Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Nice review from Booklist Online

When my publicist at Cumberland House Publishing sent my weekly publicity report, I saw that The Starker had been reviewed at Booklist Online, which consists of book reviews from the American Library Association. Jenn commented that it was a favorable writeup, so I checked it out for myself, liked what I saw, and obtained permission to reproduce it here.

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

The Becker Case- a modern legal perspective

I met Michael O'Rourke, author of O'Banion's Gift, four years ago at the Golden Age of Gangsters Convention in Itasca, Illinois. Michael is a former criminal court judge and still maintains a busy legal practice, so I recently asked him to comment on the treatment of Lieutenant Charles Becker's case by the New York courts. I sent him a link to the Court of Appeals decision in the People v. Becker (May 25, 1915), which affirmed the policeman's conviction and denied the defense's motion for a new trial. This is what he had to say:

"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

Six For Five Blog

Montreal-based artist and researcher Pat Hamou, whom I am privileged to call a friend, has a magnificent blog called Six For Five. Its subtitle is An Illustrated History of New York City's Jewish Criminal Community 1900-1941. With few exceptions, each blog post consists of a well-written and insightful profile of a Jewish gangster, accompanied by one of Pat's incomparable drawings. See some examples below:
Pat was kind enough to review 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

The Bowery Boys

There are a few podcasts that I listen to on a regular basis, such as Mur Lafferty's "I Should Be Writing" and the Rippercast series that analyzes the Jack the Ripper crimes. These days, I find myself listening to the Bowery Boys more and more. No, I'm not referring to the lovable onscreen hooligans who had their genesis in the Dead End Kids. The Bowery Boys are a lively duo who talk about New York history. Examples of past topics are McSorley's Old Ale House, the Triangle Factory fire of 1911, the Blackout of '77, and the Stonewall Riots. Today I listened to them discuss the 1841 murder of Mary Rogers, aka the 'Beautiful Cigar Girl', whose grisly death spawned one of Poe's most famous tales, "The Murder of Marie Roget."

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

'The Starker' on the streets

Last Sunday a release party for The Starker was held at the Bowery Hotel on the Lower East Side.

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!"