It seems once a month; I am jarred into this part of my family history. Just last week, a woman emailed me information she pulled off a website that I’d never seen. There in the document, was a story about my mother and father.
I began my research fourteen years ago. It started with what I had, one of my father’s books; “The Mark Hellinger Story.” I leafed through the index and there was my father’s name along with Ben Siegel’s. According to the biographer, my father visited Mark at his home the night before he died. Mark had stood up in court for my father and Ben at one of their hearings. He was fond of Ben, like so many people were, that aren’t here to tell their story.
After reading the book I rented, The Roaring Twenties, written by Mark, and from there the connections, relationships, and characters began to leap out from all directions. I submerged myself in history and photocopied pictures of my father’s movie star friends, George Raft, Eddie Cantor, Clark Gable, and his gangsters friends. I found photographs of the nightclubs he frequented, the Copacabana, El Morocco, and Ciro’s and nightclubs that he referred to in his mysterious conversations. I made a collage of the pictures and posted them board above my desk. I played Tommy Dorsey records while I wrote. This microcosm of life that was created, allowed me to listen to the whispers and discover the secrets.
I dug into my father’s history without knowing how deep I had to go, or what shattering evidence would cross my path. In my heart I felt this was crossing a spiritual bridge to my parents. The flip side was a gripping torment, tied to my prying mind. I needed to break into the files in order to break my silence, and discover real people, not glamorized stereotypes that fit into the category of Copa dancer and gangster. No matter what I uncovered, I always knew it would be ambiguous, and controversial. I did not expect to find a record of murder, dope peddling, and prostitution. I believed that his crimes were around the race track, and in gambling partnerships. Even so, I could never understand the similarities we shared, unless I knew them as people. Though I have not rebelled against authority as my father did, I‘m not a team player, I resist authority, and I don’t like waiting in lines.
I had to reinvent my mother through the subconscious. I skated over thin ice trying to set her truth apart, from what I had invented, dreamed, or had been told. I listened to Judy Garland’s recordings, and premonitions surfaced, of how my mother loved Judy, how it felt to be under the spot lights of MGM, and dancing in ginger bread musicals while her own life was draped with film noir drama.
I studied my mother’s face in all her films, rewinding and stopping the tape, as if she might suddenly return my glance. She had dancing and background shots in the musicals produced by Arthur Freed. I remembered dad talking about Arthur, and how prestigious it was to be in his department.
When I discovered the Museum of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, I went down and filled out a slip of paper with my mother’s name on it and waited for my number to be called. I felt something like a mother discovering her child’s first triumph. They handed me a large perfectly stainless manila envelope, and a pair of latex gloves to handle the file. I had to look through it in front of a clerk.
“That’s my mother,” I proclaimed. He blinked and returned his attention to a memo pad. Inside the envelope were black and while glossy studio photographs, press releases, and studio biographies of my mother. The woman who pressed my clothes, washed my hair, and made my tuna sandwiches. There she was in front of the train, for Meet Me in St. Louis, and a promotional photograph in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, dated 1947. That was the year Ben was shot. I looked further to find more clues. I needed to know where she was the night Ben was murdered. Maybe she was on location when it happened. Maybe she was in New York at the opening of the film. I could not place her on June 20, the day Ben was murdered. I imagined my father called her and told her the news. The marriage plans were postponed, their engagement suspended. My father had to get out of town.
I spent everyday picking through the myths I’d heard and read. I heard a clear chord of scorn, for exposing family secrets, “It’s nobody’s business what goes on in our family, don’t discuss our family with anyone, Do You Hear Me!” I must have heard that a thousand times.
I began to dig with an iron shovel. I asked every question I wasn’t supposed to ask, and preyed into every sector of their life. I wanted to know about his childhood, where he grew up, and why he left home when he was thirteen years old. Who were my grandparents, and why didn’t he talk about them. How did he meet Ben Siegel and Johnny Roselli, and when did he cross over into the rackets?
I contacted historians, archivists, judges, attorneys, Police Chiefs, FBI agents, authors and reporters across the United States. He always said, “Reporters can destroy your life overnight.” And here I was, uncovering what he had sheltered all his life.
I wrote to the INS in WDC and asked for their assistance. Six months later I received a letter from the INS in Los Angeles. They acknowledged his file, it was classified and they could not locate it. The progress was tediously slow, and the waiting oppressive.
While I waited for the files, I read Damon Runyon, and Raymond Chandler stories and attempted to identify which character personified which gangster. The stories were about the people that came to my birthday parties, Swifty Morgan, Nick the Greek, Frank Costello and Abner Zwillman,(the Boss of the New Jersey syndicate.) The dialect of Runyon and Winchell mimicked the same anecdotes my father used over and over! By understanding Runyon’s characters I began to know my father. At night I watched old gangster movies and that opened another door of familiarity.
I read almost every book in print about the Mafia and ordered out of print books from all over the country. They began to topple on my head from the shelf above the desk. Allen Smiley was in dozens of them. Every author portrayed him differently, he was a Russian Jew, a criminal, Bugsy’s right hand man, a dope peddler, a race track tout, and sometimes the words bled on my arm. To me, he was a benevolent father, a wise counselor and a man who worshipped me.
The INS claimed my father was one of the most dangerous criminals in the United States. They said he was Benjamin Siegel’s assistant. They said he was taking over now that Ben was gone.
That day I put the file away, and looked into the window of truth. How much could I bear to hear more?