Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America’s Hidden Power Brokers
By Gus Russo
Bloomsbury USA, 592 pages, $34.95.
The Jewish people are instructed to be a “light unto the nations” — and what society could use more illumination than the underworld? So goes the story of mob lawyer Sidney Korshak, whose partnerships with Chicago gangsters led him to be named the most powerful lawyer in the world by the FBI. As part of his, er, “covenant,” he steered the mob toward a path of respectability, serving as its go-between with the white-collar world.
Sidney who, you ask? Those with a passing pop-culture familiarity with the Mafia know that Chicago was famous for its Italian Mafiosos, like Al Capone and Tony Accardo. New York City, of course, had its share of “tough Jews,” including Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. But for much of the past century, the real center of mob power was a Chicago-born Jewish lawyer — or so says investigative reporter Gus Russo in his new book, “Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America’s Hidden Power Brokers.”
The Supermob — the term was coined by late Senate investigator Walter Sheridan — was, according to Russo, a group of mostly Jewish men who made a fortune by collaborating with Chicago’s underworld. Generally, these men took mob money and funneled it into such respectable outlets as real estate and the burgeoning film industry.
The fact that these men were Jewish is crucial to Russo’s story. His telling of the Supermob tale begins in the Pale of Settlement and quickly advances to the Lawndale section of Chicago, a place so crowded with Jews that it was known as “Kosher Calcutta.” There, living amid crowded streets and a corrupt civic landscape, is a band of young, first-generation immigrant Jewish kids who are determined to make it big in American life — at any moral price. These Jewish gangsters would never make the headlines; instead, they’d serve as the behind-the-scenes masterminds of the mob.
And according to Russo, this is the role that Jews traditionally played. “Throughout history,” he writes, “the Jews were never the public leaders; they were always the kingmakers and power brokers.They knew from experience that a Jew would not get a top spot, however low the level, because of the existing anti-Semitism, even in America. They were always aware that their wealth and position in society could be noticed and another pogrom would ensue. Thus they worked surreptitiously, choosing to focus on the substrata of a business or an event.” [Think of Wolfowitz and Feith as the number two men to Rumsfeld and Cheney. Think of Barak Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, or the Jew who guided Obama through the electoral process, David Axelrod. With their connection to other Jews in mass-media, these ostensible subordinates have more power than meets the eye.]
Russo takes great pains to promote Korshak’s Jewish identity; the man attended the Herzl Grammar School, he lent financial support to Israel and, as a retiree in Beverly Hills, he collected Marc Chagall paintings. But early on, Korshak’s decidedly, well, goyish qualities are what set apart the rising star. Frequently referring to Korshak as “fair-haired,” Russo writes: “The adjectives most often used to describe the young barrister — suave, slim, tall and imperious — were the same attributes that made him the perfect corporate liaison for the most powerful underworld organization in the history of the nation.”
Korshak, too, represented a sort of duality. Though he prospered enormously from his mob ties — and used to brag about his early Capone associations — it seems he was conflicted, too. More than once, according to Russo, Korshak indicated that he wanted out — and, in an effort to put a tikkun olam wash over the criminal things he’d done, he donated large sums of money to charity.
Still, the Supermob’s reach extended far beyond the shtetl; by the time Korshak headed to Los Angeles in the 1950s, his list of associates read like a “Who’s Who” of American politics and business in the 20th century. Among Korshak’s cohorts were Jules Stein, founder of Universal Pictures and the Music Corporation of America, Conrad Hilton, Howard Hughes, Ronald Reagan and former California governor Jerry Brown.
Korshak lived the kind of riveting life that’s ripe for fiction — and indeed, he allegedly inspired the Tom Hagen character, played by Robert Duvall, in “The Godfather.” (Incidentally, Korshak was instrumental in securing Al Pacino for the film’s title role, as well as in staving off interference from the Mafia and the Italian-American Civil Rights League.) And yet, Russo forgoes narrative in favor of a heavily sourced, academic approach. The result is a brilliantly researched book that too often reads like a term paper. There are some interesting parts: The chapter on the Chicago Outfit’s involvement in the creation of Las Vegas — it actually predates that of the New York gangsters — is particularly compelling, while the chapter on the Supermob’s seizing of Japanese Americans’ property during World War II illuminates.