Why was the crowd in LA so much quieter than in Chicago or New York?
Quick, now: When you think of smugglers, blackmailers, guns and thugs in natty double-breasted overcoats, which city comes to mind?
Chicago, probably. New York, maybe. Detroit, maybe.
But certainly not Los Angeles. Organized crime, to the place that liked to praise that it was America’s simon-pure “white point”?
Lift up a chair, kids.
The gangsters in LA were few in number, and maybe they wore swim shorts under those coats – yes, just kidding – but organized crime and LA rackets go a long way together, and also very high, from the hotel. city and LAPD, and even illegal bars, stalls, game joints and brothels.
Our sun racketeers weren’t Capone quality, but Al Capone has been to town several times. The first time, in December 1927, he was a guest at the Biltmore Hotel for a day or two before his incognito was blown out and the cops shoved him on a train to Chicago. “I thought you liked tourists!” he then complained to the Times. “Who ever heard of someone who ran out of Los Angeles and had money?” The second time, in 1939, he stayed for about 10 months – as a guest of the Federal Correctional Hospital on Terminal Island.
From the years before Prohibition until well after World War II and even until the Decade of the Nightclub – when ‘gangs’ had become drug and street gangs – organized crime led a range. full of criminality: bribes, loan fraud, extortion, winnings, shakedowns.
And did the LA civic ride a white horse to chase them away? As if.
In the 1920s and beyond, LA gangsters found themselves in vigorous criminal competition with boldly carried out corrupt operations from the mayor’s office and parts of the LAPD. There were times when Angelenos must have questioned whether the police “vice squad” was for vice or against him.
Los Angeles’ criminal history comes under scrutiny in a new book, “Los Angeles Underworld,” a kind of picture book about organized crime and its civic cousin. Its central character is Jack Dragna, a man who The Times said was “perhaps the only classic ‘godfather’ the city has ever known.” It is written by Avi Bash and J. Michael Niotta – Dragna’s great-grandson.
Los Angeles had a lot less Italians than New York, but Sicilians like Dragna “came out of the West because they were free, or because they were herders or farmers as they were back in Sicily”, Niotta told me. “The climate in southern California was very similar to that of Sicily. And before Prohibition, I wouldn’t say it was an organization as much as maybe local criminals and cowardly confederations. Prohibition is what gave them a reason to organize and come together.
If they wanted the money to keep flowing, they had to unite to face another mob called “The Combination”, “The Spring Street Clique” – officials who used the authority of the hotel city to enjoy the same criminal delights that enriched the crowd, sometimes in competition, sometimes hand in hand.
Joe Domanick, an authority on LAPD history, described it in The Times: “The LAPD Central Vice Brigade was on the move; and a cowardly organized crime syndicate was protected by Mayor George Cryer’s top aide. It was not violent, large-scale, high-profile, Chicago-style organized crime. But his corrupting influence was just as real.
Over the next decade, Mayor Frank Shaw upped the racket. He scammed city projects and contracts, and his brother sold LAPD hiring exam answers to candidates he favored. Liberty magazine wrote in 1940 that in the 20 years before Shaw’s recall, in 1938, “the city of Los Angeles had been, almost continuously, ruled by an underworld government invisible to the average person.”
When the crowd was not in competition with the town hall profiteers, it paid them. A minority report of the 1937 grand jury by some reformers in the city made it clear: “[A] part of the profits of the underworld were used in fundraising campaigns [of] . . . city and county officials in vital positions. . . [While] the district attorney’s office, the sheriff’s office and the Los Angeles Police Department work in perfect harmony and never interfere with it. . . important personalities of the underworld. “
As a disgruntled customer posting a rating on Yelp, gangster Tony Cornero, whose gambling at sea was recently the subject of a Times article, allegedly complained that he was not receiving the police protection he was receiving. paid.
Prohibition in California had pushed small operators into the big leagues. Because the Volstead Act – the manual for use of Prohibition – arguably escaped 200 gallons of “non-intoxicating ciders and juices” for the personal use of an individual, wink, men like. Dragna won the gratitude of winemakers in the Inland Empire by buying up and brokering grapes for the newly stealthy wine trade. The crowd added hard liquor to their menu, which amplified the hardcore crime and intra-gang battles it took to protect contraband racketeering, in the mix with prostitution, gambling and the like.
If things didn’t get too bloody too publicly, the city and the crowd could keep an eye on things. “As long as it was quiet, no bloodshed in the streets,” Niotta thought to himself, “then that was good, because [L.A.] wanted to have this image of a family, fun and tourist place. But they also wanted these vices discreetly.
But if the crime became excessive and the moral crusaders demanded a banner campaign against vice, the blue uniforms of the city of the “white spot” were bound to go to the scene of the crime and make enough busts for a dime – couples drinking rattles from parked cars, haphazard hapless prostitutes, sidewalk craps players, Italian families pouring Chianti at Sunday supper – to calm the indignant.
The big fish kept getting bigger.
After WWII in particular, racketeers became interested in the popularity of restaurants and nightclubs. They either relied on the owners or owned clubs themselves. Dragna’s Club Alabam, says his great-grandson, has earned him a refined reputation as a “coffee man.”
Nightclubs attracted movie stars, and movies attracted crowds just as they attracted everyone. Even during his abbreviated stay here, Capone managed to tour the homes of the stars. A handsome guy by the name of Johnny Rosselli was the go-to man in organized crime for his studio shakedowns. (One of Rosselli’s criminal stage names was Jimmy Hendricks.)
He pulled the strings of some studio unions to extort humps with the threat of strikes – he was ultimately convicted of extortion – but he was a Hollywood creature enough himself to marry an actress and produce a few movies. police officers. He never came close to his leather shoe from a Hollywood Walk of Fame star, but you have to hand it to the man: he has an IMDb list.
Niotta believes it was Los Angeles’ almost idiotically complex civic sprawl – so many cities, so many city council members, so many cops and sheriffs – that ironically helped keep organized crime from organizing further. It was just too expensive to recruit and pay enough people in every city and every police department, “so if you paid the cops in [one] zone, there is always another pair of hands.
Courageous Crusaders for Clean Government have begun to clean up Los Angeles city government, but organized crime has not wavered. A new generation of Italian and Jewish gangsters found LA to be fun and profitable. It was the legendary age of the West Coast crowd: Dragna and glamorous Bugsy Siegel throwing themselves into the racquet of racing news before Siegel was erased – possibly for failing to keep his big Las plans. Vegas; Dragna tries to erase Mickey Cohen for challenging him.
And all the while, the legalized vices in Nevada were starting to wash away the dirty lucre of Los Angeles. After Siegel’s murder, The Times sternly reported that Los Angeles was “No Winter Resort for Racketeers.”
Dragna was over 25 years old in her grave when Daryl F. Gates, the leader of the LAPD, called a press conference in the fall of 1984 and triumphantly announced around 20 bookmaker conspiracy arrests, including the capo of the local mafia, in Operation Lightweight.
“We think the name is appropriate because organized crime is so light in Southern California,” the chief said, with the note of sour mockery reporters were familiar with. As for the Mafia families, he called them “Mickey Mouse Mafia”.
In 1996, the California Attorney General’s report on “Organized Crime in California” dwelled on the dangers of Russian mobsters and Asian street gangs, and virtually dismissed “traditional” organized crime as “ineffective for many years.” years because he has not been able to do so. impose its territorial control ”here.
And it’s also true that, as Domanick pointed out, the corrupt decades of civic and mob crime in Los Angeles ultimately spawned the city’s own government protections like the civil service and weak mayors and commission systems. that it has today.
Throughout his digging into his family history, Niotta found personal solace in an FBI file he encountered by citing an informant who said, in Niotta’s words, that Dragna had been “disgusted by the fact that the Mexican border was used by the narcotics union. And he went back to New York and spoke to the [mafia families] commission on this. He was definitely against drugs.
Niotta was born long after Dragna died, but what, if given the chance, would be the one question he’d like to ask the perhaps classic LA Godfather?
It took him a while. “I have about a million questions. If I could only ask for one, I would ask for one word: why?
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.