Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Rose Keefe's The Starker: Big Jack Zelig

Reprinted from the Chicago Daily Observer.

Rose Keefe pours on the gas from the first sentence. ‘As Jacob Goldberg rounded the corner of Forty-ninth Street and Madison Avenue, the last person he expected to encounter on the bustling sidewalk was his old partner in crime, Harry Smith. Jacob considered himself to be a hard-working and law-abiding citizen these days, but his teenage years had included some wilder moments, and Harry had been an instigator of most of them. Seeing him now aroused portions of nostalgia and uneasiness.’
Rose Keefe writes vigorous prose when her razor-sharp mind cuts through layers of fat-headed assumptions. Everyone assumed that Dion ‘Dean’ O’Banion, the beer baron gunned down by Johnny Torrio’s thugs in a Chicago Flower shop was an off- the –boat Irish mobster; that George ‘Bugs’ Moran was an Irish American hitter whose north side mob challenged Al Capone and inspired ethnic flourishes to the panoramic painting of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Nonsense. Rose Keefe dug the scalpel into the lard and got to the heart of matter.
Dean O’Banion was a Maroa, Illinois mossback and only Irish on his mother’s side and George ‘Bugs’ Moran of French Canadian decent (George Clarence "Bugs" Moran was born Adelard Cunin on August 21, 1891 and died in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, February 25, 1957). Moreover, the celebrated Beers Wars of the Volstead Act Era, the great Progressive stain on America, had very little to do with ethnic hostilities than about the very American value of profit. Capone’s wife was Irish and Dean O’Banion’s and later Bugs Moran’s mobs celebrated diversity!

” Earl "Hymie" Weiss, Vincent "The Schemer" Drucci, and George "Bugs" Moran) joined the Market Street Gang, which specialized in theft and robbery for the black market. The boys later became "sluggers," thugs hired by a newspaper to beat newsstand owners who did not sell the paper. The Market Street Gang started out working for the Chicago Tribune. However, they later switched to the rival Chicago Examiner due to a more attractive offer from newspaper boss Moses Annenberg. Through Annenberg, the gang met safecracker Charles "The Ox" Reiser, who taught them his trade. In 1909, O'Banion was arrested first for safecracking and then for assault. These would be the only times O'Banion would ever spend in a correctional institution.’ 1.

Rose Keefe is a brilliant young Canadian writer with a witty and energetic prose style accompanying a restless capacity for inquiry. In her recently released Crime Biography of New York Jewish Gangster, Zelig Lefkowitz, alias Big Jack Zelig, The Starker ( Cumberland Press, 2008), Keefe examines the assumptions that Jack Zelig was hired by corrupt New York Police Captain Charles Becker to murder the gambler Herman Rosenthal, who threatened to expose Becker as a grafter. Zelig was murdered on a New York streetcar the day before he was to testify in murder trial against Becker. The assumptions resting on New York District Attorney Charles Seymour Whitman, a wildly ambitious patrician using the prosecutor’s office to amass bodies on which he might step his way to the White House, assisted in his efforts by the Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo.

Capt. Becker was a Cossack, Police muscle for Tammany Hall and an unabashedly corrupt cop, but Rose Keefe is not buying the assumptions that Becker murdered Rosenthal or subsequently Jack Zelig – and neither will the reader.
The reader meets the world of The Starker – the Tough Guy, The Golem, The Jewish Avenger- with same nostalgia and uneasiness as Jacob Goldman upon meeting boyhood partner in crime Harry Smith. American Jewish emigration was brought on in the late 19th Century by the Czarist Pogroms that slaughtered millions of Jews everywhere in the Russian Empire. Stuffed into the slums of New York City along with Irish and Italians escaping their own Holocausts, Jews competed for work and survival.
Some children of the Diaspora, like their Irish and Italian counterparts, took to the gang life. Jack Zelig was one such kid. Zelig Lefkowitz became a pickpocket in Monk Eastman’s Gang which competed with Italian mobster Paul Kelly. Keefe brings to life her remarkable research into the bloody capacities of gangsters – their skills, their ethics, and their powerful influence on polite society.
The Better Angels of public life make great use of the violent and larcenous –then and now. Profit and Progress require the capacity to compromise and betray. No one betrays like a public official.
Rose Keefe parallels Zelig’s rise to prominence with the meteoric career of Police Bully Captain Charles Becker. Charley Becker was a German beer hall bouncer hired to ‘exercise’ the Law upon non-compliant ne’er-do-wells who failed to pay dues and respect to Tammany Hall. Becker was highly successful. A gambler by the name of Herman Rosenthal came afoul of his elected betters and Becker was unleashed.
Rosenthal decided to ‘take his case’ to the courts and expose graft and corruption. Exit Rosenthal.
The murderer of the gambler signaled an opportunity for a Progressive Reformer to make his bones and the murder jacket fit the broad shoulders of Charley Becker nicely. Jack Zelig, notorious tough guy was called in as well, as his associates participated in the murder of Rosenthal. Zelig was murdered by a small-time punk who conveniently used a Police Revolver. DA Whitman got two for one.
Rose Keefe interviewed relatives of the personalities involved, including an eye witness the streetcar murder of Jack Zelig, and tunneled through granite mountains of documents to bring to life the World of the Starker and the Cossack executed in the Pogrom of an ambitious louse –Charles Seymour Whitman.
The Starker by Rose Keefe is uneasy nostalgia. The Starker knocks down the assumptions we hold about events past and present.

Rose Keefe CV

Published Books:

Guns and Roses: The Untold Story of Dean O'Banion, Chicago's Big Shot Before Al Capone. Cumberland House Publishing (Nashville, TN) 2004
The Man Who Got Away: the Bugs Moran Story. Cumberland House Publishing (Nashville, TN) 2004
The Starker: Big Jack Zelig, the Becker-Rosenthal Case of 1912, and the Advent of the Jewish Gangster. Cumberland House Publishing (Nashville, TN) 2008
Professional Affiliations:

Member, the Writer's Union of Canada
Radio, Television, and Film Appearances:

"Talkline with Zev Brenner", WSNR 620 AM(NY) (November 2008)
"Dave Gordon Radio Show Show", ThatRadio.com (October 2008)
"Our Gotham",www.monk1903.com (June 2008)
"Bulldog and The Rude Awakening Show", WOCM-FM 98.1 (June 2008)
"Mobs In America", Abu Media Ireland (August 2007)
"Man, Moment, and Machine" History Channel televised special (November 2006)
"Young Indiana Jones" DVD Series- consulting expert (July 2006)
"Paddy Whacked": the Irish Mob History Channel televised special (March 2006)
Dave Strauss Radio Show, KTRS St. Louis (February 2006)
The Radio Detective, with Jerry Pearce (March 2004)
WBIG AM with William Kelly (March 2004)
Magazine Articles (author) :

"Mary Ward: The First Fatal Automobile Accident". History Magazine, Volume 8, Number 2, December / January 2007
"Labor Pain: Mossy Enright and Chicago's Labor Wars". On the Spot Journal, Volume 1, Issue 1, Fall 2006
"An Officer vs A Gentleman : The Saga of Chicago's Deadly Gentleman Brothers". On the Spot Journal, Volume 1, Issue 2, Winter 2006
"A Buck A Fist: Dopey Benny Fein and New York's Labor Wars". On the Spot Journal, Volume 1, Issue 3, Spring 2007
"The Fighting Parson: Remembering the Reverend Leslie Spracklin, Canada's Elliot Ness." On The Spot Journal, Volume 1, Issue 5, Winter 2007
"Rose Rossi- First Victim of the One-Way Ride?." On The Spot Journal, Fall 2008
Personal Appearances:

Golden Age of Gangsters Convention, Itasca, Illinois, September 2004
Contributing Author / Expert:

The Most Evil Mobsters in History, by Lauren Carter. Michael O'Mara Books Ltd, London, England, UK 2004
Public Enemies: America's Criminal Past 1919-1940, by Rick Mattix and William J. Helmer. Cumberland House Publishing, (Nashville, TN), 2007
Bad Seeds In The Big Apple, by Pat Downey. Cumberland House Publishing, (Nashville, TN) 2008

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jimmy Marcello is half Irish on his mothers side.
Frank Calabrese Jr is Irish on his mothers side (thus Frank Calabrese Sr's wife is Irish)--a Hanley
The Duffs were close to Tony Accardo.

Chicago Irish tended to go into Police and politics--but there still Irish gangs in New York (the Westies) that were brutal as well as Boston (Whitey Bolger--good book BLACK MASS--Italians love to read it)

There are ethnic differences even today and certainly in the past but they have been overshadowed or even transcended by race (Black v White where all whites are threatened) as viewed by some, assimilation (we are all Americans and basically look alike), and intermarriage (there are many Irish/Italian marriages mixed males and females)

I did not know Capone's wife was Irish but Digsby Batwell who coined the term WASP thought Capone was a model for assimilation as he did not speak Italian (despite fiction to this day), he sent his kids to East Coast boarding schools, he was born here (not in Naples and he was Napolitan and not Sicilian or Calabrese) Capone believed in America and assimiliation. Not to lionize a killer but many Italians (many Sicilians and Calabrse) think Capone was better than Wall Street and usurers and opened orphanages and soup kitchens and provided employment (did he found Villa Scalbrini?) Capone killed big Jim Colosimo who brought many Calabrese Italians over here and they (or the grandparents or dead great grandparents) still think of him highly.

Perhaps the real enemies are the oil companies, and usury credit cards, mortgage companies, investment banks--and Capone while flawed was a man of his time and did some good? probably not but just a question for discussion.