WHO WAS MY FATHER?


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 worshipedscan0002 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.

MY FATHER, THE GENTLE GANGSTER


This is an excerpt from the memoir I’ve been working on many years. The first manuscript was 800 pages; about three of them were worth reading. The book mutated about 2000 times.

“What’s it like knowing your father is a gangster? Did you know when you were a teenager? Did your father kill anyone? Did you ever meet Bugsy? Aren’t you afraid of his friends? You know they kill people.”     

            I was thirteen years old when my best friend told me my father was a gangster. She didn’t mean any harm. We told each other everything.  We were standing in the Brentwood Pharmacy one day in 1966, and we turned the book rack around until we found ”The Green Felt Jungle.”

“That’s the book, let me look first and see what it says.” She whispered. I waited while she flipped trough the pages.

“Oh my God, there he is,” she said grasping my shoulders.  We hunched over the book and read the description of my father beneath his photograph.

“Allen Smiley was the only witness to the murder of Bugsy Siegel.”

“What does that mean, who is Bugsy Siegel?” I asked.

“Shush, not so loud, I’m afraid to tell you this Luellen, it’s awful. I don’t believe it. “

“What is it? Tell me.”

“Bugsy Siegel was a gangster, he killed people. Your father was his friend.”

I don’t think I should read this, “I said replacing the book on the rack.

“Don’t tell your father I told you,” she warned.

“Why not?”

“My mother told me not to tell you, swear to me you won’t tell your father.”

“I swear, come on let’s go.”

My father called himself Allen Smiley. The FBI tagged him “armed and dangerous.” The Department of Justice referred to him as the “Russian Jew.” I called him Daddy.   e had salty sea blue eyes blurred by all the storms he’d seen.  When I said something funny, his eyes crystallized and flattened like glass, smoothing out the bad memories.  He was always a different color, dressed in perfectly matched shades of pink, silver and blue. My small 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.

SHALLOW END OF THE BEVERLY HILLS POOL


In this segment I am in my mid-twenties, living alone in a sparse studio apartment in Westwood, and I do not have a boyfriend. On Saturday mornings, my father would call me before I had decided what to do.

“Irv has room in the cabana today. What time do you want to go over?”

Irving was my father’s walking partner. Whenever my father wanted to walk, he called Irv. They discussed business deals, and talked a lot about Marvin Davis. That meant nothing to me, because I did not want to know my father’s business. Irv could have been a pinup for everything Beverly Hills. He was George Hamilton, evenly tanned all year, dressed in seasonal custom suits, Gucci loafers, carried a Gucci attaché, drove a Cadillac and like my father, dined out five nights a week. Irv reserved a poolside cabana at the Beverly Hills Hotel most weekends to play rummy, maintain his tan and watch the women.

“Daddy, I was going to do something else today.”

“Yea, like what?”

“I wanted to see a movie.”

“Well, you can see a movie anytime, Irv doesn’t always have room for you and I’ve made special arrangements, so for Christ’s sake take advantage of it.”

“Who else will be there?”

“Friends, I don’t know who exactly, what the hell does that matter.”

“How come you never go?”

“What the hell do I need to go for—I’m not looking to meet anybody, and I can’t take the sun anymore, you know that.”

I conceded in going, otherwise my father would slam the phone down on the receiver and refuse to talk to me the rest of the weekend, or maybe the whole week depending on his mood.

The first few times I went, it was educational, on the art of superficiality. After that, I denounced the routine charade of women imitating movie stars and men mimicking movie moguls.

Reluctantly I submitted to the agony of my own disguise. I dressed up in a ghastly bathing suit ensemble I bought at Saks, and presented my forced smile to Irv on Saturday.

“Hey, there she is–come in sweetheart, that’s Al Smiley’s daughter,” he said to his friends, and without looking up from their hands, they shouted hello. Irv stood up in his Clorox white shorts and matching shoes and kissed me on the cheek. His skin smelled of coconut oil and cologne.

“Luellen honey, take a lounge, the towels are in the dressing room, what’s Dad doing today?”

“I don’t know, why doesn’t he come here?”

“I’ve asked him a million times, haven’t I Sammy, why doesn’t Al come over here. You can’t argue with Al, right Luellen?”

“Right Irv.”

“Tell your Dad I saw Jimmy here today.”

“Jimmy who?”

“He’ll know, OK, Luellen, you all right – I gotta get back to my hand, before these guys start cheating,” and the laughter of all three filled the room.

I undressed in the dressing room, lathered up with sunscreen, applied more make-up, and wrapped my hair in a terry cloth bandana. Then I self-consciously stretched out on the yellow terry cloth lounge and closed my eyes. The sunlight bounced off Irv’s sun reflector, and within minutes, my entire body was steam bath wet.

“Sun’s great isn’t it?”

“It’s hotter than Las Vegas in here, I’m going in the pool.” The men laughed again, without taking their eyes from their cards.

Only a handful of bathers broke the surface, almost everyone waded. Even under water, I could hear the faint resonating echo of the paging operator, calling guests to the telephone. From the shallow end, I watched the poolside games people play in Hollywood’s desirable circles. Some girls were my age or younger, and they gleefully participated in the poolside masquerade. Beneath my scorn and disapproval, I imagined myself wearing a strapless bikini, tanned and glowing in my strut around the pool, calling out ‘darling, let’s have lunch,’ to some handsome actor.

From the pool, I would then return to the cabana, dry off, slide the lounge upright, and try to read. All of my actions discouraged interest, because I was positive, I would not like anyone, and if someone did come over, he’d have to cross over Irv, and eventually my father, and none of this seemed to have a happy ending.

At the end of the day, I reported to my father on the days events.

“Well, did you meet anyone?” he asked.

“No, not this time.”

“Well you keep going, you will if you give someone the chance.”

“Daddy, I have other things I like to do on the weekends too.”

“Yea, like what?”

“I like to be with my friends.”

“Well, this is an opportunity to meet a different caliber of person. You haven’t had much luck on your own.”

“Daddy they’re all so phony, it’s not like it used to be when you went there in the forties.”

“How do you know? You’re something else! You think you know better than I do? Do you know how many young girls would chop off their leg to be sitting in a private cabana at the Beverly Hills Hotel? What do you think I’m doing this for? It’s not for my benefit; I’m sitting over here trying to keep things going, amidst all this turmoil. I want you to meet the right sort of man who can help you, and introduce you to some real advantages.”

“Daddy I’m doing fine, I like my job and….”

“Yea, yea, I won’t ask you again. I won’t even think of it, you don’t deserve it. I’ll invite a girl who will appreciate the offer.” While he tried to ensure my financial security, I molded myself into an idealistic, rebellious fool.

What I did take advantage of were my father’s dinner parties. The men that we dined with did not go to an office, or meet in conference rooms with secretaries taking notes. They took their meetings in restaurants, and delicatessens. They never ordered off the menu, and fought over the check. They witnessed corruption the rest of us do not even know exists, and they killed one another. They are far more interesting than the Gucci men at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Between the two groups, I favored the gangsters, which was of interest to any therapist I have met in the past.

Recently I have learned that during the time of these cabana visits, many of my father’s friends were under investigation with the government. My father was also under federal investigation, and that is why he did not join us at the Beverly Hills Cabana.

Any dice to throw Email: folliesls@aol.com.