Friday, May 16, 2008

Researching a new book, gangsters and anecdote

I am doing research for a new novel I'll be writing, and since it'll be set in Las Vegas and deals with Vegas' gangsters, I'm reading a lot about gangsters. Mostly what I've learned about gangsters is all their spiel about honor and stuff is nonsense. Even "made men" are generally, in the fullness of time, killed by other gangsters.

The other thing I'm learning is the definition of gangster is pretty narrowly defined to include some crooks and not others. So, when reading about the legendary skim at the Stardust Hotel, Lefty Rosenthal and, of course, Tony Spilotro are ID'd as gangsters, but all of the guys with Anglo-Germanic names aren't - including, y'know, the people who created, maintained and used the machines that allowed the skim to occur. I know some of the reasons behind this must be because the Italian and (to a lesser extent) Jewish mobsters had fairly elaborate rituals and formal organizational structures, whereas other gangsters equally organized didn't have all the ritualism or formality of organization. Some of it also has to do, of course, with the sensantionalization of Italian and Italian-American gangsters in Hollywood, but it seems that many writers in many ways define gangster to exclude a . . . lot of violent Anglo-American crooks.

Still, a lot of the stories are so much fun. Take this one: in 1951, Estes Kefauver went after organized crime, particularly illegal gambling, in televised Senate hearings. At one point, he had Virginia Hill on the stand. Virginia Hill had been the main squeeze of the then-deceased Ben "Bugsy" Siegel, largely considered the person to have brought modern casino gambling to Las Vegas.

Hill's income at the time was, uh, in the form of gifts by rich men, a Chicago physician, a couple of New York gangsters, Ben Siegel when he was alive, a Mexican millionaire, a concert violinist, all of whom were giving her money.

Kefauver asked her, "How come that's the case, Miss Hill?"

Hill: "Senator, are you sure you want to know why these men give me money?"

Kefauver: "Of course I want to know, Miss Hill."

Hill: "Senator, they give me money because I'm the best damn cocksucker in the United States!"

The answer knocked the toupee off of one of the Senators. It was televised live on TV, all the three big national channels. Classic!

1 comment:

handmaiden said...

Very funny story. One thing I guess about gangsters, they are never boring.

I'd never thought about the images the word gangster conjures up...for me it's always some skinny Italian guy in a zoot suit.