He was a mob insider, whom his former pal Louie “Lepke” Buchalter” decided knew too much to live. As a result, Harry “Big Greenie” Greenberg became the victim of the first mob hit ever in the sunny state of California.
Harry Greenberg, who also went under the names of Harry Schacter and Harry Schober, grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with Lepke and Lepke’s longtime partner Jacob “Gurrah” Shapiro, who were affectionately known as the “Gorilla Boys,” and then, as they became more prosperous — the “Gold Dust Twins.” Greenberg was tight with the two murderers, and was their partner in various garment center businesses, and swindles. Apparently a few murders were involved, and while there is no evidence that Greenberg participated in any of these these murders, he sure knew about the murders, and why they were committed. Maybe Greenberg even knew who had committed those murders. That knowledge turned out to be not such a good thing in the wicked world of Louis “Lepke” Buchalter.
Greenberg palled out with Lepke and Shapiro, and he even spent the better part of his summers with them at the Loch Sheldrake Country Club, in the Catskills in upstate New York, owned by legitimate businessman named Sam Tannenbaum. Sam Tannenbaum had a teenage son named Allie, who who worked at the hotel, either waiting tables, or setting up beach chairs by the lake. Sam had hoped that Allie would be his heir apparent at the hotel when Sam decided to retire, but Allie was destined for bigger and better things.
Or so Allie thought.
At the end of the summer in 1931, Tannenbaum was strolling down Broadway in Manhattan, when he bumped into Greenberg.
Greenberg asked Tannenbaum, “Do you want a job?”
“I could use one, if it pays,” Tannenbaum said.
Greenberg smiled. “This one is for Lepke. You know what kind of a job it will be.”
Unwittingly, Greenberg had just helped hire one of his own killers.
As time passed, Tannenbaum rose up the ladder in Lepke’s “Murder Incorporated,” which was a mob subsidiary, whose only purpose was to kill anyone that the top mob bosses in New York City, and later, mob bosses all over America, said needed to be killed.
Things started to go south for Lepke, when in 1936, Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey, who had already put Lucky Luciano, Lepke’s partner in the National Crime Syndicate, in jail for a 30-year bit, set his sights directly on Lepke. Dewey went after Lepke’s garment center rackets, and Lepke’s shakedown “Bakers Union.” However, these swindles were small potatoes compared to what Dewey really had in mind for Lepke. Convicted drug dealers always did substantial time in prison, so Dewey convinced the Federal Narcotic Bureau to build a case against Lepke, in a massive drug-smuggling operation. Figuring he was facing big-time in the slammer, Lepke went on the lam. Lepke was hidden in several Brooklyn hideouts by his Murder Incorporated co-leader Albert Anastasia, while Lepke’s rackets were tended to by other Syndicate leaders.
While Lepke was in hiding, he started thinking about who knew enough about his rackets to put Lepke in jail for a very long time, if not right into the electric chair. Lepke got word to all his killers, and anyone in the know, to either “Get out of town, or die.” Lepke’s thinking was, if any of his men got arrested, they might squeal on him in order to work out a better deal for themselves. It turned out that Lepke was right to worry about this, and that’s why in the spring of 1939, Lepke sent word to “Big Greenie” Greenberg to lam it out of town.
Greenberg took Lepke’s “advice” to heart and he hightailed it up to Montreal, Canada. While in Montreal, Greenberg got to thinking, “Hey, I’m up here in nowhere Canada, and I can’t even earn a decent dime. These guys better start taking care of me good.”
As a result, “Big Greenie” Greenberg did something very stupid. He sent a letter to Mendy Weiss, who was Lepke’s second-in-command in Murder Inc., saying, “I hope you guys aren’t forgetting about me. You better not.” Then he asked Weiss for a reported $5,000 to help him fight the cold weather in Canada.
Greenberg waited for a response, or the money, or both. When he got neither, he got to thinking again. “Hey maybe, sending that letter was not such a great idea.”
By this time, Weiss, after conferring with Lepke, had already given the order to Tannenbaum to go up to Canada and erase Big Greenie from Lepke’s list of “people to worry about.” But when Tannenbaum arrived in Montreal, Big Greenie had already flown the coop, and was officially a “lamster,” not only from the law, but from the guys he thought were his best friends.
Greenberg figured he’d hightail it up to Detroit, where the “Purple Gang,” another subsidiary of the National Crime Syndicate, might be nice enough to stake him a few bucks, and maybe even give Greenberg a safe place to hide. The Purple Gang, run by Sammy Coen, whose nickname was Sammy Purple, was very nice to Greenberg; too nice Greenberg thought. While he waited for some stake money, Big Greenie started thinking again, and he came up with the notion that the Purple Gang was stalling him so that killers from New York City could travel up there to do the big job on Big Greenie.
“They must have checked the New York office,” Greenberg figured. “The New York boys must have told them, ‘Keep him in tow until we get a couple of boys up there.'”
Greenberg was right. Tannenbaum and two other gunsels were in route to Detroit at the precise time Greenberg decided to take Horace Greeley’s advice and “Go West young man.”
Greenberg went as far west as he could without swimming, and he stopped in Hollywood, California, the new hometown of Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, a top boss in Murder Incorporated, and one of the few killers who thoroughly relished doing his job.
Siegel had been sent out to California in 1937 by the National Crime Syndicate to take control of all the illegal activities in the state, which was considered virgin territory by the East Coast mob. After organizing the syndicate’s gambling interests, Siegel decided there was big money to be made by unionizing the Hollywood extras.
You could have the biggest movie stars, the best scripts, and the finest producers and directors, but without extras, most movies could never get made. So Siegel unionized the extras and collected tidy sums from each and every one of them for the privilege of appearing, if only a few seconds, in a Hollywood production. Siegel even became a movie extra himself.
However, that was chump change compared to what Siegel really had in mind.
Tall and Hollywood-handsome, Siegel inveigled himself into the upper reaches of the Hollywood elite. He dated starlets two at a time, and even had a hot and heavy affair with an Italian Countess. The top actors and actresses of that time were Siegel’s best friends, but they learned fast being pals with a man known as Bugsy (no one ever called him “Bugsy” to his face) was an easy way to put a huge dent in your bank account.
Using the same technique he learned from Lepke in the labor unions, Siegel approached the biggest stars with his smooth line of patter. He would romance the female stars, then scare the hell out of them with his reputation, and a few pointed words. But with male stars, Siegel got straight to the point
With a notebook and pen in Siegel’s hands, the conversation would go something like this, “Hey look chum, I’m putting you down for $10,000 for the extras.”
“What kind of deal is this?” the actor would protest. “What have I got to do with the extras?”
Siegel would then shake his head, like a father disgusted at an ignorant child. “I don’t think you understand. Take your new picture, for instance. Every thing’s ready to go. But what happens if the extras go out on strike? That means the stagehands go out on strike too, because they’re all union. So there goes your picture.”
Without blinking an eye, every Hollywood star Siegel approached, without exception, paid up and paid up good. In 1940, when the Fed got a warrant for Siegel’s thirty-five room Holmby Hill’s mansion, they found in a safe upstairs a detailed accounting of the “loans” Siegel received for all the top Hollywood names. In one year alone, Bugsy Siegel had shaken-down actors and actresses to the fine tune of $400,000. And no one even complained to the cops. These frightened Hollywood suckers even palled out with Siegel while he was sticking his hands deep into their pockets.
So when the word came from back east that Greenberg was in Hollywood, of course Siegel was given the contract. Now, usually a man of Siegel’s stature would just give out the orders, and maybe help with the planning. But Siegel insisted, against the advice of Lepke, on getting in on the actual Greenberg murder himself.
Bugsy just loved a good killing.
“We all begged Bugsy to keep out of the shooting,” Lepke’s pal Doc Stracher said years later. “He was too big a man by this time to become personally involved. But Bugsy wouldn’t listen. He said Greenberg was a menace to all of us and if the cops grabbed him he could tell the whole story of our outfit back to the 1920s.”
At Newark Airport, just before he boarded a flight to Hollywood, Tannenbaum was given a small doctor’s instrument bag by the boss of New Jersey mob himself: Abner “Longie” Zwillman. Inside this bag were several “clean” guns, which were to be used in the Greenberg Hollywood caper.
In the meantime, Siegel was assembling his “hit team,” which included Whitey Krakow, Siegel’s bother-in-law from New York City, and Frankie Carbo, a Lower East Side thug and Murder Inc. operative, who had already been arrested 17 times, and charged with five murders, but none of the charges had resulted in Carbo doing any significant time in prison. Carbo was also a bigtime fight promoter and manager, and many of his top-notch fighters were suspected of not giving their best effort when their boss and his pals had bet bigtime on the other man.
Now came the issue of obtaining a getaway car.
Sholem Bernstein, an independent operator from New York City, just happened to be vacationing in Hollywood, when he decided to visit his old pal Benny Siegel. Soon, Bernstein would be sorry he ever made that visit.
Before even the small talk began, Siegel got right to the point.
“Clip a car,” Siegel barked at Bernstein. “Leave it in the parking lot down the street.”
Bernstein, a veteran at these sort of things, looked perplexed. Usually, when he clipped a car, he hid it in a private garage where the police wouldn’t be able to see it.
“A parking lot?” Bernstein said.
“That’s right,” Siegel snapped. “Just do as I say?”
So, Bernstein clipped a car and parked it in the open parking lot, just as Siegel had requested. Almost immediately, the owner of the stolen car filed a police report. Because they were on the lookout for the stolen car, the cops spotted the car right out in the open and returned it to its rightful owner.
Despite this misfortune, Siegel told Bernstein to clip another car. Bernstein said he would, and he even told Siegel how he usually operated. “Then you get license plates off another car that you case to see the owner only uses it once in a while, like a Sunday driver,” Bernstein said. “By the time the guy find out, you got the job done, and the cops are looking for him – why are his plates on a hit car. Then you…”
Siegel cut Bernstein off in mid-sentence.
The veins bulging in his neck, Siegel said, “Who the hell are you, coming in and telling me how to do a job? Out here it goes my way. And don’t you forget it.”
Even though Bernstein was in Hollywood on vacation, the mob rules were when a mob boss tells you to do something, you do it, or you’re dead. But Bernstein figured, when he was back in New York City and asked to do a job, the mob bosses, because Bernstein was a capable freelancer, let him handle things his own way. Now, since Siegel was dictating terms, Bernstein felt he was under no obligation to continue with the job. So Bernstein jumped in his car and headed back to New York City, which displeased Siegel to no end, and caused him to find someone else to pilfer a car for the Greenberg caper. Fuming, Siegel now wanted Bernstein dead.
But more on that later.
By this time, the surveillance on Greenberg’s residence at 1804 N. Vista De Mar Drive revealed that Greenberg was little more than a recluse. He never left home, except for his nightly 15-minute drive, each way, to get a newspaper in nearby Bel Air. Greenberg told his wife that his little nightly excursion “kept him from blowing his top.”
On the night of November 22, 1939, Thanksgiving Eve, a gunmen blew Goldstein’s top for him.
Just after dark, Tannenbaum picked up the stolen car from the parking lot. Then he drove Siegel and Carbo to Siegel’s home to pick up Siegel’s Cadillac, which was to be used as a crash car in case the cops, or a nosy bystander, decided to chase them after the deed was done. The two cars, with Carbo in Siegel’s car, then drove to a spot a several houses down from Greenberg’s residence. They watched as a few hours later, Greenberg emerged from his house, looked carefully both ways (missing the two parked cars down the block), got into his car and sped away. Carbo then emerged from Siegel’s car, slithered down the block, and hid in the bushes near Greenberg’s house.
Like clockwork, just over 30 minutes later, Greenberg turned the corner of Yucca Street and headed toward 1804 N. Vista De Mar Drive. Greenberg’s car passed the two parked cars, but both Tannenbaum and Siegel had slid down in their seats so they could not be seen. A spit second later, Tannenbaum flashed his headlights, just for an instant, alerting Carbo, who was waiting in the wings ready to exit stage right into a murder scene. As Greenberg tried to exit his car, Carbo sped from the shadows and pumped five bullets into Greenberg’s head.
Then Carbo raced back to the stolen car and jumped in next to Tannenbaum. Tannenbaum sped away, with Siegel in his crash Cadillac following close behind. (The crash car was always a legitimate registered car, so the driver could claim after a crash, either with a police car, or a civic-minded civilian’s car, that he had just lost control of his car.). The two cars rushed to a preordained spot where they met with another co-conspirator waiting in a third car. The third chap turned out to be Champ Segal, a small-time criminal who was always willing to help the big boys with whatever. Segal immediately drove Tannenbaum to San Francisco, where, mission accomplished, Tannenbaum hopped on a plane back East.
Still, Siegel had a stone in his shoe and that stone was named Sholem Bernstein.
There was a system the National Crime Commission had in place for settling matters of dispute. Bernstein couldn’t be touched by Siegel unless Siegel had the permission of the boss of Bernstein’s New York City territory. The New York City bosses considered Bernstein one of their best men and refused to harm a hair on his head. But Siegel was adamant that Bernstein must die, so this compelled Siegel to fly to New York City in order to plead his case for the death penalty for Bernstein.
The National Crime Commission prided itself on its internal justice system. Every man who was targeted to death by someone, was allowed to have his case pleaded in a kangaroo court, usually by someone with pull within the organization. The man who took Bernstein’s part was none other then Abe Reles, who had not yet turned canary, and was still very much alive. As was shown when he took the stand against his old friends, Reles had a way with words, and he could be very convincing when he got the urge, which, considering his career, was quite often.
The sitdown took place in midtown hotel room, with a nine-member panel deciding on the fate of Bernstein, of which there was no appeal process possible. Siegel pleaded his case first, firmly stating that Bernstein was on a job, and not only had disobeyed direct orders, but had fled the scene before his job was completed. Siegel pointed out that the penalty for this was death. Period.
Now it was Reles’ turn.
Reles began by saying he was calling no witnesses. He also admitted that his client – Bernstein – had indeed fled California before he was able to steal the much-needed second murder car. And then Reles went on to explain why his client was completely innocent of all the charges.
Reles told the panel, “The same day Ben gave him the contract, Sholem got word from New York that his mama is going to cash in. Sholem is a good boy. His mama is dying; he figures he should go there. You all know how a mama is. It makes it easier for her to go if her boy is sitting there by the bed, saying nice things – like he loves her and she is getting better and like that.”
“So Sholem doesn’t even think of a contract. He don’t think of nothing. He lams out of L.A. and hustles home to be with his mother when she checks out. He drives day and night. All he wants is to hold her hand. He is a good boy.”
Reles’ put his chin up into the air and raised his voice an octave. “And that gentlemen,” he said, “that is why Sholem left town. Not on account of ducking the contract. But on account his mama is kicking off.”
When Reles had finished, there was not a dry eye in the room; not even Siegel’s. Bernstein was unanimously acquitted, and Ben Siegel flew back to California, only to have his own murder contract approved by the National Crime Syndicate, and summarily executed, on June 20, 1947.