Bummy Davis vs. Murder, Inc.: The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Mafia and an Ill-Fated Prizefighter
By Ron Ross
St. Martin’s Press, 418 pages, $26.95.
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All ethnic groups invariably must pay the price of the respectability they seek, a price that grows greater as the past recedes. Ron Ross’s “Bummy Davis vs. Murder, Inc.: The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Mafia and an Ill-Fated Prizefighter” counts on such ethnic nostalgia, yet manages to provide a portrait of urban Jews in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn during the 1930s and 1940s who were anything but “nice Jewish boys.”
Ross is out to rescue the reputation of Al “Bummy” Davis, one of the last of the great Jewish fighters who were so notable a presence in professional boxing from the end of World War I to the end of World War II. When I was 12 years old, Davis was gunned down by four street hoods robbing a bar he had recently sold to a friend. He died a hero, but his reputation was less than stellar beyond the Brownsville he lived in and loved. Condemned by the sporting press because of his brother, a well-known racketeer, Davis was as brave as he was tough, as honest as he was willing to take on any risk to fulfill his dream of becoming a champion. Far from the Brownsville trombenik of his reputation, the Bummy we meet in these pages is a mensch who not only befriends but wins the affection of Yossele Rosenblatt, the great cantor. A street tough, he protected the retarded “Chotchke” Charlie from the vicious cruelty ethnic neighborhoods so casually visit on the weak and helpless. (To readers who grew up in the outer boroughs of New York City, Ross’s book will be worth buying just for the names it evokes.)
Davis was born Albert Abraham Davidoff in Brownsville on January 26, 1920. He died 25 years later, after a short but interesting life. Almost from birth he was a victim of his older brother’s reputation. Willie “Big Gangy” Davidoff had mob connections substantial enough to make him a formidable figure in the rackets that flourished in Brownsville in the 1930s. A henchman of the notorious Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, Willie developed a rivalry with mob boss Abe Reles that eventually had profound consequences for Bummy. Reles became one more obstacle Davis had to face in Brownsville, since his rivalry with “Big Gangy” made Bummy a target. Although he was never able to hurt Bummy physically, Reles did manage to make his rise in the boxing world more difficult.
Weaving together the lives of boxer and gangster, Ross makes Brownsville a study in contrasts. On one side is Murder, Inc., the predominantly Jewish mob that grew out of the Prohibition era and exerted power in the city until U.S. Attorney (and later New York Governor) Thomas Dewey sent Lepke to the electric chair and Reles was thrown out the window of the Coney Island hotel where he had been “naming names.” The members of Murder, Inc. raised homicide and mayhem to a level of professionalism virtually unmatched in the annals of American crime. And in spite of his Runyonesque prose, Ross conveys the full horror of the organization’s casual approach to murder. Murder, Inc. was an organization of professional killers who thought of murder as the corner grocer thought of cream cheese — as merchandise. Rarely has any city known more successful killers, and Brownsville in the 1930s was the school where significant numbers of Jewish gangsters, Bummy’s brother among them, first learned their trade and exercised their skills.
On the other side is Davis, and much of the appeal of Ross’s book is how he pits the hard-working Davis against this assortment of murderers and racketeers. It is an unequal battle for the reader’s sympathy. Ross measures this tough, brave boxer against sadistic hoods for whom life was not so much cheap as meaningless. Some of them were good to their mothers, charitable and occasionally even stood up for a community (like, for example, when Davis’s brother convinced Lepke to sponsor a benefit for Rosenblatt, after the great cantor lost his money making poor investments). Yet they were social misfits who were willing to do anything they were asked to do just to make their dollar. Davis, on the other hand, is a mensch, and there is something painfully genuine about him.
Ross’s portrait of the dedicated, hard-working boxer keeps his book from becoming another example of the spaghetti and meatballs — or bagels and lox — toughness that is no more than ersatz ethnic sentimentality. Despite a ponderous title, Ross has given us a good read, one that is a knowledgeable evocation of the Jews who became bulvons and boxers rather than doctors and lawyers.
Leonard Kriegel’s last book was the memoir “Flying Solo: Reimagining Manhood, Courage, and Loss” (Beacon Press, 1998).