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Authors: Tim Newark

Boardwalk Gangster

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or the first twenty-five years of his criminal career, Charles “Lucky” Luciano was a vicious mobster who rose to become the multimillionaire king of the New York underworld. For the next twenty-five years of his life, Luciano was a legend—but a fake master criminal without real power, his evil reputation manipulated and maintained by the government agents who put him behind bars.
Drawing on once-secret government documents from archives in America and Europe, I have sought to tell the true story of the legendary gangster from his early days as a top hit man for the Mob to his exploits running sex and narcotics empires. I reveal for the first time Luciano’s transatlantic trip to Weimar Germany to set up a drug-importing racket. When Luciano went to jail, his reputation was only enhanced when rumors emerged about him helping the Allies to win World War II. By cross-referencing military reports in America with
personal accounts in Sicily, I have exposed the truth about what Luciano really did to assist the Allies in the war.
With his expulsion from the United States, Luciano returned to Italy where he became the arch villain for international law enforcement agencies. He was reputed to head a massive transatlantic narcotics network, but, in truth, Luciano was being used by government agents to justify their own bloated law enforcement budgets. It was a complex conspiracy in which Luciano—the fake master criminal—became the victim of far bigger powers around him. There is even some evidence that, at one time, he was working as a Cold War agent, helping the U.S. government fight Communism in Sicily. It is an extraordinary story that has never been told fully before, but first one must deal with the issue of the most notorious book written about the gangster.
Richard Hammer was a slim, fit eighty-year-old when I met him for lunch at the Atlantic Grill on Third Avenue on New York City’s Upper East Side. He used to run every day, but now he just cycles. Hammer is the coauthor of the controversial bestseller
The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano,
first published in 1975. It is a dramatic account of the mobster’s life told supposedly through his own words as he looked back over a life of crime. An exciting page-turner, it has been constantly dogged with criticism from those who believe it is bogus. Journalist Tony Scaduto unleashed a scathing twelve-page attack on it in his 1976 biography of Luciano, calling it “fraudulent” and “a complete fantasy,” picking it apart error by error. So, how do you get to the truth behind the book? How do you ask an author whether he made it all up?
After speaking to Hammer on the phone and talking to publishers who had chatted with him, I got the feeling that he was understandably rather irritated by the decades-old fuss about the book. It is just one of more than twenty books he has written
and it is certainly not the one he is most proud of. A literature major, he wrote an award-nominated account of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam and was a brilliant young writer for the
New York Times
before he was asked to take on the Luciano project.
Self-styled film producer Martin Gosch had met Luciano while he was in exile in Italy in 1961. He had helped the mobster write a screenplay based on his life. Luciano was fed up with all the lies written about him and wanted to tell it as he wanted it told. But just as they were looking forward to casting the actor to play Luciano, they got word from New York that his Mafia associates were not happy with the idea of a movie about them. His longtime criminal partner Meyer Lansky was behind the threats and Luciano took them very seriously. He told Gosch that the movie was off—otherwise they’d both be dead.
Instead, Luciano asked Gosch to take down his life story. He wanted the truth to get out somehow, but only on the condition that it would be published ten years after he died so as not to upset any of his gangster friends. Over the next few months, Gosch took down the memories of the mafioso. Just ten months later, Luciano was dead, struck down by a heart attack as he waited for Gosch at Naples Airport. There is no doubting that Gosch knew Luciano and heard many stories from his lips, but how true is the account that eventually appeared as
The Last Testament
more than a decade later? No one could check with Gosch because he died in 1973, fifteen months before the book was published.
“We had arguments about the book all the time,” recalled Hammer, then in his mid-forties. “He thought he was a great writer.”
At one stage, it was believed that the memoirs were dictated to a tape recorder.
“There were never any tapes,” says Hammer. “It was the early sixties and tape recorders were big things. Martin talked
to Luciano and took lots of notes. It was this pile of notes that he handed to me and I would check things over with him.”
Through the course of his professional writing, Hammer has dealt with many gangsters, but as he transcribed the notes, he developed a certain respect for the chief mobster.
“Most gangsters are stupid—Luciano was a great businessman. He was the most significant organized crime figure of his period—along with Lansky.”
Luciano was, however, a relentless liar. On trial in 1936, he lied from the beginning to the end of his testimony, most outrageously saying he was born in New York when most everyone knew he came from Sicily. There are many occasions in
The Last Testament
when what is supposedly the truth coming from Luciano is clearly not true and is contradicted by recorded facts and other accounts. One of the most glaring errors is his story of when he was kidnapped in 1929 in Manhattan and then dumped in a field in Staten Island after having been beaten severely. In the book, he describes being strung up by the wrists from a wooden beam and tortured by henchmen of Salvatore Maranzano, who wanted to force him to kill another Mafia boss. It is like a scene out of a gangster B-movie and may well have come from the original screenplay. It certainly has nothing to do with what really happened as recalled by Luciano in more reliable accounts.
“What people don’t understand,” says Hammer, “is that I told my publisher that the book should be footnoted to make the point that some of what Luciano said didn’t match with the truth, but they said no. It wasn’t that kind of book. The book tells the story of his life as he wanted it told. It’s his slant.”
And that includes all the lies he chose to tell to serve his own ends. Hammer says as much in the introduction to
The Last Testament
: “Parts of it may seem self-serving, and they may well be.”
It seems highly unlikely that Gosch’s original handwritten notes covered all the topics detailed in the book. It is a long
book, and Hammer was hired because of his knowledge of organized crime (he had written a twelve-part series on the history of the Mafia for
) and his research skills as a reporter. He had to add material to tell the full story. As he processed the notes, he also had to give a creative coherence to it—to evoke the character of the man himself. The voice of Luciano is highly convincing.
“Yeah, I worked hard at that,” says Hammer.
For all its faults—some no doubt intended as misinformation by Luciano—the book has some value to the criminal historian. Among the numerous anecdotes are surprising nuggets that are not heard anywhere else, such as Murder, Inc. hit man Albert Anastasia torching the
ocean liner. That is a truly sensational piece of evidence unique to the book.
“That had a ring of truth about it,” agrees Hammer.
We will never be able to check the notes used by Hammer to write the book, as the widow of Martin Gosch burned them shortly after he died.
So, my approach to utilizing
The Last Testament
in this work is not to quote directly from it, as it is mired in too much controversy for this to be acceptable to the critical reader, but if a story does appear in its pages and has some interest, I have noted its origin and mentioned it. At some stage, Gosch did talk to Luciano and no doubt got some elements of truth out of him that have some value. Other interviews with Luciano in Italy in the 1950s are regarded as valid, so why not include this among them as long as we take it with a grain of salt?
It is also interesting to note that some accounts that are highly regarded by historians who have poured scorn on
The Last Testament
are closely based on the book. For example, Meyer Lansky’s memoirs, as recorded in the 1979 book by Dennis Eisenberg and others,
Mogul of the Mob,
formed part of the material used by Robert Lacey in his excellent biography
Little Man
. In his source notes, Lacey condemns “the purported memoirs of Lucky
Luciano,” saying “My own research has more than confirmed the doubts cast on their veracity by critics.” But many of Lansky’s recollections placed in quotation marks in
Mogul of the Mob
merely paraphrase discredited stories in
The Last Testament
. If you disregard one, then you should disregard the other.
Wherever possible, I have based my account of Lucky Luciano on unpublished primary documents found in archives in New York, Washington, D.C., London, and Palermo, some of which have never been fully considered before. These are mainly police and government papers, but they are often based on direct interviews with gangsters. I have uncovered several stories that shed new light on the criminal career of Charles Luciano and so I hope that this title is worthy of adding to the canon of fine works written on the history of organized crime and finally sets the record straight.
ack Diamond, thirty-four years old, successful owner of the Hotsy Totsy Club on Broadway in New York City, rested comfortably in the plush surroundings of a first-class passenger car on the Ostend-Vienna Express on the evening of September 1, 1930. He’d had a wine-fueled dinner and was chatting away to four other gentlemen attired in elegant suits. The next day they would be in Germany, but at midnight the express shuddered to a halt on the frontier at Aix-la-Chapelle. German police—armed with Luger nine-millimeter Parabellum pistols—clattered through the coaches and asked the Irish-American Diamond to accompany them. As he stepped onto the platform, Diamond glanced up at a poster—it showed a man in uniform with a Charlie Chaplin–style mustache and a swastika in the background.
The German police had little interest in Diamond’s companions—at least three of who were Italian-Americans—and let them continue on their journey to Cologne. They took the New York club owner to the local police station and questioned
him. They asked him why he was in Germany. He explained that he was on holiday with his companions and because he suffered from stomach ailments he was going to visit one of their famous German spa towns. They asked him if he was the same Jack “Legs” Diamond, the notorious New York gangster. He said no. They then presented him with a set of fingerprints obtained from Berlin police headquarters belonging to the mobster. Even though they matched, Diamond insisted it was all a case of mistaken identity. The police checked his passport and saw that it was in order, including a stamped visa for entry to Germany.
Having arrested an American citizen, the German police were then unsure what to do next. The American embassy in Berlin said they had merely informed the German authorities of Diamond’s presence on their territory but did not request his arrest or return to their country. Sensing the German police had little on him, Diamond began to get ratty and demanded to see the American consul in Cologne. After a second police interview, a local journalist was allowed to talk to him.
“It’s all lies,” he snarled at the reporter, clutching his abdomen. “The New York police pester me all the time. They arrested me twenty-two times in the last few years and always had to let me go for lack of evidence. I came to Europe to seek quiet. I want to go to Vichy and Wiesbaden to take the cure. My stomach is bothering me.”
Unable to charge him or pass him on to another country because his visa was for Germany only, the police handed over the matter to their alien division. Doctors checked Diamond for any symptoms that required treatment at a German spa but could find nothing genuinely wrong with him. Deemed an undesirable by the Prussian minister of the interior, Diamond was accompanied by two detectives and put in a second-class compartment on a night express to Hamburg in northern Germany.
On September 6, Diamond was escorted onto the freighter
As a crowd of two hundred gathered on the dockside to see off the steamer, one man asked him how he liked Germany.
“I hate it,” he growled. The ship had no passenger cabins, but one of the officers gave up his room for him. He would eat at the captain’s mess. At the last moment, a German lawyer from Hamburg rushed on board. Calling himself Dr. Stork, he said he had been sent by Diamond’s friends in the United States, but Diamond ignored him until he pronounced a special code word cabled to Diamond by his New York lawyer. Stork told him to go a particular hotel in Philadelphia when the ship docked and there he would find messages for him. Diamond instructed Stork to start an official complaint against the Prussian minister of the interior. As Diamond settled down to his sixteen-day voyage, he discovered he was to be accompanied by a cargo of several thousand canaries. The irony was not lost on him. Someone had certainly squawked about his mission to Germany.
When Diamond walked down the gangplank in Philadelphia, he was served with a warrant charging him with being a suspicious character. He was photographed and fingerprinted. “I wanted to go to Germany for my health,” he insisted. “I’ve got a very bad stomach. But what happens? The newspapers up and hint I’m going to Europe to kill somebody.” He wasn’t concerned about facing the police but feared the reaction of his wife to a story printed in a German newspaper linking him to a blond German singer. He told customs officials that a Hamburg café had offered him $1,800 a month to perform in a cabaret for them. “It wasn’t enough,” he said.
So, if Diamond wasn’t really going to Germany for his health or a cabaret job, what was he doing there in September 1930? An answer came just a month later. By then, Diamond had been shot while staying at the Hotel Monticello. He was relaxing in a luxury suite with his mistress, showgirl Kiki Roberts, when two gunmen burst in and shot him four times. Miraculously, he survived the assault, but in the following police investigation, an associate of Diamond, a bookmaker called Robert V. Miller, known as “Count Duval,” admitted he had been sent by Diamond to Germany on a mission for him.
Miller was supposed to buy a consignment of rye whiskey for Diamond’s nightclub and was to get 5 percent on the deal. Given traveling expenses of $500, he sailed on a separate ship than Diamond and when he heard his boss had been arrested in Germany, he aborted the trip. In Paris, he received a telegram from Diamond telling him to collect money owed him in London. Prohibition was still in force in New York and illicit liquor was at a premium, but it seemed a long way to go for a few crates of whiskey.
A stronger clue to the true purpose behind Diamond’s ill-fated journey to Weimar Germany comes in the identity of his fellow travelers. Before the New York mobster had reached continental Europe, his White Star liner
had docked at Queenstown harbor in Ireland. An enterprising local reporter checked the list of passengers on board and found that Diamond was accompanied by four friends. One was Charles Green, formerly known as Entratta; the other three were called Treager, Aricidiaco, and Lucania. That fourth man was Charles Lucania—a rising gangster who, just a few years later, would become infamous as Charles “Lucky” Luciano, boss of bosses of New York’s underworld. Confirmation of Luciano’s presence on this voyage came five years later when an FBI memorandum referred to “Charles Luciana” accompanying Jack Diamond to “Europe in the summer of 1930.” The arrest of Diamond and the resulting publicity subsequently disrupted their plans, said the report—or did it?
In December 1931, an Italian-American drug dealer called August Del Grazio was arrested by German police in Hamburg. In his possession was an invoice for a shipment of 1,430 pounds of narcotics, but when they raced to the pier to wrench open the suspicious crates, they found nothing inside. The frustrated police feared the drugs were already on a ship bound for New York. The raid came as a result of their investigation into a drug
smuggler called “Afghan Moses.” When the police searched Afghan Moses’s home, they found receipts that led them to locate 550 pounds of narcotics hidden on a ship from Turkey. Del Grazio had been arrested as soon as he stepped off the Simplon Express from Venice via Cologne and southern Germany. When he was searched, papers linked him to Afghan Moses and an international narcotics smuggling ring.
When German detectives spoke to their colleagues in New York, they discovered that Del Grazio was from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where he was known as “Little Augie the Wop.” He had been under observation ever since three tons of narcotics had been seized at Pier 84 at West Fifty-fourth Street, disguised in a shipment of woolen clothing.
Del Grazio was a longtime criminal who knew Lucky Luciano well enough to offer him help nineteen years later when the mobster was in prison. Federal narcotics agent George White testified to the Kefauver Committee inquiry that Del Grazio approached him on behalf of gangster mastermind Frank Costello with a deal to get Luciano out of jail.
In 1931, it seems likely that Del Grazio was completing a narcotics deal that had been set up by Luciano in Germany a year earlier. The Bureau of Narcotics report, quoted by the FBI, said “a conspiracy existed to smuggle narcotics from Europe into the United States” and had subsequently failed because of Diamond’s arrest, but this was only partly right. Diamond’s arrest had thrown his own personal part of the deal into disarray, but Luciano must have completed the deal in the shadows. Otherwise, why would Del Grazio—known well to Luciano and his associates—still be there a year later?
It seems remarkable that Charles “Lucky” Luciano should be walking the streets of Weimar Germany in 1930. At the same time, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party were campaigning hard to win national elections, and on September 14 they won over six million votes, making them the second-largest political party in the country.
Luciano would have seen their election posters and anti-Semitic slogans everywhere. He might even have seen Nazi Brownshirts bullying Jewish citizens. He had grown up in a heavily Jewish populated district of New York and many of his closest friends and business partners were Jewish. Seeing German Nazis at close quarters gave him a bitter dislike for Hitler and his racist cause that would endure into World War II.
It is important to note that Luciano’s business trip to Naziinfested Germany has not been mentioned before in any of the studies of the mobster and his career. It is not mentioned at all in
The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano,
the book that controversially claimed to be based on the firsthand recollections of his life. Even when Meyer Lansky, his closest lifelong criminal associate, related his memoirs to an Israeli journalist, he failed to mention Diamond and Luciano’s journey to Germany. The reason for this is not altogether surprising. In later life, Luciano and Lansky were happy to talk about their profiteering during Prohibition and their shoot-outs with other gangsters, but they were certainly not going to admit to being at the heart of an international drug-smuggling network.
In 1930, dealing in illicit drugs was a relatively new criminal business. Heroin—the most infamous of narcotic drugs derived from morphine—was first manufactured in Germany in 1898 by Bayer Pharmaceutical as a cough medicine. Early users said it made them feel “heroic,” and from that was born its commercial name. By the first decade of the twentieth century, heroin was marketed widely in the United States and attracted its first recreational users from the middle classes, but the habit soon spread to the less affluent, who became increasingly desperate to fund their next fix.
Tales of these “junkies”—so called because they sold anything, including junk metal, to raise money for heroin—stirred the government into action and they banned its use without
prescription in 1914. “The most harmful form of opiate with which we have to deal is heroin,” declared Dr. Charles B. Towns in 1915, an early campaigner against it. “Heroin is three times as strong as morphine in its action. It shows more quickly a deleterious effect upon the human system, the mental, moral and physical deterioration of its takers being more marked than in the case of any other form of opiate.” In 1917, the
New York Times
ran a headline claiming there were three hundred thousand drug addicts in New York City—the majority of them from the prosperous middle classes. Two years later, doctors were banned from prescribing heroin altogether, but by then an underworld market in illegal drugs had already been established.
Charles Luciano’s first and only prison sentence, until the mid-1930s, came about because of his involvement in dealing heroin in the Lower East Side in 1916, when he was just eighteen years old. In April 1924, a bill prohibiting the importation of crude opium for the purpose of manufacturing heroin was put before the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. Sidney W. Brewster was the deputy warden of Hart Island prison in New York City, and he gave chilling testimony at the bill hearings.
“In 1910 or 1911 and up to four or five years ago in the underworld the drug chiefly used was morphine and cocaine, morphine being termed a necessary drug and cocaine a luxury,” explained Brewster. In the last four or five years heroin has gradually succeeded morphine and to quite some extent cocaine. The reason for this is that heroin is approximately three times as powerful as morphine; and further, the addict in taking heroin gets some of the effects which he ordinarily would get from cocaine.”
Brewster said that a cocktail of drugs was used by a variety of addicts from actors to gangsters to “jazz up” their lives, but he said there was a worrying trend for drugs being used during criminal acts.
“At the present time, in one of the most recent crimes of
violence,” said Brewster, “the Diamond case, in New York, which involved the robbing and murder of two bank messengers in broad daylight, two of the actual perpetrators of the crime were under the influence of heroin. In many cases the leaders of the various gangs of gunmen do not use narcotics themselves but when they send out members of the gang on a crime to commit murder or robbery they see that they are well charged before they go.”
The jazzed-up robbers who killed the two bank employees in November 1923 were Barlow Morris Diamond and Joseph G. Diamond. They were no relations of Jack Diamond, but the crime made the headlines. Clearly, drug use among psychopathic criminals only enhanced their level of violence. In his testimony, Brewster quoted New York police records for 1923, saying there were approximately six thousand arrests in the city in connection with illegal drugs.
“The man who uses heroin is a potential murderer,” said Brewster. “He loses all consciousness of moral responsibility, also fear of consequences.”
BOOK: Boardwalk Gangster
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