Blogging the Wolfe Book, Request Line XIV

Large ImageI have ceased blogging in real time as I read Donald H. Wolfe’s “The Black Dahlia Files: The Mob, the Mogul and the Murder That Transfixed Los Angeles.” Wolfe uses the “Laura” format, in which the anonymous, butchered body is found and the narrative proceeds in flashbacks. Now, I am taking a few requests before wrapping up the project. Today, we’ll continue with Page 219 at the request of Regular Anonymous Correspondent.

Interested parties have made inquiry as to whether I’ve heard from Wolfe regarding my little note about the faked document on Page 198. Well, “faked” is such an ugly, loaded term. Maybe I should say it has submaximized factuality. No, I haven’t.

Page 219

Let’s see. Wolfe is talking about his stepfather Jeffrey Bernerd, finally mentioning that he died in 1950. Oddly, Wolfe goes on about Bernerd’s many friends—Winston Churchill, Lowell Thomas and Charlie Chaplin—but leaves out his dad, Sailing Wolfe, and his great-uncle Bernard Baruch. I’m baffled that in a book full of name-dropping, Baruch is one name that is never mentioned.

Wolfe’s mother meets Ben Williamson, who is identified as being charge of the Time-Life office in Beverly Hills. Wolfe says Williamson got Howard Hughes’ last public interview, regarding the “Spruce Goose,” a nickname that Hughes hated as I recall.

Wolfe says Williamson played poker with Ben Hecht, Jack Warner, Sam Goldwyn, Joe Schenck, Harry Cohn and Mark Hellinger. Wolfe also claims Hecht was tight with the mob from covering gangsters during his days as a reporter in Chicago.

Large ImageWolfe says Hecht socialized with Bugsy Siegel, Alan Smiley and Mickey Cohen and that in 1950, Hecht and Cohen held a charity gala at Slapsy Maxie’s to raise money for Jews in Palestine.

“Hecht gave an impassioned speech to the crowd of bookies and Hollywood dignitaries and more than $200,000 was raised that evening for the cause—but somehow the money never arrived in Palestine. Mickey Cohen explained that the boat carrying the cash was torpedoed and sunk, but Ben Williamson and Hecht always suspected that the money went down in one of the big game pots up at Hecht’s Angelo Drive castle.”

Hm. Well, frankly, I’d be perfectly happy to take a pass on this one since it has absolutely nothing to do with the Black Dahlia. Still, it presents some juicy targets for a total research drudge.

Even without the end notes, I recognize one familiar story and that’s the old chestnut about the fake fund-raiser for Israel. I can’t recall exactly where I read this story, but I believe it’s in Mickey Cohen’s autobiography. The idea is that Cohen would stage a fake benefit, plant an item with Aggie Underwood at the Herald-Express, and pocket the money. It could be in another mob memoir. I’m thinking the one by Jimmy “The Weasel” Fratianno.

Let’s see where Wolfe got this stuff. Only one source: Ben Hecht’s “Child of the Century,” Pages 610-613. Not one of the books in the haz-mat pile.

Well, let’s put this through the standard fact-checking torture test.

Ready for some ugly research?

Let’s start with Ben Williamson. I expect this material to be true or mostly true. Of course with Wolfe, one never knows. He claimed to be on hiatus from “The Loretta Young Show” during 18 months when it was off the air.

OK, we can confirm Ben Williamson was Time-Life bureau chief in Los Angeles in 1951 (Los Angeles Times, June 15, 1951). Appears to have been in Los Angeles in 1953, based on a search of the Time website. So there was a person named Ben Williamson and he was actually Time-Life bureau chief in Los Angeles. This puts Wolfe way ahead of John Gilmore’s “Severed,” which is loaded with people who don’t exist. I’m not going to chase this any more unless it starts looking fishy.

Ooohh. Howard Hughes on the cover of Time? We can check that on Time’s website. Shall we? Oh lets! Well, Time had Hughes on the cover July 19, 1948. Hm. Seems to be about Hughes at RKO. Now I would love to be able to bring you the entire article, but it costs money to subscribe. Here’s the link if anybody cares to pursue it.

Uh-oh. Hughes gave his last interview in 1958 to Frank McCulloch of Time Life? I guess that’s if you don’t count the 1972 conference call Hughes staged to rebut Clifford Irving’s book. For sale on EBay?

Large ImageSo much for that. Just a little old Hollywood resume padding. Let’s check on Hecht and Angelo Drive. Hm. Beverly Hills. That’s going to be a little hard to confirm with my limited time and it’s really unrelated to the Black Dahlia. I’ll pass.

How about this 1950 bash at Slapsy Maxie’s? Golly. Guess when Van de Kamp’s bakeries took over Slapsy Maxie’s and turned it into a coffee shop? (Los Angeles Times, March 10, 1950). This little fete doesn’t seem to have gotten any ink in The Times. Isn’t that just so peculiar?

AHA! Now this is what makes research so rewarding. I refer to Robert Rockaway’s “American Jews and Crime: An Annotated Bibliography,” found in American Studies International, February 2000, Vol. 38, No. 1.

Oh I like this. Rockaway does my kind of research:

“Mickey Cohen’s book, ‘In My Own Words,’ while something of a
classic, must be used with caution. Although Cohen presents useful
insights and reminiscences about his life in crime and his Jewish
underworld associates — among them, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel —
a number of his assertions must be treated with a healthy dose of
skepticism.

“This is good practice with regard to all criminal memoirs, since mobsters tend to justify their actions, distort their motives, and lie. For example, Cohen writes that he always believed that “Jews should behave differently and more correctly.” Yet he threatened, extorted, and beat Jews when it suited his purposes.

“Another example involves Cohen’s activities on behalf of the Irgun,
the underground Jewish organization in Palestine led by Menachem
Begin. According to Cohen, he “would do anything for a cause that
was right, especially Jewish causes.” Cohen became especially enthusiastic about helping the Irgun when he learned that “these guys actually fight like racket guys would. They didn’t ask for a quarter and they gave no quarter.”

“Accordingly, Cohen helped stage fund-raising affairs that raised thousands of dollars to purchase weapons and had them shipped to Israel. Cohen’s account remained the generally accepted version until the publication, in 1984, of the memoirs of Jimmy “the Weasel” Fratianno, a self-confessed Mafia killer turned government informer.

“Fratianno knew Cohen well. When he was not trying to kill Cohen, Fratianno socialized and worked with him. Cohen invited Fratianno to one of his fund-raisers, which was held at Slapsy Maxie’s restaurant in Los Angeles. Fratianno admitted being awed by the affair. “The place is packed. I’ve never seen so many Jewish bookmakers in one place in my life,” he remembers. “They’re all there. Famous actors, producers, big shots in the community. It’s a full house.” Fratianno claimed that nearly $800,000 was raised that evening.

“Because he distrusted Cohen, Fratianno remained suspicious of his motives. Fratianno asserted that Cohen would never let hundreds of thousands of dollars slip through his fingers. His doubts increased when he read a story in the Los Angeles Herald that reported that an unnamed ship carrying arms for the Jews in Israel sank in the Atlantic Ocean during a storm. These were the weapons supposedly purchased by Mickey Cohen.

Large Image“According to Fratianno, Cohen had a girlfriend who worked at the Herald. “This broad would walk on hot coals for Mickey,” he claims. Consequently, she printed anything Cohen gave her. “The way I see it,” says Fratianno, “Mickey called her and made up a story about buying guns and ammunition
for the Jews with the million raised at the benefits and then told her
the boat sank. A few unknown people died, some were saved, and
she prints it on his say-so.”

“Other sources disparage both men’s claims. Yitzhak Ben-Ami
headed the Irgun’s European-based illegal immigration operations.
In 1947, the Irgun sent him to the United States and he helped organize the fund-raising affairs Cohen and Fratianno spoke about.

“Ben-Ami claims that “between $50,000 and $60,000 was raised,” not
the hundreds of thousands that Cohen and Fratianno refer to. “The
Jewish underworld contributed all together about $120,000 for the
Irgun,” says Ben-Ami.”

This is worth repeating:

“His assertions must be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism. This is good practice with regard to all criminal memoirs, since mobsters tend to justify their actions, distort their motives, and lie.”

Time for my walk

Shout out to:

Pollo Loco? (64.164.183.65)

Hearst (65.212.0.194)

Department of Defense Information Center, Olongapo, Philippines (214.1.3.248)

Hurry back!

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About lmharnisch

I work at the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 1947, Another Good Story Ruined, Black Dahlia, Books and Authors, Cold Cases, Columnists, Crime and Courts, Donald Wolfe, History, Hollywood, Homicide, LAPD, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Blogging the Wolfe Book, Request Line XIV

  1. Regular Anonymous Correspondent says:

    Hmm… I can’t imagine why I would have requested this page. Maybe it was a typo.Sorry I stuck you with a comparative dud. Still, it turned out to be passably amusing.More fun ahead…

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