Sunday, July 15, 2012
Sunday, May 22, 2011
In preparing for this exhibit I thought I would contribute some newer portraits that I completed the last few months leading up to this current exhibit.
They include new versions of Irving 'Big Gangy' Cohen and Meyer Lansky, and the un- cropped version of Dutch Schultz, which was used in the publicity materials.
I realized they hadn't been posted here as of yet so here they are...
These new portraits were done partly due to the fact that some original artwork from past exhibits are no longer in my possession, but also, this, and past exhibits, are not just the portraits hanging on walls, but also represent the historical arc of the Jewish Gangster from the turn of the Twentieth Century up until the mid 1940's in the way it's displayed. So, it's important that key players are included in the exhibit.
Also it's a continuous strive on my end to come up with stronger artistic representations when I feel its needed. These three, among the couple of others that were completed for the show..
Monday, March 21, 2011
I'm happy to announce that another comprehensive exhibit, which will feature a selection of over 40 original pieces has now an official opening date.
From Underdog to Underworld: Jewish Gangsters and the American Dream is third curated title, following Real Machers in Washington, DC (2009) and Wise Guys: Mobsters In the Mispacha last year in San Francisco.
This exhibit will be held at the Addison - Penzak JCC Levy Family Campus in Los Gatos, California - which is nestled in the Silicon Valley about 90 minutes out side of San Francisco.
The exhibit dates are from May 2 - June 30 2011.
There will be a selection of new portraits that I've added for this show and I will update with more details as I have them in the near future.
My thanks to Lisa Ceile - curator and coordinator for her help in getting this show together.
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Had Gypsy Rose Lee shimmied her way to a ripe old age, she would of turned one hundred years old this past January 8.
It wasn’t an easy road for the preeminent first lady of Burlesque to get herself to the top of the heap when she landed top billing at Minskys’ Republic Theatre in 1931. The Minsky brothers ran a string of theatres of what would be considered by some as the poor man’s version of the Ziegfeld Folies. These were New York’s first in a string of ‘variety’ theatres that the Minksys excelled at; part vaudeville, part striptease, with a good dose of Paris’s Le Moulin Rouge thrown in by instituting the runway leading out from the stage into the seated crowd - a first for American theatres.
It was a big part of live entertainment’s growing pains following the quick demise of vaudeville and the rising competition of the talking picture. A trip to Minskys always guaranteed at least a shimmer of exposed skin and lowbrow laughs, keeping patrons queued up on the sidewalk on any given night.
Gypsy Rose Lee, born Rose Louise Hovick, knew vaudeville well, having endured hard scrabble years on the circuit with her domineering stage mother and playing second banana to her seemingly more talented curly haired younger sibling Ellen, who later changed her name to June Havoc.
At the age of thirteen, June, who was the star of their act, had had enough and ran away with a boy, leaving her mother and older sister to fend for themselves. Gypsy reinvented herself as a means to take center stage as she wasn’t really the typical beauty of her time, or the kind theatre owners looked for in a headliner. Constantly fighting with her weight, she towered at five feet – nine inches and had a pair of small breasts and an unassuming caboose. She had legs though - long and elegant in stride, and through strict dieting her teenage body morphed into womanhood. It was during this metamorphosis that she officially renamed herself Gypsy Rose Lee as a proclamation of her rebirth.
And there was something about her.
Billy Minsky noticed it when he spotted her act across the Hudson River at the Empire Theatre in Newark in 1931, where her run was starting to garner enough media attention for Minsky to raise an inquisitive eyebrow. She handled the crowds well with a coy yet domineering attitude on stage mixed with a razor sharp sense of humor. Something about her crackled, and with a little bit of grooming from Minsky, she would eventually conquer the Empire City.
Gypsy Rose Lee’s act swooned a depression-era New York and her star rose quickly within the first year of working for the Minskys. She charmed the likes of Mayor Jimmy Walker and noted columnist and radio personality Walter Winchell among many others including the literary set. It was a combination of smarts and just enough tease to keep audiences clamoring for more and she understood the power she held under the spotlight.
Prohibition was still in play and with popularity came numerous invitations to clandestine parties and passwords into the peepholes of speakeasies around town. It was on such an outing to a private party on Eight Avenue that Gypsy, with her mother in tow no less, made the acquaintance of Irving Wexler, better know in underworld circles as Waxey Gordon.
Irving Wexler’s upbringing was a far cry from the one Gypsy Rose Lee had, though both knew struggle. Lee spent much of her childhood years on the road with her mother and sister in a long string of motels, and when finances were so low they even resorted to staying in tents.
Waxey Gordon came from a wretchedly poor Polish-Jewish family on the Lower East Side and endured the tough tenement life. He earned the nickname of Waxey from some who said he was able to remove a victim's wallet 'as though it was dipped in wax', while others claimed as a kid would stick wax to the end of sticks to poke through subway grills to collect the loose amounts of dimes and nickels. Its also claimed it was as well a play on his last name
His police record started relatively early with the first arrest in 1905. He spent time as a strong-arm man for Benjamin ‘Dopey Benny’ Fein who led one of the last pre-WWI Jewish gangs of considerable strength in numbers. The Dopey Benny gang specialized in labor disputes and strike breaking during a particularly intense wave of labor unrest in New York’s manufacturing sector, especially in the garment industry.
Waxey came up through the ranks and had a considerable amount of talent for schlamming despite his unassuming size, making him an asset on the frontlines. He spent some time at the Elmira Reformatory as a result of his wilder younger and delinquent days and eventually his crooked path led to a two year term in Sing Sing, which kept him behind walls until 1916.
Upon his release he spent the next few years drifting and hired himself out as a labor goon and whatever else would come along that didn’t involve an honest moment of work. He had lost a benefactor with the leadership demise of Dopey Benny, whose place of prominence on the street had vanished and Jewish gangs had become fractured and fragmented. New rivals like Nathan ‘Kid Dropper’ Kaplan and Jacob ‘Little Augie’ Orgen’ were vying for power and control for much of the East Side with no consideration for, or want, of ethnic alliance.
1920 and Prohibition changed everything for many including Waxey. It enabled Gordon to take himself off the street and behind a desk realizing how profitable smuggling whiskey in from Canada and the United Kingdom could be. He set up a Central Park bench meeting with Arnold Rothstein to layout his plan and asked for a $175,000 start up loan. By the time Gordon eyed Gypsy Rose Lee across the room in the smoky haze of the Eight Avenue speakeasy he had banked nearly two million dollars and owned a ten-room apartment on the Upper West Side.
Gordon sent over four bottles of champagne to Gypsy’s table. The lucrative years were evident on his physique - the once trim labor slugger now had put on considerable weight due to complacency and financial comfort as he slightly waddled over to introduce himself. Whispers at her table explained that he was a big shot gangster but Gypsy thought the now middle-aged Waxey looked more like an unassuming banker than a feared underworld figure whose jacket buttons were at the breaking point over a considerable paunch. Flanked by bodyguards Gordon exchanged pleasantries briefly and offered them anything they wanted “ on the house” before tipping his hat in a departing gesture of gangster grace. Gypsy flashed a thankful smile, and Gordon seemingly winced on the inside as he turned on his heel.
Gypsy Rose Lee, despite her numerous psychical attributes, unfortunately had a set of sadly crooked front teeth. As Gordon made his exit he was rumored to have commented to those close by that she was “ a great looking broad but those chompers have gotta go”. And he made good on his word.
The next morning her phone rang and a Gordon underling who never identified himself explained that her ‘friend’ from last night had set up on appointment for her at the dental office of Dr. Sam Krauss at 1605 Broadway for 10:30 AM and that she should get over there. As a confused Gypsy Rose heard the phone click dead on the other end she couldn’t quite understand what had just happened and never showed up for the appointment.
Another mysterious but now irate phone call followed her performance that evening, demanding to know why she never showed up for the dental appointment. A bewildered Lee let her mother finally interject and saying they couldn’t afford the dental work, nor did they even know the dentist. Reassurance came from the other end of the phone line that the fee was not to be worried about and “ if the boss wants you to get your teeth fixed you get your teeth fixed if you know what’s good for ya…”.
How much of that conversation rings true is perhaps debatable as it reeks somewhat of scriptwriter scribe; but under Waxey Gordon’s insistence Gypsy Rose Lee did spend close to two weeks of return dental visits before the procedure was over. It ended up that Dr. Sam Krauss had grown up with Gordon on the Lower East Side, and his childhood friend whom he still called Irving, had paid to put him through dental school in order to make a better life for himself as Gordon’s bootlegging empire grew.
And so began the web Waxey Gordon had woven to lure in Gypsy Rose Lee and use her to his compliance and at times, human accessory, during their short years together.
She had felt compelled that she owed him by accepting his first gift of dental repair and though the murky new world she had now entered had probably left her somewhat uneasy at first, she understandably was unwilling to take a stand due to the fringe element of lawlessness.
But she was also strong, fiercely independent, and intelligent, and quickly adapted to these new surroundings and learned to use her position as an appendage within the underworld to her advantage. Gypsy was whip smart even if she felt intimidated, and read through much of the underworld façade of materialism and ego that pervaded these fedora cladded roosters.
Her fees from Minksy’s Republic had steadily risen, allowing her to buy a home in the Rego Park section of Queens. Gordon sent over an elaborate dining set as a housewarming gift. In turn, he requested her by his side at certain events as a ruse to impress his gangster compatriots - the towering jewel of burlesque and gangland’s ugly duckling. He would bed her when he felt the need and Gypsy was able to become emotionally disinvested, allowing Gordon and at times others from his circle to have their way as long as there was a possible benefit of career or social advancement as a reward.
One of those rewards were Gordon’s Broadway connections that eventually landed her a top spot in a Ziegfeld production called Laid In Mexico, though the title was eventually changed to Hot Cha! at Gypsy’s insistence. Gypsy had quit Minksys in lieu of the chance to work with Ziegfeld.
Florenz Ziegfeld had fallen on hard times, and as his health was failing by this period he resorted to borrowing money from Gordon and other gangsters in order to mount his next show. The show closed after only twelve weeks as a big fat flop.
She scoured Broadway for weeks, and in the interim lost her home in Rego Park and in her scuttle went back to work for the Minksys at a lower rate. Strapped for cash she was close to asking Waxey for a loan but the timing wasn’t on her side. Gordon’s illegal enterprises had caught up with him.
He had been on the federal radar all through the ‘20’s but lack of evidence eluded a formal indictment over and over. By the early 1930s, the sentencing of Al Capone had marked a new way of capturing gangsters with accountants rather than G-Men. New York’s Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey along with the FBI placed him on a most wanted list as Prohibition was on the road to repeal in 1933. Easily convicted of income tax evasion due to huge holdings in a variety of trucking firms, buildings and processing plants with no proper paperwork to back up his assets, he was fined $80,000 and sentenced to ten years in jail.
Even behind bars Waxey requested Gypsy Rose Lee’s company and had her come up to visit him (and impress his fellow inmates) at Northeastern Penitentiary before he was to be transferred to Leavenworth in Kansas.
Gypsy complied one last time with Gordon, knowing that she had no use for him after this visit. Enduring catcalls and whistles from inmates on all sides, she vowed to herself that this was to be the last time the two were to share the same room.
While Gypsy Rose Lee’s life had its fair share of ups and downs she did manage to build an impressive legacy and passed away from cancer in 1970.
For Irving Wexler however, ten years of rehabilitation seemed to have done him no good.
During World War II, he was caught selling 10,000 pounds of sugar to an illegal distillery during a time of rationing, and he served another year. By 1950, the narcotics bureau had built a hefty file on him and sentenced him to twenty-five years to life for heroin trafficking.
On June 24, 1952, while sitting in a doctor's office at Alcatraz, Waxey Gordon suffered a massive heart attack and died.
Select bibliography for Gypsy Rose Lee:
Gypsy - Memoirs of America's most celebrated stripper
by Gypsy Rose Lee
A Nation Laid Bare - The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee
by Karen Abbott
Random House 2010
Saturday, January 22, 2011
First off - the Six For Five showing at the Exhibition of the American Gangster officially closed last December 20 - my thanks to the organizers for hosting the show.
Seems they were not quite ready to let these portraits leave their walls completely, and now a set of framed gicleé prints are on permanent display for the indeterminate future, so if you are in New York City you can still drop by and check them out.
On the subject of the Empire City, I am happy to announce that a set of limited edition prints are now available at the newly inducted MOB Scene Gallery. Curated by noted archivist and historian Arthur Nash, the gallery is located at 396 Broome St. in the heart of Little Italy between Mulberry and Centre Market.
With an unobstructed view of the Old Police headquarters, the MOB Scene gallery sits beside the former NYPD evidence vault from which the heroin seized in the 'French Connection' case mysteriously vanished. And serendipitously, in 1912 the gallery was a pool hall called the Little Rock, a hangout for some of the underworld's notorious figures.
For some more info visit www.mobscenenyc.com
Of course this is not the only option to buy some prints, the Six for Five shop on Etsy has now re-opened with a selection
of 15 different prints.
Also, there will be another major public exhibition coming this spring in northern California and I will have more details in the near future regarding all that.
Finally, just so you know I haven't been sitting idly on my hands, here are three of the more recent portraits that were finished in the last little while - all re-workings of Big Jack Zelig, Monk Eastman, and Dopey Benny Fein, who seem to always lurk me back to the drawing table to discover new ways to capture their collective essence.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
I wanted to pass along a quick post to inform that the Six For Five exhibit at the Exhibition Of The American Gangster will now run until December 15. There is a selection of thirteen original portraits on display with accompanying biographical material.
My thanks to all those who have dropped by to check it out so far, and also those who have purchased prints, your patronage is much appreciated...
Sunday, October 17, 2010
Posts have slowed down (again) considerably due to outside freelance work, but while I prepare a proper new bio to post in the very near future, I wanted to just pass along some information about related news happening around New York and of an interesting new book that has recently been released.
This coming week author Neil Hanson will be making a couple of stops, reading from his book, the first full length biography dedicated to the life of Monk Eastman, entitled Monk Eastman: The Gangster Who Became a War Hero. Five years of research went into telling the tale of Eastman, and it’s also the first time his war experiences with the 106th Infantry during WWI are described in great detail.
I must admit my bookmark is still only at about the halfway point, but since these readings are coming up I figured I’d post about it as Hanson does have some revelatory new information to add to the colorful life of one of Gotham’s most fascinating turn of the century’s gangsters. I suppose perhaps the most vital, at least in accordance with this project, was that it may seem that Monk Eastman wasn’t Jewish at all, a fact also brought forward by Ron Arons in his book The Jews Of Sing Sing a couple of years ago.
It seems ol’ Monk has been looped in and hardwired into the history of Jewish Gangsters for so long, from Herbert Asbury to Albert Fried, primarily because he was the first great leader of a predominantly Jewish gang of almost 1200 strong when he was at the peak of his power. Also, subsequently his leadership was taken over by Jews in his own gang who learned much from him, first with Max 'Kid Twist' Zweifach and then Big Jack Zelig, before the Eastmans finally petered out into different fractions in the aftermath of the Rosenthal/Becker affair and disappeared as dominant force.
Whether Eastman was Jewish or not, he is still a major part of the entire history, a key player much like Big Tim Sullivan was and he's a crucial part to understanding the rise of Jewish gangsterism at the turn of the 20th century. Much more of Monk's early life is brought to light as well in this much welcomed new addition to continuing information that seems to come to the surface even as the years between grow wider.
Neil Hanson will be reading from his book this Tuesday, October 19 at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and will also be on hand at the Exhibition Of The American Gangster the following evening of October 20 for a reading and discussion as well.
I've also wanted to re- plug for awhile the Jewish Mob walking tour that happens every Sunday in New York, which is now curated by pal Franklin Abrams in conjunction with The Lower East Side History Project.
To partly quote from the guide:
"Trace the steps of pre-Prohibition era gangsters like Monk Eastman, Max “Kid Twist” Zweifach, “Big” Jack Zelig and Benjamin “Dopey” Fein – pivotal figures in the organizing of crime in New York City; paving the way for men like Arnold Rothstein, Meyer Lansky and "Bugsy" Siegel. Learn about the Jewish immigrant experience on the Lower East Side and the conditions that led to organized gangsterism; visit the sites of gang headquarters, shootouts and assassinations, and learn how the Jewish Mob expanded out of the slums and into a contemporary organized crime syndicate."
For more info, follow this link