Friday, June 02, 2017

The First Vice Lord: Big Jim Colosemo and the Ladies of the Levee

My tendency to either skim books or proofread them (from early magazine days) has encountered a new one from former Cook County police chief Art Bilek that I can’t put down: The First Vice Lord: Big Jim Colosemo and the Ladies of the Levee.

This is a masterpiece of writing and excruciatingly accurate research that describes how Big Jim Colosimo rose from a lowly street-sweeper to the most prominent operator of whorehousesThe First Vice Lord: Big Jim Colosemo and the Ladies of the Levee, gambling joints, and low-life restaurants in the days leading up to Prohibition, with the collusion of the police and politicians and the managerial skills of John Torrio and Al Capone. When his increasingly notorious Colosimo’s CafĂ© combined with his growing desire for respectability, love for a young songbird, and failure to exploit the opportunities afforded by Prohibition, Torrio (we must presume) had him murdered in the vestibule of his elegant restaurant in 1920—and the band marched on.

Nowhere has Chicago’s graft and corruption been so carefully and entertainingly documented, with special attention to the backgrounds of Torrio and Capone, who worked hard to weld the new and competing bootlegging gangs into the greatest illicit booze empire the country has ever known--one that did not factionalize into Chicago’s bloody Beer Wars that began with the killing of North Side mob-leader Dean O’Banion four years later. My own work has concentrated on the years following Prohibition, so I’m especially happy to report that Bilek’s book explains what made the Roaring Twenties possible.

Reviewed by William J. Helmer, courtesy of On the Spot Journal.

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