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The Detroit Novels
Edsel Stress Motown
By Loren D. Estleman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1996 Loren D. Estleman
All rights reserved.
For me, the decade of the 1940s didn't end on New Year's Eve 1949. Nothing changed except the date on my checks, and I didn't catch that for two days. Hat brims stayed wide, suit coats looked like inverted grocery sacks just as they had since before Pearl Harbor, cars remained bulbous and ugly with bad heaters and dashboard radios whose big dials and lightning-bolt logos would have made Buck Rogers feel at home. Truman's narrow little butt and narrower littler mind were still firmly planted in the White House and Woody Herman booked in at the Walled Lake Casino every summer. No, the fifth decade of the twentieth century ended for me fourteen months later, on a flinty-cold afternoon in February 1951, when I stood in a crowd in front of the downtown J. L. Hudson's and saw Frankie Orr's face on six television screens at the same time.
His appearance shocked me. I don't know why, but of all the people I'd met in my newspapering days, Francis Xavier Oro was the one I hadn't expected to age. I had seen him once only, in the private dining room of the old Griswold House, and what happened there that night had burned his image into the retina of my memory. For twenty years he had remained the slender, dark, wavy-haired young gangster in full evening dress enjoying a filet mignon prepared the way they used to prepare it and don't any more, streaming mahogany-colored juice and as tender as a man's grip on life. This elderly Italian sweating under the harsh lights, flaccid-cheeked, baggy-eyed, and spotted like old cheese, belonged in a vegetable patch in Sicily, propped on a hoe. Somehow he had stumbled into a carnival booth and had his picture taken with his head stuck through a hole cut into a life-size blow-up of a body wearing a two-hundred-dollar suit.
The suit, so far as could be made out on a ten-inch black-and-white screen, was gray or blue, with a tiny check that flared and left its ghost on the lens when he moved, which he did often, fidgeting in a chair not designed for comfort and certainly not inclined that way as long as it faced five senators and a government counsel and, by proxy, every housewife in the Detroit broadcast area whose ironing board stood before the rabbit-eared box in the living room.
The occasion was the Detroit stop on the national road show sponsored by the Special Senate Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce and hosted by Estes Kefauver, the junior senator from Tennessee. He and his four colleagues seated behind fat microphones shaped like oversize Luden's cough drops were on their way to New York, like any good theatrical troupe working the bugs out of their routine as they grilled local colorful mafiosi in certain key cities along the circuit. The labor racket had brought them to Michigan, but with American Steelhaulers president Albert Brock off touring the factories of Europe and beyond the reach of a subpoena, they had settled for Orr, in semi-retirement now and under federal indictment for transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes.
Nothing like it could have happened in the thirties or the forties, although both epochs had offered television in at least Pleistocene form. Inviting Frankie Orr to share the same shimmering box that contained Pinky Lee, Molly Goldberg, and J. Fred Muggs was like placing incompatible species in a terrarium. We were all in for worse, but we date things according to our own calendars, and for me there was no going back from that moment.
Clearly the chairman, whose lanky bespectacled countenance and conservative tailoring would clash with the coon-skin cap he would don later to run for vice-president under Adlai Stevenson, already considered himself too important to question a geriatric pimp, for he left most of the interrogation to Rudolph Halley, chief counsel for the committee. Kefauver, soon to become as recognizable to home viewers as Speedy Alka-Seltzer, could not know that in a short time he would be as forgotten as Tammany. Even then television was beginning to display a penchant for preserving the ephemeral whilst swallowing and defecating the truly significant. I have to think now to remember the name of the pilot involved in the U-2 incident, but I will take with me to the grave all the words to "Luckies Taste Better."
But huddled on that wind-scraped sidewalk with the other holdouts against a home idol, I thought the world would never put aside that earnest panel or its D'Artagnan, Halley. The attorney's jagged, pointed profile onscreen and sharp Yankee whine issuing from the megaphone speaker mounted outside the store personified the caricature of Uncle Sam, haranguing Russian bears, flying saucers, and juvenile delinquents from editorial pages across the country. A sample of his cross-examination of Orr appeared that week in the Detroit Times:
Q: Mr. Orr, this committee has heard testimony that you were one of the early architects of the syndicate of crime as it exists in Detroit and Toledo, is that true?
A: Of course not. I'm in the construction business.
Q: You were not in partnership with the late Salvatore Bornea, alias Sal Borneo, the head of the local Mafia during Prohibition?
A: He was my father-in-law. He was the legally elected president of the Unione Siciliana. The Mafia doesn't exist.
Q: Mr. Orr, you are frequently and popularly known as the Conductor, is that not true?
A: No one has called me that for years.
Q: May I ask where you acquired that nickname?
A: When I was young I worked for a streetcar company in New York.
Q: Was it not in fact given to you because in nineteen twenty-eight you were tried for the fatal strangling of one Vincenzo Cugglio in front of a dozen eyewitnesses on the Third Avenue elevated railway in Manhattan?
A: I was acquitted of that charge.
Q: A mistrial was declared because the jury could not agree on a verdict.
A: The prosecution didn't try me again. They knew I was innocent.
Q: After you came to Detroit were you not implicated in the murders of Jerry Buckley, the radio commentator, and Abel S. Norman, a small-time numbers racketeer, both in nineteen thirty?
A: I was asleep in bed the night Buckley got gunned. I never knew nobody named Norman.
(At this point, watching Orr's slack face, my mind's projector stuck on a frame: the gangster's fattish dining companion at the Griswold, trying to stand with a gout of blood from his severed jugular drenching his rack of lamb in ruby red, while Orr, still holding the knife, stepped back to avoid soiling his white dress shirt.)
Q: We have heard testimony to the contrary, Mr. Orr.
A: Everybody has enemies. I can't help what people say.
Q: Appearing before this committee in closed session yesterday, Leo Bustamente, your former driver and bodyguard, stated under oath that at your orders he disposed of Norman's body inside the poured concrete foundation of the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, which was then under construction by your firm, among others.
A: I fired Mr. Bustamente for drinking on the job. I'm surprised his liver is still operating.
Q: Do you deny his accusation that he was proceeding under your instructions?
A: Leo would give up Trotsky if you promised him a bottle.
(Laughter among the spectators present in the room. Kefauver scowled and snapped his gavel at the table.)
Q: At present, you stand accused of violation of the Mann Act for using your connections with the American Steelhaulers Union to transport prostitutes from Miami, Florida, to various commercial establishments owned by you in the Great Lakes area, is that not correct?
A: On the advice of my attorney, I decline to answer that question on grounds that it may incriminate me.
Q: There is no danger of self-incrimination in answering the question, Mr. Orr. This committee is aware that you have been indicted by a federal grand jury.
A: Why ask the question if you already know the answer?
Here, Charles W. Tobey, the green-eyeshaded Republican senator from New Hampshire, spoke up to warn Orr that if he refused to answer the question he would be held in contempt of Congress. Later legend held that Orr stood, informed the panel that he'd come in with contempt for Congress, and stalked out. But at his youngest and most arrogant he was never that clever. What he did was get up and leave. I've often marveled at just how many popular myths grew out of an event as scrupulously watched and recorded as those hearings. The medium's endless succession of dancing pill bottles, loquacious sea serpents, and tumbling Latins had managed to negate the evidence of sight and sound.
One anecdote that received no play at all, and that I heard years later, reported that Frankie Orr had selected the checked suit and a particularly noisy floral tie on the advice of counsel, who believed that flaring patterns damaged camera lenses and discouraged publicity of the televised kind. Whether or not the story was true, he wasn't called back to testify. Due process had entered a strange new phase, regulated by network skews and the station break.CHAPTER 2
I never saw the Conductor again, in person or on television, not counting old file photos in the newspapers and a hastily snapped, out-of-focus shot of him in dark glasses and a soft cap with his overcoat slung over his shoulders Edward G. Robinson style, on his way to board a plane for Sicily at the time of his deportation. Striding well ahead of the beefy federal marshals in skinny ties and Stetsons, he looked more like the Frankie Orr of old, tense-jawed and paying absolutely no attention to the reporters present. They ran it again years later when he disappeared in Puerto Rico. Mob lore has it he was disposed of by rival racketeers during an attempt to regain a foothold in the United States. That may be so, but the new slick machined de-ethnicized crime cartel had a lot less to fear from the return of a washed-up old bootlegger than did certain officials with the Justice Department. But then I've reached that point in life where I'm ready to trade in my illusions on plaid pants and a white belt.
The stop in front of Hudson's was just to kill a few minutes. I was square on time for my appointment at the Lafayette Coney Island and I wanted to be late. Not fifteen minutes late, which is death, almost as bad as a few minutes early, which is like wearing a necktie that lights up and says I'M DESPERATE, and about neck-and-neck with bang on the hour and too eager to please. Five minutes late said I didn't need the meeting but was too polite to keep anyone waiting long. It's more than just a silly waltz, as anyone will agree who has found himself back on the job market on the shady side of fifty. I had on an old corduroy sport coat with functional patches on the elbows, pressed slacks, polished wingtips, a new white button-down Oxford, and my lucky tie with the Beef Wellington stain tucked into my waistband. My hair was cut in a flattop to make me look in tune with youth and I carried my reading glasses in an imitation alligator case clipped to my handkerchief pocket to show I wasn't ashamed of my age.
I was, though. I had been young for so long that I looked upon each fresh sign of decomposition as treachery. I applied the same conspiracy theory to 45-rpm records, automatic transmissions, diesel locomotives, and Governor Soapy Williams' undignified bow tie. Fogeyism came to me easily, another knife in the kidneys.
The other truth is I was desperate, and fanatically eager to please. Half my life ago I was a journalist, a promising newcomer with his own column and his thumb on the wrist of a wide-open town, confidant of thugs and mayors, political fixers and crib girls, the great unwashed reading public's direct conduit into the glistening clubs where judges touched elbows with tailgunners on beer trucks, Joe Lunchpail's engraved invitation into three-hundred-dollar suites at the Book-Cadillac, where Charlie Chaplin sat around with his suspenders down and Herbert Hoover leaned over to touch my knee and tell me how he was going to handle Al Capone once he defeated Franklin Roosevelt for his second term in the White House. I drove a new car, lived in a nice apartment in Mayor Murphy's neighborhood, dined at the Caucus Club without reservations, and had my picture in the Literary Digest with Ruth Chatterton on my arm above the caption: "Detroit's Connie Minor, the preferred choice of movie stars and underworld luminaries."
Then came Depression and Repeal. The upstart tabloids folded, one by one at first, then in clusters like dying cells. With them went my syndication, and eventually my job. While I was busy chasing seven-passenger sedans loaded with big men in tugged-down hats and narrow overcoats with bulges under their arms, a new generation of newshawk had sprung up without my notice, a breed that smoked and drank moderately, clubbed not at all, and spent more time gathered around the wire desk studying the reports from overseas than they did shivering on rotting piers waiting for a boat to dock from Canada without running lights. I was a dinosaur at age thirty-five. My name was associated with hip flasks, beaded skirts, and splay-legged dances to tinny jazz music, all the silly hollow detritus of an era that meant as much to what was happening in the world as a beaver hat. I was deader than Ruth Snyder. They didn't even have to throw a switch.
I'd tried freelancing, with some success. Liberty had bought a piece from me comparing the organization of the Nazi Party to the Purple Gang—which had spawned a lot of angry letters, the Purples being predominantly Jewish—and I had written a retrospective column that ran in the Free Press Sunday supplement every third week until wartime paper shortages forced it out in favor of the news from Europe. And I had published a book. You could still find it in the ten-cent bin in most used bookstores, which was immortality of a sort. After that I had followed my used-up predecessors to that elephant graveyard, the advertising business.
It's a hell of an industry, the ad game; possibly the only one you can contribute to in a state of near-coma. While new and fresh are its two most sacred words, their definitions will clear a room faster than the Red Scare. It fears innovation, celebrates mediocrity, and aims for an intellect that would store a six-month supply of foodstuffs in a bomb shelter for protection against an atomic blast that will poison the air with radiation for six hundred years. As one of a couple of dozen monkeys chained to typewriters at the firm of Slauson & Nichols on West Grand River, I had been writing for so long with my brains in my hip pocket I wasn't sure if I could still string together a sentence that didn't contain the words smooth, rich, power, mild, or flame-broiled.
But today I had my chance to find out. In a fit of halfhearted determination I had for the first time in years sent out my resume to a number of new publications in the area, and I had received one call back, from the publisher of a prospective new picture magazine based in Port Huron. He would be in Detroit on Wednesday for a meeting with his backers, and would I care to meet him for lunch? I rustled some pages on my Nehi calendar with the end of a flyswatter and said it so happened I was free at (noon's for spinsters and bank clerks, two o'clock's for drunks who sleep till noon) one-thirty.
"Fine. Where would you recommend for a good old-fashioned lunch?"
More cerebratory acrobatics. The Anchor Bar was a cliché for journalists, located as it was between the News and the Free Press with the Times nearby, and anyway I might run into someone I knew who knew how badly I wanted a real writing job. Anywhere in Greektown was out; parking was handy and if we hit it off my would-be employer might insist upon walking me to my car. Hedge's Wigwam might give him the impression I was accustomed to cafeteria fare. Capistrano's might make him think I was puttiyng the arm on him for an expensive meal. The Lafayette Coney Island was right in the middle and downtown, where I could leave the Studebaker with the valets at Hudson's and out of sight. His reaction when I made the suggestion was so brisk I felt an ass for wasting so much time on it.
"Fine. See you there Wednesday at one-thirty, Mr. Meaner."
Excerpted from The Detroit Novels by Loren D. Estleman. Copyright © 1996 Loren D. Estleman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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