WRITING MY WAY HOME.


This is a previous post (2011) that I am re posting for new readers.

MY FAMILY  history was brought to life in an unpublished memoir.   The stories lived on during a long arduous journey of research and trying to get published.   Sometimes I read pages to get close to my parents.  I squeeze in between them like a ghost, hear their voices, and see their expressions.  If I remove the outside world, the hum of the hotel air-condoning , the delivery trucks, and speeding motorcycles,  I can remember swimming in the pool with my mother.  I see her bathing cap strap pulled down across her chin, her red lipstick, and her one-piece strapless bathing suit. I can see her freckles, and her long slender arms backstroking as she swam.scan0013

Early in 1960 my father decided to build a swimming pool in the backyard of our house on Thurston Circle.  I had just completed swimming lessons and asked my father for a pool. Years later he told the story: “My little girl asked for a pool, and I built her one.”   I think he built the pool for my mother.   He was under investigation with the FBI and Department of Justice, and spent most days in court defending himself against a deportation order to Russia.   Subpoenas, arrests, and trials were routine events that tied my parents together against a world of misunderstanding.  After eleven years of nail biting suspense, my mother just wore out.  The pool was built with the intention of removing my mother’s anxiety and sadness.   My father designed the shape of the pool around the original pool at the Garden of Allah, a highly scandalous Hollywood hotel apartment that attracted starlets and gangsters in the early 30’s.  I know this tiny detail from photographs I’ve seen of the Garden pool.   More obscure details surrounding the building of our pool were found reading his FBI files.

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My father accused the pool contractor of being an informant for the government.  One sunny afternoon he marched him out of the house. I was hiding behind a drape when the confrontation broke out.  I recall the big shouldered contractor running from my father’s threats.  Most likely an FBI agent was parked outside and  followed the man after he scampered out.

The pool was finally completed in mid 1961.   There are photographs of my mother and I in the pool; her smile is radiant and naturally composed.  She and I swam everyday.  My father  loved to swim too, but he was busy with court proceedings and meetings.  Before the year ended my mother filed for divorce, the house burnt down, and I was released from childhood. I don’t regret those events any longer.  They were steps that shaped my character, and what brings me back to the topic of growing up with gangsters.

The best memories of my childhood are in swimming pools and restaurants with gangsters and gamblers.  They were part of the family, and when they were around my father was on very good behavior, and my mother defenseless against their irresistible humor, pranks, and generosity.   She just sort of glided in and out of activities, and helped me ride the vibrations.   She didn’t laugh out of herself like I do, and she rarely yelled.   The older I get, the less I seem to be like her.  Maybe the passage of life experiences determines which parent you will take after. Had I married and had children, maybe I’d be more like her. Since I get into all kinds of tricky situations, and throw the dice, I need my father’s strength more.

Over the years, I have forgotten some of the dead reckoning discoveries I made about our family history.  Still nothing compares to reading about my Aunt Gertie.  She was my father’s sister. Until I read about her in the FBI file, I didn’t know she existed. I haven’t figured out why my father left her out of our life. According to the FBI files she was a remarkably loyal sister. Gertie was the one who confronted the federal agents when they arrived at the family home in Winnipeg, Canada.  She pushed my grandmother out of the interview, and spoke for the family.  The agents showed her a recent photograph of my father.   She told them that her brother left home when he was twelve and they had not seen him since.  She could not verify the identity of the photograph because almost twenty years had passed.  The agents left without any evidence and continued to search for the birthplace of my father. Every time he was arrested, he entered a different birthplace.  He named Chicago, New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles.  His origins were discovered through a letter that his mother had written when he was fifteen and confined to a boys reformatory.  The letter was turned over to the FBI, and that is how they discovered his parents lived in Winnipeg.  The government could not deport my father to Russia without verification from his family. Eventually my father won the battle. He was granted citizenship in 1966, two weeks after my mother died.

Gertie died after my father. I don’t know if they corresponded over the years.  I have learned enough about my father to know he was protecting her from further harassment.  Maybe if my father lived longer they would be coming after me.

SMILEY & SIEGEL


THE SIEGEL SMILEY LEGACYReuniting with Millicent at the Mob Experience.
BY: Luellen Smiley
When I was eleven years old  our home burnt to the ground in the Bel Air fire, and everything we owned fell to ash. Shortly after my mother moved us to an apartment in Brentwood, a mammoth carton arrived and was placed in the center of the living room. My mother cut it open and urged me to look inside. I sat cross-legged on the avocado green carpeting and discovered bundles of garments; Bermuda shorts, blouses, sweaters, and shirts.
I quickly shed my worn trousers and stepped into a new outfit, dancing about as I zipped myself in. My mother watched, and echoed my childish yelps of elation.
“Mommy, who are these from?”
“They’re from your Aunt Millicent.”
“Who is she? I don’t remember her.”
“You were a little girl. She loves you very much.”
Years later, my father, Allen Smiley, called and told me to come over to his apartment in Hollywood.
“Why Dad?”
“Millicent is coming by; I told you she moved here, didn’t I?”
I’d learned Millicent was Benjamin Siegel’s daughter, and Ben was my father’s best friend. Dad was sitting on the same chintz covered sofa the night Ben was murdered.
“You mean Ben Siegel’s daughter?”
“Don’t refer to her that way ever again; do you hear me? She is Aunt Millicent to you.”
When my father answered the door, I watched as they embraced. Millicent had tears in her eyes. She walked over to me, and took my hand. I looked into her swimming pool blue eyes and felt as if I was drowning. She sat on the edge of the sofa and lit a long brown Sherman cigarette. I studied her frosted white nails, the way she crossed her legs at the ankles, her platinum blonde hair, and the way her bangs draped over one eye. What impressed me most was her voice; like a child’s whisper, her tone was delicate as a rose petal.
I spent the rest of that afternoon memorizing her behavior. She emanated composure and a reserve that distanced her from uninvited intrusion.
Over the next few years, Millicent and I were joined through my father’s arrangements, but I was never alone with her. When he died in 1982, she was one of only three friends at his memorial service.
As the years passed, and my tattered address books were replaced with new ones, I lost Millicent’s phone number. I had been researching my father’s life in organized crime, and had gained an understanding of my father’s bond with Ben Siegel. My discoveries were adapted into a memoir and recently into a film script about growing up with gangsters. During this time, I had reconnected with several of Dad’s inner-circle, but Millicent was underground, and now I understood why.
Last year I received an email from Cynthia Duncan, Meyer Lansky’s step-granddaughter. She told me about Jay Bloom, the man behind the Las Vegas Mob Experience, a state of the art museum that will take visitors into the personal histories of Las Vegas gangsters. Cynthia contributed her significant collection of Meyer Lansky memorabilia, and assured me Jay was paying tribute to the historical narrative of these men by using relatives rather than government and media sources. She wanted me to be involved.
Despite my apprehensions about the debasing and one-sided publicity that characteristically surrounds gangster history, I contacted Jay. In his return note, he invited me to participate, and added, “Millicent would like to contact you.”
A month later I was seated in Jay’s office waiting for Millicent. When she walked in, I stood to embrace her, and this time the tears were in my eyes.
Millicent’s voice was unchanged and so was her regal posture. “Our fathers were best friends, attached at the hip. Your Dad was at the house all the time. I’ll never forget when he and my mother met me at the train station to tell us about my father’s… death. Smiley was very good to us. My mother adored him too.”
Jay took me on a tour of the collection warehouse, and the history I’d read about unfolded before my eyes. The preview room was like a family room to me, because some of the men had been my father’s lifelong friends and protectors. I stopped in front of the Ben Siegel display case and saw an object that was very familiar.
“My father has the identical ivory figurine of an Asian woman. I still have it.” So much of their veiled history was exposed; between these two men was a brotherly bond that transcended their passing and was even evident in their shared taste in furnishings.
Jay showed me a layout of the Mob Experience in progress. I turned to him and asked, “Is it too late to include my father? All the rooms are assigned.”
“Millicent and I already spoke about it. She wants your Dad in Ben’s room.”
After I returned home, Millicent and I talked on the phone.
“Your father belongs in my Dad’s room. They’ll just have to make Mickey Cohen’s room smaller.”
“My father hated Mickey,” I said.
“So did mine! When are you coming back? I’ll kill you if you don’t become part of this.”

Reuniting with Millicent at the Mob Experience.

Reuniting with Millicent at the Mob Experience.

 

THE COLOR RED IS THE COLOR BLUE


ALLEN

 

I have to turn the clock back to 1996, to the days of peeling back the first layer of family history. I was sitting at a dining room table in a casita in Taos, NM.  It was winter, the first time I’d lived in snow outside a few teenage weekends in Arrowhead. Snow silence that sucks up  every imaginable sound, and the absence of any neighbors,  I was the only resident in the compound, left me to unravel a secret life, the one my father guarded with irreproachable tenacity.
 The first layer came off from the Immigration and Naturalization (INS) files on Allen smiley, birth name Aaron Smehoff, tagged “Armed and Dangerous.”
Allen married, Irene on January 16, 1926, (my father’s nineteenth birthday), in San Francisco. On July 18, 1926 Allen was arrested for robbery in a drug store on Geary Street with another unidentified boy who fled the scene. On September 17, 1926, Allen was convicted of first degree robbery and confined to Preston Reformatory for boys in Ione, California. On November 23, 1926 Irene, who remained in Oakland, gave birth to a baby girl, named Loretta. Allen was released from Preston Reformatory in December of 1927. He returned to Oakland to reunite with his wife and child; but they had vanished. This is what the INS gathered from Dad in an INS hearing. I read from the court transcripts of that hearing, about 300 pages of interrogation and the answers’ in my Dad’s own voice.
  The snow sedated the choppy feeling in my stomach, the jaggedness of suddenly discovering, why my father was wired with anxiety. His whole life was occupy Allen Smiley; arrest him, convict him, send him to Russia, and never pull the tap from his apartment, or the FBI guys from his tail.
When I ordered all those government files I had no idea that the government probed into personal lives as much as criminal activities. They recorded all the household conversations, arguments with my mother, his betting on the phone, his visitors, discussions with his housekeeper about the ashtrays, and his hatred for the government, “I wish somebody would drop a bomb, just to get rid of some of these guys.”
 What would I say to this daughter now in her eighties, about the father she never knew?
It was a one of a kind experience, to pick up the phone and speak with Chris, the granddaughter, who discovered me from my columns.  She went looking for the other Smiley daughter, and confronted her own family secret. The tension cross-circuited our conversation, both of us heaving with questions, anxious for an answer to the family puzzle, the answers we could not wait to get, that I cannot share, even though the names are changed, I do honor the right to privacy.
 I paced the room moving unconsciously from one place to another, reaching for my father’s voice to soothe her, rewrite history in between dusk and making dinner. Then the unveiling of the tragedy; the loss and the family shame, surrounding a marriage to a gangster, a father whom they never got to know, as I did.  In the passing of an hour or less, my voice resonated the stories of her grandfather; his health and humor, his disciplinary regulations, and his life long battle to remain anonymous, in the public eye of organized crime.
Chris asked if I wanted to speak with Loretta, my half-sister, and I said of course I would. She set up a phone call for the following Sunday,
with a forewarning that her grandmother did not encourage the communication, or the research, she was beyond asking for a resurgence of truth or pain. How does one retrace seventy or eighty years of believing the color red may be the color blue or least a bluish tint.  Loretta was not proud of what she read about Allen Smiley.
In the days before the arranged phone call I sifted through my internal index of Dad’s history, and what might console her. I could tell her about the time, he sat me down in the living room, to discuss sex with a gentle sternness;
“ Once you get pregnant your whole life changes, and you’re not even close to being ready for that. It happened to a gal I loved, when I was a young man.”
Was that Loretta’s mother he was speaking about? When this young love of his said she was pregnant, he tried to persuade her against it, because he wasn’t “properly financed.”  So I asked him what happened.
 “We’re not talking about my life; I’m trying to get you to understand the consequences of sex. You see God made the act beautiful so we would procreate, and if you ignore the consequences, you’re not fulfilling God’s wishes.”
  I waited by the phone until it was time to accept that the call wasn’t coming. During that time of waiting, I tried to walk in Loretta’s shoes.  I only had to take a few steps to comprehend the combustion of emotions she’d face by having a Sunday evening chat with me.
I made the choice to be public, to be viewed by strangers all over the world, and to receive their rage as well as their rewards.
 It wasn’t a year ago that I received an email from the most distant of childhood memories. The email came from Inga, our first Nanny.   The last time she saw me I was six years old.  She sent me photos of us in the backyard at Bel Air, photos of her watching over me on the swings.  She told me by letter, that my father was so good to her, so generous, and she loved being a part of our family. “I had no idea he was involved in anything criminal, and even if he was, it wouldn’t have mattered because he was such a kind man.”  The color red is also the color blue, and because of my Dad, I learned to accept the contradictions in all of us.
Our interior life is uncensored, unsuitable to guidance from our parents, our husbands and wives, our lovers;   it is uniquely you, red and blue.

 

 

“THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS THE MAFIA”


John Rosselli (right) checks over a writ of ha...

UNCLE JOHNNY

Growing up the daughter of a gangster meant that I would remain a  little girl forever. My father died when I was 29, but emotionally I was still a teenager.

Had I had known that I was seated next to one of the most powerful and influential men in the  Mafia, Johnny Roselli,   then I would have listened with sharpened ears, and repeated bits of explosive headline blood curdling stories to my girlfriends. That would have placed myself, my father, Johnny and my friends in jeopardy. An informant from the government may tag me on the way home from school, or tag one of my friends,  or an enemy of the Boss, may pick me up from school and not bring me back.  Everyone is suspect: an informant, or weak enough to become an informant, a loose lipped wise guy, a bragging connected businessman, a friend of a friend, a cousin of a brother, and a daughter of a gangster. We are all potential targets of this organization known as the Mafia, Mob, syndicate, Costa Nostra, or our thing.  Growing up in this circle of gamblers, killers, fixers, enforcers,  bookies was like growing up in a novel, it was a fictional tale all the way, until the end of my father’s life.    There is a drop down board that appears every time I write about our family business that reads,

“ How dare you open my life to the world, what do you know? You know nothing little sweetheart, and that’s the way I planned it. “

“There’s no such thing as the Mafia! If you ever mention that word again, you’re leaving this house!”   I melted down to the floor, and he was ominous as God standing over me. I would never mention the word again, I promised, and I would never believe in the Mafia.    

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.

THE SHOVEL OF TRUTH


AN MGM SHOT OF MOTHER

It seems once a month; I am jarred into this part of my family history. Just last week, a woman emailed me information she pulled off a website that I’d never seen. There in the document, was a story about my mother and father.

I began my research fourteen years ago. It started 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 board 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 real people, 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 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 worshipped 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?

 

 

MOB MEN AS ROLE MODELS


 

 

I was marinating chicken breasts and watching the cherry blossom pink sunset splinter into a montage of broken clouds. In that instant, the men whom I now consider close irreplaceable friends — as much as my girlfriends — surfaced all at once.  They hung down like a shadow over the men my father brought home, the gangsters that formed my first impressions of men.

How different these groups are. Do children with fathers who are doctors or stockbrokers perpetrate the same associations as adults? It is a lot more complicated to find characters as defiant, vocal and audacious as the men my father brought home to dinner. That is where my love for men started, and today I still delight in characters larger than life.

Doc Stacher was one I loved. He was right-hand bodyguard for Abner Zwillman, aka Longy, meaning the tall one in Yiddish, the head of the New Jersey outfit. Longy managed Newark all through Prohibition and on up until the 1950s. He and Doc were rumrunners and then became associated with Joseph Reinfeld, who allied himself with the Canadian Brofman Brothers’ distillery. They ran the largest bootlegging operation in the United States.  For protection, they used Benny Siegel. For tactics, they consulted Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello. Doc was just over 5 feet tall, bald as an egg and so heavy lidded he looked like he was on dope. I remember him in white deck sneakers, without laces and bathing trunks, a Cuban Cigar sprouting from his lower lip and a permanent growl forming in his throat.  He saw only one person, delighted in only one person, and that was his daughter, Joanne. She was my childhood buddy, the girl who would walk up to Frank Sinatra and demand that he take notice of her.

Doc was appointed headman at The Sands in Las Vegas. Joanne led me into pranks and casino sprees that drove everyone in the hotel nuts, except Doc. He rarely smiled and was forcibly tolerant of the world when Joanne was in his presence.  I loved him for that. Without Joanne, he was gruff, cantankerous and he made me repeat every word, “Louder, I can’t hear a word you’re saying.”

Doc showed no interest in non-threatening surroundings. He had the eyes of a man who’d seen everything. He was always looking down to the ground, lost in some private thoughts, his hands pinned behind his back. He paced the hotel lobbies and pool grounds waiting for Joanne.

The government tracked him all his life. In 1963, they caught up to him with an IRS tax bill. He settled and, instead of prison, Doc had himself deported to the Sheraton Hotel in Tel Aviv.

The next man to make a lifelong impression on me was Johnny Roselli. He came into my life on the day of my mother’s funeral. He was a man who filled the entire room. Everyone else vanished, even conversations stopped when he walked in the door. It wasn’t the fear, like I’d felt with other men, Johnny’s aura was electric, like a wire ran the perimeter of his body, and if you got too close, you’d be shocked. His power was his defense against the world leaders he managed in politics and crime. He got tangled up with the Kennedys, Castro, Hollywood and Hughes. Because of his high-wire act, he landed in the bottom of Biscayne Bay.

I searched for my own Johnny-style man for many years. I didn’t know he was all wrong for me, for any woman with sensitivity to extravagance and danger. He was my father’s protector, against the inevitable death threat of rival gangsters. I wanted someone like him in my corner.

When I think of how these men filled in the open spaces of my impressionable mind and took shape, it makes me laugh. I didn’t know they were gangsters. What I witnessed was the fearlessness, the enormous generosity between them, the loyalty and trust, and the respect for each other’s families. I thought the ones outside our circle were the losers. They didn’t have the privileges, the money, the connections that we did.

When I finally woke up from the long sleep, it was all right. I walked out of the dream with the same bottomless love for men, but now I choose the good guys,  as long as they’re not too good.

 

ADVENTURES IN THE MAKING


The Roaring Twenties

The Roaring Twenties (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

WHERE TO BEGIN THIS STORY OF A FATHER THAT I ONLY CAME TO UNDERSTAND BY READING HIS FBI FILES, BOOKS ABOUT MOB HISTORY WRITTEN BY LAW ENFORCEMENT AND COLLEGE PROFESSORS, AND DOCUMENTARIES PRODUCED BY FOES OF MY FATHER. 

My last year with Dad was 1981. Naïve, and unconcerned with where I was headed, or how I’d get there if I figured it out,  I was spinning around in an executive chair; waiting for the big hand on the black and white office clock to set me free.  Time didn’t pass; I hauled it over my head, in my bland windowless office, under florescent glare. I was trouble shooting for an ambitious group of USC guys as they gobbled up all of Los Angeles real estate. Without any real sense of survival or independence, my life was in the hands of my father.

“Meyer’s coming to see me; haven’t seen the little guy in twenty-five years.”   Dad said during a commercial break.

“Meyer Lansky?” I asked as casually as he’d spoken.

“Who else?”

“Why did you two wait so long?”

“It’s no concern of yours; he’s my friend, not yours.” I was twenty-nine years old and still verbally handcuffed.

The three of us went out to dinner, and while the two of them spoke in clipped short wave syndicate code, I noticed that neither one of them looked at all happy.  It was rare to catch my father in public with a friend, without raucous laughter, and storytelling.  My attempt to revive the dinner conversation with my own humor,returned two sets of silent eyeball commands to resist speaking.

Several months later I received a call from Dad asking me to come over to his apartment, he had collapsed on the bathroom floor.  When I arrived, he pleaded for me to stay close by.   “I’ll be all right in a few minutes; I just need to catch my breath. ”  I sat outside the bathroom door biting my nails, and waited, like our dog Spice, for my orders. For the first time in my life, he was weaker than I, and my turmoil centered on that unfamiliar reversal of roles.

“Daddy, you should go to the hospital, I’m calling the ambulance.”

“Nope, no ambulance, I’m not going to the hospital, hang up the phone right now.”  I pried the bathroom door open, and crouched down on the floor to hold him in my arms. It was the first time I’d held him like that, he felt so heavy and warm.   When his eyes closed I called the ambulance and waited.  Two attendants arrived, and immediately took his pulse. “Why didn’t you call sooner, within minutes he would have died?”

“ I couldn’t–you don’t understand, he wouldn’t let me. ” They grimaced at me, and removed him from my arms.  Over the next few weeks I learned only that he had a failing liver.  The mirage of doctors and nurses flowing in and out of his room, assured me that this was just a temporary set back. Soon he would be back at his favorite table at the Bistro Gardens, dining with young aspiring starlets.

When you love someone whose life is draining into illness, even their hollering and gripe is a relief.  For the first time in my life, my father did not frighten me. I don’t know if it was because he was vulnerable, and dependent on me for comfort. But the feeling was ecstasy, the feeling of being inside his world, and not excluded.

“Imagine sending nurses in my room at six in the morning. Boy did I give them hell. They won’t soon forget the name Allen Smiley.  They’re not treating me like a social service case. “ His voice came back and the salty blue color of his eyes. I took my father home, and sat on the crushed blue velvet sofa while he made his phone calls.

” Say what’s up buddy, what can I do for you?  I’m tougher than you think; my daughter and I are going for a walk later. What can I do for you?  When are you going to Vegas? Yea, I see all right, don’t worry about a thing, no I’ll handle it, I insist now, don’t argue with a sick man, you rascal. Don’t send flowers yet, send champagne!”

Within a few weeks, my father was back at his favorite table at the Bistro Gardens wearing tinted shades. His  passion for the company of females, was reciprocal, they loved him. He sent them flowers, and picked up their checks.  He could wave his magic wand of favors at the studios, or for concert tickets, and the chips rolled. He kept up that pace for six months.

All my life he had made things happen for me, now it was my turn. I collected the telephone messages, walked the dog, and cleaned up the house. It was strange, to putter amongst my father’s things. I opened drawers cautiously, thinking he may have alarms on things.  He had a pile of papers stacked on his desk, and unopened mail.  His personal toiletries were still in immaculate order, his brushes, and collection of colognes. A heavy sadness, presided over the room.  I noticed he was reading “Honor Thy Father.”

During his sickness, he presented a man only slightly off balance. He continued to camouflage his liver failure, like he’d masked his identity all his life.  I recognized the anguish in his eyes, but I had to pretend it wasn’t there.

My character changed overnight.  I did not hesitate over minor decisions, cower if he yelled, or hide inside myself. Something in him was now part of me. We were fighting together. One afternoon we took a walk in Holmby Park.

“What matter’s in life is that you don’t allow people to walk over you, see. No one looks out for your best interest, except your old father. You’ll see, it won’t be so easy without me.”

“Daddy, don’t talk like that, come on.”

“Why not, I’m telling you the way it is, what do you want, for me to lie to you? Everyone else will lie to you!  Now, I’ve told you that I’m donating my body to USC Medical center. I already have it arranged.”

“Daddy, I’m not listening. Don’t talk to me about that,” tears welled.

“You must listen little sweetheart. There’s no expense for you to be burdened with. I wish I put more away for you,  but I’ve always told you, haven’t I….that I spent everything I made. I only hoped that things would have changed…. be that as it may, you won’t have any expense.”

Smiley’s Dice Adventures in livingness

The throw of the dice this week lands on the adventures in the making.  How could I have known 15 years ago?

Back then I had but a  finger-bowl of resources, a blue chair, a desk, and a typewriter.  Everyday I wrote into the flame of discovery looking for my mother.  My notebooks were sketches of this woman I never knew.   The absence of the most ordinary information, like where she grew up in Newark, what sort of neighborhood, what her father did for a living, what schools, she attended, and later on, what experiences she had modeling in New York. The closest I got was by reading John Robert Powers book about the modeling agency he started in 1923.   He assigned unemployed Broadway talent to his agency to be photographed for corporate campaign advertising.  According to John he was the innovator of the modeling agency concept- beautiful women and men will sell products to the public, the public never would have thought of buying.

I found her name in the index, Lucille Casey.  She joined the agency when she was 16 years old.   John groomed the models; and assigned disciplinary perfection in dialect, manners, appearance, character, and intellect.  Powers Girls married anyone they wanted.  They were invited to all the important society events, they were given card Blanche at the Stork Club, and the Morocco and they were transported to celebratory city functions. They met men of all means, character, and class.

After I read the book, I thought about what my father used to say, “ Your mother could have had any man in the world, but she picked me. Don’t you make the same mistake.”

That is a complex summons for a teenage to understand.

I sat in the blue chair and waited for the flares of information to come down to earth.   After two years, I had very little to build a full page.  My mother’s  history was lost, her friends had vanished, or would not talk to me.  She did not leave a diary.  Her photo album as a model was all I had.  What could I see in those eyes, and smile? Perfection.   I gave up the search, and switched over to my father. The government documented his daily activities, and what they didn’t hear or see, was exploited in newspapers, documentaries, and books.

There was one woman who was alive, that knew intimate details of my mother, because I had met her, and she made it known to me she knew. That was Meyer Lansky’s wife, who went by the name Teddy.  Women have a distinctive look when they are withholding secrets.  Teddy always had that look when she brought up my mother.  I told her I was writing about my father and mother and she said, “Let them rest in peace.”    I didn’t take her advice.