Friday, February 6, 2009

But He Was Good To His Mother

As an author, I always enjoy meeting professional colleagues whose books provided me with research material and inspiration. On January 31, I had dinner with Professor Robert Rockaway, whose study of Jewish crime, But He Was Good To His Mother, had a permanent place on my desk while I was researching and writing The Starker. My copy is pretty dog-eared by now, so when Bob gave me a new one, I was 'chuffed', as I used to say back in London, to accept.

Bob currently lives in Israel, but was in New York City for the premiere of Lansky, an off-Broadway show starring Mike Burstyn. The one-man drama was inspired by But He Was Good To His Mother, so he was a guest of honour. When I was working on The Starker, I'd peppered Bob with one question after another about early Jewish-American gangsters, and he was so gracious in his replies that I jumped at the chance to meet and thank him in person.

Franklin Abrams and I caught one of the prerun performances of Lansky at St. Luke's Theatre on the 31st. If you live in New York, it would literally be a crime to miss it. Veteran stage actor Mike Burstyn depicts Meyer Lansky as a businessman-gangster who, while waiting for official acceptance as an Israeli citizen, asks himself whether the steps he took to attain the American Dream have tarnished him as a Jew. Burstyn received a standing ovation afterward.

Bob, Franklin, and I retired to a restaurant afterward, and had an enlivening conversation about Jewish gangsters and how they viewed their sometimes vicious livelihoods. They regarded the thieving, white slavery, shakedowns, and murders as a means to an end, but unlike their Italian counterparts, they did not want their sons following in their footsteps. Lansky et al appeared to understand that they were doing wrong, unless they were inherently vicious ('Pittsburgh Phil' Strauss comes to mind here). In that respect, they were more affected by their faith than the Mafiosi.

Thanks to Bob Rockaway for a memorable evening. His book is back on my desk, along with other volumes that mention Dopey Benny Fein. I warned him that he'd be hearing from me regularly in the coming months, and he assured me that it was not a problem. Bob- now my debt to you is even bigger :) Next time we'll eat at the Waldorf!