SWIMMING WITH GANGSTERS IN LAS VEGAS


1961

I held my mother’s hand, as she led me through the casino, stopping to accept embraces, cheek kisses, and an occasional wink, before opening the door to our suite. The patio view to the pool was a kaleidoscope of flashing jewelry because back then women wore their jewelry everywhere. Umbrellas, stacks of white towels, shiny Ban de Soliel arms and legs, silver platters of cheeseburgers, dripping with blood, because back then rare was bleeding, and little toy poodles, that men smoking Cuban cigars and wearing Gucci loafers held up for the world to see. A bit of Mad Men in the desert, only the men were gamblers, celebrities or gangsters, who’d invite their wives to soften the martini’s and manage the children.

Ben Siegel

Ben Siegel


To be continued.

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CESAER’S SALAD


I moved in with my Dad when I was thirteen years old.  My mother had just passed away, and I arrived with innocence and untrained cooking skills.  Mom was an Irish Catholic meatloaf and corn-beef cook.  Dad was a Russian Orthodox raised  moderate vegetarian, and decided to hire a chef to teach me how to cook.

I came home from school one day, and found Caesar  in the kitchen. He was a stand-in for Paulie in the Godfather, only he had curly black hair, and apple red cheeks.  Caesar was dressed in a black suit, white shirt, and an apron that fell short of fitting him.  Dad instructed Cesar to teach me how to make salads, baked fish, and spaghetti with oil and garlic. Everyday after school, Caesar was in the kitchen preparing dinner for us, and I  stood beside him, observing his chubby knuckled fingers, slice and chop vegetables. We started with what Dad ordered; a meal in a salad, and later coined it Farmer’s Chop Suey. The salad was not just prepared, it was a decorated masterpiece when he finished. During the preparation, I noticed beads of sweat on Caesar’s face, and a jittery nervousness, surfaced just before my father arrived home, “What do you think?  Will Dad approve?”  He asked. I assured him Dad would love the salad.    Cesar and I became pals, and waited anxiously for Dad’s arrival.  He wasn’t all that agreeable. Fastidiousness and perfection are common traits amongst gangsters.  Usually, Dad remarked there wasn’t enough garlic, or there were too many croutons, and Caesar would swiftly correct the complaint.

After Cesar went home,  Dad would talk to me about food, and how everything starts in the stomach, and how the vegetables have to be scrubbed, and the seeds removed.  Three or four times a week Dad dined out, and he didn’t order salads.  He frequented Italian restaurants, and his favorite was Bouillabaisse, with a side of pasta.  I never saw him enjoy any food as much as Borsch with sour cream, and smoked white fish. That was his favorite childhood meal. His  father was a Orthodox  Butcher, a very scared skill that requires a thorough  understanding of Kosher preparation.

About six months had passed, and I came home one day and Cesar wasn’t there.  Instead I found my father in a rage. I asked about Cesar and he told me it was none of my business, and to start preparing dinner.  After my first salad preparation, Dad applauded my presentation, and assured me everything he was teaching me would serve me later on in life. He explained he had to be  harsh and demanding,  because he wanted me to be able to take care of myself properly.

I developed into a moderate vegetarian and have used that salad as a blueprint for most of my meals. Now I create a variety of salads, and a lot more ingredients:  like white beans,  garbanzos, walnuts, tuna, or shrimp,  artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes etc.   My friends call me a free-style cook  because I only use recipes when I’m making soups or stews.

I was very fortunate to grow up with a father who spent hours teaching me what I would need to know in life.  This is something you won’t read or see in a film about growing up with gangsters.

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.

CASEY, A WOMAN OF SECRETS


CASEY, A WOMAN OF SECRETS

Sometimes a blank piece of paper is the only way to begin, as it is today. December is a blank canvass, I look out the window and there are only stark undressed tree trunks, and tiny snow rocks on the front lawn.  The sky is pale winter blue and the temperature is ten degrees.  December is the month that reminds me most of Casey, a woman that threw the dice all her life. She gambled on her dreams.

Casey never told me much about herself.  She lived in the present moment, and considered her past a private matter.  Once I learned of her struggles as a young woman and the life she’d chosen, she became more real than when I’d known her.  During the years we were friends, she handed out selected stories, abruptly, with final endings. Being the inquisitive character, the shallowness of her stories bated me.  I had to pry the truth out from other people who had known her, and from government documents.

Casey’s first gamble was at sixteen years old. She sent in a photograph of herself for the Redbook Magazine modeling contest. If she’d won, the Powers Modeling Agency in New York City would grant her an audition as a model.  Casey was living in East Orange, New Jersey with her mother and sister. Her father had died suddenly, leaving the family without a financier.  Her mother was lost without her husband, and unsuited to join the workplace.  Casey didn’t tell her mother about the contest, until she received the letter of congratulations.

John Robert Powers met Casey in his office on East 56th Street and signed her on as a Powers Girl. She was stunning to look at, she photographed like a movie-star, and she was modest.  John Powers did not look for aggressive, pouty lipped, fearlessness.    The Powers Girls were captioned, Long Stemmed American Beauties because they were wholesome, beautiful, tasteful, courteous, and virtuous. They were so far from the runway models of today it is almost a reversal of style.  The models of the thirties were ordained to set the highest example of a classic good breeding, and education. John not only schooled them in fashion, and individual taste, he instructed them in moral integrity, independence, and patriotism for their country.  So Casey went to school at John Robert Powers and became one of the top ten models in the country.

She was a blue black haired Irish beauty, with emerald green eyes and perfect teeth. She stood only 5’ 7” but in those days that was fairly standard. When I knew her, she was still thin and beautiful but she did not fuss about herself, or spend a lot of time at her vanity.  As a Powers model Casey had a long line of gentlemen callers. Powers Girls were invited to all the nightclub and dinner show openings, the sporting events, community galas and fund-raisers.  Social engagements were part of her job. Casey was not a woman of idle chat, in fact a lot of people thought of her as restrained and unfriendly, maybe even snobbish. I think it was more secrecy.  People were always prying into her life, because it looked glamorous.  But there was another side to that glamour she didn’t want to put a mirror to.

One evening Casey had a dancing engagement at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City. She was on stage with some other dancers when a certain gentlemen noticed her.  The next chapter of Casey’s life began that night.  At twenty- two years old, she fell in love with a man thirteen years older, of the Jewish faith, and who lived in Hollywood.   Casey never told me that she fell in love with a gangster.    I do know once she felt love for this man, it could not be reversed. The consequences of her love forced her to change, to adapt to a new kind of life, and different people.

She did not bury or give back her love after she learned what he did for a living.  She asked him to reform his criminal activities and he agreed, if only she would marry him.  We all know at twenty-two a woman believes she can change a man, and a man lets her think she can.  Without that dream, many lovers would not have found their mates.

Casey did marry her love, and spent her life trying to keep her husband on the track of honesty.  I met her husband just after he tried to reform, and was beaten down by his past mistakes.   I called him Daddy.