The Mobster’s Lament – Book Notes
Below is a slightly amended version of the historical afterword that appears in the UK edition of ‘The Mobster’s Lament’. Contains lots of spoilers.
As with my previous novels, I’ve tried to make this book as factually accurate as possible, and failed. Mainly this failure consists of moving the dates of certain events from different months in 1947 into November, when the book is set. In a few other instances, I interpreted conflicting histories to suit the needs of the story, and at some points, I invented situations and scenes, but always within the realms of possibility, and always to fit the book’s themes. Below are some notes on the recognized history and where I’ve deviated from it; anything not mentioned here was either too minor to include, or is an oversight on my part, for which I apologize.
In many ways 1947 can be seen as the start of the post‐war era, as it was in this year that much of what would come to define the second half of the twentieth‐century came into being. The CIA was set up, the Marshall Plan was drafted, the Cold War got under way, India gained its independence, and the newly formed United Nations first debated a plan to create Arab and Jewish states in Palestine. It was also the year in which Jackie Robinson broke the baseball colour line, and a mysterious flying object crashed to earth in Roswell, New Mexico.
In the cultural sphere, too, 1947 was a year of watersheds and landmarks; W. H. Auden wrote The Age of Anxiety, which gave the era a name; film noir reached its zenith; Jackson Pollock (a Louis Armstrong fan) started his first drip painting in January, and elsewhere in New York other abstract expressionists were helping make the city the centre of Western contemporary art.
That so much influential work happened in such a short space of time in one city is understandable given, first, the influx of refugees to New York over the preceding decade, and second, the state of the world’s other great cities after the war, and yet, it is still remarkable. While Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko and Kline were in the city helping to found the first truly American art movement, Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker were codifying bebop on 52nd Street, Elia Kazan was founding the Actors Studio in Hell’s Kitchen, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, et al. were forming the Beat Generation in dives uptown, the seed of the post‐war counter‐culture was germinating as dropouts and misfits gathered in Greenwich Village, and a half‐forgotten jazz musician with his career on the wane played a concert that would turn his fortunes around.
This is the first of the events whose date I moved – Louis Armstrong’s famed concert at Town Hall happened on 17 May, some five and a half months before the start of the book. The sources are somewhat at odds about exactly how big of a turning point the actual concert was, though they all agree that the switch from a big band to the much smaller ensemble that became known as Louis Armstrong and The All Stars was a sea change for Armstrong’s career. In this book I’ve perhaps overstated the importance of the concert, but it’s a milestone nonetheless, and the switch the con‐ cert ushered in helped pave the way for Armstrong to become the pop‐culture icon he is remembered as today.
Also moved from earlier in the year was Al Capone’s death – Armstrong’s old boss died in January. Another Mob death, that of Benjamin Siegel, is slightly off too. He was gunned down in June, but in the timeline of the book this happens a couple of months later in August. The Flamingo first turned a profit in May (not October, as in the book’s timeline). This was before Siegel was killed, making the reasons for his murder a little less straightforward – why kill him just when his casino was finally starting to take off? His murderers were never caught.
Despite Siegel’s death and the floundering start the Mob had in Las Vegas, the late forties and early fifties were the golden age of the American mafia, which at the time was headquartered in New York, its heyday intersecting with the city’s cultural flowering. The Mob’s level of influence at the time is best summed up in this quote from the book American Mafia by the historian Thomas A. Reppetto;
In the 1940s Costello would name the mayor of New York, Moretti would make the career of America’s most popular entertainer, Lansky would come to control a small nation, Siegel would found modern Las Vegas, and Lansky and Dalitz would help make it a fabulous success.
Much of this rise was down to Frank Costello. An excellent manager, negotiator and organizer, he led the Mob to its zenith, all while not actually wanting the job, and without feeling the need to employ bodyguards, cars or guns. Another large factor in this rise was the FBI, and its director, J. Edgar Hoover, who had gone on record as saying he didn’t believe there was such a thing as nationwide organized crime. Exactly why he held this view is a matter of debate. The end result, however, was that the one agency with the scope and resources to tackle the Mob turned its attention to fighting communism instead, and the Mob was allowed to flourish. In a modern parallel, after decades in a down‐ ward spiral, the Mob has experienced something of a resurgence since the 9‐11 attacks of 2001, mainly due to the FBI turning its resources away from organized crime once more, this time to focus on terrorism.
Although Costello had wide‐ranging influence, there is no evidence he directly interfered with the outcome of the meeting of movie producers in the Waldorf‐Astoria; however, this behaviour is entirely in character – Costello really did employ a telephony expert called Cheesebox to bug people, and he had a long history of influencing votes (most notably, he influenced the election of Roosevelt as the nominee for President at the Democratic National Convention in 1932). Costello had also stated he supported the fight against communism and the work of Senator McCarthy (the two men had met), and given his interests in the Mob‐infiltrated unions in California, this is the most likely stance for him to have taken.
Likewise, the idea that Genovese tried to influence the meeting in the other direction is also my own invention, but again, it fits in with the years‐long campaign Genovese waged to try and wrestle back control of the Mob from his former underling. Genovese did end up taking control of the Mob, and just as Costello and Luciano feared, his leadership saw the Mob lurch from disaster to disaster, and its power wane. The details of Genovese’s time in Italy under first, Mussolini, and then the Allies, are all true, as are the details of his extradition and trial.
Costello really did visit a psychiatrist called Dr Hoffman, decades before Tony Soprano sought therapy, and, rather bizarrely, Dr Hoffman revealed both the identity of his famous client and the details of his psychological condition to the press. Whether it was through Dr Hoffman’s advice or not, Costello spent time socializing with New York’s artistic avant‐garde.
The information about Ronald Reagan offering himself up as an informant to the FBI, and offering to turn over evidence about his friends, is based on FBI case files. (Case files which only became public after the San Francisco Chronicle fought a seventeen‐year legal battle for their release.) Reagan’s links to the Mob‐backed MCA is a matter of public record. When Robert Kennedy convened a Federal Grand Jury to investigate allegations of corruption and anti‐trust at MCA in 1962 (one of many official investigations into the company), Reagan gave testimony to the jury, and lied, thereby committing a federal crime.
Joe Glaser, the manager of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday had extensive connections to MCA and the Mob, and he typifies how the criminal underworld and the entertainment industry (jazz, in particular) were intertwined during the period. Whether or not he colluded in Billie Holiday’s imprisonment is a matter of debate.
The doctor whom Michael visits at the Harlem Hospital is based on the pioneering African‐American surgeon Louis Tompkins Wright.
The New York City blizzard of 1947 actually happened on Christmas Day, a few weeks after it does in the book.
Lastly, a young Stanley Kubrick did go backstage at the Copa to do a photoshoot for Look magazine, though this was a year later, in 1948. The photographs he took are available to view online at the website of The Museum of the City of New York. There are also some examples available via the gallery link here.
The fourth, and final, part will be set in Los Angeles in 1967 and will feature characters from the previous three books. The details are a little hazy at present, as I’ve not started writing it yet. Updates will be available on the website.
London, August 2018