The Chicago Syndicate: Abner Zwillman
Showing posts with label Abner Zwillman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Abner Zwillman. Show all posts

Thursday, November 15, 2018

How "Handsome Johnny" Roselli Infiltrated Hollywood for the Mob, Pulled Off a Major Scam, and Got Whacked

On July 28, 1976, “Handsome Johnny” Rosselli, a mobster who rose up through the ranks with Al Capone, had brunch with his sister in Miami before borrowing her car and driving to the marina. There, he boarded a private boat with two men, one of them an old friend. But when they got out to sea, the third man—someone Rosselli didn't know from Chicago—strangled the 71-year-old gangster to death. He wasn’t even on the vessel an hour and he was dead, rubbed out by a Mafia hitman who sawed off his legs, stuffed his body into a 55-gallon oil drum, and threw the barrel overboard into Dumfoundling Bay.

The barrel didn’t sink, and fishermen found it ten days later lodged on a sand bar in a canal, as the New York Times reported the following February.

It was an ignoble end for Rosselli, a self-styled playboy who acted as the Mafia’s ambassador both in Los Angeles in the 1930s and Las Vegas in the 1950s. A charming racketeer who held company with infamous mafiosos, Hollywood moneymen, stars and starlets, Rosselli even had some encounters with members of Congress before it all unraveled for him in Miami.

In the new book, HANDSOME JOHNNY—The Life and Death of Johnny Rosselli: Gentleman Gangster, Hollywood Producer, CIA Assassin, Lee Server explores the life and times of the man who helped bridge the gap between the movies and the mob. VICE talked to Server to find out how Rosselli made it into the organized crime mold—and how he brought mafia muscle to bear in Hollywood, at least for a while.

VICE: Was there one moment that you suspect kind of set Johnny Rosselli on a course to organized crime?
Lee Server: Rosselli had been drifting across America as a young man. He’d settled in Los Angeles in the 1920s, become a bootlegger, then a gambler and racketeer. A fortuitous encounter brought him to the attention of Al Capone, whose eye for criminal talent was second to no one. He recognized something in Johnny at a time when Capone was in need of a liaison between Chicago and the West Coast. He became a kind of honorary consul for the Chicago Outfit in LA

I think we all had a vague sense that the mob might have been involved in Hollywood productions, but this wasn't just a question of peripheral dabbling—it went to the top.
Part of Rosselli’s "assignment" in Los Angeles was to cultivate relationships with the film industry hierarchy. He knew everybody, dated movie stars, played golf with studio heads. His closest industry friend was the boss of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn. They socialized together, and Johnny was often at the studio advising the mogul on his gangster pictures. When Cohn needed a large loan in a hurry it was Johnny who put him together with East Coast mobster [Abner Zwillman]. This had its own complications, as the mobster maintained his secret piece of Cohn’s studio for many years, until he died suddenly, tortured to death or by his own hand, depending whose story you believe.

Rosselli's meddling eventually spun out of control, right?
He collaborated with Frank Nitti—Capone’s successor in the Chicago mob—on a plot to take down the entire Hollywood movie business. They did this through gaining control of a labor union, and then demanding huge under-the-table payoffs from each studio, threatening to close down all movie production if they didn’t pay. The mobsters made millions. It came undone in the end, and many of the perpetrators ended up in prison.

He did actually co-produce films like He Walked By Night and Canon City later in the 1940s—so his wasn't just a criminal gig. Did you take that as a deliberate choice, to find traditional work?
When Rosselli got out of prison on parole, he had to find legit employment. Most ex-cons usually met this parole requirement by taking day-labor jobs, working as dishwashers or similar. Rosselli being Rosselli, he got a job as an associate producer at a movie studio. He formed a production company with Bryan Foy and produced two noir crime pictures in a row. My research revealed how important Rosselli’s contribution was to developing these two great films.

I was struck by just how many public friendships he had with such big names—it was pretty brazen stuff, even after his stints in prison.
Johnny met Marilyn Monroe through the producer (and felon) Joseph Schenck. They were close for a while, lovers according to some. I could not confirm it, but the rumor was that he helped get Monroe her first prominent part in Ladies of the Chorus at Columbia.

As the virtual godfather of Las Vegas in the 50s and 60s, Rosselli knew most of the big showbiz stars who played the showrooms. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were personal friends. They partied together. Frank and Dean sponsored Johnny’s membership in the Friar’s Club.

This guy clearly had a flair for the dramatic. Was there one episode you think captured that?
The Kefauver Hearings in the early 1950s was the first in-depth government investigation of nationwide organized crime. Few people in America knew just how far-reaching was the spread of what was known then as the Mob and the Syndicate, corrupting every area of the country. The Kefauver group from Washington hauled in every top gangster, including Johnny Rosselli. Unlike most of the mobsters, who tried to play it tough and not say anything (and some went to jail for it), Rosselli answered every question, but with a strategic skill that ultimately gave nothing away.

But what got him killed if not his (repeated) Senate testimony?
I’ll echo the words the homicide detective who found his body said to me: he had pissed off a lot of people.

Thanks to Seth Ferranti.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Real Sopranos Were More Brutal and Less Stylish Than Tony's Crew

"The Sopranos," the HBO series now in its final season, won fame by depicting a Mafia crew whose members had begun assimilating into middleclass suburban life -- moving into McMansions, raising kids who attend Ivy League schools, discovering the psychiatrist's couch (or armchair).

Interestingly, it was HBO, nearly 20 years ago, that first gave us a look at what the real mob was like when it started to go suburban -- and the picture is nothing like "The Sopranos." The now-forgotten "Confessions of an Undercover Cop," a fascinating 1988 documentary, traced the decline and fall of the very Jersey crew that inspired "The Sopranos" -- the crime family of Ruggerio "Richie the Boot" Boiardo, whose gang was less introspective, even more violent, and a lot less glamorous than Tony's fictional mob.

"Sopranos" creator David Chase had learned about this Jersey mob as a child. Visiting relatives in Newark's predominantly Italian-American North Ward, he met a cousin with "fuzzy connections to a prominent mob family in Livingston," an exclusive suburb where Boiardo had moved. Though Chase says in a 2002 interview in New Jersey Monthly that "90 percent of [the show] is made up. . . . it's patterned after this [family]."

Boiardo, known simply as the Boot around Newark, began running numbers while working as a milkman before Prohibition, and he quickly figured out that crime paid better than dairy. He moved up the racketeering ranks and during Prohibition competed with another prominent Newark mobster, Abner "Longy" Zwillman, to smuggle booze through Newark. Working independently, the pair supplied much of the eastern half of the United States.

There was little mystery about the Boot's rise. Like the fictional Vito Corleone, he was brutal and had a knack for surviving. He earned his nickname from his habit of stomping his enemies to death, and he consolidated his power in Newark after withstanding a hit by a rival gang that left him full of bullets but defiantly alive. The Boot, moreover, passed his viciousness on to his son Anthony "Tony Boy" Boiardo and recruited other like-minded hoods. Not only did these guys dispose of their enemies as sadistically as anyone in "The Sopranos," but rather than brood over their bad deeds as some characters in the TV series do, the real Sopranos recounted their nastiest killings with relish.

In one FBI surveillance tape, for instance, Tony Boy declares, "How about the time we hit the little Jew." An associate adds, "As little as they are, they struggle." Then Tony Boy finishes describing the scene: "The Boot hit him with a hammer. The guy goes down and he comes up. So I got a crowbar this big. . . . Eight shots in the head. What do you think he finally did to me? He spit at me." In another tape, the mobsters recall with equal delight locking a victim in a car trunk and setting it afire. "He must have burned like a bastard," one mobster says.

As in "The Sopranos," the Boot joined the flight of Italian Americans out of Newark to the Essex County suburbs, where he built an opulent walled-in retreat in Livingston. But unlike Tony Soprano's modern McMansion, the Boot's estate was more like some European fortress, described by Life as "Transylvanian traditional" in its architectural style, with busts of famous Romans dotting its grounds. Another particularly noteworthy feature: a large furnace, rumored to be where the Boot's crew disposed of his enemies' remains.

By the time "Confessions" takes up this gang's story in the mid-1980s, Boiardo had recently died, as, unexpectedly of a heart attack, had his son and heir apparent, Tony Boy, leaving what remained of the crew to their lieutenants. Most of these hoodlums had also by now decamped to Newark's suburbs -- places like North Caldwell, Roseland and Bellville, all mentioned frequently in "The Sopranos." But unlike Tony's crew, the real Sopranos still used Newark's decidedly unglamorous and gritty North Ward as their base of operations.

The investigation at the center of "Confessions" begins by chance, when a retired East Orange, New Jersey cop named Mike Russell is driving down Bloomfield Avenue in North Newark and sees two young guys attacking an older one. Russell goes to the aid of the older man, driving off the attackers. He discovers that the guy he helped is Andrew "Andy" Gerardo, now head of Boiardo's old gang. Gerardo invites Russell into his hangout, a coffee shop on the avenue just a few steps from a monument to Christopher Columbus and the Italian American contribution to America. There, Russell meets other key members of the crew, who treat him like a hero and befriend him.

Russell then contacts a friend in the state police, who asks him to begin surveillance on the crew. Incredibly, the mobsters invite Russell to move his oil delivery business into a storefront adjoining their Newark headquarters, figuring he's friendly, and from there the investigation takes off. But unbeknownst to the state police, Russell enlists a cameraman and begins his own videotaping of the Jersey crew, which provides most of the material for the HBO documentary.

The footage illustrates the gap between Hollywood and mobster reality. Like most celluloid gangsters, Tony Soprano's crew carries itself with a certain "mob chic," evident in everything from Silvio's elaborately coiffed jet-black mane to Paulie's meticulously delineated gray sideburns to the expensive Italian suits that Tony and the boys favor. Their headquarters is the baby boomer's fantasy of bad-boy living, the Bada Bing strip club. But the real-life evil is more banal. The Boot made his headquarters inside a candy shop on Roseville Avenue in North Newark, transformed by the time of "Confessions" into a rinky-dink pizzeria and dimly lit adjoining cocktail lounge called the Finish Line. One look inside the Finish Line and it's clear that for this real mob crew, style took a back seat to earning money.

Most of the action that Russell investigates takes place in even less glamorous social clubs around North Newark -- little more than storefronts sporting linoleum floors, faux wood paneling, folding chairs and card tables. From these motley locations, the crew ran nightly card games that netted about $1 million a week. The earnings were big, though these games were nothing like those in "The Sopranos," where mob-run gambling sessions take place in hotel suites and occasionally feature big name "guest" players like Lawrence Taylor.

"Confessions" makes it clear that few real mobsters could ever score a bit part on "The Sopranos" or any other gangster show -- they simply look too ordinary. The "Confessions" crew runs around North Newark in Bermuda shorts, white T-shirts and knee-high socks, or in cheap polyester slacks and Ban Lon shirts -- a look that would never get you a photo shoot in Vanity Fair or on the cover of Cigar Aficionado, where James Gandolfini, who plays Tony Soprano, has appeared.

The investigation recounted in "Confessions" resulted in 48 indictments and more than 30 convictions or guilty pleas for gambling, loan sharking and racketeering, which effectively broke the back of the Genovese family in Jersey. At the end of "Confessions," we see the crew making a "perp" walk as they head to court, and it's clear just how unsympathetic and crude such mobsters really were -- nothing like the strangely appealing Tony Soprano. As the reporters badger them for a statement, one of the crew's top soldiers tells the newsmen: "Fugettaboutit. Go get a job." That's about the level of sophistication of the real mob.

Hollywood will no doubt continue to find new and innovative ways to package the Mafia, as Chase did brilliantly in his series. But for a sobering dose of reality, get your hands on a copy of "Confessions of an Undercover Cop."

Thanks to Steven Malanga

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