When I was kid, my favorite show on TV was Superman. I was convinced, of course, that there really was a Superman someplace. I was also convinced that one day I would marry Lois Lane.
I also thought that one day I might become a reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper and fight never-ending battles for truth, justice and the American way. Well, that almost happened, although my never-ending battle has been for truth, justice and the American way in the Alger Hiss case.
What I also remember as a kid, were the never-ending discussions about the show: which was the best episode; where did he store his costume when he was Clark Kent; where did he store his suit when he was Superman? How come there was never anyone in the alley when he changed outfits? How come the window was always open when he jumped through it?
There were also lots of arguments about how George Reeves died. Â Those in the know said he really did think he was Superman, and one day he jumped out of a window and fell to his death.
The truth was that on June 16, 1959, police in Brentwood, California found him upstairs in his home, dead of a gunshot wound to the head. The only real question was whether it was suicide or murder. Police at first called it a suicide, but there were indications that he was murdered. His death was the subject of a book called Hollywood Kryptonite and a pretty good Ben Affleck film, Hollywoodland.
Anyway, back to reality. A few years ago Inspector Henderson asked me to go to LA to find Lefty Louis who was committing a number of anti-American crimes for the syndicate and bring him to justice. While we were out there, Â my wife Lois and I stopped by Reeves’s home to pay homage to our dead friend. Here I am disguised as mild-mannered reporter Jeff Kisseloff.
Bugsy Siegel didn’t look like a bug. In his day,Â Â a slang word for crazy was “bugs.”Â Bugs Bunny was pretty crazy too, but a different kind of crazy. Crazy Eddie was crazy, but he didn’t kill anyone. He just sold a lot of electronic products so cheaply he went out of business (although that’s pretty crazy). Bugsy Â Siegel’sÂ crowd consisted of a lot of gangsters, guys who killed with impunity and sometimes just for the fun of it. It’s a scary thought that even by their standards Bugsy was off his rocker.
If you go to Las Vegas and have a good time playing the slots, you can thank Bugsy for that. In the 1940s, he built the Flamingo Hotel, the first of the Las Vegas palaces. He did it with mob money though, and those guys demanded a rather high return on their investments. When they didn’t appear to be getting it from Bugsy, they became unhappy. In those days, mobsters expressed their disappointment with someone by putting a bullet in their head. That’s precisely what happened to Bugsy on June 20, 1947 while he was sitting by the picture window of a friend’s living room in Beverly Hills when a bullet shattered the glass, entered his brain and blew out his eye, killing him instantly, Â of course. You can see it all reenacted by Warren Beatty in his bio of Bugsy called, appropriately enough, “Bugsy.”
I have a small connection to this, albeit a very tenuous one. Years later when Francis Coppola made the “The Godfather,” he had a great scene where the Las Vegas boss Mo Green gets shot in the eye. That came from the Siegel assassination. The actor who shot Mo Green was a fellow named Lenny Del Genio. Now, when I was in journalism school and was writing my masters thesis on boxing, I got to know Lenny. He had been a great lightweight fighter and had long since retired by then. Now, he was an entertainer and also had extra parts in movies. At boxing dinners, you could often find him strumming his guitar in the corner and was invariably the nicest guy in the room. He always laughed when I would compliment him on his marksmanship.
A few years later when I was writing “You Must Remember This,” I interviewed Lenny a couple of times to record his memories of growing up in East Harlem in the 1920s. One day while we were sitting in his living room, he told me one of my favorite stories in the book. It was about the big Italian families in his neighborhood and their penchant for the cousins all having the same names because they were either named for a close relative or a saint. Want to hear it? Ok, I’ll let Lenny tell it:
My uncle played the violin, his name was Nick D’Amico, the same as my other uncles. They were all named after grandfather. They were also musicians, and they played at nice hotels like the Plaza. One night, they were driving home with their violin cases in the car and the police stopped them for some infraction. Five of them were in there. The cop asked my uncle for his license.
The cop says, “Nick D’Amico, huh.”
And looked at the other four gentlemen, and he says to one of them, “By the way, what’s your name?”
“What do you do for a livin’?”
“I’m a violinist.”
And he went on to the other man. And the same thing happened. His name was Nick D’Amico and he was a violinist also. Now, the policeman is getting a little bit annoyed. He goes to number three, number four Â â€” all the same answer. When he got to the fifth guy, he says, “If you tell me that your name is Nick D’Amico and that you’re a violinist, you’re all goin’ to jail.”
He did, so he took them all down to the station. When they got there, the cop says, “I want to call your father and get to the bottom of this. “What’s his name?”
It was another Nick D’Amico!
So the cop says, “All of ya get outta here!” They all laughed, and they took out their violins and played for them.
I loved Lenny. While we were chatting, his wife told me that Lenny knew the lyrics to all the Mills Brothers songs. I have a thing for the Mills Brothers, so I asked him if he wouldn’t mind playing “Paper Doll” for me. He did so readily. My tapes are now in the hands of the New York Public Library, and sitting in their dusty storage room is a recording of Lenny and me singing “Paper Doll” together. Those few minutes of tape recorded one of the great pleasures of my life. To this day I can never listen to the Mills Brothers without thinking of Lenny and the two of us harmonizing in his home.
Anyway, here’s me in front of the picture window where the Bug got squashed.
A few days ago, I made a wiseass comment about tourists taking shots of themselves without any irony on the grassy knoll, yeah, that grassy knoll. The next day I got a wonderful email from a fellow named Brett Sonnenschein, who with a sense of irony â€” and with his wifeâ€” Â played the gruesome tourist from that very spot. He even sent a link to the online album they made. It’s great, and you can find it here.
Have you ever played The Gruesome Tourist? If so, send me your shots and I’ll post them.
Meanwhile, here’s another one from my album. On April 4, 1958 police responded to an altercation at the home of Lana Turner. When they got there (I’ve always wondered if the “policemen rang twice”), they found her lover Johnny Stompanato dead from stab wounds. The stabber was Turner’s teenaged daughter who was defending her mother from abuse. Here’s me in front of the house, many brown hairs ago.
Oy, it’s been a while since my last post. First, some old business. In my last post, I asked if anyone could recognize the two fellas in their short johns standing by RFK. No one got the correct answer (because no one tried to answer it), but in case you’re interested they are two running backs for the New York Giants, Ernie Koy and Tucker Fredrickson. The photo is part of a large collection I haveâ€” Â and will post over time â€” of pictures taken for Eliot Asinof’s wonderful book about pro football “Seven Days to Sunday,” in which he spent time as a fly on the wall at the Giants camp in 1966. Great book, terrible team. Oh well.
Now on to new business. In the mid-1980s, I made my first trip to California to research a book that eventually went into the trash. Still, it was a great trip. To amuse myself, I bought this guidebook to dozens of gruesome historical sites around the city and decided it would be fun to make a photo album of me standing like a tourist in front of some of these places, generally oblivious to the horribleness that went on inside. Afterall, I was playing the archetypal American tourist (“Yes, Martha, take a picture of me on the grassy knoll” without a sense of irony) This really became the inspiration for my “Eve’s Apple” book, which also went nowhere. Still, I thought I’d post some of the pictures of me in my brown-haired days as the Gruesome Tourist.
The first shows me in front of the house where Alfalfa (aka Carl Switzer) from the Li’l Rascals was shot and killed over a gambling debt. I actually knocked on the door and the lady who owned the place let me in and showed me the room where he was killed. She took me to her son’s bedroom and showed me the bullet holes, which were still in the wall. Apparently, the kid made a little living charging people to come and stick their fingers in the holes. I explained to her that I didn’t practice checkbook journalism, so she let me off the hook.
Here’s the shot: