Authors: Martin A. Gosch,Richard Hammer
Tags: #Biographies & Memoirs, #Leaders & Notable People, #Rich & Famous, #True Crime, #Organized Crime
It was too good a deal to pass. Though Lucania was offering them no names, and no arrests would be made, they would be able to seize a large cache of heroin, taking it off the market, and they would be able to spread around the word (as they did) that Lucania was a stool pigeon. And so they agreed. He then told them to go to the basement of 164 Mulberry Street, and in a closet there, they would find a box filled with hundreds of packets of heroin. While Lucania waited in a cell, already booked on the narcotics charge, the agents piled into their cars and sped to Little Italy. Right where Lucania had said it would be, they found the box and the heroin. He was freed; the charges against him were dropped.
It was, he afterwards maintained, an expensive lesson. He was out his own investment and potential profits and “I give a good bundle to Big Nose Lagaipa because I blew his profits for him. What I found out later was that them guys only turned in half the haul, which means that the other half got back on the street and somebody not only got credit for pulling in Charlie Lucania but probably wound up with a good fifty grand for the stuff I already paid for.
“But the worst thing was that I got tabbed from then on as a guy who handled narcotics, and because it was me, I was called the Big Guy in the junk business. No matter what I tried to do, I could never lose that rep of bein’ a junk dealer. Even my own guys believed it, even though I ran away anytime I ever got a proposition after that time.”
The narrow escape from a long prison term for narcotics was a shattering experience for Lucania. He was no longer convinced of
his own invincibility and no longer so certain of his own eminence in the rackets and in society, even though his underworld friends congratulated him on his ingenuity in wiggling out of the charge.
But the authorities had publicized the arrest, and “I was really ashamed to face all the friends I made in society, guys I played golf with. All I could think about was how to get clean again in front of them legit people. Besides, for the whole summer I was bein’ grilled every five minutes by the police, or else I hadda go and see a psychiatrist every day for two hours, which was one of the conditions they made when they dropped the charges. I didn’t want to go out to make any deliveries up on Park Avenue; I wouldn’t even go to the speaks, unless it was some joint that didn’t have the better class of customers. I was like a hermit.
“Then, one day I got a telephone call from a Wall Street guy, Julie Bache. I not only supplied him but practically all of his customers, and I know he liked me.” Bache had only one question: Had Lucania really been deeply involved in narcotics? “I told him that I was just a big enough idiot to be involved in one deal, and he told me he believed me and asked me to come down and see him one day soon.”
The call from Bache seemed almost a signal. Adonis called that same day, demanded that Lucania accompany him that night to the Follies, with Adonis supplying the girls. Then Meyer Lansky showed up and told Lucania that he was taking him down to the East Side for a good Jewish dinner. “I started to laugh, and I said to Meyer, ‘You didn’t just come over here to buy me matzo balls and chicken soup. What’s really on your mind?’ ”
What Lansky had in mind was for Lucania to start adapting “Lansky’s Law” as the way to overcome the bad publicity and get himself back in everyone’s good graces. “Right now,” he said, “you want to impress a lot of people. Don’t you know that this whole town is made up of nothin’ but whores? Give ’em somethin’ they want bad enough and they’ll even buy horseshit and molasses.”
“You mean you want me to give away our best Scotch?”
“Who’s talkin’ about business? There’s a fight comin’ up next month; a pair of tickets are harder to get than a good set of counterfeit plates. Don’t that throw you an idea?”
On the night of September 14, 1923, there were 82,000 people
at the Polo Grounds in New York to watch heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey destroy his Argentine challenger, Luis Angel Firpo, the Wild Bull of the Pampas, in two rounds. That leading bootlegger, Charlie Lucania, so recently tarred by the stories of his narcotics involvement, was the third star of the evening. More than two hundred persons were his guests in high-priced ringside seats.
“I got a call from Philly right when I was talkin’ to Meyer, from a guy by the name of Ben Gimbel; his old man was one of the founders of that big department store outfit, and Ben was about as old as me and a pretty good playboy; he used to come up to New York from Philly every other night; he had a lotta girls in the shows and we got to know each other. He was callin’ to find out if I could get him two tickets to the Dempsey-Firpo fight, on account of he and his family was pretty good customers of ours, and of Waxey’s down in Philly. But first he started to pooh-pooh all that newspaper crap about the drugs, and he wanted to make sure that I didn’t take it too bad. I kinda liked the idea that a guy from such a well-known family didn’t mind callin’ me after everythin’ that was said. In fact, later on I give him the tickets for free.”
But the first problem was to round up enough tickets. “That night, after the Follies, who do I run into at Dave’s Blue Room but Bill Corum, the famous sportswriter. I said, ‘Bill, I need some seats for the Dempsey-Firpo fight.’ He says to me, with the laugh, ‘Would you like to have mine?’ Of course, he was only kiddin’, but I took him up on it and I said, ‘As a matter of fact, I would — and all the rest of ’em in your row.’ When he realized I was serious, he says, ‘Jesus Christ, Charlie, you want me to get twenty tough newspaper guys to give up their front-row seats? Where the hell do you expect them to sit?’ And I said to him, ‘In the row behind me, the second row. But that ain’t all, pal; I want another ninety pair in the first five rows. Do you think you can handle it? I don’t give a shit what it costs, Bill, I gotta have all them seats.’ I don’t know how Bill done it, but two days later, I had all the tickets I asked for and where I wanted ’em. It cost me about twenty-five grand, and I never regretted it.”
Together with Costello, Lansky and Siegel and his other friends, Lucania spread the word that he was going to invite a hundred
people and their dates as his guests to the fight. “Within twenty-four hours, I was the most popular guy in the United States, and I was gettin’ telephone calls from all over the country.” Then lists were drawn of the people who could do them the most good, among their suppliers, politicians, police and other notables in all areas of society. The initial list ran to six hundred names, and since everybody on the list had to receive two tickets, that meant twelve hundred tickets. “What a job that was to cut that list down to a hundred pairs, includin’ ourselves. There was a lot of guys who was pretty sore at bein’ left off, but we hadda go with the best.”
What concerned Lucania next was cutting the right image at what now was almost certainly going to be his night of triumph. “So I got hold of Arnold Rothstein and the next morning he picked me up and took me down to John Wanamaker’s department store. Actually, I felt a little guilty, and I told Arnold that maybe I owed it to Ben Gimbel to go to his old man’s store, but he said to me, ‘No, Charlie. John Wanamaker’s men’s department has the stuff you need. I’m going to turn you into another Francis X. Bushman.”
At Wanamaker’s, Lucania bought two or three of everything, his only argument with Rothstein over whether to buy suits readymade or made to order. Lucania wanted his specially made, but Rothstein countered, “I want you to wear something conservative and elegant, made by a gentile tailor.”
Lucania was uncertain what Rothstein meant. “What the hell are you talkin’ about? My tailor’s a Catholic.” The only article of apparel Lucania did not buy that day were ties. “Arnold gimme a dozen French ties made by some guy by the name of Chavet; they was supposed to be the best and Arnold bought a hundred ties whenever he went to Paris. He also used to buy the silk for his shirts by the bolt at a place in France called Sulka, and he always would give me some as a present; that’s how I get the rep for wearin’ silk shirts and underwear and pajamas.
“So the night of the fight I had on a beautiful double-breasted dark oxford gray suit, a plain white shirt, a dark blue silk tie with little tiny horseshoes on it, which was Arnold’s sense of humor. I had a charcoal gray herringbone cashmere topcoat, because it was a little cool, with a Cavanagh gray fedora, very plain. Rothstein
gimme a whole new image, and it had a lotta influence on me. After that, I always wore gray suits and coats, and once in a while I’d throw in a blue serge.”
All through the preliminary bouts, Lucania held court from his seat in Row A, Seat 1 at the Polo Grounds. Political leaders, high police officials, judges, stage and screen stars, sports figures came up to shake his hand, to chat, to be seen with Charlie Lucania, and they brought their wives and girl friends to meet him. It was something of a social accomplishment that night to be noticed in his company.
“For the first time in my life I had the feelin’ of real power. It’s what I had always dreamed about, that some day the biggest people in New York would come up to me to say hello, to say thanks for the ringside seats that their big-shot friends couldn’t get for love or money. It was a pretty big thing when Dick Enright, the police commissioner of the whole city, come over to see how I was feelin’. And right with him was Bill Lahey, his police chief. Why not, they was on our payroll. There was an awful lotta people on our list — Jimmy Hines and Al Marinelli from Tammany Hall; there was an up-and-comin’ politician from Brooklyn who was gonna be a big guy with our help, Kenny Sutherland [later, Democratic leader in Brooklyn] — and I even sat Flo Ziegfeld and Earl Carroll next to each other. Later on, they both told me that they never met before and they couldn’t believe they actually liked each other. Bill Vare, the Republican boss of Pennsylvania, was damn glad to get tickets from me. Later on, he made the big mistake of tryin’ to be a senator instead of just makin’ ’em. Naturally, he got elected, and then the Senate in Washington threw him out. Boss Jim Pendergast come all the way from Kansas City in a private railroad car, and he picked up my friends in Chicago on the way.
“Of course, I invited guys on our side, too. The whole bunch from Philly was there, and a lot of guys like King Solomon from Boston, who took care of our shipments from Bronfman in Canada. We give Capone a dozen seats, but he didn’t give a pair to Johnny Torrio, the selfish son of a bitch, so I had Johnny sit with me, in my row. Al was three rows behind us and he was sore as a boil. My two hundred seats mixed up everybody from whores to politicians,
from society to Delancey Street. I had made up my mind I was gonna make friends from everywhere.”
Just before the main bout, Salvatore Maranzano walked over from his seat across the stadium. He and Lucania greeted each other cordially, like equals, and chatted for a few moments. Then, as Dempsey was coming down the aisle to a crescendo of cheers from the crowd, Maranzano leaned close and whispered, “I have a business proposition for you.”
“You mean like the last one?”
Maranzano shook his head. “No, no, it’s a better deal. You’ll see.”
“I’ll listen,” Lucania said.
“Good. We meet, then?”
“At my club, if that is agreeable.”
Two days later, Lucania, accompanied by Frank Costello, went downtown to Maranzano’s headquarters in Little Italy, near the on-ramp of the Brooklyn Bridge. He had deliberately brought Costello with him to test whether there had been any change in Maranzano’s attitude toward outlanders such as those from Calabria.
Maranzano greeted them jovially, put his arm around Charlie Lucania’s shoulders, and led the two men into a back room. As they talked, Maranzano was effusive, declaring himself delighted that his invitation had been accepted and that Lucania had brought Costello with him, for he had long wanted to meet this associate who was gaining such a reputation as a man of excellent contacts and unusual circumspection.
After pouring glasses of wine (“not sour this time”) and toasting their health and the success of this meeting, Maranzano made his offer. “As things now stand,” he said, “we are interfering with each other. We are competing for the same whiskey markets, and, unfortunately, killing each other’s people. This is foolish and it costs us both too much money and too many good men. This should come to a stop.”
“Listen,” Lucania replied, “you didn’t bring me down here to recite the bible of what’s right and wrong, Maranzano. What’ve you got on your mind?”
Still friendly, Maranzano said, “I would like you to join the great Maranzano family. You would be like my son, like a favorite
son.” Costello and the other Italians in Lucania’s outfit would be welcomed, too, though not Lansky and Siegel, for they were Jews. If Lucania wanted to make use of them in the future, however, that would be all right. As for the terms: “I am prepared to be very generous. You will be like my own bambino.”
That single word brought back to Lucania all his feelings against Maranzano, for it was the name, of course, his father had called him when he was young. “What right did that prick have to try to take the place of my old man? It was one thing to make a deal, and somethin’ else to play papa with me — in Italian, ‘papa’ means pope. He was playin’ the same goddamn game with me all over again. I could’ve shot him at that minute.”
But Lucania hid his resentment and continued to listen as Maranzano detailed his offer: Charlie Lucania would become chief lieutenant in the Maranzano family, and Maranzano would turn over to him the family’s entire liquor territory, abandoning the business himself and giving Charlie and his friends a free hand. With this one move, Maranzano said, Charlie Lucania would become the whiskey czar of New York.