In August 1933, the entertainment industry’s biweekly newsletter Variety reported on the widely circulating rumor that “the Chicago crowd,” was fixed to launch an assault on the 1934 IATSE convention. Although the trade paper was making reference to George Browne’s predicted second try at the union presidency, the prognostication was more accurate than could be known at the time. In fact, the most significant “Chicago crowd,” the Outfit, was about to hijack the convention, with George Browne as its front man.
On June 34, 1934, the IATSE delegates convened their biennial assemblage in Louisville, Kentucky, at the ominously named Brown Hotel on Broadway. In an unusual move, IATSE barred the local press from the closed-door proceedings. John Herchenroeder, editor of Louisville’s Courier-Journal, recalled for crime reporter Hank Messick years later, “We sent a reporter over to the hotel, but he couldn’t get in, so we ignored the convention.” It soon became clear why prying eyes were not allowed to witness the furtive gathering. In attendance alongside union delegates were mobsters from all the major crime families: Meyer Lansky, Ben Siegel, Lucky Luciano, and Lepke Buchalter from Newr York; Longy Zwillman from New Jersey; Big Al Polizzi from Cleveland; Johnny Dougherty from St. Louis; and of course the hosts, Chicago’s Outfit. With Buchalter as the gangsters’ “floor manager,” gunmen patrolled the aisles, sat on the dais, and lined the room’s perimeter. Many observers had the impression that there were more gunmen than delegates in the hotel’s auditorium. Not surprisingly, IATSE delegates were quickly persuaded to anoint Browne as their new president. So frightened was the membership that no one else dared ask to be nominated. George Browne ran unopposed. (After the convention, the Outfit billed IATSE for the gangsters’ hotel rooms and traveling expenses.)
The new IATSE president took the stage, feigning astonishment at his fortune. His performance set a new standard for maudlin behavior as he cried profusely, seemingly unable to muster the strength to give a speech. All he could do was repeat over and over, “Thank you, boys. Thank you.” He was likely addressing his gangster benefactors.
After the convention, Browne, Bioff, and Circella were sent to New York, where they informed the Producers’ Association of their intent to revitalize IATSE. After the meeting, Bioff was taken by Circella to the Medical Arts Sanitarium, where Johnny Rosselli was undergoing treatment for his chronic tuberculosis. It was time for Bioff to meet his Los Angeles overseer. “Johnny Rosselli here is our man,” Circella intoned. “He handles the West Coast for us. If there is anything that goes on on the West Coast with any producing company, we will know. There is nothing you or George can do that we won’t know.”
Browne and Bioff spent the remainder of 1934 in Chicago bringing holdout unions into line with their power play. In later testimony, Bioff explicitly detailed his modus operandi (expropriated from Tommy Maloy) when he recalled his approach to theater owner Jack Miller: T told Miller the exhibitors would have to pay two operators in each booth. Miller said: “My God! That will close up all my shows.” I said: “If that will kill grandma, then grandma must die.” Miller said that two men in each booth would cost about $500,000 a year. So I said, well, why don’t you make a deal? And we finally agreed on $60,000 . . . You see, if they wouldn’t pay, we’d give them lots of trouble. We’d put them out of business - and I mean out.’
Another movie house owner, Nathaniel Barger, recalled to an IRS investigator how he was coerced into paying Bioff approximately $50,000 over three years: ’After my theater had been opened for approximately two months, Bioff walked into the office and said, “Well, partner, how is business and how do we stand?” There seemed nothing I could do - either close up the theater and go out of the business I had been in all my life or bow to Mr. Bioff. So, later, I started paying Mr. Bioff half my profits. When there were losses in the theater, he did not share any loss, nor did he put in any money at any time.’
Bioff later recalled, “Barger raved and said it wasn’t fair, but I told him that was the way it had to be if he wanted to stay in business. He went along.” When Barger was forced to divest himself of a burlesque house to offset his loss in profit, Bioff helped himself to half of the sales price. One harassed theater owner lamented, “We are being unmercifully persecuted by a notorious method of racketeering by a gang of inhuman scoundrels. Our theaters are being stench-bombed, tear-gas-bombed. Three have been burned. They are broken into at night and motion picture machines, seats, carpets, draperies, are destroyed.” The Outfit made it clear that their newest business plan was not to be denied. One by one, theater owners in Illinois and surrounding states caved in to the gangs’ will.
In the near term, the Outfit was forced to proceed without the daily counsel of its Einstein: In October, Curly Humphreys surrendered himself to the authorities and began serving a prison term in Leavenworth. He had been indicted for tax evasion on a kidnapping ransom payoff he’d received, but had never been indicted on the kidnapping itself. According to Curly’s daughter, her father uttered an upbeat farewell as he packed for the big house: “While I’m down there, I intend to study English and maybe a little geometry.” However, many believe that he actually focused on business math, for when he was released fifteen months later, he helped design the Outfit’s strategy for ambitious business takeovers on a national level. Many government officials, as well as Humphreys experts in the fourth estate, are certain that the Brainy Hood was in constant contact with his crew during his stay in “college.” Royston Webb, a Welsh scholar who conducted a five-year doctoral study of Humphreys, noted recently, “There is no doubt that Humphreys, much as Capone had done years before, orchestrated the key decisions of the Hollywood takeover from behind bars. It was also to his great fortune that he was unavailable for the initial face-to-face meetings with Bioff and Browne. It gave him deniability in the future.” It also rendered Paul Ricca, Johnny Rosselli, and the others vulnerable, should the caper be unraveled by authorities.
After giving Curly a rousing send-off, the Outfit mulled over where to install Nick Circella in the union hierarchy. At the time, Nitti was worried that Maloy would succumb to IRS pressure, and the Outfit’s titular head was not anxious to go back to the slammer. In a convenient turn of events, the solution to the Maloy problem simultaneously answered the question of Circella’s future. On Christmas Eve, 1934, the Outfit met and pronounced a death sentence on Maloy. At noon on February 4, 1935, as Maloy drove on Lake Shore Drive, along the now deserted “Century of Progress” grounds, the union boss received two fatal shotgun blasts from two gunmen in another vehicle. Chicago FBI agent Bill Roemer strongly asserted that the hit men were Joe Accardo and a young up-and-comer named Gus Alex.
One of Maloy’s pallbearers was none other than George Browne, who, after the service, headed straight to the offices of Maloy’s Local 110. Not long after his coup, Browne named Nick Circella to Maloy’s vacant post. As with so many other figures of Chicago infamy, Tommy Maloy was given one of the largest funerals in the city’s history, marked by a three-hundred- car procession. In July, another obstacle was unceremoniously removed from the Outfit’s road to the promised land. Three Gun Louis Alterie, the stubborn holdout president of the Theater Janitors’ Union, and the executioner of the horse that had thrown Dean O’Banion’s partner years earlier, was shot to death. Still another unsolved Chicago gangland rubout.
With the Browne and Bioff situation now operating under its own inertia, the emboldened Outfit decided to spread its wings. As noted, one of the gang’s initial goals was the infiltration of the bartenders’ unions. Even with his union mastermind Curly Humphreys in jail, Nitti felt sufficiently confident for the assault and decided the time was right to make the move. The hoods’ chosen point of attack, George B. McLane, was the business agent for Local 278, the Chicago Bartenders and Beverage Dispensers Union. Although the local comprised only fifty-three hundred members, it was affiliated with fifteen other similar guilds with a combined thirty thousand members. The Outfit planned to take them all.
McLane’s nightmare began, he later testified, in the spring of 1935, when an Outfit union slugger in Curly’s crew named Danny Stanton telephoned him at his union headquarters. McLane recalled, “I knew Stanton was a slugger for Red Barker and Murray Humphreys. He said he wanted five hundred dollars to go to the Kentucky Derby. He said he would send over two men for it. I told him I had no right to give out union funds.” Stanton ignored McLane’s rebuttal, saying, “I’ll have two men over in a half hour to to pick up the money.” When the thugs showed up, McLane turned them away, which prompted an angry Stanton to call again. “You son of a bitch,” Stanton yelled. “We will get the money and take the union over.” Within days, McLane was summoned to Nitti’s office at the LaSalle Hotel. Nitti demanded that McLane install an Outfit member in his union’s hierarchy. The courageous (or foolish) McLane refused Nitti’s demand. Nitti exploded. “We have taken over other unions,” he blustered. “You will put him in or get shot in the head.” Within days, McLane was brought to Nitti again, this time at the Outfit’s private third-floor dining room at the Capri Restaurant. Once inside, McLane was confronted by a star chamber that included Nitti, Ricca, Campagna, and partners of the imprisoned Curly, Fred Evans and Sam “Golf Bag” Hunt. Again Nitti threatened, “How would your old lady look in black?” This time McLane softened, saying he’d see what he could do.
When months went by with no action, McLane was back at the Capri before an Outfit that was losing its patience. McLane explained to Nitti that he had asked his board if they would accept an assistant named by Nitti, and they had turned down the suggestion. Nitti demanded to know the names of the opposing board members. This time he told McLane, “This is your last chance. Put our man in or wind up in an alley.”
“I went back to the union and told them about the threats to me and to them - what it meant,” McLane later testified. “They had no alternative. They agreed to putting a man on.” In short time they were introduced to one Louis Romano. “His salary will be seventy-five dollars a week out of the union treasury,” Nitti ordered McLane. “You’ll have to make provisions to raise it later. Romano will see that all the Outfit places join the union.” The Outfit clearly had its sights fixed on the thirty thousand members of the affiliated unions. For the next five years, the gang, via Romano, called the shots in the bartenders’ union, while collecting $20,000 per month in dues. According to McLane, Romano admitted that he was whisking the money off “to the boys in Cicero.” McLane said that over the years, Johnny Patton, “the boy mayor of Burnham” and Outfit racetrack maven, attended the Outfit’s board meetings. Patton gave reports about which brands of booze were being sold at the gang’s dog tracks. “Patton said the bartenders were not pushing the right stuff,” McLane said. The brands manufactured by the Outfit, especially Fort Dearborn whiskey, were “the right stuff.”1 “Tell those bartenders that if they don’t push our stuff, they will get their legs broken.” The Outfit and McLane maintained the status quo of the bartenders’ union until Curly was released from prison to oversee its expansion. Until then, the gang profited (approximately $3-5 million per year) from their liquor sales and the monthly dues extracted from the union’s five thousand members.
Meanwhile, the movie scam began to get serious. Browne and Bioff were soon ordered to New York, where they were brought further into the loop of the New York-Chicago national crime consortium. As it was learned in subsequent testimony, the duo, accompanied by Paul Ricca and Nick Circella, was directed to Tommy Lucchese’s Casino de Paree restaurant in Manhattan, where they were joined by gang leaders from other major cities. Among the attendees were Rosselli’s partner Jack Dragna from Los Angeles and New York associates Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello. After the meeting, Ricca instructed Bioff that he would soon be working both coasts, ferrying between Manhattan and Hollywood. “Feel free to call on Charlie Lucky or on Frank Costello if you find any difficulties here in our work,” instructed Ricca. “If you need anything, be free to call on them, because they are our people.” Torrio’s dream of a national crime consortium had come to fruition.
Soon Browne, accompanied by Bioff and Circella, flexed his muscles. On July 15, Browne called an IATSE strike in New York against the Loew’s and RKO theater chains. It was his way of introducing himself to the moguls of the movie business. By noon, General Leslie Thompson, chairman of RKO, became the first victim of the grand scheme. After a period of tense negotiating, Thompson handed over $50,000 for strike insurance, adding another $37,000 the next morning. “A good morning’s work,” Bioff said, laughing.
Next, the trio paid a visit to Nick Schenck, president of Loew’s. Willie Bioff and the Schenck brothers shared similar backgrounds, being Russian-born Jews who knew the value of mixing a criminal and honorable ethos simultaneously. Joe Schenck, Nick’s brother and L.A. based partner, was another known to walk through life with one foot in the upperworld and one in the underworld. On one hand, his generous donations to Roosevelt gave him carte blanche with the White House, especially with Jim Farley, FDR’s New Deal director. In addition, Schenck’s cozy relationship with the California state legislature, again thanks to donations, saw him well treated on the local level. “Whatever Joe Schenck wanted, I got for him,” said the de facto boss of the state legislature, Arthur Samish. On the other hand, Schenck was well known to be in bed with the famous gangsters of the era. As has already been noted, Schenck had been a close friend of Johnny Rosselli’s for years. But Johnny was just one of Schenck’s many hoodlum acquaintances. “He came to know every element of the gangster world, from the lowest ranks on up to the top echelons,” recalled Schenck’s screenwriter friend Anita Loos.
Johnny Rosselli, meanwhile, continued to ingratiate himself with Hollywood’s movers and shakers, performing favors for them that only a man with his resume could undertake. In 1935, Johnny was given a delicate task by Will Hays, who now ran the AMPP. It had long since become customary for thugs to attempt to shake down Hollywood’s glitterati through blackmail. Now a case had arisen where some freelance extortionists had put their hands on a pornographic film, one of several made by a starving nineteen-year-old actress who was now one of MGM’s hottest upcoming stars. Her name was Joan Crawford. Although the blackmailers demanded $100,000 to turn over the negative, the studio would go no higher than $25,000. Rosselli was asked to be the “negotiator.” Now the freelance hoods were in way over their heads. Rosselli met with them and calmly explained who he was and whom he really worked for, the Outfit. Unless the print was handed over, Rosselli told them, their corpses would make those of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre victims seem unscathed. Sooner than they could say “Chicago typewriter,” the amateurs handed over the print, never to be heard from again. And Johnny Rosselli pocketed the $25,000.
In New York, Joe Schenck’s brother Nick was now also about to cut a deal with the devil. The producers readily agreed to pay the gangsters $150,000 for a seven-year no-strike contract, two thirds of which went to the Outfit. But it was anything but simple extortion. Not only would producers profit from a no-strike, low-wage deal, but it gave them a buttress against the National Labor Relations Act (the Wagner Act), passed just weeks earlier on July 5, 1935. The act was a pro-worker bill that codified their rights to collective bargaining. Just as the movie industry was beginning to come out of its Depression-era financial doldrums, the Wagner Act threatened to derail its progress. Schenck and his peers also feared the recent establishment of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO, by John Lewis and Sidney Hillman. Worried that new labor organizations would demand profit-sharing, producers were ready for a savior in the form of the Outfit. Thus the deal also held that Browne would reduce worker wage-increase demands by two thirds.
But Schenck and friends feared that somebody might get wise if the deal was arrived at too quickly, so the Outfit offered the skittish producers an ingenious way out: In typical Hollywood fashion, it decided to “put on a show.” Browne would call a phony strike, forcing the moguls to “capitulate” and grant IATSE total control over the studio’s workforce. The producers would grant IATSE the first “closed shop” agreement in the history of the entertainment business. In return, the Outfit-backed Browne and Bioff would suppress any worker calls for wage increases.
The sham walkout was triggered in late November 1935, when a non-IATSE Paramount film crew arrived in New York to film aerial footage for the movie Thirteen Hours by Air. On Saturday night, November 30, with date-night crowds filling movie theaters, a seemingly irate Browne ordered his IATSE projectionists to walk out of more than five hundred Paramount theaters from Chicago to New York. According to later testimony by Bioff, the double-dealing allies then staged an “emergency” closed-door meeting at the Union League Club in New York to settle the strike. Since the deal had been cut in advance, one can only wonder what went on behind the closed doors - perhaps a discussion of the most recent New York Giants game. When the partners emerged from their confab, it was announced that IATSE would be granted a closed shop, 100 percent labor jurisdiction on the studios’ lots. This of course presupposed that the producers had legal rights to make such a pronouncement; they did not. In later testimony involving the estate of Frank Nitti, the studio executives sheepishly admitted that their labor-racketeering partnership with the Outfit had saved the studios approximately $15 million.
Variety and the rest of the national press were completely hoodwinked by the charade. No one suspected that greedy producers had formed an unholy alliance with embezzling union leaders willing to sell out their own membership in exchange for bribes. Of course, the Outfit’s backstabbing of the workers was only a temporary stepping-stone to the its real goal: double-crossing the conniving producers once the gangsters were granted complete control of the studio shops.
December 1935 was a festive month for the Outfit, starting with the release from prison of its accounting wizard, Jake Guzik. According to Outfit tradition, a lavish “coming out” party was thrown whenever one of its members was sprung from the big house, and the venerated Guzik undoubtedly received the full treatment at one of the gang’s favorite restaurants. Within days, the Outfit’s leadership, including Rosselli from Los Angeles, headed to the Sunshine State where their itinerary included both business and pleasure. The business involved the annual IATSE executive board meeting at the Fleetwood Hotel in Miami. With the Outfit brain trust by his side, Browne introduced the IATSE executives to their new bosses, adding that Bioff would now head the Hollywood local. After leaving the grim IATSE officials to contemplate their new lot, the Outfitters repaired to Big Al’s Palm Island estate, where Ralph Capone hosted his Chicago pals. George Browne, the legendary quaffer, was stunned by the Outfit’s work ethic, even here in Florida sitting by Al Capone’s pool. He later remarked to Bioff, “These guys don’t know how to relax. They just work all the time, day and night, and never take time to spend their money.” The frustrated Browne implored Nitti, “Jeez, Frank, we just got here. I haven’t had a dozen bottles of beer today. Nobody has been in the pool. Nobody went over to look at Miami Beach. Can’t I get a little bit of this sun?” Nitti was stunned by Browne’s backward priorities. Nitti sternly informed Bioff that Rosselli would be his overseer, and that he must also find a way to put Rosselli on the union payroll. He then said, “OK. Go ahead. Have a night on the town.” But it would soon be back to work, with assaults to be mounted on movie business fronts in New York and Hollywood.
The new year, 1936, brought more good news for the Outfit. On January 8, its legal and political shaman Curly Flumphreys was released from Leavenworth, mandating yet another coming-out gala. Almost before recovering from his welcome-home party, Humphreys got back to work, quickly taking over the Individual Towel Company, which had a $45,000 annual contract with the Chicago Board of Education, and becoming an executive with an entity known as the Mid West Oil Corporation. With his brother, who went by the name Jack Wright, Humphreys seized control of a number of local movie houses, where the duo were known as the Wright Brothers.
With Curly and Jake back in the game, the gang was now fully armed for its assault on the entertainment industry. Simultaneously, Willie Bioff and his wife, the former Laurie Nelson, relocated to Hollywood, where their cruise ship was met on arrival by Rosselli and Browne. In short time the scheming trio tended to the key first item on their agenda: informing the local IATSE rank and file that the Outfit was now in charge. Bioff muscled the holdout unions into joining IATSE. Having been granted the franchise by the studio bosses, Bioff presented the twelve thousand studio technicians with both the carrot and the stick: sign on with IATSE and get a 10 percent raise; otherwise, get no work at all. Writer George Dunne, who closely studied Bioff’s time in Hollywood, described one pivotal meeting at the union’s headquarters: “Bioff walked into a meeting of the union officers on Santa Monica Boulevard with these two hit men from Chicago, one on either side. Each one had a violin case under his arm, just like they do in the movies. Bioff stood up and said, ’We’re taking over the union - the international is,’ and they dismissed the local officers right there.”
With Bioff as its front, the Outfit set up its West Coast headquarters in the penthouse of Hollywood’s twelve-story Taft Building, previously notable as a locus for movie star dentists. Although comfortably ensconced, Bioff continued to receive his marching orders from Chicago, including one directive that resulted in Browne and Bioff obtaining still more personal income for their efforts. In this instance, Nitti instructed the duo to hire one Izzy Zevlin to manage their books. “Izzy has forgotten more about accounting than those Internal Revenue Service guys ever knew,” Nitti boasted. Upon meeting Bioff and Browne, Zevlin enlightened the thugs as to how they could reap vast sums that Nitti and the gang would not have to learn about. With Zevlin maintaining two sets of books, one supposedly hidden from the Outfit, Bioff and Brown wasted no time in levying a new 2 percent surcharge on the IATSE members’ paychecks - for the strike insurance fund, they claimed. Of course, Bioff and Browne were being paid by the producers not to call a strike, but there was little chance the workers would learn of that subrosa compact. Bioff assumed the Outfit had little chance of discovering the secret surcharge connived by Zevlin. This “assessment” income was noted in the second set of books, kept in a vault, supposedly below the Outfit’s radar.
It is not known how Nitti learned of the rip-off - perhaps Zevlin was merely his agent provocateur - but when he did, he exploded. In Chicago, Nitti confronted Browne. “Nitti got so mad he backed me into the bathroom,” Browne later testified. “I thought he was going to push me out the window.” To Browne’s feeble protestations, Nitti yelled, “There’s a lot of guys in the Outfit that have to be taken care of.” Then, like a scolding parent, Nitti announced their punishment: “From now on, whatever money we get won’t be split fifty-fifty. You keep one third for you and Willie, and I’ll take two thirds for my people.” According to court testimony, the surcharge scam eventually netted the conspirators over $6.5 million, two thirds of which was sent back to Chicago. The surcharge was merely a hint of things to come. With all the pieces now in place, the time had at last arrived for the “Chicago crowd” to apply the coup de grace.
In April 1936, the studio heads were thunderstruck upon learning that their wicked alliance had backfired: The moguls themselves were but mere pawns in the Outfit’s game. On April 16, Willie Bioff, George Browne, and Nick Circella showed up at Nick Schenck’s New York office, and Browne let the other shoe drop. “I want you to know that I am the boss,” Browne intoned, “and that I want two million dollars out of the motion picture industry.” Schenck turned pale. He later testified that he thought Browne had lost his mind and was talking nonsense. “At first I couldn’t talk,” remembered Schenck. He recalled Bioff’s saying, “You know what will happen. We gave you a taste of it in Chicago. We will close down every theater in the country. You couldn’t take that. It will cost you many millions of dollars over and over again. Think it over.” George Browne then chimed in and assured Schenck that Bioff and he were serious and gave Schenck a few hours to ponder his fate. During the break, Nick Schenck met with Sidney R. Kent, the chief of Loew’s sister company, Twentieth Century-Fox. Kent begged the entrapped Schenck, “Talk them out of it. They’ll wreck the industry.” But Kent was probably unaware of Schenck’s previous deal with the Outfit that now tied the industry’s hands.
When the gangsters returned that afternoon, Schenck told them there was no way he could raise the $2 million. Willie Bioff cut him off, countering, “All right. I’ll take one million.” Schenck again tried to spar with Bioff, who ended all discussion when he stood up to leave, saying, “One million. That’s my final offer.” Sidney Kent’s objections aside, the studio heads really had no choice; they had happily allowed the Outfit to take over and reinvigorate IATSE, and now they had to pay the price. It was now impossible to operate the studios without IATSE. The next day, the gang returned and Bioff dictated the payment schedule: $50,000 per year from each of the four major studios (Fox, Warner Bros., MGM, and Paramount), and $25,000 from the smaller firms (RKO and Columbia, for example). Making matters worse, Willie the pimp was in a hurry: “Oh, yes, and I want one hundred thousand up front.”
Within three days, the beleaguered Kent and Schenck raised the cash and delivered it to Bioff and Browne at their suite at the Waldorf-Astoria. Although the two gangsters nervously harbored the thought that the movie executives might turn up with the feds, their fears were quickly dispelled. As per Bioff’s instructions, both producers carried plain brown-paper bundles, each containing $50,000 in hundred-dollar bills. Adding to their indignity, the studio heads were forced to cool their heels while the gang meticulously counted the one thousand individual C-notes. “There were twin beds right there in the hotel suite,” Schenck later told a jury. “I put my money on the right-hand side of the bed. Bioff took half the money and started counting it. He put the other half on the other bed and told Browne to count it.” As Willie Bioff later said, “I had Hollywood dancing to my tune.”
With Fox and Loew’s in line, Bioff headed back to Los Angeles to inform the other studio chiefs of their fate, while Browne took care of business in Chicago. Willie Bioff knew no other game than hardball, and one by one, the studios surrendered to the gang. When studios balked at the extortion, there were threats. Louis B. Mayer, of MGM, later testified that he capitulated only when Bioff threatened to kill him before dawn. In some cases, such as the deeply in debt Warner Bros., Bioff had to settle for less than he demanded. Major Albert Warner cut a deal for $10,000 in advance plus regular installment payments. Financially strapped Paramount produced $27,000. Books were juggled routinely to keep the arrangement from the prying eyes of stockholders. Albert Warner’s brother Harry noted one $12,000 payment as “Christmas presents for critics.”
Only Columbia studios was protected from Bioff’s strong-arm ways. Recall that Columbia’s head, Harry Cohn, was Johnny Rosselli’s best friend in Los Angeles. When Bioff put pressure on Cohn’s studio with a wildcat strike, Cohn immediately picked up the phone and called his buddy, Gentleman Johnny, who raced over to Bioff’s office, despite being told by the secretary that he was out. Finding Willie behind his desk as expected, Rosselli raged, while Bioff pleaded that he had Frank Nitti’s blessing. For Johnny, that did not matter where a close friendship was involved. Besides, Nitti was only a figurehead. The real power was with Accardo, Ricca, and Humphreys. They would understand the difference between business and personal loyalties. “To hell with you and Nitti,” Rosselli screamed. Bioff refused to bend and Rosselli stormed out. But later that night, Rosselli turned up at Bioff’s home with the “Al Capone of Los Angeles,” Jack Dragna, and read Willie the riot act. Bioff called Cohn to announce the strike was canceled. “The strike is off,” Bioff said. “You can thank Johnny - nobody but Johnny could have done this for you” It was Cohn’s last problem with IATSE,
In the first year alone, the Outfit amassed over $1.5 million from the studio extortions and the 2 percent union members’ surcharges. They amplified their profit by anointing the bookmaker for each studio lot. Chicago transplants such as Izzy Adelman handled thousands of bets a month for the studio employees. With all the action in Hollywood, the gang accrued inestimable moneys. “To top it all off, they were getting to screw the best broads in America,” one Outfit associate fondly recalled. Then the original “Slick Willie” engineered a new variation of the extortion scam to take some heat off the studio heads: He had himself appointed “purchasing agent” for all raw film stock acquired from Du Pont Chemicals. His 7 percent commission, for which he did no work, netted Bioff a combined $230,000 in 1937 and 1938. He kept the studios reasonably placated by living up to his end of the bargain: over the next four years, IATSE members in various cities saw their wages decline 15 to 40 percent. When the rival Federation of Motion Picture Craftsmen struck in 1937, Bioff imported some notorious Chicago sluggers to break the strike by breaking some heads. Although the strikers had hired tough longshoremen for protection from Bioff and Rosselli (and by implication the studio bosses), they were far outmuscled by the out-of-towners. The workers watched in terror as thugs armed with Chicago typewriters arrived in Lincoln Zephyr town cars at the Pico Street gate of Twentieth Century-Fox. They met little resistance. The efficiency of the mogul-mobster relationship left even Sidney Kent impressed. “We have had less interruption of employment, less hard feeling, less recrimination,” he declared in 1938, “and have built more goodwill than any industry I know of in the country.” Harry Warner chimed in, admitting that it was just plain “good business” to have a relationship with Bioff.
Joe Schenck knew exactly what Warner meant by “good business.” As Bioff would later testify, the Schenck brothers were in the middle of their own scam when they entered into one with him: They were diverting theater receipts in a profitable scheme that was robbing their stockholders blind. Over six years, as a favor to his new partners, Bioff made at least a dozen courier trips from New York to Hollywood, wherein he delivered bundles of the purloined cash from Nick Schenck to his brother Joe at his house. One such delivery alone amounted to $62,500. Often sitting by his pool while taking the lucre, Joe would ask Willie, “Did Nick take care of your traveling expenses?” When Bioff replied in the negative, Joe handed him $500 from the bundle, “to cover the two cross-country trips you made.” The Shencks attempted to convince Willie that the money was intended to line the pockets of bribed state legislators, not theirs. But Willie knew better. “These businessmen are nothing but two-bit whores with clean shirts and a shine,” Willie philosophized.2
And the Schenck brothers were not the only studio heads who saw the silver lining to be gained by entering into a relationship with gangsters. George Skouras of the eighteen-theater chain of Fox movie houses in New York paid Bioff $25,000 to handle his competition, the Frisch-Rintzler circuit. At the time, the banks were chiding Skouras for mismanaging his theaters to the tune of $60,000 more than it cost Frisch to operate the same number of theaters. Since Skouras had no desire to cut his perks and extravagances, he asked Willie to make certain that his competitors’ operating costs became intolerable. Bioff later recalled that the answer was simple: “As a result of that conversation, I called up the heads of the Frisch-Rintzler circuit and increased their [union pay] scale sixty thousand dollars per year.” Even more disquieting was that the courier for the Bioff bribe was Sol Rosenblatt, former general counsel to the Democratic National Committee, and an administrator in Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act program. For his services, Rosenblatt took a 25 percent commission. As writer Stephen Fox concluded, “Bioff did not have to ’corrupt’ Hollywood any more than he had needed to corrupt the stagehands union. In both instances he merely folded smoothly into the environment.”
Back in Chicago, George Browne quickly moved to consolidate his union’s power. The dissolution of the L.A. local the previous winter was followed in the coming months by the forced nullification of union branches around the country. On July 10,1936, Browne and his “board” declared marshal law: The union, they pronounced, was in “a state of emergency.” Local meetings and elections were banned, and the Outfit began exporting its Chicago craftsmen to Hollywood, where they were placed in key IATSE posts. According to one Outfit insider, “Ricca, Accardo, and Humphreys made one thing clear - their people should be placed in the infrastructure of IATSE, not just in the vulnerable roles of leadership.” This brilliant strategy would ensure the gang’s presence in the film business for decades, even if Bioff took a fall.
With the Outfit allowing Bioff to keep fully a third of the take, he began to compete with the Hollywood set in ostentatious lifestyles. After fifteen years of subjecting his family to life in hotel rooms, Willie the pimp went domestic: In 1937 he purchased an eighty-acre farm and built a spacious home in the L.A. suburb of Woodland Hills. Bioff christened his new home Rancho Laurie after his wife. Instead of hookers, his neighbors were now Hollywood celebrities such as Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor, Tyrone Power, and Clark Gable; he filled his home with Louis XV furniture; he collected rare oriental vases; he built a wood-paneled library that was stocked with rare volumes, although he himself was never known to read beyond the comic-book level; he planted alfalfa and $600 olive trees. “My wife is nuts about flowers and so am I,” Willie told the press. “We grow all our own fruit and vegetables. I’m building a playhouse so I can have a place to entertain my pals.” Bioff later recalled how he furnished his lavish new digs: He muscled $5,000 worth of furniture from RKO executive Leo Spitz. “So I went to Leo and I said, ’Leo, I gotta have some drapes and other things for my new home and I thought maybe you could get them for me wholesale through RKO’s purchasing department.’ Of course I didn’t intend to pay for them.”
Not all of Rancho Laurie’s amenities reflected domestic bliss. In the home where the Bioffs raised seven children there also dwelled a phalanx of bodyguards; not well concealed on the home’s adobe exterior were adornments not normally seen on suburban homes: gun turrets. Willie Bioff took to dressing in “Al Capone chic,” featuring garish, brightly colored tailored suits. When the press teased Willie for wearing $150 suits and $15 shirts, he had a standard retort: “It’s the union that’s rich, not Willie Bioff.”
Bioff audaciously ordered studio heads around as if they worked for him. Once, when a studio gate security guard denied Bioff’s car entry to the lot, Bioff ordered Louis B. Mayer, then the highest-paid executive officer on earth, to drop what he was doing and come out to give the guard a tongue-lashing. Warner Bros.’ president, Harry Warner, so feared the erstwhile panderer that he hired a personal bodyguard. In 1939, Mr. and Mrs. Bioff took a cruise to Brazil; as described by historian Alson Smith, Bioff’s cabin suite overflowed with “flowers and farewell gifts from the movie men whom he was persecuting; most of whom were fervently praying he would drown.”
Then came Nitti, Charles Gioe, Louis Campagna, and the others. All were grim-faced. There was no laughter or greeting. Nitti waited until all were seated, then he spoke. “Bioff, you been trying to muscle in. You think you’re going to run things for yourself. You’re trying to put yourself in front of George Browne. You’re trying to take personal charge of this vaudeville actors” union and its treasury and its dues. You’re just headed for a hearse . . . From now on, Charlie Gioe will run this actors’ union. Now let’s hear no more about it.
Bioff came to his senses and groveled back to California with his tail between his legs.
Willie Bioff was now the cock of the walk, and he never let anyone forget it. His temerity even extended, albeit briefly, to his relations with the Outfit. One nervy perpetration nearly cost him his life. Bioff’s close shave was precipitated by a Commission decision to absorb a vaudeville performers’ union called the Artists and Actors Association of America within IATSE. Since the crime bosses of New York and Chicago controlled so many nightclubs where the vaudevillians worked, the alliance would obviously assist with bookings and pay negotiations. But Willie Bioff opposed the move, coveting this one union, and its treasury, for himself. As if unfamiliar with the Outfit’s talent for retribution, Willie refused to facilitate the gang’s directive. Bioff later testified that a few days after his foolhardy show of independence, he received a call from Paul “the Waiter” Ricca. “You’re in trouble, but good,” Ricca bellowed. The Outfit boss then ordered “Willie the Maverick” to catch the next plane to Chicago. On his arrival in the Windy City, Bioff went directly to Nitti’s office at the Bismarck Hotel, where he was met by Ricca. “He said he came early to warn me,” Bioff later said. Willie was about to become the defendant in a kangaroo court presided over by all the Outfit members. Local journalist George Murray described the scene:
With its coffers bulging, the Outfit’s Chicago-based members also began enjoying the spoils of victory, like Bioff in California. After 10 percent of the profits were allocated to the Outfit’s mutual fund, a sort of corporate treasury, the hoods indulged themselves. The Capone style was much in evidence, if not in the way the Outfit bosses conducted business, than at least in the manner in which they spent their earnings. Much as Capone had relaxed at his brother’s Mercer, Wisconsin, farm, and at his own digs in Florida, so did his heirs. Paul Ricca, who filed his tax returns as a marble importer and owner of the World Playhouse Movie Theater, acquired an eleven-hundred-acre farm in Kendall County, Illinois, for $75,000. At about the same time, Paul had suffered multiple fractures (back, pelvis, leg, and foot) when a Loop building elevator in which he was riding fell three floors. For a time, Sunday-night Outfit meetings were held at his farm while he recuperated. Ricca’s wife, the former Nancy Gigiante, kept the pasta flowing as the men made their plans. Likewise, Louis Campagna and his wife, Charlotte, purchased an eight-hundred-acre farm, the L.C. Ranch, in Fowler, Indiana, and a second eighty-eight acre spread in Berrien Springs, Michigan. At the L.C. Ranch, Campagna devoted most of the acreage to cultivating crops such as wheat, corn, and soybeans; the remaining land was set aside for his two hundred head of cattle. In the years to come, Curly Humphreys, as well as Capone’s cousin Charlie Fischetti, also followed the Big Guy’s lead and bought vacation homes in Florida.
Unlike Accardo and others, Humphreys believed the Outfit should refrain from purchasing ostentatious digs in Illinois. When in Chicago, Curly lived in a succession of upscale hotels, the Bernard, the St. Clair, and later the Morrison. By this time, the Humphreys family included their toddler daughter, Llewella, born in 1935.3 The new arrival prompted Curly to purchase a nondescript Chicago house, although he continued to lease hotel rooms for the many nights he would be away from home. In the yard of the family’s 7710 Bennett Avenue home, Curly built his daughter an intentionally crooked garden playhouse, a reference to Curly’s way of life.
As the years wore on, Humphreys spent an increasing amount of time in Norman, Oklahoma, the place of his half-Cherokee wife’s upbringing, taking the opportunity to build by his own hand a modest home on his three-square-mile parcel of land. The house contained a secret entrance to a basement that was believed to be used for gang business and money storage. Curly’s sense of humor was much in evidence at the Norman house: His in-ground pool had silver dollars affixed to the bottom so he could watch in delight as guests dove in to try to retrieve them. Curly insulated his Oklahoma relations, who referred to him as Uncle Lew, from his line of work, and he and Clemi often spoke in Italian when discussing Outfit business in their presence. Humphreys bonded with the Native American inhabitants in the area, paying them extravagantly for house chores and groundskeeping. His gardener, a Native American known as Skybuck, educated Curly to the tragic plight of his fellows, initiating Curly’s lifelong devotion to their cause. Curly’s nephew Jimmy O’Neill recalled, “Every holiday, Uncle Lew would go downtown, fill the station wagon with turkeys and other food, and give it to the underprivileged Indian children.” To this day, old-timers fondly recall Curly Humphreys’ handing out silver dollars to complete strangers who appeared destitute. So total was the break from his life in the Windy City that Curly the Welshman took to dressing in cowboy attire when in town.
Some Outfit bosses, such as Humphreys and Accardo, traveled extensively. Humphreys’ widow maintains a photo scrapbook stuffed with pictures of family vacations to China, Egypt, France, Cuba, and Hawaii. The Accardos enjoyed European getaways and trips to Nova Scotia and the Caribbean, where Joe became an accomplished deep-sea fisherman. While Curly Humphreys and Joe Accardo preferred international travel, others took sumptuous vacations to venues like the “gangsters’ spa” in Hot Springs, Arkansas, owned by New York bootlegger Owney “the English Godfather” Madden. Often, the gangsters took the opportunity to visit their new fiefdom in southern California. On one such getaway, Louis Campagna was awestruck when he saw his first lawn sprinkler system on the front yard of a Beverly Hills estate. Inspired, the gangster purchased five hundred such sprinkler heads for his newly acquired Chicago mansion.
The Comely Courier
Nick Circella and George Browne were more businesslike with their shares, forming a side partnership to create the lavishly appointed Colony Club, a bistro that fostered a number of relationships that had serious consequences for the entire national Commission. One such liaison involved one of the many call girls working the Colony. Virginia “Sugar” Hill was a voluptuous redheaded prostitute who had moved to Chicago from the impoverished steel town of Lipscomb, Virginia, as a teen in 1933. Born Onie Virginia Hill, the youngster joined thousands of others who gravitated to the promised bonanza known as the “Century of Progress” under construction in the Windy City. As fate would have it, before her job at the Colony, Hill had found work as a waitress at the Outfit’s San Carlo Italian Village on the fairgrounds, where it was rumored that every gang member had made a play for her.
Hill was brought into the Outfit’s confidence by Jake Guzik’s chief lieutenant and money launderer, Joe “Joey Ep” Epstein. As the man responsible for the collection of the gang’s moneys from racetracks, handbooks, studio shakedowns, and other sundry ventures, Epstein was always casting about for nonsuspicious methods of transporting the money back to the gang, laundering it, and finally, depositing it in the Outfit’s numerous offshore and Swiss bank accounts. One of his tried-and-true methods was the enlistment of classy-looking women who would not invite suspicion from the authorities. At this time, according to a friend, Epstein was employing the services of three women from the Near North Side. Epstein decided to groom Hill for the job and furnished her with the finest upperworld wardrobe and coiffures. In time, Hill distinguished herself from her peers and became Epstein’s top courier. Hill began traveling from city to city under dozens of aliases, collecting the gang’s lucre, and often cleaning it at the tracks herself. With Epstein calling the shots, Hill took thousands of gang dollars to the tracks, where she was directed to bet on races where the winner had been predetermined. Hill then brought the “new money” back to Chicago, and from there to Switzerland.
In her insatiable quest for fame and celebrity, Hill had dalliances with countless gang bosses in every major city, including one, still known only to a handful of insiders, with Moe Dalitz, of Detroit’s Purple Gang. (This liaison would play a pivotal role in one of gangland’s most infamous rubouts, that of Bugsy Siegel.) Epstein and the Outfit soon decided to offer Hill an even more dangerous assignment: She was asked to spy on prominent bosses throughout the country, such as New York’s Joe Adonis (Doto), with whom the Outfit had entered into partnerships. When in Chicago, Hill became the Outfit’s token female member, the first (and only known) woman invited to sit at the backroom table of Accardo, Humphreys, and the rest. And for her critical role in the Outfit’s smooth running, Hill was well compensated. Not only did she receive a healthy commission for moneys delivered, but she was also tipped to numerous fixed races (known by the hoods as boat races), allowing her to bet heavily and win big. No one knows exactly how much Hill was worth at her peak, but she owned or leased posh homes in many big cities such as New York, where she encouraged the rumor that she was, according to the New York Journal-American, a “twenty-three-year-old Georgia oil heiress.”
In New York, Hill became grist for the society and gossip columnists, who regularly reported on her legendary parties. In 1941, the Journal-American called her a “much photographed Manhattan glamor girl.” The paper also gave her the distinction of being the woman with the most fur coats in the country. (The wags were unaware that Hill supplemented her income by selling “hot” furs to her society girlfriends. Hill had seen how many gamblers were pawning off their wives’ furs to her real Chicago love, gambling boss Ira Colitz. Hill convinced Colitz to convert his North Clark Street Clover Bar backroom into a walk-in cooler to store furs that Hill in turn sold to her uptown pals; Hill also occasionally trafficked in hot diamonds acquired in the same manner.) In time, Hill would cast her spell on more top hoods in every sector of the nation, making a fateful assignation with Ben Siegel, about which much more will be seen.
In addition to his Colony Club investment, George Browne diversified into the profession of benefit-concert promoter. With Chicago’s Grand Opera House as his main venue, Browne promoted a series of concerts featuring a virtual who’s who of the legitimate stage: Sophie Tucker, Amos V Andy, Helen Morgan, Fanny Brice, Gypsy Rose Lee, and the Ritz Brothers, to name a few. Of course, 100 percent of the costly $20 tickets sold “benefited” only George Browne’s personal bank account.
The Outfit elite making the trek to Hollywood found themselves warmly received by the fawning studio heads and, after some encouragement, began to buy into the studios as silent partners. With insider information from the moguls’ bookie, Johnny Rosselli, the gangsters knew more about the studio chiefs’ financial condition than even their own families. One word from Johnny about an executive with vigorish problems was all that was needed for the gang to offer their lending services. While some hoods became consultants on gangster flicks, Johnny Rosselli and New Jersey boss Abner “Longy” Zwillman became full-fledged producers, together responsible for more than half a dozen box-office hits. Not surprisingly, their crime-genre films were praised by critics for their realism.
Even the hoodlums’ kids found something to appreciate about their parents’ association with Hollywood. Children of Outfit members have described private, “closed set” tours of the Hollywood studios, conducted not by teenaged tour guides, but by the movie moguls themselves, much to the dislike of their contract players. On all their trips West, the gangsters were “comped” by IATSE, with all travel expenses charged to the union. Louis Campagna had a preference for his union-supplied seaside digs in the expensive Malibu enclave. The gang’s new friendships in Tinseltown occasionally provided more practical benefits. On at least one occasion, Joe Accardo hid out with Hollywood producer Howard J. Beck while he was being investigated in Chicago by the Civil Service Commission. Other Outfit hoods on the lam, among them Butch Blasi and Sam DeStefano, were dispatched to Hollywood, where they were given cushy union jobs and temporary new identities until the heat cooled in the Second City.
Behind the scenes, Curly, Joe, and Paul called the shots. Occasionally this meant looking out for the interests of their Commission partners back East. In one instance, using trusted aide Ralph Pierce as intermediary, Curly Humphreys directed Johnny Rosselli to keep an eye on Longy Zwillman’s girlfriend. The stunning young actress, born Harlean Car-pentier in Chicago, had become a box-office sensation under the name Jean Harlow. The platinum blond Harlow, nicknamed Baby, was also the stepdaughter of Chicago mobster Marino Bello, who earned dirty money by pimping her to many studio executives.4 Zwillman thus was reassured to learn that Johnny Rosselli would escort Harlow in Longy’s absence.
With the exception of new homes purchased out of state and in upscale Chicago suburbs, and Nick Circella’s new investments in his nightclub enterprises, the Outfit kept a low profile on their home turf of Chicago. Thriving associates who found it difficult to keep their names out of the newspapers were harshly punished. Joe Accardo and Curly Humphreys, not wishing to repeat Big Al’s mistakes, were in total disdain of any publicity. But for all their planning, the gang’s six-year-old scheme in Hollywood was about to unravel. The endgame would bring about prison terms for some Outfit bosses, who then refined their enterprise still again, giving them a future virtually unmolested by their upperworld adversaries.
1. Other Outfit brands at the time included Great Lakes draft beer, Badger and Cream Top bottled beer, Gold Seal liquors, and anything made by their breweries: Manhattan Brewery and the Capitol Wine and Liquor Company.
2. According to Mooney Giancana, the Outfit also used its Hollywood partner Joe Schenck to funnel a half million dollars to Roosevelt’s 1936 reelection campaign.
3. Family friends hold that Llewella was actually an adopted child, the progeny of an illicit affair between an Outfit boss and Clemi’s sister, Isola.
4. When she married Paul Bern, assistant to brilliant MGM producer Irving Thalberg, Bello wasn’t pleased. Two months later Bern was shot to death. Longy Zwillman had previously made a deal with Bern to bring him into the New York mob “so long as Longy can fuck the Baby.”