Men Of Action -- Arnold “The Big Bankroll” Rothstein
The First Modern Gangster, Boardwalk Empire Character and High-Stakes Poker Player Died Young
Welcome to Card Player’s new series, Men of Action, which will explore the lives of some of history’s most infamous gamblers and sportsmen.
The news spilled from the lips of Damon Runyon and William Randolph Hearst, of judges and showgirls and truck drivers and murders and mayors, of card cheats and hit men and ball players and Congressmen, and you better believe some of them breathed a sigh of relief when they passed it on.
Arnold Rothstein was dead. The year was 1928. Someone put a hot slug in his belly in a room at the Park Central Hotel. They think it’s some Irishman named McManus. Rothstein wasn’t saying who shot him. He told the cops to mind their own business. Poor Arnold Rothstein, dead by being Arnold Rothstein. He had to know something like this would happen. It’s a rare gangster that dies of old age or leukemia.
His friends flooded the corridor of the Polyclinic Hospital and stood vigil until his body gave up the ghost. Were the two men he supposedly killed waiting for him wherever gangsters go when they die? And did Rothstein tell them, sheepishly and with a little regret, that it was business; it was always about business, his palms facing the sky?
On those days of dying, did he understand even a tiny bit the place he would take in American pop culture, that he would became so many things the true him would be lost?
He is Arnold “The Big Bankroll” Rothstein in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, the most powerful gangster in the country during Prohibition. He is Meyer Wolfsheim, business associate and friend of the Great Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel. He’s Nathan Detroit, a character that speak hundreds of times when high school put on their versions of Guys and Dolls this year.
He’s the man Lucky Luciano says “taught me how to dress, how to use knives and forks and things like that at the dinner table, about holding a door open for a girl. If Arnold had lived a little longer, he could’ve made me pretty elegant.”
Author Leo Katcher, who’s biography, The Big Bankroll: The Life and Times of Arnold Rothstein (1959), described Rothstein as “the J. P. Morgan of the underworld; its banker and master of strategy.”
Meyer Lansky, a major organized crime figure as Luciano’s accounting partner in a crime syndicate that expanded across the United States, said:
“Rothstein had the most remarkable brain. He understood business instinctively and I’m sure that if he had been a legitimate financier he would have been just as rich as he became with his gambling and the other rackets he ran.”
At the peak of his existence, Rothstein was the most dominate gangster on the east Coast, a man with more connections than a telephone operator, a sharp, shrewd business man who, if he carried an honest business card, it would read:
Arnold Rothstein, importer of the finest narcotics, gambling consultant, casino operator, knower of important people, lover of beautiful women, accountant, diplomat and cheat.
But Rothstein didn’t need business cards just like he didn’t need to carry guns. He had people to carry guns. He had people like Luciano and Lansky and Bugsy Segal to carry-out his business plans just like a CEO of a corporation or an army general. And he had people everywhere, in boxer’s corners and horse paddocks which he himself owned, along with the countless cops and judges and reporters he had on his on his payroll.
He was a man well-connected. It’s no wonder he never was convicted of a crime.
Rothstein was born in New York in 1882 to a wealthy Orthodox Jew named Abraham and Esther. His oldest brother, Bertram would become a Rabbi.
His father was a well-respected New York businessman who was known as “Abe the Just.” He was trusted enough among the Jewish business community that he often mitigated during disagreements. He was chairman of the board of New York’s Beth Israel Hospital and his status among his community members was large.
The middle child Arnold’s interests did not lie with the Torah or his father’s dealings. Although obviously a genius, he dropped out of school and by age 16 worked as a traveling salesmen and pool hustler.
Imagine New York City in 1905, all that coal-smoke grime, the clacking of horse hooves on cobble stone, the work whistles shrieking, the garbage in the streets, the boots on the bar rails, a city that was transforming into the greatest city in the world, which was New York in the 1920s, the New York that Arnold Rothstein owned.
But not yet. There is Rothstein, minor thief, pool hustler and card player, standing on the corner, waiting for the horses to stop, on his way with a new wife to see his father-in-law about a $2,000 loan he needs to buy into a gambling house at West 46th Street.
Rothstein said when he was in his 20s, he was on the wrong side of the gambling line and knew becoming the house was the only sure way to succeed in the gambling business and so in 1909, he did.
That ended up being a great year for Rothstein. After he bought into the casino, he won $4,000 from Jack Conway, a Philadelphia pool shark brought in by some gamblers Rothstein had recently skinned.
By the end of the 1910 he was the sole owner of the W. 46th Street gambling house and he was embedding himself and his henchmen in positions of power all over the city. It all started at W. 46th Street. It gave Rothstein flexibility and influence and a whole lot of money.
Rothstein also was a serious loan shark and he no doubt employed men whose artistic specialty was to extract money from wavering customers by any means necessary. There’s no figure on how many bones Rothstein broke. He wasn’t afraid of enlisting pain or the threat of pain.
According to a 1928 newspaper article following his death, he would call his loans in with: “You’re late. Hurry up. You know the consequences.”
Nobody knows how many races he fixed at Harve de Grace Racetrack, a track he co-owned in the mid-teens, either, or how many sanctioned boxing matches he fixed or the elections he “influenced,” but he had his tentacles everywhere. One of his nicknames was “the Fixer.”
Then there’s the 1919 World Series between the White Sox and the Reds, a true American Scandal that still resonates in our dumb romantic hearts. The story gripped the nation, made little boys cry and Rothstein famous.
There he was, icy Arnold Rothstein, in his bow tie swearing he had nothing to do with the fix, that he had no idea his old friend Abe Attell delivered $100,000 to Chicago associates to pay Sox player’s to throw the Series, that no, he was not the financier of this fiasco, he did not make a killing taking Cincinnati, he’s just an innocent businessman.
Here’s a bit of Rothstein’s testimony to the Grand Jury in Chicago:
“The whole thing started when 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.”
Although famously eight White Sox players were banned from baseball for life, no one was convicted of a crime. Rothstein didn’t even face trial. Attell convinced the court that it was a different “Abe Attell” that helped facilitate the fix and got away with it.
In 1922, the Federal government gave Rothstein a huge favor and implemented Prohibition. Rothstein first bootlegged booze, but switched to narcotics after he realized he could corner the market in New York and his wealth grew.
In 1925, Rothstein spread a craps game for famous fish Nick “the Greek” Dandolos, who just arrived in New York from making a killing playing low-ball poker in San Francisco. Described in a 1954 Collier’s magazine article, Dandolos brought $1.6 million with him.
“You could almost see tears in their eyes, they were so happy to see me back from the provinces,” Dandolos said of the Rothstein and the other bookies. The craps game lasted a dozen days until Dandolos lost every penny of that San Fran roll.
A few months later, Rothstein and Dandolos wound up in a big-stakes stud poker game. According to Collier’s, Dandolos was up a couple hundred thousand after 10 hours of play when he ran into what the Greek called the “Rothstein jinx.”
Dandolos was dealt a king in the hole and one king up. Rothstein had the king of diamonds showing. Dandolos opened for $10,000 and Rothstein raised to $30,000. Dandolos was dealt a four and Rothstein hit a nine of diamonds. Rothstein bet $60,000 and was called by Dandolos.
The last card gave Rothstein his fourth diamond and Dandolos no help. He sensed the flush-draw, but was unsure.
“He was a queer, cold man at the table,” Dandolos said.
Rothstein raised $70,000 and the Greek went over-the-top with $142,500. Rothstein called. The men waited for the dealer. Dandolos got a seven of clubs and the dealer gave Rothstein a seven of diamonds. He turned over the ace of diamonds and scooped the $604,000 pot.
Poker would eventually lead to Rothstein’s death three years later.
Rothstein’s knew he was cheated, could feel it in his heart that he was taken by Titanic Thompson, Nate Raymond and Jimmy Meehan. George McManus was there, too, but he was down $50,000. The game lasted three days in Sept. 1928, and his losses totaled more than $300,000.
A month later, Rothstein still hadn’t paid his marker. He was at Lindy’s Deli on Broadway, a business he had a small stake in, when he got a call from George McManus to come to room 349 of the Park Central Hotel for another high-stakes poker game.
What happened in that room is a mystery. A little before 11, Rothstein was found by an elevator operator on the first floor, bleeding through his shirt.
He lasted two days with that bullet in him. A pistol was found in the street, the handle broken away. McManus was charged with murder and acquitted. Rothstein knew who shot him, but refused to tell the cops.
“You stick to your trade, I’ll stick to mine,” he told them.
He died Nov. 5, 1928, with a belly full of blood. His body was displayed in a coffin with a glass lid.
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