Elsewhere in this narrative I printed my old man's description of his encounter with Dutch Schultz at the height of the Depression and in the waning days of Prohibition. Here in a 1975 column he recalls the effect of that especially ridiculous exercise in social engineering on our home town of Sayville, N.Y., lately best known as the place to catch the ferry to Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines, the gay towns on Fire Island. He was a newspaperman before me, and in many ways led a much more interesting life. Here's his piece:
Slats Thompson and the Good Ship '100 Proof'
by Joseph C. Jahn
It's been 42 years, give or take a drink, since the Volstead Act passed into blessed oblivion, but there are old timers out my way who vividly remember Prohibition's effect on their lives.
Rum Row was only a few miles off the coast, and ships that passed in the night included small vessels (local registry) whose bilges were awash with illicit bottled goods. A good deal of maritime money passed hands, allowing some blue collar workers to live in the same baronial splendor as politicians and cops.
Slats Thompson was nonplussed when he stood before his draft board, at age 35, in 1941, and volunteered for the Navy. "Have you had any sea experience," the chairman asked.
"In small boats," Slats said.
That was modest. Slat's old speedboat wasn't called "100 Proof" for nothing during her heyday on the Great South Bay. Not only was she the fastest boat around, but Slats enjoyed 100 per cent protection from the law due to his generosity to parties of the second part.
But rum running was only one manifestation of local interest in the outside world during Prohibition. The ' worst booze Manhattan speakeasies served their customers did not come from Rum Row. It came from stills in and about my town. The odor of booze was as familiar to discerning natives as the smell of salt in the seaborne air.
Oddly enough, just about everyone smelled it but the constabulary. "They allus seemed to have bad head colds," is the way old man Phillips explained their inability to detect the odor of ersatz Old Granddad fermenting in farm houses and barns.
The constables' vision wasn't any better. Among the things they never saw were speakeasies. And their hearing was even worse. Among the night noises they never heard was the roar of trucks carrying booze from the speedboats to the city. The free-wheeling trucks shook our houses, but never stirred the law.
These activities brought interesting visitors to town, including gangsters like Dutch Schultz, who immediately fell in love with the environment. It was an ideal place, Dutch concluded, to dispose of the bodies of members of other gangs who dast hijack his trucks.
More than one native peered into an abandoned car to discover the remains of a hoodlum with a neat round hole in his noggin. Did they report their findings to the constabulary? Only if they were very dumb. To be called as a witness in a gangland rubout was the closest thing to suicide. It made insurance companies very nervous, too. A chicken farmer who lived north of town was painting his front porch one Sunday afternoon when two dapper gents in a long black Lincoln stopped to inquire the whereabouts of the town dump. The chicken farmer's curiosity was whetted by the presence in the back seat of a third party who appeared to be in need of an undertaker.
"Three blocks to the east and turn north," he told the visitors. When the long black Lincoln pulled away, the painter got his family into his old flivver and hauled stakes. He returned a week later to learn from a neighbor that in his absence a very deceased person had been unearthed at the town dump.
"You missed all the excitement," the neighbor said.
"The hell you say," the chicken farmer responded, and resumed painting his porch.
Published in the Long Island Press, February 21, 1975
I'm currently reformatting my 1998 hardcover, "Murder on Fifth Avenue," into a Kindle edition. I just came upon this exchange between Captain Donovan and Sergeant Moskowitz beneath the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree.
"So what's with Christmas trees anyway?" Mosko asked, wondering if it wasn't time to break the spell.
"Its a nice tradition if you're not allergic to them and don't have cats," Donovan replied.
"I mean what's a tree got to do with Jesus or the Holy Land? I been to Israel a couple of times and I didn't see a single pine tree."
"This is a Norway spruce," Donovan replied.
"I seen even fewer of them," Mosko insisted.
"You want to know what the tree thing is about?"
"Yeah. I figured you would know. Does it have something to do with the tree the Romans cut down to crucify him on?"
"I don't think so," Donovan said dully. "To the best of my knowledge, the Christmas tree is a pagan tradition from northern Europe. They used to bring a tree indoors every year before the snows closed in. It was a ritual to ward off evil and ensure that the trees outside would survive the winter."
"That still doesn't tell me what a Christmas tree has to do with Jesus," Mosko said.
"Nothing, okay? It has nothing to do with Jesus. What's a gefilte fish got to do with Abraham and Sarah?"
Mosko replied, "The day there's a seventy-foot gefilte fish standing on Fifth Avenue I'll tell you."
I just began chapter three of my memoir, which is not so much about me as it is a retelling of the family folklore, the stories that fell off my very peculiar family's tree, titled "Told to me by a sailor who died (I’ll never know if the bastard lied)." They really were an odd lot, Forest Gumpian but not as intelligent. See one of my first blog entries, "Jimi, Harry and Me."
I wrote The Quark Maneuver in the early 1970s after having spent the first half dozen years of my career writing about music, TV, and the movies for several publications, predominantly The New York Times. Correspondingly, I was accustomed to periodic sleepovers at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard, often while trying to get a foot in the door of Hollywood screenwriting. The only thing to come of that was a script I thought perfect for Harry Guardino and Brenda Vaccaro, who were at the heights of their careers at the time. I had always wanted to write mysteries and was in love with the Inspector Maigret stories by Georges Simenon. I felt that New York City needed its own Maigret. At the same time I also was obsessed with The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth (book 1971, movie 1973). Between the two I had the notion of taking a middle-aged, going-to-seed sort of character and sticking him a thriller plot, adding a girlfriend.
That’s sort of what Forsyth did in Jackal, minus the girlfriend, though his Claude Lebel is hardly as studiously middle aged as Jules Maigret. Nonetheless, sticking an anomalous hero in a thriller won Forsyth fame, public acclaim and an Edgar Award. So I wrote a screenplay titled The Jericho Incident, booked myself into the Chateau Marmont, and shopped it around. There was some polite applause, but no sale. I doubt that Harry Guardino and Brenda Vaccaro ever got wind of it. Finally, a well-respected Hollywood agent told me to go back to New York and turn it into a novel.
After 18 rejections it was bought by Ballantine, the publisher that rejected it the first time (a new and clearly more visionary editor had come on board). She considered the title too obscure. We changed it to The Quark Maneuver, referring to ... oh, never mind, that would be a spoiler. Our mistake was that in the early 1970s no one beyond physicists and a few science geeks had heard the word “quark,” nor could spell it. Likewise with the name of the Harry Guardino character, Paul DiGioia, the middle-aged, paunchy and somewhat grumpy detective lieutenant. The Brenda Vaccaro role was Diana Contardo, a lost and lonely 26-year-old who ran an Italian restaurant near the East River and who, fortuitously, got her exercise by doing martial arts. So here we had a pretty 20-something girl with sad eyes hooking up with a 42-year old man who life had beaten up a bit. The should-have-been-predictable result was that she took over the.whole.book as readily as she took over DiGioia.
Whatever, The Quark Maneuver worked. People loved the combination of who'd-have-thunk-it heroes and thriller plot (that had a bit of a stealth mystery in it). Paul and Diana tore themselves away from Contardo's ("fine Italian food") and she rode off in her white 1970 Pinto to save the world. Six years after Forsyth got his Edgar I got mine.
I was so enamored of the team of Paul DiGioia and Diana Contardo that, in the early 1980s, I brought them back, with the names Bill Donovan and Marcia Barnes, in Night Rituals, the first Bill Donovan Mystery. In 2012, exactly 35 years since they first came to life, Paul and Diana live on as Donovan and Marcy in the Donovan books. New York has its own Maigret, and he's hooked up with New York's own Emma Peel. Here, in The Quark Maneuver, is the moment of their creation.
This came into my Facebook account (http://www.facebook.com/WeegeesBored):
"Mike- your Murder in Coney Island book was just the ticket for reading while we were driving home to Austin from Big Bend. That's a long drive. The only way to make the book better was if it were about 100 miles longer. And I'm not even a big mystery reader. Loved it. Made me really miss Noo Yawk … And I have another one queued up and won't wait for a road trip to read it. I can lock everyone out of the house and read it at home." -Sara Breuer
“Michael Jahn’s New York City Mysteries: Murder at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine” (originally titled “City of God”) went online at Amazon the other day. It's Bill Donovan Mystery #3 and the fifth of the ten-book series to go into Kindle. Here’s what Library Journal said about it the first time out:
"Bustling New York harbors a psychotic killer who, viewing himself as a latter-day St. Augustine protecting the "City of God," bashes people who desecrate the cathedral of St. John the Divine. Series detective Bill Donovan moves into the labyrinthine church to stalk the killer, possibly jeopardizing his relationship with black girlfriend-policewoman Marcie, who wants him to help her find the thugs who killed her best friend on the edge of Central Park. Tandem cases cram the story with detail and personal conflict, while energized prose adds excitement. A great procedural from the author of Night Rituals."
“Murder at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine” is crucial to understanding the intertwining back stories of the Bill Donovan Mysteries. No spoilers here, but Donovan’s relationship with Marcie comes into focus, Brian Moskowitz makes his debut, and Marcie has a secret so deep and dark that not even she is aware of it. And Donovan begins to confront his deep-seated hatred of the rich and consequent fear of marriage to a wealthy woman.
For all the whooping and hollering and “just plain folks” blather about being “Jenny from the block” or otherwise like you and me, show biz operates pretty much within the yurt. You’re either inside with the rest of the tribal chiefs and the music and the wholly uncontrolled substances, or you’re alone on the steppes staring at mastodon bones.
I remember Cissy Houston at one or another rock scene powwow in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those were the years during which I covered rock and roll and related riots for the New York Times, which got me into a lot of yurts. Those days Cissy was a session singer for Hendrix and a lot of others and just beginning a solo career. I saw her around. Everyone knew everyone else because they were around.
I did not know her daughter, who I understand just died. My son saw her around, in the early 1990s when he was working at Arista Records, founded by Clive Davis, who has been in the news a lot lately for having discovered Whitney Houston. Clive was around at some of the same powwows I was, and presumably Cissy was, the big difference between me and him being that he got there in a limo. (He let me use it once.)
I don’t know if Cissy ever brought her daughter to a powwow. I routinely brought my son to them, him riding on my shoulders.
Steve was another guy who was around. He was a good friend of mine who had a quartet that opened for the Who during one of their 1970s arena tours. How did a folk/rock/jazz fusion quartet get to open for the Who (and get booed for their effort)? Steve was good friends with Pete Townshend, who I also knew from around ... ran into him at a guitar store on 47th Street twice and on the street in San Francisco once, following which we went to his hotel room and split a six. I don’t recall what we talked about. Probably all the people we knew from around.
One weekend night circa 1970 I got a worried call from Steve, who said something like “Pete’s here. The cops are looking for him.” The exact words don’t matter when you’re in a situation involving guns and jails. It seems that Pete threw a fire marshall off the stage at the Fillmore East -- there was a fire next door and the man interrupted a Who set to ask that the theater be evacuated. Pete gave him the old heave-ho and later, when told that the NYPD frowns on such things, ran off to Steve’s apartment to hide. I told him that Pete should lay low until Monday when the lawyers were around.
One thing you always talked about when you were around was what everyone was doing. In the 1960s/1970s when I was around, everyone else was either “smoking dope” or “doing smack.” You hadn’t seen someone in a while and you ran into him, the first words might be “Tim kicked!” That was good news at the time, but in this particular case Tim didn’t kick permanently. Tim died.
So did Steve, but it was in the 1990s and not of a heroin overdose. He died of hepatitis C, but not the AIDS-related kind. He got it in a Nashville hospital, where he was working as a nurse, having failed to make it in show biz -- musical support from Pete and editorial support from me notwithstanding. He burned all his master recordings and turned his back on the show biz scene where people lived unhealthy lifestyles and, in consequence thereof, died. He got a nursing degree and went into health care, which killed him.
I hear that he was a very good nurse, though. Found it very fulfilling and everyone at the hospital loved him.
Before Steve was entirely done with show biz, he wrote an especially good pop song and got Nashville session singers to record a demo. It was a wonderful song. So wonderful that I gave the tape to my son to give to Cissy’s daughter the next time he saw her around. He didn’t know her other than as someone he saw around, and thus gave the song to her A&R people, those record company souls who decide what songs pop artists record. The artists themselves are often too busy being around to make the decisions themselves. The tape came back with the word that it was a good, “well constructed” song ... thanks for letting us hear it ... but it’s not right for Whitney.
At Steve’s memorial service in Nashville everyone sang a different song of his, one about saying goodbye. At Whitney’s memorial service on Saturday in Newark, the church full of celebrities -- invitation only, mind you, this is a show biz powwow, ain’t no Jenny from no block gettin’ into this yurt -- will sing “I Will Always Love You,” the song she recorded about never saying goodbye. Naturally the service will be broadcast on CNN and livestreamed.
And we can hear those notes forever.
I often get asked for the exact list of Bill Donovan Mysteries. Actually, I more often get asked if I forgot to take my meds that morning. The latter is written down someplace, but I can't remember where. Here’s the list:
1. Night Rituals 1982
2. Death Games 1987
3. Murder at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (original title City of God, 1992) (Kindle Edition 2012)
4. Murder at the Museum of Natural History 1994
5. Murder on Theatre Row 1996 (Kindle Edition 2012)
6. Murder on Fifth Avenue 1998
7. Murder in Central Park 2000 (Kindle Edition 2011)
8. Murder on the Waterfront 2001(Kindle Edition 2012)
9. Murder in Coney Island 2003 (Kindle Edition 2011)
10. Donovan & Son 2008
HYou know when there's something you were just born to do? It's effortless, natural, you don't have to think about it? Babe Ruth was born to play ball. Angelina Jolie was born to be beautiful. Mitt Romney was ... was ...
Let me start over. I was born to write. Was I born to write well? I'm not sure, you'll have to ask my editor. His answer will depend on how drunk you get him. I'll pick up the tab.
I was not born to fish. The only way I could catch a fish was to make him die of laughter. I tried fly fishing when I was a kid. I even tied my own flies, spent hours and hours on it. But I never caught anything. My flies never got so much as a hungry glance. The fish were too busy laughing their fins off.
But I was born to race sailboats. I was a very good sailor, at least by the standards of the Great South Bay, alongside which sat my home town of Sodom-by-the-Sea. I sailed a dinghy (not dingy; that would be my resume). In other words, small. It would take a very long stretch of an exceedingly fertile imagination to call them yachts.
It takes quite an imagination to visualize sailing yachts at all these days. Forget huge, sleek wooden vessels with acres of billowing white canvas above and scores of gin-swilling gentlemen in blazers below. Think instead of the Volvo 70, which is ... let me think (it's been known to happen) how to describe it ... perhaps as a 70-foot windsurfer plastered with corporate logos and able to outrun a U.S. Navy destroyer. Watch a video shot from one and you think the camera was mounted on a surfboard. Towering spray shoots everywhere. The men who sail them describe the experience of going on deck during full-tilt conditions as “being firehosed.”
Manned by Olympic athletes and equally trained others who are also professional sailors, six of the $10 million boats are currently tearing around the world in the Volvo Ocean Race, a nine-month, 39,000-mile aquatic Grand Pris that began in Alicante, Spain, in November and will end in Galway, Ireland, in July. They're currently at a planned stop in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on the Persian Gulf.
And therein hangs a sail. The Volvo 70 may be a windsurfer, but it’s high tech in every way. Laptops and displays are everywhere. Satellite data let them find good wind and sail around storms. There’s a “Media Crew Member” who blogs, tweets, and uploads videos to Youtube. There are cameras all over the place. The boat is more thoroughly wired into the Internet than a thousand teenage hackers. Think of a Superbowl with a camera mounted in the ball. It’s possible for a fan to get engulfed in the data stream and spend night and day doing nothing but watching the Volvo 70s circumnavigate. It’s easy. There are position updates every three hours that can be read by anyone.
Finally, the ink-stained wretch who was born to write gets to the point. Better pump a few more shots of Old Red Eye into that editor before asking his opinion. The point is to remind us yet again that nothing is new, no matter how many digital bells and whistles you hang on it. Here we have the ultimate racing boats ... extreme sailing, some call it ... ripping up the sea faster than a destroyer, interacting in real time with the entire planet, docked in glittery Abu Dhabi hiding from pirates. And worrying about Iranian threats to close down the Strait of Hormuz before Saturday, January 14, when the boats have to get through it again to start of their sprint around Southeast Asia to Sanya, China, the fourth leg of the circumnavigation.
They’ll make it and "the Everest of racing" will continue ... if they aren't kidnapped or blown up.
Why would the boats not have to fear pirates? They're big buckets of cash ... I think I mentioned the $10 million price tags ... sailing the ancient trade routes carrying a fortune in publicity and promotion from port to port. Abu Dhabi and Sanya aren't putting on immense, citywide celebrations because they love wind and sea. (They are sponsoring two of the boats, the ones repeatedly breaking down). The Emir's crew just announced that more than 12,000 Abu Dhabi hotel nights have been sold to race organizers, support personnel, and fans. I suspect that the room rates are a bit higher than you and I pay at Motel 6.
Let's face it -- the Volvo 70s are merchant vessels. And navies were created many centuries ago specifically to protect merchant shipping. At some point just past Madagascar, as they were about to enter the Somali pirate danger zone, the race managers shut off the data stream, cut the position reports, and hoisted the boats, masts and all, onto an armed ship ... there are photos of a deck protected by razor wire ... for a series of secret maneuvers that ultimately got them to Abu Dhabi. Where the Emir is throwing one whale of a party. Truly, some party, a citywide celebration like that given the Olympics. When I got back from one of my races maybe I got a bottle of warm beer.
Pirates are not invited. Bloggers are, and a bunch of ours were flown in to help cover the festivities.
I didn’t have all these problems racing off the shore of Sodom-by-the-Sea. I might be swamped by a ferry wake, run up on the rocks or a sand bar, tipped over into a school of jellyfish, or get stuck in the middle of the bay in a lightning storm while quivering five feet from a tall metal stick. That happened. I had the soiled trousers to prove it. Worse, when I got back to the dock someone had stolen the beer and there was sand in the sandwiches. But no one took me captive and no Iranians were firing missiles at me.
So on Saturday, January 14, have three fingers of Old Red Eye in honor of the Olympian, high tech, tweeting sailors of the Volvo Ocean Race and cheer them on as they ride their heavily armed freighter out of missile range and far enough past the pirates to get back in the water, switch on the data stream, resume uploads and tweets, and show, one more time, that nothing is new.
They were born to do it.
Mike Jahn’s newest Kindle book is “Murder in Central Park” http://www.amazon.com/Michael-Jahns-York-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B006QBRN0C/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1326057566&sr=1-3
The Volvo Ocean Race http://www.volvooceanrace.com/en/home.html
I was thinking about the Kardashians. Thinking about this family of orange grifters is a feat not normally accomplished without several applications of Ol’ Red Eye followed by a plump couch to sleep it off on. The Kardashians are, Mom would have said, a perfect example of the rule “you are the company you keep,” in their family’s case, O.J. Simpson. They do nothing, nothing at all, are boring as all get out, and are paid for it. They are like my ancestor on the Yankee side, Obediah, and the seven or eight generations following.
Obediah and his household came from Stratford-on-Avon, England, via Lynn, Massachusetts, staying in the Boston area just long enough to relieve themselves but not long enough to be tarred by the feather of living in the proximity of future Red Sox and Kennedys. They did not come from the place where loiter orange grifters and double murderers.
My ancestors left the place where, if lucky, you might have dug up the sod around Shakespeare’s begonias. They wound up in Southampton, New York, in 1641, becoming one of the first English settlers of the Empire State, which otherwise was chock full of stubbornly prideful Dutchmen and increasingly worried Indians.
What did they do when they got there? They dug clams. For 10 generations they dug clams and, I imagine, grew potatoes and carved up the dead whales that washed up on the beaches upon which the celebrities who now overpopulate the place turn themselves orange. There were lots of whales to die and wash up on the Hamptons beaches. There were no celebrity sunbathers because, if you think about it, it has not socially acceptable to walk around half or entirely naked until quite recently. There were lots of whales and clams but a decreasing number of, as my newspaperman father put it, “durn angry Indians whose land was stole.”
After finishing with clams, Obediah’s descendants moved to Sag Harbor and began going to sea and actively slaughtering whales, one of them, my great-great grandfather, acquiring the title “Captain.” That part of the Empire State having become largely rid of Dutchmen, prideful or otherwise, they finally moved west to the town on the Great South Bay that I call Sodom-by-the-Sea. I do not call it that because it’s the place to catch the ferry to the gay parts of Fire Island, but because before the gays came it was notorious for swinging. You can keep yourself quite busy on or near beaches these days.
As for the durn angry Indians, they moved to Upstate New York and opened casinos, which is substantially better than turning yourself orange in Hollywood. So is digging clams, come to think of it.