Sunday, February 22, 2015

168. Thomas E. Dewey, Gangbuster


     In the suburb of Chicago where I grew up – a mostly white, very middle-class, very Republican community – the only crime wave was the depredations of a “phantom burglar” who for months eluded the police, becoming in the process both a bugbear and a legend.  Real crime, and corruption too, existed just to the south of us in the wicked, corrupt, and very Democratic city of Chicago.  But organized crime was almost unknown to us, something that reputedly flourished in that other, more distant big city, the wicked, corrupt, and very Democratic city of New York.  (For white Midwestern suburbanites, all big cities were wicked and corrupt … and enticing.)  But crime in New York, we understood, had been curbed by a stalwart defender of law and order, a special prosecutor and district attorney by the name of Thomas E. Dewey, a Republican who certainly deserved to be President.


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     So it was that I knew him as a twice unsuccessful candidate for the presidency, a master of platitudes and glowing vague phrases: in his photos an earnest-looking, gentlemanly type, slim and dapper, with a well-trimmed mustache, whose opponents called him the “little man on the wedding cake.”  A hard-working, diligent public servant, to be sure, and undeniably honest, but a bit lacking in color and warmth, two qualities that Harry Truman, his 1948 nemesis, had plenty of.  But there is much more to Thomas E. Dewey than this, and his story is intimately linked to the history of New York City and State.

     Born in Michigan in 1902, the son of a small-town newspaper editor, Dewey studied law and came to New York, where he started a lucrative practice on Wall Street.  New York City in the Depression years of the 1930s was governed by Fiorella La Guardia, arguably the best, most honest, and most energetic mayor in the city’s history.  But even under the Little Flower’s rule, many aspects of the city’s life were controlled by organized crime, which prompted cries for reform.  In 1930 Dewey was appointed Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, to investigate corruption in the city.  His first great success came in 1933 with the prosecution for tax evasion of racketeer and bootlegger Waxey Gordon, who was sentenced to ten years in prison.  What may not have been known to the public was the fact that Gordon fell victim to a gang war; the evidence that did him in came from his rivals, the Sicilian-born gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano and that supposed rarity, a Jewish mobster, Meyer Lansky: a first indication of the strange relationship between organized crime and the forces of law and order out to eradicate it.

     In 1935 Governor Herbert H. Lehman, a Democrat, heeding a grand jury’s charge that the current D.A. was lax in investigating the mob and corruption, asked four prominent Republicans to serve as special prosecutor in New York; all refused and recommended Dewey.  Appointed to this new position, Dewey recruited over 60 assistants, investigators, stenographers, and clerks, and proceeded vigorously, tapping telephones quite legally and employing his thoroughness and attention to detail to bring down organized crime.

     And who exactly were his targets?  The Commission, the governing body of the American Mafia, formed in 1931 to end the murderous wars between different factions for control of the Mafia.  The Commission included the bosses of seven families: the five families of New York, the Chicago boss Al Capone, and the Buffalo boss Stefano Magaddino.  The chairman of the Commission was one of the New York bosses, Lucky Luciano.  Though the Commission was mostly Italian, and especially Sicilian, in origin, it allowed Jewish mobsters such as Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and Dutch Schultz to work with them and attend some meetings.  As a result, big-time crime in the U.S., and above all in New York City, was indeed truly organized and a force to be reckoned with, and Thomas E. Dewey was out to destroy it.

Dutch Schultz     One of his chief targets was Dutch Schultz, whom J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had labeled Public Enemy No. 1.  A former bootlegger, at the end of Prohibition Schultz had switched to racketeering and extortion, using strong-arm tactics such as beatings and stink-bomb attacks to extract “dues” from terrified restaurant owners.  Known for his brutality, when he suspected that an associate was cheating him, he confronted him angrily, whipped out a handgun, stuck it in the man’s mouth, pulled the trigger, and then apologized to another associate for killing someone in front of him.  The victim’s body was later found in a snow bank with multiple stab wounds to the chest.  When queried by the witness he’d apologized to, Schultz calmly replied, “I cut his heart out.”

     It was not for these horrors that U.S. Attorney Dewey brought Schultz to trial, but for tax evasion – the same charge that would bring down Capone in Chicago.  Schultz was convicted, but his lawyers got the case overturned and convinced the judge that their client could not get a fair trial in New York.  So the trial was removed to the small town of Malone in rural upstate New York, where Schultz donated cash to local businesses, gave toys to sick children, and performed other charitable deeds, thus endearing himself to the locals.  In 1935, to the astonishment of all, he was acquitted.  Outraged, Mayor La Guardia ordered that Schultz be arrested on sight, should he return to the city, so Schultz relocated his operations to Newark, across the Hudson in New Jersey, where his mounting legal expenses forced him to reduce the pay of his underlings and thus undermined his authority.

     Desperate, Schultz reportedly went to an emergency meeting of the Commission and asked permission to kill Dewey.  The majority of the members voted against it, arguing that Dewey’s murder would stoke public fury and subject them to even more vigorous action by the authorities.  Accusing the Commission of trying to steal his rackets and “feed him to the law,” Schultz left in a rage.  Fearing that Schultz would act on his own, the Commission decided to eliminate not Dewey but Schultz.  On the evening of October 23, 1935, two gunmen shot Schultz in the men’s room of a chophouse in Newark, and also killed two bodyguards and Schultz’s accountant.  Gravely wounded, Schultz was taken to a hospital, where he lingered for 22 hours, delivering a rambling soliloquy while in and out of lucidity, before dying of peritonitis. 
    
     Fearing conviction by Dewey, shortly before his death Schultz had had an airtight and waterproof safe built, into which he placed $7 million in cash and bonds.  He and a bodyguard then transported the safe to an undisclosed site somewhere in upstate New York and buried it there.  When Schultz and the bodyguard both died as a result of the Newark shooting, the location of the safe was lost.  Gangland lore says that other mobsters searched for the safe over the years, and even today treasure hunters meet annually in the Catskills to hunt for it.  So the legend of Schultz’s lost treasure has survived the memory of Schultz himself.

     Only years later would Dewey learn of Schultz’s desire to murder him, but awareness of it would not have deterred him.  Yet the threats to him were real, and La Guardia assigned a picked force of 63 policemen to guard his office.  It was just as well, for his next target was none other than the mob’s kingpin, Lucky Luciano himself.  Though born in Sicily, Luciano came to the U.S. at age 10 when his parents emigrated here and settled on the Lower East Side.  As a teenager he got into crime and between 1916 and 1936 was arrested no less than 25 times for assault, illegal gambling, blackmail, and robbery, but spent no time in prison, which may explain how he got the nickname “Lucky.”  Prohibition proved a windfall for him, and he and his partners were soon making millions through bootlegging.  By the late 1920s he was involved in Mafia gang wars and survived an assault that was almost fatal, then in 1931 emerged as the chief organized crime boss in the U.S. and proceeded to modernize the Mafia, renouncing its strong-arm tactics for a corporate structure.  His own crime family, one of five in New York City, controlled such rackets as illegal gambling, bookmaking, loan sharking, drug trafficking, prostitution, and extortion, and dominated waterfront activities, garbage collection, construction, the garment business, and trucking.  Indeed, what did they not have a finger in?  Luciano was now living high on the hog, with a suite (under another name) at the luxurious Waldorf Towers, and wearing custom-made suits, silk shirts, cashmere topcoats, and handmade shoes.  He was often seen riding in a chauffeur-driven limousine or sporting about with a beautiful woman on his arm.  Among his friends were George Raft and Frank Sinatra.  But among his enemies was an energetic new U.S. Attorney out to destroy organized crime.

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Luciano in 1936.
     Dewey decided to do it through Luciano’s involvement in prostitution.  In February 1936 he conducted a massive raid on some 200 brothels in Brooklyn and Manhattan and arrested 10 men and 100 women.  Instead of releasing those arrested, as was usual in vice raids, he took them to court, where the judge set bail at a figure too high for them to pay.  Confinement and the threat of prison worked wonders: by March several defendants had implicated Luciano, who, being tipped off about his imminent arrest, decamped for Hot Springs, Arkansas, a favorite hangout for mobsters at the time.  There in that healing environment his luck ran out, for a detective on another assignment recognized him and notified Dewey, who had him arrested and sent back under guard to New York, where he was held without bail and then tried on 62 counts of compulsory prostitution.

     The jury heard 68 witnesses, 40 of them prostitutes or madams.  One told how Luciano had told her, “I’m gonna organize the cathouses like the A&P,” and quoted him as saying that “you got to put the screws on” to keep madams and pimps in line.  Trusting to his proverbial luck and not knowing who he was up against, Luciano, against his lawyers’ advice, took the stand to proclaim his innocence and deny knowing the witnesses.  It was a dramatic confrontation: the king of crime vs. the king of prosecutors.  Dewey subjected him to a rigorous four-hour cross-examination and repeatedly exposed him as a liar.  Nor could Luciano explain why he, a man obviously of great wealth, claimed to earn only $22,000 a year.  In his seven-hour summation Dewey labeled Luciano’s testimony “a shocking, disgusting display of sanctimonious perjury” and called the defendant “the greatest gangster in America.”  On June 7, 1936, Luciano was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to 30 to 50 years in state prison.  It was U.S. Attorney Dewey’s greatest triumph.

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Polly Adler, celebrated madam and
author.  Maybe we'll see her again.
   Since then many have questioned whether there was adequate evidence to convict Luciano, since he, like most mob bosses, avoided any direct and obvious connection with his illegal activities.  Society brothel madam Polly Adler, later the author of the bestseller A House Is Not a Home, opined that Luciano was not involved in prostitution, since otherwise, having operated under mob protection, she would have known of it.  But Dewey was now hailed as a gangbuster – a neologism that soon become the name of a popular radio show – and as such a national hero.  He got results – 72 convictions out of 73 prosecutions -- and Americans love results. 

     A Republican in a very Democratic town, in 1937 Dewey got himself elected District Attorney of New York County and as such continued to prosecute mobsters and other offenders.  Among the latter were Richard Whitney, a former president of the New York Stock Exchange, who pleaded guilty to embezzlement, and Fritz Kuhn, leader of the pro-Nazi German-American Bund, who was convicted of the same charge.  Cheered by the successes of so stalwart and effective a champion of justice, the state’s Republicans, long out of office in Albany, began urging him to run for governor.  And so began the transition of Dewey the gangbuster to Dewey the politician.


     Coming soon:  Dewey the politician, and why he never became President.  And then, the dumpy little lady who became a friend of Maria Callas and everyone else who mattered (or thought they did), and who allegedly used Marilyn Monroe to snub the Duchess of Windsor.  A glance at the world of the rich, the famous, and the no doubt totally irrelevant.  But if you ever went on a treasure hunt or a scavenger hunt, you’re indebted to her.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder