Mob Rule: Part 9

A family reunion ends with gunfire

The mob bosses hope a friendly get-together at the Waldorf will defuse mounting tensions and expose the enemy, but the plan for peace is shattered like a ballroom chandelier, ‘spraying shards like shrapnel from a crystal grenade’

By John Armstrong

I didn’t have a chance to phone Vanessa the next day until it was after 6 p.m. and when I did steal a minute, she wasn’t in. From the moment I stepped through the doors at work at eight that morning I’d been running back and forth from the Waldorf to the phone at my desk, overseeing arrangements for the meeting that night. The catering alone was a nightmare, given that many of the family Bosses were elderly and needed special foods – one could have no salt, another could have no dairy, another was allergic to shellfish, or nuts or something else – and then there was the problem of seating. Many of them were allergic to each other. Despite the long history of peace up to this point, there were still old animosities aplenty and no-one can hold a grudge like an Italian. After all, we invented the vendetta, the blood feud; I’ll bet any amount the Hatfields and McCoys both arrived at these shores named something else and had their names changed at Ellis Island.

It wasn’t just a case of who disliked who, though there was plenty of that, but overall pecking order. Frank and members of the Commission were seated at the main table, but after that it was a scramble for prestige and pride of place. By the time I had arranged, changed, and then rearranged the seating plan once again to satisfy them, like a giant, ill-tempered jigsaw puzzle, the thought of these old bastards gunning each other down over the gelato was a positive comfort to me.

The meet was set to begin at 7 and I left the office at 6:20 still sweaty and ink-stained from scribbling seating charts. Ricco had already gone ahead to drop off my clothes for the evening in the suite I’d booked us at the Waldorf. It’s good to have a refuge at these kind of things, a place to take a breather and a command post to strategize in private. With a little hustle I figured I could get showered, shaved and be back down the elevator in my formal wear about the time the first guests began arriving. I could count on all of them being 10-15 minutes early and then circling the block rather than showing up first.

Frank and Meyer were already in the suite. Frank was sitting in shirt, tie and boxers, smoking a cigar while one of the boys put a fresh crease in his trousers at an ironing board. Meyer had swapped his golf course duds for a dark blue tux and black patent shoes and was half-sitting on the dresser, swirling liquid, which I presumed to be brandy, in a brandy snifter. His cigar was sending coils of smoke up from an ashtray nearby.

“Where did you put me?” Meyer asked. He reached for the cigar and twirled it against the rim of the dish, dislodging ash.

“At the company table, with me and the executives, instead of the head table. Given what you said about just being an old fella here on vacation.” Though he no longer votes, as a gesture of respect Meyer would normally have been seated with the Commission members as commissionario emeritus.

“That’s good, so long as I’m not anywhere near that yutz Genovese,” he said. I’d already taken that into account, I told him. He stood up and tugged at the hem of his suit jacket and swiveled his neck to set his collar and tie. “How do I look?” He’d exchanged his giant pink-tinted glasses from the airport for an equally oversized black pair. He looked like a hungry owl, surveying the landscape for small rodents.

“Not a day over 60,” Frank said. He was perched on one leg, unsteadily, putting his pants back on. I was afraid he might go over but he reached out the other hand and got hold of a chair to balance himself. He zipped up and accepted the jacket from his valet and sucked his gut in a bit and ran thumbs back and forth around the inside of his waistband to adjust things just-so. Then he hunched his shoulders, stretched his arms out and back, and the suit settled on him beautifully, an elegant charcoal gray with razor-thin chalk-stripe. Lastly he turned to the dresser mirror and ducked down to set his hat, gleaming white with a black satin band.

When he turned back he looked like one of the statues at the museum – bigger than life, powerful as a Roman god and just as dangerous. It’s funny how we take the people we know for granted. I had just been watching Frank Costello, the man Edgar Hoover called the Prime Minister of the Underworld, while he stood in his undershorts and imitated a stork.

When he turned back he looked like one of the statues at the museum – bigger than life, powerful as a Roman god and just as dangerous. It’s funny how we take the people we know for granted. I had just been watching Frank Costello, the man Edgar Hoover called the Prime Minister of the Underworld, while he stood in his undershorts and imitated a stork.

“Okay, let Meyer see what we’ve done for security.” I handed the pages to him from my binder and waited while he looked them over. It was a simple sketch of the grand ballroom showing all doors and balconies and the table placement. I had pairs of gunmen inside and outside each entry and rifle emplacements spread through the two levels of balconies, sufficient to more than cover the room from all angles, with security details in the upper hallways to protect the balcony gunners. It added up to a lot of men with guns. All it would take would be one shot fired to set them all off.

“We went back and forth on it,” I said. “On the one hand, we don’t want anyone getting hurt at a meeting we called, so better too much security than too little. But we don’t want to look like we’re stacking the deck when people are already nervous about each other. That’s why I asked for soldiers from all the families and deployed them so the teams are mixed. Everybody watches everybody else, and we all go home in one piece. I hope.”

He looked at it some more then handed it back with grunted “Eh” of acceptance. “What can you do? Nobody trusts anyone else, and why should they? I don’t – it’s how I got so old. That, and not playing with guns any more than I had to.” Having mentioned it, he reached a hand under his lapel and fiddled with his own holster.

“Let’s hope the old saying is true – ‘In a room full of guns, people mind their manners.’”


I was right about nobody wanting to be first through the doors. From the lobby I could see an Alphonse and Gaston routine brewing out on the sidewalk with two parties both insisting the other precede them. It required the personal touch.

“Don Gambino, welcome. Please follow me – we’re seating the guests by seniority and, obviously, you must be given preference.” He began to say something but I snapped my fingers and threw a flurry of orders at one of our men, directing him to treat our guest in the manner befitting his stature and yadda yadda yadda, slathering on sufficient grease that as I sent him off, the elderly Boss walked slightly taller and radiated an actual glow of pure smugness, while I surreptitiously gave a raised eyebrow to the other Don that signified, ‘okay, that old bugger’s taken care of, now to attend to the important people, such as Yourself.’”

By dint of such flattery and carefully avoiding any opportunity where I might allow things to become a conversation, I got them handed off to the executive staff in such a way that no time was wasted and everyone’s apple was sufficiently polished. By the time I was done with that and the dozen other details that required tending to I needed a small restorative and stopped at one of the bars set up on the perimeter of the ballroom for a quick jolt. Then I decided against it and ordered an aperitivo. The waiters had already served dinner, early, on my orders; I wanted them to have fully bellies in the interests of sobriety. The only thing I could imagine more dangerous than a room full of nervous men with guns was a room full of nervous drunks with guns. I turned around, sipping Campari, and there they were, spread out before me, the Four Families of New York, and their satellite organizations, digging into plates of surf and turf.

The only thing I could imagine more dangerous than a room full of nervous men with guns was a room full of nervous drunks with guns.

To stage left of the dais which held the head table was our own borgata, and our associates: the Gowanus Boys who ran Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island for us in tandem with the Ozone Park Mob. In the old days, they would have warred with each other and made enough noise that no-one made anything. Under us, they split the territory, the work and the money and we all got rich. Joe was at the far end with his Greenwich Village Crew and captains.

At the adjoining tables sat the Capos of the remaining great families: Colombo, Gambino and Lucchese. The fifth, of course, had been Bonanno but he was gone now, his soldiers and business interests absorbed by the other four. Vito Genovese sat with us, technically, but at a second Luciano table, with his own hierarchy and associates – The Jersey Crew. He was in a wheelchair, one arm in a sling under his jacket.

As a sop to him, when he was appointed Boss Frank gave New Jersey to Vito. It didn’t look like it had brought him much joy. Gray-haired, with deep creases in his cheeks normally called smile-lines, though in his case that seemed unlikely, he was a medium sized man with a oversized, permanent grimace, as if someone had peed on his shoe. Then again, he was near 80 and had recently been shot. He wore a black suit, dark tie and dark glasses, He looked like an undertaker who would not be above chopping a customer’s legs off to fit them into a smaller box.

Thanks to the glasses I couldn’t tell if he was looking back at me or not, so I nodded and smiled and turned my attention elsewhere. A small group of older men in dark suits stood in a knot at one end of the bar, drinking and talking, heads bobbing, like crows on a telephone wire.

Then I heard the crackle of a microphone and Frank’s voice.

“All right, let’s get started. The waiters will come around and take orders for anything you haven’t got. But let’s get down to business.” I edged between the tables and slid into a chair beside Meyer as unobtrusively as I could. There was still a low murmur of chatter and Frank waited for it to die.

“Thank you all for coming tonight, on such short notice. It’s too bad that it takes something like this for us all to get together, because really, we have a plenty to celebrate.” He was standing at a rostrum in the middle of the table, as if at a Little League awards dinner. “This thing of ours has been good to all of us for a long time, but once in while we hit some bumpy weather. This is a chance for us to clear it up, if anyone has complaints or concerns, settle our differences and get back to what we all want – making a nice, quiet living.”

He took a sip from his wine glass. The rest of the Commission sat on either side of him looking like Mt. Rushmore.

There are 20-odd territories in the US but only six Commissioners representing them because, as they taught me in my economics classes, the natural result of free enterprise is consolidation and merger. Some of the mergers may have been more along the lines of how the big fish merges with the little fish, but that’s how capitalism works. It’s pure Darwinism.

These were the survivors, the fittest by definition; The Central and Midwest regions, under the administration of the Purple Gang in Detroit and the Chicago Outfit. The West Coast/Nevada region, from Bellingham to Mexico, represented by the Siegel Syndicate’s chief executive of operations, Mickey Cohen. (Ben Siegel himself hasn’t been outside the Vegas city limits in over 20 years; the story is he hasn’t even left his penthouse at the top of the Flamingo in nearly as long.)

Rounding out the table were the delegates from Florida’s Rothstein Enterprises and seated beside Frank, Commissioner for New York and Environs, at the middle of the table, my cousin Robert representing the Kennedys of Boston, who control the East Coast from Massachusetts down to the Rothstein border. While Bobby is surely being groomed for the Big Chair, someday, Joe still calls the shots; there was a phone by his elbow and a wire leading to an earpiece. Joe was listening in by conference call and relaying his instructions to Bobby.

“We all know why we’re here,” Frank went on. “Someone tried to take out me and my underboss – on the street. Like the goddamn Wild West, with civilians in the line of fire.” Frank took another sip and paused to let them consider this while he stood there with a sorrowful look on his face, as if someone had let him down badly. “Then they do the same thing to my partner Vito, with a machine gun. He lost some good men and took a bullet himself.

“Which leads us to conclude that number one, someone has a problem with the Luciano family, and two, they don’t seem to care about the rules.” He paused and looked around the room expectantly, which took a moment. Quick math figured it at 40 or so tables to accommodate the various dignitaries and their entourages, and soldiers averaging 15 or 20 bodies apiece, for a total upwards of 600. All of them managed to look innocent as babies at their baptism.

“This is not how we do things, not any more!” Frank slammed the lectern with the flat of his hand and the microphone squawked in punctuation. “Not for a long time. So tonight we fix this, and we go on, like grown men, not teenage hoodlums. I open the discussion to comments from the floor.”

One of the men at the Gambino table stood and an attendant brought him a microphone on a long cord.

“Don Costello, we’ve always had pleasant and respectful dealings and I hope it remains so. I was shocked – we all were – to hear about these attacks and I’m happy to see you unharmed … but I have to ask: have you looked at your own house, before you accuse others of anything? Why do you assume this is the fault of your neighbors?”

This brought rumbling from the crowd and knives clinking on wineglasses in approval. Someone yelled, “How are things in Jersey?” and there was scattered laughter. Vito was impenetrable behind his glasses. His crew were muttering among themselves. As far as the room was concerned, Genovese was tried and convicted. No-one was buying the wheelchair.

“I’m accusing nobody.” Frank barely needed the mike. Then he added, “And you should be careful to do the same.” Frank looked straight at the Gambino until the man looked away like a puppy confronted with a puddle on the floor and sat back down, then he looked back over the room. “I asked you here to discuss a mutual problem, not to lay blame.

“I don’t even know that my family is the only target – maybe we were just available. I called this meeting to bring us all together, to pool our information and see if we can’t figure a way to solve the problem before it does more damage. Now, does anyone have any ideas?”

The Detroit commissioner tapped his own microphone and looked down the table to Frank. “I don’t like to say this but it has to be asked – were the men who attacked you white men?”

This really got them going – shouting, pounding the tables and banging glasses. In New York, Harlem and Chinatown have always been their own countries, before and after the Takeover. Relations are cordial, if at arm’s length, and the only real problem is the same as it’s always been: narcotics. We’ve reached what Frank calls “an accommodation”, which is essentially a policy of containment; they do what they want on their own ground, but keep it out of ours, at least, in any organized fashion. Once in a while we get someone crossing into our territory selling, and we deal with it harshly, but the reality is, there will always be people who want the stuff and somebody wants to go up there across 116th St and fill their veins with poison, that’s their problem. What else can you do? Declare war? On what? Nobody could be that stupid.

(Which is not to say they don’t pay tax on it. As I said before, You Earn – You Pay. End of discussion.)

‘They were white men.” Frank had to repeat himself while the room settled down. “The idea makes no sense. For them to start a war on us would be suicide. I did consider the Chinese, from up in Canada but why here when it would make more sense for them to move on Seattle and the Northwest if they were so inclined? Has there been anything you’ve seen up there, Mickey?”

Cohen got to his feet with some effort, a small elderly man with a shrunken body and an unlikely set of chins, and three or four lonely hairs remaining on his head. He started to speak but began coughing wetly and had to stop until it passed, then simply shook his head in answer.

Meyer nudged me and I bent in to listen. “You wouldn’t believe it but that guy got more muff than 10 movie stars. I kid you not – he had them lined up outside his door, these big shiksas – we used call them ‘airplane blondes’. You know what that is? Bottle blondes. They all got a black box, like an airplane.”

Meyer took a drink and watched Cohen cautiously reseating himself. “Fuck. It’s like seeing Willie Mays get old.”

Another speaker, this one from the Luccheses, stood and asked if perhaps we shouldn’t consider that the real cause of this was the Luciano’s own – well, he would never be so disrespectful as to call it greed but  … there was no denying our good fortune and perhaps if others were allowed to wet their beak at our fountain, then there would be less resentment. There was a roar of approval and shouting from the other New York tables and I had to motion for our guys to stay seated. Charlie, on Meyer’s other side, leaned forward and showed me his .45, out and laid across his knee, out of sight under the table.

“Uh oh,” Meyer said. He nudged my ribs and I bent sideways again to hear him over the ruckus. ‘Nobody knows anything we can use. All we’re going to get is this kind of crap.” Frank was calling for order with no success. There was an eruption of loud voices over on the far side of the room and a table went over, men scuffling, and a bottle flew through the air. The Lucchese man stopped talking and looked around at the commotion, then the top of his head disappeared in a fireworks display of blood and bone. He opened his mouth again as if he were going to complain, then went down like a pile of dirty clothes.

“Come on”, Meyer shouted and hauled me up out of my chair. We ran in a crouch toward the door and turned back just as the first bomb exploded. Charlie was right behind, walking backwards and firing steadily to discourage anyone who took an interest in us. I heard a loud, surprised “Uufff” like the sound you make if someone hits you in the breadbasket and when I turned back he was down, holding his chest. He was moving but I couldn’t tell if he was alive.

We ducked behind one of the bar setups and flipped it over for cover, glasses and bottles crashing to the floor. I peered over the top, gun out, and then realized I had no idea who to shoot at. That didn’t seem to be stopping too many others. I saw that Genovese’s men had formed a phalanx around him and were making their way to the exit with guns drawn and Vito hidden from sight behind them. There was another explosion and one of the huge chandeliers fell, missing the Commission table by inches and spraying shards like shrapnel from a crystal grenade. I couldn’t see Frank anywhere.

“I have to find my uncle.” I shouted at Meyer, who had his own gun out and was taking a cautious look out over the battlefield.

“The bodyguards took them all out, don’t worry about him. Worry about how we get out.” He had a good point. It was a war with no apparent sides. I looked up at the balconies and saw our riflemen scanning the floor, trying to figure out which ones were targets. If I looked hard, it seemed to me that I wasn’t seeing anyone new. It was a big crowd, granted, but everyone out there shooting looked like he was just as confused and scared as the next guy. Yes, scared – you put a few hundred men in a room all shooting at whatever moves and scared is an appropriate response.

“Meyer, I think whoever did this is long gone. All that’s left is us, killing each other.”

He looked again. “Smart. Let’s us be smart, too. Grab an end.” We flipped the bar cart back up, kicked at the wheel locks to release them. Meyer pulled a tablecloth free and shook it out like a waiter, settling it over the trolley. “Like this,” he said, and crouched behind it. I got the idea and we began knee-walking it so that we were shielded on one side by the wall and on the other by the cloth hanging down the front. If we moved slow and easy no one was likely to notice us, not with all that was going on. A haunted bar trolley was the least of anyone’s concerns at the moment.

The first door we came to was the kitchen server’s and we pushed the cart in through the swinging doors cautiously. When no one shot at us we followed it and found it empty except for pots and skillets still cooking on the stovetops. There was a service elevator across the room and we made for it, then spent a long minute waiting for it to arrive. The doors swung open again and both of us checked our fire, barely, as Ricco came through. He’d been trapped on the other side of the table when we made our move.

He pushed past me to the elevator. “Okay, you two cover the doors and I’ll take this in case there’s any surprises in it.” The bell dinged cheerily and the doors slid open. Ricco came at it from one side, gun first, and swept it, then covered the kitchen as we piled in behind him. I looked at the panel and stabbed a finger at L, but Meyer grabbed my wrist and punched for the parking level.

“If I were running this ambush, I’d have gunmen in the lobby waiting for the exodus. It would be a turkey shoot.” The car stopped at the lobby anyway but just as the doors began to pull back I hit P again and they closed. Then it dinged and we were at the end of the line.

Ricco and I took a side each, and the doors opened. All I could hear was my heart pounding. I’m sure everyone else heard it, too, including whoever was waiting outside. But there was nobody in sight and we waited a few seconds to be sure then moved quietly. The garage was silent as an undiscovered tomb and about as inviting, a grey concrete labyrinth filled with deep shadows and little winking stars, reflections of chrome and mirror. Occasional overhead bulbs made pools of light on the floor and we stayed well out of them, feeling our way down one side along the fenders of parked cars. Then we all jumped at the heart-attack sound of a car door.

It was a middle-aged man, now fumbling with a large suitcase. Ricco got to him in seconds and had a hand across his mouth. Meyer and I made for the backseat and slid in as Ricco pushed the guy across the front into the passenger seat and threw the car into reverse.

He opened his mouth and then closed it without saying anything.

“This is an emergency.” I took a card from my breast pocket. “Call this number and you’ll be reimbursed. Now be quiet.

“Ricco, get away from the hotel and let him out. Then go to the main entrance.” He gunned it up the ramp to street level and out into traffic, then wheeled in at the corner. “This is safe enough here –“ Ricco reached over him and pulled the door handle, then shoved him out.

“Call the number.” We left him there, another tourist with a horror story about his visit to New York.

Ricco took the corner and slowed as we came up to the illuminated canopy over the Waldorf’s Park Avenue entrance. There were bodies on the pavement and in the street, and no one moving. We rolled slowly past and then stopped.

“All right, now what?” I didn’t relish the idea, but I couldn’t see how we didn’t go back in.

“No way around it, we have to see what’s what.” Meyer knew what I was thinking. Some of our people might need help and somebody had to organize what was left of the men inside. They’d listen to Meyer, I hoped. “Ricco, come with us. Put the keys on the floor out of sight.” He cracked the door open and got out and I slid over and followed.

The lobby was empty of either the living or the dead. We slipped in, guns drawn, and made our way toward the desk using the lobby furniture for cover. There were still random muffled shots and other loud noises coming from the floors above us but the elevators were silent. I gestured with my gun to Ricco, pointing to the elevated Cocktail Terrace. It was only a dozen or so steps up from the lobby proper but it would work as high ground for Ricco to cover us from. That makes it sound like I knew what I was doing – the truth is, I remembered it from the movies. You always want the high ground, and now I could see why. Phrases like “crossfire’ had also suddenly acquired a new relevancy to me.

I waited until he set up behind a heavy easy chair, swung around so it’s thick back shielded him. He flashed the ‘OK’ hand sign and Meyer and I slipped across the open space and behind the long reception desk.

I grabbed a phone and guessed right, hitting ‘nine’ for an outside line. It rang twice and then the operator picked up.

“Get as many ambulances as you can to the Waldorf Astoria. Warn the emergency rooms. They’re going to be digging out a lot of bullets and stitching up a lot of holes.” She started to ask questions and I hung up. I looked at Meyer and waited.

“Elevator or stairs,” he said. “I can’t decide. The elevator has cover and we can close the doors fast. The stairway is slow and I don’t know what it looks like. It might be worse.” He stood up. “Fuck it, let’s be lazy. It might be our last chance.”

I pushed the door to the staff room behind the desk with a foot. It was empty. Apparently the Waldorf didn’t pay enough for its staff to stay at their posts if war broke out. I pointed to the elevator bank with my hand and Ricco waved his own back at me. Now all we had to do was walk over there and press the. I found that I didn’t much want to do that.

Then we heard the sirens. It was too quick for them to be responding to my call; maybe the deskman had done it before they fled. In seconds a dozen men came though the doors pushing stretchers piled with bandages and supplies, others holding bags of transfusion blood and hangers.

Meyer nodded at me. He wanted me to deal with this. I looked back at him and he said nothing, then lifted his chin as if to say, ‘What are you waiting for?’ I was waiting for him to realize he had the wrong guy, but that didn’t appear to be happening so I walked out to meet them.

“I’m in charge here. Split yourselves into groups and wait at the elevators until I send them down from upstairs.” They did, no questions. Maybe Frank was right – a lot of it is just acting like the guy they need you to be.  “I’ll go up and make sure the shooting’s over.”

That said, now I had to do it. I found it was easier to walk over to the elevator and punch for it with an audience watching. Inside the car, however, I felt less sure of myself and it only took a week or so for the car to make it up to the ballroom level. Plenty of time to imagine everything that could go wrong with this, in detail. When the doors opened I stayed well to one side, poked my head cautiously around the corner an inch or so and yelled through cupped hands.

“This is Kennedy, of the Lucianos – I’ve got medical help downstairs but they won’t come up until the fighting stops. Capisce? Put your guns away – it’s all over.”

“We will when we see them put their guns down,” someone yelled back. I could see how this was going to go and while I was figuring what to do about it, I was quite surprised to find myself walking out into the ballroom.

Surprise is an understatement; that had not been one of the options I was considering. But there I was, and I kept going. I stopped 20 feet into the wreckage and stood there, showing my empty hands and said, as loudly as I could, “We’ve been suckered. Whoever started this, we’re doing just what they wanted. We’re killing each other and they’re laughing. Let’s not make it any worse, all right? Let the medics come up and help our compagnos.”

There was no reply for a long seconds, then I heard men disentangling themselves from their hiding places and a few heads appeared here and there, then more.

“Look around where you are and see who needs help the most.” Getting them busy seemed like a good idea. “Help the walking wounded over to the elevators and we’ll send them down together.” I went back to the wall and reached inside the cars one after the other, sending them back down. I needed to find a bathroom before the hero of the Battle of the Waldorf made a mess on the floor.

Mob Rule Continues in The Ex-Press.

To read past instalments, click here.




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