Posts Tagged ‘Bugsy Siegel’

MY MOTHER THE CRIMINAL

A century ago, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe produced many infamous American criminals. They included killers, such as Ben “Bugsy” Siegel (a key character in my novel in progress), Dutch Shultz and Abe “Kid Twist” Reles. Another legendary Jewish criminal was a woman. Well, not a criminal by yesterday’s standards. I give you my mother Blanche.

San Francisco recently passed a law making selling furs illegal. Criminal! Yet in New York back in the ‘50s, my mother sported a mink coat, mink stole and Persian lamb jacket with mink collar courtesy of the most honest man ever—my father Morris. So how would local progressives view my mother? Fuhgeddaboudit!

She also consorted with mobsters. Kind of. A friend’s husband brought his “business associates,” Johnny and Tommy Dio (Dioguardi) to the Queens League for Muscular Dystrophy’s annual dinner dance. My mother, active in the chapter, served as president. The Dio brothers’ contributions, like everyone else’s, went towards research. The police never cited my mother for meeting them. Ultimately, she received a certificate from the comedian Jerry Lewis, who raised millions to conquer the disease.

Big time as a mother, Blanche Perlstein was small potatoes as a “criminal.” Her nefarious activities focused on relieving airlines of blankets (remember them?) and coffee mugs. A pink floor mat in the bathroom of our apartment in Rego Park (Queens) bore the logo of Miami Beach’s Eden Roc Hotel. Fortunately, the statute of limitations has passed.

Still, when I graduated from college, my mother advised, “If you’re ever going to steal, steal big.”

Go ahead. Laugh. Done? Now, let’s get serious.

My mother wasn’t telling me to become another Meyer Lansky—the Mob’s money man and inspiration for Hyman Roth in The Godfather, Part II. She was letting me know that the occasional airline pillow or nightclub ashtray aside, real crime should never besmirch the family name. Before considering doing something wrong, I should ask myself, “Is it really worth it to disgrace my family? Can my integrity be bought?”

The only conceivable answer, no matter how large the score: “No.” The Perlstein name is not for sale (although my books are).

If only that message got through to the millions of Americans who sold their souls in the 2016 presidential election and are preparing to do so next year. I particularly address evangelical voters who, in the name of Jesus and morality, supported one of the most ungodly, immoral men in the nation. (Grab women by the what? Pay off a porn star for what?)

Their candidate promised to deliver on their social issues, chiefly abortion, secondarily opposition to LGBTQ rights. Many bought into now-Vice President Mike Pence’s assertion that God wanted Donald Trump to be president. (Maybe God told me otherwise.)

Thus people of supposed great faith defined hypocrisy by stealing from America’s integrity and, in doing so, greatly diminishing their own.

As I prepare to say Kaddish for my mother next Friday night—she died twenty years ago at 88—I remember her with great love. The legendary Jewish gangsters might have been disappointed that the beautiful doll Blanche Perlstein was, pardon the pun, a straight shooter. But I think they’d agree that in never letting greed erode her integrity, she set a standard even they could admire.

Big Truth: New and Collected Stories, is available at Amazon and bn.com in paper or e-book. Or, ask your favorite bookstore to order a copy. And, please leave a review on either or both sites. My mother would appreciate it.

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THE CORROBORATION CONUNDRUM

In February 1942, the notorious gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel went on trial in Los Angeles for the 1939 murder of fellow mobster Harry “Big Greenie” Greenberg. One of the killers, Allie Tannenbaum, agreed to cooperate. However, District Attorney John F. Dockweiler faced a problem.

California law demanded corroboration by a second witness. The state had that witness: Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, a feared hit man for New York’s Murder, Inc. (Yes, there once were a lot of vicious Jewish gangsters.) Before the trial, the New York Police Department stashed Reles away under 24-hour guard at Coney Island’s Half Moon Hotel. Somehow, the canary flew out the sixth-story window. Lacking wings, he was unable to reach L.A. to sing.

No mob historian would exonerate Bugsy Siegel (a character in the new novel I’m writing). But the requirement for corroboration—or hard evidence—handcuffed Judge A.A. Scott. He dismissed the case.

The recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing—not a trial—on now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh brings the Siegel trial to mind. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified under oath that as a teenager, she’d been sexually assaulted by a drunken teen-age Brett Kavanaugh. The charges came late in the day, and the committee reassembled to probe the matter. The hearing seemed awkward and incomplete. At the last minute, the FBI ran a short, limited investigation. No corroboration appeared.

Democrats, believing Dr. Ford, supported her. Republicans, with no corroboration to spoil their likely victory, supported Judge Kavanaugh. The 50–48 confirmation vote fell almost strictly along party lines with one crossover on each side: Republican Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) against and Democrat Joe Manchin (West Virginia) for.

The Kavanaugh nomination and hearing divided America. The Great Divider, aka Donald Trump, first found Dr. Ford’s testimony credible, then cited the lack of corroboration, then ridiculed Dr. Ford, then called her testimony a Democratic hoax.

Does corroboration matter? Trump declared that young men must be wary of being victimized by women who attack their character with false claims. He’s hardly a reliable source for such advice. Moreover, millions of women have horrible stories to tell. But Republicans correctly cited corroboration as a basic tenet of American jurisprudence. The accused is presumed innocent; the burden of proof lies with the state.

Still, lack of corroboration did not disprove Dr. Ford’s claim. Moreover, women who have survived sexual assaults ranging from thoughtless and disrespectful to violent often cannot provide corroboration. When they do, their complaints frequently are dismissed, generally by men too busy with “other important matters” and, frankly, unconcerned.

I believe that Brett Kavanaugh assaulted Susan Blasey Ford. However, I do not knowit. This I doknow: The oft-scowling Mr. Kavanaugh, through his belligerence, disrespect towards Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee and partisan statements, resembled a teenager caught with his pants down, snarling and screaming to apply a verbal fig leaf. For this alone, I would have voted against confirmation.

That said, corroboration matters and hence America’s conundrum. We must follow our judicial principles in spite of what we “know” about the accused. That’s why Bugsy Siegel had his case dismissed.

Justice, however, sometimes is served in other ways. In 1947, Ben Siegel met his through a gangland assassination. Regarding Brett Kavanaugh, history may render an unkind verdict.

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I BELIEVE IN AMERICA

The film begins with the screen black. A man’s voice declares, “I believe in America!” His Italian accent tells us he’s an immigrant. The camera then reveals him in closeup—mustache and suit as black as the background in which he seems suspended. A humble if successful undertaker, he pleads with someone we cannot see: His daughter has been dishonored. He seeks justice. But it will not be in the American way. Or will it?

The Godfather presents America as the land of opportunity. For many millions born on foreign shores and their first-generation American children, it has been just that. But the irony of the undertaker’s speech soon hits home. The Godfathermakes clear that in America, hard work and risk-taking offer great rewards. These values may be applied to a great many enterprises. Not all need be legal.

Those who saw opportunities by breaking the law are duly noted in downtown Las Vegas’s Mob Museum. I was there last week, since I did a small portion of the research for my next novel on their website. Moreover, I admit to a fascination with the Mob—particularly Jewish gangsters of the first half of the 20th century. They were legion. Money guys like Arnold Rothstein and Meyer Lansky? Sure. But many more were stone-cold killers like Ben “Bugsy” Siegel, Dutch Schultz, Abe “Kid Twist” Reles and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter. (FYI, Lansky and Siegel appear in the novel.)

The Mob Museum details the rise—and fall—of the Sicilian Mafia and its affiliates, including the Jewish gangs, which provided murder—and lots of it—for hire. (Protestant and Irish gangs terrorized New York and Boston before them). For many young immigrants lacking education and living in slum conditions, crime paid. Death often came early; success comes with a price.

Ultimately, the FBI squeezed and put away the classic Mob bosses. Vegas cleaned up its act. Other ethnic groups stepped in. Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Dominicans, Mexicans, Chinese, Russians and Vietnamese, as well as groups native to the Heartland, carved out their own American opportunities.

This nation will always face the Mob in some form. But ordinary criminals—even the drug cartels—will not destroy our democracy. We’ll rot at the hands of corporations and the super-rich. They buy politicians and virtually write our laws to eliminate regulations protecting ordinary citizens and reduce their taxes and liabilities, society be damned. In the process, they brush crumbs to the floor. Some people lap them up.

In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye the milkman advises, “It’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor, either.” I support ambition. I succeeded financially because I risked working for myself and pushed to meet my goals—honestly and ethically.

I also support a sense of balance. The Christian Bible tells us that not money but theloveof it is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10). The Mishnah offers wisdom through a Jewish lens: “Who is rich? He who appreciates what he has…” (Avot 4:1).

I believe in America. I also believe that keeping the pursuit of wealth from devouring ethics requires making wise choices. November will reveal whether greed outweighs goodness and lemming-like, this nation marches off a cliff.

For you who are celebrating Yom Kippur starting Tuesday night, may you have a meaningful holiday and be sealed for good in the New Year.

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THE HOAX OF NONVIOLENT CRIME

Several months ago, an East Bay detective—legit—called to say that an investigation on identity theft turned up a stolen piece of mail addressed to Carolyn in care of her manager. It contained a royalty check for one of Carolyn’s TV performances. The amount was small. The crime was big. People who would deny its seriousness are perpetrating a hoax.

Many people urge leniency for perpetrators of nonviolent crime. Bull! Every crime against property is a crime in which violence is done to a person’s sense of wellbeing. Because behind every piece of property lies a story.

Carolyn’s check didn’t come easy. TV viewers saw her as a nurse (“Chuck”—NBC), dementia patient (“Grey’s Anatomy”—ABC), a woman startled by Hugh Laurie (“Chance”—Hulu) and a homeless woman (“Bartlett”—Amazon Prime). They and the public haven’t witnessed the years Carolyn has spent attending acting and singing classes. Preparing for them. Rehearsing at home for auditions. And then auditioning in Los Angeles at her cost or videoing at our house (we’ll ignore my reading other characters’ lines to her).

An acting career makes no promise of success. But after thirty-five years as a professional storyteller, Carolyn decided to give it a shot. She studied and did plays but set her sights on TV and movies. She sweated to hone her craft, risked rejection and overcame it, and has enjoyed a few small triumphs.

That meant little to the woman recently convicted in the theft of other people’s mail to steal their identities, which can cost victims much money and considerable aggravation. I fear that the efforts of Carolyn and upstanding people in all walks of life get overlooked by those who consider nonviolent criminals the ultimate victims.

I get that many people grow up in difficult circumstances. Minority and immigrant communities often produce more than their share of criminals. That includes my own. Jews once played major roles in violent crime. From the 1900s through World War Two, killers such as Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter and Dutch Schultz (nee Arthur Flegenheimer) abounded. Children of poor immigrants they possessed minimal education. Their turns to crime might be sociologically understandable, but their behavior was and remains illegal, immoral and unacceptable.

The thief who stole Carolyn’s royalty check will be sentenced in San Jose at the end of this month. The court invited Carolyn and her fellow victims to attend. Carolyn won’t. That would steal more of her time.

Carolyn has no desire to demand a lengthy sentence at hard labor or solitary confinement on bread and water. As bad as it can be, the California prison system offers far better treatment than the Soviet gulag or North Korea’s prison camps. Also, the judge possesses information about the thief Carolyn doesn’t and will be empowered to determine a reasonable sentence.

In writing this, I’m not seeking vengeance against those convicted of nonviolent crimes. “Lock ’em up and throw away the key” doesn’t reflect my philosophy. But it’s time that people who seek leniency for nonviolent criminals acknowledge that every nonviolent crime impacts one or more victims. And that those victims frequently pay a price beyond—often far beyond—the monetary value of their loss.

This revised post put up on May 4 includes a revised title. I erred in calling the theft of Carolyn’s mail a victimless crime. It was, indeed, a nonviolent crime.

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