Second-novelist Walsh (Exchange Alley, 1997) brings New York gangster Owney Madden (1892-1964) to life in a fictionalized biography.
Where else but in America could a fatherless immigrant boy work his way from neighborhood hooligan to mob kingpin in a single lifetime? As Irish as Paddy’s pig, Owney was born in Leeds, where his parents emigrated to earn their fare to America. His father never lived to make the crossing, however, and Owney came over with his mother, sister, and brother, settling in Hell’s Kitchen, where he started his career at ten by joining the Gophers (an Irish gang that terrorized the West Side). Owney figured out early that politics was the real game, and he became the protégé of Monk Eastman, a Tammany boss who ran the Jewish gang on the Lower East Side and taught Owney who to bribe, who to fleece, and who to rub out when the heat got too high. During Prohibition, Owney made a fortune selling beer, but when Dutch Schultz tried to corner the bootlegging market in Manhattan, Owney had to cut a deal and slice up the pie. It stuck in his craw, but he knew Prohibition wouldn’t last forever, so there was no point in spilling your guts over it. He branched out into show business, buying a defunct Harlem dance hall from heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and reopening it as the Cotton Club, producing shows on Broadway for his girlfriend Mae West, and making the rounds in Hollywood with pals like Walter Winchell and George Raft. Even after the FBI decided to shut him down for good, he worked out a deal and left town for Hot Springs, Arkansas, and lived peacefully to a ripe old age.
A bright romp, with enough period detail and dialogue (“She was starting to get that puffy look dames do what drinks too much, and her beam was most definitely broadening”) to fill ten Cagney films.