Showing posts with label Dean Martin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dean Martin. 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.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

HANDSOME JOHNNY—The Life and Death of Johnny Rosselli: Gentleman Gangster, Hollywood Producer, CIA Assassin

A rich biography of the legendary figure at the center of the century’s darkest secrets: an untold story of golden age Hollywood, modern Las Vegas, JFK-era scandal and international intrigue from Lee Server, the New York Times bestselling author of Ava Gardner: Love is Nothing…

A singular figure in the annals of the American underworld, Johnny Rosselli’s career flourished for an extraordinary fifty years, from the bloody years of bootlegging in the Roaring Twenties--the last protégé of Al Capone—to the modern era of organized crime as a dominant corporate power. The Mob’s “Man in Hollywood,” Johnny Rosselli introduced big-time crime to the movie industry, corrupting unions and robbing moguls in the biggest extortion plot in history. A man of great allure and glamour, Rosselli befriended many of the biggest names in the movie capital—including studio boss Harry Cohn, helping him to fund Columbia Pictures--and seduced some of its greatest female stars, including Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe. In a remarkable turn of events, Johnny himself would become a Hollywood filmmaker—producing two of the best film noirs of the 1940s.

Following years in federal prison, Rosselli began a new venture, overseeing the birth and heyday of Las Vegas. Working for new Chicago boss Sam Giancana, he became the gambling mecca’s behind-the-scenes boss, running the town from his suites and poolside tables at the Tropicana and Desert Inn, enjoying the Rat Pack nightlife with pals Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. In the 1960s, in the most unexpected chapter in an extraordinary life, Rosselli became the central figure in a bizarre plot involving the Kennedy White House, the CIA, and an attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro. Based upon years of research, written with compelling style and vivid detail, Handsome Johnny: The Life and Death of Johnny Rosselli: Gentleman Gangster, Hollywood Producer, CIA Assassin, is the great telling of an amazing tale.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Week that Frank Sinatra Performed at the Villa Venice for the Chicago Mob

In 1962, at the height of his fame, Frank Sinatra gave a benefit performance at the behest of a British princess. He gave another for the head of the Chicago mob.

In February, he sang at a ritzy London fundraiser for a children's charity favored by Princess Margaret. Later that year, he did a week's gig at the Villa Venice, a gaudy but financially ailing nightclub near Northbrook in which mafioso Sam Giancana had a piece of the action.

Will Leonard, the Tribune's nightlife critic, reported that Sinatra and his pals, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., "croon, carol, caper and clown to the biggest cabaret audiences this town has seen in years." And no wonder.

Gossip columnists had bestowed the honorific "Chairman of the Board" on Sinatra, whose 100th birthday on Dec. 12 is opening a floodgate of nostalgia. Giancana was the flamboyant face of the Chicago Outfit. The linking of the two luminaries turned those seven days in November and December into a requiem for an older show-biz era.

Chicago's entertainment scene was changing. Comedian Lenny Bruce had brought his obscenity-leavened act to the Gate of Horn, a hip club where the Chad Mitchell Trio also appeared. Their kind of folk music was already sufficiently popular for the Smothers Brothers to satirize it at the State-Lake Theater. The Rat Pack, Sinatra and his friends, were strictly old-school but still a magnetic draw to nightlife veterans of a time when Rush Street was home to celebrated nightclubs, not dating bars.

"The old Chez Paree crowd has yanked itself loose from the TV sets just once more," Leonard observed in another account of the goings-on at the Villa Venice. "The old waiters and doormen are back, showing the same old palms of the same old hands. There's a great big band on the stand, playing great big music. The chairs are pushed so closely together you can't shove your way between them. Flash bulbs pop in the audience during the show. All that's missing is the girl selling the Kewpie dolls and giant sized postcards."

Herb Lyon, the Trib's gossip columnist, proclaimed the hordes of screaming fans "Madness at the Villa." He quoted Sinatra and his buddies (or perhaps their publicist) as saying: "We've never seen anything like it anywhere — Vegas, New York, Paris, you name it."

Indeed, the Villa Venice had been tricked out in a style imported from Las Vegas. Giancana reportedly spent upward of $250,000 to restore it and its canals plied by gondolas. The showroom seated 800, was furnished with satin ceilings, tapestries, and statuesque, lightly clothed showgirls. Nearby was the ultimate accouterment of a Vegas-like operation: a gambling casino in a Quonset hut a few blocks from the Villa. High rollers were whisked between the supper club and the dice and roulette tables in a shuttle supervised by Sam "Slick" Rosa, identified by the Trib as "the syndicate's chief of limousine service," and his assistant, Joseph "Joe Yak" Yacullo.

The Tribune reported that among the mobsters on hand for Sinatra's opening night were Willie "Potatoes" Daddano, Marshall Caifano, Jimmy "The Monk" Allegretti and Felix "Milwaukee Phil" Alderisio. It was noted that "Sinatra's gangland fans from other cities appeared too." For a week, the Rat Pack's presence turned Milwaukee Avenue at the Des Plaines River into the hottest address in show biz.

Shortly before the Sinatra show closed, the casino shut down under belated pressure from law enforcement authorities who told the Tribune that the gambling operation had grossed $200,000 in two weeks. That threw a monkey wrench into Giancana's business plan, which depended on recouping his investment by attracting gamblers with a parade of big-name acts. But how could he hope to book stars like Sinatra and his buddies into a scarcely known venue in the hinterlands of Chicago? What kind of money did he dangle in front of them? Wondering if there might have been a nonmonetary enticement, the FBI interviewed the Rat Pack during their engagement. Perhaps the feds took a clue from Dean Martin's rewording of the old standard "The Lady is a Tramp":

I love Chicago, it's carefree and gay

I'd even work here without any pay.

According to James Kaplan, author of the recently published "Sinatra: The Chairman," the question was put to Davis. "I got one eye, and that one eye sees a lot of things that my brain tells me I shouldn't talk about," Davis told the agents. "Because my brain says that, if I do, my one eye might not be seeing anything after a while."

Kaplan's verdict was that it was unclear whether the Rat Pack got paid. As a favor to Giancana, Sinatra had previously persuaded a reluctant Eddie Fisher to play the Villa Venice, reportedly for chicken feed. Sinatra owed Giancana for lending his muscle in the critical state of West Virginia when John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, according to Giancana's daughter Antoinette's memoir "Mafia Princess: Growing Up in Sam Giancana's Family."

Still, the Rat Pack's Villa Venice appearances were wildly successful, as the Tribune's Lyon reported: "It is now estimated that the total Villa loot for the seven-day Sinatra-Martin-Davis run will hit $275,000 to $300,000, a new night club record." But Dinah Shore, the next scheduled performer, canceled at the last minute, and Sheilah Graham, a nationally syndicated columnist, wrote: "I've been told that Sinatra picked up the hotel tab for his group, to the tune of $5,000. The whole business sounds somewhat odd."

In fact, the Villa Venice never again hosted big-name stars, operating thereafter as a catering hall, with a new management taking over in 1965. Two years later, it was destroyed by a spectacular, if mysterious, fire. The spot is now a Hilton hotel.

Giancana was gunned down in his Oak Park home in 1975.

To the end of Sinatra's days, he sang the Windy City's praises. But fellow Rat Packer Peter Lawford reportedly said the song was an encomium not to the city but to Giancana, calling the song "his tribute to Sam, an awful guy with a gargoyle face and weasel nose."

Either way, "Chicago" was Sinatra's theme song:

I saw a man and he danced with his wife in Chicago

Chicago, Chicago that's my hometown.

Thanks to Ron Grossman.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Only Daughter of Meyer Lansky, Writes Tell-All-Memoir "Daughter of the King: Growing Up in Gangland"

In this tell-all memoir, the only daughter of the man who was considered the "brains of the Mob" opens the door on her glamorous—and tragic—life. Sandi Lansky Lombardo, daughter of Mob boss Meyer Lansky, was raised in New York City in upper-class Jewish splendor and spent her childhood in the undeniable glitz of Havana and Las Vegas in Lansky's heyday in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. She dined out with her father and his associates when she was six and was introduced to Frank Sinatra when she was eleven. She knew Bugsy Siegel and Uncle Lucky Luciano and met Howard Hughes and Joseph Kennedy. She was the Paris Hilton of her day: partying until dawn at El Morocco and the Stork Club, married at sixteen, romanced by Dean Martin at nineteen. She was pampered and protected, but her life was also full of tragedy: her mother was mentally ill and her eldest brother severely handicapped, and Mob violence repeatedly invaded the world of their friends and family.

Daughter of the King: Growing Up in Gangland, Sandi recounts for the first time the grandeur—and heartbreak—of her life as the daughter of one of the most powerful mobsters in America. Sandi takes listeners back in time to tell the story of her life—one lived in a glamorous but troubled world where nothing ever turned out to be quite as it seemed.


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