Tuesday, August 24, 2010

New York City Gangland

"Within every photograph, in every American city, are stories to be told."
Such reads Arcadia Publishing's mantra.

I'm sure you've come across one of their publications at some time while browsing at your local bookstore
Their catalog is an impressively exhaustive collection of photographic essay books that range far and wide; from collections of vintage railroads in Yosemite to old time baseball teams from Chattanooga to Wichita. They are the infinite documentaries printed and bound that filmmaker Ken Burns will never get around to making. They have also been brave and bold enough to peer into Americana's underbelly for a closer look.

I had first commented on their bravura when they published "Detroit's Infamous Purple Gang" by Lepke biographer Paul R. Kavieff a couple of years back, and now comes Arthur Nash's New York City Gangland.

Nash is a freelance archivist who resides at the Chelsea Hotel and has accumulated one of the most impressive private organized crime collections, lending his archaeological talents to various institutions, researchers and filmmakers. His most prized possession perhaps is the actual barber chair Albert Anastasia sat down in 1957 for his last hot towel wrap and close shave before being gunned down at the Park Sheraton Hotel's barbershop. Ask him about it sometime and maybe he'll let you have a peek...maybe.

Arcadia's mantra rings true, but these may not be the kind of stories everyone wants to hear or see.
His collection of photographs assembled for
New York City Gangland is a nicely arced timeline of Gotham's gangster history, and many have never seen publication up until now.
Its peppered with many gems; from a press manipulated photo of
Arnold Rothstein (to make him look more menacing by painting a fedora on his head), to family photos of Al Capone and Charles "Lucky" Luciano. The book is broken into six sections, covering much of New York's organized crime story from Prohibition to the wild days of the 1960's and the Gallo brother's anarchic approach to an old tradition.
Nash also rightfully balances it out with
Blood On Velvet, a chapter on some of the 1930's top crime busters in the city, including numerous photos of the ever photo-op-happy Mayor Floria LaGuardia dumping countless slot machines and armoury into the cold waters of the Long Island Sound. LaGuardia's and Police Commissioner Lewis J Valentine's enormous bounty of confiscated items of lawlessness makes one wonder just how much rusting scrap metal with stories to tell of an era may still sit quietly on that ocean floor to this day.

In case any regular followers of this blog may wonder, there is indeed a chapter that is devoted to hardboiled Hebrews in
Guns and Gelt - La Kosher Nostra. Nash's focus is mainly the late 1930s and the torpedos mostly based in Brooklyn, including the freckled face Sam "Red" Levine and gunsel gone bit Hollywood player Irving 'Big Gangy' Cohen.
Included as well are gruesome crime scene photos, haunting images of
Joe Rosen, gunned down in his candy store by Lepke's henchmen, and the burned corpse of the ill-fated Irving "Puggy" Feinstein. Such photos become a shocking and needed reminder that however gangsters may be glorified in historical and nostalgic context, their actions were very real and one must not forget that crucial aspect of the overall bigger picture.

Photo of the infamous Midnight Rose's candy store, located at the corner of Livonia and Saratoga Avenues in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and defacto headquarters of Abe 'Kid Twist' Reles and his troop during the heydays of Murder Inc. Photo courtesy of Arthur Nash.

Nash's real treat in this section are the photos he took of Kings County star prosecutor Micheal F. Vecchione and his unveiling of the actual knotted bedsheets that Abe 'Kid Twist' Reles supposedly used during his 'escape' and fall to his death at the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island. Housed in Reles' actual suitcase, these significant artifacts have only seen the light of day once and Nash was there to photograph them. That alone may warrant the price of admission to the book. One also wonders perhaps if archived in some dusty box in an underground corridor somewhere as well, sit the countless notebooks stenographers filled with Reles' accounts when he sang to the Brooklyn District Attorneys for days on end, waiting for their own unveiling...

Brooklyn star prosecutor Micheal F. Vecchione unveils Abe Reles' knotted bedsheets recovered from room 623 at the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island on November 12, 1941. Photo courtesy of Arthur Nash.

Overall, Nash's collection proves to be a real treasure to any aficionados of New York City's gangster story; its colorful characters that inhabited it and those that lurked in the city's darkest corners.

There is a giddiness that may be hard to describe to some when one unearths a photo lost to time, shedding new light to the person in question, but its one I encounter every time, especially since taking on this project.
Take his photo of an 18 year old Arthur Flegenheimer, where the future beer baron of the Bronx known as Dutch Schultz seems almost like an innocent doe (well, kinda); there is an indescribable look in his eyes that almost commands a new perspective on a man who has been painted by historians as crude and as cold blooded as they come. And for the most part they were right. But, with each new photo unearthed like this one, sometimes another piece of a historical puzzle is found and put in place.
Much of the old gangster world is voiceless. Their stories passed on, shared, elaborated and exxagerated. What we have to breath from are faded snapshots, crinkled mug shots, and controlled circulated press photos, the rest we have make up in our head.

Eighteen year old Arthur Flegenheimer aka Dutch Schultz. Photo courtesy of Arthur Nash.

New York City Gangland on Facebook

Monday, August 16, 2010

Six For Five on facebook

Just a quick note to mention I've set up a companion page to the blog on facebook .
This will initially tie into the portraits on display currently on display at the Exhibition of the American Gangster and the short abbreviated bios that accompany them.
If you've dropped by and seen the exhibit and would like to post any comments please feel free to do so to make the whole thing a little more interactive. Of course if you are not in New York City, or plan to be in the next couple of months, you are still more than welcomed to participate as the page will grow
expediently as times goes on.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Previews in the Big Bad Apple...

For the last few months I've been discussing the opening of the Museum Of The American Gangster in New York, and I can formally announce that thirteen portraits are now on view while the museum exhibit space is in previews in preparation for an official opening.
Due to some legal procedures requested by the state of New York in regards to by-laws and what constitutes a 'museum' (too complicated to get into here) there had to be a name change to the institution, which is now officially called
Exhibition Of The American Gangster.

Twelve originals are on exhibit until October 31 as well as a framed gicleƩ print of Meyer Lansky (the original has been sold to a collector and is not in my possession anymore).

I also have a selection of high quality gicleƩ prints available from their gift shop and purchase of original artwork can b
e worked out privately with the museum.

The exhibit space is situated above the Theater 80 St. Marks in the East Village, and was once the former apartment occupied by non other than Leon Trotsky.
Also on site includes a collection of prohibition era materials and other gangster ephemera and wares, and also includes tours of the former speakeasy bar and it's underground network which was discovered in 1964.

Currently the museum's website is under re-construction but the opening hours for previews are 1PM - 6PM except Sundays and Wednesdays for the time being until the museum officially opens it's doors.

Exhibition Of The American Gangster
80 St. Marks Place
New York, NY
1 (800) 603-5520