NOVEMBER 2018

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Friday, November 16, 2018

CALLING JUDGE CRATER Chapter Three

It was about 7:45pm, on Wednesday 26 February, 1930 - 6 months before Judge Crater took “a Crater” on West 45th Street in Manhattan.   A middle aged blond woman and a tall, slightly balding man casually walked out of the 8 story apartment building at 1521 Sheridan Avenue in the Bronx (above). They were lightly dressed, and the sidewalks were crowded with people enjoying the unseasonable warmth of 75 degrees.  The pair sauntered north for a block to a small coup parked on the west side of the street. As the man opened the passenger side door for the woman, a solitary figure appeared out of the shadows and spoke. The man started to smile a greeting. As he did the figure lifted a sawed-off double barreled shotgun. For an instant the surprise on the man's face was lit by the flash of the discharge, followed by the hollow ugly thud.
The man dropped to the pavement (above). The woman screamed. The assassin tossed the weapon under the car and disappeared up a passage way between buildings. Residents recognized the screaming woman as four year tenant Maria Ennis. 
A good Samaritan cab driver drove Maria (below, left) across the Harlem River to the Montefiore Hospital, at West 138th Street (above), where they eventually brought the body of the man murdered in front of her.
While Maria (above, left)  was treated for shock, police emptied the dead man's pockets. They found a loaded revolver and $804 in cash, at a time when a yearly middle class income was a little over $1,000.  But this was explained by the corpse's driver's license. The dead man's name had been Gaetano “Tommy” Reina (above, right),  also known as the Bronx Ice King.  
Tommy was the 3rd ice distributor murdered in the last few months. The press was calling it the “Cut Rate Feud”, fought over territories for delivery of the once ubiquitous 5 pound slabs of ice required every 4 to 6 days for every ice box in a city of over 3 million residents.
But the refrigerator revolution had already begun. At 2393 Grand Concourse and Fordham Road, within blocks of The Ice King's assassination, his usurper, engineer and salesman Rex Cole, was selling General Electric home refrigerators - from this and a half dozen other sites across New York City - for a little as $215.00 apiece. In 1930, out of the 12,000 retail stores in NYC, only 63 sold kitchen appliances. But that year refrigerators made up 6% of all home appliance sales. And those numbers were rapidly growing.
The introduction of electricity to New York City tenements was supported by reformers because home refrigerators allowed working class families to improve their diets and health. Delivering electricity was also cheaper than ice delivery, and bypassed the multi- layered corruption that insulated gangs from reformers. And by regulating utilities as public/private combinations, the gangs could be completely shut out of the new market. So the rate cut ice war the newspapers were obsessed with was a battle over the past, and the Bronx Ice King had supposedly died for a vanishing kingdom.
No, the murder of the Ice King was about something more. Every teamster who left the Colonial Ice and Coal Company, on Eighth Avenue and 151st Street, and the other "ice houses" across the city, carried pass keys for every apartment building, speakeasy, market and restaurant across the Bronx and around Times Square. Their daily meanderings were camouflage for bootleg liquor distribution, numbers running and extortion rings, as well as a hidden in plain sight laundry for the prohibition profits from all of those and prostitution, which filled the pockets of the Lucchese's crime family, of which Gaetano Reina was a major player.
In the early morning hours of Thursday, 28 February 1930, the police brought Tommy's 40 year old wife, Angelina (above, left) , to identify her husband (above right) in the morgue. Somehow the grieving widow spotted the mistress in a treatment room. Angelina pounced on Maria like a hungry puma on sleeping chipmunk. 
Angelina used Maria's throat as a handle to toss her around the room, all the while screaming that the mistress was a tramp who had stolen the father of her nine children. Eventually the police were able to restrain Angelina. To the newspaper writers the two devastated women provided comic relief in an otherwise unpleasant assignment.
The real background to the murder was that Tommy Reina had aligned himself with Joe “The Boss” Masseria (above) . But Charles “Lucky” Luciano, who cultivated allies on all sides, warned Joe that Tommy had been talking to opposition gang leader, Salvatore “Little Caesar” Maranzano. The hot headed Joe hit the roof, and ordered the “hit” on The Ice King, his own man.  
Luciano gave the job to his trusted soldier, Vito Genovese (above).  After gunning down Reina, Vito escaped by running between buildings to the Grand Concourse where Joseph Micheal “Cargo Joe” Valachi, was waiting with a get away car.  Two years later, Tommy Reina's daughter Carmela, would marry Joe Valachi.
The “hit” was actually the first shot in a war between the old guard “Mustache Pete's” who wanted the American Mafia to remain strictly Italian and Sicilian, and the young Turks, like Luciano, who were willing to do business with anybody, even Jews like Arthur Simon Flegenheimer (above). Young Arthur had first worked for the Schultz Trucking Company, smuggling beer and liquor across the Canadian border. He quickly established a reputation as smart and violent, and became known as the German who worked for Schultz – or, Dutch Schultz.
It was Luciano who introduced Schultz to a little pug nosed Russian firecracker named Pearl “Polly” Adler (above, left). Having decided to become a madam at age 20, Polly Adler never looked back. “My feeling is,” she wrote years later, “that by the time there are such choices to be made, your life already has made the decision for you”. 
By 1928, the “Jewish Jezebel” had been running brothels for a decade, and was earning $1,100 a week. But despite the hundred dollar bills she passed in every handshake to politicians and cops, she had still been forced to change her houses 11 times in 10 years. Luciano thought Dutch and Polly (above, right) might be able to help each other.
So, bankrolled by Dutch - in exchange for 50% of her profits - Polly opened her most famous house in the brand new Majestic Hotel (above)  at 215 West 75th street.  She turned down 40 women for every one she hired, and then treated them the same way she treated the customers – with respect. As one writer put it, “She strove to cultivate an atmosphere that was more clubhouse than cat house...” Her wealthy clientele also provided a layer of protection. 
On almost any night you might discover politicians like Mayor Jimmy Walker, or high priced lawyers like William Klein or even a judge Like Joe Crater. The only thing that worried Polly was that Dutch often stopped to visit, and the territory surrounding Polly's nest was controlled by the competing Irish gangster and loose cannon, John Thomas Diamond. But that was why Dutch had invested in the property. Polly's house was a wedge to pry apart Diamond's little Manhattan territory.
Nobody trusted Diamond. By 1930 the 5 foot 9 inch tall, 140 pound sociopath had earned the nickname of “Legs” because of the three assassination attempts he already walked away from. 
Jack had started in 1919 as a body guard for Arnold Rothstein (above), also known as “the Brain”, “The Big Bankroll”, “The Man Uptown”, “The Fixer”, and simply “Mister Big” - the man who rigged the 1919 World Series. The rumor was A.R. liked Jack so much, he set him up in the heroin business – for a cut of course. But in November of 1928, rumor also had it that “Gentleman Jack” was involved in the assassination of his own boss at the Park Central Hotel.
After the death of Rothsein, Jack became known as “Big Boy”, a flashy dresser, a big spender, seen every weekend at high end “speaks” like “21” and “The Stork Club,”, with showgirls like Constance “Connie” Markus...
 ...or more regularly the red haired Ziegfield chorus girl, Marion “Kiki Roberts” Strasmick (above)...
...or his own wife, Alice Schiffer (above)  - and lately with Kiki and Alice at the same time. 
In early 1929 Jack joined with his muscle man, Charles Entratta, and front man Hymie Cohen, in opening their own speakeasy, a dark dive on the second floor of 1721 Broadway between 54th and 55th Streets, called “The Hotsy-Totsy Club” (above,single door next to "used cars" shop). It was a significant investment.
About 3:00am on Friday, 13 July, 1929 – just about a year before Judge Crater took a cab - 3 strangers saunter into the “Hotsy-Totsy Club”. About an hour later they picked a fight with the bouncer, ex-boxer Ruby Goldstein. Jack recognized one of the men as Simon Walker, a thug working for Dutch Schultz and assumed the Dutchman had sent the trio to “break up the joint”, maybe enough to keep the club from opening for that weekend. So Jack decided to meet the threat head on, as only Jack Diamond would.
While the band played loudly, Jack (above) told the three men, “I’m Jack Diamond and I run this place. If you don’t calm down, I’ll blow your fucking heads off.” The trio's response was unsatisfactory, and the band's rendition of “Alexander's Rag Time Band” failed to drown out the barrage of gunshots.
By the time the police arrived, Simon Walker and a second thug were dead on the floor. Later that morning, the third would be delivered to a hospital, where he was pronounced D.O.A. The only people still breathing in the club were the Manager Hymie Cohen, the bartender, a cashier, the hat check girl, a chorus girl and a waiter named Walter Volgast. They all swore they had not seen or heard anything. 
But Jack had gotten his picture in the newspapers too many times. The press identified the Hotsy-Totsy as “his” club. Worse, rather than use the back room usually reserved for such purposes, Jack had killed three men in full view of  witnesses. The cops closed the Hotsy-Totsy, cutting the spend thrift Jack off from a significant source of bribe money. Jack was forced to use another approach to protect himself.
On 19 July Walter Volgast's bullet ridden body was found in Bordentown, New Jersey.  Shortly thereafter, Hyme Cohen was also found dead. The other 4 witnesses simply vanished. And only then did Jack turn himself in to answer questions. In the end, nobody was ever charged with the death of the three thugs, nor the supposed deaths of the 4 witnesses. But Jack Diamond was now not only a hot head, he was just “hot”. He now carried a the new nickname, “The Clay Pigeon”.
Over the next year, Jack started selling his legitimate investments in Manhattan, so he could invest in new bootlegging operations upstate, around Albany. He wouldn't be making as much money, but he would likely live a lot longer. And at some point he found he needed some pull with a civil court trial judge. In particular, a new judge, just appointed to the New York City Supreme Court by Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That judge was Joseph Force Crater.
Since 1923, “Connie Markus” (above, right)  had been an occasional mistress of “Good Time Joe Crater”, and more recently, Jack Diamond. Rumor said that Connie asked Judge Crater to decide a civil case in Jack's favor. According to the account by writer Stephen Ellis, it was papers related to that case which Judge Crater went through in his office on Wednesday, 6 August, 1930. Those papers had gone into the two locked brief cases Joe Crater had left the office with that afternoon. And the $5,100 in cash he took with him was meant as a payoff to Diamond, because the Judge had to tell Jack no. With the feds and reformers sniffing around, Judge Crater felt he could not decide the case the way Diamond wanted, not without drawing attention and raising suspicions.
And that, said the rumors, was what led to Judge Crater's mysterious disappearance on West 45th Street, that muggy August evening, just after 9:15pm.
- 30 -

Thursday, November 15, 2018

CALLING JUDGE CRATER Chapter Two

Theatrical lawyer William Klein reached the fulcrum of his life at 1:38 in the morning of Thursday, 11 May, 1905, while he was sleeping in a lower berth on a Pullman car of the Pennsylvania Railroad's Cincinnati Overnight Express - 25 years and one month before his cold dinner with Judge John Force Crater.  The train had departed Manhattan's Penn Station about 10:00pm on Wednesday, and had reached Harrisburg, Pennsylvania well after midnight. 
"Willie" was traveling to Pittsburgh with his client, Samuel Shubert (above), youngest and most ambitious of the very ambitious Shubert brothers. Messrs. Shubert had already bought or built 13 theaters,.  And Bill Klein was the feisty, pushy, legal hammer which pounded opposition to the Shuberts into dust. Said one Broadway historian, "...to most people a litigation was a breakdown in human relations, to the Shuberts...it was an arm of diplomacy."
Leaving Harrisburg's red brick station at 1:30am, the Express was just picking up speed when it hit that fulcrum. A railroad work crew had hooked their train onto a westbound 100 car  freight. Then, the freight was shunted onto a siding above the Susquehanna River, in the Lochiel neighborhood just south of Harrisburg, to clear the track for the Cincinnati Express.  But the unexpected work train extended at least one car onto a curve beyond the "safe zone" of the siding,  And when the Express came barreling out of Harrisburg, picking up speed, its cars swaying as it rounded the curve, it slammed into that single car left hanging out. It was the work train's dynamite car. 
The Pullman cars disintegrated, their elaborate wooden interiors wrenching apart, the berths collapsing, trapping the sleeping passengers.  Kerosene lamps were smashed, and fires were sparked, and almost immediately there was a tremendous explosion, then another as the dynamite began to cook off. Quickly the entire freight began to burn, as did the Pullman cars. The 29 year old Sam Shubert was trapped in his burning bunk,  By the time another passenger freed him, he had deep burns over 100% of his body. His legs were almost charred. 
Wrote a local newspaper, "Horrific explosions shattered the darkness, lighting up the sky like daylight. Passengers were tossed from their berths. Some were flung from the cars. Others died horribly in the burning wreckage. "  Willie Klein was dragged semiconscious from his berth,badly burned on his face, hands and legs. 
The resulting devastation reduced the wooden passenger cars to splinters and kindling, more easily consumed by the flames.  More than a dozen passengers were burned to death. Almost another dozen would die within a few days. Most of the rest would be scarred for life.
There was little left of either train. And little left of many of the victims. Sam Shubert survived in agony, with burns over 100% of his body, until he mercifully passed into a coma and died at 9:30 the next morning. 
Their lawyer, William Klein would survive, but with scars. Because of that terrible wreck, there are  few pictures of Bill Klein, giving a hint at the internal scars.  For the rest of his life, Bill, a "Tall, craggy faced, rather homely man, would occasionally look at himself in a mirror and announce, “What an ugly bastard I am."   
Over the next quarter of a century, William Klein laid the bricks of Lee and Jacob's  theatrical empire.  As Jerry Stagg noted in his detailed 1968  "The Brothers Shubert, Not only did he fight their legal battles but he managed their contracts, negotiated them in and out of theater leases, helped smother their scandals, used every device of a devious man to further Shubert interests, and, as a by product, created a large part of today's theatrical law." But the center would forever be, Times Square.
In April, the year before Sam's death,  the New York City Council renamed Longacre Square as Time's Square, in honor of the new 25 story New York Times building,  which had just opened at the head of the space where Broadway formed a pair of X's across 8th and 7th Avenues.  But by the summer of 1930, three of tallest buildings in the world, and all more than double the height of the Times building,  were under construction in New York City. 
Begun first, in May of 1928,  was the 71 story tall Bank of Manhattan Building (above, center) at 40 Wall Street.  It towered  135 feet above the previous tallest building in the world, the Woolworth Building, completed in 1913.   The Bank of Manhattan had been created by Aaron Burr, authorized  in 1799 to bring clean water to thirsty New York City.  But Burr never invested in pipes.  Instead, by the May of 1930 completion of the bank's new tower, the corporation had become one of the biggest financial firms in the world. The Chairman of the Board who had overseen the previous 8 years of the corporation's growth, "Sunshine" Charlie Mitchell, was later deemed largely responsible for the Stock Market crash.  But the bank survived the Great Depression and thirty years later, would rename itself "CitiBank".  
The second tower, begun in September of 1928, at Lexington Avenue and East 42nd Street, was the  
1,000 foot, 77 story high Chrysler Building. It was built by Walter P. Chrysler, intended to secure the future wealth of his children.  To show them  how wealth was secured, after the building was completed at the end of May 1930,  Chrysler refused to pay his architect.  This Art Deco monument to harsh business practices became the tallest building in the world until the completion of the third sky scrapper.  

In January of 1930 construction began for the Empire State Building, on Fifth Avenue, between 33rd and 34th streets. (Above, left. Chrysler building BG center. 40 wall Street, spiral top middle BG. Woolworth, far BG, behind Chrysler)  Rising 1,404 feet in just 410 days, the Empire States's 102 stories would be completed on 1 May, 1931, as a funeral monument to the excesses of the Roaring Twenties.  
There were lots of nails in the coffin of the Jazz Age,  of which the disappearance of Judge Crater was one.  But bigger by far was the November 1930 collapse of the Nashville financial firm of Caldwell and Company.  Because of an intricate tower of debts and loans, the Caldwell banks dragged down dozens of banks all across the south. And that set off a series of financial failures  in St. Louis and then Chicago, and the closing of 1,300 banks nationwide, which turned the panic of 1929 into the Great Depression which would last for a decade.  
Because of that deepening depression, and because of no nearby subway access, the Empire State building struggled to find tenants. The first full year of operation, the unrestricted view from the 86th story observation deck (above) took in as much money as the rent for the office space below it - $2 million. The tower became known as the "Empty State Building', just another tombstone to the excess of the Mad Decade.
The dominant Broadway producers  who had controlled American theater since 1910, A,L. Erlanger and E. F. Albee,  both died in March of 1930.  Rising to take their place now were the Shubert brothers,  J.J.(above left)  and Lee (above, right), They owned half the theatres on Broadway and  a  hundred others from London to Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles  In the words of  Howard Tubman,  for the New York Times in 1964, "...they were merchants in show business...They drove hard bargains...They made money—lots of it."  Even during the Great Depression.
During the 1930 season - beginning in August - there were 31 theaters with 500 or more seats, in the Broadway Theatre district - not counting vaudeville houses - all built since 1910  In 1930 they presented 230 shows, limiting the average run of a play to just 7 weeks.  Besides indicating the time it took for a show to "break even", this turnover required a constant stream of investors, always with new money they were willing to lose in the hopes of the occasional big hit.
While the stock market was booming, Broadway investors were easy to find.  Come November of 1929, that source of cash suddenly evaporated.   But there were still one group of professionals eager to invest in short run cash business ventures, to whom "breaking even" was not only profitable, but preferable - the bootlegger, the pimp and the gangster.
Broadway was not their business. But money made dirty because it came from an illegal  "Speakeasy" or a brothel could be used to rent stage lightning for "The Ballyhoo of 1930" or costumes for "The Dancing Partner".  Passing through these mundane exchanges, at a profit or a loss, it was now laundered. Clean and legal, it could return as kickbacks to the investor,  who also owned "a piece" of the lighting or costume rental company.  This was where the world of lawyers like Willie Klein and "Good Time" Joe Crater met the world of gangsters like Jack "Legs" Diamond and  Charles "Lucky" Luciano - backstage in the Broadway theatres, chasing showgirls.  
The women who survived in this crossover world for any length of  time, like upscale prostitute girlfriend of "Legs" Diamond, Vivian Gordon, and showgirl Sally Lou Ritz,  who dined with Judge Crater the night he disappeared, and the legions of other women who sacrificed themselves for the opportunity to dance or sing, could do so only as long as they were of interest to the men.  It was not about intimacy, you could even say it was rarely about sex. It was always about power.
Jerry Stagg provides a description - albeit solely male - of this junction of worlds from the Shubert Brother's perspective. In Chapter Six of "The Brothers Shubert" he writes, "Jake (above, left) was the "cruder" of the two, and legion are the tales of his assignations - in dressing rooms, in telephone booths, in corridors,behind scenery flats, and, of course, in hotel rooms and apartments. Lee (above right)...calculated that time was money, made his office a convenient place. To one side of it...he had an apartment complete with bedroom. To the other side of his office was a small meagerly furnished room...which also contained a bed.   A former secretary... remarked, "It was a traffic problem. You see the bedroom was for stars and important people. The room - well that just for girls. The room got most of the action."  
It was a dangerous and violent place to be. And in 1930, it was the only place women were tolerated close to power.  
- 30 -   

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