The sunlight shatters the curtain-less bedroom window and burns into my eyes at daybreak. From this unsheltered spot I rise to see a pot of blue sky over the rooftops, and the expectant afternoon showers building up in the clouds. The sky is filled with crows, eagles, and magpies lingering overhead weightless and free-falling, beyond all of us caught behind electronics. The days filled with desert showers that drench the soil and turn the arid dry land green and lush. For this I am thankful. At the end of the day, I am inclined to sit in the courtyard and watch the sky manifest colors unmatched by any Dunn Edwards collection. By the time dinner is topical, I have substituted preparing food, to just snacking, This August underscores the need to sit down, to sort of bob my head to Nancy Wilson music, and do very little. I’m self publishing Cradle of Crime- My Father, Me, and the Mob.
An unexpected phone call came one day from Ms. Green, a woman I’d contacted with the INS about Dad’s files. She’d located them and agreed to give me copies of the five thousand pages! There was no going back now. Ed Becker told me that the INS most likely had copies of the FBI investigation, ‘Take it slow and remember the contents was written by your father’s enemies, the government! I had an appointment with Ms. Green the following week.
The split green metal door was closed so I knocked. A woman opened the door; she appeared the perfect clerk for a windowless metal room of paper. Long uncombed oily hair and a complexion untouched by sunlight.
“We’re closed,” she mumbled.
“How can that be? I have an appointment with Ms. Green.” The clerk looked at my despairing agony unwillingly.
“She’s not here.”
“My name is Lily Smiley and I’m here to pick up copies of the files on Allen Smiley. Would you take a look on the shelves in front of you? Maybe she left them on the front desk here.
“They’re not here.”
“Will you call her and ask where she left them?”
The clerk shut the door while I gripped the other side in case she tried to lock it.
“Ms. Green said they’re classified. We can’t release them.”
“Really? They’ve been classified in the last week?”
The door closed. I pounded on it and a tantrum sprouting from suspicion unleashed. I sensed the government stepped in and classified the files for a reason. As I descended the steps of the Department of Justice I saw my father standing with legs apart, arms crossed over his chest, seething with disapproval. I heard something like this, “You’re going to dig a little too far and sink in if you don’t stop this investigation.”
Westwood village where I lived with my mother sedated my defiance against the day’s disappointment. If I was in Los Angeles I’d stop and walk the streets where my puberty slowly blossomed in a college town with bookstores, two movie theaters, record shops, and the old Mario’s Restaurant where we used to order baskets of garlic bread and coca cola. Wandering through a kaleidoscope of the past, I walked into Walton’s Bookstore. I was intercepted by a prominent display of a newly released book; Contract on America, The Mafia Murder of President of John F. Kennedy. I opened the index and one of the first names I recognized was Gus Alex; my Uncle Gussie. He was a booming personality befitting his height, with jet black hair and bulky features. Uncle Gussie was married to my mother’s confidante Marianne; a statuesque blonde model and dancer. She held Grace Kelly poise. Even as a young girl I sensed she didn’t like me around. Marianne and Mom talked for hours in her bedroom.
Relief thickened with the absence of my father’s name in the index. Uncle Johnny ( Johnny Roselli) was written about extensively. I could only glance through the book; every page blurred into the murder of the most loved President in my lifetime. The allegation that Johnny was involved in the JFK murder strapped me to that book for hours; an unforgivable juxtaposition between inquisitiveness and apprehension. It was like playing scrabble with real names, photos, fiction or non-fiction I didn’t know.
EXCERPT: “West Coast Mobster Johnny Roselli was one of several underworld figures, chiefly associate of Carlos Marcello, Santo Trafficante and Jimmy Hoffa, whom Jack Ruby contacted in the months before the assassination of JFK. In the mid-1970s, an aging Roselli began telling associates, journalists, and Senate Investigators that Ruby was “one of our boys” and had been delegated to silence Oswald.” John Roselli
I could not believe what I was reading; anymore than I would believe my father was associated or informed of these events.
I’ve been subjected to scorn, disgrace, and dismissal during conversations about Johnny. Those of us kids who knew him as Uncle Johnny have our own stories.
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!
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.”