Demons and Dramas


Ben Siegel

To a drama-whore like myself, uncertainty is a cocktail. If my life isn’t wrinkled with folds of conflict, I will invent them. These past recollections were the building blocks of my future; I lived on the edge with my father.
Ann, my therapist, asked me about my mother but there was so little to tell. She was restrained to her secrecy, some vow she gave my father, and the personal veil of repression that cloaked all of her past. I told Ann that I was adopted into my friend’s homes by their mother’s, the ones who had met mine.
My best friend Denise lived in Brentwood with her divorced mother and siblings. We hooked in the dark unfamiliar and confusing imbalance of a broken home life.
Her mother was suffering depression after a recent divorce and I was dangling from my father’s fingertips, helplessly.
After my mother died, Denise wouldn’t let a day go by without calling me. “Are you all right,” she’d say. She didn’t like my father, and her reasons were mature beyond her years, “He frightens me.” Denise wouldn’t spend the night at my house, but once, and she said that I could stay at hers anytime I needed to get away.
After school one afternoon we stopped in the Brentwood Pharmacy. Denise was looking at the book rack and I was following along.
“ Luellen, my mother told me your father is in a book, The
Green Felt Jungle. It’s about gangsters. Want’a see if they have it?”
I agreed to look because Denise was interested, but it meant nothing to me.
Denise twirled the book rack around, and I stood behind her watching.
“That’s the book! Let me look first and see what it says,” Denise whispered. She tensed up; I could feel it in her arm, as I grasped her.
“Oh, my God, there he is,” she said, and we hunched together over the book and read the description of my father, “Allen Smiley, one of Ben Siegel’s closest pals in those days, was seated at the other end of the sofa when Siegel was murdered.” Denise covered her mouth with her hand, and kept reading silently.
“What does that mean? Who is Ben Siegel?” I asked.
“Shush, not so loud. I’m afraid to tell you this, Luellen. It’s awful. ”
“What’s awful? Tell me.”
“Bugsy Siegel was a gangster. He was in the Mafia. He killed people. Your father was his associate.”
“I don’t think I should see this,” I said and started to leave the drugstore. Denise followed me out.”
“ Why did Bugsy kill people?” I asked.
“Because that’s what gangsters do. Luellen, you can’t tell your father you saw this book. Please don’t tell him I told you.”
“Why not?”
“My mother told me not to tell you. Swear to me you won’t tell your father!”
“I won’t. Don’t tell anyone else about this Denise, all right?”
“Luellen, have you met any of your father’s friends?”
” Yes, I’ve met them. I love his friends.”
A short time after that I waited until my father left for the evening, and then I opened the door to his bedroom.
I walked around the bed to a get closer look at the photographs on the wall. It was the first time I could read the
inscription: To Al, my dear friend, Your pal, Ben.
I stared at his eyes, droopy heavy-lidded sexy, and a gleaming boyish smile. It was a different photograph, but it was the same man in the “Green Felt Jungle.” The photograph placed next to it, was of Harry Truman, with a similar inscription dated 1963. The disparity of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel alongside Harry Truman wouldn’t mean anything to me for another thirty years. At that moment I was driven with curiosity and anticipation of what Denise had told me.
I opened the top drawer of his dresser. It was fastidiously organized with compartment trays for rolls of coins, a jewelry tray of diamond cufflinks, rings and watches, and another tray of newspaper clippings. The next drawer was stacked with neatly folded shirts in tissue paper. Under that was a drawer with a lock on it.
“What are you doing in my bedroom?” I slammed the drawer, muted by his stern expression. He pulled a key from his pocket, and locked the drawer.
“ HOW DARE YOU GO INTO MY THINGS! His hands shook, the veins in his neck inflamed.
“What is it you’re looking for? Luellen. Tell me, or else you will not step out of this apartment for a month. LUELLEN! Speak up! What are you looking for?”
“ I was looking for pictures?” I stammered.
“ What kind of pictures?”
“ Photographs. Of…Mommy.”
“ You’re lying to me! Don’t think you can fool me, you can’t. You want to see photographs, have a look at this one.” Then he pointed to the picture of Ben Siegel. Every vein of his neck swelled. He reminded me of a snarling wolf about to rip my head off. I looked down at the ground, and held my breath.
“Now you listen to me and don’t forget this for the rest of your life. This is Benjamin Siegel! He was my dearest and closest friend. You’re going to hear a lot of lies and hearsay about him. They call him “Bugsy,” but don’t let me ever catch you using that term. ” I  have not forgotten.

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DREAMS OF A FLAMINGO HOTEL WEDDING


On Sunday afternoon, while I was sitting in the bridal room at Neiman Marcus, I was in a head on collision with the past and the present. I was not in the bridal room to buy a wedding dress; I was there to store my mink coat. While I waited for a sales clerk, I imagined myself in the chic trench coat with diamond buttons hanging from the rack. If I did have to choose a bridal gown, it would have to be something unconventional, like my mother chose. She wore navy blue taffeta to her wedding. If I did get married, I would have to save my coins for a long time to pay for the reception. Where would I get married? At one time, I dreamt of the Bel Air Hotel, but that was in the 1970s. With inflation, the wedding would cost no less than $100,000 today. By the time, I saved that much, I would be 100 years old! Besides the hotel is not the same. The last time I dropped by, I was chased out of the river walk for taking photographs of the swans. Just before my father took ill in 1982, he told me my wedding would be at the Flamingo in Las Vegas. I remember it, as if it was yesterday. We were walking together in Holmby Park, where he walked his five miles everyday. Very often, he stopped at the public phone booth and made a few calls. He whispered so I could not hear his conversation. I know now he was laying his bets for the day. I waited on the green lawn watching the older men and women playing Croquette. When my father returned from the phone booth, he looked perturbed. That meant he lost money on that day’s sporting event. We walked a long time in heavy silence until he decided to break it.

“You know, I’m very proud of you.” He said looking straight ahead.

“You are?” I was stunned.

“Of course I am! I hope you don’t think any different. I have not said it often, because I’m coaching you all the time, so you will be independent, and know how to look after yourself, after I’m gone. I don’t want you to fall into a rut with the wrong fellow, like so many women. It can ruin your whole life.”

“But I haven’t accomplished anything really great…. like you.”

“What the hell are you talking about!” he stopped in the middle of the path. “I made more mistakes than you ever could. Are you kidding sweetheart, I broke all the rules, and made some new ones, and I’ve paid. Like I’ve always said, you make your bed, and you lie in it. I’m proud of the career you made in real estate, without any help from me. Now you have to concentrate on the right fellow. When you do get around to finding the right one, we’ll have the wedding at the Flamingo.

“The Flamingo? Do you still know people there?” I asked timidly.

“Of course, I was a major stockholder … at one time.” Then he cleared his throat, and I wondered if he was choking on the memories. “That’s where Mommy and I had our wedding reception.” I thought of the photographs of Mommy cutting the white cake. It was the first time he ever mentioned my wedding. It was the first time, he seemed to say, okay find a fellow, and I’ll let you go. I sensed his detachment from everything around us except for me.

“I would like that. How long has it been since you were there?”

“I didn’t want to set foot in that place after Benny… (Benjamin Siegel) I didn’t care if the whole place burnt to the ground. There’s no reason why you can’t have your wedding there. I can still arrange a few things.”

The vision of father, my future husband, and me was an aberration without incident or purpose at that age. However, he was dreaming that the day would come soon. When the sales clerk finally appeared, I was glazed over, in some marbled state of melancholy, clutching the mink coat on my lap. The mink is the oldest garment in my closet. My father gave it to me in 1978.

It’s as if it happened yesterday. My father called one Saturday and asked me to meet him at Mannis Furs in Beverly Hills. When I arrived, my father was seated in a chair, facing a three-way mirror. Manny rushed over to greet me. “This is my daughter, Luellen, “Manny bowed and kissed my hand. In the other hand, he was holding a mink jacket. “Try it on for size,” my father ordered. I hesitated, and looked at him for explanation. It never occurred to me I would be trying on mink coats. He was always asking me to meet him in shops, and restaurants. He held meetings wherever he knew people, so I assumed he had a meeting with Manny.

“Go on—try it on. I didn’t say I was buying it, I just want to see what it looks like.” Manny tucked me into the mink coat, and pulled the waist sash through. He stroked the fur up and down, and then I did the same. The coat was solid, like a cloth wall that buried my body in warmth. I stood before the mirror and watched the transformation.

“Turn around, “my father ordered. I took a few steps in a half circle and slipped my hands into the pockets, and turned around slowly as I’d seen my mother do. Suddenly his eyes welled up with tears and he took out his handkerchief.

“If you dressed in a proper outfit and not those silly jeans all the time, you might look like something!” he barked.

“Well I didn’t know I’d be trying on minks today.”

“What the hell did you think you’d be trying on, pianos? For crying out loud! “I don’t know what you’re thinking sometimes. Take it off.” Manny untied the sash and took the coat. My father was in a mood, it was my fault again. I shouldn’t have worn jeans. Why did he start crying? Manny disappeared, and my father stood in front of the mirror to affirm his reflection. After he took off in his Cadillac, I stood in front of Manny’s and looked at the mink coats. He never mentioned it again, but I knew the coat was going to show up one day. Six or seven months after that first meeting at Mannis, the mink appeared at Chanukah.

“Daddy, this is so extravagant, I won’t have any where to wear it.”

“Oh yes you will! Just wait and see. If you quit going out with those misfits and find yourself a decent fella you’ll have numerous occasions. That’s the reason why I gave it to you, so don’t misuse it!”

When I left Neiman’s I was drenched in his memory. The mink coat has outlived all of my possessions. Every time I put it on, I’m reminded of his wisdom. It’s not the expense or signature status. When I put it on, I feel transformed. I discovered the bill of sale from Manny’s, and the balance due, after my father died. I called Manny and asked him for more time, to pay it off. He told me to forget about it, my father had brought in so much business to the store.

Last year I called Manny to see if I could have the coat remade into a vest; as the sleeves were too short.   ” It’ll cost you the same as the mink,”  he told me.  I had the holes repaired, and the coat glazed and will pack it in the suitcase for the trip to New York, now thrity two years later with a decent fella.

CONFESSIONS OF A MOB KID


SOME children are silenced. The pretense is protection against people and events more powerful than them. As the daughter of Allen Smiley, associate and friend to Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, I was raised in a family of secrets.

My father is not a household name like Siegel, partly because he wore a disguise, a veneer of respectability that fooled most.

It did not fool the government. My father came into the public eye the night of June 20, 1947, when Benjamin Siegel was murdered in his home in Beverly Hills. My dad was seated inches away from Siegel, on the sofa, and took three bullets through the sleeve of his jacket.

He was brought in as a suspect. His photograph was in all the newspapers. He was the only nonfamily member who had the guts to go to the funeral.

When I was exposed to the truth by way of a book, I kept the secret, too. I was 13. My parents divorced, and five years later, my mother died. In 1966, I went to live with my father in Hollywood.

I was forbidden to talk about our life: “Don’t discuss our family business with anyone, and listen very carefully to what I say from now on!”

But one night, he asked me to come into his room and he told me the story of the night Ben was murdered.

“When I was spared death, I made a vow to do everything in my power to reform, so that I could one day marry your mother.

“Ben was the best friend I ever had. You’re going to hear a lot of things about him in your life. Just remember what I am telling you; he’d take a bullet for a friend.”

After my father died, I remained silent, to avoid shame, embarrassment and questions. But 10 years later, in 1994, when I turned 40, I cracked the silence.

I read every book in print – and out of print – about the Mafia. Allen Smiley was in dozens. He was a Russian Jew, a criminal, Bugsy’s right-hand man, a dope peddler, pimp, a racetrack tout. I held close the memory of a benevolent father, wise counselor, and a man who worshipped me.

I made a Freedom of Information Act request and obtained his government files. The Immigration and Naturalization Service claimed he was one of the most dangerous criminals in the country. They said he was Benjamin Siegel’s assistant. They said he was poised to take over the rackets in Los Angeles. He didn’t; he sold out his interest in the Flamingo, and he went to Houston to strike oil.

I put the file away, and looked into the window of truth. How much more could I bear to hear?

Born in Kiev, Ukraine, my dad’s family immigrated to Canada. He stowed away to America at 16, and was eventually doggedly pursued for never having registered as an alien. He had multiple arrests – including one for bookmaking in 1944, and another for slicing off part of the actor John Hall’s nose in a fracas at Tommy Dorsey’s apartment.

He met my mother, Lucille Casey, at the Copacabana nightclub in 1943. She was onstage dancing (for $75 a week), and my father was in the audience, seated with Copa owner and mob boss Frank Costello.

“I took one look, and I knew it was her,” was all he had told me on many occasions.

On a trip to the Museum of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, I was handed a large perfectly pristine manila envelope, and a pair of latex gloves with which to handle the file.

Inside were black and white glossy MGM studio photographs, press releases, and biographies of my mother’s career in film, including roles in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “Ziegfeld Follies of 1946,” “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Harvey Girls.” She was written up in the columns, where later my father was identified as a “sportsman.”

The woman who pressed my clothes, washed my hair, and made my tuna sandwiches was an actress dancing in Judy Garland musicals, while her own life was draped with film noir drama.

My father wooed her, and after an MGM producer gave her an audition, he helped arrange for her and her family to move to Beverly Hills, where she had steady film work for five years. He was busy helping Siegel expand the Western Front of the Costello crime family and opening the Flamingo casino in Las Vegas.

They were engaged in 1946.

Still, the blank pages of my mother’s life did not begin to fill in until I met R.J. Gray. He found me through my newspaper column, “Smiley’s Dice.”

One day last year, R.J. sent me a book, “Images of America: The Copacabana,” by Kristin Baggelaar. There was my mother, captioned a “Copa-beauty.”

Kristin organized a Copa reunion in New York last September. I went in place of my mother, but all day I felt as if she was seated next to me. I fell asleep that night staring out the hotel window, feeling a part of Manhattan history.

Now, the silence is over.

I don’t hesitate to answer questions about my family. I have photographs of Ben Siegel in my home in Santa Fe, NM, just as my father did. Every few months I get e-mails from distant friends, or people who knew my dad.

It seems there is no end to the stories surrounding Ben and Al. I am not looking for closure. I’ve become too attached to the story.