Monday, October 12, 2009

Flyin' with the Dutchman, A Depression Legend

Bootlegger.  Killer.  Grandpa?

      My mother is outrageous.  Not Jane Fonda visiting North Viet Nam outrageous -- she works hard and bakes pies and goes to church and does a lot of the things you'd expect a woman approaching her 70th birthday to do -- but outrageous nonetheless.  My mother will say things like, "As far as I'm concerned, Blink-182 is the finest of the post-grunge pop punk bands," like she's Greil Marcus, which is outrageous not only because a grandmother of twelve who has diabetes and some sort of trouble with her Achilles tendons isn't supposed to have an opinion on post-grunge pop punk bands, not unless she's a character on one of those awful ABC Family shows, the kind of wholly contrived figure who wears dashikis and practices Tantric yoga and gives her adoring granddaughter (the one Who Just Can't Get Along With Her Mother) wise and hip counsel about birth control and choosing the right college, but because it seems specially designed to bring out my inner Alex P. Keaton.  She's not a hippie -- Mom birthed Child Number Four at about the same time a lot of her contemporaries were donning love beads and driving microbuses to Woodstock -- she's just a free spirit.

People love my mother, love her loose as a goose, say what you think way of doing things.  She's delightful!  And refreshing!  

She drives me crazy.  

This can't be an uncommon dynamic, this eldest son's discomfort at watching his mother  proudly waving her freak flag.  It's a little like watching "America's Funniest Home Videos": seeing some poor sap's crotch take a direct hit from a baseball or a crochet mallet or a low flying mallard is always delightful! and refreshing!   It's not so much fun when it's your testicles.  

This is completely unfair, because my mom really is delightful and refreshing, not to mention funny and talented,  but for as long as I can remember, I've played Mister Moody to her Lucy Carmichael, bow-tied and uptight and hands on the hips exasperated.

Which brings me to my legend.

Just after I returned from serving a Church mission, my mother and I were driving someplace, and out of the blue, she said, "So your grandmother almost married Dutch Schultz."

"You're nuts."

"No, no, I'm completely serious.  He was in love with her.  He told my grandfather that he could not live without her."

"Dutch Schultz, the gangster."

"Yes, Dutch Schultz."

"Dutch Schultz the bootlegger, the guy who almost killed Legs Diamond.  Dutch Schultz, the psycho who tried to assassinate Thomas Dewey.  That guy wanted to marry Grandma."

"Yes.  He was quite taken by her."

"How in the world did Dutch Schultz ever have contact with my grandmother?"

"He lived in North Tonawanda for a while, hiding out from the Feds.  He and your great-grandfather were business associates.  Your grandmother didn't like him, so it didn't happen."

There are things, wise and self-controlled nuggets of wisdom, that all normal people know.  You don't pick scabs.  You don't lift the lid on a pot of rice before the timer goes off.  You do not argue with people who are clearly delusional.  

I'm a scab picker.

In full Moody mode, I narrowed my eyes, stared Mom down, and sneered, "That's crazy talk.  You need to stop now."  Hurt, she never mentioned it again.

Peter Litwin, my great-grandfather, did run a bar, Litwin's on Oliver Street, home of the best fish fry in the Twin Cities.  But that was after Prohibition ended.  Before that, the little storefront at the corner of Sixth and Oliver was a barber shop.  I'm no gangland expert, but I'm pretty sure Dutch Schultz's brief and violent life was spent mostly in Manhattan, with no stopovers for Lumber City haircuts.  It's a nutty story.

Except it isn't that nutty.

Litwin's Barbershop, it turns out, was a front for Litwin's saloon, which appears to have stayed gloriously, frothily wet all through Prohibition.  Ace family historian Steve Litwin writes, "The stories of wives giving their husbands "two bits" for a haircut and the husband coming home with no haircut but a bit 'under the weather,' have circulated for years."

 Western New York, with its close proximity to the free-flowing taps of Canada, was a prime distribution center for Prohibition-era bootleggers.  Tonawanda Island, a collection of warehouses and lumber yards, anchored by the big paper mill, was the perfect place to cache stockpiles of illegal hooch.  It is entirely plausible that Peter Litwin knew and did business with downstate bootleggers.

That doesn't mean he knew the Dutchman.  While I've found no evidence that Schultz was ever in North Tonawanda -- he doesn't seem to have ever gone much farther north than the Catskills -- he did have an eye for the ladies: he appears to have been married, simultaneously, to two different women, and after his October 1935 death as many as four women claiming to be Mrs. Dutch Schultz showed up at the morgue to claim his body.  Born a Jew, Schultz converted to Roman Catholicism, evidently in order to cozy up to syndicate boss Lucky Luciano.  Falling for a nice Catholic girl wouldn't have been out of question.

I'd all but forgotten this story, until I found this photograph of my grandmother on her wedding day:

Look carefully at this young and beautiful and steely woman: her eyes are dark and clear, her face proud, almost defiant, not revealing even a sliver of her thoughts and ambitions. Everything about her seems to announce, "I am stronger than all of you.  Nothing can touch me.  Nothing can hurt me.  Nothing can defeat me."  It is the photograph of a woman capable of sweeping a bootlegger off his feet, a woman capable of tossing a tough guy over her shoulder, of leaving him broken-hearted and beaten.

The grandmother I knew -- a tiny, broken hipped, chain-smoking woman who knitted and did crossword puzzles and wore wigs that made her look like a Polish-American Lady Bird Johnson,  who always served hamburgers between slices of Wonder Bread, because "buns are a rip-off," the avid bingo player who slapped an "IF YOU CAN READ THIS, YOU'RE TOO DAMN CLOSE" bumper sticker on the back of her red AMC Rambler, two pillows and the Greater Buffalo phone book piled on the driver's seat to afford her a view over the steering wheel -- there's no way that lady could have ever been Dutch Schultz's moll.  But this younger Mary, this fierce Mary, she would have given the Dutchman all he could handle.

They still haven't found the seven million bucks Dutch Schultz hid from the Feds back in the Thirties.  Most people think it's buried somewhere in the Catskills, near Phoencia, New York.  Maybe it's down in the cellar of an abandoned bar and grill on Oliver Street, a mouldering token of an unrequited love...

And maybe Mom is not nuts, after all.

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