Monday, February 25, 2008

'Big Gangy' Cohen found!

Columbia Pictures recently released the 1939 film Golden Boy on DVD. This film has had a funny little story attached to it, of which you can read about below. I had been on the lookout for this film for quite awhile so I was quite pleased when I saw it on store shelves this past weekend and scoured through the fight scenes to find Big Gangy Cohen.....

The story of Irving 'Big Gangy' Cohen is one of the truly stranger and funnier anecdotes (and there are quite a few) in Brooklyn's troop of Murder Inc. soldiers. Cohen was one of the few hulking brutes in army of mostly small but inevitably dangerous men, and his bulk was counted on more than a few occasions. He was also one of a small handful who managed to run away and untangle himself from the tight web and inner stranglehold that organized crime could be.

Cohen had been riding with Walter Sage through the Catskills, the green getaway nirvana for most of the New York’s middle class Jews. It was a perfect, late summer evening with warm wind blowing through rolled down windows. Sage had been running the troop’s Long Island slot machines and word got back to that Sage’s books weren’t balancing. Walter was skimming off the top, and Brownsville decided he had to go. Gangy and Walter were best friends, so who better to put him on ice than he; so worked the mind of Harry Strauss, known as Pittsburgh Phil, the gang’s premier nut case who also happened to call many of the deadlier shots. A nervous Sage feared for his life less when it was Gangy who showed up and suggested they go for a nighttime drive. An unidentified driver was behind the wheel and Sage was planted in the front passenger’s seat. To put Walter at ease, Cohen sat directly behind him, the generally designated kill spot.

Harry Strauss had confidence that Cohen would go through with the job, but he still wanted to make sure for himself. He dropped by to see Abe ‘Pretty’ Levine, a blue-eyed kid with misdirected mobster aspirations. Levine was vacationing in the area and the two linked up later that evening with Allie ‘Tick Tock’ Tannenbaum. Within a few hours the trio were following the red taillights of the car carrying Gangy and Sage down a dark country road. From Levine’s perspective in the driver’s seat he could see the car ahead of him begin to swerve slightly, then more violently, before finally losing control and careen off into a ditch nose first. Walter didn’t go easy it seemed. As Levine eased his own car to a stop, he saw Gangy emerge out the backdoor and hightail it into the black woods of upstate New York. In the front seat the driver sat dazed from the accident and next to him Walter Sage, slumped over dead, with what was calculated as thirty two stab wounds from Cohen’s ice pick. They were baffled as to where the hell he had run off to, calling his name out into the darkness a few times to no avail. Gangy Cohen was gone.

For a couple of years following that fateful summer evening, talk among the Brownsville troop always seemed to revert to: “ What the hell ever happened to Big Gangy? How could a guy just disappear like that? What a bum!”

Pretty Levine and Italian Combination cohort Dukey Maffeotore got their answer one night in September of 1939 when they decided to kill a couple of hours and head to the Lowes Pitkin movie house to catch the film Golden Boy. It was classic Hollywood fare of love and hard knocks; the story of Joe Bonaparte, a gifted violinist turned boxer to make a quick fortune, starring curly haired newcomer William Holden and Brooklyn bred Barbara Stanwyck. As Pretty and Dukey slouched in the dark with popcorn bits sprinkled on their laps, they watched the proceedings of a major fight sequence at Madison Square Garden where Joe is facing a boxer named Chocolate Drop, about three quarters of the way into the film. The film cuts to various reaction shots of the crowd at ringside, as the fight is about to commence. About three shots into the sequence the two couldn’t believe their eyes. Captured on glorious black and white Hollywood film stock was Gangy Cohen as one of fight’s attendees. They could barely contain themselves as they left the movie house and ran down to Midnight Rose’s, the candy store whose back room served as an informal headquarters by Abe Reles and his lieutenants. The news was met with surprise but mostly disbelief. Bets were even wagered as to if it really was Big Gangy, thinking these two kids were nuts. The next afternoon most of the squad sat in the Loews Pitkin to see it for themselves. There he was, just like they said. They shook their heads in disbelief and continued to chuckle to themselves for the rest of the afternoon. “We’ll, if this crime thing don’t pan out, we can always go to Hollywood!” was the joke of the day.

The anguish leading up to the murdering of his best friend must have had a huge psychological impact on Cohen, and his midnight getaway into the woods was either premeditated or a soul searching conclusion to that final ride. The world he was involved in promised nothing in terms of safety and he had finally begun to realize it. If they could get him to murder his best friend, whose to guarantee that he wouldn’t be next in line?

With perhaps misguided aspirations of being the next George Raft, Cohen had made his way to Hollywood and hoped to re-invent himself in tinsel town and be as far away from Brownsville as possible. He had famous friends in the business that prided themselves in hobnobbing with actual, living, breathing gangsters. He gave himself the screen name of Jack Gordan, and his connections helped him find work as an extra and bit player where he was generally and typically, cast as the heavy. Cohen’s celluloid dreams however finally came to an end when Brooklyn District Attorney William O’Dwyer opened the floodgates by declaring war on Brooklyn’s crime ring fueled by the 200 plus unsolved murders that plagued the borough. Gangy was one of many names dropped by major stool pigeons like Abe Reles, Allie Tannenbaum and smaller fry like Pretty Levine and Seymour ‘Blue Jaw’ Magoon. Ironically, it was his portrayal of a cop on screen that got the attention of a real law enforcer who just happened be watching some unmemorable B picture and recognized him. Gangy’s mugshot was everywhere, posted on the many wanted posters circulating the city and State police stations during the pitched frenzy of the Brooklyn round up. Gangy was picked up in Hollywood and brought back east to face indictments by authorities in Sullivan County, New York. Pretty Levine had taken the stand against quite a few of the major players, but somehow Gangy got his Hollywood ending. With so much large fish reeled in and fried, he found himself acquitted in the process and walked away free, with the credits rolling marking the end to his criminal career.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Show and Tell

Over the course of doing research for the book, I've come upon a few rare gems of which I thought I'd share. Locating rare books in the digital age has been a much less tiresome affair but perhaps slightly less rewarding as the hunt always makes the reward a little sweeter. Thanks mostly in part to the deep well of resource called, a virtual treasure trove of titles (and comparable pricing!), I've managed to track these down over the last couple of years.
The first of the two oldest titles I managed to locate is Sacrificed: The Story Of Police Lieut. Charles Becker, by Attorney Henry, H Klein. (1927 Klein/ Isaac Goldman Inc.), a rare find as it was published by a small company. Klein was the first to publicly denounce Becker's guilt in the murder of Herman Rosenthal as the result of his own investigations in the case and his review of all the court transcripts. Klein inevitably points the finger at accomplice Bald Jack Rose and questions the political motives of District Attorney turned Governor, Charles Whitman. He pens the corrupt Charles Becker as a victim of yet even more corruption, and 'sacrificed' at the end of it all to satisfy a public need for justice.

In The Reign Of Rothstein by Donald Henderson Clarke, was published only a year after Arnold Rothstein’s death in 1929. Clarke was journalist who rubbed elbows with many of Broadway’s gamblers and conmen, holding an utter fascination for them yet never holds them under a glorifying light. It was the first book on Rothstein’s life and his underworld legacy and is a good read considering how close to the time of Rothstein’s death it was published.

Gang Rule In New York: The Story Of A Lawless Era
by Craig Thompson and Allen Raymond (Dial Press 1940). The publishers may have timed its release due the closing of the 1930s, the city’s most high profile decade of lawlessness, and the beginning of the new decade which finally saw Lepke Buchalter behind bars and the sweeping up of Murder Inc., marking the eventual decline of a high level of Jewish hoodlums. The book is divided into four parts and is an excellent, and rare source of research material, becoming a sort of informal sequel to Herbert Asbury’s Gangs Of New York.

Sins Of New York
(Boni & Gaer Inc 1947) was edited by Milton Crane and gathers some of the betters essays and articles of the time, including Meyer Berger’s intriguing Murder, Inc. article, first published in Life magazine.
     Finally comes Murder Inc. by E.E. Rice, published in 1949 by Zebra Picture Books. This is really more a exploitative magazine digest than hardened journalism, but is a great and fascinating resource for rarely published photos which timelines the Herman Rosenthal case all the way to the murder of Bugsy Siegel and is also peppered with short pieces on Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein, Dutch Schultz, Thomas Dewey and Mickey Cohen among many others. This is a pretty hard item to locate and involved some serious bidding on Ebay.