I was marinating chicken breasts and watching the cherry blossom pink sunset splinter into a montage of broken clouds. In that instant, the men whom I now consider close irreplaceable friends — as much as my girlfriends — surfaced all at once. They hung down like a shadow over the men my father brought home, the gangsters that formed my first impressions of men.
How different these groups are. Do children with fathers who are doctors or stockbrokers perpetrate the same associations as adults? It is a lot more complicated to find characters as defiant, vocal and audacious as the men my father brought home to dinner. That is where my love for men started, and today I still delight in characters larger than life.
Doc Stacher was one I loved. He was right-hand bodyguard for Abner Zwillman, aka Longy, meaning the tall one in Yiddish, the head of the New Jersey outfit. Longy managed Newark all through Prohibition and on up until the 1950s. He and Doc were rumrunners and then became associated with Joseph Reinfeld, who allied himself with the Canadian Brofman Brothers’ distillery. They ran the largest bootlegging operation in the United States. For protection, they used Benny Siegel. For tactics, they consulted Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello. Doc was just over 5 feet tall, bald as an egg and so heavy lidded he looked like he was on dope. I remember him in white deck sneakers, without laces and bathing trunks, a Cuban Cigar sprouting from his lower lip and a permanent growl forming in his throat. He saw only one person, delighted in only one person, and that was his daughter, Joanne. She was my childhood buddy, the girl who would walk up to Frank Sinatra and demand that he take notice of her.
Doc was appointed headman at The Sands in Las Vegas. Joanne led me into pranks and casino sprees that drove everyone in the hotel nuts, except Doc. He rarely smiled and was forcibly tolerant of the world when Joanne was in his presence. I loved him for that. Without Joanne, he was gruff, cantankerous and he made me repeat every word, “Louder, I can’t hear a word you’re saying.”
Doc showed no interest in non-threatening surroundings. He had the eyes of a man who’d seen everything. He was always looking down to the ground, lost in some private thoughts, his hands pinned behind his back. He paced the hotel lobbies and pool grounds waiting for Joanne.
The government tracked him all his life. In 1963, they caught up to him with an IRS tax bill. He settled and, instead of prison, Doc had himself deported to the Sheraton Hotel in Tel Aviv.
The next man to make a lifelong impression on me was Johnny Roselli. He came into my life on the day of my mother’s funeral. He was a man who filled the entire room. Everyone else vanished, even conversations stopped when he walked in the door. It wasn’t the fear, like I’d felt with other men, Johnny’s aura was electric, like a wire ran the perimeter of his body, and if you got too close, you’d be shocked. His power was his defense against the world leaders he managed in politics and crime. He got tangled up with the Kennedys, Castro, Hollywood and Hughes. Because of his high-wire act, he landed in the bottom of Biscayne Bay.
I searched for my own Johnny-style man for many years. I didn’t know he was all wrong for me, for any woman with sensitivity to extravagance and danger. He was my father’s protector, against the inevitable death threat of rival gangsters. I wanted someone like him in my corner.
When I think of how these men filled in the open spaces of my impressionable mind and took shape, it makes me laugh. I didn’t know they were gangsters. What I witnessed was the fearlessness, the enormous generosity between them, the loyalty and trust, and the respect for each other’s families. I thought the ones outside our circle were the losers. They didn’t have the privileges, the money, the connections that we did.
When I finally woke up from the long sleep, it was all right. I walked out of the dream with the same bottomless love for men, but now I choose the good guys, as long as they’re not too good.