In Hoffa’s Shadow: A Stepfather, a Disappearance in Detroit, and My Search for the Truth – Jack Goldsmith

JckOn the morning of July 30, 1975, Charles “Chuckie” O’Brien (1933-2020) began his day making final preparations for a permanent move to Florida where he planned to reside with his wife Brenda and his stepchildren. But by the end of the day, his life was turned upside down due to the disappearance of his stepfather, former International Brotherhood of Teamsters (“IBT”) President James R. Hoffa (1913-1975), whose disappearance is still an unsolved mystery that has eluded investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) for decades. O’Brien was an easy target because of his proximity to Hoffa. The Netflix film ‘The Irishman‘ (2019) shows O’Brien (played by actor Jesse Plemons) driving Hoffa to his death. But is that what really happened? Jack Goldsmith once called O’Brien dad and later discussed Hoffa’s disappearance with his aging stepfather and this book is what he learned about the case directly from the man everyone knew as “Chuckie”.

Before proceeding, I must address the elephant in the room which is the story of Frank Sheeran (1920-2003) as told in the book “I Heard You Pain Houses: Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy HoffaThe book is sensational but there are multiple issues with Sheeran’s story. Further, the FBI never charged Sheeran, nor did they consider him a serious suspect. Also, there is absolutely no evidence that Sheeran was one of the hitmen involved the murder of Colombo Family mobster Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo (1929-1972) on April 7, 1972. At the time of his death, Gallo was in a bitter inter-family feud with followers of boss Joseph Colombo (1923-1978) and had been blamed for the shooting at Columbus Circle in Manhattan on June 28, 1971, that left the mob boss in a vegetative state until his death. It is true however, that Sheeran did know Hoffa and oversaw his own Teamsters Local in Delaware. Readers will reach their own conclusions, but the facts indicate that Sheeran overstated his role in Hoffa’s life and role as a Mafia hitman.

Goldsmith is a former Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Counsel and was directly involved with the controversy surrounding the Stellar Wind warrantless surveillance program during the administration of President George W. Bush. At the age of twelve, his mother Brenda married O’Brien to the displeasure of the overbearing Hoffa. Despite the adversity faced by the couple, they were determined to live a peaceful life away from the complicated relationships that existed in Detroit due to the influence of O’Brien’s famous stepfather. The author revisits his early life when O’Brien became a part of the family and his path in understanding why the FBI was always interested in what his stepfather was doing and what he knew about Hoffa’s disappearance. Their relationship goes through difficult phases in the book but eventually comes full circle. The crux of the book, however, is the role O’Brien may have played in the crime, if any. And this is where the story picks up in pace and pulls the reader in. Once I reached the section surrounding Hoffa’s role as IBT President and the impending doom, I could not put it down.

Readers searching for a “smoking gun” in the case will not find it here although O’Brien affirms what researchers have long believed about the case. And the key to understanding what did happen lies in the relationship between the Teamsters and the Italian American Mafia. While Hoffa was no gangster, he was not averse to working with controversial figures or groups if it meant the improvement to the status of the IBT and its thousands of members. At the heart of this nexus was O’Brien’s mother, Sylvia Pagano (d. 1970), who is too often omitted from the Hoffa story. Goldsmith explores her connection to Hoffa and O’Brien refutes a persistent rumor about their relationship. Further, the importance of Pagano to Hoffa’s wife Josephine (1918-1980) whose mental and physical conditions were the sources of turmoil and concern in his life. Filmmakers did not include Pagano or reveal the dark side of Josephine’s story in “The Irishman“. Goldsmith had access to FBI files which contained unsettling truths about Hoffa’s marriage and his connections to underworld figures who were not as “loyal” as one might think. This relationship did not go unnoticed, and Hoffa found himself the target of the U.S. Department of Justice under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1929-1968). The bad blood between Hoffa and Kennedy is no secret but what is also shown in the book are the lengths to which Kennedy’s “Get Hoffa Squad” went to bring the labor leader down. The author presents moral and ethical questions about Kennedy’s actions and decisions which had unintended consequences, and inadvertently set the stage for the events which transpired on July 30, 1975. The vengeance with which the Department of Justice came after Hoffa produced important case law that would have crucial role int the author’s actions in the Bush Administration.

Hoffa was convicted in 1967 after Kennedy left the Department of Justice on charges of jury tampering. And this was the first stage in the next eight years in which Hoffa would go from contained threat to an unpredictable liability. And O’Brien was there to witness the events and divulged to Goldsmith as much as he was willing to say on occasion. There are things which ‘The Irishman‘ did get right and one of those things is the tension between Hoffa and Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (1917-1988). The mobster is only part of the story however, and we also learn about Goldsmith’s close relationship to Anthony “Tony Jack” Giacalone (1919-2001) who is like an uncle to the young teen and Vito William “Billy Jack” Giacalone (1923-2012). All three are suspected of having direct knowledge of the circumstances surrounding Hoffa’s disappearance or having played a direct role in the crime. There is no proof offered in the book that any of them did take part but if O’Brien is to be believed, “Uncle Tony” told him in uncertain terms that Hoffa had become a liability to the powers that be in New York.

In December 1971, U.S. President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) with conditions. The intriguing story of how the pardon came to be is discussed within and it is a fascinating story which reveals the power and connections held by the labor leader even behind bars. Readers may wonder why Hoffa was pardoned if his successor Frank Fitzsimmons (1908-1981) was well-liked by the mob and the White House. A motive is discussed in and there is credence to it. Of course, secrets surrounding Nixon’s final decision are lost to history but what is clear is that Hoffa had no intention of relinquishing control over the teamsters to anyone, and intended to directly violate the pardon. And this stubbornness sets the stage for his final days. I cannot say what went through Hoffa’s mind when he decided to call out the mob publicly and blast Fitzsimmons in the media but the unbelievable story which Goldsmith revisits is astounding. As depicted in ‘The Irishman‘, people close to Hoffa were warning him to quiet down and back down. In fact, O’Brien reveals that Tony Jack himself was one of the people who tried to get Hoffa to understand the gravity of the situation. Those encounters and Giacalone’s status in Detroit are also omitted from the film. But from what we know about the “Commission”, New York’s Five Families were aware of the Hoffa problem in Detroit and there was too much at stake for the bad press to continue.

The inevitable part of the story we know is coming arrives, and when it happens, O’Brien’s world is shattered. The disappearance and the fallout compose the final part of the book where we see the FBI and others hound O’Brien mercilessly. Throughout the story he maintains his innocence and we learn that there were FBI agents who had ruled him out as a suspect. However, as stated by the author, O’Brien knew more than he was willing to say, but feared repercussions after decades of association with dark figures in the criminal underworld. But nowhere in the book is there solid information that O’Brien drove Hoffa to his death or wanted his stepfather to disappear. In fact, O’Brien shows nothing but love and praise for the man who raised him. Further, if Hoffa did not trust O’Brien with Local 299, I doubt seasoned mobsters would have trusted him with the plot to remove his stepfather from the picture. What I did see is that O’Brien was the victim of endless harassment and a smear campaign because of his relationship with Hoffa but not because the two were on bad terms. And the penalty that was paid by his family is staggering and may have broken a weaker person. But O’Brien never wavered in the goal to clear his name and this part of the story is also omitted from the Hoffa discussion. The author was with him every step of the way as he sought to preserve his reputation, and the actions by the Government are confusing on occasion. In the end, O’Brien is now gone and any secrets he possessed departed with him. But before leaving, he shared a wealth of information with Goldsmith who in turn presents a necessary side to the tragedy of James Riddle Hoffa.


Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels – Hella Winston

winstonSeveral years ago, I accompanied a friend as she undertook the task of burying her late mother who had passed after several years of ill health. The cemetery is for followers of the Jewish faith and as part of the internment process, I was required to wear a yarmulke and spread dirt over the grave. The rabbi explained the meaning behind the acts, and the presence of others in attendance who did not know her mother but came out after hearing of her death. That day I was a witness to a side of Judaism I was not previously aware of. My friend was not Hasidic but strongly identified with her Jewish roots. Today when I drive through parts of Brooklyn, I take notice of the Hasidic Jewish communities in Crown Heights, Borough Park, and Williamsburg. To the public, the people of these sects are elusive and mysterious. Author Hella Winston stepped into these worlds to learn the truth about those who become unchosen.

It is imperative to recognize that Jewish is not a monolithic term. In fact, the divisions between sects, mainly the Satmar and Lubavitch, should not be overlooked. However, what is uniform is their commitment to preserving their faith and the importance of never forgetting the name of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). The Third Reich’s determination to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population had an unintended result here in New York as Winston points out. Readers will not be surprised at what they learn but what the author does reveal, will put the Hasidic community’s cohesiveness in a clearer perspective. The horrors of World War II cannot be understated and as Winston notes,

“One of the most striking things I came to understand during the course of this research is the power of the Holocaust, and the history of Jewish suffering in general, both in the actual lives of some Hasidic people and in the imaginations of these communities as a whole. There is, of course, the plain historical fact that the Hasidic communities that exist in America today were started almost entirely by refugees from World War II”.

Of course, the Hasidic culture we see does not exist solely because of the war. The scriptures impact every aspect of daily life and readers familiar with orthodox customs are aware of the restrictions in place around the Sabbath and during holidays. The individuals she became acquainted with revealed deeply personal parts of their lives and provided information that I learned of for the first time. One section that stands out is the view held towards Theodore Herzl (1860-1904), considered to be the father of Zionism. Brooklynites may recall that a street in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn bears his name. The reason for the view of Herzl held by the Hasidim is quite simple and in the overall context of the book, makes sense. But there is far more to the story than just Herzl and the people we are introduced to are anything but orthodox.

Winston picked members of both genders and from various families and each story has similar tones but are in fact different. I did observe that although they wanted a different life, they still loved their families and the communities they grew up in. The struggle with faith is not an easy one. Critics online have blasted the book as a condemnation of the Hasidim. I disagree and did not get that feeling while reading and have no ill will towards them. Admittedly, there were customs that I would not want to adhere to but it is not for me to say they are right or wrong for others. And I feel that anyone reading this book has to do so with an open mind. There are however, parts in the stories of the women that will make you scratch your head and have feelings of disapproval and/or disgust. These are the sections that bring to light the reality for Hasidic women. We pass them on the street, on the subways and maybe even the park, but the truth about their daily lives is carefully guarded. Whether the women are happy with their lives or not is for them to reconcile but if we digest what is contained here, it is apparent that not all are content and the number of women who yearn for more out of life could be higher than we think. The same applies for men due to the number of readers who contacted Winston after the book’s publication.

The book’s star is undoubtedly Yossi, whose story is a roller coaster ride in itself. But for all that we do learn about inside the community, there is a realization to be had for those who venture outside of it; none are prepared for the secular world which might as well be another planet. And this is one the tragedies of the book. The speakers have decided to venture in the secular world but have no real foundation to do so as the majority of their lives was spent inside the community which offered not only the resources they needed but security as well. The streets outside the community are unforgiving and more than one speaker falls victim to its darker elements. Thankfully, none perish but their experiences highlight the unchartered waters that await anyone who decides they no longer believe or wish to be Hasidim.

A common aspect I found in the stories is that they were living double lives. While they believed in the scriptures, they could not reconcile that with the practices they witnessed daily. It is a difficult position to be in and the mind will find itself at war with itself. The stories of Chaim, Yitzchak, Dini, Malkie and Leah are all intense on their own and in each one we see that regardless of location or religion, human nature is strong and cannot always be contained. The quest for freedom led some to take extreme measures as they struggled with choices I have been forced to make. And this is one of the best parts of the book that is possibly overlooked. All isolated communities have their secrets and the Hasidim are no different. But what readers should come away with is that if you are not a part of the community, you have freedoms and liberties that are desired by people within the community. And the reality is that they may never know the world as you do. For them, the scriptures control their lives and those in high positions of power pick up where faith does not. The narratives are controlled but not impervious. Over time, I believe that the Hasidim will also adjust to modern times as the younger generation seeks a new path in a rapidly changing world.

Despite the information revealed in the book, there are positive aspects to the Hasidim way of life and there are followers who are happy in the community. And as Winston points out, they too are human beings. The Hasidim also have fears, concerns, passions and insecurities. Winston’s book is not about which way is right or wrong but provides a window in a world we see only from the outside. In no way is the book a definitive account of the Hasidim nor was it intended to be. But if you can see the value in the stories contained within, then you will appreciate what she has brought to light. And if there are Hasidim who have left their communities and not sure about what to do, the organization Footsteps which was started by Malkie Schwartz, a speaker in the book, provides assistance to those in need.

If you are curious about the Hasidic way of life and what happens to those who leave, this is must-read.


Nicaragua, 1961-1990 Volume 1: The Downfall of the Somosa Dictatorship – David Francois

FrancoisIn June 1987, Lt. Col. Oliver North (Ret.) gave testimony in front of the Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition and the House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Sales with Iran.  The hearings had cast a dark cloud over Washington and the administration of President Ronald W. Reagan (1911-2004) doubled down on anything that could be conceived as illegal pursuant to United States law.  I can still recall the shock on my father’s face when the news of the scandal broke across media outlets.  The two of us watched the nightly news to learn more about a situation that had danger written all over it.  Those who remember the Iran-Contra affair most likely have images in their minds of North testifying in his military dress before Congress.  Details of the Reagan administration’s covert plans became unraveled but the full truth about the affair remained elusive for many years.  The sale of weapons to foreign nations did not surprise me at all and military hardware has always been big business.  But what did catch my attention was the atmosphere in Central America, a region that suffered extensively due to Washington’s support of dictatorships thirsty for blood and determined to crack down on all opposition. 

Over the years I have made the acquaintance of men and women who fled El Salvador at the height of the nation’s civil war. And the stories they have told me have remain firmly entrenched in my mind as examples of how much suffering occurred to innocent people who were forced to leave the only home they had ever known.  In Nicaragua, revolution and turmoil had taken place as the Sandinista National Liberation Front successfully forced the Somoza regime to flee into exile.  The victory by the Sandinistas caused anger and embarrassment in Washington which was determined not to let the leftist remove the puppet government it preferred.  However, the people of Nicaragua had other plans and wanted a new direction for their country.  This book is the story of how the Somoza dictatorship met its end in Nicaragua.  

The author provides a good explanation on the history of Nicaragua dating back to the era of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506).  As the story moves into the 1800s, affairs in Central American begin to heat up.  Foreign governments begin to take notice of the small Central American nation and intervened in the nation’s affairs.  I was quite amazed at how involved both the United States and Britain became in the country’s policies but soon realized it was a premonition of what would follow.   A revolution in 1912 resulted in the arrival of U.S. Marines in Nicaragua and the occupation lasted until 1933.  But the local population had no desire to live under Washington’s rule at any time and a young revolutionary named Augusto César Sandino (1895-1934) was intent on seeing his country liberated from imperialist domination.  Francois tells the story with the right amount of suspense and keeps the pace flowing at the right speed to move the book forward.   It soon becomes apparent that Sandino’s time is limited, and it is not long before Nicaragua is taken over by Anastasio Somoza García (1896-1956) who placed the country in a vice grip with the assistance of his sons Anastasio Somoza Debayle (1925-1980) and Luis Somoza Debayle (1922-1967).  And for nearly fifty years they ruled Nicaragua with an iron fist and made it their personal kingdom.  But as the author explains, the revolutionaries were far from done. In fact, the Somozas had only increased the determination of the opposition to remove the family from power. 

American readers might be surprised to learn of the enormous amount of assistance Somoza received from Washington.  The United States was aware of Somoza’s tyranny yet continued to supply arms and money to the regime.  The eye-opening details provided here are bound to cause anger and shock and will cause others to wonder if “freedom” was really part of American foreign policy.  Opposition forces were continuing to mount against Somoza, and it may be challenging to keep track of the the groups that were formed.  A table of the acronyms used by the groups is included at the beginning of the book by Francois and will be helpful during the story.  The group that emerges as the main opposition force is the Sandinista National Liberation (FSLN) formed by Carlos Fonseca (1936-1976), Tomás Borge (1930-2012) and Silvio Mayorga (1934-1967).   On the side of Somoza, the Guardia Nacional de Nicaragua (GN) steps up to the plate to do battle with the FSLN and the war that breaks out is nothing short of brutal.  At this point, the story heats up significantly and readers will not want to stop reading as the suspense continues to build.  Francois’ narration of the events resurrects the past with vivid detail. 

Similar to other conflicts, Nicaragua’s war was not as cut and dry as one may have believed. In fact, the country essentially became a battleground between the right and left with Washington deeply concerned about Soviet and Chinese influence.  And as we see in the story, Beijing was fully aware of the events in Nicaragua and attempted to get into the mix.  Even Israel enters the story, and this part of the book is mind bending. Francois proves that there are many dark secrets to every conflict.  As the two sides are locked in a deadly battle, Somoza begins to lose popular support.  The initial descent of the Somoza regime into oblivion takes center stage and Francois takes us through the series of events that not only gave the Sandinistas the upper hand but also saw the disappearance of support from Washington.  At this part of the book, I had to step back for a minute and digest what I was reading.   The abrupt change in policy from Washington is a move we have seen in other places where death and destruction have taken place.  Somoza was once the darling of the U.S. policy in Central America but soon learns that when Washington no longer wants or needs your services, the cold from being hung out to dry can be chilling. 

The end for the regime finally came in July 1979 and for the administration of President James E. Carter, Jr., Somoza’s removal was long overdue. However, the new president had his hands full and the situation in nearby El Salvador was heating up.  In Nicaragua, the long road taken by the opposition had ended and the country faced a new and uncertain future.  Francois explains it best with this statement: 

“The date 19 July 1979 marked a turning point in the history of Nicaragua and the FSLN. Not only had a powerful dictatorship that reigned over the country for nearly 40 years, with the support of the US, ended, but the long and patient fight started by the Sandinistas in the early 1960s finally came to fruition.” 

The Carter administration continued its policy of reigning in dictators in Central America yet failed to completely achieve its goal.  In January 1981, a former actor and one-time Governor of California took office and his policy towards Central America and the “threat” of Soviet influence helped plunge Central America further into chaos.  Congress initially had no idea just how deadly things had become but it soon learned and what was revealed remains one the darkest moments in U.S. foreign policy.  And the key to understanding those events is the story here about the Somoza downfall that had ramifications which spread across Latin America. 

Readers who find this book to highly informative will appreciate Raymond Bonner’s Weakness and Deceit: America’s and El Salvador’s Dirty War and Malcolm Byrne’s Iran Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power.  Both are exceptional accounts of America’s involvement in Central American affairs.  Francois has a winner here and I am eagerly anticipating volume two.   

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B07RPBY857

How the Other Half Lives (Iluustrated): Studies Among the Tenements of New York – Jacob A. Riis

riisA few weeks ago, my family had its first gathering in nearly two years.  The even took place at Jacob A. Riis Park in Queens, New York.  As I walked the boardwalk next to the beach, I wondered how many people there knew the story of Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914) for whom the park is named. In 1890 this book by Riis was published and more than one hundred years later is stands as a  crucial piece of writing about the island of Manhattan.  At the time Riis wrote the book, the City of New York had yet to be incorporated.  That occurred eight years later on January 1, 1898.  His focus here is on the tenements in lower Manhattan and the different ethnic groups that inhabited the area.  And though New York has changed significantly in the years since Riis wrote this book, the gap between the wealthy and poor still remains wide.

Riis personally visited the tenements and made his observations regarding the people who called the them home.  And what he reveals is not entirely shocking but should serve as a reminder that before the skyscrapers rose across Manhattan, many parts of the island were home to families on all income levels and poverty was more common that some may think.  And in the area that was once known as the Five Points, life was tougher and deadlier.  The pictures that emerge from Riis’ work show two different worlds that exist in the same city.  The wealthy lived comfortably further uptown but, in the tenements, it was hell on earth.  In the tenements we find immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland, China, and various other places from which they departed.  All were in search of a better life in America but found themselves at the bottom of the social ladder where they were joined there by black Americans who had struggled to fit into American society in the wake of the Civil War and the failed Reconstruction Acts.  Riis gets up close and personal with each group and leaves us his thoughts which are sure to raise eyebrows.

I do warn readers that the author uses coarse language at times and his references to some groups and areas would never make it past a publisher’s desk today.   More than once I winced at his use of such terms as “Chinaman” and “Jewtown”.   But I also realize that in 1890 this style of writing was perfectly acceptable.  And despite the terms he chooses for certain discussions, Riis’ goal of shedding light on how the other half lived is thoroughly accomplished.  And the illustrations that are included help to reinforce the message he is delivering.  Today it might seem unreal that such conditions existed in New York, but they did, and the tenements were beyond deplorable.  Disease, hunger, crime, and despair could be found all over, and many met early deaths trying to survive in the depths of hell.  Their stories are consolidated here through Riis’ storytelling that is engaging and will keep readers tuned in and rooting for the underdog.  Riis is also rooting for them as well and fully understand the challenges they face.  To make that point clear he explains to the reader that:

“The poorest immigrant comes here with the purpose and ambition to better himself and, given half a chance, might be reasonably expected to make the most of it. To the false plea that he prefers the squalid homes in which his kind are housed there could be no better answer. The truth is, his half chance has too long been wanting, and for the bad result he has been unjustly blamed.”

Those words are still true today.  Readers who are also history buffs may recall that only eight years prior to the publication of this book, Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which was signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur. The legislation prohibited Chinese laborers from emigrating to the United States and remains one of America’s darkest legacies with regards to immigration and the Chinese-American experience.  I am sure Riis was cognizant of that fact and fully understood how and why the Chinese neighborhoods developed into what they became.  I found him to be fair for the most part in his descriptions of the tenements but there were times where his words are slightly menacing.  But interestingly, Riis is aware of it and mentions it on occasion as he explains the various areas of the tenements.   However, there is one group for which he seems to be far harsher upon than others: the Arab/Bohemian.  I cannot say why his words about the Bohemians were as sharp as they were, but his criticism of the group is significant in the book.  Sadly, even today America’s Muslims are not always fully understood and anti-Arab discrimination is still an issue within our borders.  In all fairness, Riis never goes as far to mercilessly bash them or try to incite violence upon them.  But I do feel that perhaps he was a little too critical of an immigrant group that has strived for acceptance.

There are many redeeming moments in the book and Riis does make sure to point the great things about the various ethnic groups.  And that is what is so striking about the book.  His casual use of terms and descriptions could be taken as slightly bigoted, but he never fails to give praise where praise is due.  And when it comes to the Negro population, he is brutally honest in the treatment blacks had received in America and how their lives have suffered because of it.  I could feel while reading the book that his time in the tenements allowed him to understand the challenges immigrants faced as arrived in America.  Faced with a new culture, new language, and exposure to ethnic groups they may have only heard about, immigrants in New York during the 1800s did what was needed to survive and for many, life in the tenements was their daily reality.  Lower Manhattan looks different today but at one time the Five Points was a battle zone and life was not guaranteed.  It was here that the other half lived.  Riis, however, was optimistic and makes this statement that I feel exemplifies at least one thing New York City will always be known for:

“New York is, I firmly believe, the most charitable city in the world. Nowhere is there so eager a readiness to help, when it is known that help is worthily wanted; nowhere are such armies of devoted workers, nowhere such abundance of means ready to the hand of those who know the need and how rightly to supply it. Its poverty, its slums, and its suffering are the result of unprecedented growth with the consequent disorder and crowding, and the common penalty of metropolitan greatness.” 

Some readers may find the book to be difficult at times due to Riis’ descriptions of the tenements.  He spares very few details, but I believe that was the effect he wanted when he wrote the book.  The tenements were not a place of happiness but of hopelessness and uncertainty.  New York City is known as the melting pot and the label is accurate, but it is imperative to remember that the melting pot we have come to know has its own dark past and for hundreds of immigrants arriving in Manhattan during the 1800s, life was not a glorious as many had hoped.  These are their lives brought to life by Jacob Riis in this book that is and forever shall be part of American history.

“Long ago it was said that “one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.” That was true then. It did not know because it did not care. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate of those who were underneath, so long as it was able to hold them there and keep its own seat.” – Jacob A. Riis

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B0796FFTQ4

Smuggler’s End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal – Del Hahn

sealAmericans in my age range and older will easily recall Nancy Reagan’s (1921-2016) advice to “just say no” to drugs.  At the time, America had become fully engulfed in a deadly war against the rising trafficking and use of narcotics.  The federal government continued to increase spending each year in the effort to combat drugs in America but regardless of the approach, the drugs kept coming and brought with them lengthy jail sentences, murder, and scores of addicts.  However, the drugs did not arrive without help.  Drug traffickers quickly realized that the growing market for cocaine and other hard drugs also produced large amounts of money.  Drug routes began to sprout up all over the planet as traffickers continued to find ways to elude authorities.  Stories of their exploits are plenty.  And I believe everyone knows the names of the major drug kingpins such as Pablo Escobar (1949-1993) and Joaquin Guzman known as “El Chapo”.   The bosses made the deals, but the groundwork was left to those willing to risk death and capture in a market worth billions of dollars.  Among these fearless individuals was Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal (1939-1986).  Fans of the Netflix show Narcos might recall Seal’s demise in season one.  The scene is graphic but is also a fairly accurate depiction of Seal’s final moments.  But what is missing from the show is Seal’s full background and his descent into the criminal underworld.  Rumors have persisted that Seal was working for the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) or other secret parts of the U.S. Government. But is there any truth to that?  Author Del Hahn was an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) and worked in the Baton Rouge field office at the time Seal was under active investigation.  In this informative and gripping book, Hahn provides what may be the most accurate account of Seal’s tragic life.

Prior to reading the book, I had a fair amount of knowledge regarding Seal.  Movie buffs will recall that Tom Cruise played Seal in the 2017 film American Made.   The movie is pure Hollywood and its allegation that Seal was “recruited” by the CIA are nothing short of misleading. Hahn explores the issue at length and explains what did take place at the Mena Intermountain Airport in Mena, Arkansas as Seal was preparing to depart for a trip to South America.  Officially, the CIA has stated that Seal never worked for their agency even though it did have a presence at the airport.  Seal himself never said that he worked for the CIA.  But what is more important in the story at hand is Seal’s downfall and his work for the Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”).   However, before we reach that part of the book, Hahn provides a good biography of Seal, showing the twists and turns along the way even before he becomes involved in trafficking narcotics.  It is clear that Seal’s life was anything but ordinary even from an early age.   Further, I could see that Seal was an incredibly talented and articulate individual.  Readers might be surprised to learn how early he became involved in the field of aviation.  To say that flying was in his blood might be an understatement.  It will be recalled by some that he began working for Trans World Airlines (“TWA”) in 1967.   Although he was eventually terminated, he had established himself as a good pilot whose aircraft was the Boeing 707.   After leaving TWA, Seal found a new source of income in the world of smuggling.  But cocaine was not his first choice as Hahn explains as he shows the path Seal took from one drug to another.  In some instances, Seal was at the right place at the right time and around the right people.

Similar to other players in the drug game, incarceration is never far away, and Seal found himself in trouble with the law on several occasions.  But it was a major bust in an undercover sting operation by multiple law enforcement agencies that finally derailed the smuggler’s gravy train.  This is the part of the book where the story takes a sharp turn down a darker path.  At this point, Seal is fully engulfed in the cocaine business and associating with figures from the most notorious drug cartels in history.  Faced with a stiff prison sentence and additional time in other pending cases, Seal makes a life changing decision and becomes more acquainted with the DEA that some may realize.  The legal drama heightens the suspense in the story and Hahn does a solid job of putting everything in the simplest terms possible to help the story flow easily.  I personally picked up a couple of things about the Title III Wiretap law and the Brady Rule which put things into a more clarified context.  Law students and readers with an interest in criminal procedure will appreciate this part of the book.  A sub-story to the legal drama is that the author refutes some of the more outlandish rumors about Seal’s alleged “work” for the CIA or any other intelligence agency through the explanation of the wiretaps.   He also puts to rest any rumors about Seal’s connections to politicians in Washington.   Hahn states frankly that:

“Mena/CIA conspiracy buffs should take note that during the entire time the Title III wiretap was in operation, there were no conversations intercepted between Seal, Terry Kent Reed, Bill Clinton, Lt. Col. Oliver North, or any representative of the CIA.”

The real story is not as sensational as some may wish but it is crazy enough on its own to keep readers glued to the pages of this book.  Seal was a larger-than-life character with a love for the darker side of society.  And he learned that in the drug game, no one can be trusted.

We know that Seal died in February 1986 but is what we see on Narcos the full explanation?  Hahn also discusses how and why Seal was gunned down.  And as I read the account of the events leading up to his death, I shook my head at the fate in store for Seal who has no idea that he has become a pawn in a much larger and deadlier game.  As the 1980s progresses, Central America becomes a hotspot and the Reagan Administration becomes deeply involved in the war in El Salvador, events in Nicaragua and affairs in Honduras.  Ret. Lt. Col. Oliver North also makes an appearance and provides the author with a statement that I believe should help put an end to the Seal mystique.  North may be viewed suspiciously as some due to the Iran Contra affair but that is a discussion for another time. The focus here is on Barry Seal and North clears up any possible rumors about his alleged association with the notorious smuggler.

Throughout the book, not once does any information surface that Seal was anything other than a drug trafficker who got caught in an undercover operation and decided to work for the U.S. Government to help his own cause. That decision came with a heavy price, and he could not have known he was on a collision course with fate. His death while tragic, did nothing to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. And Seal himself stated more than once that the narcotics could not be stopped by the war on drugs. Today we know that he was correct in his assessment.  Seal may have been romanticized on screen, but the truth about his life is far more bitter and less glorious.  If you want to know exactly who Barry Seal was and what really happened behind the scenes during the war on drugs, this is a must read.


The Search for Michael Rockefeller – Mitt Machlin


Each year as December approaches, the City of New York becomes even more active as tourists arrive to see the Big Apple during the holiday season. One of the biggest attractions is the lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, the complex of buildings that was the vision of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960). In 1961, his grandson Michael Rockefeller (1938-1961) returned to New Guinea to partake in an expedition to visit the Asmat region, home to the Otsjanep villagers. On November 19, 1961, Rockefeller was stranded on a raft with traveler Rene Wassing. As their situation worsened, Rockefeller decided to swim to shore for help. He took off his clothes, grabbed a few supplies and jumped into the water. Wassing watched him fade into the distance and that was the last time that Rockefeller was seen alive. In 1964 he was declared legally dead and officially it is presumed that he drowned in the water. He was declared legally dead in 1964 but theories persist about the final moments of a young man considered by all who knew him to be an expert swimmer.

In October, 1968, author Mitt Machlin (1924-2004) received a surprised visit from a man with a fake name who admitted that he had inside information about Rockefeller’s disappearance. After listening to the man’s account, Machlin is convinced that there is more to the Rockefeller story. He approaches is superiors and is given permission to the travel to the region where Rockefeller met his fate in an attempt to bring closure to the story. And the result is this book which at times, is not for the faint at heart. One the early leads that Machlin had surprisingly came directly from the New York Times which contained a statement from Father Cornelius van Kessel who stated that he had knowledge of the events surrounding Rockefeller’s disappearance that he did not drown at sea but met a far grislier fate at the hand of villagers along the territory where he would have swum ashore. To be clear, there are no admissions by anyone who might have been present when Rockefeller took his last breath. But if Father Van Kessel is to be believed, the end of Michael Rockefeller’s life was darker than anyone cared to admit. Machlin uncovers a dearth of information about Rockefeller and the natives whom many believe were responsible for his death. About the New York socialite, Machlin informs us that:

During his undergraduate years Michael have been an excellent student (he ultimately was graduated cum laude) but had shown a tendency to restlessness and a hunger for excitement which would ultimately lead him to Gardner’s Expedition. He had various methods of sublimating his restlessness. Once he was picked up for racing at 80 miles an hour along the Maine Turnpike, and again he was arrested for speeding on a Connecticut Parkway. During the summer Michael hardly live the life of a millionaire’s son. One Summer he worked in a Puerto Rican supermarket. Another year he worked as a ranch hand on his father’s spread in Venezuela. Except for poor eyesight, Michael was an excellent specimen physically, six feet one and a superb swimmer.

The third son of former Vice President of the United States and New York State Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller (1908-1979) was not a “typical” child in the family. The picture of Michael that emerges in the book is of a young man who sought to see the world and show people that he was not just another rich kid riding his father’s coat tails. But did that restlessness and thirst for action lead to his demise? To answer that question, we must turn to Machlin who reveals disturbing truths about the people Rockefeller would have encountered during his trips to the coast of New Guinea which is officially known today as Papua New Guinea. I must warn readers that some of the information about the natives is unsettling. But it is imperative to remember that their world was far removed from ours and their customs while not considered civilized, were how they functioned as a group. Machlin explains this perfectly in the book as he continues to explore the Rockefeller mystery that gets more bizarre with each new twist and turn.

As I read the book, I became convinced that Rockefeller was not “lost at sea” and that there was in fact a darker aspect to his demise. A “smoking gun” is elusive but Machlin reveals a wealth of information and it becomes apparent that many people familiar with the territority had heard what happened to Rockefeller. In some instances the information apparently came from the natives themselves. But as disturbing as that part is, the actual reason for his demise is crucial and perhaps the crux of the book. Machlin goes a good job of explaining the possession of the Asmat territory at that time by the Dutch government and how actions by some of its representatives created a pattern of retribution that consumed Rockefeller who more than likely had no knowledge of what had transpired prior to his arrival. His death might have simply been a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Sadly, his body was never found preventing the Rockefeller family from obtaining closure about his tragic end. Machlin does reveal what has been said about Rockefeller’s remains and I assure you that this part of the book will give you a chill.

Officially, Rockefeller joins the list of famous people who have vanished into thin air including Amelia Earhart (1897-1937), James R. Hoffa (1913-1982) and Natalee Holloway (1986-2005). Their deaths have continued to stir debate about the truth and if it will ever be known. Machlin was on the right track and searches online will also reveal information similar to what he explains here. In fact, the Smithsonian has a brilliant article that readers will find to be a perfect addition to this book. If you love a good mystery and stories that are anything but orthodox, this book is a must read. And perhaps one day, we will know the whole truth about the final moments of Michael Rockefeller.

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1585790206
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1585790203

The Hidden Hindenburg: The Untold Story of the Tragedy, the Nazi Secrets, and the Quest to Rule the Skies – Michael McCarthy

50550830._UY400_SS400_On May 6, 1937, the German aircraft LZ 129, officially known as the Hindenburg, crashed upon landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey.  The crash claimed the lives of thirty-two people.  Sixty-two people survived the disaster and later gave statements regarding what they saw and heard in the air ship’s final moments.  In Berlin, the Third Reich went into crisis mode and grounded all Zeppelin air ships until authorities could figure out what went wrong.  The accepted explanation for the disaster is that an electrostatic discharge ignited hydrogen leaking through an outer cover which resulted in a fast-moving fire that caused the air ship’s demise.  The case seemed open and shut but is there more to the story?  Author Michael McCarthy addresses that question and others about the Hindenburg’s history, Nazi Germany’s rise to power and the aftermath of the Hindenburg’s final voyage to America.

I did have a fair amount of knowledge about the Hindenburg but like other historical events, there is more to the story.  McCarthy’s account of the full story behind the disaster is spellbinding.  As a primer, he provides the back story on the Zeppelins and their origin in Germany.  What we learn is fascinating and reminded me of how far air travel has come since 1937.  But it is not long before we move forward to the era of the Third Reich and the book takes a darker turn.  In the title, the author mentions Nazi secrets.  There are many of them revealed here showing the magnitude of Nazi Germany’s quest for world domination.  Had the Nazis achieved their goal to develop an arsenal of mega weapons, World War II might have resulted in a different outcome.

The Treaty of Versailles following World War I had severely punished Germany for its actions in starting the conflict.  Financially, Germany was in near ruin and politically, the people were ripe for change.  That changed arrived in the form of an Austrian soldier who saw himself as the next leader of Germany. But to save the fatherland, he would have to resort to drastic measures.  Adolf Hitler(1889-1945) seized power in 1933, ignored the treaty and commenced his plan to rebuild the German military.  The Zeppelins caught the eye of the dictator and Reich Air Marshall Hermann Göring (1893-1946) took personal interest in the asset the Nazis believed would change history.  However, the Zeppelins’ fate had already been decided and the decisions made by Hugo Eckener (1868-1954), the visionary behind the Zeppelin use, would have far reaching consequences for Germany and air travel.

Public interest in the Zeppelins allowed Eckener to enjoy publicity across the globe and the future seemed bright.  However back in Germany, engineers knew that something was wrong the LZ-129’s design.  In fact, the air ship had several issues that needed to be addressed and author does not mince words regarding them.  What I read sent chills down my spine but this statement from McCarthy sets the tone for the remainder of the book:

“I found evidence that the 800-foot-long Hindenburg was on a path to self-destruction back to its blueprints. Today, it’s hard to imagine just how large the Hindenburg actually was. Eight Goodyear blimps could have easily fit inside of it.” 

It is well-known that the Hindenburg used hydrogen to attain lift, yet engineers and German officials knew that helium was safer for commercial use.  Sadly, the Hindenburg never used helium, nor did Zeppelin officials attempt to obtain it.  But the full story behind the lack of helium for the Hindenburg and other air ships is laid bare in the book.  Readers will be left to shake their heads as the truth is revealed.  Further, several incidents involving air ships from other countries, that preceded the Hindenburg disaster should have served as a warning, but Eckener was determined to have his way and went as far to lure Captain Ernst A. Lehmann (1886-1937) away from the Goodyear Company in America to fly the Hindenburg.  Lehmann would later become a victim of the disaster and a scapegoat for the tragic crash.  Of all the people who were aware of the ship’s problems. Lehmann emerges as the most concerned and reveals his fears to a friend.  And it becomes clear that when it came to the Hindenburg, the writing was on the wall.

In the afternoon of May 6, the Hindenburg attempted to make its landing in between thunderstorms and sharp winds.  Before touching the ground, fire broke out in the rear of the air ship and within minutes all hell had broken loose.  Emergency personnel raced to the scene, but many could not be saved.  Others perished in the hospital and investigators were faced with the daunting task of determining what went wrong.   Zeppelin officials knew that their company was on the line, and they could not let it take the fall.  The actions and statements by those in positions of accountability left me speechless but as repulsive as they are, they pale in comparison to what we learn about the air ship’s production and its intended role in World War II.

Hitler’s thirst for dominance knew no bounds and whatever was needed to achieve it was given the green light.  Nazi engineers had been building superweapons throughout the war and successfully tested at least one. But behind the weapons production were secrets the Nazis had hidden from the world.  Jews that had been forced into concentration camps almost always face certain death through starvation, disease, and relentless manual labor.  Engineers needed human labor and had thousands of “undesirables” that could perform the heavy manual tasks needed at production facilities.  The Reich had no concerns about the prisoners’ health and thousands were conscripted into building the secret weapons that Hitler hoped would change the course of the war.  It may be hard for some to accept that the magnificent Hindenburg had any nefarious purpose.  But to remove all illusions about the Zeppelins, McCarthy explains that:

“The Zeppelin was conceived as a weapon. Of the 119 Zeppelins the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin built, 103 were for the military. And the V-1 and V-2 weapons were the fulfillment of Count Zeppelin’s long dream of a German attack weapon for aerial warfare. Eckener trained more than a thousand crew members for Zeppelin bombing missions.” 

Washington was aware of the Nazi weapons programs and knew that if Hitler succeeded, the war would take a tragic turn making victory exponentially difficult.  However, Hitler’s decision to attack the Soviet Union, doomed Germany and it was a matter of time before the Allied forces brought it to its knees.  At the beginning of April 1945, American forces and the Red Army had closed in on Berlin and Hitler’s bunker.  Unwilling to face justice himself, Hitler took his own life and escaped punishment at Nuremberg.  But thousands of Nazi officials soon realized that they could be captured and executed for their actions.  Those who had connections within the U.S. Government or value to American policy were secretly transported out of Germany.  After settling in America, many received plush jobs and lived freely in the United States for the rest of their lives.  Readers interested in the arrival of former Nazi officials to America, will enjoy Annie Jacobsen’s Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America.  Nazis who were not as fortunate soon realized that their ties to Hitler placed them in Allied crosshairs.  And businessmen who had financial ties to the Reich also realized that they were fair game.  Hugo Eckener knew that he too could face justice but was determined not to let that happen even if it meant re-writing history and leaving Germany.  His time in America after the war is one more example of the U.S. Government willing to look the other way when it came to Nazi affiliates.  Eckener was crafty and re-wrote history enough to keep his role in the Reich hidden for many years but as McCarthy points out, the truth about Eckener is:

“Into his eighties, Hugo Eckener became still more brazen in deceit, revising history and burying his sinister war record. Not only had he misled investigators at Lakehurst on the Hindenburg disaster, but his autobiography renewed his false charge that America was partly responsible for the deadly accident because it had denied him fireproof helium. And he continued to portray himself as anti-Nazi and safety-conscious, while painting his rival, the deceased Lehmann, as the opposite on both counts.” 

Despite Eckener’s actions, German investigators were able to uncover his past deeds with the Reich as can be seen in the book.  The results are scathing.  Eckener and his son Knut could not cleanse themselves of the Nazi stain no matter how hard they tried.  And the Nazi hunters would not stop until every page was turned over and every stone was lifted.  To be sure, many Nazis did escape justice and re-settled in other parts of the globe. South America was a popular destination.  But those who remained in Germany and were convicted of Nazi crimes had their lives turned upside down, yet their punishments were typically less severe than the death they dealt out to thousands of Jewish prisoners.  Eckener had never worked at a camp nor was he assigned the task of overseer, but he did have ties to the camps and certainly knew what took place there.

As the book reached its conclusion,  I found myself speechless at times as I learned of the relationship between the Zeppelin company and the Third Reich. Further, the actions by Eckener and others with knowledge of the air ship’s faults were reprehensible. Today they would be prosecuted, and the company would be dismantled. But in 1937, it was easier to keep secrets and the Hindenburg had many of them.  Its creator and others who controlled its existence had  ulterior motives and two of them were for Germany to rebuild itself into the country it once was and to make all other nations submit to its will.  But fate had other plans and before it was done, Germany’s greatest air ship and its military would crash and burn.  This is the true story of the Hindenburg and its relationship to the Nazi secrets behind World War II.


Dark Victory: Ronald Regan, MCA and the Mob – Dan E. Moldea

MoldeaOf America’s forty-six presidents that have served in office, few are as popular as Ronald Reagan (1911-2004).  The 40th President of the United States is remembered for his time in Hollywood, his term as Governor of California and a presidential administration that had its share of controversy.  The Iran-Contra scandal remains inextricably linked to Reagan and is a stark reminder of U.S. foreign policy gone wrong.  The fallout in Central America from Washington’s influence and interference can still be felt to this day.  Reagan is long gone from office and deceased since 2004.  However, his name can still be found in conversations about politics in America, when discussing conservatism and the decline of Soviet influence across the globe.  Although known to be a fierce conservative, Reagan was able to use his actor’s skills to conceal this from the public.  But historians know all too well that there was dark side to the life of Reagan before and during his time in office.  Journalist Dan Moldea takes another look at Reagan, paying close attention to his time in Hollywood as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), its dealings with the Music Corporation of America (MCA) and the Italian American mafia.

I should point out that the book is not intended to be a full analysis of Reagan’s role as president.  And although Moldea does discuss Reagan’s time as president towards the end of the book, the focus remains on the early days of Hollywood and radio, where the mafia had infiltrated studios and strong-arm tactics by independent companies had become accepted behavior.  To remove all doubt that the book has a “happy ending”, Moldea lays out the premise early on:

“These records show that Reagan, the president of SAG and an FBI informant against Hollywood communists, was the subject of a federal grand jury investigation whose focus was Reagan’s possible role in a suspected conspiracy between MCA and the actors’ union. According to Justice Department documents, government prosecutors had concluded that decisions made by SAG while under Reagan’s leadership became “the central fact of MCA’s whole rise to power.”

After establishing the premise, the author discusses the formation of multiple corporations that became titans in radio and later in the film industry.  The formation of MCA is explained and that of the SAG where Reagan would find a home through his first wife Jane Wyman (1917-2007).  The information provided by Moldea is just what history buffs will be looking for.  And what he explains highlights just how far film and radio have come.  But in the 1920s, television was still in its infant stages and for the average artist, radio was the place to be.  In the 1930s, film started to gain in popularity and in 1933, the Screen Actors Guild was formed to give artists protection from what was clearly a racket. The ramifications of the organization’s creation are explained by Moldea and the information will aide readers later in the book as the U.S. Department of Justice sets its sights on film and radio.  Following his discharge from the military after World War II, Reagan soon found his calling in film and his marriage to Jane Wyman opened the doors to successful careers on the silver screen and in government, in ways that may not be fully understood.  As the book shows, there were many suspicious actions taken by Reagan as director of the SAG with regards to the Music Corporation of America, known to be affiliated with gangsters and other powerful figures not against breaking all rules.  The most infamous to whom we are introduced is a lawyer named Sidney Korshak (1907-1996), believed to be one of the most powerful men in Hollywood during his time.  Korshak is just one of many dark figures in the book that includes mobsters Alphonse “Al” Capone (1899-1947) and Johnny Roselli (1905-1976).  Moldea leaves no stone un-turned as he explores the many dark connections between Reagan and a whole cast of shadowy characters.

The crux of the case for Reagan’s implied dark dealings comes in the form of an unrestricted waiver given to MCA, permitting it to retain artists and other stars without conditions normally enforced by the SAG.  Whether Reagan himself decided to do so may be lost to history but the action was so unusual that it attracted the attention of the anti-trust division of the Department of Justice.  Regan himself gave testimony and readers might find it be questionable to say the least.  The relevant portions of his statements are included so that the words come directly from Reagan himself.  It is left to readers to decide what Reagan may or may not have left out.  And while there is a lot of smoke, some may feel that there is no fire or “smoking gun”. But what is clear is that what transpired between the SAG and MCA was anything but ordinary.  The true story might be even more surprising and suspicious than the one Moldea has told here.

During his time in office, Reagan became the star for conservatism and his administration shifted the nation towards the right politically.  One of the reasons for his conservatism is explained here and it was something I was not previously aware of.  Further, the story here shows again that the administration of John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) was more of a threat to those with hidden agendas than people realize.  While campaigning, Reagan called for getting tough on crime and fixing America’s cities.  He once stood in the burning rubble of the South Bronx and told residents that he was trying to help them, but he could not do anything unless he was elected.  Well, he was elected and his goals to fix America and get tough on crime did not go exactly as most voters thought. In fact, there were actions by his administration that stood in stark contrast to the good-natured poster boy image that the former actor portrayed publicly.  Moldea is even more blunt his assessment:

“The Reagan administration then severely curtailed the investigative and enforcement abilities of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Justice Department’s Strike Forces Against Organized Crime—as part of its program to get the government off the backs of the people. The administration also attempted but failed to dismantle the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms of the Treasury Department, which had been extremely effective in the war against organized crime but had been opposed by the Reagan-allied National Rifle Association.”

Older readers may agree or disagree with the statement, but I do think Moldea is fairly accurate in his assessment.  I strongly advise those who find this to be a good read to also purchase Malcolm Byrne’s Iran Contra: Regan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power, which is an excellent analysis of the hostage for arms matter and money transfer to rebels in Central America.  It can be argued that no administration is without its scandals or embarrassing moments and that is true.  However, the depth of the scandals is what typically sets them apart.  In the case of Ronald Reagan, we are forced to confront two vastly different images of his life.  The public image of the easy going, jolly natured Commander-In-Chief is still widely accepted. But to independent journalists and researchers, the private Ronald Reagan kept many dark secrets.  Some undoubtedly went with him to the grave but others have been revealed as we can see here in this intriguing account by Dan Moldea.


Double Play: The Hidden Passions Behind the Double Assassination of George Moscone and Harvey Milk – Mike Weiss


On Friday, November 18, 1978, San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk (1930-1978) sat down and pressed play on a tape recorder. The reason for the recording was that Milk wanted his words played in the event of his assassination. As a gay politician in the political spotlight in San Francisco, Milk knew that made him a target for rivals and others who disapproved of homosexuals. Less than two weeks later, he was shot and killed on November 27 along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone (1929-1978) by former District 8 City Supervisor Dan White (1946-1985). After shooting Milk and Moscone, White left City Hall, called his wife Mary Ann who accompanied him to a police station where he turned himself in. To San Franciscans, it must have seemed as if all hell was breaking loose. On November 18, news reports from Guyana had alerted the world to the massacre at Jonestown, Guyana where Jim Jones (1931-1978) and the People’s Temple Church had settled after leaving the United States. More than 900 people died in the mass suicide and murder. Jones escaped the poisoning and instead died from a gunshot wound to the head. The double murders at City Hall sent the city into turmoil and White’s arrest left his former colleagues stunned. White was ultimately convicted of voluntary manslaughter on May 21, 1979 and the verdict set off pandemonium in the city which became known as the White Night Riots. To many, the crime did not make any sense, both White and Milk were beloved by their constituents and highly popular. But beneath the surface, tensions were simmering in the cut-throat world of politics and as author Mike Weiss reveals here, there were hidden passions behind the double assassination.

Some readers may be familiar with the assassinations and may have lived in San Francisco during the time in which the events took place. The book is written in such an engaging style that even readers who know nothing about any of the figures will be able to follow the story without issue. In fact, Weiss provides a recap of the lives of Moscone, Milk and White before jumping into the crazy atmosphere of politics in San Francisco. What I noted as I read is that the book is really three stories in one that merge towards the end as the tragic finale plays out. Personally, I was previously familiar with the story, having read Randy Shilts’ The Mayor of Castro Street and Milk’s An Archive of Hope. And my friends will tell you that Milk is one of my favorite films and Sean Penn absolutely nailed his role as the slain politician. In January 2018, I visited San Francisco and was fortunate to visit the Castro. My girlfriend at the time did not know much about Milk having grown up in another country, but I quickly filled her in and had her watch the film before we departed from New York. Today, what used to be Castro Camera is now the Human Rights Campaign office. But upstairs, is a cut out of Harvey looking down over the street he called home for some of the years he lived in San Francisco. At the time of his death, he had been living in a different location as shown on his swearing in card which is included in the book. Although I knew a significant amount of information about Milk’s story, the book was eye-opening and is filled with seemingly endless bits of information. The author takes us deep behind the scenes so that we can learn what really had been taking place between the politicians at City Hall.

White is undoubtedly the central character in the story for obvious reasons. And while Weiss does shift the focus at times to either Milk or Moscone, we always come back to White as he breaks into politics, a world he was wholly unprepared for. After parting ways with Goldie Judge and connecting with Ray Sloan, White sharpens his appearance but his success in gaining a seat on the Board of Supervisors could not help his personal issues which are explored by the author in ways that I have not seen before. In the film, Josh Brolin delivers a good performance, but the script left much out regarding White’s past. It did capture the essence of his character which is unraveled here. And what we learn, is that the world in which Dan White lived was quite dark.

Moscone is the book’s protagonist but what we learn about the persona life of the mayor is sure to surprise some. There were many things that I did not know about Moscone and in the movie, his character is given limited screen time. Victor Garber was convincing as Moscone but his laid back and composed appearance stands in contrast to the larger-than-life Moscone that we learn of in the book. The mayor in this story is anything but laid back and his antics are sure to repulse more conservative readers. However, Moscone knew how to use the system and his shrewdness as a politician is clear. But I can only wonder how he escaped scandal for as long as he did. Weiss spills a lot of the dirt and it will leave you shaking your head. Despite his personal shortcomings, Moscone knew how to appeal to those whose votes he needed the most and we can only speculate as to where he would have gone next after serving as mayor.

Harvey is the book’s star in the sense that as opposed to White and Moscone, Milk comes across with vastly different energy. But like the other two, his personal life was a mixed bag, and the film showed this the way things were. Diego Luna brilliantly brings Jack Lira back to life on the silver screen and paired perfectly with Penn. But, as we see in the film, Milk had other lovers who had taken their own lives. And in contrast to how it is portrayed in the film, Milk was far more familiar with San Francisco than I had realized. Any book about Milk will undoubtedly discuss the concept of homosexuality. Weiss does not overly focus on the matter and does a great job of keeping the subject relevant without the book having the feel as if it has bias one way or the other. In fact, as I read through the book, the story was so engaging that Milk’s orientation became a complete afterthought. The suspense in the book is kept on high and I assure you that once you start reading you will be hard pressed to put the book down. It really is that good.

As the story moves forward, it becomes clear that the three main figures are on a collision course through destiny. Weiss provides a daily summary of the week leading up to the murders, beginning roughly after the events at Jonestown. By the time the assassinations take place, the metaphorical three-way dance the three were engaged in becomes vividly clear. Milk is the link between Moscone and White but all three have their own agendas and ambitions putting them in inevitable conflict with each other. The day of the murders is discussed from start to finish and includes details left out by filmmakers, in particular the role of Denise Apcar, White’s assistant at the time of his resignation. The supervisor would famously change his mind about resignation and ask for his former job back, sparking a heated discussion with Moscone a week before the murders. And as White commits the violent homicides, chaos erupts at City Hall with police converging on the building from all angles in search of the former supervisor. The President of the Board of Supervisors, Dianne Feinstein, suddenly finds herself thrust into the mayor’s seat and her importance in the story cannot be understated. Today, she is still going strong as a member of the United States Senate. Following White’s surrender, he is interviewed, booked and officially charged with murder. But this is just the beginning and trial that ensued, which is summarized exceptionally well by the author will leave you staring in disbelief.

Today, we know which verdict the jury reached but at the time the trial, most people knew White would be convicted but no one was sure on which charge it would be. In the courtroom, prosecutor Thomas F. Norman (1930-2009) and defense lawyers Doug Schmidt engage in a fierce battle while White’s fate hangs in the air. The author summarizes each showing their personalities and skills as legal professionals. But what is more important, is that Weiss shows how and why the jury reached its verdict. This includes the missteps by the prosecution and and the brilliance in the defense already hindered by White’s own statements to the San Francisco Police. A complex game of chess is on display as each side seeks to outmaneuver the other. In the end, White escaped first degree murder, but by then he was already a broken man. Following his conviction and transfer to Soledad State Prison, we learn more about his post-conviction life through the author and the reality he faced upon release in 1984. And White’s final days are also revisited, providing a haunting closure to an incredible book.

If you are in search of a book that fully explains the murders of Milk and Moscone, you cannot go wrong with this beautifully written account by Weiss. And if you have never watched it, I strongly recommend Rob Epstein’s award-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk which I am sure you will find to be a solid film about his life. I enjoyed the documentary myself but loved reading this just a little more. Highly recommneded.

ISBN-10 : 0982565054
ISBN-13 : 978-0982565056

Triangle: The Fire That Changed America – David Von Drehle

triangleDuring my first semester at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice many years ago, I attended a class in the field of fire science as part of my graduate degree track.  In the class, we, were required to study one of the deadliest fires in New York City history: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, 1911.  Our professor warned us that the story was deeply disturbing and that the detailed descriptions of the victims would be beyond grisly.  However, he also explained that as part of the basis for a career in fire protection, we needed to understand the life safety code and the stories of how and why fire protection has continued to advance. Today, nearly twenty-three years later, I still recall the fire and its impact on workplace safety.  But I decided to read this book by David Von Drehle to revisit the fire and perhaps learn something I did not know previously.  And what I found within its pages, is a story much longer story than the one I had learned of over two decades ago.  And similar to when I first read about the fire in college, I also felt chills go down my spine this time around.   

The author does not go into the fire right away but takes a slightly different approach in explaining working conditions for garment factory workers, which included a disproportionate amount of women.  Workers’ rights were not as widespread as today and in fact, it was not until the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s (1882-1945) New Deal policies that the right of private workers to unionize became federal law.  Prior to this, employees in the private sector were often at the mercy of their employers. Working conditions were dire and low wages the norm.  However, workers were not inclined to accept these conditions long term and as we see in the story, they began to resist what they felt were inhumane conditions. Many of the garment workers were European immigrants, some of whom spoke little to no English.  They were easy prey coming off boats arriving in Ellis Island and willing to work for low but steady wages.  Two European entrepreneurs named Max Blanck and Isaac Harris formed the Triangle Waist Company and chose the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asch Building located at 23-29 Washington Place.  Today it is known as the Brown Building and is part of New York University (NYU).  They begin to hire locals, many of them young women whose first language is Yiddish.  The author introduces us to many of them and allows us to learn their stories, some of which contain obscure parts lost to history.  Many of them are younger than twenty-five years of age.  Some are single, others married or engaged but all of them are eager to earn wages to support their families which were sometimes struggling to survive.  On March 25, 1911, their monotonous routine was changed forever after a fire broke out due to a series of events that would be discovered in the wake of the tragedy. 

I must warn readers that the story is very dark and there are no “happy endings”. This case study is about a deadly fire that took the lives of one hundred forty six men and women.  Due to the material contained on each floor, the fire had plenty of fuel and the lack of adequate fire protection only served to accelerate the spread of the flames and smoke.  When the workers realized a fire had started, all hell literally broke loose. Through survivors’ testimonies, we are able to piece the story together and witness the frantic activity that commenced as workers tried desperately to escape what became a deathtrap.  And in the three minutes it took for all of this to take place, New York City and America were changed forever.  However, what we learn following the tragedy is equally as important and regrettable.  Drehle points out some very disturbing facts about the owners and previous incidents that should have served as a major warning of what was to come. And this comment about the fire is beyond sobering: 

The Triangle fire of March 25, 1911, was for ninety years the deadliest workplace disaster in New York history—and the most important. Its significance was not simply the number dead. The 146 deaths at the Triangle Waist Company were sensational, but they were not unusual.

But in a city where politics were controlled by the infamous Tammany Hall and corruption was an open secret, compliance was not always high on anyone’s agenda.  But in the wake of the fire, action was swift and notable figures take center stage such as former New York Governor Al Smith 1873-1944) and Francis Perkins (1880-1965) who served as U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933-1945.  As part of the Factory Investigation Committee, she and her colleagues would embark on mission to reform factories all across America. Their story is included here as well. 

The infamous owners of the company do not escape scrutiny and the author gives a summary of their trial.  Represented by famed trial lawyer Max Steuer (1870-1940) the duo mounts a defense to escape conviction but they would never again achieve the success they had prior to the fire.  And the statements given by survivors, some of which are included in the summary of the trial highlight the negligence by the two as the bosses of the factory.  During the trial, dozens of witnesses were called including a fire chief whose statements about what he witnessed upon arriving at the scene will make readers recoil in shock and disbelief.  The memories they recall are not for the faint at heart. But they are necessary even today to understand why workplace safety is so critical. The trial’s ending is another turn in the story and the efforts of the survivors’ families serve as a last turn at the plate.  As the book concludes, Blanck and Harris fade into obscurity but the fire that occurred  at their factory continues to live on in the annals of American history. 

If you are a New York City history buff you may already know this story.  And if you live in the Big Apple such as myself, you have probably walked past the Asch building hundreds of times without realizing what took place there many years ago.  It was there that the lives and dreams of the new immigrant workers who had recently arrived in America were destroyed and lost.  And for those that did survive, their lives were never the same again.  Today, the conditions learned of in the book would be unheard of and citations would be forthcoming immediately upon discovery.  However in 1911, New York City was a very different place where tenements and slums were prevalent and employee safety was not a pressing concern.  Drehle explains just how widespread tenements were and what their living conditions were like when he remarks: 

In 1909, there were more than one hundred thousand tenement buildings in New York City. About a third of them had no lights in the hallways, so that when a resident visited the common toilet at night it was like walking lampless in a mine. Nearly two hundred thousand rooms had no windows at all, not even to adjoining rooms. A quarter of the families on the Lower East Side lived five or more to a room. They slept on pallets, on chairs, and on doors removed from their hinges. They slept in shifts.

It was from these tenements that many of the garment factory workers came as they sought employment even if it meant risking their lives. And until the fire, very few had a voice in they manner in which they worked.  Sadly, it took a tragedy such as the Shirtwaist Factory to change the way people thought about protecting them and other employees across America.  Some of you who read this will shed tears as you go through the book and that is okay for I too found myself gripped with emotion as the image of the factory floor consumed by fire formed in my mind.  I also felt the sense of grief that consumed family members as they identified their loved ones on the streets of Manhattan that night.  The magnitude of the fire cannot be overstated, this was an event that truly did change American history.  And the hauntingly true is captured here in a book that will satisfy any reader in search of the truth regarding the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.