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.
I watched coverage today in Paris from an online British station. It is important to me. More important than writing or dressing or going out. The journalists were sympathetic, the interviews soulful, the images–silencing. I don’t believe prayers are enough. President Hollande declared war.
Series one; Making of the Mob miniseries.
The founding fathers of organized crime had more honor and morality in their pinky finger than the government then, or the government now. I don’t expect any followers on this post, except those in my mob family. I studied the subject for eighteen years; read the FBI surveillance reports, and informants memos who portrayed themselves as friends of Dad. The FBI claimed, my father was a pimp and my mother a whore. They also referred to me as Shirley!
In a current of unexpected waves I floated towards the Pacific Ocean, and landed along the anfractuous Santa Monica Mountains. Malibu where exotic fish are silhouettes behind glass aquariums perched on sand dunes or in swank foreign carriers has bitten my interest to understand how an exotic lives.
The salty seaweed smell of the ocean streams through my car, driving down Pacific coast highway on my way to buy groceries. Vintage Market is new to Malibu, and clerks are giddy about their jobs. They may be aspiring actors or were aspiring actors. I walk in and get a phone call that I’d been waiting for so, I set my cart down on a shelf and took the call. During the half hour call, my eyes were fluttering through the scene: tanned surfers, affluent college students, and diamond rich men and women of age, that don’t check their bank balance. Because of this, expressions are chilled as fine wines, and smiles are polite or radiating. They are a content population of 13,000, median home price is $901,000, and the median income household is $127,000. Here in Malibu every thing looks different from Santa Fe: The staging of ‘was in the business, am in the business, or want to be in the business,’ surfaces and dominates the scenery.
They are beautiful-the young teenagers who surf and paddle are true blondes, the blue eyes scintillating pools of water, young women are saddled onto 6” platforms, and then there are the stand-out power people, who will not acknowledge anyone, and expect everyone to acknowledge them. Tucked in the mountains, are extraordinary artists who live off the grid the way most people prefer to live in Santa Fe.
I am learning slowly and still hiding out at Chantal’s. Where I am living, two miles up from PCH off a dirt road, behind a gate, there are Bohemians, artists, home-office screenwriters, producers, and famous heirs of recognizable movie stars.
In the last two weeks my head feels lighter, and my heart is not aching for the Thinker, or my sunken red room where I dreamt of moving to Malibu. What I began twenty years ago is my primary act of indulgence; completion of my book, “Growing Up with Gangsters.”
In the last hour I walked down the road in the hands of sloping hillsides, horse ranches, and signature homes behind walls as high as the palm trees, built to withstand the typhoons of mankind. In daylight swirl of rain and clouds, it was as if I was in Ireland, walking along a road in Kilkenny, and then I roped in my imagination and returned to the mountains here, that will teach me how far to go, how to duck a car, or confront a coyote or a snake.
A full transcendental moon dipped into the black-out mountain evening, and has cured me of interior turmoil for the time being. This is part of adventures in livingness in what locals call the bu. TO BE CONTINUED
I began my research 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 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 my parents, 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 must have 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 worshiped 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?
Mom and Dad second from Left. I don’t know the other people.