If Damon Runyon prepared the way for us to think of mobsters as little more than colorful characters, and Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola established the idea that they were tragic, even Shakespearean, figures, nothing has so much prepared us for the person of Arnold Rothstein (1882-1928) as Eichmann in Jerusalem, by Hannah Arendt. Rothstein has, after all, been portrayed as Nathan Detroit in Runyan's Guys and Dolls, as Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby, and is recalled by Hyman Roth in one of the great lines from The Godfather II: "I loved baseball ever since Rothstein fixed the World Series in 1919." But, for all that, the real life Rothstein of David Pietrusza's Edgar-nominated biography is a man of almost relentlessly opaque personality. This makes it all the more remarkable an achievement for Mr. Pietrusza to have rendered his life in such gripping fashion. The key is that the folks who surrounded Rothstein and the activities he engaged in are truly fascinating and Mr. Pietrusza has done a staggering amount of research in order to penetrate into the secretive affairs of Rothstein and the labyrinthine criminal enterprise he built.
To begin with, though we all have a grudging admiration for even the mobster who claws his way out of poverty, Rothstein need never have been a criminal. His is not the tale of a beset immigrant with no better options. His father, Abraham, was a well-to-do businessman and pillar of the Jewish community in New York known as "Abe the Just." A brother became a rabbi and, as Mr. Pietrusza says, with his intelligence and these advantages, Arnold could have achieved much in the straight world. He chose a life of crime.
Next, one would naturally think that a high stakes gambler would thrill us with his risk-taking and the sense that he's something of a pawn of fate. Rothstein was no such thing. He liked fixed games and he was perfectly willing to welch when he lost or at least draw out the payment process unconscionably. He was a crook even in dealing with other crooks and proof there is no honor among thieves.
Nor was he a hands on kind of mobster--no Sonny Corleone shtick for him. He kept himself well-insulated from the criminal activities he profited from and he kept his temperament under control. These elements all come together in a revealing episode involving a manipulated horse race at Aqueduct. On a day when the bookies at trackside were too busy to keep up with everything that was going on Rothstein snuck a quality horse, Sidereal, into a seemingly minor race and then had to sweat things out as his wife hurried the horse to the track from Belmont just before officials scratched it from the race. As Mr. Pietrusza relates the tale:
Sidereal took 58 2/5 seconds to earn A. R. $850,000.But if we see in this narrative just how elusive Rothstein was even to those who knew him, we also see what makes this such a compelling biography, for Mr. Pietrusza has rooted out many such stories and tells them with great gusto.
This is especially true of the tale upon which any biography of Rothstein must inevitably be judged, the 1919 World Series. Mr. Pietrusza masterfully handles tangled facts, the myriad double-crosses, and the swirling cast of characters surrounding the Black Sox Scandal. He reveals Rothstein to have been at the very center of the conspiracy and playing both ends against the middle so that he couldn't possibly lose. This account challenges that with which most of us are familiar--Ellot Asinof's in Eight Men Out--but is so exhaustively researched that it seems likely to remain the definitive version of events.
Likewise masterful is Mr. Pietrusza's reconstruction of the events surrounding Rothstein's murder in a Times Square hotel and the subsequent convoluted trial. But best of all he captures the evil of Rothstein, that was not readily apparent in his personality, in a chapter on how he established the modern drug trade. Any illusions about colorful and relatively harmless gamblers and gangsters lie smoldering by the end of that sordid tale.
All in all, Mr. Pietrusza has taken the personally bland Arnold Rothstein and woven the anything but bland events of his life of crime into a compelling and corrective biography. It's an impressive feat.
-AUTHOR SITE: David Pietrusza
-INTERVIEW: with David Pietrusza (Only a Game, 10/11/03)
-REVIEW: of Rothstein by David Pietrusza (JOHN D. THOMAS, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of Rothstein by David Pietrusza (John Kalish, The Forward)
-REVIEW: of Rothstein by David Pietrusza (Daniel A. Nathan, Legal Affairs)
-REVIEW: of Rothstein by David Pietrusza (LARRY COX, Tucson Citizen)
Book-related and General Links:
-Arnold Rothstein (Jewish Virtual Library)
-ESSAY: Defenders of the faith: Since the Holocaust, the idealised version of the Jew has been Primo Levi, a 'latter day saint'. But, argues Linda Grant, from Samson to Ariel Sharon there have always been tougher, more aggressive role models (Linda Grant, July 6, 2002, The Guardian)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd