Showing posts with label Ellen Poulsen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ellen Poulsen. Show all posts

27 January 2017

Crime Does Not Pay -- Serialized Morality Tales of the 1930s

In 1935, crime spree bandits like Midwestern desperadoes Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson had been killed.  Likewise, inner-city gangsters of Chicago and New York who had been prominent in the "Big Six" era of organized crime were also gone -- either to prison or dead through mob retaliation.  The disappearance of these criminals from the American landscape left the public hungry for information about them.  Enter magazines like True Detective, Sterling and Liberty.  They created a new genre of the gangland memoir.  At the same time, J. Edgar Hoover, the F.B.I.'s director, had positioned himself as an anti-crime pundit.  He was clamping down the lid on the way these stories were told.  The gangland gravitas seething inside women like Evelyn Frechette (Dillinger's moll), Florence "Cokey Flo" Brown (a material witness in the trial of Charles "Lucky" Luciano), and other women on the verge of disaster went into print.  One such publisher,  MacFadden Publications, would send a ghost writer into prison or wherever these offenders lived after the fact.  Even city dailies joined the trend.  These stories went into syndication and were featured across the United States.  For the authors of these memoirs, the payment was nominal.  "I got $25.00 and a couple of gowns," said Mary Kinder, Dillinger moll and girlfriend of Pete "Harry" Pierpont.

Joseph "Fatso" Negri
Some of gangland's molls avoided the pathos of the paid-by-the-page sob story.  One moll not treated kindly by the press was Helen "Mrs. Baby Face" Gillis.  While still a fugitive after the death of her husband in an F.B.I. shootout, Helen Gillis appeared on the front page of Chicago's papers with "Kill Widow of Baby Face" captioned beneath her young face.  Mrs. Gillis went into prison undoubtedly relieved to escape further press coverage. 
            
The art of the memoir was not lost on women in hiding.  Florence "Cokey Flo" Brown, the chief material witness who testified against Charles "Lucky" Luciano in his 1936 trial for compulsory prostitution, had her story published in Liberty in 1937 while her actual whereabouts were unknown.   
Women were not the only gang associates who were called upon to write for these rags that sold for $.25.  Joseph "Fatso" Negri, an associate of Lester "Baby Face Nelson" Gillis, became a chronicler of the last weeks of the Nelson gang in True Detective.  In the series, which ran for several months, Negri introduced the mob expressions and jargon that might have been lost.  "Nelson always used the words 'to charge on,' in speaking of bank holdups, Negri wrote.  "The six of us tried to pile into one car, but it couldn't be done, what with everyone lugging along his machino and wearing his bulletproof vest." 

With the dawn of the Second World War, the crime-does-not-pay stories became old hat.  For those survivors of the 1930s criminal era, these serialized memoirs had helped to pay legal fees and keep the rent paid for a while.  These first-person accounts of gangland served a purpose that went beyond twenty-five bucks and a couple of gowns.  Today avid crime researchers, jaded by the age of technology, are still fascinated by these original stories of gangland.      



Ellen Poulsen"
Author of "Don't Call Us Molls: Women of the John Dillinger Gang,"
"The Case Against Lucky Luciano:  New York's Most Sensational Vice Trial,"
and a forthcoming biography of Captain Matt Leach of the Dillinger saga.



06 January 2017

Her Face for the World To See

Her Face for the World to See
In the era of Harold Robbins, she wrote the book on love, mob-style.  From the mid-1950s to 1961 Liz Renay had the kind of troubles that only organized crime could render – subpoenas, jail, abandonment, disgrace, paranoia.  She had spiraled into the mob as a beautiful showgirl dating Albert Anastasia’s reputed bodyguard Tony “Cappy” Coppola.  Using him as a springboard, she bounced from New York to Hollywood, where Mickey Cohen introduced her to the casting couch. She leant Cohen some money and the gratuity ruined her life.  After a barrage of subpoenas and a grand jury appearance resulted in a perjury charge, a hanging judge threw her into jail for three years.  Her story’s title cried big tears:  My Face for the World to See.   
Liz Renay – striptease dancer, B-girl, gun moll – confessed with no footnotes.  It’s not a perfect way to get the history, but in firsthand accounts of a woman’s life with the mob, it beats a blank.  The genre of not-really-true crime confessionals had been established earlier with the publication of the Roaring Twenties madam Polly Adler’s memoir, A House is Not a Home, the raunchy masterpiece of ghostwriting which became a bestseller.  In this type of confession genre, there is no documentation, no tangible facts save for what’s on public record – and fact-checkers have to look up newspaper records and court documents to establish timelines hiding beneath the innuendo.      
Renay’s story does not resonate historically like Polly Adler’s tale of vice in the age of Tammany.  It does, however, put a personal spin on the intense pressure that mob associates felt in the McClellan era.  Renay blamed her three-year commitment on Robert Kennedy’s vow to get Mickey Cohen.  The tax evasion case against Cohen in 1961 and ’62 swept Renay into prison on a suspicious technicality after she’d been set free on probation on the perjury charge.   “Could Robert Kennedy be so base that he’d smash my life...?”     
For Adler and Renay, the dangers were everywhere.  The D.A. had boiler-plated their names onto blue-backed subpoenas while the mob tailed them to within five feet of every police station house.  In an uncharacteristic way, their memoirs detailed lurid true-crime with a tender twist.  After a meeting with New York District Attorney Frank Hogan, Renay’s only thought is to take a warm bubble bath.  Polly Adler detested the experience of the prison shower messing up her salon-styled hair.   The editors chose to focus these molls' indignities on the trivialities of hair and makeup;  
Maybelline  saved their world.  
Consider that Renay talked about Albert Anastasia; Adler dished about Detroit’s Purple Gang.   Their musings were not based on specific activities but rather, gifts, proposals, manners – nothing to rival the revelations of Joseph Valachi or Henry Hill.  Neither woman was ever coaxed into protective custody or witness protection for selling out the secret of Cappy’s botched marriage proposal or the Purple Gang’s crass behavior while visiting Adler’s house of prostitution.        
The warnings issued to known crime figures who have flirted with memoirs are well-known among readers of true crime nonfiction.  Those who did cross the line to talk lived out their lives in federally sanctioned hiding places.  Yet Renay and Adler carried on without the mob connections of their wild days.  Renay knew that after-the-fact meant just that.  She left the life of a moll for a 1970’s reinvention as a campy film star.

There are legions of historical gun molls who, framed in their black & white photos taken in courtrooms, mob funerals and police stations, didn’t change with time but remain frozen in whatever era they typify.  (See Reney below, on trial and accompanied by her loving daughter.)    
By turning their tawdry experiences into literary stock, Adler and Renay elevated themselves and in doing so, escaped the mob.  It wasn’t easy.  Polly Adler’s worst John would prove to be the U.S. tax man.  Liz Renay made her image pay as an old stripper for the new age.  They both found life after organized crime.  More realistically, they stayed alive. (This blog is reprinted from an article originally submitted to the Las Vegas Mob Museum.)