The Chicago Syndicate: Sidney Korshak

Showing posts with label Sidney Korshak. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sidney Korshak. Show all posts

Friday, August 24, 2018

Remembering Sidney Korshak - Fabled Fixer for the Chicago Mob


Sidney R. Korshak, a labor lawyer who used his reputation as the Chicago mob's man in Los Angeles to become one of Hollywood's most fabled and influential fixers, died on Saturday at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 88.

His death came a day after that of his brother, Marshall Korshak, a longtime Chicago politician who died in a hospital there at the age of 85.

Although the two brothers shared a law office in Chicago for many years, their careers diverged considerably. Marshall Korshak led a distinctly public life as a glad-handing Democratic machine politician, serving, among other things, as State Senator and city treasurer and dispensing thousands of jobs as a ward boss. But Sidney Korshak pursued power in the shadows.

It was a tribute to Sidney Korshak's success that he was never indicted, despite repeated Federal and state investigations. And the widespread belief that he had in fact committed the very crimes the authorities could never prove made him an indispensible ally of leading Hollywood producers, corporate executives and politicians.

As his longtime friend and admirer, Robert Evans, the former head of Paramount, described it in his 1994 book, "The Kid Stays in the Picture," Mr. Korshak could work wonders with a single phone call, especially when labor problems were an issue.


"Let's just say that a nod from Korshak," Mr. Evans wrote, "and the teamsters change management. A nod from Korshak, and Santa Anita closes. A nod from Korshak, and Vegas shuts down. A nod from Korshak, and the Dodgers can suddenly play night baseball."

Sometimes, to be sure, it took more that one call. At one point when police had him under surveillance, Mr. Korshak, who was careful not to make business calls on telephones that might be tapped, was seen entering a public phone booth carrying a paper bag full of coins.

Although Mr. Korshak generally made his calls to solve major problems faced by clients like the Los Angeles Dodgers, Gulf and Western, M.C.A., Las Vegas hotels and other large corporations, he also used his clout on lesser matters.

Among the stories circulating yesterday, for example, was one about the time the comedian Alan King was turned away at a plush European hotel by a desk clerk who insisted that there were simply no rooms available. Mr. King used a lobby phone to call Mr. Korshak in Los Angeles and before he hung up, the clerk was knocking at the door of the phone booth to tell Mr. King that his suite was ready.

The son of a wealthy Chicago contractor, Mr. Korshak graduated from the University of Wisconsin and received a law degree from DePaul University in 1930. Within months of opening his law practice, according to extensive research conducted by Seymour M. Hersh and Jeff Gerth for The New York Times in 1976, he was defending members of the Al Capone crime syndicate.

His reputation was made in 1943 when a mobster on trial for extorting millions of dollars from Hollywood movie companies testified that when he had been introduced to Mr. Korshak by a high-ranking Capone mobster, he had been told, "Sidney is our man."

That became even more apparent in 1946, when a Chicago department store chain faced with demands for payoffs from rival unions engaged him, and the problem almost magically disappeared.

Within months, Mr. Korshak, who had been shunned by the city's business elite, was in demand for his services as a labor lawyer who could stave off demands from legitimate unions by arranging instant sweetheart contracts with friendly unions, often the teamsters.

Mr. Korshak, who sometimes boasted that he had paid off judges, solidified his standing among Chicago's business, civic and social leaders by giving ribald late-night parties featuring some of Chicago's most beautiful and willing showgirls."Sidney always had contact with high-class girls," a former Chicago judge told The Times in 1976. "Not your $50 girl, but girls costing $250 or more."

Mr. Korshak moved to California in the late 1940's and found Hollywood executives as eager as Chicago businessmen to hire him to insure labor peace.

He added to his reputation and his usefulness when it became known that he could arrange loans of millions of dollars from the teamsters' infamous Central States Pension Fund, which, among other things, helped finance the growth of the Las Vegas casino industry, often with Mr. Korshak serving as the intermediary and sometimes as silent partner.

It was a reflection of his power that when Mr. Korshak showed up unexpectedly at a Las Vegas hotel during a 1961 teamsters' meeting, he was immediately installed in the largest suite, even though the hotel had to dislodge the previous occupant: the union's president, Jimmy Hoffa.

In an era when mob figures were forever being gunned down by rival gangsters or sent to prison by determined prosecutors, Mr. Korshak seemed to lead a charmed life. That was partly because his mansion was protected by extensive security measures, partly because he was adept at using his role as a lawyer as a shield against probing grand jury questions and partly because he was careful to distance himself from the fruits of his own activities.

He never, for example, served as an officer of the various corporations formed to carry out his complex schemes. Even his legal work left no paper trail. Never licensed to practice in California, he maintained no Los Angeles office and had bills mailed from Chicago. He was famous for never taking notes or even reading contracts.

As a result, he became so valuable to the mob and its corrupt union allies that lower-level mobsters were ordered never to approach him, lest they tarnish his reputation for trust and integrity.

At the same time, he was so valuable to more or less legitimate businesses that the executives who hired him would never breathe a word against him.

Mr. Korshak is survived by his wife, Bernice; three children, Harry of London, and Stuart and Katy of Beverly Hills, and five grandchildren.

Marshall Korshak is survived by his wife, Edith; two daughters, Marjorie Gerson and Hope Rudnick of Chicago; four grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.

Thanks to Robert McG Thomas Jr. on January 22, 1996

Thursday, April 06, 2017

How Did Chicago became a Cultural Capital of Crime?

The thing outsiders know about Chicago is crime. The mobsters, the street drug gangs, the corrupt operators—these are the most sensationalized aspects of the city. But they are also key factors in its ongoing narrative, the one true Great American Novel that is Chicago. The city with a fiery creation myth grew into a blue-collar metropolis with the help of oily, feudal political machines and assorted local species of crook, leaving a deep, ugly legacy. It is written in our street grid, our transit lines, and our segregated accents, in which one can still hear both the old white ethnic strongholds and the Great Migration. It can be a very beautiful city, especially at night. In those icy parts of winter that have become more rare since I first moved here, the unique nighttime color of Chicago reflects in every direction. The flatness of the landscape and the straightness of the streets bring its divisions into deep focus. I’m proud to show it off. It is a city on the prairie, and therefore a city of the plain, like Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis.

For a time in the 1850s, there were so many problems with drainage that it became a swamp and had to raise itself up on jackscrews. So really, a Chicagoan has their pick of origin stories. The curse of the so-called Second City is that it lends itself effortlessly to symbolism and especially to metaphor, to the point that you start to believe that it just might be one. I’ve lived here longer now than I have anywhere else, and I have come to love this aspect of the city. When Chicagoans speak—whether they are true locals or transplants like myself, who have come to its ways through prolonged exposure—they speak its complicated history. This is the diverse Southern-inflected sound of black Chicago, the “Chi-cah-go” and “Chi-caw-go” pronunciations that classify white accents, and that perfect formulation of terse Midwesternese, the stranded “with,” as in the classic “You wanna come with?” They say “jagoff” is a Pittsburgh word, but Chicago owns it.

Really, there are many Chicagos, bound almost psychically. It is better maybe to try to grasp it in terms of its architecture—which is really one of the most beautiful things about it—and planning. For instance, Chicago is the alley capital of the world. There are about 1,900 miles of alleyways running through almost every block of the city, regulated to a minimum width of 16 feet, some much wider. The alley is part of day-to-day life in Chicago: It’s where we take our shortcuts and bring our trash. It’s why Chicago doesn’t smell as bad as other big cities. It lacks that note of garbage that gives New York streets their character. The kind of buildings we call two- or three-flats, whether brick, frame, or Indiana limestone (called “greystone” locally), will often have a gangway, a passage that lets you cut from the sidewalk to the alley. My favorites are the ones that dip under a protruding oriel. And most of the apartments in those two- and three-flats will have two doors, one in the front and one in the rear. It’s a city of backstreets and backdoors.

Chicago crime is a unique phenomenon. In broad statistics, it is not that dangerous a place; the rates of burglary and theft are low for an American city, and many of its neighborhoods experience negligible violent crime. This is a common defense tactic for Chicagoans, especially white Chicagoans—the “well, not my Chicago” plea. But this is as much a fantasy as the Trumpian burning of the quote-unquote “inner city.” Chicago crime inspires fascination because it is entrenched and so specific, so troublingly connected to a diverse city that otherwise eludes broad social generalizations. One fact about Chicago is that it has more nicknames in common circulation than any other place in this country, all of them kind of tacky: the Windy City, the Second City, Chi-Town and its pun variations, the City Of Big Shoulders. There are many others, too. Defining the spirit of Chicago is a bad parlor game. The nice parts of it are very nice, but for more than 90 years, it has been world-famous as a place where people get gunned down in the street. Throughout its history runs a succession of criminal boom industries: gambling, policy, liquor, crack, heroin.

The criminal conglomerates of Prohibition and the small sets of the West Side’s Heroin Highway are part of one uninterrupted story, though unwittingly. The story is the city. It goes back to the 1870s and the reign of “Big Mike” McDonald as the king of Chicago’s gambling underworld. It goes through generations of increasingly more effective political machines and increasingly larger criminal syndicates, colluding in political and commercial networks that made the street gangs seem like the inevitable result of a complicated equation. Let us assume a few things here as starting points: that the city and its underworlds have existed for a long time in a relationship that is more complex than host and parasite; that political and criminal groups in the city, however big or small, play variations on a similar game involving the flow and direction of movement; and that the city is itself a crossroads, its entire story defined by lines of interstate transit, be it the Illinois Central Railroad that transported half a million black job-seekers from the South during the Great Migration, or the Sinaloa Cartel network from which most of the cocaine and heroin of its current drug economy is believed to originate.

For Chicago, there is no artistic or cultural history without its social history, no social history without its political history, and no political history without crime. The mob is a staple of our tourist kitsch industry: the Al Capone T-shirt and the Untouchables bus tour, right up there with Mike Ditka’s hairspray, the goddamn Blues Brothers, and that casserole we call a deep-dish pizza. But the mob was always corny, even at its scariest. For decades, it was almost everywhere. I’ll give you an example: The Russian bathhouse immortalized by Saul Bellow in Humboldt’s Gift was actually a mob hangout. It was still owned by an Outfit family in the years that I lived across from it on Division Street, one of the more darkly perfect street names in Chicago.

Michael Mann’s 1981 debut feature, Thief (Special Director's Edition), is to my mind the best Chicago crime film set after Prohibition and one of the great artistic interpretations of the city’s nocturnal character. It was made in the last years that Chicago nights glowed bluish-green, before the city had completed the changeover from mercury vapor lighting to the sodium vapor lamps that produce its present honey-bronze haze. Much as alleyways have both a practical and a mystical relationship to the city’s networks of crime, so it is possible to chart eras of criminality through the history of its public lighting. Crime is a largely nocturnal activity, after all, as are most of the vices on which the city’s criminal syndicates were built. In the Prohibition and Great Depression golden age of Chicago crime, most of the streets were still gas-lit and very dim. This was the fabled era of the Tommy Gun mobsters, but also of the bank-robbing outlaw, embodied by the Chicago-based Dillinger Gang, the subject of Mann’s underappreciated crime epic Public Enemies. Mercury vapor arrived in the mid-1950s, along with Richard J. Daley’s Democratic political machine and the solidification of the Chicago Outfit, the white mob, which in those years finally murdered and intimidated its way into the territory of the city’s forgotten black crime syndicates. The most recognizable type of streetlight in Chicago was introduced in this era. It’s a bucket-shaped design unique to the city, called the General Electric Crimefighter.

Thief is not a film about the Outfit, but it features an Outfit operative as a character, played by the avuncular stage veteran Robert Prosky. You have probably seen a picture of Al Capone. Chances are it’s the glamour shot with his head turned and the cigar stuffed in his cheek and the size 6 7/8 cream-white Borsalino on his little head. This is the most flattering picture of Capone. As a young man, he had the pudgy face and baggy eyes of a fortysomething bank manager. He was 26 when he inherited Johnny Torrio’s criminal empire and was out of power by the age of 33. But in movies and TV, he is always played by older actors, trimmer or more barrel-chested, always tougher-looking than the real man: Rod Steiger in Al Capone; Neville Brand, Robert De Niro, and William Forsythe in successive versions of The Untouchables; Jason Robards in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre; Stephen Graham on Boardwalk Empire. But there were never any handsome gangsters. They were all funny-looking, and with the exception of the flashy Capone years, they dressed like shit.

The Outfit was the successor to Capone’s organization, and in that era of mercury vapor lighting, when the tint of the night suggested an extended twilight, their look was Sansabelt, grandpa glasses, and starched short sleeves. Mann grew up in the long-gone Jewish quarter of the Humboldt Park neighborhood, as did Saul Bellow a generation earlier, and he is one of the few to try to capture this banal, used-car-salesman aspect of the Chicago mob. To me, he is one of the geniuses of the genre; in all of his crime films, there is a complex dialogue between authenticity and archetype. His favorite type of verisimilitude is the kind that directly contradicts expectations. In Thief, for instance, the safe-cracker played by James Caan—the first of the single-minded professionals that would become Mann’s contribution to the mythology of the crime genre—doesn’t press the resonator of a stethoscope against a door and listen to the tumblers; he uses an industrial oxygen lance, lent to Mann by an actual Chicago-area burglar. And while Prosky’s role might seem like a case of casting against type, if you look at pictures of Outfit bosses from the time, that’s what they all looked like.But here’s the thing: The imagery Mann subverts with this more realistic portrayal—and uses to formulate his own mythology—is also Chicagoan in origin. It was Chicago that birthed both the gangster picture and the notion of street criminal chic, and it really took until The Godfather for there to be a major American film that took its cues from the clannish organized crime culture of the East Coast. Even the great New York gangster movies that came before The Godfather, like Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties and Budd Boetticher’s The Rise And Fall Of Legs Diamond, are based on an archetype born of the Second City. Most film historians will tell you that there are two definitive early gangster films: Underworld, directed in 1927 by Josef Von Sternberg, and Howard Hawks’ insurmountable 1932 Scarface. Both are set in Chicago, as were almost all early American gangster movies—Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, the whole lot. The gritty city stuck in the imagination of ’30s Hollywood much in the same way as Paris and Vienna did, less a real-world setting than a genre in and of itself. Films about criminal gangs go back to the early 1900s, but they depict their bad guys mostly as ragged, unshaven goons in flat caps. The seductive criminals of the silent era are swindlers and masterminds. The idea that coarse, murderous thugs could be flamboyant, magnetic, and sexy—that comes from the Chicago of Al Capone and John Dillinger.

Both Underworld and Scarface were based on stories by Ben Hecht, though the latter was nominally adapted from a forgotten pulp novel of the time. Before he became one of the greatest screenwriters in the history of Hollywood, Hecht was a Chicago Daily News crime reporter, an experience he would draw on many times—most famously in The Front Page, one of several collaborations with his crime-desk colleague Charles MacArthur, subsequently reworked as His Girl Friday. Hecht was one of a number of literary men who worked in the Chicago dailies of the 1920s (the poet Carl Sandburg was also at the Chicago Daily News at the time), and the best of a tradition of newspapermen who treated the job of columnist as though it made them prose-poet laureate of Chicago. A reader of modernist and symbolist literature, he was also involved in the Little Review, the Chicago literary magazine famous as the first publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was originally serialized over several years in its pages. In Underworld, released at a time when Joyce’s landmark novel was still banned as obscene in the United States, there is a villainous Irish gangster named Buck Mulligan, after the central character of the first chapter of Ulysses—a fact that I’ve always found amusing.

The classic, Hecht-ian gangster drew on the public’s morbid fascination with Chicago crime to create something almost modernist—this wanton criminal as an epic figure in an expressively metaphorical cityscape. This is true of Scarface, a masterpiece that was the work of a number of remarkable talents, not just Hawks and Hecht. One of the many memorable things about Scarface is the use of signage as commentary and ironic counterpoint: the famous “The World Is Yours” travel ad (carried over in Brian De Palma’s loose 1983 remake); the body lying under the crossed shadow of a signboard that reads “Undertakers”; the lit-up marquee of the club called “Paradise No. 2.” The Godfather would refashion the gangster as a creature of family and loyalty, but in his original conception, he was a creature of the city. Scarface’s Capone-inspired title character doesn’t rise to power in the middle of nowhere, but in a darkly comic metropolis that seems to empower and mock him in equal measure. In other words, he rises to power in Chicago.

It should be pointed out that almost all Chicago-set Hollywood films produced from the late 1920s to the 1970s are about mobsters, crime, or corruption. We’re talking Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl, assorted half-remembered noirs, various versions of the Roxie Hart story (including one written by Ben Hecht), the premise of Some Like It Hot. Of these, only Arthur Penn’s Mickey One, the film that first attempted to apply a French New Wave sensibility to home-grown pulp, did any substantial filming here, capturing both its decrepit alleys and its modernist architecture in stark black-and-white. It was only in the 1980s that the city became a popular filming location. Perhaps Thief seems definitive because it represents a point of merger—between the mythology of the city and its reality, which already seems fairly stylized.


The great musical legacy of Chicago is the modernization and urbanization of the blues, a rural sound that was electrified by the city and laid the groundwork for most popular music that has come since. One important but underappreciated figure in its development was Kokomo Arnold, who played a rapid bottleneck-slide-guitar blues in a style that still sounds rock ’n’ roll. It is said that he came to Chicago as a bootlegger in the 1920s, but was forced to rely on his musical talents for a living after the end of Prohibition, trading one business of handling bottles for another. However, when it comes to stories about bluesmen, one can never be sure. Arnold’s recording of “Old Original Kokomo Blues” was reworked by the Delta bluesman Robert Johnson into “Sweet Home Chicago,” now the de facto anthem of the city. “Sweet Home Chicago” isn’t actually about Chicago. It uses the name of the city figuratively. It has to be the most singable place name in American English: Chi-ca-go, those three syllables, each ending in a different vowel sound. It lends itself to varied interpretation.

More so than any place in America and perhaps even the world, Chicago was founded on the idea of a city; before it had developed a cultural life of its own, it was a word, a notion, and a destination, ballooning over the second half of the 19th century from a smallish midland settlement into what was then the fifth largest city in the world. It is a place that inspires ideals—from the Wobblies to the aesthetic of Afrofuturism, the Hull House to the tradition of philosophizing architects embodied by Louis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and Frank Lloyd Wright. But how much of Chicago’s idealistic streak is a reaction to its cynical pragmatism? For as long as it has deserved to be called a city, Chicago has had problems with disenfranchisement, corruption, and crime—problems that seem like they were almost designed into the city. I’ll point out here that in his Whitman-esque poem “Chicago,” which is the source of the nickname “the City Of Big Shoulders,” Carl Sandburg also writes: “Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.” And this is the definitive celebration of the city.

It was Nelson Algren who mastered the art of making Chicago’s seediness sound like an exotic quality. He is best known for his novel The Man With The Golden Arm, which is set on that same mythologized stretch of Division Street that was home to Saul Bellow’s Russian bathhouse. Here, I’ll point out that Otto Preminger’s well-known 1955 film adaptation, starring Frank Sinatra as a heroin-addicted jazz drummer, was co-written by an uncredited Hecht, because everything somehow intersects in the novel of Chicago. It opens with a prowling long take down an evocative soundstage street that bears only a faint resemblance to the real city. It’s a Chicago of the imagination, but so are most. In his essay “Chicago: City On The Make,” published two years after The Man With The Golden Arm, Algren gave the city one of its most famous panegyrics: “Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.” Like so many Chicago transplants who came here in the mid-2000s to lead a quasi-bohemian existence, I have this passage memorized. But it did not occur to me until many years later to ask who broke the woman’s nose.
Iceberg Slim on the cover of his 1976 spoken-word album, Reflections.

The fact is that, while the crime and corruption provide links between Chicago’s countless neighborhoods, their effects have always been graded by skin color. I know of no black writer of the same periods who wrote of Chicago crime as a sign of its resilient spirit, as Sandburg did, or as an Algren-esque existential quality, the proof of its hustle—not even Iceberg Slim, who was second only to Ben Hecht in developing and popularizing the mythology of the street criminal. Slim—who was born Robert Maupin, but took Robert Beck as his legal name in middle age—had been a dapper pimp in the black underworld of Chicago and the upper Midwest in the 1940s and 1950s, until a breakdown in the Cook County Jail led him to retire. He had been known as Cavanaugh Slim. It was while working as an exterminator in Los Angeles that he wrote his autobiographical novel Pimp: The Story Of My Life, a bestseller that would come to define the voice of gritty urban pulp. Along with his subsequent crime novels and the follow-up memoir The Naked Soul Of Iceberg Slim: Robert Beck’s Real Story, it would exert a profound aesthetic and thematic influence on gangsta rap, blaxploitation films and black variations on noir (Bill Duke’s Deep Cover, for example), and the prose of a vast array of fiction writers, most notably Donald Goines and Irvine Welsh.

Slim was a complicated figure. Like Chester Himes, the godfather of black noir, and Ed Jones, the most powerful black kingpin of Slim’s early years in Chicago, he had a go at a respectable college education before lapsing into crime—though, admittedly, he already had a lengthy rap sheet by the time he arrived at Tuskegee, where he was a student around the same time as Ralph Ellison. As a prose writer, he was ecstatic and contradictory, the king of mixed metaphors, capable of lucidly deconstructing the misogyny and self-loathing of his criminal past one moment and juicing readers with lurid sexual exploits the next. Like Hecht, he sculpted the seductive aspect of Chicago crime—but in place of the classic gangster film’s anti-social pizzazz, what he presented was a cool, toughened nihilism. Perhaps Slim came to believe his own legend. After he found recognition as a writer, he adopted the public image of a wocka-wocka mid-1970s pimp, though his own heyday had been in the days of boogie-woogie and parted hair.

Indulge me now and take a moment to listen to “County Jail Blues,” a 1941 B-side by the Chicago blues pianist Big Maceo Merriweather. It’s an ageless song, and, in my opinion, one of the great overlooked blues recordings of the 1940s. The guitarist is Tampa Red, who played a gold-plated steel-body guitar that sounds remarkably like an electric. In its ideal form, blues is not glamorous music.

The cultural legacy of Chicago crime is really two stories, but they are intertwined. The first is a story of myths, plucked from the streets and alleys of the city and fermented in the popular imagination. The second is a complex narrative of devil’s bargains between art, business, political machinery, and crime. It stretches from the brothels of the early 20th century to the super-sized media conglomerates of the present day. Let me relate one small part of it.

The first black millionaires in America were probably policy kings, most likely in that densely populated area of the South Side that was then known as the Black Belt. Policy was an illegal lottery in which winning numbers were drawn from policy wheels (often rigged), which in Chicago bore such names as the Airplane, the Kentucky Derby, and the Prince Albert. It was a huge enterprise, with each wheel having its own drops, runners, and policy writers—not to mention a whole sub-industry of numerologists and hucksters who called themselves “policy professors” and hawked dream-based winning formulae in the ad pages of the Chicago Defender. If you want to try to get a sense of the spirit of the time, take a listen to “Four Eleven Forty-Four,” by Papa Charlie Jackson, the sardonic, banjo-playing chronicler of life in Chicago’s black neighborhoods in the 1920s and the first commercially successful self-accompanied blues musician; the title is the prototypical number combination, or gig, and a byword for policy itself.

The great policy kings are mostly forgotten now: Policy Sam, Mushmouth Johnson, Teenan Jones, Ed Jones (no relation) and his brothers, Dan Jackson, Teddy Roe. But their influence on the economic and political life of the city can’t be overstated. For the first half of the 20th century, the white powers that be considered them essential to the black vote in Chicago. When it comes to this city’s history, one should probably always think cynically and feudally: a community where the largest local employer, voter registration effort, charity, and source of capital is a single criminal racket is a corrupt administrator’s dream. Political machines gave policy kings leeway to keep them in power. During their reign, the center of black nightlife in Chicago was a section of the Bronzeville neighborhood known as “The Stroll.” How perfect is that, in a city where control is synonymous with directing movement?

The 1920s and ’30s were Chicago’s heyday as a center of jazz talent and innovation. One of the most important clubs of this era was the Grand Terrace, known in its early years as the Sunset Cafe. The building—originally a garage, and until recently a hardware store—still stands on 35th Street. This was where Louis Armstrong became a star with a teenage Cab Calloway as his master of ceremonies, where Nat King Cole got his first break, and where the trailblazing pianist and bandleader Earl “Fatha” Hines had his 12-year residency, playing a piano bought for him by Al Capone. In the ’30s, the Grand Terrace had its own national radio show, broadcast live every night. Policy kings owned many popular clubs on The Stroll, including Palm Tavern (owned by Genial Jim Knight) and the Elite No. 2 (owned by Teenan Jones), which I’m almost certain inspired the similarly comical name of Scarface’s Paradise No. 2. But the most lucrative and glamorous spots were integrated black-and-tan clubs like the Grand Terrace and the Plantation, which was located across the street. Both were controlled by the Capone organization through Jewish associates.


Unlike the Outfit that succeeded him, Capone made a point of leaving the black syndicates alone. There were many reasons for this, including the fact that the mob and the policy kings were both colluding with the Republican political machine headed by Mayor William H. Thompson, a flagrantly corrupt figure who believed that the one true enemy of America was the British crown. But the one that matters here is the mob’s intended audience. The Grand Terrace attracted many wealthy black customers, from bona fide celebrities to local crime lords (Icerberg Slim’s mentor, “Baby” Bell, spent there lavishly), but it was designed to draw in white money. Anyone who wanted to make a career in Chicago had to play the mob’s segregated circuit. The white jazzmen (including such talents-in-training as Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman) mostly played whites-only venues, while the black jazzmen played black-and-tan clubs, where white musicians could sit and play if they wanted. The privilege did not go the other way around.

Thus, the mob invisibly controlled the direction of musical influence, as it did so many other things that may seem intangible. Its monopoly on early Chicago jazz had many consequences, one of which was an eventual exodus of talent, beginning with the great cornetist King Oliver, who led the band at the Plantation Café. Oliver was a true tragic figure; he gradually lost his teeth and the ability to play to severe gum disease, ended up working as a janitor in a pool hall, and died broke in a rooming house. In the mythology of jazz, his downfall into obscurity and fatal poverty is all the result of his refusal to take a lowball offer for a regular gig at the Cotton Club, which instead catapulted Duke Ellington to stardom. This is the thing to remember: Much of the formative 1930s period of jazz, a music with deep black roots, happened on terms set by white criminals. After the black-and-tan clubs went out of fashion toward the end of the 1930s, the Chicago mob got into coin-operated jukeboxes. Thankfully, they never developed an interest in blues.

Regardless of age or gender, Chicago will turn you into an old man giving directions. Every story reminds of another story, and a story of something that used to be there—because it’s really all one story. After the Outfit took control of policy and bolita, a similar numbers game popular in the city’s Latino neighborhoods, they became absorbed into the gambling and vice empire of the Rush Street crew, whose day-to-day manager went daily to Saul Bellow’s beloved Russian bathhouse on Division Street. The Grand Terrace, having finally gone out of business, became the headquarters of the Democratic congressman William L. Dawson. He was the black sub-boss of Chicago’s political machine, and, in theory, the most powerful black politician of the 1950s. He didn’t redecorate the Grand Terrace. It still had its big neon sign (with a smaller sign with his name added) and its Jazz Age murals and private upstairs clubrooms. The last regular bandleader at the Grand Terrace had been the jazz iconoclast Sun Ra, who was then just developing his sci-fi aesthetic in Chicago.

Dawson’s position within the political machine was a feudal lordship; it was dependent on his ability to bring out black voters en masse. The political machine, in turn, depended on segregation and on interchanges with the underworld. The link between the Outfit’s earlier inroads on The Stroll and the Democratic political machine’s command of the post-war black voting block was made literal and blatant by the continued use of the Grand Terrace. There, Dawson’s landlord was Joe Glaser, the manager of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday and a longtime Outfit man. Glaser, who had an early history of walking away from sexual-assault charges, had been a boxing promoter who specialized in fixing fights for the mob and then a manager of black-and-tan clubs. After the repeal of Prohibition destroyed the Outfit’s stranglehold over Chicago liquor, he would rob delivery trucks to stock the bar of the Grand Terrace.

The management company Glaser created—and willed to the Outfit lawyer and power broker Sidney Korshak, unbeknownst to Armstrong—was funded by a loan from Jules Stein, an ophthalmologist, former bar mitzvah musician, and jazz booker for the Chicago mob circuit. Stein’s booking company was MCA, which started with speakeasies and black-and-tan clubs and became the largest talent agency in the world by the end of 1930s, all while being effectively controlled by the Capone organization. It acquired Universal Pictures, and expanded beyond talent management into film, television, music, and publishing. It kept its ties to the Outfit and carried over the city’s culture of patronage to Hollywood, where it encouraged the political ambitions of its client Ronald Reagan. At the start of this century, it merged with Vivendi to create NBCUniversal and Universal Music Group. This is the story of the Outfit controlling who worked in one building in Chicago. It’s a big city. There are many buildings.


If you are ever in Chicago, consider taking a drive through the city at night. Let the car rattle on the badly pockmarked streets. Your eyes will adjust to the amber sear of the General Electric Crimefighters and to that other feature of Chicago nighttimes, the blue flash of a police camera box. There are thousands mounted around the city. Turn down an alley and think of the fact that even in the earliest plat of Chicago, dating to the 1830s, there were plans for alleyways. Park the car, get out, and study how the dimensions and alignment of the streets and sidewalks affect your movements. Don’t think of crime as troglofauna, pale and eyeless, evolving in the dank corners of the city. In Chicago, crime moves, often along currents defined by earlier forms of crime. It’s structural.

Given that they have brought Chicago its most sensationalized coverage since the days of Al Capone, it seems interesting that there have been no real fiction films about the street gangs. Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq doesn’t count. Its portrayal of Chicago’s gangland is pure fantasy, influenced by the mythology of gangsta rap—which is to say, indirectly indebted to Iceberg Slim. Even in fiction, the city can’t escape the myths it inspires. You could say that about drill, our distinctive midtempo flavor of nihilistic trap rap. Drill tends to be oversimplified as the authentic sound of modern Chicago crime, which is how it sells itself, existing as it does in a complicated relationship with the histories and ongoing conflicts of Chicago’s drug gangs, grouped in the increasingly meaningless six-pointed-star Folk and five-pointed-star People alliances.

Really, drill is internet music. It owes its local significance, popularity, and very existence to limitless digital space and social media. Drill is the dizzying, exhaustive braggadocio of Montana Of 300’s “Holy Ghost”; the squishy nausea of Lil Durk’s “Glock Up”; and the hammering of Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like”; but it is also a thousand guys who can’t rap boasting about the same shit over $50 beats while hustling for Instagram followers and YouTube views. Quality drill albums are nonexistent, and consistent drill mixtapes are rare as hen’s teeth; the ratio of filler to killer is notoriously poor. The mise-en-scène is remarkably consistent from video to video: guns; unimpressive cars; alleys, gangways, and iron gates; ugly weather; those hideous kitchen cabinets that seem to have been installed in every Chicago apartment, regardless of neighborhood. But cheapness and a lack of inspiration are part of the authenticity factor, because drill is immediate. It’s also on the outs, having never crossed over the way that the Savemoney scene made famous by Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa has.

Nowadays, Chicago crime is defined by the street sets, mostly black or Latino, related by business and varying adherence to the mythology of the gang, prone to violent infighting and splintering. What makes this underworld special is that most of its artistic record is self-produced. These are the patch-sewn cardigans and calling cards of the old-school 1970s street gangs; the outsider literature of the Gangster Disciples’ manuals, more cultish than criminal; the hieroglyphic symbolism of the gang tags that cover Chicago’s alley-facing garage doors; meandering amateur movies in which people pretend to shoot each other with real guns; drill. Despite the early ambitions of the Vice Lords and the Latin Kings organizations, the street gangs have only ever been politically useful as bogeymen. By most estimates, there are around 100,000 street gang members in Chicago, divided into about 60 organizations that are in turn split into about 700 groups. Not every Chicago gang is a violent criminal enterprise, but the majority of murders in Chicago are gang-related, and most of them go unsolved.

There is nothing transgressive about our gangs. Chicago is a place where one can always map the relationship between the criminal and the city. It taught the world that the street criminal could be a charismatic figure and inspired a mythic bestiary of genre archetypes: the terse Mann-ian professional facing obsolescence; the mobster gunning for the throne of the city; the nihilist pimp who knows it’s all part of the game; the folk-hero bank-robber shot by lawmen in the back; the corrupt and colorful wheeler-dealer. But the street gangs can’t be understood on those terms. To an outsider, their public beefs can sound like the sectarian conflicts of a post-apocalyptic religion; witness the bloody feud between the Bang Bang Gang Terror Dome subset of the Black P. Stones and the New Money Killaward subset of the Gangster Disciples, which in 2015 caught the attention of a city otherwise desensitized to the idea of gangland murders.
Screenshot: Candyman

The ongoing social tragedy of murder in Chicago isn’t that there are so many (there are a lot, but it’s never ranked among the top American cities in that respect), but that they are so similar, the same m.o. repeated over and over again. It can reach the point where you almost trick yourself into thinking of the urban gangland as an organism or serial-killer hive mind. But it isn’t. The foibles of the street gangs are very human. And, though we don’t like do admit it, they are relatable.

The French novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette liked to call crime fiction “the great moral literature of our time,” a statement I sometimes find myself agreeing with. There is no more efficient way of putting a character in a moral and existential crisis than a crime, and it is a dark truth of every developed society that, regardless of circumstances, we are all capable of committing a heinous crime. The question of why some do while most don’t directly addresses an important piece of the human puzzle. But in this chapter of the ongoing story of sin in Chicago—the story as told in film, in music, in the media—crime has become a setting, a fact of the neighborhoods, not a question of personalities. No documentary about the day-to-day lives of street gangs (and there are a lot of them, made mostly for TV) has had the wider appeal of Steve James’ Hoop Dreams or The Interrupters—though, of course, none of them are as well made. This is a net positive.But let me posit something that may seem counterintuitive. It isn’t a plea for a return to romanticized crime, though I do think that the forbidden lure of the illegal and immoral can be subverted in powerful ways; it’s something many of the great crime narratives do. But I do think that the art that most cogently addresses crime—whether as a real-world social issue or as an existential state—is art about criminals, because it puts its audience in a compromised spot. There is something of a moral duty to resist the othering of crime. When we begin to think of gangs exclusively as a social phenomenon, instead of as people in groups, we dehumanize not just the gangs, but the people they exploit and victimize, a category that includes the gangs themselves.

One of the more often cited example of this is the 1992 horror film Candyman, which places a supernatural threat within the crime-infested projects. (If you have the time, I recommend watching our short video documentary on the film.) It’s set in Cabrini-Green, which was then the most notorious housing project in Chicago; it was also the home of one of the subjects of Hoop Dreams, the setting of the ’70s sitcom Good Times, and the subject of several documentaries of its own. Candyman is a film that raises some interesting ideas early on, but waffles on them. In the end, it falls back on that all-too-popular image of the urban gangland as a monster, a variant of what one might call the second curse of Chicago—the idea of the city itself as an abstract threat. But it’s always people. Cabrini-Green is gone now, long demolished. In Chicago, it was symbolic of controlled disenfranchisement: a 15,000-person enclave of poverty in an affluent area. The street that ran directly down the middle of the complex—well, you can probably already guess this one. It was Division.

Thanks to Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Jerry Brown Alleged to have Mob Ties

A book revives decades-old charges that California attorney general candidate and Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown had close ties with individuals related to organized crime during Brown’s tenure in the 1970s as governor of California.

Written by respected investigative journalist Gus Russo and published by the American division of British publishers Bloomsbury, the book, Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America's Hidden Power Brokers, charges in part that during the 1970s, Brown took campaign contributions from mob figures and, in return, granted them political favors.

Russo has written several books on organized crime, including The Outfit: The Role of Chicago’s Underworld in the Shaping of Modern America, Live By The Sword: The Secret War Against Castro and the Death ofJFK, and Gangsters and Goodfellas: Wiseguys, Witness Protection, and Life on the Run.

Ace Smith, a campaign consultant for the Brown campaign, called the allegations “wacky and nutty” and “laughably idiotic.” When the Daily Planet offered to fax the Brown campaign copies of the passages from Russo’s book that make reference to Brown, Smith said, “I don’t need to see any passages from the book to make a comment. This is like talking about Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. These allegations have about as much credibility as Al Capone’s vault.”

In his book, Russo repeats allegations that Brown ran for governor in 1974 with the help of several figures with alleged organized crime ties, including the powerful Hollywood attorney Sidney Korshak, whom the Bloomsbury book describes as “the underworld’s primary link to the corporate upperworld” and “according to the FBI, [the] player behind countless 20th century power mergers, political deals, and organized crime chicaneries.”

Korshak, who died in 1996 and is described by Russo as a “pal” of Brown’s father, Governor Pat Brown, has a thick online file on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s website that alleges extensive ties to organized crime. Russo writes that a 1978 report on California’s Organized Crime Control Commission issued by then-California Attorney General Evelle Younger called Korshak “the key link between organized crime and big business … A U.S. Justice Department official has described Korshak as a ‘senior advisor’ to organized crime groups” in several states, including California.

“When Brown enlisted electronics mogul Richard Silberman … as his chief fund-raiser [for the 1974 campaign],” Russo writes in Supermob, “it quickly became apparent that the same Chicago money that had transformed California in the forties would continue to play a key role in the seventies. (Silberman would be convicted in a 1991 FBI drug-ring money-laundering scheme.) Thus, with a brilliant media campaign, massive contributions from the likes of Lew Wasserman, Jake ‘the Barber’ Factor, and later Sidney Korshak, Brown defeated [Republican State Controller Houston] Flournoy by 175,000 votes.”

In return, Russo alleges in his book that Brown gave favors back to alleged mob figures, including appointing the brother-in-law of Teamsters union leader and Korshak associate Edward Hanley as one of the directors of the California Agricultural Association, which Russo says “named the concessionaires at all the state’s racetracks and county fairs.”

Russo alleges that profits from these concessions were later “skimmed” off and sent to reported mob figures. In addition, Russo alleges that Brown once tried to close down the Hollywood Park racetrack as a favor to Korshak, who Russo says “was … trying to pave the way for an organized crime takeover of the facility.”

The racetrack allegations were so widely reported in California at the time that they later became the subject of a series of Doonesbury cartoons by Gary Trudeau. In one Doonesbury strip reprinted in Supermob, Trudeau depicts a reporter talking on the telephone to a Brown associate only named “Gray,” a reference to then-Jerry Brown Chief of Staff Gray Davis. “Let me get this straight, Gray—who exactly did Jerry solicit the contribution from?” the reporter asks. “A guy named Sidney Korshak,” ‘Gray’ answers. “He’s the local low-life, an alumnus from the Capone mob.”

Brown was quoted in Time Magazine in July of 1979 that he thought the Doonesbury cartoons were “false and libelous, but I’m flattered by the attention.”

When Gray Davis ran for governor in 1998, the San Francisco Chronicle made reference to the old allegations, with political reporter Robert Gunnison writing that “Brown … appointed [Davis] to the California Horse Racing Board in 1979. It was a particularly volatile time for the panel. Critics said he was appointed to help Service Employees International Union clerks during a strike at Golden Gate Fields. The union’s lawyer, Sidney Korshak, was alleged by the state attorney general to be an organized crime figure.”

Russo alleges that Korshak’s influence on California governors was not limited to Brown and his father, but also included Ronald Reagan. Russo also alleges that Korshak sought to help Brown achieve higher office past the California governship, writing that “Korshak’s Service Employees Union … dispatched workers and cars” to New Hamphsire in 1979 “to assist Brown’s effort” in the primary against Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.

Some of Russo’s information concerning the allegations of the Brown-organized crime connection came from the Berkeley Daily Planet reporter Richard Brenneman, who wrote news articles on the issue in the 1970s while a reporter with the Santa Monica Evening Outlook. Brenneman is listed in the book as a source.

Thanks to J. Douglas Allen-Tayler

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Sidney Korshak was The Myth, Mr. Silk Stockings, The Duke and The Fixer

Some mobsters get ridiculous nicknames.

The Clown.

No Nose.

The Weasel.

But others, like Chicago mob lawyer Sidney Roy Korshak, get nicknames more reflective of their importance.

To the rich and powerful, Korshak was "The Myth."

He was "Mr. Silk Stockings" and "The Duke."

And most appropriately, he was "The Fixer."

Korshak was the ultimate fixer, in Chicago and later in sunny California, where he thrived in the shadows.

Need a criminal case fixed? Call Korshak.

Teamsters threatening to cripple your business and they're not in a mood to negotiate? Call Korshak.

Looking for an investment to launder the blood out of your mobbed-up money?

You get the picture.

His life spanned much of last century, and in his heyday he was the ultimate bridge between big business, politicians, Hollywood, Las Vegas and the mob. When the mob needed a smooth operator to work in the worlds where rough-hewn Chicago mobsters wouldn't fit in, Korshak -- the brother of the late Chicago Democratic politician Marshall Korshak -- was the man of choice.

He was the velvet encasing the hammer.

He's now the subject of a new, exhaustive look at his exploits in investigative reporter Gus Russo's magnum opus:Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America's Hidden Power Brokers.

Russo tackled the Chicago mob in his 2003 book The Outfit. In Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America's Hidden Power Brokers he expands on that work of melding big business and organized crime.

Russo underscores the Outfit's desire to move a lot of its money into legitimate and quasi-legitimate businesses and investments, and the need of organized crime for legitimate-looking men to help smooth that transition.

No one would typify that more than Korshak, a product of Lawndale and DePaul University Law School who started representing mobsters in Chicago courthouses and ended up charging $50,000 a year as a retainer for "labor relations" for national businesses.

Early in the book, Russo does a masterful job of establishing the ethnic and political foundations for Korshak's beginnings in the Jewish section of the Lawndale neighborhood and in the 24th Ward of consummate machine politician Jacob Arvey.

In a neighborhood filled with young men hot for success, Korshak stood out. Russo shows how Korshak's friends from the same background would weave their way into Korshak's orbit again and again throughout his life, from MCA's Jules Stein to the Pritzker family, from mobster Alex Louis Greenberg to Appellate Court Justice David Bazelon.

Russo's ambition is to mark Korshak's place in the so-called Supermob of mainly Jewish lawyers and businessmen who often got a boost from mobsters early on in their careers and dealt with gangsters with varying degrees of involvement throughout their lives.

The amount of research in the book is staggering. It's a testament to Russo's doggedness to bring the full story to light, but it also turns into one of the book's main weaknesses.

Russo empties his notebooks into the tome. Some of the tales make for a good read but are ancillary. So his story, at times, gets away from him. Still other tales undermine the confidence one has in the reporting in the book. In one instance, Russo suggests Korshak is a man with a taste for teenage girls, with little to back it up. In another, Russo makes a convincing case for how former President Reagan had close ties to members of the Supermob, only to undermine it with innuendo.

Russo shows how Reagan carried out orders of the Supermob when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild and effectively betrayed his own members in the 1950s to the benefit of Lew Wasserman's MCA. But then, Russo provides an account from the actress Selene Walters, who contends Reagan raped her one night. Two weeks later, Reagan married Nancy Davis, the woman who would become the first lady.

There are no interviews in the book with any of Walters' contemporaries at the time to see if she told them a similar story. There's no mention of any police report.

The accusation stands alone unsupported, and it's not worthy of the excellent reporting elsewhere in the book. Because salaciousness aside, Russo pulls plenty of substantive dirty deeds done by Korshak into the light.

Korshak would have cringed.

Thanks to Steve Warmbir

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

How Al Capone's Successors Built a National Syndicate & Controlled America

He was dubbed with one of the all-time greatest gangland nicknames, The Fixer. The tag fit Sidney Korshak like a calfskin glove.

Born to immigrant parents, Korshak beamed his bright light on a law career and - with the connections of several underworld mentors - got his start representing wiseguys against criminal charges. But his real value to the Chicago Outfit, as the inheritors of Al Capone's criminal empire came to be called, was as a labor consultant and negotiator.

With Korshak in the foreground, Gus Russo's "Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America's Hidden Power Brokers" tells the story of how a tightknit claque of mostly Russian Ashkenazi Jews rose from the rough-and-tumble rackets to seats of influence and power in some Fortune 500 companies.

In their heyday, around 1960, the gang had long tentacles in Hollywood, controlled an interest in the Hilton hotel chain and held sway over ally Jimmy Hoffa's Teamster's union. That's to say nothing of their outright, if well-hidden, ownership of several Las Vegas casinos, including the Desert Inn - the high roller's haunt where Frank Sinatra made his Sin City debut.

Organized crime's ultimate objective is to make the lucre go in filthy and come out clean, through investments in legitimate businesses. In this, the Supermob had no equal.

Their most sophisticated scheme involved buying property that Japanese-Americans were forced to sell during World War II. Korshak, his cronies and their man inside the Roosevelt administration's Office of Alien Property, turned this land grab into a dandy cash-washing machine. Their exertions were so diabolically intertwined with legal maneuvers that the exact details have eluded two generations of investigators.

The complete story, the author admits, is still unknown. This complex trail is also difficult to follow, and though germane to the work, makes for some glacially paced reading.

When he wasn't perverting a union or arranging a sweetheart loan, Sidney's activities were far more entertaining. The Fixer hustled Dean Martin out of Chicago in one piece after Dino's roving eye locked on the moll of one of the Outfit's boys. Korshak also hot-wired a hooker-filled hotel room with an infrared camera, blackmailing a Senate investigator into going easy on his Chi-town pals.

"Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America's Hidden Power Brokers" is chocked with anecdotes like this. The gangland gossip and Hollywood scuttlebutt ultimately outweigh Russo's dissection of Byzantine financial chicanery, and in the end, the book adds up to an exhaustive Who's Who of the dark power players of 20th century America.

Thanks to Peter Pavia

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

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Dealmakers Behind the Chicago Mob

For most Americans, real racket power in the last century hovered somewhere over the Hudson River, and no wonder. They saw New York-area gangsters featured in the best books and movies about the Mafia. Flamboyant bosses like John Gotti grabbed headlines with good sound bites and flashy trials, or the occasional high-profile hit in a crowded restaurant. But while East Coast mob families splattered each other's brains in the marinara, the Second City's less-colorful Mafia, known as the Outfit, built a criminal empire that was truly second to none. Its tentacles stretched to the West Coast and wrapped securely around Las Vegas. Not that its members didn't whack their own wayward bosses along the way, but their executions were mostly private affairs, often dispatched with a few well-placed .22s to the back of the head.

Author Gus Russo has done yeoman's work in pulling the Outfit bosses from the shadows to show how their muscle and methods came to dominate organized crime. In his 2001 book, suitably titles "The Outfit," he chronicles the Chicago mob's rise to national power after Al Capone.

Now, he weighs in with "Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America's Hidden Power Brokers." If you know about the short shrift the Outfit has received in the popular imagination, you can almost forgive the breathless title, but Russo pointedly uses the term "Supermob" to describe a band of Jewish lawyers, politicians and businessmen who acted as cat's-paws for some of the Outfit's most ambitious scams. Although he credits a Senate investigator with first using the term "Supermob," Russo takes it to a new level, suggesting a gang of white-collar kingpins as ruthless and tightly knit as a Mafia family. He is also serious about the "Super," claiming that the members of his "Kosher Nostra" would ultimately profit more from their "amoral, and frequently criminal careers" than did their Outfit allies.

Like all other Chicago gangster stories, Russo's starts with Capone, a criminal mastermind far more sophisticated than the brutal Scarface we know from the movies. Unlike gang leaders before him, he was not content with cornering the market on gambling and bootlegging. The "financial wiz" who showed him the way was Alex Louis Greenberg. He put Capone's money into real estate and service industries with free flowing cash, such as banks, entertainment venues and hotels. In the beginning, to protect the various investments, the mob used its excess money to buy politicians and its excess muscle to strong-arm unions. Eventually these inroads into the public sector and labor organizations would become lucrative sources of income themselves.

As the schemes got more complicated, the mobsters needed the help of lawyers, politicians and frontmen with relatively clean criminal records. It was a Faustian bargain, but it helped launch some of the most prominent names in Chicago's Jewish community. For example, according to Russo, Outfit funds and connections formed the foundation on which lawyer Abe Pritzker's family built the Hyatt hotel chain.

At the nexus of mob influence and political corruption was lawyer Jacob Arvey, the most important Jewish cog of the city's multiethnic Democratic machine. His clout with the Truman administration put a protege in charge of property seized from German companies and interned Japanese-Americans. Russo documents how these West Coast assets were sold for a fraction of their value to silent mob partners and the young lawyers, Arvey accomplices, who served as their frontmen. Some of these young lawyers then set up shop in California and duplicated Chicago's Democratic machine there, fueling their candidates' campaigns with money donated by the mob and its related unions. But the Outfit's insidious control of unions most drove its westward expansion. Back in the earliest days of moving pictures, Chicago mobsters used the threat of projectionist walkouts to shake down local theaters. These extortion schemes worked their way back to the studio lots. According to Russo, the movie moguls did not mind seeing leftist organizers pushed to the side by mob goons, who could at least be paid off to keep the cameras rolling.

Producers also got squeezed by the stars in front of the cameras, especially those managed by Jules Stein and Lew Wasserman of MCA, Hollywood's first powerhouse talent agency. Back in Chicago when Stein started the firm as Music Corporation of America, he was booking area bands and using a "union racketeer" to throw stink bombs in nightclubs that wouldn't take his acts. He was supposedly a silent partner with Outfit bosses in the hot spots where his bands played, and according to Russo, he would continue to blur the line between ownership and union influence throughout his career.

Later, when Wasserman client Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency of the Screen Actors Guild, he helped push through a waiver permitting MCA to be the only agency that could also produce programs for the burgeoning TV industry. This competitive edge helped Stein and Wasserman gain control of Universal Pictures and create Hollywood's first multimedia behemoth. In return for the SAG waiver, Russo asserts, Wasserman secretly cut Reagan into production deals (counter to SAG rules) and helped transform him into the ubiquitous TV presence that launched his political career.

The Outfit had its hooks in Las Vegas from the start (a Chicago mobster bribed Nevada legislators to pass the Wide Open Gambling Bill), but if the bosses hadn't had their fingers in the Teamsters pension fund, the city wouldn't be what we know today. From 1959 to 1961, they took $91 million from the union to build or improve one casino after another. Over the next decade, as Las Vegas' popularity soared, the Outfit was perfectly positioned to dominate the scene, with its control of corrupt politicians from both parties, its manipulation of the service unions and even its access, through Hollywood back channels, to the hottest entertainers, like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Eventually millions in cash skimmed from the casino counting rooms would make its way to Chicago's mob bosses.

Members of Russo's Supermob were pivotal resources in each of the Outfit's connections to Las Vegas, but none more so than Sidney Korshak. An obscure labor lawyer from Lawndale, Korshak would ultimately be dubbed the most powerful man in Hollywood. By the mid-'60s, the same would be true in Las Vegas. His brother Marshall had gone on to a very public career in Chicago as a lawyer, Democratic politician and city officeholder. Though Sidney would have his own notoriety, the source of his power would lurk in the shadows. Working on a flat retainer of $50,000 per job, Korshak was anointed the official labor negotiator for almost all of the Outfit-connected businesses. With just a phone call he could spark or quell strikes--a fearsome power in the seasonal hotel industry or during the massively expensive process of film production. But the contacts with his clients went far beyond labor matters. Moguls like Wasserman called him virtually every day. He helped negotiate deals for casinos and even business conglomerates on the backs of envelopes, often keeping a small piece of the action for himself. No favors were too big or too small for his clients, whether a Chicago hotel room for Warren Beatty during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, or a pardon from President Richard Nixon for ex-Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa. Ironically, he may have even contributed to the success of the film "The Godfather" by prying Al Pacino away from another studio.

Many a Korshak miracle was worked from the corner booth at Bistro, a posh Beverly Hills eatery, where a private phone was brought to his table. Russo fails to note that this setup closely emulated the notorious corner table at Counsellors Row, a restaurant across from Chicago's City Hall where the Outfit's kingmaker, Pat Marcy, ruled supreme. Like Marcy, Korshak would walk guests outside the restaurant to talk about especially confidential subjects. Some of the best yarns in "Supermob" come from a book written by Bistro's owner, Kurt Niklas, who kept tabs on the strange bouillabaisse that simmered around Korshak: It could include producer Bob Evans, actor Kirk Douglas, Gov. Jerry Brown, coarse Teamsters and, on rare occasion, cursing mobsters. One later testified that an Outfit boss warned him to stay away from Korshak because " `he's our man, been our man his whole life. [But he] can't be seen in public with guys like us.' "

In other words, the mob had to keep him subservient and separate. This was one of many conflicts in Korshak's fascinating life. He went to great ends to quash any media coverage of his activities, but he gladly relented to fawning mentions by Joyce Haber, the Los Angeles gossip columnist who, Russo says, coined the term "A-list" to describe the celebrities in the Korshak inner circle. He was a doting husband to his glamorous, shopaholic wife and a serial philanderer, not embarrassed to be seen on the town with paramours like Jill St. John. He dressed and collected art with impeccable taste but still exuded a threatening though soft-spoken manner. At one moment he could lament the unbreakable ties to his Outfit overseers and in the next threaten a recalcitrant business executive with " `cement shoes.' " In the words of one producer, " `Sidney was a very loud man in a very quiet way.' " Unfortunately, Russo does not give us much insight into how Korshak or his friends could bridge such contradictions. While "Supermob" is long on anecdote, it's much too short on analysis. No doubt there was something different about either Chicago or its Jewish community to produce the players Russo writes about. He only scratches the surface in trying to understand the world they came from. The closest he gets is a quote about Greenberg: " `[L]ike almost everyone who became rich through racketeering, respectability was what he sought most.' " The words came from long-time Sun-Times reporter Irv Kupcinet, a close friend of Korshak's and another macho Jewish guy who loved rubbing shoulders with the mob.

In fact, most of the Supermob families Russo writes about did find legitimacy, if not for themselves then for their heirs; hence the shock some of us may feel at discovering the roots of their fortunes. The same is true for some Outfit clans as well. Perhaps there is something about the institutional memory in Chicago that has helped ease the transformation. Kupcinet was a gossip columnist but a nice one, the sort who never delved too deeply into the dark sources of power. When he spotted you on a prestigious perch, like Booth One at the Pump Room, a mention in his column brought some glow of fame without the painful questions about how you got there.

Thanks to Hillel Levin

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Peter Bart's "Infamous Players: A Tale of Movies, the Mob (and Sex)"

He was a tall, silver-haired man, square-jawed with a military bearing, always impeccably attired in a dark blue suit. It was only a few weeks into my Paramount job when I came to understand that His visits were a daily occurrence, but did not linger or chat with anyone other than (Paramount head of production) Bob Evans, nor did anyone on staff ever refer to him or acknowledge his visits. Korshak was the ghost who was always there but never there.

Evans had talked earlier about him once or twice, always in a manner that betrayed not only respect but near-reverence. Sidney Korshak was not so much his personal attorney (he never paid him) or even his mentor as he was his consigliere. And when Korshak arrived for an Evans audience, all other plans would be set aside. Whoever happened to be in the reception room would have to wait until the big man had come and gone from Evans' sanctum sanctorum. And this procedure was replicated by other power players at other offices in town, as I was to learn.

Sidney Korshak, it seemed to me, was the man who knew everything -- the big corporate deals as well as the personal peccadilloes. It was some time before I also realized that Korshak was the man who knew too much.

It was Korshak's role in life to dwell simultaneously in two separate and distinct worlds which, in his grand design, would remain hermetically sealed against each other. There was his celebrity world -- he liked to drop names like Kirk Douglas or Dinah Shore or Debbie Reynolds, or to casually mention that he'd just had dinner with Sinatra in Las Vegas, or with Nancy and Ronnie Reagan in Beverly Hills. But he would never mention his other friends, like Tony Accardo or Sam Giancana from the Chicago mob or Jimmy Hoffa from the Teamsters or Moe Dalitz from Vegas.

Korshak would allude to the corporate deals he made on behalf of Lew Wasserman or Howard Hughes, but he never confided what he knew about Bugsy Siegel's murder or Hoffa's disappearance.

Korshak's life was built around a web of secrecy, and he was convinced that he would always be able to move effortlessly from one world to the next. It was only later in his life that he, too, found himself trapped. As the dangers in his nether life became more ominous, Korshak was unable to extricate himself from his underworld bonds. The celebrities would continue to decorate his life, like glitzy toys, but the bad boys would always be hovering out there with their furtive demands and threats. …

Over the years my relationship with Korshak remained distanced but cordial. He never directly asked anything from me nor subjected me to his power games. When his son, Harry, began to produce movies at Paramount -- I never figured out precisely how this deal came about -- Korshak said to me he would "appreciate it" if I were to "look out" for Harry and provide advice if he began to stray. But when young Harry's career did not go well, Korshak was the first to inform his son that he would do well to pursue other career possibilities.In observing Korshak's superbly surreptitious maneuverings over time, I began to accept a reality none of us wanted to openly address. Sidney Korshak was a gangster, albeit a very civil and well-groomed gangster. The bad boys had achieved major clout in the entertainment industry, and Korshak, despite all his secrecy, represented the embodiment of that clout.

Ironically, while Korshak yearned for the trappings of "respectability," his pals in Hollywood venerated him, not for his cool or his great wardrobe or even for his lawyering skills, but rather for his fabled underworld ties. …Bob Evans, for one, had always romanticized the lore of the gangster -- hence his lifelong ambition to make the movie about the mythic, mobster-owned Cotton Club, which ultimately came to haunt him. Charlie Bluhdorn,founder of Gulf + Western, which owned Par, had a longstanding flirtation with the shadow world out of fringe financiers in Europe and ended up doing deals that resulted in prison sentences for his partners and almost for himself. (Paramount president) Frank Yablans subscribed to mobster mythology to such a degree that he even agreed to play the role of an underworld thug in a movie titled "Mikey and Nicky." He was in rehearsal on the film before an apoplectic Bluhdorn vetoed his participation (even the often reckless Bluhdhorn realized the potential jeopardy to his corporate image).

Thanks to Peter Bart

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The Devil and Sidney Korshak Coming to HBO

One of the most intriguing characters to ever come out of Chicago will be the focus of a major HBO miniseries, executive produced by legendary Hollywood player Robert Evans.

Based on ''The Devil and Sidney Korshak,'' Nick Tosches' recent story in Vanity Fair, the six-hour miniseries will showcase the life and times of Korshak, the reputed mob lawyer who used his amazing network of connections to labor leaders, politicians, Hollywood and Las Vegas moguls and key members of the Mafia to become one of the nation's true power brokers during much of the last half of the 20th century.

''I consider him the godfather's godfather,'' Evans told Daily Variety, explaining how Korshak helped make possible one of the best movies ever filmed.

When Evans headed Paramount, he faced two huge obstacles to getting Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather turned into a film. MGM wouldn't release Al Pacino from a commitment to film ''The Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight,'' and the crime syndicate threatened to kill Evans if he made ''The Godfather'' in New York.

Korshak quickly solved both problems.

According to Evans, the attorney phoned Kirk Kerkorian, the head of MGM, and hinted there might be delays on building the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Vegas -- unless the studio released Pacino.

As for the mob threats? ''That problem went away with one phone call from Sidney. Not two phone calls -- one phone call,'' Evans said.

No word yet on who will play Korshak, a mysterious figure whose powerful pals ranged from Hollywood titan Lew Wasserman to Henry Kissinger.

While Korshak left Chicago for California in the 1940s, he remained very close to his brother Marshall Korshak, the late state senator and father of Margie Korshak, owner of one of Chicago's best-known public relations firms. Sidney died only one day after Marshall in 1996The Kid Stays in the Picture: A Notorious Life.

In his memoir The Kid Stays in the Picture: A Notorious Life -- itself turned into a critically acclaimed documentary -- Evans summed up Korshak's immense power:

''Let's just say that a nod from Korshak and the Teamsters change management. A nod from Korshak and Santa Anita [race track] closes. A nod from Korshak and Vegas shuts down. A nod from Korshak and the Dodgers can suddenly play night baseball.''

Thanks to Bill Zwecker

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Will the Chicago Outfit Assign Hitmen to Compose 'Trunk Music' Against the Writers Guild?

Daily Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart has come up with a novel idea to end the six-week-old writers’ strike – bring in the Chicago mafia to whack a few leaders of the striking Writers Guild.

In a column that ran in Daily Variety on Dec.10 under the headline “A way to settle so it’s all in the ‘family’” – with the word ‘family’ in quotes to make sure we all know he’s talking about the Mafia – Bart writes: “OK. I’ll admit it: I was once on reasonably friendly terms with Sidney Korshak” – the Chicago mafia’s man in Hollywood for more than 50 years.

KorshakSupermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America's Hidden Power Brokers, who was the go-to guy for the late-Universal Studios mogul Lew Wasserman when contract talks stalled, was a master of “the trade-off,” according to Bart, although in fact, Korshak was even more the master of a quite different art – the art of the implied death threat.

“Korshak died 11 years ago,” Bart writes, “but had he been alive today, he would have been dismayed by the state of disarray in Hollywood. The writers and show-runners don’t seem to appreciate what management has done for them, he would have declared. And the companies similarly seem to have lost their talent at hard bargaining.

“Korshak surely would have enhanced the proposed compensation for digital downloads (one of the sticking points in the contract talks), and had his offer not been embraced, a few individuals might have been downloaded as well. Peace would prevail.”

Here, by ‘downloaded,’ Bart apparently means whacked; and by “a few individuals,” he assumedly means union leaders, since they are the ones to whom contract offers are generally made.

“Does he know what century we’re in?” asked an astonished member of the WGA’s hierarchy. “Next he’ll be calling on Pinkerton agents to fire into our picket lines.”

Of course, Bart, who is a longtime member of the Writers Guild, may be just joking around – showing off the tough-guy image he has of himself, which is something he’s known to do on occasion. But a reasonable reader might ask: Is this anything for the editor of a newspaper to joke about during an increasingly tense strike?

Joking or not, whacking troublesome Hollywood union leaders is something that Korshak’s friends in the Chicago syndicate were known to do once in a while. One famous case was the murder of Willie Bioff, the #2 guy in the one of Hollywood most powerful unions, who in 1943 publicly identified Sid Korshak as the mob’s man in Hollywood.

Korshak’s ties to the Chicago mob go all the way back to the 1930s and the days of Al Capone. In 1943, his name came up during the sensational trial of some of Chicago’s top mobsters on charges that they’d extorted more than $1 million dollars from Hollywood’s movie studios. Unlike today, however, back then Daily Variety had an editor named Arthur Unger who wasn’t so cozy with the mafia, and who bravely crusaded against the mob, writing editorials in which he called on Hollywood to run the gangsters out of town.

The scandal began in the late 1930s when the Chicago mob seized control of one of Hollywood’s most powerful unions - the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents most of the behind-the-scenes workers in show business.

Frank Nitti, who was running the outfit while Capone was serving time for income tax evasion, controlled the union’s bosses, including Willie Bioff, who was finally indicted on charges of extorting money from the studios in exchange for labor peace.

During the trial, Korshak’s name came up when Bioff testified that he had been introduced to Korshak by one of the mob defendants, who had said: “Willie, meet Sidney Korshak. He is our man. . . . Any messages he might deliver to you is a message from us.”

Nitti had killed himself shortly after being indicted, and a lot of top mob guys went to jail, including Johnnie Roselli and Paul “The Waiter” Ricca. And in 1955, a decade after he was released from prison, Bioff was blown to pieces by a car bomb, which in those days was a signature mob hit.

Korshak, who was once described as “the toughest lawyer in America,” was never charged with any crime, and moved easily between gangsters and movie moguls. Though not licensed to practice law in California, where he lived for many years, Korshak served as an adviser to many of the top Hollywood studios. And at the same time, authorities said, he was also an adviser to such mob figures as Tony “Big Tuna” Accardo, Sam Giancana, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Gus Alex.

In 1978, the California attorney general’s Organized Crime Control Commission issued a report that called Korshak “the key link between organized crime and big business,” noting that he was a “senior adviser” to organized crime groups in California, Chicago, Las Vegas and New York. In a rare interview, Korshak denied the allegations. “I’ve never been cited, let alone indicted, for anything,” Korshak told the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in 1978.

In Hollywood, Korshak helped broker numerous deals for some of the top studios. In 1973, he mediated in the negotiations that led to the sale of MGM’s theaters and properties in its overseas markets to Cinema International Corp., a joint venture between MCA and Paramount. MCA chairman Lew Wasserman and Charles Bluhdorn, whose Gulf & Western owned Paramount, personally negotiated the deal with MGM owner Kirk Kerkorian - with Korshak as mediator.

Bart knew Korshak back in those days, too – back when Bart was second-in-command at Paramount Studios in the 1970s – back when Korshak was the mentor of Bart’s mentor – Robert Evans, who was head of production at Paramount.

“Sidney (Korshak) was in my office every day for 10 years,” Evans said in an interview for my L.A. Weekly cover story about Bart in 1994. “There’s not a day that went by when I was in Los Angeles that Sidney wasn’t there…Sidney and Peter and I spent a lot of time together. They never broke bread. But, you know, Peter was my right-hand guy and Sid was my consigliere, so naturally they met.”

In his book, “The Kid Stays in the Picture: A Notorious Life,” Evans wrote that Korshak “was not only my consigliere, but my godfather and closest friend . . . my lifelong protector.”

Bart, whose coverage of the strike has been criticized for toadying up to management, was a newspaperman in the 1960s before he joined Evans and Korshak in running Paramount Studios. In 1990, Bart actually boasted in an article for Gentlemen’s Quarterly that he carried a gun while covering riots in Los Angeles for The New York Times in the mid-1960s. “I carried a gun in my last days at The Times,” he said, claiming that he had twice been shot at while covering a race riot. “My philosophy was: If a man’s going to shoot at me, he’s going to get it right fucking back. I was a good shot. But it was not Times policy.” (Nor is it the policy of any newspaper in the country.)

And he says he wasn’t joking about having shot people during the Watts Riots. When asked about this in 1994, he told LA Weekly that the gun he used was taken from him “by an L.A. cop who was chasing somebody that ran past. He said, ‘Hey, Pete, do you have a gun? And I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘Hand it to me.’ That’s the last I saw of that goddamn gun.”

So maybe he’s kidding about killing union leaders, and maybe he’s exaggerating about shooting black people during the Watts riot. But either way, maybe the Writers Guild should ask: Why is this guy still a member of this union? Isn’t there some bylaw against members advocating the murder of Writers Guild leaders – especially during a strike?

Thanks to David Robb

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