Thursday, November 4, 2010

Deathday: Gambler & Crime Kingpin Arnold Rothstein 1928

Arnold "The Brain" Rothstein (January 17, 1882–November 4, 1928) was a New York businessman and gambler who became a famous kingpin of organized crime, the Jewish mafia. Rothstein was also widely reputed to have been behind baseball's Black Sox Scandal, in which the 1919 World Series was fixed. His notoriety inspired several fictional characters based on his life, including "Meyer Wolfsheim" in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby[1] ; the character who shared his name in the Broadway Musical "Legs Diamond"; and "Nathan Detroit" in the Damon Runyon story The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown, which was made into the renowned musical Guys and Dolls.

According to crime writer Leo Katcher, Rothstein "transformed organized crime from a thuggish activity by hoodlums into a big business, run like a corporation, with himself at the top."[2] According to Rich Cohen, Rothstein was the person who first saw in Prohibition a business opportunity, a means to enormous wealth, who "understood the truths of early century capitalism and came to dominate them". Rothstein was the Moses of the Jewish gangsters, according to Cohen, the progenitor, a rich man's son who showed the young hoodlums of the Bowery how to have style; indeed, the man who, the Sicilian-American gangster Lucky Luciano would later say, "taught me how to dress."[3]

Early life and successes

Arnold Rothstein was born in New York City, the son of a businessman, Abraham Rothstein. Arnold was skilled at mathematics and developed an early interest in illegitimate business, whereas his older brother studied to become a rabbi. By 1910, Arnold had moved to the Tenderloin section of Manhattan, where he established an important gambling casino. During Prohibition, Rothstein purchased holdings in a number of speakeasies. He also invested in a horse racing track at Havre de Grace, Maryland, and it was widely reputed that he "fixed" many of the races that he won. Rothstein had a wide network of informants and very deep pockets when it came to paying for good information, regardless of how unscrupulous the sources were. His successes made him a millionaire by age 30.

1919 World Series

In 1919, Rothstein's agents allegedly paid members of the Chicago White Sox to "throw", or deliberately lose, the World Series, enabling him to make a significant sum betting against Chicago: an incident known as the "Black Sox Scandal".[4]

Summoned to Chicago to testify before a Grand Jury investigation of the incident, Rothstein stated that he was an innocent businessman intent on clearing his name and his reputation. Prosecutors could find no evidence linking Rothstein to the affair and he was never indicted. Rothstein's testimony is worth quoting. "The whole thing started when (Abe) Attell and some other cheap gamblers decided to frame the Series and make a killing. The world knows I was asked in on the deal and my friends know how I turned it down flat. I don't doubt that Attell used my name to put it over. That's been done by smarter men than Abe. But I was not in on it, would not have gone into it under any circumstances and did not bet a cent on the Series after I found out what was underway."[5]

The Grand Jury believed Rothstein, but the truth was a lot more complicated and Rothstein was a lot less innocent. One version of this story has Rothstein turning down the proposal relayed by Attel; however, this in fact had been the second "fix" he'd refused to bankroll. A gambler called Joseph "Sport" Sullivan had previously approached Rothstein with the same idea. After receiving Attel's offer, Rothstein reasoned he could now afford to reconsider the first offer from Sullivan's. Rothstein shrewdly figured that the field was becoming so crowded with would-be fixers that he could risk getting involved and still cover his tracks. As Rothstein explained it to Sullivan "If a girl goes to bed with nine guys, who's going to believe her when she says the tenth one's the father?"

Another version of this story has Rothstein working both ends of the fix with Sullivan and Attell.

1921 Travers Stakes

Rothstein also owned a racehorse named Sporting Blood, winner of the 1921 Travers Stakes under suspicious circumstances. Allegedly, Rothstein conspired with a leading trainer, Sam Hildreth, to drive up the odds on Sporting Blood. Hildreth entered an outstanding three year old, Grey Lag, on the morning of the race, immediately causing the odds on Sporting Blood, to rise to 3-1. Rothstein then bet $150,000 through bookmakers, allegedly having been informed that the second favorite, Prudery, was off her feed. Just before post time and without explanation, Hildreth scratched Grey Lag from the starting list. Rothstein collected over $500,000 in bets plus the purse, but a conspiracy was never proven.

Prohibition and organized crime

With the advent of Prohibition, Rothstein diversified into bootlegging and narcotics. His criminal organization included such underworld luminaries as Meyer Lansky, Jack "Legs" Diamond, Charles "Lucky" Luciano, and Dutch Schultz. Rothstein's various nicknames were Mr. Big, The Fixer, The Man Uptown, The Big Bankroll and The Brain. Rothstein frequently mediated differences between the New York gangs and reportedly charged a hefty fee for his services. His favorite "office" was Lindy's Restaurant, at Broadway and 49th Street in Manhattan, where he would stand on the corner surrounded by his bodyguards and do business on the street. Rothstein made bets and collected debts from those who had lost the previous day.


On November 5, 1928, Arnold Rothstein was shot and mortally wounded while conducting some business affairs at Manhattan's Park Central Hotel. He died the next day at the Stuyvesant Polyclinic Hospital in Manhattan.[6] The shooting was allegedly linked to a gambling event that Rothstein had participated in the previous month with several associates and acquaintances. According to underworld folklore, it was a spectacular three-day, high-stakes poker game held somewhere in Manhattan. Rothstein apparently experienced a cold streak with the cards and ended up owing $320,000 at the end of the game. However, Rothstein refused to pay the debt, claiming the game was fixed. The hit was arranged to punish Rothstein for reneging on this debt. Gambler George "Hump" McManus was arrested for the murder, but later acquitted for lack of evidence.[7] Rothstein, on his deathbed, refused to identify his killer, answering police inquiries with "You stick to your trade. I'll stick to mine"[1] and "Me mudder did it." Rothstein was buried at Ridgewood's Union Field Cemetery in a Jewish Orthodox ceremony.

Another theory about Rothstein's death is offered by crime reporter Paul Sann in his book Kill the Dutchman. Sann alleges that Dutch Schultz murdered Rothstein in retaliation for the murder of Schultz's friend and associate, Joey Noe, by Rothstein's protégé, Jack "Legs" Diamond.

Frank Erickson, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and other former associates inherited Rothstein's various "enterprises" after his death. Politically, Rothstein's death contributed to the fall of the corrupt Tammany Hall and the rise of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.
Ten years after his death, Arnold Rothstein's only surviving brother declared Rothstein's estate bankrupt.

In popular culture

The author F. Scott Fitzgerald used Arnold Rothstein as the inspiration for Jay Gatsby's crooked associate Meyer Wolfsheim in the novel The Great Gatsby. At one point, Gatsby says to narrator Nick Carraway, "He's the man who fixed the 1919 World Series."

Rothstein's legendary pool-playing marathon, against a Philadelphia pool shark called Jack Conway shipped in by Rothstein's enemies to humiliate him, took place over two days and nights in 1911 at McGraw's Billiard Parlor, off Herald Square in Manhattan. Rothstein just kept playing and betting until Conway's backers had lost $10,000. Eventually, the owner (John McGraw) stepped in and shut down the hall, saying "That's it. If I let you go on I'll have one o' youse dead on my hands." This was the real-life inspiration for the opening pool contest between Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) and Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) in the 1961 film The Hustler. Rothstein's patronage of floating crap games also provided the model for Nathan Detroit in the musical Guys and Dolls. Rothstein also appears as "The Brain" in several of Damon Runyon's short stories, including a fictional version of his death in The Brain Goes Home.

In the film The Godfather, Part II, Hyman Roth mentions that Rothstein is his inspiration. In a sequence cut from the original film, Roth adopts his surname after Rothstein's in honor of his part in the Black Sox Scandal.

Rothstein was portrayed in several films: by F. Murray Abraham in the 1991 Mobsters, by David Janssen in the 1961 King of the Roaring 20s, and by Michael Lerner in the 1988 Eight Men Out, based on the Black Sox Scandal.

In the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, Rothstein is portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg.

On the ABC series, The Whole Truth, Rothstein's murder is used as a code for ordering a murder by a judge who had taken bribes and was attempting to cover his trail. In reference to his intended target, He says "I'll meet him at the Park Central". The victim also has the surname of Rothstein.


1.^ Raab, Five Families, p. ???
2.^ Katcher, Leo (1959/1994). The Big Bankroll. The Life and Times of Arnold Rothstein, New York: Da Capo Press
3.^ Defenders of the faith, The Guardian, Saturday July 6, 2002; Cohen, Rich (1999). Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams, London: Vintage
4.^ Arnold Rothstein and Baseball's 1919 Black Sox Scandal
5.^ The Big Fix: Arnold Rothstein rigged the 1919 World Series. Or did he?, Legal Affairs, March-April, 2004
6.^ In Room 349, Time, December 24, 1928
7.^ Tammany's Rothstein, Time, December 16, 1929

Cohen, Rich (1999). Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons, and Gangster Dreams, London: Vintage ISBN 0-099-75791-5
Eisenberg, D., Dan, U., and Landau, E. (1979). "Meyer Lansky: Mogul of the Mob." New York: Paddington Press. ISBN 0-448-22206-x, ISBN 0-7092-0151-6
Henderson Clarke, Donald (1929). In the Reign of Rothstein, New York: The Vanguard Press.
Katcher, Leo (1959/1994). The Big Bankroll. The Life and Times of Arnold Rothstein, New York: Da Capo Press ISBN 0-306-80565-0
Pietrusza, David (2003). Rothstein: The Life, Times and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series, New York: Carroll & Graf.
Raab, Selwyn (2005). Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires, New York: St. Martin's Press ISBN 0-312-30094-8
Rothstein, Carolyn (with Donald Henderson Clarke) (1934), Now I'll Tell, New York: Vantage Press.
Tosches, Nick (2005). King of the Jews. The Arnold Rothstein Story, London: Hamish Hamilton ISBN 0-241-14144-3

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