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On Friday, May 10th, Warner Bros. released Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. It stars leading Hollywood talent, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton and Carey Mulligan. During its 1st weekend release, it topped $50 million in box-office ticket sales; Iron May 3 pulled in $72.5 million over the 3 days.
Much of the public-relations coverage of the movie’s release has focused on F. Scott Fitzgerald, his provocative novel and the illicit days of Prohibition. None has focused on the real underworld figure who some scholars say inspired the Gatsby character, Owney Madden. He was one of the leading gangsters of the oh-so-scandelous 1920s and has been all-but-forgotten.
The El Fay Club, Texas Guinan’s most popular wet-zone speak, and Harlem’s most glamorous nightspot, the Cotton Club, had two things in common: they offered top-shelf liquor and they were run by Owney Madden. The grand chronicler of Gotham’s underworld, Herbert Asbury, author of “The Gangs of New York” on which Martin Scorsese’s 2002 movie is based, left a vivid, if romanticized, vision of Madden: “… he was sleek, slim and dapper, with a gentle smile of a cherub and the cunning and cruelty of a devil.” Owney was a graduate of Hell’s Kitchen’s Gopher gang and New York State’s finest school of criminal higher education, the Sing Sing penitentiary. He was often referred to as “Owney the Killer,” a moniker he detested.
Owen Victor Madden arrived in New York in 1902 at age of 11 from Liverpool (some say Leeds), England, settling into the notorious West Side Irish ghetto, Hell’s Kitchen. As a teen, he was recruited into the Gophers (pronounced “Goofers”) and, when it split into three factions a few years later, he got control of the West Side turf below 42nd Street. Madden was a gangster with at least nine lives.
In November 1912, attending a party at the Arbor Dance Hall on 52nd Street near Seventh Avenue, Madden settled into a comfortable spot in the club’s balcony only to be approached by eleven thugs from a rival gang, the Hudson Dusters. Surrounding him, they pulled their guns and plugged him with six shots. Remarkably, he lived!
Later in the hospital, when questioned by the police, Madden refused to identify the shooters – he had his own idea of justice. While Madden recuperated in the hospital, a low-level thug, William Moore, aka Little Patsy Doyle, tried to take over Madden’s turf. He is rumored to have been one the shooters and is said to have been furious over rumors that Owney had hit on his girlfriend, Freda Horner. The first thing Owney did when released from the hospital was to set up Doyle’s killing in a Hell’s Kitchen saloon. Arrested and convicted for the Doyle killing, Madden was sentenced 10 to 20 years at Sing Sing.
Following his release from prison in 1923, Madden became, in the words of Stanley Walker, the grand chronicler of Gotham’s Prohibition scene in The Night Club City, “the most important man in New York. … the Elder Statesman, the Grand Old Man, of the rackets of New York.” Walker reports that Madden “looked and acted precisely as a racketeer should look and act.” He was lean and tough, a “catlike gentleman” with a falcon’s profile, slicked-back black hair and blue eyes, eyes that Walker recalls vividly as “a very bright and piercing blue.” Madden looked like a Hollywood movie-star gangster – and was a real one.
Coming back from Sing Sing to his old stomping grounds in Hell’s Kitchen, Madden first hooked up with former Gopher Larry Fay, the boss of the taxi racket and Guinan’s speakeasy partner. Seeing greener pastures in bootlegging, Owney moved out on his own, getting backing from Arnold Rothstein, the rackets boss immortalized by Fitzgerald as “Meyer Wolfsheim,” the fixer of fixers, the gangster credited with fixing the 1919 World Series.
Madden was a loyal son of the Kitchen and headquartered his operations at the Winona Club, at West 47th Street and Tenth Avenue. He called home the Harding Hotel, just off Times Square. It was a fabled haunt for the Theatre District set of vaudeville performers, showgirls and gangsters. In addition to Madden, regulars included Rothstein, Diamond and Dutch Schultz (aka Arthur Flegenheimer); Mae West’s mother, Tillie, ran the hotel. Madden’s skyrocketing wealth and dapper style led him to acquire a mansion in the posh suburban enclave of Great Neck, LI, where he was Fitzgerald’s neighbor. His beach-front estate served as the backdrop for Gatsby’s wild parties in the fictitious enclave of West Egg.
Prohibition made Madden very rich. He controlled a major chuck of the city’s illegal alcohol distribution and reportedly underwrote a number of the city’s swankiest nightspots, including Guinan’s many speaks as well as the Cotton Club, the Stork Club, the Silver Slipper, Duffy’s Tavern and the Central Park Casino. He also financed a host of legitimate enterprises, including a laundry and had a part interest in the boxing heavyweight, Primo Carnera.
Owney’s brewery, Phoenix Cereal Beverage Company on West 26th Street, was famous for its “Madden’s No. 1,” a beer that Walker fondly recalled as “a fine brew.” He also backed the Hollywood Restaurant, a movie-star-themed eatery run by Nils Granlund, a successful Broadway producer. The restaurant was located above the long-closed old-world Rector’s, seated 800 guests, had no cover charge and offered a six-course meal for $0.50. With an oh-so ‘20s’ chorus line made up of 24 scantily clad beauties, it was enormously popular. Most surprising, it did not sell or permit alcohol.
Walker found Madden to be a typical New York gangster: “… crafty, cruel, bold and lazy.” Nothing better captures Owney’s character — and the mounting crisis of the Roaring ‘20s crime scene — then his 1932 showdown with Vincent “Mad Dog” Cole. Cole, who Walker calls “a stupid, reckless killer,” was a protégé of Dutch Schultz, hit man and petty thug. He figured the best way to gain stature in Gotham’s tough underworld was by kidnapping and ransoming members of the Madden mob, Dutch’s principal rival. His first attempt to grab Owney’s brother-in-law, John Marrin, failed.
Cole then went after Owney’s partner, George “Big Frenchy” DeMange, playing one of the oldest cons in the gangster’s playbook — and it worked. Cole used fake cops to pick up Big Frenchy and then demanded $20,000 for his unharmed release; Madden paid, but so did Cole. A couple of days after the incident, Cole called Owney from a telephone booth in a pharmacy at Eighth Avenue and 23rd Street, taunting him about the kidnapping. Unknown to Cole, a big black limo driven by Abraham “Bo” Weinberg pulled up outside the drug store and two of Madden’s hit men, Leonard Scarnici and Anthony Fabrizzo, got out and entered the drug store, pulled Tommy guns from under their coats and ended Cole’s career.
In the wake of the Cole murder, pressure mounted against Madden. Unable to tie him to the Cole murder, he was charged with a parole violation and sent back to Sing Sing. After release, he faced intensified gangland competition in the wake of the mounting Depression and the repeal of Prohibition. Madden relocated to Hot Springs, AK, in 1935 and opened and ran for decades the Hotel Arkansas, a popular spa and casino among the East Coast underworld. Owney died in Hot Springs in 1965 of natural causes.
Gangsters play a dialetical role in modern American culture. They mark the line where capitalism shifts from the legal, the acceptable, to the illegal, the criminal. This line is never fixed, but arbitrary and always being contested. How this line is drawn reflects the relative power of contesting social and economic forces. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby captures the sensibility of one very particular moment of American history during which social values were in crisis and being vigorously contested.
What artistic works does this for today?
David Rosen writes the Media Current column for Filmmaker and regularly contributes to AlterNet, Huffington Post and the Brooklyn Rail. Check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.