Book review

Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series

I do love nonfiction book subtitles; this one crams in every possible detail and then uses all caps and a mix of serif and sans serif fonts to establish some sense of prioritization. Ah well. As far as it goes, however, this one turns out to be pretty accurate, if not precisely reflective of the book’s priorities: author David Pietrusza does discuss the main events of gambler Arnold Rothstein’s life and analyzes the circumstances of his murder to a fare-thee-well. But the focus of the book—and unfortunately, its flaw, as this really isn’t an effectively realized focus—is Rothstein’s times.

When I was growing up, my parents subscribed to a wonderful limited-edition book series, the Curtis International Portraits of Greatness. Each of the fourteen books covered a notable historical figure, including Elizabeth I, Beethoven, and Leonardo da Vinci. They were terrific books (now, sadly, out of print but apparently available on ebay and through Amazon, and well worth seeking out) and instilled a lifelong love of history and biography in my brother and me. The reason I bring them up here and now is because their focus, as reflected in their titles, was on the “life and times.” The main text highlighted key themes in the subject’s life, while the lavish illustrations and richly detailed captions gave a flavor of contemporaneous places, people, and events. So when a biography sets itself up as presenting a particular person’s “life and times,” as does this one, I have a pretty high benchmark against which to measure the author’s success in so doing. Rothstein doesn’t measure up.

And here’s why it doesn’t. David Pietrusza, who is apparently a noted and acclaimed biographer/historian (although I was not previously familiar with his work) and who has been compared to Doris Kearns Goodwin, among others, knows a LOT about his topic. A whole lot. An amazing lot. But he does not convey or cohere that knowledge so that it becomes more than an amalgam of 1910s and ’20s trivia. The myriad—no doubt meticulously researched—incidents of lesser and greater crimes and criminals that surround Rothstein never accrue to a big picture.

Arnold Rothstein getting some work done in his office on West 57th Street. Photo courtesy of (an excellent and most informative site).

The ambition of the enterprise—and the seeds of its failure—are apparent from the book’s onset, in an introductory section entitled “The Players in Our Drama.” This bodes well, promising a handy reference and invoking the tone of a leisurely murder mystery. But the piece runs dishearteningly beyond eight pages, sinking the reader’s hopes of ever being able to keep track of everything and everyone. And if you don’t keep track of those but concentrate your attentions instead on Rothstein, you lose the author’s intent and gain little in return. Because this is never a book about Rothstein; in fact, after more than four hundred pages of text and notes, Arnold Rothstein emerges as more of a cypher than ever, the contours of his character blurred by the morass of background information.

Which is very unfortunate, because Pietrusza is (generally) a good writer, a detailed researcher, and obviously passionate about his topic. But these strengths do not make in this case for a good biography, and I take away only the merest of tidbits:

  • Arnold Rothstein, unlike many of his peers and counterparts, came from money, not from the underclass, making his motivations for his life of crime particularly intriguing (and largely unaddressed here, except for hints at some sort of oedipal complex).
  • The Nicky Arnstein–Fanny Brice story doled out in snippets here does flesh out the characters a little bit, with Nicky emerging as rather charming and ultimately rather lucky (in that he long outlives his ex-wife, surviving until 1965 and his portrayal on Broadway in Funny Girl), and Fanny as a tough survivor though neither her devotion to nor rejection of Nicky is satisfactorily explained. Intriguingly, in the epilogue (which spells out the fortunes and fates of everyone listed in the cast of characters), Pietrusza mentions that Ray Stark, producer of Funny Girl, was Nicky’s son-in-law; this is not discussed any further unfortunately.
  • The tale of a character who appears well into Rothstein’s third act, Captain Alfred Loewenstein, exerts the haunting fascination of a juicy unsolved mystery. Apparently, the Belgian Loewenstein, one of the richest men in the world, met Rothstein in New York to negotiate some huge drug deal. While it is interesting to contemplate why a successful businessman would want to be involved in something so illicit (a thread that is not explored in this book), the irresistible mystery is that Loewenstein a few months later disappeared—from his private airplane as it crossed the English Channel. Pietrusza does not expand much beyond this fact, so I found out the rest of the story here and might just buy a book on the topic.
  • And last tidbit: the following anecdote related in the epilogue is possibly my favorite passage in Pietrusza’s book. It’s about a showgirl named Lillian Lorraine, a peripheral character in Rothstein’s life but apparently an inspiration for the character of Lorelei Lee from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (according to Wikipedia but not according to Pietrusza, who so credits Peggy Hopkins Joyce; but really, the double L does lead one to agree with Wiki):

In Lorraine’s declining years a reporter interviewed her. Lorraine confessed: …”I had a whirl! I blew a lot of everybody’s money, I got loaded, I was on the stuff, I got the syphilis, I tore around, stopped at nothing, if I wanted to do it I did it and didn’t give a damn. I got knocked up, I had abortions, I broke up homes, I gave fellers the clap. So that’s what happened.”

“Well, Miss Lorraine,” came the response, “if you had it to do over would you do anything different?”

“Yes,” said Lorraine. “I never shoulda cut my hair.”

Interestingly, the notes for the above exchange, rather than referencing a newspaper archive, cite three websites, none of which I could access. As the book was originally published in 2003, that is not in itself surprising. But what is surprising is that two of the links are for Blockbuster, which is just plain odd, as if the citation were for a movie.

As the above serves to indicate (the genesis of Rothstein’s criminal interests, the barely told story of Fanny and Nicky, the interesting relationship between Nicky and Ray Stark, the lack of context for Lillian Lorraine, the missing key details about Alfred Loewenstein), a recurrent flaw in the book is that interesting things are just set down and forgotten. I believe that to be a byproduct of having painted so huge a canvas. Stuff just trails off, undetailed and unexamined. The solution? Include less. The inclusion of extraneous characters does not build to a better understanding of Arnold Rothstein or his times; rather, it distracts and thus detracts.

Another way in which the author piles on the details is in his delineation of the major crimes with which Arnold was involved. There are at least two chapters devoted to the 1919 World Series fix; these go into seemingly endless detail about how the fix was promulgated, and how the author’s research sets the record straight.

F. Scott Fitzgerald [in his characterization of Rothstein as Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby] got A. R. wrong, and it’s not surprising no one has gotten A. R. and the World Series fix right since.

Pietrusza then slowly and in excruciating detail goes through the fix, the players, and the circumstances, debunking Eight Men Out (movie and book) in the process. But I must confess, as a person with limited knowledge of (or indeed, really, interest in) the 1919 World Series, I found my attention wandering. And Pietrusza’s persistent inability to present information at a succinct, summary, macrocosmic level left me floundering in microcosmic trivia. In all fairness, this could be my unfamiliarity with the topic. But I found the case ultimately uncompelling—and, worse, uninteresting.

Not to knock further holes in the book or to denigrate the author, I do feel compelled to note a pervasive inconsistency of tone and a lack of editorial quality control. With regard to the latter, I cite a late mention of “September 31, 1931.” And I don’t care that that is one date among myriad mentioned. In a historical work, EVERY date must be checked and double checked (or at least SOUND credible?). Regarding the tone, the author cannot make up his mind whether to be a wisecracking Damon Runyan–style narrator or a pedantic researcher. For example, discussing the suspects in Rothstein’s murder, Pietrusza writes:

McManus remained in hiding, as did his bagman, Hyman Biller, and his chauffeur, Willie Essenheim. District Attorney Banton rounded up what supporting characters he could, Sidney Stajer and Jimmy Meehan, the Boston brothers, and Nate Raymond. They didn’t know a thing.

Or so they said.

Snappy writing like this makes for a stark contrast with the long quotes ripped from contemporary newspaper accounts and trial testimony.

What it all adds up to is that Pietrusza needed a good editor, one who could help him to part with and parse the mind-numbing iteration of facts. The main problem with Rothstein is that its author knew a lot of super-keen information and was loathe to jettison any of it, even at the expense of a tighter narrative and a more coherent argument. A pity.

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