The Biggest Jew in Chicago Part 6 March 27, 2010 – Tags: books, Chicago, Gangsters, Judaica, Liquor Business, Men's Studies
Abe “Longy” Zwillman (1899-1959) was known as the Al Capone of New Jersey, running the state as his personal fiefdom.
As a youth in Newark’s rough Third Ward, he was a pushcart peddler and, because of his 6’2” frame and attitude, became a protector of fellow Jewish merchants. He began selling lottery tickets, soon afterward assuming control of the Newark’s numbers racket. With the onset of Prohibition, he became New Jersey’s top importer and distributor of bootleg liquor. He later took control of Newark’s prostitution, gambling rackets, and labor unions. With his hands in all the illegal rackets, Zwillman was the most successful of all Jewish gangsters. Meyer Lansky may have been more notorious but he essentially confined his activities to gambling operations. The Zwillman reality trumps the Lansky legend.
With Repeal came straw-man partner/ownerships in many legit businesses, including hotels and restaurants. He had pieces of the casino action in Havana, Miami, Newark, Las Vegas, and New York. Longy Zwillman controlled the cash-cow cigarette vending businesses in cities throughout the U.S. He was movie star Jean Harlow’s lover early in her career. For over twenty years he had most of New Jersey’s politicians in his pocket.
But by 1959, FBI and IRS probes and various and sundry legal tsouris were taking their toll on “der Langer” (“The Tall One,” in Yiddish). Subpoenaed to testify before the McClellan Senate Crime Committee, on the cusp of his appearance he was found hung by an electrical cord in the basement of his home, one hand grasping a section of the noose, dressed to the nines in silk pajamas, bathrobe, socks and leather slippers. Tranquilizers were found in his pocket, and a half empty bottle of liquor nearby. The authorities ruled his death a suicide secondary to temporary insanity but considering that new bruising was found on his body, wire marks on his wrist, and that the manner in which he hung would have required the skill of a Chinese acrobat to pull off solo, his associates were dubious, at best; Luciano and Lansky considered it a rubout, Vito Genovese ordering the killing to quell his fear that Longy would recite the long and short of his resume.
Zwillman was Poppy and Joe Davis’ silent partner in Oxford Distribution, taking half of Davis’ 66% ownership; it was Longy who had initially bankrolled the business, through Davis. Rosenstiel knew it, Poppy knew it. Until my father told me a couple of years ago, I didn’t. There are a few in the family who I suspect remain ignorant of this glaring fact.
I am not naive. I know that the line between the legitimate and illegitimate world is sometimes, at best, fuzzy, I know that Poppy was an honorable man; Oxford was a legit business, run straight, though bankrolled by money a darker shade of green. I have also come to understand that his profound need to be his own man with his own business – to feel important, by his standards – led him to partner with, however personally likable Zwillman may have been and long-standing their relationship, one of the most notorious crime lords in the U.S. It is one thing to be friends with mobsters; it is quite another to be a business partner. All of a sudden, the romance of the underworld had lost much of its allure. It was no longer great stories, colorful history, the toughness borne of struggle, the ability to mete out punishment without benefit or care of the justice system. It had always been at my doorstep – a guy living down the block from us in Queens was a major bookie, and the son of the local capo stole one of his mother’s bracelets to give my to my sister, whom he had a crush on – now it had entered my home, if only as uneasy history.
Yet I cannot pass judgment so easily, if at all. “All of us go thru certain stages of life with mixed feelings,” he wrote to me forty-two years ago, when I was seventeen. I suspect the partnership may have risen in a corner of his heart as he was writing that line. It was not a Faustian bargain he had made; God, the soul, and Satan had nothing to do with it. It was a Chicago deal: You did what you needed to do, pragmatic, no B.S., stark reality, and, if not amoral, not too fussy about ideals. There were no virgins in the liquor business; chastity was not 100-proof. And I am not a prig. Nor ignorant: Oxford was not the only liquor wholesaler in the United States with a hidden investor of interest to law enforcement. It was far from unusual: Men of question who were in the liquor business during Prohibition continued in the trade after Repeal, masked from state regulators; it was what they knew.
Not too long ago my father bestowed upon me a blessing that filled me with enormous pride: During a phone call, he told me that I was tougher than him, more like Poppy than he was. I felt my father’s admiration and it wrapped around me as Poppy’s embrace once had. And, alone that night, I nearly cried.
My father spent much of his life trying to measure up to Poppy. Me, too. I pulled time fighting as an amateur, worked as a bouncer, and did some strictly legal though ethically dubious strong-arm work. I also provided occasional enforcement, gratis, for a friend, who, at the time, the mid-1970s, was the largest pot dealer on L.A.’s West Side.
Contrary to the bum’s screams as he ran down the alley at 2AM afterward, I was not trying to kill him. Pancaking and dropping a thief with a car door swiftly kicked-out as he tries to flee with a thousand dollars that do not belong to him, who had stolen a lovingly restored Harley the day before and now demanded a kilo of Humboldt County’s finest sinsemilla for its return leading to a wild chase through the back alleys of Santa Monica with mystery tail cars and paranoia rooted in reality, is not a homicidal act. It is a concerned citizen’s arrest. And a measured response.
The fully-automatic AR-15 assault rifle that Wayne’s brother, Jimmy (whose presence was not of my choosing), owned, he’d left at home lying on the couch. The .45 automatic that he brought along to keep him company during the proceedings was not, on my watch, given opportunity for exercise. In this extreme I was in way over my head but in too deep to back out and I had to see it through. That imbroglio, which could have easily gone a lot – a lot – worse, began to put things into perspective. My career as a shtarker ended.
Once, Poppy, in his sixties, and Dad were in an elevator together, another man, a younger, tough-looking guy riding along with them. When the man exited, Poppy turned to Dad and said, “I can take him, I can still do it.”
He was, perhaps, thinking of his pal, Dempsey, who, in his late sixties-early seventies, was mugged by two punks on the street outside of his apartment building in New York. When the cops arrived, the kids were on the ground and afraid to rise until the police made sure Dempsey was no longer a threat to their lives.
A few years ago, I got into it with a young jerk who had, in the wee hours, illegally parked where I live, literally at my doorstep. I start, per usual, polite. He balks. I reason. He lips. That’s it; I’m ready to start swinging. And then it hits me: I’m in my late 50s. Yeah, I could probably take care of this putz but there’s no guarantee; why am I even considering it? And over a parking beef! He doesn’t know my background, I don’t know his. I backed off, the scene ended without incident, and I felt like a schmuck afterward. Poppy would have taken care of this without flinching.
Six months ago, I was assaulted from behind while in a liquor store paying for a pack of gum. It was a hard, forceful punch to my shoulder and though not painful was a serious statement of intent. I slowly, carefully turned around, on guard, to face a wild-eyed guy who accused me of staring at and “fucking with” him. No such thing occurred. What would Poppy do?
This is what I did: Nothing. One look at the guy and I not only know that I could seriously hurt this person – the way he held his hands up to fight told me that he had no idea what he was doing – but that he was a schizophrenic off his meds. I was dressed up to go somewhere I wanted to get to. I didn’t want to get my clothes messed and I didn’t want to be late. In a quiet voice I firmly told the man he was crazy, advised the store clerk behind plexiglass to call the police, and walked out.
Twenty-five years ago, I would have crawled into a hole and died of shame. This time, I felt great.
In retrospect, I understand that at that moment I had cast off Poppy’s shadow and hung-up the suit of lead. Forty-six years after my Bar Mitzvah, I had become a man.
My father came into his own after Poppy, Joe Davis and Longy Zwillman closed Oxford (an exclusive distributorship was at a major disadvantage by the mid-1950s). He grew into sales, succeeded, and worked for another distributor for a few years before accepting an offer from Poppy’s brother, Uncle Bob, who had become a vice-president at – the ironies don’t get richer – Jim Beam, still owned by Uncle Harry Blum. Uncle Bob had ultimately risen higher in the executive suite than Poppy and had certainly earned more money: Uncle Bob and Aunt Belle’s apartment on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago was a cozy stadium with four-bedrooms. And when Uncle Bob retired, Dad stepped into his job. But not before Uncle Harry sold Beam to American Tobacco for seventeen million dollars in 1967. I have no idea what Poppy made of all this but it had to hit him on some level.
Last year, a guy my age who had once worked as a liquor salesman contacted me to find out if I was Ken Gertz’s son. He liked, admired and respected him. He had no idea who Poppy was; ancient history. To him, the only great, big, awe-inspiring Gertz was my father. I was very proud.
I was luckier than him. He and I were able to put aside our differences, bond and become close while we were both relatively young men. Dad had to wait until Poppy was quite old before the distance could be bridged and it was a tentative trek.
My bond with my father runs deep; were were raised by the same man. Despite promising himself that he’d never repeat Poppy’s failings as a father, he, with no other role model for guidance, did so anyway; it was in the marrow.
When I got spanked – which was not often – Dad says I never cried. I suspect the tears were too scared to show up. Though utterly intimidated, I dared talk back to him. It wasn’t courage: I was a precocious moron. As I got older, I used language that if Dad had used with Poppy he’d have been the boy who died young due to complications secondary to big mouth. Dad said he was torn between respect for standing up to him and impulses toward filicide.
The first lesson a boy learns about being a man is that he will never, ever measure up to his father. It occurs during the first lesson on pissing while standing up. The boy looks over to his father; all he sees, just above eye level, is his father’s penis. He looks down at his own. No comparison, not even close. The impression lasts a lifetime, remaining in the subconscious regardless of the passage of years and physical maturity.
Men learn to resemble their fathers, an unconscious home-school education and metamorphosis. Until my late teens, I was always told that I favored my mother’s side of the family. Boys don’t like being told that they look like their mother. As far as facial features and coloring go, I still do. But somewhere along the way, my physiognomy and physique became overlaid with my father’s facial expressions, body language, gait, gestures, mien, and manner of speech. People who know us both now tell me I look like him. What they mean is that I remind them of him. I couldn’t be prouder.
With the death of my grandfather, age, and – let us not discount the obvious – declining testosterone level, Dad’s fundamental sweetness surfaced with a high brix rating.
My father dreams about his father. They are at peace. And I am at peace with Poppy, who, having dominated every thought of manhood I’ve ever had, has now receded to place where I can deeply love him without feeling inadequate and accept him with all his faults while remaining in awe of a man, a milieu, and a vintage notion of masculinity, manhood, and male behavior forged in a bygone era. Tempered by time and experience, I am my Poppy and my father but I am most of all, me.
My eyes have welled up. I’m going to cry. I don’t care. This is my memorial to Poppy. And an aching acknowledgment of a man, and an inevitability that looms large on the horizon. This is my giant embrace of both these men. God, I love them.
But I chuckle through tears as I recall the time when Poppy, in retirement, was wheeled out of his building on an ambulance gurney. He turned to Grandma and weakly commanded, “Molly, make sure to take care of ‘em!” To not tip the paramedics would have been a crime against nature. It was the way to make sure that things got done and got done right.
“You can get away with murder in Chicago but you can’t get a parking ticket fixed,” Poppy used to complain in the old days, referring to the notorious Judge Homer Lyle, who took his (then) job as head traffic court magistrate very personally, pocketing a hefty percentage of all parking and traffic violation fines for the entire city. Being well-connected, knowing the right people no matter who they were, exerting strength and power, and greasing the system with green lube was just the way things worked in the world. At least in the world of the biggest Jew in Chicago, a good and decent man fired in the kiln of “the Bloody 20th” and glazed by Prohibition in the city of big shoulders, who, a few years later, died from exhaustion while trying to take care of the woman who had taken care of him for his entire adult life. Her job finished, she died five days later and, per Jewish law, was buried twenty-fours hours afterward – on his birthday.
I have a vision of a time when Dad, Poppy and I are together in the realm of the gone. We order shots of Schenley or Jim Beam, not for consumption, just to make sure they’re in stock. “It’s for selling not for drinking” continues to be the family motto. The booze evaporates in the glasses as we have an eternal conversation. Death has a way of stripping away defenses and masculine posturing. Age differences and relationship hierarchies are rendered meaningless; we speak as close friends who, with nothing to lose, speak freely without fear; the three of us are old Jewish men. After reviewing ongoing bowel and frequent urination issues (some things never end), swashbuckling and swordsmanship in youth, we just talk. And talk. And talk. As always, I never tire of listening to them. They’re my pals. I always said I could listen to them forever. Now I am. (It may get a bit tiresome after the first 50,000 years, at which point we’ll declare enough already and begin to mix with the rest of the family, friends, and other post-life alter kockers).
Who was the toughest? Turns out that, under the skin, we each had soft centers. That’s us, three cream puffs in search of crust to keep the custard safe. Don’t mess with us, we’re baked goods, rough n’ ready prune rugellah with cinnamon sugar on top and the only thing we now intimidate are dearly departed Pillsbury Bake-Off losers.
Poppy, however, remains first amongst equals. No contest.
My great-great grandfather Aaron Gershowetz, age 107 (front);
my father, Kenneth G. Gertz; my grandfather, Edward M. Gertz;
my great-grandfather, Morris/Maurice Gershowetz/Gertz.
I am proud to be the cub in this pride of lions.