Sunday, March 22, 2009

"The Starker" reviewed on 'Best Yeggs'

I've been following a blog called 'Best Yeggs' since its inception. Marisa not only reads historic true crime, she is also a tenacious researcher and an excellent writer if her blog posts are any indication. She is especially intense when it comes to the subject of Vivan Chase, a female gangster (Chase was too self-possessed to be a mere gun moll) who, like Bonnie Parker, died violently in a car. I understand that unstoppable fascination all too well- it spawned three books and is giving me no rest until my fourth one is completed.

Marisa recently reviewed The Starker for 'Best Yeggs'. I've copied the text below, but encourage anyone who reads this to click through to her blog. In my opinion, she is someone to keep an eye on: the Vivian Chase story is as mysterious as it is tragic, and there is every indication that Marisa will one day publish the fruits of her research.

Anyone who's followed my blog is aware that I enjoy Rose Keefe's work so it won't come as any surprise that I think this book is much better than good.

What surprised me was Keefe's ability to bring Zelig to life. While I was excited when I heard about the book (research on a period that deserves a more detailed look), I had my doubts that someone who has been dead for over 90 years and who has NOT been studied in depth could be “brought to life” {clich├ęs exist for a reason}. As much as I love her work, I honestly wondered whether Rose Keefe could pull it off. She did!

“Big Jack Zelig” is only a marginal figure in most crime histories. He rose to prominence as ‘the” NYC Jewish Gang leader in the first decade of the 20th century. Here’s a man who died in 1912 and, in most histories, whose chief claim to fame had been the circumstances of his death. He was murdered by Red Phil Davidson in order to keep him from testifying for the defense in the Herman "Beansy" Rosenthal murder trial. The Rosenthal murder was the crime of the century during this time period. Charles Becker a NYPD Lieutenant was railroaded and executed for the murder. Zelig was to testify in his defense but was killed to prevent his naming the true killers and exonerating Becker.

Keefe introduces readers to Zelig Zvi Lefkowitz more person than myth. A young, bright child, who did not understand why the money that he drew wouldn't ease his family and neighbors' lives, Zelig, was a bright kid from a respectable family who chose to steal (how familiar). In his teens he became an accomplished "gun" as pickpockets were called then. When he was younger he could bring tears to his eyes at will when he was caught to feign hunger and desperate need so his victims would have sympathy for him. Oddly enough, he was only a peripheral member of Monk Eastman's gang, while he was a good thief, Zelig wasn't a standout thug. He actually chickened out on the first murder he agreed to do. A trip to Chicago and a severe beating at the hands of gamblers changed that. He returned to NYC a hardened man who would not back down. Keefe writes about Zelig's world detailing an array of colorful gang members, seedy gamblers, and corrupt politicians with just enough detail to be enjoyable with out ever getting too scholarly.

To me a good historical biography knows what to leave out. The book never stopped being about Big Jack Zelig. It would be easy to let the Herman Rosenthal murder and the Becker trials overwhelm Zelig's story. I could go on and on but in a nutshell Rose Keefe did a lot better than I would have thought possible. She takes her subject a man who has become a marginal figure in the 90 years after his death and lets the reader understand just who Big Jack Zelig is and why some people called him great. This book is a lot better than good. Take a look at Rose Keefe's Zelig web page for more information: http://www.jackzelig.com/