The History of Riley and the Roaring Twenties: Cornelius on Broadway

The Jimmy Breslin biography of Damon Runyon that is mentioned by Cornelius is an excellent and entertaining account of Runyon’s life, although it is not annotated and one suspects that Breslin did not let excessive devotion to historical accuracy get in the way of a good story. Runyon was born in 1880 in Manhattan, Kansas, allowing many a writer to comment on how he was born in one Manhattan and became the inimitable voice of another one. At least he had the good sense to be born in the one in Kansas and to become the voice of the one in New York, rather than the other way around.

 Runyon had a brilliant career as a reporter for the Hearst organization, during which he developed a reputation on Broadway as someone who was always around and always kept his eyes open, but wouldn’t create problems for anyone. Thus, he was allowed access to a world of gamblers, hustlers and gangsters that normally had no use for outsiders. He turned what he saw and heard into a remarkably popular series of funny, sentimental and astonishingly well-written short stories that created the model for the good-hearted bad guy that has become a staple in books and movies. He always used the present tense and wrote in a slang language that has become known as Runyonese. Beyond the iconic Runyon musical Guys and Dolls, movies based on his stories include The Lemon Drop Kid with Bob Hope; A Pocketful of Miracles with Bette Davis and Glenn Ford; and Little Miss Marker with Shirley Temple.

Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria came to New York from Sicily and by 1922, he had fought his way to the leadership of a Mafia crime family in lower Manhattan. His chief lieutenant, as in the novel, was Charles Lucano, who became known as Lucky Luciano after newspapers got his name wrong. Others in Masseria’s crew included Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia and Frank Costello, and his family was allied with Jewish gangsters Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. In 1930, Masseria’s family became involved in a war with a rival gang led by Salvatore Maranzano. It was called the Castellammarese War because Maranzano had emigrated from Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily. The war ended when Luciano turned his coat and arranged for Masseria to be murdered at his favorite restaurant in Coney Island. Masseria is said to have had the honor of being executed by four of the modern Mafia’s fiercest killers: Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia, Joe Adonis and Bugsy Siegel.

 Maranzano also proved unsatisfactory to Mr. Luciano, who had him killed five months after the murder of Masseria. Luciano then led the process of organizing the Mafia under the leadership of “the Commission”  or “the Syndicate,” which was to make decisions and resolve underworld disputes nationwide. The enforcement arm of the Commission was nicknamed Murder Incorporated and was headed by Albert Anastasia and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter.

 Polly Adler was born in Russia in 1900. On coming to New York, she worked as a showgirl and drifted into the world of prostitution. With an engaging personality and a shrewd head for business, she became the city’s leading madam and headed a brothel that attracted a clientele both from high society and from the mob. Patrons are said to have included Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, Dutch Schultz, Harold Ross, Desi Arnaz, Milton Berle and Peter Arno. There is a rumor that the vanished Judge Crater died at one of Polly’s brothels.

The story of the Algonquin Round Table is too well known to require much rehashing. As Cornelius describes, the Table began when Dorothy Parker was fired from Vanity Fair and her friends Robert Benchley and Robert Sherwood resigned in protest. The trio began lunching at the Rose Room in the Algonquin and came to be joined by a number of writers, artists and theatrical people, many of whom are named in the novel. Accusations abounded that the members of the Round Table shamelessly promoted each other and dished outsiders. Alexander Woollcott and Harpo Marx were great friends, although Harpo did not return the romantic passion Woollcott plainly felt for him.

The Marx Brothers opened at the Casino Theater on Broadway in the musical revue I’ll Say She Is on May 19, 1924. It was an immediate smash. Of the many highly favorable reviews, the one written by Alexander Woollcott was no doubt the most florid. The Marx Brothers later scored successes on Broadway in The Cocoanuts (1925) and Animal Crackers (1928), both musical comedies with books written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind. The brothers then went on to success in the movies. Their first two films re-created the two Kaufman/Ryskind hits.

As Cornelius admits, he is hard on Dorothy Parker. This is perhaps not surprising, since Parker was an alcoholic who passed through a series of unhappy affairs and undoubtedly battled depression. She was also a wonderful writer and the wittiest of a very witty crowd. She later came to despise the Algonquin Round Table, claiming its members dealt in trivial wisecracks while the real writers of the day were people like Lardner, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway. Parker eventually became a screenwriter in Hollywood, where her left-wing politics landed her on the Hollywood blacklist. She died in 1967 and left her estate to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ron Chernow’s terrific book The House of Morgan generally supports what Cornelius says about that august institution. While J. Pierpont Morgan built the House into the preeminent driver of American finance, it was his son Jack who presided after the First World War, when American bankers moved into first position in the world’s financial circles due to the decimation of Europe in the war. Tom Lamont was indeed the world’s foremost international banker, but in many ways Dwight Morrow has the more interesting story. He befriended classmate Calvin Coolidge at Amherst. Everyone in the class voted Morrow as the Most Likely to Succeed except Morrow, who voted for Coolidge. After an unsatisfying period practicing law, Morrow joined the House of Morgan and became a very successful partner. He chaired the U.S. Aviation Board, which later led him to meet Charles Lindbergh, the man his daughter Anne would marry. He became an expert on Mexico and left Morgan when President Coolidge appointed him Ambassador to Mexico, where he scored great successes in a country that had long been torn by revolution and then by a violently anti-clerical regime. In 1930, he was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican from the State of New Jersey. However, for all his success, Morrow suffered an addiction to alcohol. He died at his estate in Englewood, New Jersey in 1931.

Cornelius briefly mentions that the intermediary sent by J.P. Morgan to buy the desk of the Pope’s Usurer was named Ivy Lee, but he does not say anything about who that was. Ivy Lee, along with his younger contemporary Edward Bernays, is considered an important pioneer of the modern American art of public relations. He was best known for his work for the Rockefeller family. It is not surprising that Morgan would entrust a sensitive and confidential assignment to Lee, but it is quite surprising that a New York journalist like Cornelius seems not even to know who he was.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh became a famous author. Her book Gifts from the Sea remains a popular favorite. Her many flights with her husband Charles Lindbergh were closely followed in the international press and contributed significantly to the rapid development of aviation.

Frankie Yale ruled the Red Hook docks from his headquarters in Coney Island. He owned the Harvard Inn, which burned down in 1925 in one of Coney Island’s near-constant string of fires. The descriptions in the novel of his personality and appearance, his relationship with Al Capone, his alleged involvement in the murder of Dean O’Banion, his diamond-studded belt, his appearance at a ground-breaking ceremony at St. Rosalia’s and his murder on the streets of Brooklyn are all consistent with historical accounts.

 Willie “Two Knives” Altieri was Yale’s chief enforcer. He acquired his nickname because he carried two knives on his person and liked to use them in his murders. On one occasion, he gave Yale a plaque bearing the two knives he had used to murder one of Yale’s enemies. Willie Altieri seems to fade from history after Yale’s murder.  I have found no record of any connection between Altieri and Arnold Rothstein.

Al Capone was certainly present at the Adonis Club Massacre, but sources vary as to whether Yale himself was there. The Massacre happened largely as described by Cornelius. Paddy Maloney and Ragtime Howard survived it, but history does not support Maloney’s convenient bathroom visit or the fingering of Maloney as a rat.

Arnold Rothstein purchased Vantine’s, a well-established art house, in 1926. It is believed that he used Vantine’s art shipments to smuggle narcotics, although it is not clear to me how strong is the evidence of that. Certainly, Rothstein smuggled in the best liquor in New York during Prohibition, with his shipments protected by the likes of the Diamond brothers, Meyer Lansky and Waxey Gordon.

Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian anarchists, were executed in Boston in 1927. Their case enraged left-wing partisans, including Dorothy Parker.

I have found no record of house detective Christy Cole, nor of a speakeasy on the fourth floor, but the Park Central was and is an important Broadway hostelry. It was indeed the scene of the murders of both Arnold Rothstein and Albert Anastasia, giving it considerable prominence in gangland lore. It is located at 870 Seventh Avenue, across from Carnegie Hall. After passing through various hands and acquiring various names, it is once again called the Park Central.

Alvin Thomas, better known as Titanic Thompson, was one of the most fabled gamblers of all time. He is said to have mastered all games of chance, whether played honestly or crookedly. Such golfers as Lee Trevino and Raymond Floyd have said that Thompson could easily have been successful on the PGA Tour, but he made far more money hustling suckers at golf clubs. Thompson was the basis for the character of Sky Masterson in Runyon’s short story The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown, which became the principal basis for the musical Guys and Dolls. The other male lead in that musical, Nathan Detroit, was based loosely on Arnold Rothstein.

Franklin Pierce Adams (FPA) hosted a regular poker game at the Algonquin that he referred to as the Thanatopsis Literary and Inside Straight Club.

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