I did my job, that was all.”
People returned to their homes. They were safe. The bomb was gone. It did not have a name.
Nate Hopper was an Awl summer reporter in 2011. He now is an assistant editor for Esquire’s website and weekly tablet magazine. At time of publication, he has not seen Jaws. GIF by Mathew Lucas via Giphy.