Let's Talk Art: Author Jeffrey Sussman Shares Insight Into the 'Tinseltown Gangsters' - 27 East

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Let’s Talk Art: Author Jeffrey Sussman Shares Insight Into the ‘Tinseltown Gangsters’

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A photo from

A photo from "Tinseltown Gangsters" of Thelma Todd in in the 1931 film "Corsair." COURTESY JEFFREY SUSSMAN

Jeffrey Sussman's new book is about the mafia's involvement in the film industry.

Jeffrey Sussman's new book is about the mafia's involvement in the film industry.

Joe Kennedy played a big role in bringing the mob to Hollywood. COURTESY JEFFREY SUSSMAN

Joe Kennedy played a big role in bringing the mob to Hollywood. COURTESY JEFFREY SUSSMAN

Jeffrey Sussman's book

Jeffrey Sussman's book "Tinseltown Gangsters" explores Joe Kennedy's role in bringing the mob to Hollywood. COURTESY JEFFREY SUSSMAN

"Tinseltown Gangster" Mickey Cohen. COURTESY JEFFREY SUSSMAN

A photo of Hollywood studio heads in 1938 from Jeffrey Sussman's book

A photo of Hollywood studio heads in 1938 from Jeffrey Sussman's book "Tinseltown Gangsters." Harry Cohen is in the front row, second from left. COURTESY JEFFREY SUSSMAN

Actress Thelma Todd, who is among the subjects in Jeffrey Sussman's book

Actress Thelma Todd, who is among the subjects in Jeffrey Sussman's book "Tinseltown Gangsters," in 1933. COURTESY JEFFREY SUSSMAN

authorAnnette Hinkle on Mar 1, 2024

East Hampton author Jeffrey Sussman recently published a new book, “Tinseltown Gangsters: The Rise and Decline of the Mob in Hollywood.” Beginning this weekend and for the next several weeks, Sussman will be speaking about his book at libraries across the East End. He recently shared some insight into what he learned about the subject while researching the book.

Q: You’ve written a number of books on the mafia in New York and Las Vegas, and have focused on Jewish gangsters as well as mobsters involved in the sport of boxing. Now you’re taking on the silver screen in “Tinseltown Gangsters.” Was there one particular anecdote that made you want to devote a book to the topic of Hollywood and the mob?

There was no one anecdote that inspired me to write “Tinseltown Gangsters.” However, one character, Bugsy Siegel, was a subject in two earlier books, “Big Apple Gangsters” and “Sin City Gangsters.” He is a thread that ran through the mob’s involvement in New York, Las Vegas and Hollywood. Once I discovered Siegel’s involvement in shaking down Hollywood studios through his control of the Extras Union, I found material about a host of other gangsters and the producers, actors and directors they controlled.

Q: What years were the height of mob involvement in Hollywood?

Joseph Kennedy Sr. pointed the way for the mob in the 1920s, when he borrowed money from the Chicago Outfit for the purchase of the film company, FOB. Once the mob followed Kennedy into Hollywood, they remained throughout the 20th century. There are still mob financed movies, but the mob does its financing through front companies.

Q: I’ve often wondered — if there had been no Prohibition, do you think there would have ever been a mob? Or at least a mob that grew as strong as it did in the U.S.?

Prohibition was a wonderful gift to organized crime. It made many of the founders of organized crime extremely rich. It was also an impetus for getting criminals to become members of the National Crime Syndicate, which divided the country into noncompetitive territories for bootleggers.

Q: Can you explain what made Hollywood so ripe for the picking when it came to the mafia? My guess is that part of it had to do with its sheer distance from the East Coast and perhaps a somewhat “wild west” mentality when it came to law and order — at least in the early days. But I could be wrong!

Labor organizing and control of unions up to the present have been a rich resource for the mob. The Chicago Outfit and the New York mobsters gained control of numerous Hollywood unions. Once they had control they could extort the studios to prevent labor strikes. The mob was able to extort millions of dollars from studio bosses. The mob also invested millions in numerous studios, such as Columbia Pictures when it was controlled by Harry Cohn. Their investments gave them the power to choose who would star and who wouldn’t star in particular movies.

Q: Tell me more about Joseph Kennedy’s connection to the mafia and how that fed the mob’s interest in exploiting the film business.

After Kennedy bought FOB, he wanted to own movie theaters. There was a chain of West Coast theaters named Pantages. Kennedy offered to buy the chain, but his offers were rejected numerous times. He then set up the chain’s owner to be falsely accused of rape. The man was tried and sentenced to 50 years in prison. Kennedy was then able to buy the theaters at a fraction of his original offer. The jailed theater owner was released after serving three years in prison; he had been represented in his appeal of the original sentence by the criminal defense attorney who represented Bugsy Siegel. The woman who was the alleged rape victim recanted her original testimony, and just before she was to give a deposition, she was poisoned. If Kennedy was able to turn the movie industry into a cash cow, the mob figured they could too.

Q: Were part of mob tactics sheer intimidation of celebrities who feared negative publicity if they didn’t go along with their schemes? Who were some of the bigger names involved with the mob?

Frank Sinatra’s manager, Hank Sanicola, and mobster, Mickey Cohen, ran a scandal sheet called Hollywood Nite-Life. They forced actors, directors, producers to pay for exorbitantly priced ads to keep Nite-Life from publishing embarrassing and damaging information. Some of those who paid for ads were Robert Mitchum, Joan Crawford and even Sinatra.

Q: Did any of them try to extricate themselves from their involvement? How did that go for them?

Victims of the mob were able to find peace after certain mobsters were killed or jailed. Other victims went to their graves as mob casualties. Once the mob had its hooks into someone, they wouldn’t let go.

Q: How did you go about doing the research for this book?

There is a wealth of information on the internet. In addition, Steven Spataro, a reference librarian [at East Hampton Library], was able to dig up articles and get me contact information. He was very helpful. I was also able to interview people who knew some of the mobsters.

Q: What are some of the most surprising bits of information you uncovered in the course of writing this book?

Joan Crawford’s early career making porno movies. The extent of Joe Kennedy’s thievery and deceit. The amount of money that the mob invested in movie studios. The number of actors and singers who owed their careers to the mob. If a woman wanted to star in a Columbia Pictures movie when Harry Cohn owned the studio, she had to have sexual relations with him. Only a few women managed to escape his clutches. When Harry Cohn learned that Sammy Davis Jr. was dating Columbia star, Kim Novak, Cohn issued a contract on the life of Davis.

Davis was able to save his life by marrying a Black Las Vegas singer within 48 hours of being threatened. He paid the singer $25,000 and they divorced after several months of marriage.

Jeffrey Sussman speaks locally about “Tinseltown Gangsters: The Rise and Decline of the Mob in Hollywood” on the following dates:

East Hampton Library (easthamptonlibrary.org, 159 Main Street, East Hampton) — Saturday, March 9, at 2 p.m.

John Jermain Memorial Library (johnjermain.org, 201 Main Street, Sag Harbor) — Sunday, March 10, at 2 p.m.

Hampton Library (myhamptonlibrary.org, 2478 Main Street, Bridgehampton) — Saturday, March 16, at 3 p.m.

Shelter Island Public Library (shelterislandpubliclibrary.org, 37 North Ferry Road, Shelter Island) — Friday, March 22, at 7 p.m.

Amagansett Free Library (amagansettlibrary.org, 215 Main Street, Amagansett) — Saturday, March 30, at 3 p.m.

Hampton Bays Public Library (hamptonbayslibrary.org, 52 Ponquogue Avenue, Hampton Bays) — Saturday, April 6, at 1 p.m.

Westhampton Free Library (westhamptonlibrary.net, 7 Library Avenue, Westhampton Beach) — Saturday, April 20, at 2 p.m.

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