SOME children are silenced. The pretense is protection against people and events more powerful than them. As the daughter of Allen Smiley, associate and friend to Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, I was raised in a family of secrets.
My father is not a household name like Siegel, partly because he wore a disguise, a veneer of respectability that fooled most.
It did not fool the government. My father came into the public eye the night of June 20, 1947, when Benjamin Siegel was murdered in his home in Beverly Hills. My dad was seated inches away from Siegel, on the sofa, and took three bullets through the sleeve of his jacket.
He was brought in as a suspect. His photograph was in all the newspapers. He was the only nonfamily member who had the guts to go to the funeral.
When I was exposed to the truth by way of a book, I kept the secret, too. I was 13. My parents divorced, and five years later, my mother died. In 1966, I went to live with my father in Hollywood.
I was forbidden to talk about our life: “Don’t discuss our family business with anyone, and listen very carefully to what I say from now on!”
But one night, he asked me to come into his room and he told me the story of the night Ben was murdered.
“When I was spared death, I made a vow to do everything in my power to reform, so that I could one day marry your mother.
“Ben was the best friend I ever had. You’re going to hear a lot of things about him in your life. Just remember what I am telling you; he’d take a bullet for a friend.”
After my father died, I remained silent, to avoid shame, embarrassment and questions. But 10 years later, in 1994, when I turned 40, I cracked the silence.
I read every book in print – and out of print – about the Mafia. Allen Smiley was in dozens. He was a Russian Jew, a criminal, Bugsy’s right-hand man, a dope peddler, pimp, a racetrack tout. I held close the memory of a benevolent father, wise counselor, and a man who worshipped me.
I made a Freedom of Information Act request and obtained his government files. The Immigration and Naturalization Service claimed he was one of the most dangerous criminals in the country. They said he was Benjamin Siegel’s assistant. They said he was poised to take over the rackets in Los Angeles. He didn’t; he sold out his interest in the Flamingo, and he went to Houston to strike oil.
I put the file away, and looked into the window of truth. How much more could I bear to hear?
Born in Kiev, Ukraine, my dad’s family immigrated to Canada. He stowed away to America at 16, and was eventually doggedly pursued for never having registered as an alien. He had multiple arrests – including one for bookmaking in 1944, and another for slicing off part of the actor John Hall’s nose in a fracas at Tommy Dorsey’s apartment.
He met my mother, Lucille Casey, at the Copacabana nightclub in 1943. She was onstage dancing (for $75 a week), and my father was in the audience, seated with Copa owner and mob boss Frank Costello.
“I took one look, and I knew it was her,” was all he had told me on many occasions.
On a trip to the Museum of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, I was handed a large perfectly pristine manila envelope, and a pair of latex gloves with which to handle the file.
Inside were black and white glossy MGM studio photographs, press releases, and biographies of my mother’s career in film, including roles in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “Ziegfeld Follies of 1946,” “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Harvey Girls.” She was written up in the columns, where later my father was identified as a “sportsman.”
The woman who pressed my clothes, washed my hair, and made my tuna sandwiches was an actress dancing in Judy Garland musicals, while her own life was draped with film noir drama.
My father wooed her, and after an MGM producer gave her an audition, he helped arrange for her and her family to move to Beverly Hills, where she had steady film work for five years. He was busy helping Siegel expand the Western Front of the Costello crime family and opening the Flamingo casino in Las Vegas.
They were engaged in 1946.
Still, the blank pages of my mother’s life did not begin to fill in until I met R.J. Gray. He found me through my newspaper column, “Smiley’s Dice.”
One day last year, R.J. sent me a book, “Images of America: The Copacabana,” by Kristin Baggelaar. There was my mother, captioned a “Copa-beauty.”
Kristin organized a Copa reunion in New York last September. I went in place of my mother, but all day I felt as if she was seated next to me. I fell asleep that night staring out the hotel window, feeling a part of Manhattan history.
Now, the silence is over.
I don’t hesitate to answer questions about my family. I have photographs of Ben Siegel in my home in Santa Fe, NM, just as my father did. Every few months I get e-mails from distant friends, or people who knew my dad.
It seems there is no end to the stories surrounding Ben and Al. I am not looking for closure. I’ve become too attached to the story.