Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Gangster Star is Reborn

Whenever newsmen wrote about American gangland during the Prohibition era, two names usually made into the final copy: Al Capone and Legs Diamond. Both were household names and front page staples, but their similarity ended there. Capone was a multimillionaire whose criminal empire and power made the President uneasy. Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond had a handful of followers and was only modestly successful in the bootlegging and narcotics rackets. Yet Diamond was so famous that he hung around with celebrities, received fan mail, and nearly became the subject of a MGM feature film.

“Legs Diamond, Gangster” is the biography of the handsome Irish-American bootlegger who competed with Big Al for headlines during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Although spiteful rivals referred to Jack Diamond as “overrated”, author Pat Downey has written an excellent reminder of why Legs made such a splash during his day. The book covers the four attempts on his life, war with former protégé Dutch Schultz, Hotsy Totsy bloodbath, and other acts of violence in which Diamond was either an instigator or a target. Also included is his inglorious military service, an ill-fated trip to Europe that made him a celebrity on both sides of the pond, and his relationship with Ziegfeld dancer Marion “Kiki” Roberts.

“Legs Diamond, Gangster” is NOT a rehash of old newspaper articles and Diamond biographies. Using official records, family interviews, and a healthy dose of scepticism, Pat Downey does a thorough job of reconstructing Jack Diamond’s life from his tragic Philadelphia boyhood to his sudden demise in a cheap rooming house. At various points along the way, a few persistent myths are debunked. Example: Diamond’s nickname allegedly came from his dancing and/or bullet-dodging skills, but Downey offers evidence that the moniker belonged originally to Jack’s brother Eddie. This historical tidbit is one of many that make this book one of the most entertaining and best-researched gangster bios to come out in a long time.