PART TWO: SWIMMING WITH GANSTERS


“ Mommy the door knocked.’ I said

“ Okay, let me get it.”

The valet reminded me of the munchens in Wizard of Oz, because of their berets, and tightly fitted double breasted coats. But it wasn’t the valet or room service, or anyone that I recognized.

“Lucille, darling is everything to your satisfaction?”

“Hello Jack. Yes the room, flowers, and fruit basket are so lovely. Thank You.”

by Ronzoni

It was the smiling big faced, former bouncer of the Copacabana New York whose name I knew only as Uncle Jack.

Jack was subtle as a semi-truck; and if the world was coming to an end, I’d follow Jack. He had fingers thick as sticks of dynamite and he squeezed my blubbery cheeks until they turned purple. I knew a cheek squeeze meant the person loved me, so Jack didn’t frighten me. I learned thirty years later it was Jack Entratter; a man of chest heavy bullying, dinosaur New York threats, and answered to Frank Costello. I don’t believe he pulled out the Casino movie style butcher chopping that we always see. I just think Jack did what Frank asked, and Frank didn’t randomly demand nail stripping, ball butchering violence you see in the movies. Remember it is a movie.

My mother dressed up with a fur wrap (they wore furs in Vegas) and dressed me in a Pixie Town ensemble that was so starched I couldn’t bend my arm, and we went to the Copa, for the dinner show. Ella Fitzgerald was the feature entertainer of the night. If I wasn’t in a room at La Posada tonight, listening to Tito Puente and Johnny Pacheco, tipping a glass of Chilean wine, without all my files, and notes, I could reference many things about that night. I rented the house for the twelve days of Christmas and I cannot access anything other than what I brought. I could go googling all night, but it is close to time to eat, and parlay my chances in the lobby, meeting and greeting, as I feel I should do, because hotels are the only socially invasive venues left. I greet everyone who knows how to walk without revealing their miserable or self congratulating lives. I really like people who keep their triumphs and sorrows until the second or third time we meet. I don’t like digesting four courses unless I ordered them.

Ella, came out on stage, and we were seated under her heaving breasts, the first row, the closeness was dressing room intimate. There were others at our table but they were sort of like faded ghosts after Ella started her fireworks. TO BE CONTINUED.

I REMEMBER


Frank Costello, American mobster, testifying b...

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I was a child of the fifties; when raising kids was easily defined. Mommy stayed home and made sure the kids didn’t burn the house down. Daddy went to an office to make money to pay for the house, and children waited until they were grown up to find out anything really useful. It was before the generation-gap was coined, or children knew how to be witty and sharp. In our air-tight neighborhood of Bel Air, Los Angeles, we were naïve, privileged, kids; bogged down with falling off bicycles, not being chosen for the school play, and bringing home the most candy at Halloween.

I believed in Santa Clause, the Easter bunny, and if I was good, Mommy would let me stay up and watch the Sunday night Variety Show.

America was threatened by the Russian Communists and Organized crime. Public enemy Number One was New York Mafia Boss, Frank Costello. Frank became super famous when he refused to testify on national television for Senator Estes Kefauver. The Kefauver Committee delivered explosive headlines between 1950 and 1951, as the government unveiled the hidden hand of the Mafia in the United States.

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?

 

 

MEETING MEYER LANSKY


I was 26 years old when the company I worked for sent me to Miami to investigate, The Carriage House, a residential property assigned to my management portfolio. One of the partners discovered the rents hadn’t been raised in five years and blew his top. My mission was to evaluate how much we could raise the rents. My father said as long as I was in Miami, I should meet his good friend Guy.

“I haven’t seen the little guy in a long time. It’s safe now. Teddy and Meyer want to see you.”

“Have they met me before?”

“You were too young to remember.”

“Meyer’s retired now right?”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Nothing. You said it was safe, I just wondered if he was still working.”

“Sweetheart, don’t try and outsmart your old dad, and by all means, don’t embarrass me and try and out smart Meyer. He’s a mind reader. You’ll fall on your face. Just be yourself, and listen, you’ll never meet another man like him.”

The Carriage House on Collins Avenue was miserably neglected. The paint peeling, the carpet frayed, and the glass windows smudged with dirt. The lobby was a centerfold of action; women dressed in Tahitian bathing wraps and high-heeled sandals, and men in melon and lime colored suits converged on the sagging sofas.   There was a distinctive smell of chicken soup as great numbers of retired Jewish men and women shuffled through the lobby carrying big beach bags, and transistor radios.

Dinner was prearranged through Dad and Meyer. All I had to was stand in front of the Carriage House at seven o clock. At precisely seven a vintage four-door gray Mercedes pulled up in front. Neither one of the passengers moved. As I moved to open the back door, Teddy reached out and grasped my hand.

“Oh my God! Look Meyer, she is exactly like her mother!”

Meyer turned around once, and grinned. His face was a historical map: the lines were carved like mountain roads, and the curve of his nose twisted like a sharp curve, but his eyes– unmistakable eyes that hooked you to his.

“Oh darling I’m so thrilled to see you. Meyer isn’t she just exactly like Lucille?” Teddy peered through twinkling brown eyes, radiating warmth and eagerness. She had a rapacious smile, petite frame, with lovely blonde hair pulled back at the nape of the neck. My father called her Tiger because he said she was untamable.

“No. She looks like Allen,” Meyer protested.

“Oh Meyer, she’s her mother’s image, she would be so proud of you, wouldn’t she Meyer…”

“Teddy will you please shut up so Luellen can speak.” Meyer never turned around. He studied me through the rear window. They continued to argue about whom I looked like. They hoped I took after my mother because she was a saint. Meyer drove tentatively, hitting the brakes every few feet, while Teddy chided him about his driving.

When we arrived at the restaurant, Meyer turned around and   faced me directly for the first time. He just stood there and examined me without speaking. Though his face was creased with deep permanent lines, when he smiled they all melted together, and he looked almost youthful.

“So tell me, is your father still as sensitive as he used to be?”  I didn’t know how to answer Meyer.  I had never thought of my father as sensitive.“Well, he yells a lot.” I answered. Meyer chuckled and nodded his head in agreement. Teddy took my hand and we went inside the restaurant. It was like meeting family. They made so much fuss over me, I felt remiss in not visiting sooner. They wanted to know everything about my life. Meyer sat very still; Teddy was kinetic and consumed with the turmoil of emotions.

“So, he yells a lot does he?” Meyer continued once Teddy stopped talking.

“Yes, in fact his friends call him the “Warden.” They both burst out laughing. They were sharing a private history   beyond my understanding. Meyer was methodical in everything he did; his mannerisms, the direction of conversation, and ordering food. Teddy sat beside me intermittently squeezing my hand and dabbing her eyes with a Kleenex. She immediately wanted to talk about my mother. She could not even mention her name without a tear.

“Your mother was ravishing, and I don’t mean her looks, though she was prettier than any movie star, she was beautiful on the inside. She had a quality of kindness and sincerity every one adored.” Meyer’s eyes bonded to mine, and I felt him almost whispering to me. He was examining my character, what I was really thinking, if I was hiding conflict, what was in my heart, and if I could be trusted.

“We loved Lucille, everyone did,” Meyer interjected sadly. He changed the subject and spoke about my father in the very same praiseworthy fashion my father talked about Meyer. I did not sit there thinking, this is the Meyer who collaborated with Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano, and Ben Siegel to operate organized crime in America. I did not think of him as any sort of criminal, mobster, or organized crime boss. My interest was in what he knew about my father and mother.  After a glass of wine it was my turn to ask a question.

“When did you meet my mother?”

“I can’t remember,” he answered. “A long time ago.” Meyer skirted over my question just as my father did.

“How do you like your job?” he asked.

“I love it.” His eyes narrowed and darkened as I spoke. He encouraged the discussion and yet I felt he was displeased with my answers. I wanted to impress Meyer Lansky, because I wanted to make my father proud.

“What exactly are doing on this trip?” he asked.

“I’m reviewing the rents of the Carriage House, and looking over the condition of the property.” I answered. Teddy smiled supportively but Meyer suddenly went silent.

“I have a number of friends who live at the Carriage House.” Meyer looked into my eyes.

“You do?” I replied dumbly.

“Yes I do—and they live on social security every month–fixed income. Are you going to raise their rents?” he asked. I blushed red as the tablecloth.

“NO NO! I can exclude them somehow,” I said in haste. Teddy pressed at Meyer’s side with her delicate hands.

“No, you cannot do that. I just wanted you to know is all,” he said in finality.

It was just like my father, that crescendo of stupidity that follows a mob trap.  Teddy interjected something to break the seriousness, and we returned to lighter conversation. I could think of nothing else than the inconvenience of my job at that moment.

“I lived at the Carriage House before we moved to the Imperial.”

“ It needs a lot of work.” I said.

“ Your people haven’t made any improvements.”

I thought he hated me. Teddy kept close and sort of held me up while he pulled me down.

 

Later that night I allowed myself to recall the stories I heard and read over the years, shaved by years of denial. I shuddered to think how Meyer felt about my raising the rents on his friends. Guys he played poker with once a week, while Teddy sliced corn beef sandwiches. I wanted to bury my head in the Miami sand. My father’s words reclaimed my denial.

“This is what life is about, making decisions that you can face years later.”

I called my father the next day and he said, “ Don’t call me from the hotel and hung up.”

I knew not everyone who assumes the veneer of affluence has money. Not even Meyer Lansky who reporters allege was worth  millions. My father facilitated a wealthy lifestyle, but he lived month to month. Meyer may have had a million one day, maybe he had it a year, but eventually the bankroll is gambled on some long shot dream.  That is what they do with money. If these men invested their money wisely, they would be richer than the government. The next time I called Meyer and Teddy to have dinner, Meyer was gratuitously polite,

“We don’t want to interfere with your job.” I sensed a twitch of sarcasm; just enough to let me know that he was on to me.

We exchanged more than an exaggeration of emotions the second night. I could not extort any specific information from either one of them. Meyer was interested in discussing my job again.

“Are your people going to convert the Carriage House to condominiums?” Meyer caught me off guard again. I knew he and my father had talked. My company specialized in condo-conversion.

“I haven’t heard that. Why do you ask?” I said.

“I want to protect my friends,” he answered. A ripple of a smile passed over his lips.

“I’ll tell my father right away if I hear anything Meyer. And about the rents; I m not recommending an increase on any units, until we refurbish the place. It needs a lot of work.” Teddy took hold of my hand.

“That’s very thoughtful,” she said.

“Don’t let me interfere with your job,” Meyer emphasized.

“I hope I can interfere on your account.” He nodded acknowledging our little understanding. I got a glimpse of the Meyer that negotiated peace treaties between different factions of the underworld, with Cuban emissaries, Army Generals, and the Israeli government. Meyer emulated power, without any gestures or expression. It came from inside. At the end of the evening I dove for the check like I’d seen my father do a thousand times.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Meyer, my father will kill me if I don’t pick up this check.” I said in jest. Meyer chuckled, captured my focus, and snapped the check right out of my hand.

I could see how difficult it would be to cross this man. Part of America’s history was sitting with me that night. He was a man that could extract the truth from a thousand lies and no one would know. When I met Meyer I’d heard stories about “Murder Inc,” and his friendship with Lucky Luciano, Benjamin Siegel and Frank Costello.

When I returned to Los Angeles my father made me sit for hours and recount every detail of the meeting.  He assured me Meyer was not disapproving of me or my job, but, he would be grateful if I didn’t raise the rents.

“My daughter had to go up against Meyer. What a story.” My father laughed uproariously.