The lives of Hollywood’s early movie stars have become the stuff of legend; the glitz and the glamour, the conspicuous consumption, the never ending carousel of parties and premieres. Rarely discussed is the dark side of their stardom; the constant fear that at any time they could become victims of gunmen, kidnappers, or extortionists. In these pages are the stories that normally get left out of the Hollywood history books: the armed robberies, home invasions and the threats of abduction, maiming, and murder that plagued Tinseltown throughout the early years. Whether it was “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford or sex siren Mae West – no star was immune. Hollywood on the Spot brings to light the nightmares inside the Dream Factory.
Hollywood on the Spot is available as a trade paperback from Amazon.
FYI, my true crime short story Under the Wall is free in the Amazon Kindle store through the end of the weekend. Actually, I think the free promo ends at midnight Eastern Time on Monday. So feel free to click on over and give it a look.
We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming. 🙂
In keeping with my recent policy of being asleep at the wheel on this blog, I managed to miss the 70th anniversary of the 1945 tunnel escape from Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. For the record, the breakout happened on April 3, 1945. You’d think I’d have remembered to do a This Day in Crime History post about it, especially since I wrote and published a true crime short story about the escape.
Here’s the book description from Amazon:
In 1945, twelve inmates, including notorious bank robber Willie Sutton and mob trigger-man Frederick “The Angel” Tenuto, escaped from Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia through a one hundred foot tunnel. Some would be captured quickly. Others would not go down so easily.
Under the Wall is a true crime short story. Approximate length: 5,000 words (about 20 printed pages)
If you’re interested in learning the whole story, you can buy Under the Wall for the low, low price of 99 cents. It’s available at the following ebook retailers:
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been pretty busy with a little writing project. Under the Wall: The True Story of the 1945 Tunnel Escape from Eastern State Penitentiary is a true crime short about a prison break at the notorious Philadelphia prison. A dozen men, including infamous bank robber Willie Sutton, got out through a tunnel nearly a hundred feet long that took over a year and a half to build.
This one was a lot of fun to research and write. Under the Wall is about five thousand words long, which comes out to around twenty printed pages. It’s available as an ebook at Amazon and Smashwords. It should be up at other retailers (Kobo, Apple, B&N etc.) in the near future.
Today marks the start of Bouchercon 2013. Bouchercon is the annual international crime fiction convection. It is held in a different city every year. I’d wanted to attend one for about ten years now, but I’ve never been able to make it happen. This year, the stars aligned for me. The con is being held in Albany, NY. If I only go to one, this would have to be it. The location could only be more convenient if they held it in my back yard. Posting is likely to be light for the next few days. I will try to have a movie quote up on schedule. Provided I can come up with a good one.
Sad news today, author Elmore Leonard died this morning of complications from a stroke. The news first broke on his official Facebook page, which is run by his researcher Gregg Sutter. He was 87 years old.
Those who have been reading this blog for a while know that Mr. Leonard is one of my favorite authors. In fact, Elmore Leonard and the late Donald E. Westlake are my all-time favorite authors (Mr. Westlake passed away in 2008). Some of my favorite movies — Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, and Out of Sight — were based on his books, as is Justified, one of the best shows on TV.
Beyond just writing great books (as if if that wasn’t enough), Elmore Leonard is the reason I read — and write* — crime fiction. Once upon a time, I mostly read spy novels and military techno-thrillers. Sometime in the early 90s, I got tired of that and gave up reading fiction. Yup, you read that right. For the better part of a decade, I was one of those guys who said “I don’t read fiction” (emphasis on that last word to emphasize douche-y air of superiority).
Fast forward to 2002. The 9/11 attacks had happened a few months earlier. As a member of the Air National Guard, I was mobilized and deployed… to Florida. Yeah, go figure. Anyway, I was down there working on the homeland defense mission. I had a pretty cushy existence compared to folks who were getting sent of Afghanistan. A room to myself. A rental car. And a beautiful schedule that had me working 12 hour shifts, 3 days on, 3 off. Lots of time off to enjoy the Sunshine State.
The problem is that I was alone. I was an augmentee in an existing unit. Oh, I worked with people every day, but they were all permanently stationed there. At the end of the duty day, they all went home to their families. I went back to my room. So I spent a lot of my time watching movies. But you can only watch so many movies. And I had to eat out a lot. Eating out alone bores the hell out of me. Unless I have something to read. So I decided to return to reading fiction.
Going back to techno-thrillers didn’t appeal to me. I got enough of the military at work. So I gave crime fiction a try. And what better crime fiction author to read than the man who inspired some of my favorite movies. So I went to the library and checked out Killshot, by Elmore Leonard. I chose that title because it hadn’t (at that time) been the basis for a movie. I wanted to read something I wouldn’t be comparing to a movie.
Long story short, I loved it. I followed up with Freaky Deaky (my personal favorite), Pagan Babies, Get Shorty, and Riding the Rap (the second Raylan Givens novel). I’ve since read many more. I haven’t read all of his novels yet, but I plan to.
Thank you, Mr. Leonard, for the entertainment you have brought to millions of people. You will be missed.
*I know, some of you are scratching your heads and saying, “Writing, he writes crime fiction? First I heard o’ that.” Others among you are scratching your heads and saying, “Yeah, he did used to write. What happened?” All I can say is that after an extended period of laziness, I have been busy writing me some crime fiction. In fact, I’ve been pretty busy in August. More on that tomorrow.
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!