By BERNIE BELLAN
What’s it like growing up the child of a mobster – and a Jewish mobster to boot?
The idea of stringing together various stories about children of Jewish mobsters came to me as I started to read a terrific new book that was sent to our office, totally unexpectedly.
The title of the book is “The Apple and the Shady Tree”. The author is someone by the name of Lisa Novick Goldberg. The book is available on Amazon in either paperback or Kindle format.
There were a couple of ideas that kept crossing my mind as I read Lisa Novick Goldberg’s book. One was: Are criminals self-isolating during these extraordinary times? After all, they don’t adhere to society’s norms at the best of times. Why would they lower themselves to start following the same rules that should apply to everyone else? What would someone whose livelihood depends on providing others with something that’s illegal to begin with – such as drugs or other contraband, gambling, and prostitution, do when most of us are told to self-isolate?
I worry for those types of people. It must be even more difficult for them to get by than it is for the rest of us. Think Tony Soprano and his psychiatrist.
Secondly, as soon as I started to read this book, I thought to myself: We’ve had stories that are similar in nature written about in the pages of this paper before. In 2014 I wrote a review of a book titled “Davey the Punk”, which was written by a well-known Canadian musician by the name of Bob Bossin – whose father was Dave Bossin (or “Davey the Punk” as he was known to all his friends).
In 2017 Martin Zeilig wrote a fascinating story for us about someone named Al Smiley, who was best friends with Ben “Bugsy” Siegel. Smiley was actually a former Winnipegger and Martin interviewed his daughter, whose name is Luellen Smiley.
As well, in 2015 CBC Radio ran an interview conducted by Anna Maria Tremonti with Sandra Lansky following the publication of Sandra’s memoir of growing up the daughter of Meyer Lansky, who was known as “the brains of the Mob”. Sandra Lansky’s book is titled “Daughter of the King: Growing up in Gangland”. I haven’t actually read that book, but I have listened to the interview a couple of times. It remains one of the greatest interviews I ever heard Anna Maria Tremonti do. (It ranks up there with Jian Ghomeshi’s interview with Billy Bob Thornton as one of the most riveting pieces of radio I’ve ever heard.)
As a matter of fact, I’ve urged the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada to mount an exhibit on Jewish gangsters – in a departure from the standard custom of harkening back to a rose-coloured past that doesn’t shed much light on some of the more unsavoury aspects of Jewish life. Of course, if the JHCWC were actually to mount such an exhibit, whoever would be doing the research for it might not live long enough to see what comes of it.
I’ve also asked the organizers of Limmud whether I can present a talk at Limmud on Jewish mobsters – including many Russian oligarchs, but so far I haven’t been granted permission. Maybe next year I’ll be told to go ahead. There are a number of individuals I know who can provide me with first-hand information, some of whom are subscribers to this paper, yet whose identities must remain a secret.
But, to return to the original focus of this article: What’s it like to grow up the child of a gangster?
Here’s what Luellen Smiley, Bob Bossin, and Lisa Novick Goldberg had to say, in part:
From Martin Zeilig’s interview with Luellen Smiley: “Some children are silenced. The pretense is protection against people and events more powerful than them. As the daughter of Allen Smiley, associate and friend to Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel, I was raised in a family of secrets…
“When I was exposed to the truth by way of a book, I kept the secret, too. I was 13. My parents divorced, and five years later, my mother died. In 1966, I went to live with my father in Hollywood. I was forbidden to talk about our life: ‘Don’t discuss our family business with anyone, and listen very carefully to what I say from now on!’ But one night, he asked me to come into his room and he told me the story of the night Ben was murdered…
“After my father died, I remained silent, to avoid shame, embarrassment and questions. But 10 years later, in 1994, when I turned 40, I cracked the silence. I read every book in print – and out of print – about the Mafia. Allen Smiley was in dozens. He was a Russian Jew, a criminal, Bugsy’s right-hand man, a dope peddler, pimp, a racetrack tout. I held close the memory of a benevolent father, wise counselor, and a man who worshipped me.
“I made a Freedom of Information Act request and obtained his government files. The Immigration and Naturalization Service claimed he was one of the most dangerous criminals in the country. They said he was Benjamin Siegel’s assistant. They said he was poised to take over the rackets in Los Angeles. He didn’t; he sold out his interest in the Flamingo, and he went to Houston to strike oil…
“It seems there is no end to the stories surrounding Ben and Al. I am not looking for closure. I’ve become too attached to the story. To me, he was a benevolent father, a wise counsellor and a man who worshipped me.”
Here’s an excerpt from my review of “Davey the Punk”, about Bob Bossin’s father, Dave Bossin: “As well – as he explains during the course of the book, he had to piece together his father’s past – which was kept well-hidden from him as he was growing up, and which largely remained a mystery to him until he was well into his 40s, through a series of interviews he conducted with relatives, friends of his father, and other individuals who happened to have dealings with Davey.”
Finally, we have Lisa Novick Goldberg’s memoir of growing up in a Mob-connected household with her father, whose name was John (or, as he was known to his friends, “Jonny”) Novick. Actually, his real name was “Herbert”, Lisa explains, but his Italian gangster friends thought that Herbert wasn’t the kind of name that a gangster should have, so they told him to change it to Jonny. In another fun aside, Lisa says that her father’s mother couldn’t pronounce the name Herbert anyway; she always called him “Hoibert”! Now that wouldn’t have placed him in good stead with his mostly Italian underworld friends, would it have? Also, since almost every gangster mentioned in this book had a nickname (My favourite was “Johnny Eggs”, because his mother raised chickens on a farm), it’s hard not to look upon these guys –who would slit your throat without hesitation if need be, with a certain fondness.
As with Luellen Smiley and Bob Bossin, Lisa Novick claims she had no idea about her father’s sordid background when she was growing up. She does say that when he was home, which wasn’t very often, he was always on the phone – and she wondered what he was talking about, but you can hardly expect a kid to understand what it is that their father is doing to make a living when he takes great pains to keep it shrouded in mystery.
It wasn’t until Lisa was a young adult that she was able to learn the truth about her father. She was actually summoned to appear before a grand jury in New York when she was only 22 (in 1980). While she denied having any knowledge of her father’s connections to the Mafia (he was actually well connected to the Genovese family – one of the five “families” that make up New York’s Mafia underworld), Lisa admits that, by that time, she was pretty much aware that her father was immersed in a wide range of illegal activities.
John Novick’s ostensibly legitimate business was as the biggest supplier of soft pretzels in New York City, with all the major sports venues being his customers. As well, he had kiosks near subway stations throughout the city. Lisa gives quite a detailed explanation of how money is laundered through what appear to be legitimate businesses, yet in footnotes that she provides throughout the book, she explains that she had to research almost everything she describes by looking at FBI archives and court transcripts, as well as other books and articles about New York’s Mafia underworld.
Yet, even though Lisa did realize her father was earning his income illicitly – for the most part (she does relate a series of hilarious business ventures in which he was involved that all failed), she doesn’t judge him at all harshly. In fact, she admits that she was always much closer to her father than her mother, whom she describes as having a terrible temper and much less gregarious than her extremely popular father.
One other aspect of John Novick’s career as a criminal is that, unlike almost everyone of his Mafia cohorts, he was never indicted and never served any time in jail. Although he comes across as someone who succeeded in making money despite his own inability to properly organize his affairs, apparently he was so popular with almost everyone who was involved in illegal activities that he benefited from his close relationships to the point where he was able to count on the largesse of some of the most vicious criminals in New York City for over 50 years. He also had a fantastic ability to do complex math calculations quickly, which proved invaluable to him as a gambler, which was his favourite pastime.
John Novick died in 2014. He had a myriad of health conditions when he was admitted to hospital one year before his death, principle among them being severe obesity. He weighed over 300 pounds when he was first hospitalized but had shrunk to a mere 150 pounds by the time he died. Reading about his voracious eating habits is quite repelling, although fascinating at the same time. He could devour a four-pound lobster, followed by a streak drowning in butter, Lisa writes, topped off by everything that was on a dessert tray that was brought to his table.
But, what of these mobsters’ children’s connections to their Jewishness? In none of the three cases I’ve cited does being Jewish play much of a role in their childhoods, other than when it comes to food. Lisa Novick says that both her parents were not at all involved in Jewish life. They didn’t attend synagogue nor did they observe any of the Jewish holidays (although she does describe her father’s weird habit of fasting on Yom Kippur by staying in bed and doing nothing but watch television. That was his only nod to Jewish observance, she writes.)
As far as Sylvia Lansky goes, by the way, considering that her father was probably the most famous Jewish mobster of all time, what I remember best about her interview with Anna Maria Tremonti were some of her anecdotes about meeting famous celebrities. She tells the story of encountering Frank Sinatra in a New York restaurant one time when she was a little girl. Sinatra came over to the table where she was seated with her mother and father, but he accidentally knocked over the ice bucket that held a bottle of champagne directly on to her lap.
Sylvia describes how a look of mortal fear came into Sinatra’s eyes; clearly he thought that Meyer Lansky might order a hit on him right then and there. When Anna Maria asked Sylvia how she felt at that moment, I’ll always remember her answer: “I was cold.”
Sylvia also relates her own torrid love affair with Dean Martin. He could make love six times in one night, she recalls during the interview. Jews and Italians – joined at the hip, and often other places as well.
So – these were all spoiled children of men who made their money illegally – and none of them wondered where all the money was coming from. Is that unusual? I’m not so sure.
It’s one thing to not know what your father does for a living, but it’s another thing to see your house fill up with material goods – as was the case with all four of these mobsters’ children. Wouldn’t you wonder how your father was able to acquire so much “stuff” – and why were all their fathers so secretive about what they did?
I’ve barely mentioned the mothers of the children who grew up with mobster fathers. I suppose one can make a “deal with the devil” fairly easily if need be. There’s a lesson in here somewhere about how people can rationalize their behaviour. Yet, I’m sure you’re just like me in agreeing that reading about the family lives of mobsters – just as it was depicted on “The Sopranos” is noteworthy not for its excitement, but for the extreme pains criminals take to keep their lives as mundane as yours or mine.