A definitive rags-to-riches biography of Al Capone’s “Man in Hollywood,” Johnny Rosselli (1905-1976).
In his latest biography, Server (Ava Gardner: "Love Is Nothing", 2006, etc.) sorts through a massive amount of information—grand jury testimony, police records, news reports, hearsay—to create a cohesive, engaging narrative of the life of a gangster and the “Los Angeles underworld” in which he lived and worked. After enduring a childhood of poverty in Boston, Rosselli plunged into the criminal world in 1920s Los Angeles, at age 19, where he excelled as a bootleg driver. By 22, he was already running his own independent race book under his newly won moniker, Handsome Johnny. “His appearance evidenced good fortune and expensive tastes,” writes the author. “Gone were the old work clothes and boots, the stubbly face and dirty fingers, replaced with a fine wardrobe [and] immaculate grooming (movie-star haircut, treated skin, manicured nails with the luster of Red Sea pearls).” At only 23, together with Jack Dragna, Rosselli became Capone’s ambassador to the wide open frontier of Los Angeles. “It had happened quickly and efficiently,” writes Server. “And it was just the beginning.” From his tenure as a producer of major film noirs and hand in launching the career of Marilyn Monroe to his pioneering involvement in entrenching the Mafia in the new frontier of Las Vegas and 1960s entanglement with Sam Giancana in a CIA–backed plan to poison Cuban president Fidel Castro, Rosselli lived an unquestionably fascinating life, and the author ably captures it from one compelling exploit to the next. Server also examines Rosselli’s friendships with Frank Sinatra and other celebrities, his part in negotiating eccentric aviator Howard Hughes’ entry into the Las Vegas crime-scape, his alleged role in JFK’s assassination, and his grim end (his decomposing body was found in a fuel drum near Miami).
Paced like a fine piece of fiction, this is a handsomely written chronicle of an interesting mob character.