Mob Fest ’29 (Excerpt)

The True Story Behind the Birth of Organized Crime

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  1. Since one requirement of organized crime is that it actually be organized, of course there would have to be meetings from time to time. The most celebrated such get-together is known to us only because it was a complete fiasco: the 1957 barbecue at Joseph Barbara’s Apalachin, New York, estate that was crashed by police, sending about a hundred mob bosses and their bodyguards fleeing in their fancy Italian loafers through the upstate woods. There were also landmark gatherings in Cleveland in 1928, Havana in 1946, and Palermo in 1957, and those are just the ones we know about.

    But they all pale next to the Atlantic City Conference. By 1929 Prohibition was winding down, and the hoods who had become rich from illegal alcohol needed to look into the future and determine their place in it. As legend has it, as many as thirty top gangsters answered the call, several of them now household names—men who would someday replace the cowboy gunslinger as iconic American outlaws, all come together to conspire.

    According to accounts of the conference, it produced something like a manifesto, a written list of bullet points meant to serve as the constitution for an ambitious new nationwide underworld government. There were moments of deadly serious drama, and even a surprise ending: Once the gathering was over, one of the attendees—a really famous one—was arrested and sentenced to a year in prison. It wasn’t all business, however. There were wild parties and heroic feasts, with fancy ladies provided for anyone who hadn’t brought his own. In short, this was nothing like the office meetings you or I have been made to attend.

    The most detailed and oft quoted account of what happened that week in Atlantic City didn’t come to light until 1974, with the publication of The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano, a book by Martin A. Gosch and Richard Hammer. According to the book, the list of hoodlums who came to the Atlantic City Conference reads like a who’s who of bootlegging, gambling, and pimping:

    The big black limousines carrying sinister passengers arrived from all over the country. Capone arrived from Chicago, bringing with him his close ally, Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik (the nickname coming from Guzik’s astonishing speed in flipping through a stack of bills with a wet thumb and never losing count); King Solomon drove down from Boston; Boo-Boo Hoff, Waxey Gordon and Nig Rosen came up from Philadelphia; from Cleveland came Moe Dalitz and his allies, Lou Rothkopf and Charles Polizzi (real name, Leo Berkowitz, the adopted son of the Mafia-affiliated Polizzi family); a whole delegation of the Purple Gang came from Detroit, doing the bidding of its leader, Abe Bernstein; Boss Tom Pendergast of Kansas City sent a surrogate, John Lazia; Longie Zwillman and Willie Moretti represented New York’s Nassau County and northern New Jersey. The largest delegation was from New York City. Led by Lucania [Lucky’s Luciano’s real surname], it numbered among its members [elder statesman Johnny] Torrio, [Meyer] Lansky and his bride (who was unaware of the real reason for the choice of Atlantic City for a honeymoon), [Frank] Costello, [Murder, Inc., leader Louis Buchalter, better known as] Lepke …

    Nucky Johnson had made the necessary arrangements, including reservations at the Breakers, an exclusive hotel that didn’t admit riffraff, Catholics, or Jews. Johnson tried to pass off his guests as WASPs from nice families by reserving the rooms under phony names, but once the hoods began showing up, hotel management saw through the scam and turned them away. Nucky was swiftly informed and saved the day by booking his guests into the President Hotel, which was near his own home. The gangsters formed a convoy and began driving to their new digs, but then Capone spotted Nucky in his car and brought the parade to a screeching halt.

    Luciano recalled, “Nucky and Al had it out right there in the open. Johnson was about a foot taller than Capone and both of ’em had voices like foghorns. I think you could have heard ’em in Philadelphia, and there wasn’t a decent word passed between ’em. Johnson had a rep for four-letter words that wasn’t even invented, and Capone is screamin’ at me that I made bad arrangements. So Nucky picks Al up under one arm and throws him into his car and yells out, ‘All you fuckers follow me!’ ”

    Once they arrived at their new hotel, Capone still wasn’t placated. He stormed into the lobby and began ripping pictures off the wall and hurling them at Johnson. “So everybody got over bein’ mad and concentrated on keepin’ Al quiet. That’s the way our convention started,” Luciano said.

    There were plenty of wild parties and lavish meals for the mobsters, with favors for the wives or mistresses who had come along (fur capes, courtesy of Nucky). But there was important business to conduct, too. Every morning, Luciano recalled, the “delegates” would make their way to the Boardwalk, and there they would pair off and climb into the town’s signature canopied rolling chairs, pushed slowly along the promenade by attendants. The men didn’t talk serious matters but discussed the weather and other trivia, because, as Luciano explained, “How the hell could we talk about anythin’ else with them niggers breathin’ down our necks?”

    Then, on a quiet stretch of oceanfront, the men would disembark, remove their shoes and socks, roll up their trouser legs, and walk to the shoreline. There they could convene in peace. On these odd-looking strolls—imagine, on a beach in the middle of May, dozens of barefoot tough guys in expensive suits trying not to get their pants wet—the future course of American organized crime was set, Luciano said. Henceforth, the gangsters would allocate shipments of liquor smuggled in from Canada, to end the cutthroat (literally) bidding wars. They would set aside money for the day that Prohibition was repealed, as they knew it would be, so they could transition into legal businesses, including the liquor trade. They also discussed how to develop gambling as a growth industry, but without the competition that had turned bootlegging into such a bloody battlefield. In short, they were creating the framework for a national crime syndicate.

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    Preview more of Bill Tonelli's Mob Fest ’29.

Originally published in Byliner, August 2012