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.

ASIN : B01MV2ZDXN

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

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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. 

ASIN : B004RPY48I

The Day the Bubble Burst: A Social History of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 – Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts

Morgan-burstIn the autumn of 1929, between the months of September and October, the world was plunged into financial uncertainty as stock markets in New York City and other places saw a massive devaluation of stocks and bonds.  Some investors lost millions in the crash and others less financially secure, saw nearly their entire market portfolio crumble before their eyes.  In the wake of the crash, America plunged into the great depression that spread misery and despair across the nation for several more years.  The crash remains to this day, one of the greatest financial disasters in history.  However, its causes are still up for debate and there is no single reason for the catastrophe but numerous factors did combine to bring the economy to a grinding halt.  Authors Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts have studied the crash and tell the story here about the “day the bubble burst”.

Prior to reading the book, I was familiar with some of the names that are critical in the story. For example, I knew of William C. Durant (1861-1947), the founder of General Motors and the legendary Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888-1969), former owner of RKO Studios and Ambassador to Great Britain. Incredibly, Kennedy comes out of the crash with minimal loss and would go to establish his own dynasty that catapulted his son John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) to the White House in the 1960 election.  But there are many others crucial to the story and their lives and actions are intertwined in the fabric of American society both past and present.

I forewarn readers that the story moves from one person to the next and then back again.  And although the book does follow a chronological order, it is actually several stories woven into one. Next to Durant, the life of Charles Stewart Mott (1875-1973) comes into focus as the authors examine his role at General Motors and actions at the Union Industrial Bank which plays a very important role in the story.   The authors also take a look as A.P. Giannini (1870-1949) the founder of Transamerica known today as Bank of America. Continuing on, Jesse Livermore (1877-1940) enters the picture as the poster-boy for the successful stock trader.  Charles E. Mitchell (1877-1955) joins the cast of characters as chairman of National City Bank, known simply today as Citi Bank.  His financial policies are believed by many to be one of the direct causes for the crash of the market. John Pierpont “Jack” Morgan Jr., (Jack Morgan) is a strong presence as well and readers will take note of a key situation involving Morgan and Joseph Kennedy that seemed to grind the latter’s gears and set him on due course to become a financial titan of his own. And finally for the New Yorkers, John J. Raskob (1879-1950) will be of high interest for his enduring contribution to the New York skyline: the Empire State Building.

One of the book’s major strengths is the explanation of the stock market provided by the authors, which is helpful to readers seeking to get an understanding of how the traders were manipulating and playing the market. Of course, the book is not intended to be a stock market guide but simple enough for the everday reader to understand in relation to the story being told.  Today, the market is just a competitive but back then, less regulation existed and traders were far more willing to engage in dubious and illegal activity as can be seen in the story.  The thirst for wealth was so contagious that traders in other countries would also play a role in the crash such as British investor Clarence Hatry (1888-1965), who some blame for ingiting the spark that caused the panic resulting in the plummeting of stock values across world markets.  The authors do not convict him in the book but leave it up to readers to decide. However, they do say this to make their point clear:

“To say that Hatry caused the Wall Street Crash would be to put it far too strongly. But to say that his downfall played no part in it whatsoever would possibly be equally misleading.” 

Undoubtedly, the crash had many causes and the number of people who deserve blame is quite significant. Greed and disregard for financial risk, allowed unrestrained investing into a market, held together by carefully adjusted interest rates and the exchange of foreign currency and other commercial goods. And a ripple in that temperamental network of world markets resulted in a crash no one thought possible yet everyone feared. From housewives to savvy Wall Street players, the impact was brutal and drove some to the brink of suicide. And today that risk is present as the market fluctuates constantly. However, in the wake of the crash, the Federal Government stepped in and imposed tougher regulations to prevent a replay of 1929.  And if there is any doubt as to the severity of the crash, this quote sets the record straight in the most sobering of ways:

“In the five hours the market had gone mad on October 29, it was later estimated that almost as much money in capital value vanished into thin air as the United States had spent on World War I. The loss was around ten times the budget of the Union in the entire Civil War.” 

Towards the end of the book the discussion shifts slightly away from New York and on to Berlin where a young Austrian named Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) is making a name for himself and using Germany’s dire situation and the crash to consolidate his power and grip of the Fatherland.  The connection between the market’s crash and Hitler’s rise to power will be of high interest to history buffs and aficionados of World War II.   And what the authors reveal about the relationship between Wall Street and Germany might leave some shaking their heads in disbelief.  There is far more to the story than I could possibly discuss here but what is disclosed explains why some elements of American society were hesitant to get involved in World War II.  The saying “follow the money” certainly does apply.

In the afterword to the book, the fates of those involved with the crash are detailed by the authors, and here we see how they ended up after devastating financial fallout.  The end result is often sad and in some cases involved criminal prosecution.  The government left no stone unturned and hardly any of the major places was ever the same again.  A few did rebound and fair quite well in later years but they are forever linked to that fateful autumn of 1929.  Some may wonder if another market crash could happen.I believe so but under extraordinary circumstances.  Regulations are far more stringent today and watchdog organizations keep a carefully trained eye on the market.  However, it is also true that if we do not know our history, we are condemned to repeat it.  The 1929 crash was nothing short of earth shattering and the repercussions were felt for decades.  This is the story of how and why it happened.  Highly recommended.

ASIN : B00KQZY1JU

The Hoffa Wars: The Rise and Fall of Jimmy Hoffa – Dan E. Moldea

Hoffawars The disappearance of James Riddle Hoffa (1913-1975) still captivates audiences as shown by the success of Martin Scorcese’s The Irishman starring Robert Dinero as Frank Sheeran (1920-2003) and Al Pacino as Hoffa.  The film shows Scorcese at his best but the story told by Sheeran is known to be full of discrepancies.  Further, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has never acknowledge Sheeran as being one of Hoffa’s killers.  Putting that aside, the movie is done very well and one of the rare times when Robert Dinero and Pacino have appeared on screen together.  But there is far more to the Hoffa story that is typically remember because of his fall from grace and disappearance on July 30, 1975.  I personally do not believe his body will ever be found and those who know what happened to him are either deceased or taking that secret with them to their graves.  However, in examining the Hoffa case,  we can focus on why he was killed which is just an important as how he might have been killed.  Dan Moldea has spent years covering the Hoffa case and is considered to be one of the best sources of information on the former leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (“the Teamsters”).  And the result is a spellbinding story that peels the layers back uncovering a story that is nothing short of clash of the titans. 

I find that even today there is still a lot of confusion regarding the Teamsters and what exactly did happen when Hoffa was in power. In the preface to the book, we get a fitting summary that sets the tone for what is to follow:

“The Hoffa Wars tells an important story: how a potentially great force for good—the unionization of America’s truckers and warehouse laborers—was captured by gangsters and converted into a monster that robbed its members of their right to a fair wage and pension, robbed businessmen of their right to a free marketplace and clamped a high tax on American consumers every time they went to the cash register.”

When I first read these words, I admit that I had to reconcile them with the image I have had in my head of Hoffa who is typically portrayed as a benevolent figure that only wanted the best for Teamster members.  And while I have no doubt that he truly believed in the union, I also have to acknowledge that there was many dark secrets about the Teamsters hidden from public light.  As readers will see in the book, behind the scenes there was a power struggle taking place as the deposed king tried to reclaim his thrown.  Moldea leaves no stone unturned and the more unsavory facts about Hoffa’s reign come to light, shattering the myth of the “clean as a whistle”  union president who simply loves ice cream as portrayed by Pacino on screen.  The real Hoffa was a hard-nosed leader who had been through his share of battles in the process of unionization.  And the infiltration of organized crime and politicians proved to be too seductive even for him. The author untangles the complicated web so that we can see just how deep in bed the Teamsters found itself with the Italian-American  Mafia. 

Hoffa was in the process of writing his autobiography at the time of his death. I previously reviewed that book called Hoffa: The Real Story.  Therein, Hoffa does portray himself a fairly positive light. Moldea is not a fan of the book and views it as nothing more than a self-serving account.  I will leave it to readers to decide on their own but I can say that it is a good read to learn more about Hoffa’s early life.  What is clear here, is that Hoffa’s death removed any chance of him completing what surely would have been an explosive best-seller.  And it undoubtedly would have earned him even more enemies who wanted him removed from Teamster affairs permanently. 

The nexus of the book is Hoffa’s battles with Rolland McMaster (1914-2017) and Frank Fitzsimmons (1908-1981).  Moldea takes a close look at Local 299, which dragged Hoffa into an ugly power struggled that developed in the wake of Hoffa’s convictions for fraud by the U.S. Department of Justice.  The verdicts were the culmination of the “Get Hoffa Squad” organized by former United States Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968). The author provides a recap of their battle which was nothing short of savage.  McMaster, who had his own dark past, figures prominently into the story and provides valuable information to Moldea regarding what was happening as Hoffa became the tyrant who would not let go of power. And Hoffa’s successor, Fitzsimmons, has always been a person of high interest not only for taking over the Teamsters in Hoffa’s absence but also for his close alignment with the administration of President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994), whose connections to the underworld are interesting to say the least. 

Historians are well aware of the bad blood between the Kennedys and Hoffa. And it has been suggested that Hoffa was part of the plot that took John F. Kennedy’s (1917-1963) life in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.  And although there is no smoking gun to be found here, Hoffa was not sad to hear that Kennedy had been shot. Whether he actively participated in the plot to kill Kennedy will always be up for debate.  Much of the information revealed in this sotry comes from Ed Partin (1924-1990) whose testimony was once used to convict Hoffa.  And on an even darker note, Robert Kennedy was also the target of assassins, years before his murder on June 5, 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California.  The story here by Moldea is quite disturbing and apparently, John Kennedy himself had been told of Hoffa’s thirst for revenge.  Exactly how Kennedy found out is not known but he did disclose it to reporter Ben Bradlee (1921-2014) as we learn in the book:  

“The President’s close friend, Benjamin Bradlee, who was then with Newsweek, noted in an entry in his journal for February 11 that the night before, at a private dinner party, the President had confided that Hoffa’s Teamsters had planned to send an assassin to Washington to kill his brother.” 

We know today that Robert Kennedy was not murdered while in Washington but the threat was very real. Robert Kennedy ultimately got his man and Hoffa was forced to stew in prison while the union he felt belonged to him, fell under the control of others.  And it was a position that Hoffa could not accept.  His obssesion with reclaiming the throne would have deadly repercussions later as Hoffa became suspicious of nearly all of his former subordinates. The list of enemies he had made continued to grow and dissent had resulted in splinter groups opposed to his dominance. Their stories are also included here as the story develops, showing that Hoffa was not idolized by all who knew him. 

The Hoffa story is further complicated by the association between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and organized crime figures.  This part of the book may surprise some readers and as Moldea hints, it might have played a role in Hoffa’s death for reasons that have flown under the radar for years.  At this point in the book, we step into different waters as Jack Ruby (1911-1967), David Ferrie (1918-1967) and Sam Giancana (1908-1975) take center stage in plots to remove Cuban President Fidel Castro (1926-2016) from power.  There is a wealth of information but I feel that it is only the tip of the iceberg.  But Moldea did a good job of keeping the story streamlined and focused on Hoffa as the CIA-Mafia plot to kill Castro can easily be a book on its own.  This is Hoffa’ story and these events are only part of the full account. 

Readers should be prepared for many revelations about Hoffa’s life and the Teamsters.  And to be clear, there is no happy ending here.  This is a dark story filled with imposing figures whose lust for power and money knew no bounds. It is a story of paranoia, betrayal and murder.  And as Hoffa, McMaster and Fitzsimmons engage in their three-way dance, the Teamsters’ is forced to hold on while the saga plays out.   Unquestionably, Hoffa’s murder changed everything and Moldea goes through that day to piece together Hoffa’s final moments.  He does not profess to know who killed Hoffa but does explore possible scenarios.  Charles ‘Chucky” O’Brien (1933-2020) had been the focus of attention for decades after it was alleged he drove Hoffa to his final meeting where he was killed. O’Brien always maintained innocence and the jury is still out on whether he set up his former mentor.  Moldea explores his possible role as well but stops short of making accusations against O’Brien.  It is possible that the FBI knows who did kill Hoffa but has never said due to lack of physical evidence and a corpse. The Hoffa disappearance will never fade away as researchers continue to revisit the life of a man who cemented his place in American labor history.  If you are looking for a balanced report of the Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa and his downfall, this is a good place to start.  Good read. 

ASIN : B00S7EFYRU