In his 15th book, "Big Apple Gangsters: The Rise and Decline of the Mob in New York" (Rowman & Littlefield), part-time East Hamptonite Jeffrey Sussman takes readers on a tour through a century of crime in New York’s underworld.
Beginning with the World Series of 1919 fixed by renowned ruffian Arnold Rothstein, Sussman details Prohibition-era bootlegging, Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky’s National Crime Syndicate, and the ultimate conviction of the bosses of the Five Families, among other historical hijinks.
Sussman spoke by phone about our culture’s love affair with the mob, gangsters famous and unknown, and secret organized crime lairs on Long Island.
Why is our culture so fascinated by mobsters?
The mob seems so glamorous to us. Normal citizens are constrained by laws and regulations and we live our lives according to a formula of decency. The mobsters who are successful have extraordinary power. They seem to be able to do whatever they want and no one bothers them.
When did your own obsession begin?
When I was 13, my father introduced me to my Uncle Irving, a bootlegger. He’d been indicted for the murder of Dutch Schultz, the "Beer Baron of the Bronx," because they were competitors in Harlem in various rackets. After that, he kept a very low profile. He actually hired a PR person to keep his name out of the newspapers.
Each chapter is a self-contained biographical portrait of an individual gangster. How did you choose who to include and do you have a favorite?
I moved chronologically and chose those who most represented the time in which they operated. I started off with Arnold Rothstein, the founder of organized crime. Then I moved on to his four protégés and continued from there. My favorites would be those who showed signs of brilliance. They were the early ones. In some ways, Carlo Gambino was the last brilliant mobster, but Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello were very smart people.
Who is a gangster most people haven’t heard of that we meet in your book?
In the 1930’s there was an African-American woman named Stephanie St. Clair who ran the numbers market in Harlem and refused to buckle under Dutch Schultz. In addition to running the numbers racket in the 1930s she became a civil rights force. She came from the West Indies and is buried at Trinity Church, near Alexander Hamilton.
Silence is prized in the mob world. How did you get people to speak with you?
About 20 years ago I was hired to write a documentary film called "Sucked Into the Mob" that never came to be. At the time I interviewed three organized crime detectives, two of whom knew the entire history of the mob, and I used these taped conversations for the current book. A friend introduced me to a number of people who had encounters with various mobsters and also got me on the phone with a Mafia figure who talked to me off the record. He was very forthcoming.
What are some myths you were able to debunk while researching this book?
One of the myths is that Jews are excluded from the mob. That’s just a cinematic myth. There are many cases of children of mixed inter-religious marriages who go into the mob. Another myth is that the mob will kill cops. By doing so, they would bring down the wrath of the entire police department. The way it happens in "The Godfather" is pure fantasy.
Much of what people know about the mob is from television. Is the gangster world really like that?
A lot of people I spoke to actually thought that the movies were history. They didn’t realize the changes that movies make about reality in order to create a dramatic effect. Not only "The Godfather," but also "Goodfellas," "Donnie Brasco" — they all change details to make things more interesting. They create caricatures of mobsters rather than real life people.
Is "sleeping with the fishes" a real thing?
Yes. Dutch Schultz felt a member of his crew was stealing from him and conspiring against him. So they invited him onto a boat, knocked him unconscious and put his feet into buckets of cement. When he came to, they threw him in the river and he drowned. That was true.
This book focuses on the "Big Apple," but did Long Island play a part in the history of the mob?
A lot of mobsters lived on Long Island. Frank Costello lived in Sands Point and loved gardening. He would spend all his free time raising orchids and roses and entering flower shows. Several mobsters had summer homes in Hampton Bays and Montauk. Some towns were so mob-connected that if you wanted to open a retail business you had to pay tribute.
There were many resorts out on L.I. that were initially financed by the mob, but I’m not going to tell you which ones they were because I don’t want to get them in trouble!