Known as the King of Broadway, gossip columnist Walter Winchell was also an important, but not always well informed, reporter on crime matters. Because of his journalistic power—1,000 newspapers carried his column at his zenith, and his radio news show was usually among the top-10 and frequently No. 1 in the ratings—he was used, and sometimes abused, by the police, J. Edgar Hoover and organized crime.
In fact, Hoover and the mob both used Winchell's column to expound their identical, favorite theme—there was no such thing as organized crime in America. "Mafiasco," Winchell called it.
There was little doubt that Winchell scored a number of crime scoops, some through Hoover, probably many more through mob chief Frank Costello, with whom he was very chummy. Winchell was the first newsman to report that Albert Anastasia, the former head of Murder, Inc., had ordered Arnold Schuster, a private citizen, murdered because Schuster had spotted wanted bank robber Slick Willie Sutton and tipped off the police. Sutton had no connections with the mob—Anastasia just couldn't stand "stoolies."
Trusted by the underworld, Winchell was chosen to handle the surrender of Louis Lepke to Hoover in 1939. Lepke wanted Winchell involved in the surrender because he feared that otherwise he might be shot down by the law.
Winchell was attracted to certain underworld types such as Costello. (Costello associate Phil Kastel once told a columnist, "There isn't a newspaperman around who wouldn't sell his grandmother for a paragraph, except Walter Winchell.") Winchell could be counted on by the mob to offer them self-serving whitewash interviews. An infamous one with Costello created an uproar both from subscribing newspapers and irate readers. Many attacked Winchell as shilling for the mob.
Costello pooh-poohed the idea of organized crime and organized gambling. Winchell asked him: "Do you think organized gambling can be legislated out of existence?"
|Walter Winchell on air|
Costello replied, "Not in a million years ... The quickest way to wipe out big shots in the underworld is to make gambling legal.... Legalize it and you do three things. Get rid of corruption, raise tax money and knock off the underworld."
Winchell was hardly sophisticated enough to wonder why mobsters favor legalized gambling. The answer was of course that the underworld makes more out of legalized gambling than the illegal kind. Las Vegas proved that point. Crime families in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Los Angeles—and certainly Costello personally—made more out of Vegas than they ever did out of all their illicit operations in New York, Louisiana and Florida combined.
Legal gambling eliminates the need for payoffs to police, the army of armed thugs necessary for protection. The payment of taxes is a minor matter considering what can be "skimmed" off the income from the top. And above all the "pot" is much greater. Legal casinos attract millions of bettors a year, far more than any underground setup could.
At times Winchell's gullibility on criminal matters knew no bounds. He saved one of his major "exclusives" for his autobiography which appeared after he died. In it he gave his readers the "lowdown" on the unsolved murder of Bugsy Siegel.
Winchell insisted the killing was carried out by two gunners of Brooklyn's Murder, Inc., Happy Maione and Dasher Abbandando, assigned to do the job because Siegel had squandered $4 million of the mob's money building the first elegant hotel in Vegas, the Flamingo. Winchell's ultimate sources, via other journalists, he proudly proclaimed were "Thomas E. Dewey (when he was still district attorney) and Frank Hogan (when he was Mr. Dewey's chief aide)."
Siegel was murdered in 1947, by which time Dewey had long been governor of New York State and Hogan district attorney. In any event neither Dewey nor Hogan would have imparted such a ludicrous theory since by 1947 both Happy Maione and Dasher Abbandando were five years dead, having gone to the electric chair in 1942 for sundry other murders but hardly that of the still healthy Bugsy Siegel.
Winchell's "exclusive" was typical of many of his statements on crime. Indeed, his prime importance may have been as a helpmate to both G-man Hoover and crime czar Costello. Hoover was a compulsive horseplayer and Winchell passed on to him tips from Costello on "sure things," a rather specific and hardly innocent term in underworld parlance.
This hardly meant that Hoover was thereby in Costello's pocket but it was perhaps a contributing factor of some importance in what may be called an "era of good feeling" between the FBI and organized crime that kept federal agents effectively out of the mob's business for some three and a half decades.
This hardly indicates that Winchell himself was less than honest. As the quintessential Broadwayite Winchell would have to have considered gambling among the more minor vices, and while he was always tender to Costello and some others of his ilk, he carried on a long feud with Lucky Luciano whom he considered a procurer, a drug peddler and a murderer.
This took a bit of personal courage from Winchell who did not have such qualities in high supply. On one occasion he was afraid to leave his office at the New York Daily Mirror because he had offended underworld figures and finally did so only when gangster Owney Madden promised him safe escort.
Actually he was safe from Luciano's vengeance since the latter had established the credo among the new crime syndicate mobsters that under no circumstances was a newspaperman to be killed.
For a time Luciano resided at the Barbizon Plaza Hotel while Winchell had an apartment across the street at the St. Moritz. Luciano once said, "He found out I was movin' into his neighborhood and I heard he didn't like it too much. I said to myself, 'Fuck him.'" Frequently walking along Central Park South, Luciano would see Winchell and he'd wave to him and call, "Hi, neighbor." Luciano recalled, "It burnt him to a crisp."
Later, Luciano heard that a penthouse apartment was available at the St. Moritz and he decided to rent it. When Winchell heard the rumors, he advised the hotel's management that if it took in Luciano, Winchell would vacate and use his column to attack the hotel as a gangster hangout. The St. Moritz rejected Luciano.
Luciano was irate, especially since Winchell paid no rent there himself. "He got his apartment on the cuff for mentionin' the St. Moritz in his column once in a while," Luciano recalled later. "And he talked about me being a racketeer."
In the twilight of his journalistic career Winchell lost his contacts with the mob as the older gangsters he knew ended up dead or retired. At the same time his relationship with J. Edgar Hoover grew more distant. Hoover at the time was under pressure from Attorney General Robert Kennedy to start battling organized crime. Under those circumstances Walter Winchell probably became an embarrassment.