Sunday, October 22, 2006

Trying to Fix an Award for Sidney Korshak

I received an e-mail from the Wisconsin Alumni Association this week seeking nominations for its annual "Badger of the Year" awards.

The release noted: "The criteria for the Badger of the Year awards are simple - recipients are alumni who are making a difference, whether by developing a successful business, serving as an educational leader, being a philanthropist or publicly supporting UW-Madison." I knew immediately who I wanted to nominate. He's a former UW-Madison student and athlete who definitely made a difference, while developing a most successful business.

Unfortunately, when I contacted the Wisconsin Alumni Association Friday, it turned out my nominee failed to meet certain other criteria for being named Badger of the Year. He's dead, for one thing, and he didn't graduate from UW-Madison for another. The rules require a recipient to be alive and to have graduated from here. Still, I went ahead and filled out the e-mail nomination form anyway, thinking perhaps an exception could be made.

So exceptional is my nominee that a major new book about him has just been published. The book, written by the esteemed investigative journalist Gus Russo, is titled "Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America's Hidden Power Brokers."

Korshak attended UW-Madison for two years in the 1920s and won the campus intramural boxing championship in 1927 at 158 pounds.

He then left Madison (transferring to DePaul) and became, in the words of the "Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America's Hidden Power Brokers" jacket copy, "the Chicago Outfit's fair-haired boy, Sidney Korshak, a.k.a. 'The Fixer,' who from the 1940s until his death in 1996 was not only the most powerful lawyer in the world, according to the FBI, but also the most enigmatic, almost vaporous player behind some of the shadiest deals of the twentieth century."

To which I would say: Who's perfect?

It all began for Korshak in Chicago, where he knew mobsters like Al Capone, and, later, Tony Accardo, who regarded Korshak almost as a son. From the outset Korshak was groomed to be organized crime's intermediary with legitimate business and politics - "the underworld liaison to the upperworld," in Russo's words.

Korshak moved easily from Chicago to Beverly Hills, where he mixed with stars like Frank Sinatra and moguls like Lew Wasserman and survivors like Robert Evans. Evans - who for years has been trying to make a movie about Korshak - was the source of the anecdote that kicks off Russo's first chapter on Korshak in California, a chapter that begins: "Sid Korshak's life in Beverly Hills was developing into a contradictory combination of sphinx-like mysteriousness and high-profile socializing with the world's most famous celebrities."

Korshak's new bride learned early that her charming husband conducted his business on a need-to-know basis, and among the things she was not to know were the names of his friends. Returning from their honeymoon, Bernice Korshak checked for messages and found that the following people had tried to reach her husband: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.

"Your friends sure have a strange sense of humor," Bernice said. "Who are they?"

"Exactly who they said they are," Sidney replied. "Any other questions?"

Evans, told the story by Bernice, noted, "Fifty years later, Bernice has never asked another question."

Hollywood historian Dennis McDougal would note that by 1960, "Korshak's influence surged beneath the surface of Hollywood like an underground river." He could start or stop labor strikes; get an actor a role or prevent it from happening; he was everywhere and nowhere. Korshak's photo was never to be taken, his name never included when a press agent puffed a list of party-goers to a gossip columnist. He lived in the shadows and it was from the shadows that Korshak and his supermob identified their next target, an arid land fit for growing nothing, nothing except money - Las Vegas.

So it went - a lucrative land grab here, a tax dodge there, somewhere else a quiet favor for a friend of a friend. Gus Russo's digging gets as close to the real Sidney Korshak as anyone ever has, and yet some mystery remains. It could not be otherwise.

As for that Badger of the Year award, I'll admit it's a long shot. But reading Russo, it seems Korshak's true vocation - fixing - might have got its start in Madison. Russo, quoting a UW student newspaper, says that in his championship campus boxing match, Korshak was out-punched and badly beaten by his opponent. "Consequently," the paper noted, "when the judges awarded the fight to Korshak, there was a great deal of surprise in the crowd."

It was a fitting beginning for "The Fixer."

Thanks to Doug Moe

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