Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the very first Nobody Move! interview. Our guest today is Patrick Downey, researcher and true crime writer. Pat is the author of three books, Gangster City: The History of the New York Underworld 1900-1935; Bad Seeds in the Big Apple: Bandits, Killers, and Chaos in New York City, 1920-1940; and Legs Diamond: Gangster. Welcome, Pat.
Thank you for having me. I love Albany this time of year and the accommodations are top notch.
We aim to please.
What got you interested in gangsters?
As far back as I can remember I have always been drawn to the 1920s-1930s, mostly through films. Gangster pics were always a favorite. Guys in fedoras, perched on running boards with machine guns in hand. Good stuff. I never thought about the real stories until I hit a book sale when I was about twenty-one. I found a bio on Capone and another on Bonnie & Clyde for a quarter a piece. Figured they would be boring. I figured wrong. The true stories trump Hollywood. Those two books got the ball rolling. After finding all the books I could on NYC gangsters, (which wasn’t much at the time) I went to the NY Public library to look at old newspapers. Those trips would become Gangster City. While researching the first book, I started collecting stories that would become book number two. Old newspapers on microfilm are great. I highly recommend spending a day in the library reading old newspapers.
I agree, but I have trouble limiting myself to just one day. Scanning old papers is addictive. I even enjoy the old advertisements.
You’ve recently published a biography of Jack “Legs” Diamond. What was it about him that fascinated you?
His fame, hardly a day went by in 1931 when he wasn’t in the papers. He actually received fan mail and MGM considered making a movie about him. Also the fact that he was shot so often and survived definitely added intrigue. His story was so unlike any of the other gangsters of the era. The usual gangster trajectory is: Gangster rises in gangland and either gets killed (Dutch Schultz, Frankie Uale) or goes to prison (Luciano, Capone, Waxey Gordon) Diamond’s was; gangster rises in gangland, gets shot, comes back, gets shot again, comes back, gets shot again, comes back, gets shot again, tries to come back gets shot a fifth and final time. Plus a bunch of other fun stuff thrown in the mix.
How long did it take you to research Legs Diamond: Gangster?
About two or three years. I don’t really remember when I started. I think I began by building a file while writing the other books wondering if I could put together a full length bio on him. After a few recon trips to the NY Public library I decided to move ahead. Then over the course of a year or so there were numerous trips to the NYPL, interspersed with trips to archives and other libraries in New Jersey, NYC, Albany, Catskill, Philadelphia. Numerous letters to other Federal and State archives etc.
There was a time when it seemed that the public couldn’t get enough of Diamond. Why do you think that was?
He was the closest thing Prohibition gangsters had to being a rock star. He was married yet had an open affair with a sexy dancing girl, was in and out of court, beat a number of raps, got kicked out of Europe, did I mention he got shot a lot? I think guys liked to live vicariously through him (or what they thought his life was) and women found him attractive. He was easy on the eyes. I suspect a woman could see herself doing a foxtrot with him. Gurrah Shapiro not so much. Even had a rock star name, Legs Diamond. Doesn’t get any more show biz than that. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Colonel Tom Parker tried to manage him.
If Hollywood wises up and decides to adapt your book to the big screen (as opposed to their current M.O. of remakes and “reboots”), who would you see playing Legs? And who would play his girlfriend Kiki Roberts?
All things being equal, I would say Luke Perry. I base this decision on looks alone. The only thing I’ve seen him act in was a Snakes on a Plane ripoff for the Syfy channel so I don’t know what kind of acting chops he has. However since all things aren’t equal in Hollywood and we need an A list lead, perhaps Leonardo DiCaprio. Maybe Ben Affleck. I don’t really know the new crop of leading men. Aren’t there a couple of Ryans? As for Kiki…lets cast some curvacious unknown and make her dreams come true. Maybe she’ll thank us on Oscar night. You’re more the movie buff than myself, any suggestions for the leads?
Hmm, that’s a tough one. Maybe Edward Norton. Or Jeremy Renner, he was pretty good in The Town. As for Kiki, Paz de la Huerta, formerly of Boardwalk Empire might be good. She’s got the curvaceous part down.
In spite of his notoriety at the time, Legs has been largely forgotten today. It seems that some criminals are remembered for decades (or even centuries) after their demise, while others vanish into obscurity. Why do you think that is?
In regards to the bootleggers, in the 50s there was a spattering of films for those who actually remembered the old guys. A movie about Rothstein, one on Mad Dog Coll, as well as one on Legs. Ever since Joe Valachi sang his aria in the 1960s however, its been all about the Mafia. Plus the fact that Legs wasn’t a powerhouse like Capone or Luciano with a lasting legacy that out lived him. The New York and Chicago mafia, or some version of it, are still around. Whatever Legs did died with him in Albany. His popularity was also eclipsed by the likes of Dillinger as well. With the G-Man publicity machine working full throttle in the mid Thirties, the Prohibition guys fell to the wayside to make room for the likes of Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd and such.
What other gangsters of the era do you find particularly interesting?
The aforementioned Vincent Coll. He livened things up for the NYC underworld in the summer of 1931. The fellers from Chicago’s Northside. Spike O’Donnell also of Chicago is kind of fun. Verne Miller is an interesting subject. A small town sheriff who robbed banks and some how became pals with Lepke Buchalter. A lethal friendship as it turns out. Gene Moran, who I discuss in the Legs book, (SPOILER ALERT!) a jack of all crimes who ends up in a burnt out Packard.
I know you’re a devoted historical true crime reader. With the holidays approaching, any gift suggestions for historical true crime fans?
If an authentic Thompson machine gun is out of the question then books. For the OC fan in your life – The Starker by Rose Keefe (A refreshing look at the often ignored pre-Prohibition NYC gangland circa 1908-1912) Capone by John Kobler, or Mr. Capone by Robert Shoenberg, you can’t go wrong with Prohibition Chicago. If they are more into the bank robbing desperados then I suggest Public Enemies by Bryan Burroughs, Dillinger the Untold Story, by Russell Girardin and William Helmer is one of my favorites.
As you know, I’m a big movie fan, so I have to ask: What are your favorite gangster movies? (Not necessarily most accurate, as we all know how Hollywood is about historical accuracy.)
I don’t worry about accuracy in movies just the story and eye candy. I like Miller’s Crossing. Great dialogue and early 1930s feel. Roger Corman’s The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is a fun one. Dillinger, with Warren Oates definitely had an effect on me as a kid. The Untouchables, with Costner and Sean Connery. Any old gangster flick from the early Thirties. Even if the story is lame, the cars, clothes and scenery usually make it worth it.
Any future Pat Downey projects you’d like to talk about?
Nothing concrete. Having written three books back to back I’m not ready to dive into the thick of it again just yet. There are still plenty of gangster stories to be told however. I have a number of files stashed away that call out to me occasionally. “Hey, we’re sitting here mouldering away. Put us into book form already.” Thus far I’ve been able to ignore them.
Thank you, Pat, for agreeing to undergo the 3rd degree here at Nobody Move!