Friday, December 19, 2008
Much like Rose Keefe’s earlier works Guns and Roses: The Untold Story of Dean O’Banion and The Man Who Got Away: The Bugs Moran Story, The Starker is quite an achievement in historical research. Unlike some of her contemporaries in the true crime field, Keefe does not simply reexamine documents well-worn by other researches and conjure up a different conclusion. Keefe does her leg work, often finding documents no one thought to look for and gathering testimonials from the person of interest’s friends and family members, who’s voice up to that time had not been heard. Because of this, long-held beliefs about criminals of yester-year fall away, leaving the reader with a well-rounded, human rather than caricatured, picture of that person.
The First half tells of Jack Zelig’s transformation from a petty pickpocket into the most important gang leader in 1910 New York. Midway through the book, the point of interest changes to the biggest crime of the day, the murder case of gambler Herman Rosenthal and how Zelig tragically gets caught up in it.
The reviewer hit the nail on the head when they wrote, "... long-held beliefs about criminals of yester-year fall away, leaving the reader with a well-rounded human rather than a caricatured picture of that person." That's exactly what I strive to do. Gangsters are not the easiest biography subject, because they rarely if ever left behind diaries, letters, or similar clues to what they were really thinking and feeling. Most times you have to piece together their story from newspapers and court records. If you're really lucky, you meet your subject's friends and relatives, and they choose to share memories with you. That's when you do more than just write a book- you rewrite history.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Keefe limns the New York gangster who represents a major link between Monk Eastman’s seminal Jewish gang and Arnold Rothstein’s criminal enterprise that would eventually spawn, under Meyer Lansky, the Jewish contingent of Lucky Luciano’s crime cabal that dominated America’s underworld for decades. As such, the book is a valuable resource. It is also excellent reading that brings organized crime in the early twentieth century alive in detail and with a bit of humor. Jack Zelig was a gang leader only relatively briefly before he was assassinated to keep him from testifying against bookmaker Herman Rosenthal’s killers. Oh, really? Keefe argues that, rather than a straight gangland-witness killing, the hit was political, motivated by adversaries displeased by Zelig’s clout. Reviewing the case, Keefe exposes the seeming contradictions in the official version of Zelig’s demise and, for that matter, in Zelig’s life, since the gang leader had grown up in comfortable circumstances rather than grinding urban poverty like his peers in the rackets. As true-crime tome and organized crime history, this one’s a keeper.— Mike Tribby
Talk about a nice way to start the week! Thanks to Mary Frances Wilkens at Booklist Online for permission to reproduce the review here.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
"I got a chance to read the case you sent some while ago (People v. Becker), and I had a few observations regarding it.
My understanding is that your interest in the case relates to the fact the Zelig was about to testify at the trial when he was killed. I know nothing of that aspect, but I found several features of the Court of Appeals opinion to be interesting, and I have the overall sense that the trial would have been conducted differently -- generally to Becker's advantage -- in a modern American courtroom.
That's not to say that the reviewing court would have been more likely to remand the case for a third trial, but rather that the trial judge would have felt less need to rigidly apply the rules of evidence. For example, the dying declaration of Dago Frank would likely have been admitted, not under the classical exception for dying declarations discussed by the appeals court, but rather under what is generally referred to in state law as "Subsection 24" (or Federal Rule 807, "Residual Exceptions"), under which a trial court may determine that the "interests of justice will best be served by admission of the statement into evidence." That wide exception did not exist when Becker was tried. It was his misfortune to go to trial during a period when the rules of evidence were narrowly and dogmatically applied in most states.
On the other side, it is my view that Shapiro's statement that "Becker had the cops fixed," would have been excluded at trial -- not because the trial judge's technical analysis was incorrect (he properly instructed the jury not to consider the statement for its truth or falsity) but rather because of its extreme prejudice.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the analysis by the reviewing court relates to corroboration. It has always been the law that a conviction cannot be based on the uncorroborated evidence of an accomplice(s), but there is a wide variance in what courts hold to be sufficient to qualify as corroboration. (Finger prints or DNA would be strong corroboration, whereas an inferred motive would not). In this case it seemed to have been a close call -- in which event the appeals court properly deferred to the trial judge's ruling. In today's world, though, it is less likely that the corroboration would have been deemed sufficient by the typical trial court.
So, given the time period, I'm not surprised by the court's decision upholding the result in the second trial. But I'm appalled by the manner in which the clemency request was handled. For the former prosecutor to fail to recuse himself is nothing less than astonishing and should, in and of itself, have been grounds for a separate appeal to a judicial tribunal. It might also have been grounds for a petition to impeach the governor.
Although unrelated to the merits, I was interested to see that the famous mouthpiece Bourke Cochran was involved in the case. He was a remarkable person and the idol of the young Winston Churchill, whose mother Jenny was Cochran's good friend. Churchill credited Cochran with most of his own public speaking skills."
Thanks for that, Michael.
Charles Whitman should have recused himself in the matter of Becker's clemency request. He did not. Becker had the misfortune to go on trial for his life when trial by newspaper set the tone for jury verdicts, the rules of evidence were more rigidly applied and the governor was more ambitious than merciful.
Sunday, October 19, 2008
The Starker in a recent entry. He's got his own work in progress and if it's anything like his blog, it'll be a masterpiece.
Here's to you, Pat!
Saturday, October 18, 2008
If you are interested in New York history, visit the Bowery Boys blog, where their past broadcasts can be accessed. If you have iTunes installed, you can subscribe to the show and have each new episode downloaded automatically to your computer.
Speaking of podcasts, on October 26 I will be appearing on the Dave Gordon Radio Show, which features stories about the Middle East and Judeo-Christian values as well as opinions and commentary, news, profiles of newsmakers, and much more. I will be speaking on the subject of Big Jack Zelig. The show will be available for download afterward.
Friday, October 10, 2008
If you haven't stayed at this unforgettable oasis of vintage character and modern elegance, I strongly suggest that you do so. Stepping into the lobby is the closest I have ever come to stepping back in time: the potted palms, dim lighting, dark wicker lounge chairs, and intricately tiled floors are all throwbacks to the grand hotels of 1912. The suite that I booked for the party had factory windows that presented a dazzling view of Manhattan. All told, it was a perfect setting for the celebration of a book covering the time period that the hotel emulated so beautifully.
October 5, 2008 was also the 96th anniversary of Zelig's death. Among the scheduled attendees were members of the Lefkowitz family, who had provided research assistance and moral support while The Starker was being written. My book gave them previously unknown insights into the life of a relative who'd been spoken about only in whispers, if at all.
Zelig's parents and eight siblings had clearly mourned his memory. They sat shiva for him. Then a wall of silence fell between that generation and the successive ones. I have concluded that there were two reasons for this. The first is that although he was a beloved brother and son, he also threw a faint shadow over the name of an accomplished and altruistic family: his father Frank helped found an association that assisted disadvantaged Jews with interest-free loans, and his brother Herman died after gangrene set into a wound received while participating in a rescue effort. The second is that Zelig's older nephews came of age when Jewish gangsters achieved unprecedented prominence in organized crime. Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, Lepke Buchalter, and their associates would have looked favorably on a new recruit with blood ties to the legendary Big Jack Zelig, should one of the boys have been tempted enough by money and his uncle's glory to approach them.
The party went extremely well: members of the local media showed up, and Monk Eastman and Lollie Meyers even made a grand appearance! (Not really, but webisode guru Franklin Abrams donned a dark suit and hat to recreate a menacing Monk, while his steel-eyed buddy Ryan, who is also an accomplished hip-hop artist, turned heads as Lollie.) Cartoonist Nancy Beiman provided a caricature of Big Jack that was an instant hit, so much so that I could not resist reproducing it at the top of this entry. Well done, Nancy- I had the picture framed and it's hanging on my office wall as I type this.
In addition to throwing the party at the Bowery Hotel, I joined author Pat Downey in hurrying all over the city, visiting every Borders and Barnes & Noble that we came across and signing all copies of our books that each location had in stock. One assistant manager even came to the party for awhile!
If the time and resources are available, I strongly encourage any author to host a launch party for their newly released book. It's like throwing a rock into a pond: the actual splash is over quickly, but the ripples go on and on. I'm not just indulging in wordplay here: on Wednesday I received an email from a happy customer who bought The Starker on the recommendation of Diane, the B&N assistant manager who showed up. This person purchased the book on Monday, finished it in two days, and assured me that he was going to encourage everyone he knew to pick it up. Music to my ears that will translate into coins in the piggy bank. If I have to advance funds to host a party that has this kind of aftermath, then in the words of Mike Meyers, "Party on, Garth!"
Sunday, September 21, 2008
Last June I flew to New York to be inteviewed for the project. Franklin, whose acting credentials have made his directorial abilities more lively and innovative, came up with the concept of both revisiting Eastman's past and imagining how he'd react to modern challenges like the internet, computer-based crimes, etc. It was a novel idea, and I was more than happy to provide input for the historial segments.
Franklin was especially interested in recreating a conference that took place between Eastman and his former protege Zelig. Monk, recently released from prison and faring poorly in both health and career prospects, approached Zelig to solicit his aid in a narcotics running operation. Unfortunately for him, Zelig was firmly against the drug trade for personal reasons, and not even an appeal from an old mentor could sway him.
In the video below, I provide opening commentary before the scene commences. Monk is played by Franklin, and the role of Zelig is assumed by none other than the gangster's great grand-nephew, Jan Lefkowitz. It's Jan's acting debut, and you'll agree that he's incredibly believable as Zelig.
Saturday, July 19, 2008
One book that held special attraction for me, although its title and author escapes me now, was about writer's workplaces. I wanted to be an author when I grew up, so I'd study the photos accompanying each writer's essay. Did I want to produce my masterpieces on a rough-hewn wooden worktable overlooking acres of daisy-spotted fields? Or in a garret studio in a stately Victorian home on a leafy city sidestreet?
So far, I haven't acquired either, but I'm not so sure I want to now. I've come to appreciate that writers transcend their surroundings if they're dedicated to their craft: I've hammered out first drafts in tomblike libraries and madcap airport lounges, accomplished rewrites in my local Starbucks, and sent the completed manuscript to my second book, The Man Who Got Away, during a break in a trade show I was attending. My 'permanent' workspace is an imitation cherrywood desk whose sleek surface is taken up by a flatscreen monitor, candlestick telephone, scanner, keyboard (which is in desperate need of a cleaning!) photos of Big Jack Zelig and Darla, a pet ferret who passed away last year, and a mountain of books (The Practical Writer by Eiben and Gannon, Sacrificed by Henry Klein, The Mysterious Death of Mary Rogers by Amy Gilman Srebink, We Are Not Afraid by Seth Cagin and Philip Dray, and Ship Ablaze by Edward T. O'Donnell).
The key to being a prolific writer is adaptability: be ready and able to work wherever life and fortune happen to situate you. Your dream workspace will come to you eventually, but only if you've been able to produce excellent work in less ideal surroundings.
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Edited by Therese Eibe and Mary Gannon in conjunction with the staff of Poets and Writers Magazine, this volume covers everything from conceiving original ideas to successfully placing the finished manuscript with a publisher. It's not a 'how-to' manual with carefully planned 'Point A to Point B' steps, but rather a series of essays that help both emerging and veteran writers make intelligent and informed choices at every stage of their project. Among the topics covered are choosing the perfect title, submission strategy and protocol, getting low-cost publicity for a small press title, digital marketing, and cultivating your local booksellers.
Some essays provided more insight than instruction, and these were the ones that I found myself mulling over long after I finished reading the book. Helen Benedict's "Fiction vs. Nonfiction: Wherein Lies the Truth?" was one of them. Like many nonfiction writers, I shied away from fiction and literature in favor of immersing myself in works of history, current events, true crime, etc. I saw no value in imaginary worlds and people unless I was looking for an escape, and even then, I preferred a good history volume as a type of retreat. Benedict argues that even nonfiction has its limits in exposing and depicting the truth: interview subjects color their stories, authors are wary of injuring innocent parties, and everyone fears a lawsuit if they're completely honest in print about a contentious issue. With fiction, writers are free to expose unpalatable truths via imaginary characters, as Vladimir Nabokov did with his obsessed child-lover Humbert Humbert in Lolita. History abounds with examples of literature leading to social change: Uncle Tom's Cabin shone a harsh glare on the morality of slavery, Charles Dickens helped the cause of the poor, and Theodore Dreiser humanized the prostitute, the unwed mother, and other figures of universal derision during his day.
Another essay that stayed with me was Robert McDowell's "Publicity for Your Small Press Title". Like me, McDowell believes that the author is a crucial part of a book's success. After his poetry volume On Foot, In Flames was released, he spent nine days driving through eastern Oregon and Washington to promote his book. He read before twenty-two classes of high and middle school pupils, gave readings at local libraries, and even presented his work at a senior's home in Fossil, Oregon. Only three people showed up at a reading scheduled at a small-town hotel, but guests entering the lobby would stop and listen. McDowell only sold one book that night, but as he put it, "Even though the author in me could have easily retreated to a humiliating place, the marketer and proselytizer in me was proud of that sale. My poetry had just taken one more small step out into the world."
The Practical Writer belongs with each year's Writer's Market on any serious author's bookshelf. The latter points to doors, the former helps push them open and make the most of the opportunities presented.
Sunday, July 6, 2008
Saturday, July 5, 2008
It's not so entertaining when you hear the same phrase employed in reference to you. One anonymous Amazon.com reviewer didn't exactly slam Guns and Roses, but he did complain about "authors from Iowa and Canada writing about Chicago." (The Iowa author he was referring to is Rick Mattix, who covered Chicago crimes and criminals extensively in The Complete Public Enemy Almanac.) At my request, Amazon pulled the review, and I later learned that the defensive Chicagoan was a frustrated author whose own manuscript about the Windy City mob had been rejected so often that he resorted to self-publication.
Most people are enlightened enough to appreciate a well-written, solidly researched work regardless of the author's origins. Harold Schechter and Ann Rule have written eye-opening and perceptive books about the world's worst serial killers, but no one accuses them of being unfit to deal with the subject matter because bodies aren't buried in their basements. Unfortunately, there exists a minority who think that if your birth certificate doesn't say 'Chicago' on it or you only live there during research trips, your attempts to write about events in the city's history are akin to what one well-meaning Chicagoan called, "a Norwegian trying to write an Italian cookbook."
I don't dispute that for some books, appropriate credentials are crucial. I wouldn't buy a medical textbook unless the author's name ended in 'M.D.' I'll even allow that living in Chicago is a definite asset when you're writing about the city's current events, as these issues impact your own life and give you a perspective that someone in Hayden, Idaho could never have on the same topic. But when the subject matter involves history, all you really need is strong research skills and the ability to ask questions when you don't know something.
During my last visit to Chicago, I went to Holy Name Cathedral to take some pictures. For me, this beautiful church has special significance because the parking lot across the street is the former site of Dean O'Banion's flower shop, where he was murdered in 1924. Two years later his successor, Hymie Weiss, died in the cathedral's shadow when bullets from a machine gun nest ripped his body apart.
While I was angling the camera, a middle-aged gentleman paused to watch. After I snapped the photo, he approached and commented, "Holy Name is a lovely church. Are you taking pictures for a magazine?"
"No, for myself. I did mention Holy Name in two books that I wrote, though."
When he pressed for details, I told him about the O'Banion and Weiss murders. He kept punctuating my speech with "You're kidding!" and "I never knew that!"
"Are you from Chicago?" I asked.
"Yes- born here and lived here all my life. I also go to Holy Name every Sunday. Never knew about this gangster connection before though."
As I watched him continue up State Street, I remembered another line from The Untouchables. When Sean Connery questions a police recruit about why he wants to be a cop, the young man looks confused and then mumbles something about "wanting to help the force." After the interview is concluded, Connery mutters, "There goes the next chief of police." Gazing at the amiable stranger's back, I thought, "God help me if he decides to write a book. He doesn't know much about the city's history, but at least he's from Chicago."
For some, that's all that seems to matter.
Friday, July 4, 2008
Like me, Berendt is a creative nonfiction writer: he embraces certain fiction techniques, such as plot, dialogue, characterization, and point of view, to make the story more compelling. But there's a line, and in my opinion Berendt crossed it. To make the real-life scenes flow more smoothly, he invented transitions, a process he called "rounding the corners." It was meant to make the book more enjoyable to read, and I'll admit that he achieved the desired effect. But what he also did was make me distrust the entire work.
It's not necessarily an ethical violation to veer away from the literal truth for the sake of a more lively narrative. I've done it myself. If an interview subject says to me, "I saw Bugs Moran in the lobby of the Parkway Hotel and said hello to him", I might translate this statement as "Seeing Moran in the Parkway Hotel's lobby, John Doe said, "Hello, George."" This is more engaging prose than "John Doe said hello to Bugs Moran in the lobby of the Parkway Hotel." But what's not permissible, in my opinion, is to write something like "Seeing Moran in the Parkway Hotel's lobby, John Doe said, "Hello, George." Moran returned the greeting, then stepped out into the sunny August afternoon. The recent killing of his old friend Bill was on his mind, and he was in no mood to talk." It's an even better literary treatment of the encounter than my own version, but unless Moran explicitly told John Doe that he was still upset about his friend's murder and not inclined to talk, an elaboration like that is unacceptable.
It's my opinion that if you have adequate research skills and know how to ask the right questions during interviews, you can come up with enough compelling material without abusing creative license. Do not cheapen your work by inventing dialogue, characters, and incidents for the sake of appealing to the beach novel crowd. Truth can be much more engaging than fiction, and if you have any real talent as a writer, you can apply that principle successfully.
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
You’ve accomplished one of two primary goals in the writing business: finding a publisher for your work. Now, if you care about your book’s success, you should apply your creative energies with equal vigour to the second step of the process: helping it sell well.
I’ve spoken to writers whose attitude is, “I’ve written the book- it’s the publisher’s job to sell it.” Theoretically, that’s true. But certain realities have to be faced: approximately 500 titles are published every day in the U.S., and publishers have a daunting job persuading bookstore buyers, reviewers, and readers to consider your book out of hundreds. There’s a lot that you as the author can do to create a demand that will give your creation a competitive edge.
Give the book, and yourself, an online presence. I can’t stress enough the importance of using Internet resources as marketing tools. A website reaches a much broader audience than a printed ad ever could, and its content can be updated instantly. Below are some suggestions that will help you get the most out of your Internet-based campaign.
Register a domain name (i.e. www.yourname.com) and build a site. If you’re technically challenged but want to take a shot at designing your own author web page, Yahoo! Geocities has a free site hosting service that includes easy-to-use tools for building your page. For as little as $8.95 a month, they offer an advanced hosting package that includes registration of your chosen domain name. If you’d rather be writing your next book instead of mastering a site builder program, Authors on the Web (www.authorsontheweb.com) offers slick site design and useful add-ons like blogs, message boards, and multimedia. Although Authors on the Web has an excellent reputation and writers like Nelson DeMille and Rita Mae Brown are among their clients, they are pricier: a basic package starts at $2,500. Determine what your budget is and take it from there. You can always hire a local design company at a reasonable rate.
Update your site regularly. Your author page shouldn’t be treated as merely a cyber-resume. Add fresh content that will keep visitors coming back. You want to maintain their interest in not only your current book but all those that you intend to write in the future. If you’ve written a work of nonfiction, write short articles about your chosen topic and post them on your site. You’ll come across as an authority on the subject. If your publisher gives you the green light to do so, post a sample chapter from your book. Fiction authors can provide additional background information on their characters and post some short stories- I know of one author who received such an enthusiastic response to one of her ‘shorts’ that she developed it into a full-length novel that continues to sell well. Authors of all genres can sign up for a free blog at www.blogger.com and post personal messages to readers.
Join a forum or e-mail list dedicated to your subject. Author M.J. Rose advises, “For every niche you can think of, you can find at least one newsgroup, e-zine, newsletter, or listserv on the Web targeted to that group.” She’s right. Unless your book deals with a really obscure topic, you’ll probably find several net-based forums containing potential readers. Make a list of the most popular and relevant ones, and then e-mail the owners / administrators directly to solicit a book review or see if they will let you host a Q&A or chat. Unless they’re territorial or competitive, chances are that they’ll love this kind of direct attention from a published author. Another, albeit lower key approach, is to choose three or four of the best groups and join them. Participate in their discussions without actively promoting your work, which could be interpreted as tacky and self-serving. You should, however, insert the name of your book in your e-mail or forum post signature. It won’t be long before other members begin commenting on the signature and asking you about the book. Personal responses to their questions creates a loyalty that will translate into sales, because readers love to interact with authors directly. Building a good relationship with your readers will turn them into a sales force for not only your current books but any future ones you may write on a related topic.
Set up a MySpace or Facebook page. Profiles on social networking sites are ridiculously easy to set up and use. Because they are so popular (not mention searchable, allowing you to locate fans of your book topic), several of my author associates forgo setting up their own websites in favour of having a presence on either of these networks. They have groups dedicated to all kinds of topics, and you’re sure to find one that caters to your target audience. When I was promoting my third release, The Starker: Big Jack Zelig, the Becker-Rosenthal Case, and the Advent of the Jewish Gangster, I created a MySpace profile that appeared to be maintained by Big Jack Zelig himself. True Crime fans got a kick out of it, and even learned to speak 1912 gangster jargon.
Sign up for an Amazon Author Blog. Once your title is listed for sale on Amazon.com, you can sign up for AmazonConnect, a program that allows authors to post messages to their readers and create a profile page with personalized information. All posted messages will appear on your book’s product page as well. This is a great tool for informing readers about future book signings, TV and radio interviews, and (fingers crossed!) movie deals.
Join GoodReads.com. I personally love this website. Founder Otis Chandler describes it as “a place where you can see what your friends are reading and vice versa.” It’s like a MySpace for books and book lovers. Authors are given profile pages where they can post messages, articles, stories, YouTube videos, and more. They can also host Q&A discussion groups. GoodReads is unique in that it sponsors contests to win free copies of pre-release books. Publishers can list their upcoming books, and readers can apply to receive one. Winners are picked randomly at the end of the giveaway period.
Contact local book clubs. If you don’t mind public speaking, spend some time researching book clubs and reading groups in your area. Your local library is a good place to start, and larger groups often have websites that will show up on an Internet search page. Once you’ve found a club whose members read the type of book you’ve written, e-mail or call the president, introduce yourself, and offer to read to them. They’ll probably be thrilled to have you make an appearance at a future meeting, and you’ll have a terrific opportunity to impress potential buyers.
Internet marketing tools and book groups achieve a dual objective: increasing awareness of your work and fostering communication between yourself and your readers. They allow you to, in the words of author Linda Richards, “fill the gaping hole that used to exist between the publisher and the reader.” Since a book’s author can be its best salesperson, you should be as crucial a part of the marketing process as you were in all prior stages of your book’s development.
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
There was a time when those of us who specialize in the Prohibition or Depression era desperadoes could write something like, "In the fall of 1928, the Capone gunmen met in secluded Cranberry Lake, Wisconsin, to discuss the problem of George Moran." There's still nothing to stop you, but you're guaranteed to get a couple of whiney Amazon.com reviews complaining that the book wasn't "exciting enough." These people don't want to be informed, they want pure entertainment like they get every time a Sopranos episode comes on. If your coverage of the Cranberry Lake meeting doesn't include prose like "We gotta whack that crummy bastard Bugs" or "Those motherfucking Gusenbergs are gonna eat lead for what they done to Jack McGurn", then you're going to get accusations of "dull!" One day people like this will move out of their mother's basement and learn that invented dialogue is a fiction technique, but until then, they're free to wail their disappointment all over the Internet. Solomon Short once said, "I'm all in favor of keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of fools. Let's start with typewriters." Change that to keyboards and you'd have my vote.
Don't get me wrong- there's nothing amiss about liking a good piece of noir or mafia-based fiction. One of my favorite books is Schooley and Sellers' Hard Boiled Love (Insomniac Press). But unless the ballsy dialogue and shocking inside stories are part of the official record, you're not going to find anything comparable in a work of historic True Crime. If you value entertainment more than information, rent a Sopranos DVD instead, and spare the serious authors your misguided, flawed reviews.