Lesson #8: Arnold Rothstein, King of the Jews (1882–1928)
Arnold Rothstein's name is virtually unknown today, but in his time he was known
far and wide as, among other things, the King of the Jews, the King of New York,
A.R., Mr. Big, The Fixer, The Big Bankroll, The Man Uptown, and The Brain.
Arnold Rothstein was arguably the most personally successful professional criminal
in American history, and given American history, that's saying a lot. He made millions
of dollars in his lifetime, and that's 1920s dollars. He was the inspiration for
the character of Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby, and Nathan Detroit in Guys
and Dolls. He was rumored at the time and is now generally accepted by historians
to be the mastermind of the "Black Sox" scandal, the fixing of the 1919 World Series
by professional gamblers. He financed and had some interest in virtually every major
bootlegging operation during Prohibition, with the exception of the bloody gangster
scene in Chicago , which was too wild for even him to control. He is the father of
modern narcotics trafficking, and in some chroniclers' opinion the real father of
the Cosa Nostra despite not being Italian.
Arnold Rothstein was gambling, and Arnold Rothstein was money. He was Mr. Broadway
and had his own booth at Lindy’s restaurant in Manhattan where he held court. He
was quite possibly the most completely amoral human being who ever lived.
Arnold Rothstein was born in a brownstone on East 47th Street in Manhattan in 1882,
the second of five children. His parents, Abraham and Esther, were middle class when
he was born and his father grew fairly wealthy on his own later in life through "legitimate"
business. He wanted all his sons to be rabbis, but apparently old Abe noticed from
a very young age that Arnold was a weird kid. Young Arnold spent many hours alone
in cellars and closets choosing dark places in which to play. At the age of three
he had already taken a disliking to his older brother Harry. One night Abraham entered
the boy’s bedroom to find Arnold standing over the sleeping Harry with a knife in
his hand. When the father pleaded for an explanation, Arnold simply replied, "I hate
Later on his parents found that they could not trust Arnold with small amounts of
money to go to the store; their son would come back and sullenly tell them he had
lost the money pitching pennies or playing craps with bigger kids down the street.
What was worse was when old Abe found out that more often than not, his son was actually
winning—even in his early days Arnold was incredibly lucky at gambling—but he lied
about having lost his parents' dime or quarter bread and milk money so he could keep
Years later Rothstein told a psychologist that when he was young his mother took
Harry and his younger sister, Ethel, on an extended trip to San Francisco to visit
her relatives. The first night she was gone Abraham found Arnold hidden away in a
closet weeping uncontrollably. "You hate me," cried Arnold. "She hates me and you
hate me, but you all love Harry. Nobody loves me." It was the only time Rothstein
showed any deep emotion during his childhood.
Well, jeez. They didn't love him because he was a rotten kid who stole and lied,
but that presumably never occurred to the boy.
Arnold fell two years behind in grade school and found himself a classmate of his
younger brother Edgar. Edgar would later recall, "I’d do all the homework and Arnold
would copy it and remember it. Except in arithmetic. Arnold did all the arithmetic.
He loved to play with numbers." When Harry Rothstein was thirteen he informed his
parents that he wanted to study to become a rabbi. This decision delighted Abraham.
Arnold, who had shunned his religious studies even more than his regular schooling,
was chided by his father, "You should be proud of being a Jew."
A defiant Arnold responded, "Who cares about that stuff? This is America, not Jerusalem.
I’m an American! Let Harry be a Jew!" For someone who would someday be called "The
King of the Jews," this was pretty ironic.
Arnold quit school for good in 1898, went onto the streets, and never looked back.
He never in his life held a legitimate job. He began shooting dice and playing the
Jewish card game stuss for a living, almost always rising a winner. Arnold frequented
pool halls, which in the early days of their existence were places where bets were
placed and lotteries played. As gamblers waited around for the results there was
usually a billiards table to occupy their time. Rothstein earned a reputation as
Rothstein became a regular at Hammerstein's Victoria Theatre where a craps game was
always in action every Monday. The popular game drew the likes of Monk Eastman and
Herman "Beansie" Rosenthal. (See Jewish History Series passim, The Bowery Gorilla
and Croaking Beansie.) He soon began lending money to several of the players and
launched a lifelong career as a loan shark. For every four dollars he lent he collected
five in return. If any problems arose in collecting the loans, Rothstein would turn
to his newly found friend Monk Eastman. The bullet-headed thug, with a broken nose
and cauliflower ears, met little resistance when trying to retrieve payments due
Building a reputation as a gambler and shylock while still only sixteen, Rothstein
began to cultivate a friendship with Timothy D. Sullivan, Tammany Hall's East Side
political boss. Sullivan, known as "Big Tim," gained his powerful political standing
by delivering the Democratic vote on Election Day. In return, Sullivan looked out
for the people in his district, delivering coal and food for the needy, and helping
others get jobs or legal assistance when necessary. Rothstein became a regular at
Sullivan's headquarters. He ran errands for Big Tim and served as a Yiddish translator
for Sullivan's Jewish constituents. Sullivan soon realized that Rothstein was a young
man with a future.
With Big Tim's backing, in 1902 Rothstein began working on his own. He booked bets
on baseball games, elections, horse races and prizefights. In addition, he gambled
on his own—shooting craps, playing pool and participating in poker games. Rothstein
had a simple philosophy, "Look out for Number One. If you don't, no one else will.
If a man is dumb, someone is going to get the best of him, so why not you? If you
don't, you're as dumb as he is."
Rothstein's new home was the Broadway Central Hotel and his new "profession" was
that of a cigar salesman, which gave him an official reason for hanging around gambling
houses, hotels and saloons. During this period Rothstein developed his lifelong habit
of carrying a big bankroll. He believed that by carrying a large sum of money, and
flashing it, that it helped gauge his prominence. "Money talks," Rothstein told a
reporter. "The more money the louder it talks."
In 1907, he met a 19-year-old Irish Catholic girl named Carolyn Greene. (As mentioned
before, for some reason Jewish criminals always gravitate to Irish or at least Gentile
women. Rothstein is never known to have had a single Jewish wife or mistress; his
relationship with Fanny Brice was purely financial and narcotics-related.) He courted
Carolyn through the simple and direct method: he took her to dinner and spread his
money out over the table. "This is going to make me important," he told her. "I know
how much money means. I'm going to have more and more of it. Nothing is going to
She was convinced and she married Rothstein in 1909. His long-suffering father Abraham
cast him out of the family and sat shiva for him, making him legally dead according
to Jewish religious law. Lying, stealing, gambling, and maybe a little maiming and
murder on the side was fine, so long as it was over money. Marry a Gentile and you're
done here, kiddo.
Rothstein's idea of settling down was to diversify his gambling and become "the house,"
opening a series of very high-class gambling joints with plush decor, restaurants
with haute cuisine, and evening dress required for all the high rollers. He started
with a brownstone on West 46th Street , outfitted with roulette wheels, dice pits,
faro and poker tables. Over the years Rothstein moved way upmarket, eventually managing
several of the most high-end casinos in the country out of huge mansions he bought
in Long Island and Saratoga.
His clientele included Tammany Hall politicians, governors and U.S. Senators, silent
film stars, writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Damon Runyon, Eugene O'Neill and the
Bohemian crowd from Greenwich Village , captains of industry, drunken flappers and
jazz babies from the East Coast's social register, anyone with money the throw away.
Plus, of course, a leavening of gun-toting gangsters like Legs Diamond, Bugsy Siegel,
Meyer Lansky, Owney Madden, Lucky Luciano, and Dutch Schultz. Rothstein took advantage
of what he termed "snob appeal" for his gambling den. "People like to think they're
better than other people," Rothstein once told the writer Damon Runyon. "As long
as they're willing to pay to prove it, I'm willing to let them."
In his adult years Rothstein routinely carried as much as $25,000 in a roll in his
pocket, which in those days was more money than many working-class families ever
saw in their lives. No one ever tried to rob him, knowing if they did they'd have
to deal with some of the King's associates, charming gents like Monk Eastman (q.v.)
and later on Legs Diamond, Owney "Killer" Madden, and the psychopathic Bugsy Siegel.
The one time someone did try to stick him up, a down-and-out former schoolteacher
named Will Davis who thought he had a foolproof betting system for horse racing and
needed a stake, Rothstein gently talked him out of it. When he wanted to, Rothstein
could charm the birds out of the trees. More than one observer described Rothstein's
personal magnetism with his marks as "like a bird with a snake." He took away Davis's
gun, took him home and gave him a meal, listened to his system which sounded like
it might work, took him onto the payroll briefly, and made over $100,000 at the track
before firing Davis and putting him on a train back to California, after having him
beaten bloody by some of Diamond's gangsters. But he did stick a $50 bill in Davis
' pocket as the train was pulling out. The man was all heart.
En passant, ripping off a Gentile in some especially slick and egregious manner like
this is called by the Jews a korban. Rothstein's many korbans were one of the things
that contributed to his elevated reputation among his people. But he could be just
as ruthless with his fellow Jews. When his childhood friend Herman Rosenthal (see
Croaking Beansie) finally realized that his big mouth was about to get him whacked,
he ran to his old buddy Rothstein on July 5, 1912 and begged for $500 to get out
of town. "Forget it, Beansie," said Rothstein. "You waited too late. You're not worth
$500 to anybody any more." Rosenthal was murdered in front of the Hotel Metropole
that same night by three Jews and an Italian, on orders of corrupt police lieutenant
Becker and his hired guns were eventually fried in the electric chair, and to make
a long story short, Rothstein stepped into Becker's place as the main liaison between
New York City 's corrupt political establishment and the underworld. From then on
he had it made. Rothstein took cash for everything he did. Soon he and Carolyn moved
to an apartment at the corner of Broadway and 52nd Street. Their new home had eight
rooms and two baths, as well as separate quarters for a butler and a maid.
With Tammany Hall in his corner, Rothstein could get away with murder, or attempted
murder, anyway. On January 19, 1919 Rothstein was rolling the bones in a floating
crap game at 301 West 57th Street. Most of Rothstein's games were "protected," but
every now and then snafus occurred, and the police actually raided this one. As they
were smashing in the door, to everyone's amazement Rothstein, who was usually left
the rough stuff to his gangster buddies, pulled out a revolver and opened fire, wounding
three police officers, albeit slightly. Rothstein was arrested with the smoking gun
in his hands, literally. It looked like an open and shut case. Wrong ...
Rothstein was booked for assault with a deadly weapon, then provided bail money for
all the gamblers who had been arrested. An overzealous inspector, Dominic Henry,
having somehow acquired the peculiar notion that Jews should obey the law like everyone
else and refrain from taking pot shots at the cops, refused to let the matter quietly
go away and pushed for an indictment, although it took him six months and the intervention
of the U.S. Attorney's office for the District of New York to get one.
When the case was called Rothstein’s attorney simply got up and requested a dismissal,
which the judge readily agreed to. Scuttlebutt was that Rothstein had paid $32,000
to get the case quashed. Rothstein then used his political contacts to get Inspector
Henry indicted for perjury, convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, as a
lesson to any other stroppy goyim who might get ideas above their station.
Arnold Rothstein's most famous exploit, one which was later immortalized by Hollywood
in the movie Eight Men Out, was the fixing of the 1919 World Series. Rothstein biographer
Leo Katcher claims, "He did not fix the Series. Rothstein’s name, his reputation,
and his reputed wealth were all used to influence the crooked baseball players. But
Rothstein, knowing this, kept apart from the actual fix. He just let it happen."
Uh ... okay, Leo. If you say so.
The series between the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds was won by the underdog
Cincinnati team five games to three (at the time the series was best of nine). Eight
players from the Chicago team conspired to throw the games, earning themselves entry
into the Baseball Hall of Infamy as the "Black Sox." Their throwing of the games
were so clumsy, though, that there was immediate suspicion aroused. After a screaming-headline
investigation, all eight players involved were banned from playing baseball for life,
and a new office of Baseball Commissioner was created. Ban Johnson, the president
of the American League, was certain of Rothstein’s participation in the fix and openly
said so. To which Rothstein responded, "My only connection was to refuse to do business
with some men who said they could fix it. I intend to sue Ban Johnson for libel’"
Needless to say, he never did.
Up until 1920, Rothstein was a highly successful gambler, corrupt political fixer
and criminal who also dabbled in such illicit enterprises as securities fraud, fencing
stolen bonds, diamond smuggling, and other such white collar crime. He knew and used
the services of gangsters and hit men, but only as bodyguards or on a kind of piecework
basis when there was a specific job of wet work that needed to be done, usually collecting
money for him. He was not primarily a mobster himself, but that was about to change.
When Prohibition began on January 16, 1920, Rothstein had many of the component parts
of organized crime in place. Rothstein immediately appreciated the immense profits
to be made in providing liquor for thirsty Americans, and there is no doubt that
he was responsible for financing, systematizing and organizing the bootlegging business
on the East Coast, and thereby quite probably preventing the New York bootleg scene
from degenerating into the blood-soaked free-for-alls that occurred in places like
Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City. It was at this time that Rothstein began to
assemble a stable of gunmen that included men like Diamond, Siegel, Lansky, Luciano,
Jacob "Little Augie" Orgen, Lepke Buchalter, Gurrah Shapiro, and Dutch Schultz (Arthur
Rothstein handled the consumption end of the illegal alcohol business, not so much
the importation. He already had massive real estate interests in New York , and he
financed many retail outlets for bootleggers, as well as becoming the silent owner
of at least half the city's speakeasies or illegal bars and night spots. His realty
firms negotiated rentals and leases and his insurance companies insured the premises.
He bankrolled many bootleggers and provided them with trucks and drivers to transport
their illegal cargo. He provided money and manpower and political protection. He
arranged corruption—for a price. If things went wrong, Rothstein was ready to provide
bail and attorneys. He put crime on a corporate basis instead of the loose-knit patchwork
of ethnically based gangs living off robbery and burglary and petty street crime
which existed prior to Prohibition. In this sense, he is indeed the father of the
As always in any form of organized crime, Jews were prominent. One of Rothstein’s
first ventures into rum-running came after a meeting with Waxey Gordon (Irving Wexler)
and Detroit bootlegger Maxie Greenberg. While in Detroit, Greenberg began smuggling
in whiskey from Canada, which he purchased largely from the Jewish Bronfman family,
prominent liquor dealers and Zionists to this day. Realizing how profitable this
venture was, Greenberg wanted to expand and needed $175,000 to do so. He traveled
to New York in hopes that through Gordon, he could obtain financing from Rothstein.
His appeal to Rothstein was successful, and from this arose the infamous, all-Jewish
Detroit and Cleveland Purple Gangs, with a fleet of rum-running boats so big it was
called "The Little Jewish Navy."
Rothstein was always content to remain a silent partner and sponsor of the bootleggers.
The business was so huge and complex that he could never hope to control it all,
and he knew this. But one illicit trade Arnold Rothstein did in fact reserve for
his own personal monopoly, and woe to the criminal who trespassed thereon—narcotics.
It is not widely known that opium-based narcotics and cocaine were not always illegal
in this country. Up until the late 'Teens dope flowed freely in this country; the
first anti-drug bill, the Harrison Act, was not passed until 1916. There were nowhere
near as many addicts as there are today, but many of them were wealthy socialite
types, silent film stars such as Wallace Beery and others, and they were willing
to pay top dollar for their now illegal blow and smack. Rothstein was never involved
in street pushing; he was strictly importation and wholesale. Some of the first major
drug lords in America, whose names are virtually unknown today, were criminals bankrolled
and supervised by Rothstein, men like Harry Mather, "Dapper Dan" Collins, Sid Stager,
George Uffner, and Jacob "Yasha" Katzenberg.
Rothstein purchased the well-known importing house Vantines as a front for his drug
operation. The establishment had a legitimate reputation and shipments arriving from
China and the Orient received only a cursory inspection. Rothstein made sure that
when he got word someone he knew was furnishing a home that Vantines received part
of that business. It was reported that Jewish songstress and comedienne Fanny Brice
ordered thousands of dollars of furnishings and bric-a-brac from Vantines to adorn
a new apartment, which she got for free after first letting Rothstein's crew remove
certain "extras" hidden away in secret compartments in the consignments. In addition
to Vantines, Rothstein purchased several antique shops and art galleries to serve
as legitimate fronts for his drug business.
In May of 1928, to Rothstein's irritation, the newspapers detected and questioned
him about a series of meetings he held with "Captain" Alfred Loewenstein, the Belgian-born
Jewish stock swindler and war profiteer who was considered to be at that time the
richest man in the world. (see Jewish Histories passim, The Man Who Fell From The
Sky) It has been speculated that Rothstein was working with Loewenstein on some kind
of European dope network, the two fell out, and then Loewenstein literally fell out,
out the door of his private airplane thousands of feet above the English Channel
. Rothstein has been accused of having his co-religionist whacked in this unusual
manner, although there is no hard evidence for this assertion.
But what goes around comes around, and The King of the Jews was about to get his
own ticket punched.
As big as he was, Rothstein never gave up his personal gambling. On September 8,
1928, Rothstein sat down in a Manhattan hotel room for a marathon poker game which
lasted until the morning of the 10th. The other players participating in the game
were all professional gamblers and/or gangsters themselves. They included West Coast
gambler and criminal Nathan "Nigger Nate" Raymond, Alvin "Titanic" Thompson, Joe
Bernstein, and New York bookmaker and leg-breaker George McManus, who acted as Mine
"Nigger Nate" was not black himself, but acquired his nickname because he allegedly
had a sexual taste for dark meat; he had a long record for armed robbery, labor racketeering
and strike-breaking thuggery, as well as suspected homicide. "Titanic" Thompson was
a Texan who wore a ten-gallon hat and spurs even on the sidewalks of New York . He
carried a pearl-handled six-shooter and had been known to use it on suspected cheaters.
He got his nickname because he was a survivor of the sinking of the Titanic. According
to underworld legend, he and his fellow players were so engrossed in their poker
in the saloon lounge that they didn't notice the iceberg hit and the fact that the
ship was sinking until the water was lapping the tilted deck beneath their feet,
and when the others rose to make a break for it Thompson called out, "Oh, come on,
fellers, we got time for one more hand!" George McManus was a hardened Irish thug
who was known to have several notches on his gun.
These were not men that anyone in his right mind would screw around with, but this
time Rothstein slipped badly in the character judgment department. That classic Jewish
hubris and arrogance was about to catch up with Mr. Big.
For once, Rothstein's usual luck or skill at cards deserted him. By the end of the
marathon card game, Rothstein was a big loser. He owed Raymond $219,000, Bernstein
$73,000, and Thompson $30,000. When Rothstein walked out, without so much as signing
an IOU, a couple of the players became irritated. McManus assured the pair, "That's
A. R. Hell, he's good for it. He'll be calling you in a couple of days." But he didn't.
A week passed and Rothstein had still not made good. Rumors began to circulate that
the game was crooked. Rothstein confided to Nicky Arnstein, "A couple of people told
me that the game was rigged." Arnstein's advice to Rothstein was to pay the players
off, "No point to your advertising you were a sucker." The word percolated like wildfire
down Broadway: Mr. Big had welshed on a gambling debt. As sponsor of the game, by
the unwritten law of professional gamblers George McManus had stood guarantor for
all the players, and it was his responsibility to make sure all bets were settled.
As the weeks passed, the pressure began to get to McManus who began drinking and
threatening Rothstein in speakeasies for making him into a patsy.
On the evening of November 4, 1928, Rothstein arrived at Lindy's restaurant on Seventh
Avenue and went to his private booth. Lindy's was Rothstein's office. He kept a regular
schedule there and several men were already waiting to see him when he walked in
that night. One of the men, Jimmy Meehan, ran the Park City Club, one of the city's
biggest gambling dens during the 1920s. Meehan operated the plush club with a bankroll
supplied by Rothstein. He warned Rothstein again to pay up; McManus was getting dangerously
angry. "I'm not afraid of some dumb Irish palooka," replied Rothstein with a sneer.
"I'm Mr. Big, remember? I pay when I feel like paying." Wrong ...
About 10:15, Rothstein received a telephone call. After a short conversation he hung
up and motioned for Meehan to walk outside with him. "McManus wants to see me at
the Park Central," Rothstein said. He then pulled a gun out of his pocket and handed
it to Meehan saying, "Keep this for me, I will be right back." Meehan then watched
Rothstein walk up Seventh Avenue. Why Rothstein handed over his own weapon to Meehan
before going to meet a dangerous adversary like McManus, or why he didn't take some
of his own bodyguards with him, has always been a mystery. Perhaps after years of
immunity from the law and his miraculous ability to get out of any scrape, Rothstein
had indeed come to believe he was invincible and immortal.
The exact sequence of subsequent events has never been satisfactorily explained,
although it is believed that Rothstein did go up to McManus's room 349 in the Park
Central, where he was registered as George Richards. At 10:53 the West 47th Street
police station received a call from the manager of the hotel. Arnold Rothstein had
been found lying shot on the floor by the employee's entrance. About the same time
as the shooting, a .38-caliber revolver was thrown out of one of the windows of the
hotel by someone and bounced off the roof of a taxicab on the street; the driver
turned the gun over to the police. Rothstein was conscious when he was taken to Polyclinic
Hospital and underwent emergency surgery for the removal of a single bullet from
his belly, and for several days he lingered in agony before he died of peritonitis
and blood poisoning at age 46.
George McManus was arrested and tried for the murder, but acquitted due to lack of
evidence, and the defense's case was helped by the fact that to give the man his
due, even in his final death throes Arnold Rothstein had held to the code of the
underworld and refused to name the man who had shot him.
Rothstein's estate was almost completely looted by his many crooked associates, and
his widow Carolyn received only a few thousand dollars in the end out of all the
millions that Rothstein had squirreled away over the years.
The King of the Jews was dead. Sic transit gloria mundi.