Arnold ‘The Brain’

A New Biography Explores the Life of a Mastermind of Modern Organized Crime

By Jon Kalish

Published October 31, 2003, issue of October 31, 2003.
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Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series

By David Pietrusza

Carroll & Graf Publishers, 496 pages, $27.

* * *

Abraham Rothstein raised his family in Manhattan in the late 1800s. A Sabbath-observant Jew, he was a successful businessman known as “Abe the Just.” One of his sons wanted to become a rabbi but died at a young age. Another son, Arnold, became known as “The Brain.” But Arnold Rothstein was no rabbi.

As we learn in David Pietrusza’s splendid new biography, “Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series,” Arnold Rothstein was a brilliant gangster. A consummate gambler, he later became a rumrunner, labor racketeer, loan shark, real estate mogul, Wall Street swindler and, as if that wasn’t enough, mastermind of the modern American drug trade.

Rothstein was a Zelig of his time. Pietrusza’s breezy narrative often leaves you shaking your head in disbelief at the wild times and outrageous characters of 1920s New York. Though previous histories of the city have chronicled police corruption, this is nonetheless an unsettling account of cops being in cahoots with gambling establishments, framing innocent people and murdering another Jewish gambling figure, Rothstein pal Herman “Beansy” Rosenthal.

What would have become of “The Brain” had he applied himself not to the pursuit of illicit wealth but to the study of our holy texts? By all accounts, Rothstein’s intellect was so awesome he might have become a modern-day Torah sage. Instead, he became one of the fathers of modern organized crime.

Rothstein was quick to abandon the religious practices of his father. It was a new century, and he was in the new land. New York then was bustling with gambling opportunities, and young Rothstein excelled at it. Gambling for money is forbidden under traditional Jewish law, and making it his vocation was, as Pietrusza puts it, “declaring war on ancient values. Declaring war on Abraham Rothstein.” Arnold Rothstein did just that, and more: He married Carolyn Green, a Catholic showgirl.

Rothstein was also professionally involved in the theater, and Pietrusza’s biography is peppered with early 20th-century New York show-biz characters. (Rothstein partner Nicky Arnstein was married to Broadway star Fanny Brice; their relationship was the basis for the movie “Funny Girl.”) He bankrolled the Selwyn Theatre, which opened in 1918, as well as Fats Waller’s review “Keep Shufflin’,” which debuted in 1928. Rothstein also helped finance the smash hit “Abie’s Irish Rose.”

The saga is also peopled with colorful Jewish gangsters (Meyer Lansky, Lepke Buchalter and Jacob Shapiro all worked for Rothstein), larger-than-life newspapermen (New York World editor Herbert Bayard Swope was a close chum), famous athletes (featherweight boxing champ Abe Attell was his bodyguard) and a host of prominent public officials — not all of whom were corrupt.

But ultimately, this is the story of Arnold Rothstein, voracious gambler. “I just can’t stop,” he once explained to a friend. The man had some huge scores ($850,000 at Aqueduct Racetrack on July 4, 1921 and $500,000 at the first Jack Dempsey-Gene Tunney heavyweight bout in 1926), as well as his big losses ($270,000 on a single race at Aqueduct in the fall of 1921 and $300,000 in a poker game two months before he was murdered in November 1928).

The biography explains Rothstein’s role in the fixing of the 1919 World Series between the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds, a story later famously told in the movie “Eight Men Out.” Unfortunately, an intricate series of double-crosses and a large cast of characters make the World Series fix a difficult episode to follow. Basically, Rothstein paid members of the Chicago White Sox via intermediaries to throw the series but managed to stay clear of prosecution when the scheme was revealed. It is a complex affair that readers may have a hard time following without frequently referring to the brief descriptions provided by “The Players in Our Drama” section in the front of the book.

The biography also presents a couple of tantalizing tidbits on Rothstein and his family without following up with more detailed background. The book hints that, despite Rothstein’s alienation from Jewish ritual, he helped build a number of synagogues in New York. It would be nice to know more about this. In the book’s epilogue we learn that Rothstein’s father, who had a philanthropic relationship with Beth Israel Hospital in New York, moved himself into the hospital to spend his final years there.

Though Pietrusza clearly sees Arnold Rothstein as a man motivated mostly by greed, he does provide glimpses of Rothstein the mentsh, a man who let residential tenants who were hurting financially miss the rent and who bailed his father out of $350,000 in debts. And when Rothstein was shot by gambler George “Hump” McManus on November 4, 1928, his father told reporters at the hospital that Arnold had been an excellent son: “I could not ask for a better one. He was not the kind who neglects his parents.”

His death sparked kind words from the Yiddish press, as well. The Morgen Zhurnal said Rothstein possessed the “manners of an aristocrat.” Der Tog referred to him as “a sort of saint.” And the Jewish Daily Forward called him “a gentleman gambler who made his living by the old tradition of honest gambling.”

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. As Pietrusza’s biography ably documents, Rothstein did plenty of cheating in his gambling life. But what a life it was.

Jon Kalish is a New York-based newspaper and radio journalist.

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