The History of Riley and the Roaring Twenties: Suggested Reading

Work with schools after a book talk, showing boys gathered from New York Public Library

Adler, Polly. A House is Not a Home. New York, Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1953.

Berg, A. Scott. Lindbergh. New York: Berkley Books, 1999.

Breslin, Jimmy. Damon Runyon, A Life. New York: Laurel Trade Paperback, 1991.

Bryson, Bill. One Summer: America, 1927. New York: Doubleday, 2013.

Chernow, Ron.  The House of Morgan. New York: Grove Press, 2001.

Cook, Kevin.  The True Story of Titanic Thompson, The Man Who Bet on Everything. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.

DiMatteo, Frank. Mob Candy: Brooklyn Gangsters. Brooklyn, NY: Mob Candy, Inc., 2013.

Downey, Patrick. Gangster City: The History of the New York Underworld, 1900-1935. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 2004.

Hayde, Frank R. The Mafia and the Machine: The Story of the Kansas City Mob. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 2010.

Immerso, Michael. Coney Island, The People’s Playground. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

Newark, Tim. Boardwalk Gangster, The Real Lucky Luciano. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2010.

Norris, William.  The Man Who Fell From the Sky. Haines City, FL: SynergEbooks, 2000.

Parker, Dorothy. Complete Stories. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Pietrusza, David. Rothstein. New York: Basic Books, 2011.

Thurber, James. The Years With Roth. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1959.

The History of Riley and the Roaring Twenties: The Death of Arnold Rothstein

Arnold Rothstein

The Pendergast machine kept Kansas City a wide-open town, all through Prohibition. The first boss of the machine was Big Jim Pendergast, a hard-living, brawling Irishman who owned a saloon in the West Bottoms neighborhood. He died in 1911 and his more business-like brother Tom took over the organization, which made sure that only Democrats who towed the Pendergast line could be elected. The Pendergasts achieved their power by doing favors for the grass roots, making sure to feed the needy and care for the poor, in exchange for their votes. Harry Truman became a county judge and then a U.S. Senator (the so-called “Senator from Pendergast”) because he was supported by the machine. The Pendergasts maintained cozy relations with organized crime in Kansas City, led by the DiGiovanni brothers and represented politically by Johnny Lazia.

Kansas City is known for jazz, barbecue and baseball. Today, the American Jazz Museum is located in the 18th and Vine neighborhood, in the same complex as the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. While 18th and Vine is the traditional hub of black commerce in Kansas City, the center of the jazz scene in the twenties and thirties was at 12th and Vine, as immortalized in the song “Kansas City.” The clubs mentioned by Riley all existed and in the twenties they featured jazz by a wide variety of players, including the “Big, Black & Dirty” ensemble favored by Jack O’Neal. The scene exploded into a major home of American jazz in the thirties, with musicians like Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Lester Young and Jay McShann. Riley was fortunate to have heard the beginnings of Kansas City jazz.

 Alfred Loewenstein was a mysterious man. It was not entirely clear where his money came from, but it must be said that no clear evidence exists that he participated in the narcotics trade, as claimed by Cornelius. Speculation on this front has arisen mainly because of his meeting with Arnold Rothstein in May of 1928, and his mysterious death the following July. No theory that has been advanced to explain Loewenstein’s alleged fall from his private plane is remotely credible. At least the explanation by Cornelius has the virtue of simplicity. The entire story of Rothstein competing with Frankie Yale for a narcotics connection with Alfred Loewenstein, and then murdering both Yale and Loewenstein to acquire that connection, is supported only by the account of Riley and Cornelius.

Rothstein was truly hurting for money in the summer of 1928, because of failed investments and large gambling losses. He then lost big in a poker match with, among others, Titanic Thompson and Nate Raymond, in September. Thompson was initially partnering with Rothstein, but canceled the partnership during the game and instead partnered with Raymond. As the man who set up the game, Hump McManus was obliged to see that Rothstein paid his markers, but Rothstein kept putting it off, saying he would pay them after the upcoming elections on which he had made major bets.

On November 4, 1928, Rothstein took a call at Lindy’s, which he regularly used as his office. He then handed his gun to Jimmy Meehan, saying he had to go see Hump McManus, who was staying in Room 349 at the Park Central. Sometime later, Rothstein came lurching down the steps of the hotel, shot in the groin. He died two days later. A panicked search was undertaken for Rothstein’s records of his crimes, only some of which were ever found. With public pressure mounting for a prosecution, Hump McManus was finally put on trial for the murder almost a year after Rothstein’s death. The participants in the September poker game gave conflicting and confusing testimony. McManus was acquitted. Many years later, he claimed that he had indeed shot Rothstein. Nowhere in the historical record have I found any suggestion that Rothstein was actually shot by the person blamed in the reports of Riley and Cornelius.

Damon Runyon died of lung cancer in 1946. As Cornelius reports, his ashes were scattered over Broadway from a plane flown by World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker. In his honor, Walter Lippmann and others formed the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.

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

Daisy Buchanan by Azur Cosplay Photography on Flickr at

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.

The History of Riley and the Roaring Twenties: Homecomings

Ain't we got fun

Independence, only about ten miles east of downtown Kansas City, remains a delightful place that could be the model for an American small town of sentimental legend. It is easy to imagine the O’Neal bookstore on Maple Street, near the court house and the old town jail that once housed men like Frank James and William C. Quantrill. A few blocks away is the long-time home of Harry and Bess Truman, which offers fascinating tours. The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum is nearby.

Cornelius plainly had a major crush on New York City, as do so many others. New York in the twenties must have been especially magical: the novel doesn’t nearly describe all that was going on in the city in that lively decade. Cornelius doesn’t even mention the Harlem Renaissance, or the explosion in Art Deco art and architecture, or the world of silent movies, dominated then by New York as Hollywood was just coming into its own. He barely touches on the theater scene, where Eugene O’Neill produced masterpieces while George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin plied their trade, or the sports scene, with Babe Ruth saving baseball after the Black Sox scandal and dashing heroes like Bill Tilden, Jack Dempsey and Red Grange dominating their sports and touring the nightclubs. When you add in the things that are described by Cornelius (the birth of the modern Mafia, Prohibition and bootlegging, the Algonquin Round Table, the newspaper scene, the rise to global prominence of Wall Street finance, the reaction to the Lindbergh flight, the speakeasies and nightclubs), the notion that all these people and activities were concentrated on one island, only twenty-four miles long, is dazzling.

 Irvin S. Cobb (1876-1944) was a journalist, writer and humorist, originally from Paducah, Kentucky. He wrote for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. One of Cobb’s better-known pieces is called Speaking of Operations.

 Arnold Rothstein’s history is well known and generally consistent with the summary provided by Cornelius. He was born into a respected Orthodox Jewish family in Manhattan on January 17, 1882. From early on, he rebelled against the strict morality of his parents and the demands of formal education. He preferred the streets, especially the world of gambling. He became well known in New York after winning a marathon session at John McGraw’s pool hall. He had a keen head for odds and excelled in games of chance. Over the years he owned a casino in Saratoga and real estate interests on Long Island, both of which failed and cost him great sums of money. As Cornelius describes, he was famous for flashing a big wad of cash, which earned him the nickname the Big Bankroll. He popularized the “floating crap game.” He was widely suspected to have been the mastermind behind fixing the 1919 World Series, although he always denied it and he may have been telling the truth.

 Lindy’s came to be called Mindy’s in Damon Runyon’s stories. The delicatessens in New York that currently call themselves Lindy’s are not related, other than in the desire to profit from the name.  The original Lindy’s was founded by Leo Lindermann in 1921. It was located at 1626 Broadway, between 49th and 50th Street, in the heart of the Times Square theater district. The original Lindy’s closed in 1957. While Cornelius shows little respect for the cuisine at Lindy’s, it must be said that the cheesecake there was legendary.

The History Behind Riley and the Roaring Twenties: Prologue: Three Mysteries

Saddle shoes and striped trousers meet brown oxfords and plus fours in Jazzy Shoes by istolethetv on Flickr

 The factual assertions in the Prologue are made by me, not by Riley or Cornelius, and are the results of my own review of non-fiction accounts. Thus, the descriptions given in the Prologue about the deaths of Frankie Yale, Alfred Loewenstein and Arnold Rothstein are historically accurate, according to sources that will be listed here as Suggested Reading. I find the mysterious meeting between Loewenstein and Rothstein to be especially intriguing.