Submerged in film and gangster history, assembling photographs of my father’s movie star friends, his gangsters’ friends, photographs of the nightclubs he frequented, I pasted these into a collage and posted it above my desk. I played Tommy Dorsey and all the big band leaders of the thirties records imagining these props would provoke memories and a sense of identity to my parents.
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. Dad’.s compulsorily privacy was in my hands now and so was voice. He was inside my head reading his lines. “Stay out of my room–out of my affairs–out of my life!”
“I have to break into your life to break my silence. I want to understand you and Mommy.”
“Don’t expect any help from me! Put your nose in another book, the Allen Smiley story isn’t for sale.”
No matter what I uncovered I knew it would be ambiguous and controversial. I was certain there would be no record of murder, dope peddling, or prostitution. Even so, I could never understand the similarities we shared, unless I knew them as people. The ethereal staging did more than provoke memories; a sense of belonging rooted me to the golden years of Hollywood.
I was completely uneducated in the craft of research. My first phone call was to the Beverly Hills Police Department. They were not very helpful after I told them who my father was.
‘The Bugsy Siegel case is still open. We cannot release any files on your father. Call the Criminal District Office; they’ll have records of him there.’ The case was open? Sounded a bit squishy to me.
On a stormy day when the queen palms whipped though torrential rain, flooded streets and metallic clouds hanging low like a net over the sky I was on my way to the Criminal District Office in the Hall of Justice on Spring Street. Unfamiliar to me, but somehow as I walked up the prolonged steps it was recognizable from films and television. The Courthouse, the County Jail, all that authority in an unmarked white stucco building. Not a blade of grass out of place. When I arrived at the entrance my heart was racing. My father’s voice did not interfere with my direction but I felt his disapproval. The first person I confronted was an imposing woman with a sternness that studied me.
“May I help you?”
“I hope so. I apologize for the intrusion. I don’t have an appointment.”
“What are you asking?”
“I am looking for whatever files you have on my father.”
She reached for the desk drawer and passed me a form. She asked me to step aside and fill it out.
“My father died twelve years ago. I don’t have any other family to explain things to me.”
“I’m not at liberty to give you any information.”
“I know that. Can you tell me if you have files on Benjamin Siegel?”
“You mean Bugsy?”
“Was your father Bugsy?”
“No, he was … his friend.”
“What was his name?”
“Allen Smiley.” She turned to her computer and entered something. She read from the screen and then removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes.
“Your father is in the system.”
I gave her the form with his FBI number and started to leave.
“Here, come back. I found the criminal case numbers. The numbers are 19778, 19926, and she read out nine different cases. As I watched her write these down I thought they know things about my father that I don’t.
“Bring these to the National Archives in Laguna Nigel.” She said.
Outside the clouds converged over the San Bernadino Mountains. The strain to see through reminded me of my own predicament; how to see through the fog of secrecy and ambiguity. The following day I drove to the National Archives. I didn’t know such a place existed. A polite man took my case numbers and when he returned he was wheeling a shopping cart of files. His name was Bill Doty.
“So your Dad was Allen Smiley?”
“Yes. You’ve heard of him?”
“There’s a lot written about him in Johnny Roselli’s files. I know he was very close to Johnny. We have ten-thousand pages on him.”
I looked at the brown manila files he stacked on a desk for me.
“I’ll be here all day.”
“We close at four o’ clock. Do you want to see the Roselli files?”
“Not just yet–I have to read these first.” The files took me on a criss-cross chase of a man I didn’t know. The case files included testimonies, court transcripts, appeals, and newspaper articles.
“How’s it going?” Bill appeared.
“This is a novel. Like reading about some one else.”
“Do you recognize any of the names?”
Even now twenty-two years later I can conjure up the exact image of that sterile polished reading room, my stomach churning, the sound of the doors opening and closing, and Bill’s footsteps on the waxed tile floor. Crunched over the stack of documents I read my father’s answers to Examining Officers questions, from an Immigration and Naturalization Agency (INS) hearing in 1962.
“ Were you closely associated with Benjamin Siegel for the three years prior to his murder?”
“The only way I could explain it, was a friendly association.”
“Friendly business association or friendly social association?”
“Just the same type of friendly association that I have with people in every occupation of life. By the same token, I have had the occasion to have the President of Notre Dame in my home, Father Cavanaugh, Doctors, Lawyers, people of every description. I go by the golden rule. I treat people the way I like to be treated.”
The faded black type on his three page arrest record elevated my distress; assault, bookmaking, operating without a liquor license, robbery, extortion, contempt of court, suspicion of robbery, suspicion of murder, the words blurred. Suspicion of murder? Maybe Jack was right; Dad had more involvement than a friendly association. Every few hours I went outdoors and sat on a bench to breathe. My stomach was stiff as those fastened files. It was a feeling I’d never experienced in my life.
Bill circled around me as I slumped further into the past, the florescent lights blinding me. When I closed the files, and told him I’d be back in a week, Bill insisted I see the Johnny Roselli archives. There were eight shelves on either side of the aisle, and while I gazed at this galactic inventory the face of Johnny erupted. Seated in a red leather booth at La Dolca Vita, sipping red wine, his eyes
watery pools filled with the density of his life.
“Have you read Ed Becker’s book, All American Mafioso?” Bill asked. He randomly pulled a file from the rack.
“You should; your Dad is in it. Look at this history so few people know about. The government hired Roselli to assassinate Castro! You have to read these files.”