Friday, January 05, 2007

More Supermob

The topics of the last several posts probably seem very disparate--F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bobby Kennedy, Sidney Korshak, etc. I've stopped trying to tie everything explicitly to Carey McWilliams, but it's easy to show how he and his work connect the dots.

Take Supermob, Gus Russo's book about Sidney (The Fixer) Korshak and his network. One small but critical piece of Russo's book concerns Korshak's introduction to Hollywood. The Chicago syndidate had been active in the Hollywood labor unions in the early 1930s, when Johnny Rosselli helped the studios resist rising union power. But when Willie Bioff and George Browne took over IATSE in 1934 and began skimming dues and extorting the major studios, the Chicago outfit really consolidated its power.

McWilliams represented some union members who fought the racketeering. He learned about Bioff's criminal past, passed that information to California officials, and thereby helped expose the corruption. Later, a Chicago mobster introduced Korshak to Bioff in Chicago, telling Bioff, "Willie, meet Sidney Korshak. He is our man. I want you to do what he tells you. He is not just another lawyer. He knows our gang and figures our best interest. Pay attention to him, and remember, any message you get is a message from us." By that time, McWilliams had already removed himself from the case to serve in state government, but as Russo's book shows, Korshak was just getting started.

Supermob has many flaws--sprawling structure, inexpert selection and emphasis, questionable assertions, and careless writing. It would have been a better book at 400 well-edited pages. But it's full of interesting information, and I have to commend its ambition: to tell the story of a large, complex network of shadowy figures whose enterprises blurred the lines between legitimate and underworld activity. You can't read the book without wondering how different America would look today if these characters hadn't left their mark. I write these lines from Las Vegas, where that mark is most obvious.

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