A LITERARY AGENT I know emphasized the importance of rounding up readers. That’s not so easy when you’re exposing your own guarded family secret.
My mother married my father two years after Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel was murdered. Sitting beside Ben the night of the murder provoked an immediate response from my father; it was time to get the hell out. He promised to reform, and she agreed to marry him. One of her compromises was her religious faith. She was Irish Catholic. She stopped going to church, and she didn’t convert. It was a bitter irritation between them. My father raised us Jewish, we attended Hebrew School and went to Synagogue every Saturday morning. The complexity of being half Jewish and half Catholic surfaced, when some classmate told me I wasn’t really Jewish. I told this to my father. I still remember his answer coming at me like a round of bullets.
” That’s an idiot! It doesn’t matter if you’re half Jewish or a quarter, you’re a Jew! Don’t you ever forget it, and don’t let anyone tell you different. DO YOU HEAR ME?” To this day when people remind me that I’m not really Jewish I say,” For my father, God made an exception.”
Friends are different for men in the Mafia, and for their wives. Real friends have to be connected. You cannot trust anyone else. My mother had three friends. Marianne was married to Gus Alex a powerful political fixer in the Chicago syndicate. She had been a model like my mother. She was the stunning Grace Kelly sort of beauty with coolness much like my mother. She and my mother whispered when I was in the room.
More than any other person, Aunt Bess was beholden to my mother. She wasn’t really an aunt. Bess was Benjamin Siegel’s little sister. The one he favored over the others. I suppose Bess met my mother way before I was born, when Benjamin was alive. She had the same bedroom eyes of her brother, big hound dog eyes that swept sentiment in every glance. She had a heart too big for the turmoil in her life, and she cried about everything. She squeezed my face, and forever referred to me as her gorgeous baby. Bess was as content crying as she was laughing. There wasn’t any in between. She dressed in high heels, tailored suits and carried a hand bag with lots of tissue. She and my Nana, my mother’s mother were very close friends. Bess, her husband, and daughter lived in a house on Doheny Drive that Ben Siegel bought for her. Bess’s husband Solly never uttered a word, and worked for Ben doing odd jobs.
In later years I would live across the street from them, but by then my father had distanced Bess’s family for reasons never revealed.
How I loved to watch Miriam; a saucy brassy Italian from Brooklyn. She propped up her bosom like two statues, waved a long red lacquered nail, and smoked one cigarette after another without ever taking a breath. She shopped everyday, charged everything, and when we were in the room she did not change her act, she let us see what it was really like to be a gangsters wife. Beneath all the enamel and cosmetics she loved my mother unconditionally. Although their characters were strikingly different, they shared that bond. Miriam was married to Doc Stacher, who rose in the ranks to become enforcer for Abner “Longy” Zwillman, the boss of New Jersey. Doc walked with his hands clasped behind, a cigar stub lived on his lip, and he was bald and heavy lidded. He lived in short pants and little white sneakers. Beneath his somewhat harsh and metallic skin was a wreath of worship for Joanne. He didn’t restrict her humor, appetite, or spirit. The more outrageous her behavior the more he approved.
Mafia men make the most outrageously entertaining hosts; nothing is ever out of the question. All they have to do is pick up the phone, and someone in the network will make it happen.
Mafia men don’t get up and go to work. Not one day in his life did my father ever report to an office. When I wasn’t in school, he took me with him in the powder blue Cadillac and we drove the streets of Hollywood visiting friends in delicatessens. We sat in big leather booths while my father and the owners talked. I didn’t know what work was all about. No doubt the conversation was the rackets, the races, or Vegas. I was a very good decoy. What kind of a man takes his daughter to mob meetings? The kind that doesn’t want to look like a mob guy. My father didn’t think I was listening, but I heard a lot.
Rory Calhoun was one of the characters that stood out. He was a western movie star; the Clint Eastwood of his day. Rory was also in the same reformatory as my father as a teen. The Calhoun family and ours spent a lot of time together. They had two daughters and lived in an exotic Spanish villa on a corner of Sunset Boulevard. Inside it was like a movie set, with animal rugs, oil paintings of Spanish Troubadours and Moorish decorations. Rita, Rory’s wife, wore tiny stacked high heels and she clicked across the Spanish tiles like a flamenco dancer. The whole family was blessed with dreamy looks. I remember looking at my reflection in the mirror as Rita combed my hair, and discovering I was not at all pretty. I didn’t realize that I was surrounded with extraordinary beauty; everyone had these exceptional vogue looks. The importance placed on that kind of beauty was just as distorted.
Rita exhumed a stern feminine demeanor, extremely seductive but not without a battle. I learned my first lessons about temptation just by watching her. She fanned the room with perfume and laughter, and men just succumbed like drugged animals. I felt my first tingle of sexuality in the arms of Rory. He was a treasure of natural emotion, conversation, and jokes. They both gambled, borrowed money from the other, and bet on everything.
My mother was raised in East Orange, New Jersey, before the neighborhood changed. My grandmother always said that East Orange used to be a very nice place to live. There is a photograph of my mother at age seven or eight posing in the garden with her German Shepard. She is holding a ruffled parasol, and dressed like a doll. Her face is a bud of innocence, but with a hint of pained modesty. She didn’t flaunt her beauty; it was more of an embarrassment. When her father died suddenly, she elected to help her family financially, and entered her photograph in a Redbook magazine contest. At seventeen years old she won a modeling contract with John Robert Powers in New York City. My mother ascended to an identity that suited her in some ways and restricted her in others. The Powers girls were invited to grand openings of hotels, restaurants and nightclubs. She appeared on stage at New York’s Copacabana Night Club in 1943. On one of those nights my father was in the audience, and that was where the Smiley Casey bridge from East Orange to Hollywood began.