NEW YORK, NY — Early on, Arnold Rothstein regularly (and permanently) acquired grandiose, money-minded nicknames on the order of “Mr. Big,” “Big Jim,” “The Brain,” and “The Big Bankroll.”
Rothstein made big money, he gambled big money, and he used big money to reinvent the street-gang mentality of New York’s organized crime into an underground corporation powered by bigger money than any of them had ever imagined.
Born in Manhattan in 1882, Rothstein died in the city 46 years later, riddled with bullets and refusing, to his last breath, to rat out the triggerman. Along the way, Arnold Rothstein forever changed both crime and business in America. Here are five facts about his rise and fall.
1. UNLIKE MOST MOB ICONS, ARNOLD ROTHSTEIN GREW UP AMONG MONEY, POWER, AND PUBLIC ADMIRATION
Typically, the men drawn to gangland activity get there through escalating crimes that begin in their abusive, impoverished childhoods. Cases in point: Arnold Rothstein’s contemporary Jewish mafia compatriots Meyer Lansky (born poor on the Lower East Side) and Dutch Schultz (born poor in the Bronx).
Young Arnold, however, came of age among Manhattan’s elite. Abraham Rothstein, his father, was a hugely successful businessman known for being so fair and honest that New York Governor Al Smith dubbed him “Abe the Just.”
The Rothsteins were also actively religious and charity minded. The family’s eldest son became a rabbi, and Abe the Just served for years as chairman of the board of Beth Israel Hospital. Arnold went a different way though. [Jewish Virtual Library]
2. ROTHSTEIN MADE HIS OWN MILLION DOLLARS BY AGE 30 — IN THE WAYS YOU’D EXPECT
Shortly after dropping out of high school, Rothstein took up gambling full-time. By 22, he ran a wildly popular backroom casino and expanded from there to gambling parlors, racetracks, and loan sharking all over the city.
When prohibition hit in 1920, Rothstein added bootlegging and speakeasies to his portfolio. He made a particular fortune importing liquor from England and distributing it around the East Coast and Midwest.
Sensing that bigger profits could be squeezed from other vices, Rothstein turned to a field with massive margins and almost zero competition: narcotics and, in particular, heroin. In short order, he reigned as the “financial overlord” of the drug trade in the United States.
Along the way, Rothstein partnered in various enterprises with the toughest thugs of the day, including Frank Costello, Salvatore “Lucky” Luciano, and Jack “Legs” Diamond, but he dressed conservatively and ran all his endeavors with the (relatively) even temperament of a banker. Alas, throughout it all, Rothstein gambled. He always gambled. [Biography]
3. MR. BIG MAY HAVE FIXED THE 1919 “BLACK SOX” WORLD SERIES
Forget steroids. The most hulking scandal in Major League Baseball history remains the corruption of the 1919 World Series, wherein members of the Chicago White Sox accepted payouts from underworld gamblers and intentionally lost to the Cincinnati Reds.
The eight players in question included the beloved Shoeless Joe Jackson. They beat conspiracy charges in court by invoking the Fifth Amendment, but ended up banned from the sport for life and forever after branded in the public consciousness as the “Black Sox.”
Then and now, many observers believe Arnold Rothstein financed the whole debacle. Rothstein momentarily may have faced charges (accounts vary), but nothing stuck (that’s confirmed). He even testified at the Black Sox trial. Rothstein maintained his innocence and blamed the “Big Fix” on Abe Attell, a prizefighter nicknamed “The Little Hebrew.” Rothstein told the court:
“The whole thing started when Abe 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 under way.”
Amid skullduggery such as the players’ signed confessions disappearing before their grand jury hearing, Rothstein made it home safe. He also, of course, did bet on the World Series, and is estimated to have come away with between $100,000 and $350,000. [History]
On November 4, 1928, Arnold Rothstein sat in on a marathon, high-stakes poker game at the Park Central Hotel in Manhattan. Such sessions ranked high among his favorite pastimes.
Apparently, though, one such three-day card game back in October hadn’t worked out for Rothstein. He ran up a staggering debt of $320,000 ($4.25 million today), on which he had yet to make restitution, telling those he owed to wait until after election day because he had $550,000 coming in on two “sure things” — Herbert Hoover for President and Franklin D. Roosevelt for New York Governor (he was right on both counts).
Somebody didn’t wait. An unknown gunman plugged Rothstein, and the wounded mobster stumbled out by a hotel service elevator before being found. He died two days later, reportedly telling police who asked him to identify the shooter, “You stick to your trade and I’ll stick to mine.”
Cops arrested gambler George “Hump” McManus, but he walked due to a lack of evidence. Beyond the bad-debt theory, though, many analysts pin Rothstein’s execution on Dutch Schultz. It’s believed Schultz ordered the hit as retaliation for Rothstein’s boy Legs Diamond taking out Dutch’s friend and partner, Joe Noe.
Officially, though, nobody knows. The case remains unsolved. [Cold Case Squad]
5. “THE BRAIN” INSPIRED CHARACTERS IN THE GREAT GATSBY, GUYS & DOLLS, BOARDWALK EMPIRE & MORE
Arnold Rothstein led so rich (in every sense) a life — albeit a deadly, dark one, too — that he loomed as a legend even before his gunshot demise. Rothstein serves as the basis for a number of popular and iconic characters in arts and entertainment. Among them:
• “Meyer Wolfsheim” in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a Jewish mobster and gambler notorious for fixing the World Series.
• “The Brain” in multiple stories by brilliantly colorful newspaper columnist Damon Runyan.
• “Nathan Detroit” in Guys and Dolls, the classic Broadway musical based on Damon Runyon’s stories; Frank Sinatra played him in the 1955 movie.
• “Arnold Rothstein” in Eight Men Out (1988), a version of the actual gangster in director John Sayles’s acclaimed dramatic film about the Black Sox scandal.
• “Arnold Rothstein” on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (2010-14), a fictionalized interpretation of the real deal, played by Michael Stuhlbarg.
In addition, Arnold Rothstein’s name makes a cameo of sorts in The Godfather Part II (1974), when mob money-man Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) — who’s based on Meyer Lansky — says Vito Corleone nicknamed him “Roth” after Arnold Rothstein. [Den of Geek]
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Main image: “New York Daily News” – November 5, 1928 [front cover image]