LAS VEGAS WHEN WE WERE YOUNG


I wasn’t allowed in the Copa when the Rat Pack performed; I listened to the uproar

The Sands 1963

The Sands 1963 (Photo credit: D’oh Boy (Mark Holloway))

from outside the door, and caught a glimpse when Uncle Jack let someone in. It was a wild charade of slapstick, improvisation, and politically incorrect slurs, swearing and insults, all dressed up in comedic song and dance.

That’s how I remembered Las Vegas. When I returned for the grand opening of the Mob Experience Las Vegas,  I bounced into the spot lights, press conferences,

introductions, and interviews in a shiny aquamarine pants suit, I hadn’t worn in six years. Congregating with the sons and daughters of my Dad’s associates, who were raised in a similar fashion of privilege and secrecy, was my homecoming to

Las Vegas. There I was, speaking into a microphone about my father, who obsessed over me, as I was now doing in Las Vegas. What was the importance of this seventeen year battle? To re write history that was written about him, by people who never even met him. They couldn’t get the camera off of me, “Luellen, we’ll turn it over to the station now,” while I am still stating the case of Allen Smiley. What would Meyer and Dad and Roselli think of all this. They’d say, “Wish the Brain (Arnold Rothstein) could have seen this racket.

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.

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.