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When the Mob Ruled Hollywood
  • June 20, 2011 : 20:06
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They said they didn't have a choice. They paid to pacify the union, and they paid because they were afraid of what Bioff and his mob friends might do to them if they didn't. Schenck said that after debating whether to meet Bioff's demands, he reached a decision when a bomb was found under the roof of a Loew's theater, and he recalled Bioff's threat to MGM head Louis B. Mayer, the previous king of Hollywood, that "there was no room for both of them in this world." Harry Warner said that when he hesitated to give in to yet another of Bioff's requests for money, he hired himself two bodyguards before finally deciding to pay up. Actor George Raft remembered a visit Bioff paid to the set of Each Dawn I Die on the Warner Bros. lot when Bioff was muscling the studio. As Raft told it, Bioff eyed Raft's co-star Jimmy Cagney "with obvious dislike," stared at the klieg lights above Cagney and exchanged glances with the mobsters who accompanied the union boss. Later, Raft said, Bioff told him they were going to drop the light on Cagney but decided not to because they liked Raft. Raft never knew Bioff's motive.

Bioff was both blunt and cavalier about his power over the moguls. He described his negotiating technique this way: "You get in a room with them, and they start yelling and hollering about how they're being held up and robbed. That goes on and on. Me, I'm a busy man and don't get too much sleep. I always go to sleep when that roaring starts. After a while it dies down, and the quiet wakes me up. And I say, ‘All right, gentlemen, do we get the money?' " He always did.

But even as Bioff was threatening and extorting them, the moguls had an odd symbiosis with their nemesis because, in the final analysis, he protected them. In 1939 a group of disgruntled workers was attempting to oust IATSE as its union; when the National Labor Relations Board granted the workers the right to hold an election to determine who would represent them, producers met with Bioff across a long table, with both sides in obvious panic. "IATSE better win," Bioff told the assembled group. "You're damned right it must. You've got to win," Joe Schenck seconded. Of course, Bioff did, partly through intimidation, partly through making sure the members were temporarily taken care of. He defeated John L. Lewis, the legendary beetle-browed almighty head of the United Mine Workers, who supported and financed the opposing United Studio Technicians Guild, by a vote of 4,460 to 1,967. In effect, ­Willie Bioff had become not only Hollywood's new king; he had become its very own Huey Long, a populist dictator.

THE BACKLASH

As it turned out, Bioff loved the power as much as he loved the money, which contributed to his undoing. He would enter local union meetings flanked by two armed mob goons and announce that the national officers had taken over. Or he would sit in the studio heads' offices and make suggestions on the casting of pictures with his feet up on their desks, then demand his bags of cash. The executives all "dance to my music," he would boast while they quaked. And he loved the style of Hollywood. He now took to dressing in flashy tailor-made Western suits that he thought were fashionable. And he carried a special gold-plated, diamond-studded union card in his wallet, a symbol of what made it all possible.

But just as his power was cresting, the king of Hollywood did two things he would come to regret. The first came when he saw 80 acres in the San Fernando Valley and decided he wanted to build a house there. Bioff already had the money for the ranch—$100,000—from his various scams in Hollywood, but he was afraid that if he bought the house himself, the Internal Revenue Service would ask where he had gotten the resources since everyone knew Bioff didn't make nearly enough money from his salary to buy land and build a mansion—at least not legally and on the books. So Bioff asked Joe Schenck for a $100,000 loan to cover his tracks, with the understanding that Bioff would pay back the loan immediately. Schenck balked, not because he didn't want to give Bioff whatever Bioff wanted but because he was afraid a direct transfer of cash from a studio head to the top union leader in Hollywood would clearly seem suspicious. Bioff was unmoved by that explanation. He wanted his house. So Schenck and Bioff devised a plan.

Schenck had his nephew, J. Arthur ­Stebbins, loan Bioff the $100,000, with Schenck guaranteeing the loan. Meanwhile, Bioff agreed to pay back the $100,000 to Stebbins, and he did so secretly while leaving the note in force so the government didn't know Bioff had the money from his own stash.

Bioff then built his ranch, which he named the Laurie A., after his beloved wife, the daughter of a Chicago furniture-store owner. The centerpiece of the mansion was a massive library with expensive first ­editions—ironic for a man who had less than a third grade education. Sitting in his library in his mansion and wearing his loud bespoke suits, Willie Bioff, like the immigrant Jewish moguls from whom he extorted his money, must have thought he had arrived.

But there was a catch. The effect of the transaction that financed Bioff's palace was that Joe Schenck, by guaranteeing the $100,000, seemed to have $100,000 on which he had not paid taxes. That was Schenck's (and Bioff's) first mistake. When a brave IATSE dissident got wind of the "loan," Bioff felt compelled to announce his resignation from the union—though it was only an announcement, not a fact.

Bioff's second mistake was lusting to take over one of the few unions in Hollywood he didn't control: the Screen Actors Guild. Dumpy little Bioff liked the star-studded glamour of the SAG as much as he liked the glamour of his ranch. SAG, however, didn't like Bioff. Of course he didn't let that deter him. Instead Bioff showed up uninvited to a negotiating session between SAG and MGM production head Louis B. Mayer at ­Mayer's lavish Santa Monica beach house and so frightened Mayer and the other executives with his appearance that they quickly acceded to SAG's wishes.

Bioff may have thought this would endear him to the actors and bring them into his fold. He was wrong. Bioff's announcement that IATSE was going to lay claim to SAG, the Writers Guild and the Directors Guild only made him the target of more opprobrium in Hollywood, especially when he granted a charter to a SAG splinter group as a way to usurp the union. In November 1939, after Bioff's victory over John L. Lewis, Daily Variety editor Arthur Ungar began running editorials warning of Bioff's pernicious influence on the industry. (Ungar asked for and received a bodyguard from the Los Angeles Police Department.) More significant, that same month, popular syndicated columnist ­Westbrook Pegler, a journalistic firebrand, began running his own series about Mafia infiltration into the unions, and he singled out Willie Bioff as Exhibit A, hammering away at Bioff's disreputable past and mob ties. At the same time, a group of disgruntled left-wing unionists who thought Bioff was too cozy with the studio heads and who feared his mob connections began its own counteroffensive, forming a group called the White Rats to challenge Bioff's power. For the first time since his arrival in Holly­wood in 1935, nearly five years earlier, Willie Bioff was under siege.

The prime mover against him, however, was actor Robert Montgomery, the sturdy Republican leader of SAG. Terrified that Bioff and his friends might actually succeed in taking over his union, Montgomery had been tipped by an informant, possibly a bookkeeper, that something might be amiss with Bioff's loan from J. Arthur Stebbins. Working with the White Rats, ­Montgomery somehow got hold of Stebbins's check to Bioff and notified Attorney General Frank Murphy, who was under increasing pressure from Pegler's columns to do something about Bioff. Alerted that he was being investigated, Schenck called Bioff to his office and recommended that he go away for a while. Bioff declined the offer.

Meanwhile, Pegler had dredged up an old pandering conviction of Bioff's from Chicago and discovered that he had served only a few days of his six-month sentence before jumping bail. Bioff was arrested for this infraction on the very day he was to sit down with the producers to discuss how to stave off another projectionists' strike, and he insisted he was the victim of plutocrats. "Maybe I have been doing too much for the working man," he told reporters as he flew to Chicago to appear at a hearing on the pandering charge. Eventually, he was forced to serve the remainder of his sentence.

While all this was going on, the attorney general's investigation of the Schenck loan proceeded. Tracing the money proved a slow, painstaking process, taking more than a year of poring over accounting records and ledgers, but in the end Murphy dispatched a special assistant, Charles Carr, to Hollywood to determine if the undeclared $100,000 had been a payoff to Bioff. Carr impaneled a grand jury, which wound up indicting not Bioff but Joe Schenck for income tax evasion.

Schenck stood trial in New York federal court in the spring of 1941, some six months after Bioff had been released from prison in Chicago. It was a star-studded prosecution. Among his character witnesses were Chico and Harpo Marx and Charlie Chaplin. Nevertheless, Schenck was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison. In hopes of lessening his sentence, he decided to cooperate with the authorities trying to nab Bioff and admitted that Bioff had been extorting money from the industry for years. (He also told Murphy that Bioff was worth every cent he paid him and more.) For his cooperation, his sentence was reduced to 13 months, and he would serve only four of those. Now it was Bioff's turn.

THE TRIALS

Five weeks after Schenck's conviction, Bioff was finally indicted for extortion along with George Browne and Nick Circella, who promptly went on the lam. "I never extorted a dime from anybody," Bioff growled. In fact, on the very day the indictment was handed down, Bioff was in Hollywood up to his usual tricks. A rival union, the Conference of Studio Unions, headed by Herbert Sorrell, a former stevedore who was almost as stiff-backed as Bioff, was trying to organize the notoriously union-averse Walt Disney Studio and had authorized a strike. Bioff, trying to weasel his way into the situation, struck a deal with Disney by which he agreed to settle the issue, even though his own union wasn't involved, then had his henchmen approach the union leaders outside a rally, order them into a car and essentially kidnap them to Bioff's San Fernando Valley ranch, where Walt's brother, Roy, and several other Disney executives were waiting. Bioff told them that if the strikers signed with IATSE they would be back at work in the morning with raises. And he offered the strike leaders a $50 bonus and time off whenever they wanted it. The leaders refused, aghast that Walt would have brought the notorious racketeer into their consultations.

Bioff and Browne went to trial in New York in October 1941, with the Schenck brothers as the primary witnesses against them. Bioff took the stand in his own defense, chipper, blasé and as defiant as ever. While in prison serving his pandering sentence, he had come up with an explanation for why he received money from the moguls. He insisted he never extorted money, that he was in fact only helping the Schencks, who had told him they were being sandbagged by various state legislatures that were passing laws inimical to the interests of the film industry and that in order to fight these forces, they needed lots of money, which they asked Bioff to collect from other executives and then ferry across the country because the money couldn't be shown on their books. Bioff, being the nice fellow he was, actually did them a favor. And that's how, he said, he came into the bundles of cash.

The jury believed saturnine Joe Schenck rather than shifty Willie Bioff, and Bioff and his nominal boss, George Browne, were both convicted. It took the jurors less than two hours of deliberation. Browne's eyes welled with tears when the verdict was read, but Bioff just sat there benignly, stroking a scar on his chin. "If these racketeers, these Chicago hoodlums, can get to a place where they can cast their shadows on the lives of 125,000 American workers [the total membership of IATSE] and their families," the presiding judge told the jury in commendation, "it constitutes in my mind, gentlemen, a national scandal." Browne and Bioff were fined $30,000 and sentenced to eight and 10 years, respectively, in federal prison.

And that could have been the end of the Willie Bioff saga if he hadn't had what he called a jailhouse conversion shortly after the attack against Pearl Harbor, prompting him to petition the court for his release so he could fight and, failing that, telling the court he was willing to cooperate with the federal authorities in convicting the ­Chicago mobsters to whom Bioff had sent—or at least was supposed to have sent—two thirds of what he extorted. The truth, as Bioff advised another potential witness, was that the feds already had the goods on the Capone gang extortion scheme and "don't you go to jail for anybody."

Now terrified, the mob had Louis "the Butcher" Buchalter transferred to Bioff's cell block so he could kill Bioff before he could testify, but Bioff was tipped off and told the prosecutor. Foiled, the mob next demanded that Nitti himself do the honors since he had been responsible for bringing Bioff into the outfit. Nitti never got the chance. On March 19, 1943, the New York U.S. attorney Matthias Correa brought indictments against eight members of the old Capone gang—including Johnny Rosselli, Bioff's L.A. contact, and Frank Nitti—for having skimmed or extorted $2.5 million from Hollywood. Nitti avoided trial by putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger alongside a railroad track near his home in Riverside, Illinois in full view of a trainload of passengers.

At trial Bioff was the star witness. In nine and a half days of testimony, he told the story of how the mob, worried about Pegler's denunciations of Nick Circella, had ordered Circella to cut his ties with IATSE lest the union be connected to the mob and how he had said he would quit IATSE if Circella was forced to leave. For which he was advised that the only way anyone left the business with the mob was "feet first." He confessed that he had "lied and lied and lied" and that he was now prepared to tell the truth, though there didn't seem to be much soul-searching in his testimony. He called himself "ruthless" in the pursuit of money and a "low uncouth ­person…a despicable man." He recounted the story of how he had demanded the two projectionists per booth, and then, when asked by the prosecutor if two men were necessary, he said, "To be honest with you, I was never inside a booth. I wouldn't know." He described how he had asked a local union leader to up his demands to the employers to apply pressure on them and how he then cut a deal with the frightened employers for a $150,000 payoff. He crowed that he could get a raise for himself any time he wanted and "I wouldn't have had to ask Browne." And he joked that while the Chicago mob had thought it was getting its two-thirds cut of his action, he was actually cheating them. "That's one spot I beat them, but I understand they intend to sue me," he joked.

For once Bioff was convincing. On December 22, 1943, after 81 witnesses and 750,000 words of testimony, the seven defendants were found guilty of extortion. Like Bioff, they received 10-year sentences . Reports cited Bioff as the primary reason for the verdict. Just like that, the Capone gang was out of the movie business.

RETIREMENT

Exactly one year after the verdict, Willie Bioff and George E. Browne, who had collapsed during his testimony at the Capone gang trial, were released from the federal prison at Sandstone, Minnesota. The announcement came two days after a federal appeals court upheld the convictions of the seven Chicago mobsters against whom Bioff had testified. In issuing his parole order, Judge Knox said Bioff and Browne would be "permitted to live quietly, anonymously and safe from retribution by their former associates."

But quietly and anonymously did not describe how Willie Bioff had ever lived, and he wasn't about to change. He returned to Hollywood, where he was welcomed with open arms by the studio heads. By one account, he sashayed through the industry's favored watering holes with a starlet on each arm, though this may have been decoration since Bioff was always faithful to his wife and she was deeply devoted to him. According to other accounts, he began dabbling in union politics again, though IATSE, at its 1948 convention, completely severed its ties with him by formally voting him out of the organization.

At least that is what he was doing when four of the Capone defendants were released from prison in 1947—after the sudden and highly suspicious intervention of several Truman Justice Department attorneys with ties to the Missouri mob. Still, Bioff seemed unconcerned. With his nemeses out, he and wife Laurie retreated to Arizona, where he assumed the alias William Nelson, the surname his wife's maiden name. Even then Bioff had a hard time receding. He relocated to Las Vegas for a time, working under manager Gus Greenbaum as a social director at the mob-owned Riviera Casino—hardly the place to be inconspicuous. When he returned to Arizona, the onetime terror of Hollywood, now posing as a retired businessman, got involved in Republican politics, befriending conservative Barry Goldwater, a 1952 GOP candidate for U.S. senator, who later professed to have absolutely no idea who William Nelson really was. Bioff raised funds for Goldwater, traveled on ­Goldwater's campaign plane, even went into business briefly with Goldwater's nephew. William Nelson was now part of the white-shoe Republican establishment.

Despite the thin hedge of "William ­Nelson," Bioff must have thought bygones were bygones, that his testimony was ancient history, that all had been forgiven. Obviously it wasn't. Though his murder was never solved—"We have to learn a lot about Bioff we didn't know," Maricopa County policeman Ralph Edmundson said at the time—someone obviously still harbored bitter memories, bitter enough to blow Bioff 25 feet out of the roof of his pickup.

And so Willie Bioff disappeared. His estate was estimated at $60,000, less than his yearly take from a single studio during his heyday, and an auction of the paintings and sculptures he had proudly collected fetched next to nothing. But authorities did find one vestige of Bioff's glory years: At the time of the explosion, Bioff had been wearing a seven-carat diamond ring that had blown clear off his finger and was later recovered. It was the kind of gaudy trinket Bioff would have loved. Then again, it was the kind of thing his marks among the Hollywood moguls would have loved too. And that may have been the point of Bioff's sojourn there. In Hollywood, the dream and nightmare, America's romance with illusion and her romance with power, her soft idealism and her hard pragmatism all commingled until it was hard to tell the difference between them. Willie Bioff may have appeared to be the darkness that encroached on Hollywood's bright light, but in the end he was just another ambitious immigrant trying to live out his country's high promise.

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read more: News, issue july 2011

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