Lenny Bruce once remarked, “Chicago is so corrupt it’s thrilling…”
After this week’s events, there is a perverse sense of certitude that for the Windy City and the Illinois statehouse, the thrill is never gone.
In perusing the latest scandal to emanate from the Land of Lincoln – a moronic sociopath of a Democratic Governor was recently overheard on federal wiretaps chatting about selling President elect Obama’s soon-to-be vacant Senate seat for a million large – it occurred to me that the more things change, the more they stay the same …particularly in Chicago.
In a region where reform equates to the redirecting of graft from one administration to the next, corruption in Illinois has evolved to being truly bipartisan.
Four of the last eight Illinois governors have gone to prison with the previous chief executive, Republican George Ryan, currently serving a seven year Federal sentence for corruption.
Ryan cut his teeth as Illinois Secretary of State, overseeing the acceptance of bribes for illegal truck licenses. The illegal licenses issued by Ryan’s office were tied to a minimum of eleven vehicular traffic deaths, but he escaped both blame and prosecution. This adroitness apparently qualified him for elevation to the Governor’s mansion. Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, a Democrat, recently wrote to President Bush beseeching him to pardon Ryan who has served a mere thirteen months.
How did Illinois earn its well deserved reputation for political chicanery? It is principally due to the long ago marriage of Chicago machine politics to Organized Crime.
Though the passage of time, electronic eavesdropping and Federal RICO statutes have effectively ended the century old alliance between the Cook County political machine and the Chicago Mob – known as “the Outfit” – that ran the city and much of the state during the previous century, the larcenous tradition remains intact.
The Outfit, decimated by age and successful prosecutions, is no longer the controlling force they once were. Howecer, the political class resolutely remains to feed at the public trough. Chicago politicians no longer have to share power and proceeds with the gangsters so they can now use both hands to steal.
As the late Chicago columnist Mike Royko put it:
“There are so many deals involving ranking members of the Machine that it has been suggested that the city slogan be changed from Urbs In Horto which means “City in a Garden” to Ubi Est Mea which means “Where’s mine?”
It began with colorful Chicago politicians-many of them bartenders and undertakers- including John “Bathhouse” Coughlin and Hinky Dink” Henna.. These men originated the tradition of personal self enrichment at taxpayer expense. What used to be known as graft generationally developed into a requisite entitlement for Chicago officeholders. The first Mayor Daley provided sage advice to a young state representative making his first trip to the legislature in Springfield: “Don’t take a nickel. Just hand them your business card.” Fathers ended up teaching their sons who succeeded them in office. In 1955, Alderman Paddy Bauler remarked that Chicago, “…ain’t ready for reform”. The clock continues to run in the Windy City.
“Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse’ Coughlin
Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson gave the keys to the city to Al Capone who exercised unfettered municpal control during Prohibition. For Chicago, Capone forged the alliance between politicians and mobsters that would prosper for decades. For Hollywood, Chicago’s recently minted municipal character- particularly the Capone gang wars-would provide grist for a large number of movies and television shows that endured longer than many of the characters they portrayed.
“Big Bill” Thompson
Chicago also handed the film industry its worst scandal.
The initial cinematic foray into the underbelly of Chicago was Underworld (1927) directed by the legendary Josef Von Sternberg.
Although written by Ben Hecht – who attempted to have his name taken off the credits – the picture was elementary on a social level; the straightforward story of a gangster (George Bancroft) being felled by obsessive love. The movie’s principal touch of reality was the portrayal of a rival gang leader as a florist shop owner. The character adaptation of the late Dion “Deany” O’Banion, an authentic Irish mob boss who was whacked by the Capone mob four years did not go unnoticed by the good burghers of Chicago.
The Racket (1928) was a harbinger of things to come. The story of an honest Irish cop thwarted by crooked politicians in bringing a mob boss to justice was partially on target. Official corruption and rigged elections were so identified with Chicago that using them as the story theme in a major motion picture was akin to sociological fidelity.
However, those in the know must have rolled their eyes about the “reality” of an honest police official taking on the corrupt Chicago political establishment. At best, any cop that was honest in Al Capone’s Chicago could be found guarding a railroad spur in the Back of the Yards district or worse.
Of the numerous 1930’s gangster films set in Chicago (The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, Scarface) the often forgotten The Beast of the City (1932) comes closest in providing proper perspective to the actual relationship between politics and systemic corruption.
The Mayor and Police Commissioner are thoroughly venal; lawyers are all crooks with the rule of law totally compromised by an urban environment that is rotten to the core.
The sole moral sentinel is police captain Jim Fitzpatrick, played by Walter Huston, a bastion of civil rectitude who sneers about the city he serves:
“This town is as rotten as an open grave”.
The Beast of the City along with The Secret Six (1931) postulate that municipal Chicago was so debased that only abject vigilantism from the barrel of a Tommy gun would be sufficient to disinfect the body politic.
The era of cinematic frankness was extremely brief.
Pressured by the League of Decency and state censor boards, The Motion Picture Production Code Administration began to enforce the virtuousness of moral redemption beginning in 1934.
Municipal corruption was portrayed as a few rotten apples spoiling a pure barrel rather than an entire system perversely compromised. Movies about criminals began to reflect the characteristics of a reformation crusade as exemplified by Metro’s long-running short subject series “Crime Does Not Pay”.
This parade of cinematic virtue came to a screeching halt in late 1939 with the revelation of corruption tunneled through the heart of the movie industry.
And where did this cataclysmic scandal emanate from?
Chicago, of course.
The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) was taken over by the Chicago Outfit who used their creatures, Willie Bioff and George Brown, to shake down the rank and file to sell labor peace to the studio heads. Then, they turned on the startled moguls as a source of ready cash. A former pimp, Bioff personally threatened L.B. Mayer with death unless he came across with the moolah.
Willie Bioff: arrest record and mug shot.
Warner Brothers, M*G*M and Fox ponied up the dough with Nick Schenck, the nominal head of the MPAA, cast in the role of bagman.
Harry Cohn at Columbia, a close pal of the Outfit’s point man on the West Coast, Johnny Roselli, was left conspicuously alone.
Bioff sang like a canary after his trial and earned his freedom. Rosselli and six other Outfit leaders including Paul “The Waiter” Ricca ended up being jugged in a federal pen with ten year minimum sentences. Mobster Frank Nitti killed himself rather than do the hard time.
An older Johnny Roselli.
Nick Schenck was nailed for tax evasion and paying off federal investigators in an attempt to cover up the large financial transactions.
Case closed. Justice is served. Roll credits.
Cut! Wait a minute. These guys are from Chicago; this can’t be the actual ending to this story.
The rest of the story:
The Outfit guys obtained early paroles after three years from a compliant Attorney General who was compromised by the Mob. Paul Ricca and the others returned to a hero’s welcome in Chicago and renewed their careers as high level racketeers.
Johnny Roselli ended up back in Hollywood as an associate producer of film noirs such as Canon City and T-Men at Eagle Lion Studios. He would subsequently manage the burgeoning Las Vegas casino operations for the Outfit and worked with the CIA in a series of bungled attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro in the early 1960s. After testifying before Congress in 1976, Rosselli’s Florida retirement was interupted when his corpse was fished out of Biscayne Bay in a 55 gallon drum.
Willie Bioff kept a low profile in Arizona until his car blew up in 1955 and sent him to the big union hall in the sky.
The Outfit always took care of their own, one way or another.
And mogul Nick Schenck? President Truman, a product of the Kansas City Pendergast Machine that was beholden to the Outfit, pardoned Schenck in 1945 so he could comfortably resume his career in Hollywood.
The IATSE scandal and its outcomes were an emblematic example of the Chicago Way.
It would have made one hell of a movie too.
As a practical matter, the scandal ended any credible motion pictures being made about political corruption and similar chicanery involving Chicago for several decades.
By 1959, all Hollywood and Chicago was left was The Untouchables. The four year run of the hit television series featured the myth-laden adventures of that crusading Fed, Elliott Ness (Robert Stack) versus Al Capone (Neville Brand) and Frank Nitti (Bruce Gordon) et al. The public loved the series and particularly the gangsters. Others weren’t so sure.
In Chicago, the natives were getting restless. Mayor Richard J. Daley was struggling with his first major scandal. It was discovered that a large contingent of the Chicago Police Department was moonlighting as residential burglars. The “Summerdale Scandal” threatened to drive King Richard from office while the Outfit was seemingly more agitated about a hit television series instead of a compliant mayor in political jeopardy.
Mob leaders including Tony “Joe Batters” Accardo and Murray “the Camel” Humphries deeply resented the caricatures of Capone and other former compares shown on The Untouchables. Such was the Outfit’s pique, revealed many years later by mob killer turned-informer Jimmy “the Weasel” Frattiano, that none other than Johnny Roselli relayed a direct order to “clip” Desi Arnaz, the nominal head of Desilu who produced The Untouchables. Fortunately for Desi, the order wasn’t carried out and was eventually rescinded. Talk about forgiveness by the critics!
Anthony “Joe Batters” Accardo, front and center with glasses, enjoying dinner with some of his close family friends during the 1970’s. Accardo was probably the most successful crime boss in American history. Joe, a former Capone bodyguard, never spent a night in jail and died in bed.
For Chicago and Illinois, the beat went on. And on. Age, arrests and scandals did in individual players, but the thematic character of the Windy City and its state environs remains unchanged.
So, to sum up… nope, this is better left to Sean Connery.
LATE BREAKING NEWS:
UPDATE: Here’s a revelation about the current Illinois Governor that underscores the relationship between Chicago politicos and the Outfit.