Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: How does it feel to grow up in an organized crime family? Here is one of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread.
I grew up on the fringe of organized crime. Most of my father’s friends were either major bookmakers or part of the ‘Combination’ (Jewish-American organized crime). The characters played by Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and Hyman Roth in Godfather 2 were real people to me – I knew them personally as they would visit our house and we would visit them. Almost all the people who went out to start Las Vegas were friends of my father’s and I had met a few of them personally.
My father paid cash for everything to hide money from Uncle Sam. We lived in a 22-room, 13-acre mansion which was paid for in cash. We had a live-in maid and gardener, and a woman would come once a week to iron our clothes. My mother never went to a jewelry store – the jeweler would visit us with his bag of best jewels every couple of months. He was a friend of the family’s and I thought all this was normal. I also thought it was normal to get a new Cadillac every year.
For my 8th birthday my father took me downtown. We ran into his best friend, who was the biggest bookmaker in the city. When he was told it was my birthday he whipped out 50 brand-new one-dollar bills and gave them to me. To an 8-year old kid in the mid-60s $50 seemed like $1,000 today.
This same guy went into the hospital for an operation. Before he went in he gave my father a few large shopping bags to hold “for safekeeping.” When my father brought the bags home my mother asked about them. When he told her what they were she said, “Why don’t you open them to see what’s inside?” He said, “Are you crazy?” I would bet my life that he never opened them, and that his friend knew he wouldn’t. That’s the way things were in those days.
Honor was a big deal. My father got into the business because he was a ladder man. Years before camera surveillance how did they know if people were cheating at gambling places? The answer is that they literally had guys standing on ladders in each corner looking over the premises. Or they would be walking above. These guys had to be the most trusted people, as you could imagine. My father was one of them and his reputation was established from that.
We went to Florida and stayed at a famous Italian member of organized crime’s house. I remember it because he had velvet walls. Another time in Florida, we went to the Eden Roc, at the time the most exclusive hotel in Miami Beach. They had just renovated a new floor but it wasn’t opened yet. My father and a friend had them open the floor just for them, so that we were the only people on it during our stay.
When I was 8, one of the dancers at my father’s club took me for a hamburger. I will never forget the perfume smell and beautiful make-up she had on as I sat there eating my hamburger.
Many years ago my uncle was with some friends when a kid from Chicago was visiting. This kid was a smart punk and aggravated some people. At one point a guy got so mad that he pulled his gun and was going to shoot the kid. My uncle probably saved both the kid and guy’s life when he grabbed the gun and told the guy to put it back. “Don’t you know,” my uncle said, “That’s Al Capone’s nephew.”
Many many more stories to tell. The thing is at the time I thought it was completely normal – I didn’t know how different my upbringing was. We weren’t involved in the violent aspect – only gambling and nightclubs, so I haven’t had to deal with the violent part that you get when you are in the Mafia, etc.
It was exciting. Things were more black and white then, for better or worse. But for a kid growing up, it was great.
Note- I have a picture of the bookmaker I mention above. His name was Fuzzy (not kidding). His girlfriend’s name was Taffy (still not kidding). This picture was taken at my bar-mitzvah on February 1, 1969. I call this picture Fuzzy, Taffy and Me.
One last word about Fuzzy. I later heard from my mother, who shared the same dentist as Fuzzy, that he would ask the dentist to show him his book of money owed. Any name he recognized as being Lebanese (which he was) he would pay the dentist and tell him not to say who did it.
And guess what?
He paid in cash too.
Those were great days. In many ways there was a lot more honor, class, and truthfulness by those guys taking $20 on a horse than some of the ‘respected’ businessmen you see today.