Allan May, Crime Historian
Allan May is an organized crime historian, writer and lecturer. He also writes a monthly column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Contact him at AllanMay@AmericanMafia.com
Sterling, Roemer and Messick
A Sad Farewell
By Allan May
As the decade of the 1990s comes to a close we bid a sad farewell to three organized crime writers who have kept us informed and entertained over the years. Claire Sterling, William F. Roemer, Jr. and Hank Messick all passed away during the decade. They will sorely be missed.
On June 11, 1995, Claire Sterling, perhaps the Grand Dame of female Mafia writers died from colon cancer. Sterling was born in the United States and became a foreign correspondent based in Italy for over thirty years. As a journalist she wrote articles for the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Life Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Harpers, and the Washington Post to name a few. During this time she reported on political affairs in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Her first book that touched upon the activities of the Sicilian Mafia was the internationally acclaimed “The Terror Network,” published in 1981. Sterling’s work on this book took her to ten countries on four continents. During her research she was asked by an adviser on President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council, “You don’t really believe this bunk about international terrorism, do you?”
“Yes, I do,” Sterling replied.
In 1983 she released, “The Time of the Assassin,” which was an in depth look at the plot and investigation to kill Pope John Paul II. However, organized crime aficionados will remember her best for, “Octopus: The Long Reach of the International Sicilian Mafia,” released in 1990. This expose of the Sicilian Mafia painted a chilling account of a multi-national drug empire, whose focus was the United States.
The year before Sterling died, her last book, “Thieves’ World: The Threat of the New Global Network of Organized Crime,” was published.
Sterling’s husband, Tom, is a writer also. She often praised him in her book's acknowledgments. In “The Time of the Assassins,” she wrote, “There was hardly a day when he didn’t take the time from his own writing to help grace mine.”
William F. Roemer, Jr., burst into the organized crime writing field with his “Roemer: Man Against the Mob,” in 1989. However, Roemer was known to most of us crime buffs well before this. He held us spellbound with his tales of encounters with Sam Giancana and mob murders in Martin Short’s classic video series “Crime, Inc.”
In all of Roemer’s books he showed us a personal side of the gangster adversaries he sought to put away while working as an agent for the FBI. If Roemer was a bit of an egotist in telling his stories, that was fine with me. In a way he reminded me of my childhood hero Eliot Ness.
In “Man Against the Mob,” he gave us some real insights into Robert Kennedy’s crusade against organized crime and how the field agents felt about Bobby’s efforts. He really introduced us to the personalities of mobsters like “Milwaukee Phil” Alderisio, Gus Alex, Jackie Cerone, Sam Giancana, Murray Humphreys and Ralph Pierce.
Roemer followed up his first book with two novels. The first was “War of the Godfathers,” the second was “Mob Power Plays.” Both were written in such a way that many of the readers thought they were non-fiction. Many of the incidents he writes about are based on fact. I still to this day get asked, “Hey why does Roemer claim Moe Dalitz was murdered, I thought he died of old age.”
These books were followed by, “The Enforcer: Spilotro – The Chicago Mob’s Man Over Las Vegas,” in 1994. This classic kept us mob followers clamped to its pages. It was probably the hardest of the Roemer books to put down as we read about the ruthless underworld tactics of Anthony “Tony the Ant” Spilotro and his activities in Chicago and Las Vegas. On the heels of this book came Nicholas Pileggi’s “Casino,” and the movie of the same name. Most of us already knew the story and the man from Roemer's accounts.
Roemer quickly followed up this gem with his most in depth piece, “Accardo: The Genuine Godfather.” This almost 500 page book published in 1995 took a long look at the career of one of the most successful mob bosses of the century – Anthony “Joe Batters” Accardo. He traces Accardo back to his days as a Capone bodyguard and describes the leadership of the Chicago mob from “Big Jim” Colosimo, during the teens, through the Capone years, into the 1930s and right up to the present day. Few organized crime writers have covered a city so thoroughly as Roemer has covered Chicago.
Upon the completion of “Accardo” I wondered how the old FBI guy was going to top his latest effort. He was unable to. In June 1996, I read in the “Deaths Elsewhere” section of the Cleveland Plain Dealer a tiny, three-inch obituary about the man. Roemer had died of lung cancer on June 14, at the age of 69. I was saddened, but at the same time irritated that he had been taken away when there was so much more I wanted him to write.
Roemer was married to Jeannie Uphaus for almost fifty years. He dedicated every book to her. In “War of the Godfathers,” Roemer wrote, “God spent the Seventh Day creating Jeannie. I dedicate this book to her.”
Every now and then I will get a question like, “When is Roemer coming out with another book? What is he going to write about this time?” The answers are, “He isn’t” and “I wish I knew.”
If there was a “Babe” Ruth, Michael Jordan, or Jimmy Brown of organized crime writers it had to be Hank Messick. Between 1967 and 1979, Messick cranked out sixteen books on organized crime in America. Four of those he co-authored with Burt Goldblatt, and another with former Kefauver Committee counsel, Joseph L. Nellis. While four of his books were biographical in nature (Hoover, Lansky, Barboza, and Ann Coppola), Messick did not focus on New York City or Chicago organized crime, instead he exposed us to the widespread network of organized crime around the country.
Messick was an investigative journalist whose expose stories for the Louisville Courier-Journal and later the Miami Herald led to several indictments and brought organized crime and corruption of public officials to the forefront. Messick at times worked with underworld investigators for both the Justice Department’s organized crime task forces and the intelligence unit of the Internal Revenue service. One agent called him the “conscience of the community.”
Beginning with “The Silent Syndicate,” where he focused on the four rather unknown leaders of the Cleveland Syndicate, he then moved on and wrote about crime in Miami and Dade County with “Syndicate in the Sun.” This was followed by “Syndicate Abroad,” where he discussed underworld activity taking place outside of American in Canada, and in the Caribbean.
During the 1970s, Messick hooked up with Burt Goldblatt, a photo editor and painter. In the four books they co-authored, Messick did the writing and Goldblatt supplied the photo talent. Those books were “The Mobs and the Mafia,” 1972, “Gangs and Gangsters,” 1974, “Kidnapping: The Illustrated History,” 1975, and “The Only Game in Town: An Illustrated History of Gambling,” 1976.
Messick’s work was always in depth and like Roemer he tried to portray the human side of the people he wrote about giving the reader insights into the people that we were not privy to from newspaper articles and other media reporting. Perhaps he reached a pinnacle in this area with his two releases in 1973, “Beauties and the Beasts: The Mob in Show Business,” and “The Private Lives of Public Enemies,” co-authored with Nellis.
Messick didn’t just write about underworld figures, he wrote about the law enforcement people who went after them. His longest book was “Secret File: The Untold Story of America’s Least Known Crimefighters,” published in 1969. In 1972, his biography on J. Edgar Hoover was released.
In 1975, Messick was involved in a different project working with convicted murderer and mob rat Joe Barboza. The vicious Barboza had been an enforcer for the New England Mafia and ratted out members of his gang. The New England mob eventually caught up with Barboza and murdered him in San Francisco the year after the book was released.
In 1979, Messick released his expose on the marijuana and cocaine smuggling business into the United States, “Of Grass and Snow: The Secret Criminal Elite.”
At this point many people believed Messick’s crime writing career came to an end. There were no books released during the 1980s and during the 1990s his books were already becoming collector’s items. Messick could occasionally be seen in a documentary on A&E and I’m sure many people thought he had passed away.
This past year in conversations with AmericanMafia.com’s Forum poster Russ McDermott, I was informed of a Messick book I didn’t have called “Razzle Dazzle.” Russ explained that it was about the early years of Messick’s career. At the time I was under the impression that it may have been his first book published making it a true rarity. With the purchase price of $75 I felt assured that it must have been. However, it was a 1995 publication and the high cost was due to Hank himself signing “Best Wishes” in it on December 10, 1995.
“Lansky,” the biography of the well-known Jewish mobster, was said to be the book Messick was best known for. I personally found the book to be an over inflation of Lansky’s importance to the mob, a position, in reality, that didn’t need over inflating. While Messick did a superb job of bringing to our attention information that would otherwise have been unknown, he sometimes had problems with facts and dates. On several occasions I can recall coming home frustrated from the Cleveland Public Library and calling Youngstown Charlie and asking, “Where the hell did Messick come up with that date.”
With my roots in Cleveland, Messick’s “Silent Syndicate,” is one of my favorite organized crime books and one I use in the classes I teach locally. However, I must tell you I found “Razzle Dazzle,” to be one of old Hank’s best efforts. It is really an autobiography of his early life as an investigative journalist working for the Louisville Courier-Journal in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He gets assigned to cover a reform group in Newport, Kentucky that has been trying to clean up the city that has been a cesspool of gambling, prostitution, and illegal liquor sales for years.
Messick, although portraying a certain arrogance about himself, also reveals the fear he felt for not only himself but his family. During the introduction he talks about being stricken with Sjogren’s Syndrome, an auto-immune disease that will eventually lead to his death on November 6, 1999. The disease causes the moisture producing glands of the body to dry up. He explains, “My eyes were first affected and it became almost impossible to read, to write, to brave sunlight.” He claims to have been confined to a room with a humidifier blowing.
Like Roemer, Messick credits much to his beloved wife Faye for being with him and for sharing his success. In this last effort, he credits Faye with helping him to finish the book.
Those of us who read, study, teach, and write about organized crime owe much to these three authors. Their passing is our loss, as well as a loss to their families. Who will take their place in the coming century? Hopefully the great writings of George Anastasia and Jerry Capeci will continue and perhaps even AmericanMafia.com’s Rick Porrello will grace us with additional books.
It has been a rewarding year for me personally. I would like to thank everyone who has expressed kind words about my columns, and I would like to thank the people who are responsible for allowing it to get out there each week – Rick Porrello, Thom Basie, Youngstown Charlie, Phil Murawa (my proof reader), Charlotte Versagi (my best friend and supporter) and all of the people who have helped me with individual research along the way.
Copyright A. R. May 1999