King of the Jews

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Overview

So begins Nick Tosches's sprawling biography of Arnold Rothstein, which, in fact, is so much more: not only an elegy to old New York but an idiosyncratic history of the world as told in Nick Tosches's inimitable style.

Known by many names ? A. R., Mr. Big, The Fixer, The Big Bankroll, The Man Uptown, and The Brain ? Rothstein seemed more myth than man. He was gambling, and he was money. The inspiration for Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby and Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls,...

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Overview

So begins Nick Tosches's sprawling biography of Arnold Rothstein, which, in fact, is so much more: not only an elegy to old New York but an idiosyncratic history of the world as told in Nick Tosches's inimitable style.

Known by many names — A. R., Mr. Big, The Fixer, The Big Bankroll, The Man Uptown, and The Brain — Rothstein seemed more myth than man. He was gambling, and he was money. The inspiration for Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby and Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls, he was rumored to be the mastermind of the Black Sox scandal, the fixing of the 1919 World Series. He was Mr. Broadway and had his own booth at Lindy's Restaurant in Manhattan, where he held court.

Now, in King of the Jews, Nick Tosches, "one of the greatest living American writers" (Dallas Observer), examines Rothstein's extraordinary legacy by placing him at the center of nothing less than the history of the entire Western world.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
A legend in his own time, gambler king Arnold Rothstein (1882-1928) was called the Fixer, Mr. Big, the Big Bankroll, the Man Uptown, Mr. Broadway, and the Brain. He served as the model for Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby and Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls. Widely rumored to be the driving force behind baseball's infamous "Black Sox" scandal, he bragged that he could fix anything but the weather. Yet despite his notoriety, he still had an unblemished police record when he died of an assassin's bullet at the age of 46. In this gripping narrative, Nick Tosches fills in those police blotter blanks.
Publishers Weekly
Readers who make it to the end of this unusual book may already have asked themselves the author's closing questions: "Why am I writing this, and why are you reading it?" Those cracking the binding in hopes of encountering a new biography of mobster Arnold "the Brain" Rothstein, rumored to be the fixer behind the 1919 World Series scandal, will do some mental scratching at the lengthy introductory discourses on the etymology of "dice" and the Torah's variant names for God. Tosches is attempting to use the figure of the Tammany Hall-era gangster as an entry point for an idiosyncratic, wide-ranging history of Western civilization. Rothstein himself really doesn't appear until two-thirds of the way into the book (although earlier chapters about religion, fascism, political correctness and other subjects of interest to the author alternate with excerpts on the criminal from an old Brooklyn newspaper and from surrogate's court proceedings). This despite Tosches's representations-unsupported, alas-that the gangster deserves further study and attention "[b]ecause Arnold Rothstein is a shadow figure beyond good and evil." But by giving short shrift to the details of the endemic corruption plaguing New York City during Rothstein's reign, the author fails to make his case that misconduct by police and elected officials was at least as reprehensible. Agent, Russ Galen. (May 3) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Biographer, novelist, and magazine writer/ editor Tosches has produced one bruiser of a book with Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein-a.k.a. Mr. Big, the Fixer, the Big Bankroll, the Man Uptown, and the Brain-at its heart. Far from a traditional, straightforward biography in the vein of David Pietrusza's Rothstein, this is a Nick Tosches experience all the way, complete with riffs on everything from Jewish culture and religion to New York City history, with a little George W. Bush bashing thrown in. There's also a concise and fascinating profile of Rothstein, the inspiration for The Great Gatsby's Meyer Wolfsheim and Guys and Dolls's Nathan Detroit (not to mention the alleged fixer of the 1919 World Series). Tosches often stops to talk directly to the reader but avoids simply regurgitating the facts by pointing out inconsistencies in past accounts and separating the truth from the legend. Though Tosches himself takes some getting used to, this biographical account is riveting. Recommended for Tosches aficionados but not traditional biography collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/05.]-Karen Sandlin Silverman, CFAR-Ctr. for Applied Research, Philadelphia Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Intoxicated with words, including those he crafts himself, Tosches (In the Hand of Dante, 2002, etc.) offers deft ruminations on large matters under cover of the biography of a gangster. A foxy writer, Tosches starts at the beginning: Genesis. First, with the word, is Hebrew etymology, then the stories of Gilgamesh, Baal, Joshua, Ishtar (aka "Esther") and, eventually, on to Louis the Lump, Big Tim Sullivan, assorted chorines, bimbos and Rudy Giuliani (who, like Adolf Hitler, wickedly outlawed smoking). Not forgotten are U.S. Grant, Heinrich Heine, Boss Tweed and many colorful denizens of New York's notorious Five Points. All this is wrapped around the story of Arnold Rothstein, the Jewish-American Moriarty, mentor to Legs Diamond, banker to the drug trade, inspiration to Runyon and Fitzgerald and putative fixer of the 1919 World Series. Regarding the fix, Tosches says it ain't so. He's generally dubious about most received information. "I'm telling you," says Tosches, "exactly what I told my ex-wife: Believe nothing unless you hear it from me." Arnold's father, "Abe the Just," was less saintly than credited as being, he thinks. (One recent text is dissed, though not cited, for buying that notion, while the same book, this time cited, is called "enticing" on the topic of Rothstein's unsolved murder.) The debunking is most liberally spread as the skein of tangled connections becomes as complex as string theory. Assiduous research, the author complains, "has brought me nothing but the worsening of my eyesight and the waste of years of my life. And I did it all for you." Here are extracts from newspaper accounts of Rothstein's death, the coroner's report, surrogate's hearings, andmiscellaneous matter. But Tosches gives us less, frankly, on the gangster's life than on world history with Rothstein somehow cast in the role of Everyman. The result is frequently flamboyant, often lively, always diverting. Tosches's Theory of Everything, disguised as biography: energetic, histrionic, polemical and heaps of fun.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780066211183
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/3/2005
  • Pages: 318
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.09 (d)

Meet the Author

Nick Tosches

Nick Tosches is the acclaimed author of many books, including biographies of Jerry Lee Lewis, Dean Martin, and Sonny Liston. He writes for numerous periodicals, including Vanity Fair, where he is a contributing editor. He lives in New York City.

Biography

A highly praised author who seems to base his choice of subjects not so much on eminence as conflicted greatness, Nick Tosches is the best example of a good rock journalist who set out to transcend his genre and succeeded. Having begun in music mags Creem and Fusion in the 1970s, the author’s career took a large turn upward with the publication of Hellfire, his biography of rock legend Jerry Lee Lewis. It didn’t hurt that Rolling Stone anointed it “the best rock n’ roll biography ever written.”

A few years later, Tosches departed from the rock milieu but maintained his attraction to subjects of undeniable power and questionable – if not downright criminal – character. He chronicled the life and times of Sicilian financier Michele Sindona in the now out of print Power on Earth, then scored another biographical home run with his authoritative Dino, about Rat Pack entertainer Dean Martin.

None of these subjects was begging to be written about; nor was the boxer Tosches compellingly depicted in The Devil and Sonny Liston, the blackface minstrel introduced in Where Dead Voices Gather, or the focus of The Last Opium Den. This is where the author’s talent nests: First in his ability to unearth topics that represent history’s alleyways; and second in the courageous, authentic prose he uses to describe them, including liberal doses of ten-dollar-words and allusions to his own role in the story.

Tosches doesn’t get caught up so much in an individual; he works to create an aura. “The lives in [my biographies] are as much about the forces at work beneath, beyond, and around,” he said in a 1999 interview with Salon. “The Liston book, to a great extent, is about those forces more than it's about Sonny himself. I mean, Sonny's life is there in full, but there are other characters and other forces directly relating to various underworlds.” Tosches will take you to his subject eventually; but he might show you through a few detours first. For example, his search in The Last Opium Den begins, “You see, I needed to go to hell I was, you might say, homesick. But first, by way of explanation, the onion.”

Tosches’ fiction work has existed under the shadow of his biographies, something the author wants to change with the ambitious, portentously promoted 2002 release In the Hand of Dante. His first novel about a Mafia scheme to fix the New York lottery, Cut Numbers, was generally well received but largely forgotten; Trinities, “a battle for evil,” was a New York Times Notable Book of 1994 but is now out of print in the States. In the Hand of Dante is a self-referential, layered story that twists the discovery of a 14th-century manuscript into a modern-day thriller also containing Alighieri himself as a character. Whether In the Hand of Dante will be, as its publisher predicts, “the most ragingly debated novel of the decade,” like the rest of Tosches’ work, it has drawn respect and attention.

Good To Know

In the 1970s, Tosches was a hunter of poisonous snakes for the Miami Serpentarium. He was also a paste-up artist for the Lovable Underwear Company.

Tosches has written a screenplay, Spud Crazy; planned adaptations of Dino (by Martin Scorsese) and The Devil and Sonny Liston (with Ving Rhames in the lead) have been reported but disappeared. Tosches told Salon in 1999, "The people in Hollywood that clean out the urinals know more about the movie status of my books than I do." In 2002, FOXNews.com reported that veteran producer Robert Evans planned to make a film based on Tosches’s Vanity Fair article “The Devil and Sidney Korshak,” about “connected” Chicago lawyer. Tosches was slated to write the screenplay.

Tosches, who was not big on higher education, was “schooled in his father’s bar,” according to his publisher’s bio. He spent his teenage years as a porter at Tosches family’s Jersey City joint.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 30, 1948
    2. Place of Birth:
      Newark, New Jersey
    1. Education:
      High school

First Chapter

King of the Jews

Damned as they have been by every lie or wisdom that has borne the name of religion, the dice are older than them all. From the Indus Valley, long before there was a Rig-Veda to scripture against them -- "Play not with dice" -- or, indeed, before there was any written language to make scripture at all, the bones tumbled onward while civilizations were born, destroyed, and forgotten. Writing in a pagan Rome that outlawed them, Terence laid the blunt and enduring metaphor to the unbeatable racket of being: "Life is a throw of the dice."

More than a century later, in 49 b.c., after his conquest of Gaul, Julius Caesar decided to return to Italy in open defiance of Pompey. It was a decision that would lead to civil war, Caesar's rise to dictatorship, and, on March 15, 44 b.c., his assassination. In Ravenna, before crossing the Rubicon, the red-stone stream that marked the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy, he is said to have declared his willful embrace of fate with the words iacta alea est: "The die is cast."

And here we pause, first to piss, then to ponder. The pissing done, the pondering begins.

At the outset of any great work of history, of which this is one (or so it is now intended to be, an intention subject to change at any moment), it is good not only to piss, but also to raise and bear the wisdom that has been given us: "A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth." This is the profound underground fissure upon which all history precariously rests. These words -- "A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth" -- have been commonly attributed to Hermann Goering or, less commonly, to Joseph Stalin. These attributions attest the words, for there is no evidence that either of these gentlemen ever said any such thing.

Iacta alea est. The die is cast. The enduring belief that Caesar uttered these words before crossing the Rubicon has its source in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, written by the Roman historian Suetonius in the early sec-ond century, more than a hundred and fifty years after Caesar's death. These now legendary words, we long have been told, were Caesar's own Latining of a phrase from his favorite Greek playwright, Menander, who likely wrote in the fourth century b.c. (Menander's many plays are lost to us or have survived only in fragments. Terence's line about life being a throw of the dice is very probably from Menander, as Terence's Adelphoe was based on Menander's Adelphoi.) But the Greek historians Plutarch, writing late in the first century, and Appian, writing early in the second century, both have Caesar speaking the phrase in its original Greek: Anerriphthô kubos. Caesar was a learned man of impeccable literacy. If he were to have rendered this Greek phrase -- which translates as "Let the die be cast," not "The die is cast" -- into his own native Latin, his words would have been Iacta alea esto rather than Iacta alea est. This alteration may have been a flourish of forceful effect on the part of Caesar or of Suetonius, or it may merely have been a scribal mistake in the manuscript of Suetonius that became our text. Plutarch alone tells us that the words, whether derived from Menander or not, were an old and familiar saying, little more than a "common phrase." Caesar himself, in The Civil Wars, wrote in detail of this decisive moment. He made no mention of speaking any such words.

T. S. Eliot, writing in 1919, observed that "Shakespeare acquired more essential history from Plutarch than most men could from the whole British Museum."

History: the harvesting of those lies that repeated often enough become the truth.

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, written near the end of the sixteenth century, drew heavily from the first English translation of Plutarch, by Sir Thomas North. In North's translation of 1579, as in the original Greek of Plutarch, Caesar dies without words:

For it was agreed among them that every man should give him a wound, because all their parts should be in this murther: and then Brutus himself gave him one wound about his privities. Men report also, that Caesar did still defend himself against the rest, running every way with his body: but when he saw Brutus with his sword drawn in his hand, then he pulled his gown over his head, and made no more resistance, and was driven either casually or purposedly, by the counsel of the conspirators, against the base whereupon Pompey's image stood, which ran all of a gore-blood till he was slain. Thus it seemed that the image took just revenge of Pompey's enemy, being thrown down on the ground at his feet, and yielding up the ghost there, for the number of wounds he had upon him. For it is reported, that he had three and twenty wounds upon his body: and divers of the conspirators did hurt themselves, striking one body with so many blows.

For Shakespeare, such silence, no matter how powerful, would not do. He knew Latin and Greek, and it was in Suetonius, who had not yet been Englished, that he found a death scene with dying words. In Suetonius, upon seeing that Brutus, Caesar's own adopted son, was among his attackers, Caesar said: "Kai su, teknon" -- a Greek vocative -- "And thou, my son." Thence the never said but immortal last words of Caesar as first conjured in Latin by Shakespeare: "Et tu, Brute."

As Shakespeare's play opens but a month before Caesar's death, there is no crossing of the Rubicon. But Shakespeare already had used that bit in Richard III: "I have set my life upon a cast, / And I will stand the hazard of the Dye."

King of the Jews. Copyright © by Nick Tosches. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2005

    Book is a loser- where's the real story of Arnold Rothstein?

    If you are looking for an in-depth probe of Arnold Rothstein look somewhere else. After 80 pages of the author lamenting biblical writings and making the case against God, as well as his son Jesus, he finally starts on the topic of Rothstein. Here again the author derides all other writers on the subject matter as he feels his data is the one and only truth. The information he does put forth on Rothstein is minimal as best. I'm sure that the author finds his writings to be very grand, even wise. I find this book to be a waste of $20+. No wonder, as the author notes, he never sells more than 30,000 copies of a book he's written. It's because he includes his rambling thoughts, stupid poems, and his liberal slant to what should be the subject of Rothstein.

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