Thursday, August 1, 2019

Audio True Crime: "Handsome Johnny" by Lee Server

Audio True Crime: Handsome Johnny: the life and death of Johnny Roselli, gentleman gangster, Hollywood producer, CIA assassin by Lee Server, 2018, download from Wisconsin Digital Library.

Italian crook from Boston ends up under the Chicago mob and working in Los Angeles.

Roselli is born in Italy in 1905 and five years later his family travels to the U.S. in 1911 to join the father. Dad dies in 1918 and the family struggles along. Johnny has school trouble as an immigrant. Quits school and travels town to town with a pal. They work odd jobs and do some crimes. Roselli ends up in Chicago in the '20s and then Los Angeles. Along the way he changes his name and falsifies paperwork in his new name.

This is a neat story and Roselli was an active crook until the 1960s. His crooked and straight jobs touched a lot of famous names and events over five decades and he was around during the same corruption and mob troubles in LA that Hammett and Ellroy fictionalized. There is Al Capone, Frank Nitti, Jack Dragna, Bugsy Siegel, Howard Hughes, Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedy assassination, Los Vegas casino skimming, Frank Sinatra, and more.

Roselli was a charmer and when he grew older he stayed away from violence and therefore avoided some legal scrutiny. During Prohibition he ran booze. In Los Angeles he ran rackets and gambling operations. Gangsters were kinda hip so he schmoozed with the wealthy and famous. He then went a little straight and worked some film projects.

The book has plenty of stories but the most interesting parts to me were: The 1920s gambling boats off the CA shoreline. The 1950s gang battles with Dragna and Mickey Cohen and others. The CIA and Mob assassination plots on Castro.

The unions became a big moneymaker because anywhere there is a buck the mob will try to grab it.  Server clearly explains the history of how the Chicago mob became involved and took over a union by forcing their picked candidate into the presidency. The union's 1934 convention and election in Lousiville was attended by Lucky Luciano and Louis Buchalter (head of Murder Inc.) The convention hall was filled with gunman and everyone was told who to vote for.

That union then started to swallow other unions. Extortion income rolled in to the mob by threatening strikes. Raising member dues gave a bigger skim to the mob.  They "loaned" themselves money from the retirement fund and used union dues to start Las Vegas casinos.

The Cuba plots and Kennedy tie-ins are always interesting to me. The mob ran free in Cuba under Batista and were unhappy about losing all the casinos, bordellos, and drug trade when Castro took over. Server writes about plenty of the skeezy work the CIA and the mob undertook and how the mob tied into the 1960 US Presidential election through a Joe Kennedy connection. How Robert Kennedy had a hard on for prosecuting the mob and the mob figured to shut RFK down by teaming with Joe. How RFK, JFK, and Joe would be shtupping the same women. Everyone's fondness for mistresses and prostitutes.

There is plenty of history about Sinatra, Giancana, and Kennedy and their mistresses. James Ellroy's favorite PI Fred Otash shows up. (Otash secretly recorded a conversation between Rock Hudson and his wife where she accused him of picking up men on the street. Hudson emphatically denied this.)

Roselli was intricately involved with helping the CIA to organize Cuban exiles trying to overthrow Castro in Operation Mongoose and the ZR/RIFLE assassination program. He was helping plan or participate with covert missions into Cuba, midnight boat trips and speedboat insertions, and working with the CIA to hire assassins and plan plots.

The 1950s gang wars had Mickey Cohen surviving murder attempts. One of Cohen's methods of getting cash was to borrow money - or "borrow" money - and never pay it back. Cohen learned that as the right hand man of Bugsy Siegel.

Roselli did a couple prison terms and when released in the 1970s he lived with a sister in Florida before he was murdered, his legs chopped off, and his body parts stuffed into a metal drum and dumped in a bay.

1. Low-key mobsters last longer. Schmoozers make smarter deals than the strong arms and killers.
2. Actors versus film versions. Dramatizations often have older actors portraying mobsters who were in their twenties. Capone was born in 1899 and running the Chicago outfit in his twenties.
3. Capone's entire family were crooks. The library has a book by his great niece that mentions the bordellos the family ran in Northern Wisconsin.
4. A Fred Otash interview with Mike Wallace from 1957 regarding Hollywood gossip magazines.
5.  A Mickey Cohen interview was referenced at the above website in an introduction before another interview. I recall a Mickey Cohen biography detailing how Cohen spoke to Mike Wallace when Cohen was under investigation and prosecution. Cohen couldn't keep his mouth shut and insulted and defamed the cops who went after him. That interview does not seem to be in the online archive. And, interestingly, the keyword search does not come up for him in the transcript. I only found that when messing around and searching "Wisconsin".
6. Los Angeles Mayor Frank Shaw ran the City. The Grand Jury members were all appointed to block prosecutions. A local bible thumper and restaurateur campaigned against crime when getting on the Jury and seeing what happened. His house was bombed.
7. Server mentions the many Florida training camps for exile Cubans. Those camps were still running in teh 1980s and I suppose they are going now in one place or another.
8. All the Cuba talk reminded by of John Sayles's novel Los Gusanos from 1991. I've not watched any Sayles films in a long time.

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