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Are Movie, TV Mobsters Getting a Bum Rap?

Even before the era of hacked emails, there has always been a fascination (and entertainment value) in the private documents of public figures. One of the classic “leaks” was a telegram sent in 1935 to a renowned gangster by the publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, Billy Wilkerson, in which he pledged to do the mob’s bidding. The Reporter at the time was running a series of articles about how mobsters had taken over the Hollywood unions, and Wilkerson’s telegram was addressed to mob enforcer Johnny Rosselli. The articles promptly disappeared.

I was reminded of Wilkerson’s surrender by consultant and author Bill Friedman, an expert on the gangster community and its impact on various U.S. institutions. Friedman, who served as president of two Las Vegas hotel-casinos, has made it a point to interview key mob figures and their progeny over the decades, and has written two books on the subject (the newest titled “30 Illegal Years to the Strip”).

Having lived in the mob’s playground, Friedman believes that society does not understand the gangster mind, and that mobsters are ineptly portrayed in movies and TV shows. The surly hoodlums in the “Sopranos” were way over the top, in his estimation, yet Johnny Depp’s depiction of Dillinger in “Public Enemies” was absurdly benign.

Yet Friedman regrets the fact that the gangster film has faded as a Hollywood staple (though Depp will try to resuscitate the genre with September’s “Black Mass,” in which his plays Boston mobster Whitey Bulger). Many of the top mob figures Friedman has observed were not tough-talking hoods but, rather, “highly personable men who lived by their word,” he claims, citing Ben “Bugsy” Siegel and Moe Dalitz as examples. Nor did some live up to their reprobate reputations. Friedman argues that Arnold Rothstein did not fix the 1919 World Series and was never charged with a crime, and says that Rosselli was more inept than homicidal; when the CIA paid him to assassinate Fidel Castro, he botched the job. The fabled Lucky Luciano, Friedman maintains, while a criminal, nevertheless protected New York from enemy agents during World War II.

Mobsters like Luciano, Dalitz and Meyer Lansky were among the younger generation who basically built the Las Vegas Strip, and ruthlessly guarded their kingdom. While they were criminals, to be sure, the financial impact of their crimes seems trivial today compared with the $5.6 billion in penalties paid by the five major banks that admitted this month to illegal currency trading.

Friedman was shielded to a degree from the direct impact of the mob; the casinos he ran (Silver Slipper and Castaways) were owned by Howard Hughes, who had government contracts to protect, and who disdained the hoods from the East.

Friedman by no means misses the mobsters, but he regrets the corporatization of Las Vegas. Gaming today accounts for less than 40% of overall revenues, and is dwindling. Symbolically, attendance at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas, which celebrates the careers of top gangsters, has suffered reduced attendance lately.

Still, giant sums of money are being placed on Las Vegas’ revival. Malaysian developer the Genting Group broke ground last week on a $4 billion Chinese-themed casino on the Strip, with plans for a replica of the Great Wall of China, as well as a panda exhibit. Vegas, it seems, is still a place that invites the big gamble.

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