The Biggest Jew in Chicago Part 2 March 23, 2010 – Tags: books, Chicago, Gangsters, Judaica, Liquor Business, Men's Studies, Prohibition, Taxi Wars
Julius Rosenwald wasn’t the only one keeping an eye on Ed Gertz.
Concurrently, Chicago was in the midst of bitter Taxi Wars. The taxi business was still developing, wholly unregulated, and competition amongst growing cab companies and independents was fierce, endangering drivers, riders and pedestrians who had to dodge the pack of cabs that would descend upon potential fares en mass with contesting drivers invariably getting into fights. Poppy supplemented his income working as a schtarker – muscle – for John D. Hertz, whose Yellow Cab company was asserting dominance.
In his youth, Hertz (b. Sandor Herz, Slovakian Jew) hung out in boxing gyms and became a reasonably skilled pugilist, fighting under the name “Dan Donnelly.” Now, establishing himself as a entrepreneur who would become a leader in the transportation industry, Hertz put Poppy in the driver’s seat, making him his top street troubleshooter/negotiator. Living in the upscale German-Jew part of the Southside, he’d no doubt heard of Big Ed Gershowetz, perhaps from Rosenwald himself, another Southside resident. Here was a good kid but tough, who could keep his head while asserting strength but if necessary deliver the hard knocks. Poppy’d get a distress call from the street, race to the scene and either part the combatants without incident, knock heads together, or end the fight decisively in Yellow Cab’s favor. Yellow Cab won the war.
As respected and successful Jewish businessmen, Rosenwald and Hertz were his early influences and role models. It is not unreasonable to conclude that it was while working for Hertz that Poppy changed the family surname.
In July of 1919, an angry Polish-American mob swept through the Southside, looking for Jews. Riotous, they’d been whipped up into an anti-Semetic frenzy by the rumor that one H. Kahn, a local Jewish merchant, had murdered a Christian child as part of a mythical, occultish Jewish blood-letting ritual – a decent piece of matzo traditionally impossible without a dash of gentile red-cells in the mix. Southside Jews were being terrorized and beaten. To the rescue, Davey Miller and his gang of tough Westside Jews poured into the Southside. And while there is no direct evidence, I’m quite certain that Poppy was right there, next to Miller; Uncle Sol was nearby, for sure. This was Poppy’s kind of scrap, and Uncle Sol lived for this sort of action.
At age 16 Uncle Sol lied and enlisted in the army, anxious to get into WWI. His platoon sergeant was guy from Chicago, born in 1893 and eight years older than Sol. He was another Jewish tough who feared nothing – nothing – and from the Westside. Why he’s practically meshpucah, family! They’d probably heard of one another. After all, Samuel Morton né Markowitz aka “Nails” Morton was a popular Chicago anti-Semite basher who protected harassed Westside Jewish merchants and school kids; before the war, Morton organized a Jewish defense club to keep Jew-baiting Polish gangs out of “Jewtown.” It’s likely that Uncle Sol and Poppy were part of Morton’s proto-Jewish Defense League. Sam became a war hero, won the Croix de Guerre for bravery (he captured a German machine gun nest despite severe wounds) and was awarded a battlefield commission to first lieutenant. Sol was promoted to platoon First Sergeant, “Nails” old job. After the war, Sam received a hero’s welcome from the Westside Jews. Then he got down to business.
He ran an automobile garage that fronted for his extra-curricular activities – car theft, gambling and, after the Volstead Act became law, distributing booze and beer via his fleet of trucks. Because the Jewish gangs were too small to compete, leaders had to align themselves with either the Italians or Irish. Nails allied himself with Dion O’Banion, the gangland florist, distributing O’Banion’s booze. After the war, Nails Morton gave Uncle Sol his first job, as an armed driver. Sol would hopscotch between the legal and illegal trade until finally settling on the good foot.
Given his background, Poppy could have easily strayed from the straight and narrow as so many of his friends from the neighborhood had done. And a few in the family.
One of his first cousins was Louis “Sleep-Out Louie” Levinson, the son of Maurice’s sister, Poppy’s Aunt Mary. Sleep-Out earned early fame as a second-story man, a gifted burglar, and, later, a well-connected gambler of renown, casino owner in Newport, KY, and person of interest to a couple of Congressional Sub-Committees. Sleep-Out died prematurely, not by natural means.
Sleep-Out’s brother, Eddie Levinson, was more fortunate. At a young age he discovered that paradise was a pair of dice, and, before and after WWII, he and his friends had the bookie concession at fourteen Miami Beach hotels, courtesy of his New York friend and associate, Meyer Lansky. In 1946, Uncle Eddie arranged for my parents to honeymoon in Miami, first-class. Soon afterward, he managed the Riviera in Havana and the Fremont in Las Vegas, and later was partner and casino manager at the Sands, each job as Meyer’s man. In the mid-1950s, mom and dad went to Vegas. Uncle Eddie put them up, deluxe accommodations, and made arrangements for them to have dinner and see the shows at the other hotels in town – all seven of them; Las Vegas was a small town then – everything on him, with one condition: they were forbidden to gamble, or, rather, he was so breezily dismissive of amateurs, i.e. those other than The House, to wit: losers, that they were too ashamed to do so. When I was a kid, Uncle Eddie came to our house for dinner a few times. Nice guy. Last time I saw him was at my sister’s wedding. He lived long and died peacefully.
One of Uncle Louie and Uncle Eddie’s sisters married a mob-connected accountant. After they divorced, he was bumped off. I’m assured the two events were unrelated.
Why Poppy and Uncle Sol didn’t take a bad turn remains unclear but perhaps their father had something to do with it. Though Maurice – a dedicated anarchist (until becoming a small business owner) whose method of fitting a suit entailed having the client lie on the floor while he precisely outlined the supine figure in chalk, ultimately creating a garment of surprisingly accurate fit – was Orthodox, and, until early adulthood, so was Poppy, a sense of right and wrong was instilled not by religious training alone. When Poppy or Uncle Sol disobeyed or got in trouble, Maurice – a solid six-feet and a tough customer in his own right – would grab them by the ankles, upend them, and bounce their heads on the floor. Though as crude as his suit-fittings, paradoxically, over time, this disciplinary ritual had a salutary effect upon the pre-frontal cortex.
In 1919, Poppy married Mildred, “Molly,” one of the eight children of Abe and Celia Degrafsky. She attended her first day of school with her best friend, whose last name was Bernstein. And so, courtesy of a school enrollment clerk, when she returned home that day she was Mildred Bernstein. A popular accident, apparently: the entire family joined in.
After finishing his studies, Poppy went to work for his maternal uncle, Dave Belson, as a draftsman at his manufacturing plant. But a sit down job for a stand-up guy was no life; he was restless and hated it. One night in 1920, at dinner at Great-Grandpa Abe Degrafsky-Bernstein’s, his brother-in-law, Harry Blum, married to one of Grandma’s sisters, told Poppy that the State of Wisconsin was ripe for the sale of medicinal whiskey and liquor for food processing and suggested that Poppy go up there and see what he could do. Next day, Poppy went up to Milwaukee. He opened up some drug store accounts and two bakeries for Blum, discovering that he had a gift for sales. The following day, he saw Uncle Dave and turned in his T-square and protractor. That was the end of his engineering career and the beginning of forty-five years in the liquor business.
It is around this time that Poppy developed a taste for sartorial splendor, which would last all his life. In an early photograph he’s dressed for success, starched collar, tie with stickpin, camel’s-hair coat, fedora, and walking stick. He’s twenty-two years old. Custom-made (they had to be – nothing fit off the rack) suits, shirts, and sport jackets became de rigueur. He cut quite a figure: huge, ramrod-straight posture, manicured nails, elegantly dressed, neatly groomed, he radiated power and authority and would do so for the rest of his life, long after power and authority had faded.
To implement the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, on October 28, 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act, which legislated the prohibition of alcohol in the United States effective January 16, 1920. Under Title II, sections 3, 6, and 7, alcoholic beverages were legal but strictly regulated for sacramental, medicinal, and industrial purposes. And so, parallel to the fast-growing illicit trade in the sale and distribution of booze for strictly recreational use, a legal business grew selling alcoholic beverages to drug stores, churches, synagogues, and bakers (without rum cake, the nation crumbles).
He then formed Retail Druggist Supply Co., a partnership with an honest guy that amicably dissolved after a year. Now, Poppy rejoined brother-in-law Harry Blum as a partner in National Brokerage Company which, in addition to selling legal alcohol, traded in warehouse receipts for pre-Volstead Act-manufactured whiskey that the government stored in bonded warehouses for release to receipt holders only. Control the receipts, you controlled the legal flow of booze. The other partners in the business were Moe Rieger, married to Blum’s sister; Joe Levy, who was married to Great-Aunt Eva Bernstein; and Joe Guzik, brother of Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik, Al Capone’s loyal business advisor and financial wizard. Aunt Bernice, Poppy’s sister, kept the books.
In 1928, Poppy bought a light green Buick Brougham, Buicks at the time the hottest, most reliable, well-engineered mass-produced cars in the world, the Brougham the top of the line and more prestigious than a Caddie. Money was coming in, oh yes, though not in the fabulous sums that many who Poppy knew were raking in. His old friends since youth, Terry Druggan and Frankie Lake, for instance, were becoming extravagantly wealthy.