Moonshine Monday: The Mafia

moonshinemonday Welcome to Moonshine Mondays! In the lead up to the release of my Jazz Age-set romance Such a Dance on October 27, I’m rolling out some history, photos, background info and other special features relating to the book.

Sicilians in New York referred to the mafia as La Cosa Nostra: “our thing.” Here’s a quick and dirty history:

Sicilian and other Italian immigrants were members of the New York gangs that terrorized lower Manhattan around the turn of the century, including the notorious Five Points gang. The mafia, loosely organized, committed extortion and other crimes in Harlem, Little Italy, and Brooklyn until Prohibition. During the 1920s, the Mob in New York was mostly controlled by Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria, although his rule was challenged by Sicilian immigrant Salvatore Maranzano, and there was no love lost between them, and an enormous amount of violence was committed on their behalves.

mafia lucky luciano

Lucky Luciano

Masseria’s right-hand man was Charles “Lucky” Luciano, but Luciano’s friend Meyer Lansky was not much loved within the organization, given that he was a Polish Jew and not Sicilian. Still, Luciano, Lansky, and their associates like Frank Costello, Arnold Rothstein (who fixed the 1919 World Series), and Jack “Legs” Diamond expanded mob operations to include not just extortion and gambling but also bootlegging, and organized crime as we now know it was essentially born.

The mafia had a specific structure. Here’s a pretty good explanation.

In Such a Dance, Lane is a member of the fictional Giambino crime family, recently promoted to caporegime, reporting mostly to David Epstein. Epstein is very loosely based on Meyer Lansky, a insider within the ranks of the Mob, but not family. Lane is a made man, meaning he is family, related to the family’s boss via his father, which affords him some protection.

And so it is that, at the beginning of the novel, Epstein offers Lane something incredible: a club catering specifically to men seeking men.

In reality, dance halls and “resorts” for gay men had existed in New York since the late nineteenth century, particularly along the Bowery and in Greenwich Village.

In the novel, Epstein tells Lane that, by opening the Marigold Club, he’s filling a niche, since so many of these places had been raided and shut down in the last decade or two. Epstein isn’t really interested in giving homosexual men a space specifically; he’s an opportunist who sees profit potential.

Indeed, the actual mafia started opening gay clubs in the 1930s purely because, as with bootlegging, prostitution, and gambling, they saw profit in illegal businesses. (Until Stonewall, it was essentially illegal to be gay in New York City, and gay men were routinely arrested for lewd conduct.) So Epstein was just a few years ahead of his time.

The Stonewall Inn was, in fact, opened in 1967 by the mafia. I modeled the Marigold on Stonewall a little; in both instances, the mafia paid off local law enforcement to overlook all the same-sex dancing. In the case of Stonewall, one of the factors in the famous 1969 raid that sparked the riots was that the police were cracking down on mafia activity and not necessarily homosexual activity. There’s more about that here and even more here.

The mafia plays a big role in Such a Dance and had a role in the gay rights movement that shouldn’t be overlooked.

For further reading, David Wallace’s Capital of the World is a great overview of New York City in the 1920s, including a few chapters on the mafia and more information about Luciano and Lansky (as well as information about LGBT subcultures in NYC in the era).