My first interview on Dad, when I listen now it reminds me how liberating it was to talk about my family history.
Luellen Smiley is the daughter of reputed mobster, Allen Smiley. Smiley’s dad was a close friend and confidant of famous Las Vegas mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and he was sitting on the couch just feet away from Siegel the night he was murdered. While Luellen Smiley hadn’t been born at the time o…
I’ve adopted a savant to facilitate making decisions. I don’t want to use the word hate, it’s useless, but this time I will, I hate making decisions. Whether to go out for dinner, or go to one of villages’ festivals, parades, or events, they rake up events during the winter to keep us off drugs. This weekend was a village-wide Friday sale for shopping, the lighted tractor parade, and appetizers at all the shops in town. Sounded pleasurable and I’m proud of the village to induct us into a community of we care about you. I didn’t go, but I did go out for Thanksgiving dinner in a restaurant I’d never been to, festive crowded, and the tempting buffet twinkled like the first time I’d seen decorated food. It’s been five years since I’ve gone out for Thanksgiving so the jubilee of food was a bit musical. I ordered a glass of wine at the bar, the only customer as everyone had reserved tables for grandparents and children and the roar was melodious. My order to go would wait, the celebratory ambiance shattered my loneliness. The bartender, Jovida was like a lightbulb, she kept coming over to me maybe three times asking me polite questions, have you been here before, you must come on the weekends we have live music, while you’re having your wine can I bring you something from the buffet. I wondered if I’d be charged, she noticed my hesitation and said, No charge. So I choose smoked salmon, capers, onion, and horseradish. On m wish list if I’m allowed to eat in heaven, along with Gruyere cheese, tacos, salad, and croissants. The bliss, was a sandwich of bustling eager activity, laughter, and the children. I remember our family Thanksgiving when my parents were divorced and we went to Nana’s home in San Fernando Valley, through that old tunnel. My mother’s mother is full-flecked Irish so the dinner was grand, and she was a dedicated cooking slave. She made mashed potatoes like I’ve never tasted since, and homemade pies, everything spiced with Nana’s kinship with making the family love her.
I left the restaurant after an hour later with a jubilant bag of turkey, fixings, and pumpkin pie. I found my seat on the bedroom sofa, and watched, ‘ The Train’ with Burt Lancaster. My thoughts were rested, abated for the whole evening, and then the next day, turkey revenge. I could not get out of bed, eat, or think. So I said to myself, it’s okay to do nothing and so I watched a romantic comedy, ‘ Cardboard Husband,’ with Norma Sherer and Robert Taylor, removed three-year-old lipstick and liners, shopped online without buying, saved for later my way of shopping. Then I threw the dice and I got seven. That is where my decisions are now made. If I don’t get a seven with seven throws, I don’t go out or make a decision. If I get it once- I’m on! It was a perfect day for thanks. I think we should have a Thanksgiving Holiday three or four times a year.
In the Time of Covid-19
Continued from Friends for All Seasons 1.
THE CLASSMATE THAT wrote is named Andrew. I imagine he’s married; a man with his looks and gregarious personality living in Los Angeles all these years. Maybe he married one of our high school classmates. We exchanged a few emails in two thousand eight, he’d just returned from a trip to Poland and I was managing the gallery. Then the crash came and I think my correspondence dropped. Why was he thinking of me? I don’t have any photographs from high school, I suppose I could look him up in the yearbook. I’ll wait till he writes again.
The sky is crystal blue, and the temperature a mild fifty degrees. From my window, the leaves dropping makes me think the trauma and suffering the last four years has dropped from my life. What the trauma was about is irrelevant and too lengthy to write. We all get sent to the chopping block of heartache and this was mine. This is as liberating as taking off a tight bra after a long day!
September has traditionally been my month of transition. It’s a sort of pattern that began years ago and so making decisions is as if I’m on a time clock. What is most essential now is finding a new place to call home. I began looking at Santa Barbara. I loved visiting the city by the sea, those beautiful mountains, and quaint craftsman architecture. So what if I don’t know anyone, I’ll be alone regardless of where I move. Easily accomplished in my fifties, not so improvisational at sixty-seven.
Rapturous Autumn day; this year the transformation of nature, outdoor activities, cider doughnuts, smoking fireplaces, and a crispness that reminds me of breaking open a head of lettuce. What really happens to us in the East is fall descends like a new stage and the props from summer are removed. The mums come out on the porches, and the bright yellow and gold plants dot every porch. The conventional lifestyle and customary activities placate our sense of belonging. Christmas, wow, it’s only a short time till winter. In the dressing room unpacking more sweaters, socks, warm-ups, I get an alert, another email. Andrew added another compliment so my response was crush-worthy. Why not? Maybe fantasy is what is needed. Remerging silhouettes, all of us on the front lawn at lunch time, and boys are pairing up with girls and Andrew is laughing, making clownish faces and gestures, yes he was crush-worthy. He walked in long strides, visible energy and every step seemed to have a purpose. The boy I was in love with graduated, and I did not have a boyfriend. My shyness and restrained conversational skills excluded me from invitations to date. Maybe that’s why he didn’t take notice of me observing him, a lot of classmates had crushes on him.
The reality of COVID-19 is now the centerfold story because it is affecting everyone; the excruciating financial loss, death, sickness, and loneliness. It’s more like acceptance that this is our job now to tolerate COVID-19. Restrictions, circumstances of failed businesses we all loved, fear, and more fear call for an imaginary friend who I haven’t seen in fifty years. He replied with a formal note of response that he was on Facebook and could we be friends. I wrote back, yes. I am listening to the soundtrack from the film A Man and A Woman while chopping vegetables for soup. This music has formed a flame of optimism for the day I’m in love and let go of singleness.
On Facebook Andrew’s feature photos reveal the teenager I remember. He is a photographer, a Neuro Technician, and in his twenties an actor and model … hum, sounds like my resume, professional career changer. His photos sent a quiver through my veins, a call to read everything on his page, and view videos of his European travels: beautifully crafted images of architecture, monuments, art, culture, and locals. It deepened my understanding of his life just by his photos and posts. The other side, his appearance; the facial features, keen brown eyes, uncensored or rehearsed self-photos, group photos with our high school mates at the reunions, his long wavy hair, and his defined lips and cheekbones tingled curiosity.
The photos of Andrew at the class reunions next to my best friend and other classmates I remembered brought a snowstorm of memories. How I loved my friends back then. About six of us went everywhere together; bought our first bras, learned to drive, went to Westwood Village to look for cute boys, sat in the booths at Mario’s Pizza, Hamburger Hamlet, and The Apple Pan and all of it on ten or twenty dollars a week allowance. I have not been to a reunion since the tenth. Andrew posted photos from several. He stayed connected. Fifty years have passed, and he’s on my mind. To be continued.
SOME OF YOU may have already seen my announcement on Facebook. For those that have not, my memoir CRADLE OF CRIME- A Daughter’s Tribute, is now available on Amazon in the USA, Canada, and the UK.
I began writing my way home in 1996.
If you choose to read I’d love to hear back from you!
The throw of the dice this week lands on Adventures in Livingness. The last time I wrote a column about life beyond the book was the Malibu series. I’m still tainted by the U-Turn out of Malibu, but as Dad always said, ‘If you fall off the horse you get back on!’ That’s what this book is all about; just how impressionable we are as children.
My pals who have commented after reading this material in six different memoirs are immensely important to this writer. Word press followers, you are recognized with every comment! Pals, Baron, Blair, and Stone who took my hand into the offices of agents and editors thank you for believing in my dice!
Santa Fe. NM 3/26/2016
A photographic day for capturing the stillness of light on the rose buds. Winter was a lot of writing, editing, and films. I must have seen a hundred this winter. All easy paved paths to escape. The one I’d recommend is Divided We Fall; a Polish film set during the occupation of Poland. The Director managed to weave suffering and horror with extraordinary hope and brotherhood. If you like mystery-crime dramas, Nine Queens, an Argentinian film that rattles the roots of a cheaters.
A FEW DAYS LATER
Today is sprayed gray and white cloud cover, and tiny drops of wet snow. I call the climate of Santa Fe, a woman with PMS. I’m listening to Nat King Cole and withering under a hang-over after a sensational evening with Brother Marc, (the son I wanted) White Zen, his Mother, and Rudy. I’ve watched Marc grow up. Over the last seven years he’s transformed from a shy, confused young adult, into a man of the mountain; wilderness is his passion. He drives those big snow plow machines and grooms the mountains in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. He works at night and when he takes a break he looks at the stars. Six-foot thin muscle, shoulder brown curls, and eyes shaped like two row boats filled with blue water. He’s not only handsome, his instincts, original expression, and amusing bellowing deep voice tie this lad up in someone you love. He’s an original. You never get the question or answer you expect; he pulls wisdom from his head and heart as easily as folding a napkin. One two three–a brand of thinking shoots out and I just look at him bewildered. Marc is a twenty-nine year old frontiersman and has been since he was knee high on a San Francisco skateboard. The Revenant!
Easter brings people together and I’ve sensed a developing surge to be in a group. Distanced friends come closer, family is the bread and butter of vacation, I see so many of them at La Posada, and couples are cooperating. No one needs to hug a pillow when they go to sleep is my motto.
My rise above familiar surroundings and comfort began the day Brussels was terror stricken and all Belgians became one. I checked on Twitter that day, and was touched so deeply when I read the dozens of tweets offering shelter, food, and clothes for those in need. If I were a lifestyle journalist I’d go there and write about the emotional and physical patterns that will change over time. Imagine the consciousness’ of those personally affected after experiencing a bomb exploding beside them. I’ve asked a few people how they feel about terrorism. Some are inflamed and others refuse to discuss the matter as it elicits political commentary. Terrorism has infiltrated the shuffle of disappointment and raised the inner riot in my head to world events. The importance of conversation so we don’t feel alone is vibrating. I don’t mean in text and twitter. It is too instant to embrace. What happened to,
‘You’ll feel better if you talk about it’ psychology?
After a few weeks of submitting the book and reading rejection emails, I realized I wasn’t as prepared as I thought. Not taking rejections personally is like a handshake after you’ve been swindled. I moused over to JK Rowlings and read a few rejection letters she posted after submitting a manuscript under the name of Richard Galbraith. One of the letters suggested she join a writers workshop! Anonymous writers like actors, musicians, artists, and photographers are caught in the storm of celebritism. If you are unrecognized the brick and mortar you have to break through is an Olympian challenge.
I was writing a lengthy portrayal of Ben Siegel one day and it occurred to me that he had become a major character in my life. He played a role that someone else should have; a noted author, or journalist, or poet. Ben Siegel changed my history because I had to learn to love him. Learning to love him meant erasing everything I had read or heard. It is said he was a ruthless killer, a savage, violent, and that he loved to kill. I turned to look at a photograph of my mother. I was told that she loved Ben too. Where once I believed my mother was naïve and uninformed, I know this wasn’t the case. She knew from the beginning. Mom fit into this strangely singular and controversial group of people. I see her in the full frame of who she was. (she is on the right in MGM Ziegfeld Follies 1946) I like her this way because it raised my self esteem; my rebelliousness came from both parents.
While writing about Dad I questioned my prolonged interest in his choices, behavior, and his secrecy. I asked Uncle Myron who shared the same history. Myron reaffirmed that my father was a true to the code gangster. No one ever got him to talk about what he knew or had seen.
Children feel the repression of truth as clearly as they do the pain of bruise. The more you hide or bandage the more they seek and peek. At my root is the inclination to question the world around me, and to mend the breaks in life that molded my identity.
Along the way of the first chapter, I discovered that people like to know how it works; how we write in a state of solitude and selfishness. A story or any work of art lives in the artist and God. Miracles do happen!
Growing Up with Gangsters
By: Luellen Smiley
The memoir is written in the Creative Nonfiction genre and is ninety-two thousand words.
Writing my way home began as a compass to my secretive and dishonorable family history. This is the story of a woman whose survival was wedged between shameless love and immobilizing fear of her father.
After my almost perfect mother, Lucille Casey, an MGM musical actress died, Dad gained custody of me. I was thirteen years old. What followed was a nail-biting tumultuous father daughter relationship between Allen Smiley, a Hollywood gangster, and his teenage daughter, that I’ve named Lily.
As Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel’s best friend and business partner from 1937 until his death in 1947, Dad acclaimed Ben Siegel. He was seated next to him the night Ben was murdered. The fatal outcome was speculation of his involvement fed by the FBI to the media, death threats from Mob associates, and vicious harassment from the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
I’ve learned by this time Dad had amassed a weighty criminal record, was under indictment for false claim of citizenship, perjury, and an order of deportation. After demonstrating to the Mob he wasn’t going to seek immunity offered by the government; they honored and protected his life. Their methods are described in transcripts from the FBI files; amusing, violent,and illegal. Dad served the organization until his death in 1982.
Faced with an identity meltdown ten years after Dad died I implored his friends, associates, attorney, historians, FOIPA, Immigration and Naturalization Agency, and Archives of the Department of Justice, to build the branches of my family tree. Along this irreversible journey I suffered disgrace, rage, and Dad’s ghostly disapproval as I delved into the files and discovered the family secrets.
Simultaneous with the reading is a dissection of my reactions to his criminal activities, gambling addiction, attempt at reformation, and hatred for the government. The vendetta the government placed on him for not informing earned my mother’s silent devotion. In the end they won. She divorced him.
I could be mute about the subject, or expose what I know because I’ve made the family history mine.
Incorporated within stories of discovery are government surveillance records, newspaper articles, court testimony, and criminal activities that defamed his reputation and our family.
As the discoveries occur the reader is taken inside the transformation of my identity. Once liberated from Dad’s paranormal disapproval of my investigation, I break my silence and begin writing columns about growing up with gangsters. This opened the doors to unknown relatives, mob friends, and an identity that suits me well.
A startling yet an inspirational look inside the struggle of a gangster’s daughter to understand her father’s allegiance to the Mob.
Excerpt from Smiley’s Dice.
I don’t know how much more of this I can process. I don’t feel Dad’s disapproval as strongly; this expository involving my mother is deepening my resentment for the government. This is just one binder of two-hundred pages, and I have fifty binders. I’ll rearrange my dresser drawers or hand-wash sweaters for awhile. It’s too early to have a glass of wine! Two days have passed, as my resistance to more reading of these FBI files was due to a suspended state of melancholia.
April 13th- FBI file
“Smiley received a call from —— and told Smiley that he was thinking of going into business with —–who is making twelve thousand a month putting on stag shows. Smiley told him not to get into the business. —told Smiley that he had attended a ball game and noticed that George Raft was there. Raft is now sporting a mustache and his cheeks are all sunken in, making him look like a drowned rat. Smiley did not like this comment.”
“____ asked Smiley how his case was coming along, and Smiley replied,” They are going to ship me to Singapore”
After the forgoing call was made, the conversation continued concerning _______ between Smiley, paramour of Jack Dragna, and Lucille Casey. While Casey was getting ready to go out to dinner, this unidentified woman, became very cozy with Smiley, according to the informant, and stated,
“ Take my advice and don’t talk on the telephone. You can sit right here and they can listen to you from over that hill. I know this because we have been on the other side all the time.” Smiley replied he had an idea of that and she remarked that Smiley was a good guy, and she thought she should warn him.”
Signed R.B. Hood
Special Agent in Charge.
Dear Readers: Some of you followers may recognize this segment from previous versions.
It was the first time I could read the inscription.
To Smiley, from your pal, Ben. It was the same man in the “Green Felt Jungle.” The photograph placed next to it was of Harry Truman with a similar inscription dated 1963. The disparity of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel alongside Harry Truman wouldn’t mean anything to me for another thirty years.
I opened the top drawer of his dresser, thinking I might find a gun. It was fastidiously organized with compartment trays for rolls of coins, a jewelry tray of diamond cuff-links, rings, and watches, and another tray of newspaper clippings. The next drawer was stacked with neatly folded shirts in tissue paper. Under that was a drawer with a lock on it.
“What are you doing in my bedroom?” I slammed the drawer muted by Dad’s abrupt appearance. He pulled a key from his pocket and locked the drawers. His hands shook, and the veins in his neck inflamed.
“HOW DARE YOU GO INTO MY THINGS? What is it you’re looking for? Speak up! What are you looking for?”
“I was looking for pictures?” I stammered.
“What kind of pictures?”
“You’re lying to me! Don’t think you can fool me, you can’t. You want to see photographs have a look at this one.” Then he pointed to the picture of Ben Siegel. He reminded me of a snarling wolf about to rip my head off. I looked down at the ground and held my breath.
“Now you listen to me and don’t forget this for the rest of your life. This is Benjamin Siegel! He was my dearest and closest friend. You’re going to hear a lot of lies and hearsay about him. They call him “Bugsy,” but don’t let me ever catch you using that term. He was our friend! The best friend I ever had.”
“What else do you want to know? Let’s discuss it right now! ”
“Daddy, what is the Mafia?”
He stared at me clenching and unclenching his fists; his eyes smoldering with rage.
“Who have you been talking to?”
“I heard it at school.”
“There is no such thing as, “THE MAFIA”! Don’t let me ever catch you using that term again! Have I made myself clear?”
I stepped back to the wall and he took me by the shoulders shaking me in tempo with his threats. I was frozen solid. His anger was his weapon and he scared me to death.
“Say it–there’s no such thing as the Mafia! I repeated it, and started to cry. He raised his arms as if he was going to hit me, then he implored.
“I’m not going to hit you! I’ve never laid a finger on you! If I ever catch you prying into my things, or discussing what goes on in our home, I’ll throw you out on the street. Now go to your room and think about what I’ve just said.”
Later that night confined to my bedroom, I took out the diary my mother had given me. This was when the diary became my best friend. I shoved it in my bureau drawer and covered it with lingerie. At thirteen my diary was safer than asking questions. The era of secrecy began.
The day I was born, May 11, 1953 the headlines of the The Los Angeles Time read:
GANGSTERS INVADE SOUTHLAND CITIES.
Among gangsters and their hangers-on named were Abe (Longy) Zwillman, Frankie Carbo, Meyer Lansky, Allen Smiley, whose true name is Aaron Smehoff, Gerald Catena and William Bischoff.
When I met Daddy he had salty sea blue eyes and when my actions were worthy of laughter, his eyes retracted into a blur of skin. Dressed in perfectly matched shades of pink, silver and blue my child eyes rested cheerfully on his silk ties, a collage of jewel tones. The feel of his fabric was soft like blankets. He was very interesting to look at when I was a child and open to all this detail.
I clung to his neck in the back seat of his baby blue Cadillac. He sang songs and his hand fluttered about, catching me by surprise behind my head, and his laughter echoed in my ears. Sometimes we drove through the Paramount Studio Gates, and I was chauffeured in a cart to the Western Stage where we watched cowboys and musical dancers. I was too young to understand this was just a film; thus began my insatiable yearning to be a dancer.
Rory Calhoun was one of the stars Dad was close pals with. Just this week I dug into research about Rory Calhoun. I learned he died in 1999, and that he’d also been a ward in Preston Reformatory where Dad was sent at eighteen years old. Rory came a few years later.
We spent a lot of time with the Calhoun family. They had two girls the same age as me. Their exotic Spanish villa on Whittier Drive and Sunset enraptured my girlish senses. 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 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 as my examination.
Rita danced 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, physically and orally. They both gambled, borrowed money from the other, and they bet on everything.
On Sunday we went to Beverly Park, a cherished amusement park across from where the whimsical Beverly Center shopping Mall is today. I was only two years old when Dad slung me over a big stinky pony, and insisted I ride around the ring so he could snap photographs.
Inside the Cadillac, insulated from the outside world by metal and glass, he drove without intention of destination, or so it seemed. Though I didn’t know it, he often changed directions to confuse a tailing federal agent. The places he took me became our secret. Sometimes he asked me to close my eyes and count to a hundred. It was a game; he wouldn’t tell me where we were going. I’d open my eyes and we’d be somewhere unfamiliar, a storefront, hotel room, or someone’s home.
When the Ringling Brothers Circus came to town, Dad took me every weekend and I met some of the performers. He was no less enthusiastic about the circus than I was. Now I understand as I’ve learned he traveled with Ringling Brothers for a year just after he landed in New York. He was in the wardrobe department! How suitable to his style. Everyone we knew was in some kind of act.
I remember places like Canters Deli on Fairfax. We always had the same waitress, the one with a big air-tight bee-hive.
“ What’ll it be today honey?”
“ I’ll have a hot dog.”
“ No. Last time you got sick. Honey, get her a turkey sandwich. I have to talk to some people outside–make sure she doesn’t leave. “
“Sure thing Mr. Smiley, you go ahead.”
“When are you coming back Daddy?”
“When you finish your lunch. Be a good girl.”
While I waited for the sandwich, I watched the waitresses very closely. They entertained me; their husky voices and swift mannerisms as they swooshed between tables, calling out orders, “ Matzo ball soup–chicken on the side, Russian on rye no mayonnaise.” Sometimes he left me long after the sandwich was gone. I’d turn and watch the door, to see if he’d come in, or ask the waitress.
“ Would you please tell my father I’m finished.”
“Finished already! What about dessert? How about a slice of cheesecake?” Even if I said no, she’d bring me dessert. Several times I was left so long that I got up and went outside looking for him. I noticed my father down the street talking with some other men. I ran back to the booth and waited. When he came back to the table, I asked him,
“Where were you Daddy?”
“I had to meet someone about business. You remember what I told you—Mommy doesn’t have to know about this.”
“I remember.” Why my outings with Dad remained fixated as birth marks is because they were filled with wonder, amusement, and mystery. My father mixed a little business with my pleasure, but it wasn’t obvious because no one had an office. His business associates worked out of shoe stores, cigar stands, hotels, barber shops; all sorts of fronts that camouflaged the booking of bets.
I bet too. That when I lose I never give up on the silver lining.
LUCILLE CASEY SMILEY
All my life people have asked me the same questions:” What’s it like knowing your father is a gangster? How old were you when you found out? Aren’t you afraid of his friends? You know they kill people.”
I live in a temporary tide-pool, a lily
floating against the current, weighted
down by a suit of armor that shields me
from the beauty, love and freedoms stirring in my bud.
What seemed insignificant at the time was the diving board into my Dad’s history. I was watching a Bugsy Siegel documentary on my television in San Diego during 1993. It was the first one I’d seen. Three historians joined in on the violence Bugsy honored and esteemed. Half-way through the celebratory lynching of Bugsy and his pals, a reporter made the statement that ‘It’s obvious Allen Smiley was there to set Bugsy up for the hit.’ Andy Edmonds stated that Dad conveniently disappeared into the kitchen during the time of the shooting. It wasn’t until a photograph of my dad appeared on the screen; a man with thick graying hair that I noticed an expression I’d never seen, horrifying misery. I moved closer to the television to see his face up close. A kaleidoscope of emotions rose to the surface: anger, shame, curiosity, and disbelief. I was forty years old.
The first time I’d seen those photographs of Ben Siegel slumped on that sofa; an eye bleeding down his face was a day back in 1966 at the age of thirteen. My best friend Dena lived in Brentwood with her divorced mother and siblings. We hooked in the unfamiliar and confusing imbalance of a broken home life. Dena was suffering depression after her parents divorced and I was dangling from my father’s fingertips hopelessly conflicted after my mother died. Dena wouldn’t let a day go by without calling me. ‘Are you all right?’ She didn’t like my father and her reasons were mature beyond her years, ‘Your father scares me.’ After school one afternoon we stopped in the Brentwood Pharmacy. Dena was looking at the book rack and I was following along.
“Lily, my mother told me your father is in a book, The
Green Felt Jungle. It’s about gangsters. Wanna see if they have it?” I agreed to look because Dena was interested, but it meant nothing to me. She twirled the book rack around as I stood behind her watching.
“That’s the book! Let me look first and see what it says,” she whispered. I could feel her arm tense up as I grasped it.
“Oh my God! There he is,” she said. We hunched over the book and read the description of my father, “Allen Smiley, one of Ben Siegel’s closest pals in those days, was seated at the other end of the sofa when Siegel was murdered.” Dena covered her mouth with one hand and kept reading silently.
“What does that mean? Who is Siegel?” I asked.
“Shush–not so loud. I’m afraid to tell you this. It’s awful.”
“What’s awful? Tell me.”
“Bugsy Siegel was a gangster in the Mafia. He killed people. Your father was his associate.”
“I don’t think I should see this.” I turned around abruptly to leave the drugstore. Dena followed me out.”
“Lily you can’t tell your father you saw this book. Please don’t tell him I told you.”
“My mother told me not to tell you. Swear to me you won’t tell your father!”
“I won’t. Don’t you tell anyone either.”
A few days later after Dad left for the evening I opened the door to his guarded bedroom. I walked around the bed to a get a closer look at the photographs on the wall. It was the first time I could read the inscription.
In the summer of 1994, infuriated from a broken affair, another job displacement, and skimpy funds to support me, I found myself in Beverly Hills, walking along with half-hearted interest in seeking employment.
I stopped in the shops Dad frequented; Geary’s, Schwab’s, and Nate ‘n Al Delicatessen seeking a root to hang onto.
Beverly Hills has the most powerful effect on me. As soon as I hit Beverly Drive I want to shop, need to shop, must shop! A rise of envy turns into jealously and my attention to wealth fades as Rodney Dangerfield crosses the street, his face contorted by some agitation. I walked past Jack Taylor’s Men’s Haberdashery and hesitated a moment. I had not seen Jack in ten years. The last time was 1982, at my father’s memorial service. Jack was the only friend Dad trusted outside of the Mob.
“Hi Jack, I was in the neighborhood, I wanted to say hello?”
“Jesus Christ! What a surprise,” he said rushing over to kiss me.
“Come in and sit down. My God, where have you been-what have you been doing?” Jack’s attention toward me was exacting and unavoidable.
“I’m in transition right now. I’ve changed careers-well, several times. I was in real estate in San Diego for a long time.”
“I knew you were in real estate, your Dad told me. What are you doing now?” Are you married?”
“No, not married. I’m living here now, and looking for a job.”
“What kind of job?”
“Well, something where I can use my skills in marketing and…”
“Why not come work for me?” he said leaning closer.
“Here, in the store?”
“Yeah, why not? You’ll be great.” he beamed.
“But I’ve never sold men’s clothes before.”
“So what! I’ll teach you. I need someone–my girl just left. I want to get out and play golf. I’ve spent my whole life in this goddamn business. Forty years for Christ’s sake. I’m tired, you know, I’m not a young man anymore,” he said without sentiment.
I hope he’s not doing this because he feels sorry for me, was what I was thinking. I heard my Dad’s voice, and he said, ‘Be grateful he offered you a job! You’ll be in the centerfold of high rollers.’ Dad still managed to interface my life in admonishment and disapproval. He was not just in my head. He was in command of my choices. His disapproval was still the beam I ducked from. Sometimes I felt his presence; like you do when a cat enters a room silent as snow.
The next day I called Jack and told him I could start the following Monday. Jack is a legend in Beverly hills; he cut cloth for the Rat Pack, Jackie Gleason, Tony Martin, Cary Grant President Truman and Allen Smiley.
A custom suit starts at three-thousand dollars. I stood by the front windows folding the finest cotton shirts, cashmere sweaters, and ties. Jack jogged back and forth, from the tailor shop to the retail shop, to the telephone, juggling all their demands with explosive keenness and a lot of cussing. This was a stage I wasn’t prepared for; the illustrious display of wealth on the street. I’d forgotten people still have their own drivers, and valets open the shop doors, and limousines double park in the middle of the street. It just dazzled me into a sort of trance.
“Lily! You’re standing there like a lick of honey in a hive of rich bees. Want me to introduce you to one of them?”
“I’m not ready.”
“For crying out loud! What are you waiting for? Stop looking out the window for Christ’s Sake. Get them to look at you!” Jack escorted me to the women’s collection and yanked out a suit.
“Try this on. You’re a six right?”
“Yes, how’d you know?”
“Whatta’ you think I do in this shop? Weigh turkeys.”
The best time of the day was four o’clock in the afternoon. Jack fixed himself a high ball, turned up the volume on a Frank Sinatra CD, and took off his mask. He poured me a drink, placed a bowl of mixed nuts on the coffee table and stretched out on the leather sofa.
We both wanted to talk about Dad.
“I watched a documentary on Ben Siegel; they alluded that dad had something to do with Ben’s murder.” I said.
“You’re lucky your father will never hear you say that. Dad spent a lifetime in fear that they’d take him out too. He tried to stay away from the business, he wasn’t even allowed back in Vegas after one incident. You know about the Ryan business?”
“No. What was that?”
“Forget it.” He stood up and filled his glass again.
“Your father had a temper, but he was a rose petal compared to Siegel. Anyway, Dad couldn’t leave this goddamn town; he was afraid they wouldn’t let him come back.”
“But he got his citizenship in 1966. Why couldn’t he leave after that?”
“It was you— he was afraid something might happen. These other guys like Meyer and Costello–they were afraid of nothing.”
“I met Meyer.” I said.
“Yeah, so you know.”
“I don’t know. Meyer was very gentle.”
“You’re Al Smiley’s daughter! That’s different. He wasn’t always so gentle.” Jack shook his head, private thoughts stirred.
“Your Dad tried to stay low, but he couldn’t walk away from the thing,” he said shaking his head.
“What thing?” I persisted.
“For Christ’s sake, what are we talking about? You know, the Mafia.”
“My father wasn’t in the Mafia!”
“Sweetheart I’m just telling you what I know. Maybe I’m wrong.”
“But he couldn’t have been. I mean my mother wouldn’t have married him.” Jack threw his arms up in frustration.
“He was Siegel’s partner, and then Roselli’s right arm! When Johnny was murdered your father changed.” Jack shook his head regrettably and continued.
“How did he change?” I asked.
Just then the door swung open and a distinguished man in a suit and overcoat walked in.
THE SNOW SEDATED the choppy feeling in my stomach, the conjecture of discovering why my father was wired with anxiety. His whole life was a chase scene: arrest him, convict him, send him to Russia, and never pull the tap from his apartment, or the FBI guys from his tail.
Me, Diane Friedman and Cindy Frisch.
Now there is a wash over my interpretation of his obsessive, protective, paranoia, distrust, and interrogation of my friends. I wonder if those gals I grew up with knew about Dad from their parents’. I relied heavily on the open arms of my friend’s families. They’re remembered more than my teachers: The Blair’s, Bourne’s, Both Friedman’s, Frisch’s, Hoffman’s, Pindler’s, Saunders, Schwadel’s, Taubman’s, and the Tefkin’s. Hope I didn’t leave anyone out. I left out the Berman’s and the Crosby’s.
By MARTIN ZEILIG
On the evening of June 20, 1947, less than six months after he opened the Flamingo Hotel-Casino in Las Vegas, Ben “Bugsy” Siegel died in a barrage of bullets through the front windows while sitting on a couch in his Beverly Hills mansion at 810 Linden Drive.Assassinated at the age of 41, Siegel was one of the USA’s most notorious gangsters.
Al Smiley (1907-1984), a former Winnipegger, was with Siegel that evening.
“My dad was seated inches away from Siegel, on the sofa, and took three bullets through the sleeve of his jacket,” said Luellen Smiley, a creative non-fiction writer, award-winning newspaper columnist and Mob historian, who lives in Sante Fe, New Mexico.
She consented to an interview with The Jewish Post & News earlier this winter.
“He was brought in as a suspect. His photograph was in all the newspapers,” said Luellen.
“He was the only nonfamily member who had the guts to go to the funeral.”
So who was Al Smiley?
Born in Kiev, Ukraine in 1907 as Aaron Smehoff, Smiley and his family – father Hyman, mother Anne, sister Gertrude (who became a school teacher and lived in Winnipeg until her death many decades later), brothers Samuel and Benjamin – immigrated to Winnipeg when he was five, said Luellen Smiley, during a recent telephone interview with this reporter from her home in Sante Fe, New Mexico.
“My grandfather was a kosher butcher and delicatessen owner,” she continued, noting that the family home and butcher shop was located at 347 Aberdeen Avenue.
“He maintained an Orthodox household and expected that his eldest son would become a rabbi. But, my father was rebellious and interested in sports, especially hockey.”
This caused conflict between the willful youth and his rigid, religious father.
So, the teenager fled Winnipeg for greener pastures in Detroit, Michigan via Windsor, Ontario in 1923.
He got a job travelling with the Ringling Brothers Circus and ended up in California where he was arrested for a drugstore robbery in San Francisco and sent to Preston Reformatory School in Ione, California, Luellen noted.
“It was there that he met legendary movie director Cecil B. DeMille,” she said.
“He was doing some sort of research for a movie. My father asked him for a job in the movie industry upon his release, and DeMille agreed. He found my dad work in a wardrobe department.
He later became a property man, then a grip, the person in charge of production on a set, and eventually a producer.”
He befriended celebrities like George Raft, Eddie Cantor, Clark Gable, Lauren Bacall, along with such gangster associates as Ben Siegel.
“I’m pretty sure Dad met Ben through George Raft,” Luellen Smiley speculated.
With Siegel’s help he opened a nightclub in L.A. sometime in the late 1930s.
Smiley would later tell his daughter that Siegel was “the best friend I ever had.”
In her soon-to-published memoir, excerpts of which she agreed to let this newspaper print, Luellen Smiley reveals the conflicted feelings she had growing up, and into later life too, about her father:
“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.
“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?
“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. To me, he was a benevolent father, a wise counsellor and a man who worshipped me.”
Luellen Smiley can be contacted via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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