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.

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