Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Sidney Korshak and The Mafia's Shadow Men

In their quest to assemble fragments of the past into a coherent explanation for why things happened as they did, historians tend to take one of two paths.

Some stick to the deeds of kings, presidents and famous military commandersSupermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America's Hidden Power Brokers, agreeing with Thomas Carlyle that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men." Others contend that the engines of history are really to be found in the anonymous multitudes, whose collective needs and capabilities determine the overarching economic, technological and social realities that shape the world and its future. And then there is a third notion, usually discredited but always seductive, that history is the product of a different breed of great men: the kind who plot their schemes in dark shadows and keep their identities secret. Such a man was Sidney Korshak.

For someone who never got convicted of so much as jaywalking and evaded public notice for nearly his whole life, Korshak had serious clout with powerful men. Having launched his legal career by representing the heirs to the Capone mob in Chicago, he was the kind of man who could come to Las Vegas during a Teamsters conference and have Jimmy Hoffa tossed out of the presidential suite so he could occupy it himself. His occasional mistress, Jill St. John, the 1960s Hollywood "It" girl, would reportedly turn down Henry Kissinger's invitations to the White House by saying, "Sorry, I have an invitation from someone more important." His preternatural abilities as a Hollywood fixer have been credited with enabling the production of "The Godfather," in which the non-Italian consigliere character played by Robert Duvall is thought by some to be based on Korshak. Together with men such as entertainment mogul Lew Wasserman, tax lawyer Abe Pritzker and real estate speculator Paul Ziffren, Korshak represented the clean face of a dirty business, according to "Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America's Hidden Power Brokers," Gus Russo's book. He was the bridge between Mafia hoodlums and the white-collar world.

Russo, an investigate reporter who has written about the Chicago Outfit in depth before, sets out here to tell the story of the mostly Jewish lawyers who were recruited by Italian mobsters and eventually came to surpass their original paymasters in money and power. He begins in Chicago's West Side, home to Russian Ashkenazic Jews who had fled the late 19th century pogroms and were determined to protect themselves from becoming victims again. "They were always aware that their wealth and position in society could be noticed and another pogrom would ensue. Thus they worked surreptitiously, choosing to focus on the substrata of a business or event." In an era when Jews were barred from the white-shoe firms, where they might otherwise have made lucrative careers, these often brilliant men became integral parts of the Mafia's attempts to extend their westward reach into legitimate enterprises, ranging from casinos to hotel chains to real estate to the Hollywood studios. In the process, Russo contends, the underworld laid its tentacles on many great men of the more famous variety -- especially in California, where the Chicago Outfit's front men played significant roles in the careers of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, among others.

Drawing heavily from FBI case files and countless interviews, Russo opts for thoroughness rather than a breezy prose style to make his case. The weight of evidence can make the book slow going at times, but it adds up to a compelling picture of the exercise of power in the 20th century. As a labor negotiator who eschewed written notes and mysteriously solved seemingly intractable problems with one or two phone calls from the table of his favorite Los Angeles bistro -- often reaping sweetheart deals for management from unions that had been infiltrated by hoods -- Korshak sat at the center of a wide, corrupt and stupendously profitable web. And while it can be hard to work up much outrage over the details of labor racketeering, stock swindles and real estate fraud, the human costs of such things can be heartbreaking. Russo's chapter on the shameless plundering of the assets of imprisoned Japanese Americans during World War II, presided over by a bevy of Korshak's associates, is particularly stirring.

As an exercise in history, "Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America's Hidden Power Brokers" is a worthwhile contribution to our understanding of the "American century." Holding back from wild-eyed conspiracy theories, Russo documents unsettling connections between yesterday's underworld and a corporate oligarchy that has never been more ascendant than it is today, partly because it has adopted some of the same schemes with a still greater degree of sophistication. The conditions that spawned Korshak and his ilk have changed considerably, but only to be replaced by the likes of Enron and WorldCom. How many new Korshaks are thriving among us now, taking care to leave behind no paper trail? People like to say that history is written by the victors. What happens when the real winners have burned all their notes?

Thanks to Trey Popp

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