Bompensieros, Dragnas, and Adamos celebrate in Los Angeles, 1948
“During World War II,” a retired San Diego policeman told me, “the hoods in the downtown bars made plenty of money. Don’t let anybody fool you. The reason they made more money than anyone else was because they could get liquor where a square couldn’t. During the war, booze wasn’t always available, there just wasn’t enough booze to go around, sure, that’s true. There were some strange names of liquor they were selling. But these hoods could get all the booze they wanted.
Frank Bompensiero in the Army. "He was older than everyone in his platoon. The guys called him ‘Pops.’ He was stationed in El Paso, Texas."
"A square had a bar, he could have a hell of a time getting beer or whiskey, but the hoods got beer and whiskey. They got bootleg stuff. What they did was to bring booze in that didn’t show on any bills of lading. They’d sell that. I think mostly from the East the bootlegged whiskey would come. Some of it was hijacked liquor. During World War II, liquor was regularly hijacked. I recall a $200,000 deal, a liquor truck hijacked in Del Mar, coming into San Diego. But these hoods, they had the connections to get liquor. A straight person couldn’t pick up a phone and call Cleveland and Chicago and say, ‘How about we do each other a favor?’ These guys had the connections.
In 1946 Frank Bompensiero would move his family into a home at 5878 Estelle Street, near what is now the Rolando area.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
“They had to keep decent records, but they all skimmed. No doubt in my mind that they skimmed. They would run two tapes. They would run the tape for the night and then they would rerun a tape after closing time and they would take one-third or one-fourth off that tape of their intake. A simple operation. Easy to do. Easy to run two tapes. You don’t pay any tax on what you take off. It’s all clean money. Dollar for dollar, it’s all yours. No taxes. Every buck you take in like that is yours. Another reason these guys liked to have bars was that it gave them alibi income, so they could hide away what else they were up to. They made fortunes during the war. They moved into bigger homes in better neighborhoods. A lot of them moved into Kensington.”
After the war Bompensiero became partners with Frank Paul Dragna and Louis Tom Dragna in ownership of the Gold Rail at 1028 Third Avenue, downtown San Diego.
Frank Bompensiero got none of that money. He was penniless in the 1920s when he rode a freight train from Milwaukee to San Diego. His father died in 1925 in Sicily, leaving Bompensiero, the oldest child, to provide for four sisters, a younger brother, and his mother. Bompensiero married Thelma Sanfilippo in 1929. His only child, Mary Ann, was born in 1931. During Prohibition, in San Diego, Bompensiero engineered stills arid sold bootleg wine and whiskey.
From left: Jewel Fratianno, Jimmy the Weasel Fratianno, Bompensiero (center), Thelma; at Tops, early 1950s. "There was music at Tops. People danced."
But for most of the two decades after Bompensiero arrived in California, he worked for Los Angeles’ Mafia chieftain Jack Dragna. He did Dragna’s rough stuff — threatening, extorting, beating, killing. He lingered for a year in federal prison on McNeil Island on a bootlegging conviction. For almost two years, after he killed Phil Galuzo in 1938, he was in hiding, shunted from one Mafia home to another in Tampa and Detroit and New York and small vineyard towns in California.
From left: Frankie Drangna, Frankie’s date, Marie Adamo, Momo Adamo, Frances Dragna, Jack Dragna, Frank Desimone, Anna Dragna (third from right), Mary Ann (far right); New Year’s Eve, 1947
Bompensiero dropped out of school after third grade. He had no skills other than those Dragna employed. While Bompensiero carried out Dragna’s dirty work, Dragna, like Tony Mirabile and his brother Paul in San Diego, carried money to the bank. Thelma Bompensiero stood on her feet eight and ten hours a day, six days a week, in retail clothing shops, to help pay rent and keep the family fed; Jack Dragna’s wife Frances, during this same period, was busy decorating her Los Angeles home with European antiques and directing Mexican gardeners in planting exotic bulbs that Frances ordered from East Coast greenhouses
From the Los Angeles Times, June 21, 1947. After Siegel's death, Meyer Lansky’s protective hand no longer extended over what Jack Dragna called the “Jew boys." Dragna began to work out a plot to kill Cohen.
Dragna cohort, Girolamo “Momo" Adamo, and Momo’s wife Marie, also living in Los Angeles, slipped into swank clothes and partied in LA nightclubs. Johnny Rosselli, a Dragna advisor, ordered custom-made suits, tooled about LA in expensive cars, and rented Beverly Hills apartments in buildings where movie stars lived.
In the fall of 1941, Frank and Thelma and Mary Ann, 10 going on 11, moved to Rolando Village into a house on 4573 Campo Drive. Her parents, Mary Ann said, didn’t want her going from school to school. They were determined to settle down and stay in San Diego. Mary Ann enrolled in La Mesa Elementary School. Her father, as far as Mary Ann recalls, worked as a card dealer. Her mother, as she had during 1940 in Los Angeles, when Bompensiero was in hiding and the family lived under the name “Martin,” took a job as a clerk in a dress shop.
Mary Ann’s wedding announcement. Did Mary Ann realize that the FBI attended her wedding? No, she said, but added that she wasn’t surprised.
December 7, 1941, Mary Ann was sure that she and her parents were in San Diego. “We always went to dinner at my grandmother Sanfilippo’s at noon. And then afterwards, my cousins and I went to the movies. We were all sitting together that day at the Spreckels Theatre and they stopped the movie and said that the Japs had bombed Pearl Harbor and that we all were to get up out of our seats and go straight home.” Mary Ann does not recall her father’s response to Pearl Harbor.
From the Los Angeles Times, August 19, 1948. "Bompensiero swung the sawed-off shotgun in front of Hooky’s face and ordered, ‘Get back in there.’"
We do not have another sighting of Bompensiero until May 20, 1942, when police knocked on the door of the La Jolla Riding Stables, an illegal gambling establishment where Bompensiero served as doorman and general enforcer. According to the police report, when plainclothes officers approached the stable’s door, Bompensiero peered through the door’s peephole and asked the officers to show their cards. As the plainclothesmen riffled through their wallets, Bompensiero opened the door. The police walked past him, up the stairs, and on to the second floor where they found roulette wheels, poker chips stacked on tables, a blackjack table layout and chips. Bompensiero was arrested for conspiracy to commit gambling and fined $100.
(In 1950, when called to testify in Los Angeles before the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, Bompensiero would explain this event in this way: “Once, before I got in the Army, I tried to get a job in La Jolla in a gambling house there, and as I get in there, the same night they opened, the place got arrested, and I never got the job. So I was never in the gambling business in all my life.”)
Bompensiero enlisted in the Army on June 3, 1942, shortly after his gambling arrest. and received an honorable discharge on October 6, 1943. “My father,” said Mary Ann, “was 37 when he went into the Army and 38 when he got out. He was older than everyone in his platoon. The guys called him ‘Pops.’ He was stationed in El Paso, Texas, where he used to say, after the war when all the other men who’d served would sit around and brag, ‘Well, I fought the Battle of the Mosquitoes.’ The platoon he was with, the rest of them were sent to Africa. I think because of his age, they kept my father in the States.”
Bompensiero’s sister Josephine died while he was in the Army. Mary Ann was sure that her father did not come home for the funeral. “She died in 1942 in childbirth. That was the first funeral I ever went to. At the viewing and Rosary the night before, they had the casket open. The women who came from Porticello have a group they call La Madonna del Lume — Our Lady of Light — and the ladies from that group dressed Josephine in the Madonna del Lume veil and dress. It was a pale blue, choir robe-type dress. Her infant was cradled in her arms. People were sobbing and crying. I still can see that tiny baby, cradled in her arms.
“Anyway, while my father was away, my mother and I were living in Rolando Village. What’s the Army send you? Very little money. My mother was working at a dress shop in Hillcrest on Fifth Avenue called Margaret Lucas Dress Shop. My dad had left us his car, a green Buick. I came home from school and there was no car. We couldn’t make the car payment. They took the car away, repossessed it. Nobody said, ‘Oh, you’re going to lose your car, we’ll make the payment.’ No Momo Adamo, no Jack Dragna, no Johnny Rosselli. No nobody came around to help out. My poor mother had to walk in heels, six or eight long blocks to the bus. My mother didn’t have it that easy all of her life. We didn’t live the glamorous life that some people thought we lived. No way.
“Every single Sunday that my father was in the Army for a year, every Sunday, my mother and I took two buses to go to my grandmother Bompensiero's. The bus at that time from Rolando Village took a half hour to get to Horton Plaza, then we took the bus from Horton Plaza down to Columbia Street. Had to be down there for twelve o’clock dinner because my father was in the Army and it was to show respect to my grandmother that we had to go. We didn’t go to my mother’s mother, to the Sanfilippos. Nope. My mother was respectful, a good wife, and that's what you’re supposed to do, so she did it.
“But she didn’t like doing it, and this is what I think made my mother so mad at the Bompensiero side of the family. She just couldn’t get over it. On Sunday you got dressed up. My mother was always dressed and wore high spiked heels. She had a beautiful bright red suit. And because she had that red suit on one Sunday when we went to dinner at my grandmother Bompensiero’s, somebody wrote my father in El Paso, 'What is your wife doing in a red suit, only putanas wear red.’ That did it for my mother.
“When my father got out of the Army, my mother said, ‘Frank, I did my duty. I’m not going down to your mother’s anymore.’ She said, ‘I’m not going to be there every Sunday. You want to go see your mother on Sunday, you go see your mother.’ She went on Sunday once in a while. But after that business with the red suit, we never again went every Sunday to the Bompensiero side of the family."
Mary Ann isn’t sure what her father did for money after he received his honorable discharge. She thinks that perhaps he again worked as a dealer in card rooms. He was often gone from home.
The only other glimpse of Bompensiero that remained from 1942 and 1943 came from a long-retired member of San Diego law enforcement. I will call him “Mr. Willis.” In his three decades with several police agencies, Mr. Willis had found Bompensiero of particular interest. “A killing down here along in 1942 or 1943 that we thought Frank might have been involved in was this tailor. The story was, this guy had been beating on his wife. He was told, I understand, by Frank, on a couple of occasions, ‘One more time.’ The last time this tailor fellow was seen, he’d left the tailor shop, still wearing his apron, and he was carrying a pair of shears under the apron in his right hand and he crossed Broadway to the south side and was walking east. That’s the last time anybody was conscious of his being anyplace and he was never found. No body. Kind’ve funny, walking with a pair of shears. Maybe he was going to cut some clothes for some guy. This killing, it had nothing to do with organized crime. I think it was a pure family problem. This guy had been beating up on his wife. Frank warned him to stop it. He didn’t stop. So a lot of people thought Frank finally lost patience and took care of it."
In 1945 Bompensiero was working as bouncer and general majordomo for Tony Mirabile at the Rainbow Gardens. The only glance we get of Bompensiero in this year comes on lanuary 21, the day after Roosevelt was inaugurated for his fourth term. Police officers stopped Bompensiero for a traffic violation as he was driving home in an automobile registered to Sam Ferrara. The officers who made the stop searched the car and found in the glove compartment a loaded and cocked .38-caliber Colt automatic. Bompensiero denied any knowledge of the pistol. Ferrara, when questioned, explained that he had bought the Colt from a sailor and that indeed Bompensiero knew nothing about it. That ended that.
To explain what happened next in Bompensiero’s life needs a detour. During Prohibition Los Angeles bootleggers battled for command of the liquor business; after Prohibition’s end, these same men battled for command of illegal off-track betting outlets. Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and his henchman Mickey Cohen in the late 1930s wrenched control of Los Angeles’ bookmakers, including those dominated by Jack Dragna. From necessity rather than choice, Dragna made an uneasy peace with Siegel and Cohen.
In order to do business, bookies needed lists of odds on various races and race results at tracks around the United States. A bookie needed this data quickly. In the mid-1920s Al Capone formed a partnership with Moses Annenberg, owner of the Daily Racing Form, the newspaper that bettors on horses were never without. According to Jay Robert Nash’s World Encyclopedia of Organized Crime, “Capone and Annenberg had conceived of a way in which a national crime cartel could control horse-betting results throughout the nation, achieved by Annenberg’s newly formed Nationwide News Service which Capone bankrolled. This service would send over AT&T wires all the results from every track, only seconds after each race had been run, and feed this information to every betting parlor, poolroom, and gambling den in America.”
According to Carl Sifakis’s The Encyclopedia of American Crime, ’The service received its information from telegraph and telephone wires hooked into 29 race tracks and from those tracks into 223 cities in 39 states, where thousands of pool rooms and bookie joints operated in violation of local laws.” The wire service itself was not illegal. Nationwide did not sell its information directly to bookies. Rather, it sold its service to distributors who then sold the information to bookies. Using that information to make book was illegal.
In 1939, Moses Annenberg was about to be sentenced for income tax fraud. He sold Nationwide, by then a multimillion-dollar business, to James Ragen, a Chicago ex-newspaperman. Ragen, not involved in the mob, wished to rid Nationwide of Capone associations. He changed the wire service’s name to Continental Press. The Chicago mob soon tried to muscle a piece of Ragen’s business. Ragen refused. The Chicago mob then offered to buy out Ragen. He refused the offer, saying that the mob would never let him live to collect the check. Meyer Lanksy, deeply invested in illegal gambling, threw up his hands. Bugsy Siegel, with Lansky’s support, in 1942 set up his own competing wire service in California — Trans-American Publishing. Siegel, with Dragna as his cohort and Mickey Cohen and Joe Sica for brawn, forced California bookies to use Trans-American rather than Ragen’s Continental. By the end of World War II, Southern California bookies were paying the Siegel-Dragna combine $100 per day for data from Trans-American’s wires.
In San Diego in the mid-1940s, as many as 100 bookies actively were taking bets. Some worked the bars and others took call-in bets in homes with telephone banks. The rivalry between the Siegel-Dragna Trans-American Publishing and Ragen’s Continental Press Service existed also in San Diego. In San Diego, however, Continental Press Service called itself “Southwest News Service" and was managed by Leonard Brophy, whose brother, Russell Brophy, married to James Ragen’s daughter, managed the Los Angeles branch of Ragen’s Continental Press Service. Trans-American Service had its offices in a Sixth Avenue hotel. Brophy ran Southwest from rooms on Fourth Avenue.
According to an April 8, 1951, San Diego Union article, Brophy had 14 customers and Trans-American had 16. Trans-American, the Union reported, had been operated during the early- to mid-1940s by Johnnie and Pete O’Toole. “The O’Toole operation was controlled by the O’Toole brothers, Frank Bompensiero, Joe Russo, a politician turned petty racketeer, and Bill Wilson, a bookmaker and a former matchmaker at the Coliseum Athletic Club. Bompensiero and his associates, in an effort to force Southwest News Service out of business, called on all the book-makers in San Diego urging them to subscribe to the O’Toole wire service.
“They offered faster service and sometimes used veiled threats as a selling point,’ intelligence sources said. ‘Failing in these methods, they resorted to the practice of calling Brophy by phone and leaving the receiver off the hook to tie up his lines.' "
By 1946, Lansky and Siegel had lost patience with James Ragen’s refusal to sell Continental. They ordered his death. On June 24,1946, in Chicago, a gunman in a passing car shot Ragen. He survived the shooting and was taken to a hospital and put under police guard. Doctors considered Ragen’s condition stable. He remained in the hospital, slowly convalescing. On August 24, hospital attendants were shocked to discover Ragen had died. An autopsy was performed. The coroner’s report noted that there was “enough mercury in Ragen’s body to kill three men. Mercury was administered in rubbing alcohol, injected, or given by enema.” Someone, somehow, got past Ragen’s guards and poisoned him with mercury.
The 1951 Union article concluded: “The Trans-American Wire operation ostensibly ended in June, 1947. ‘Shortly thereafter,’ intelligence sources stated, ‘Brophy admitted that Frank Bompensiero was the real head of Trans-American in San Diego and he drew his authority from Tony Mirabile and Jack Dragna. Brophy admitted that he had to pay Bompensiero $60 weekly out of the Continental-Southwest operations on direct orders from his older brother, Russell Brophy.’ ” (The Union report does not mention that while Bompensiero was in the Army in 1942, Russell Brophy had been severely beaten by Mickey Cohen and Joe Sica. Cohen wrote: “We busted Brophy’s head open pretty good because he got out of line a little bit.”)
By the early days of World War II, according to All-American Mafioso: The Johnny Rossetti Story by Charles Rappleye and Ed Becker, at least 1800 illegal bookmaking outlets were doing business in Los Angeles. By war’s end that number had almost doubled. But, in Nevada, gambling had been legal since 1931. Bugsy Siegel was sufficiently foresighted to recognize that the gluttonous national appetite for illegal gambling could be satisfied, legally, in Nevada. Six days after the nation celebrated World War II’s end, Siegel formed the Nevada Projects Corporation. With funds from Meyer Lansky, Siegel bought 30 acres of wasteland outside Las Vegas, on which he planned to build the Flamingo. Repeatedly, until his death in 1956, Dragna would try to inveigle or grab a piece, almost any piece, of Vegas action. He never would succeed. The Dragna family would be the only big-city Mafia group that did not share in the postwar Vegas profits. Dragna would have to remain content with his interests in illegal gambling in Southern California, with control he gained over several labor unions, with extortion, and with the profit from his banana boats.
A retired Los Angeles policeman talked with me about his surveillance of the Dragna family in the years after World War II. “At that time,” he recalled, “the Dragnas and Momo Adamo were importing bananas. They bought a couple of LCIs [landing craft, infantry] and converted them and put in refrigeration, bringing in bananas up from Costa Rica. They had an outfit they called Latin American Import down on Linden Street in the commercial district of LA, down by the Farmers Market.”
The Los Angeles Times reported about the banana business that Dragna “owns the Santa Maria, a vessel registered in Panama. It plies in the banana trade between Long Beach and Central and South America. [Momo] Adamo reputedly is a partner in this venture.”
“That building,” the retired Los Angeleno continued, “was my very first assignment when I went into Intelligence. They put me in an old apartment hotel room up there that faced back onto Linden, myself and an Italian kid, taking pictures of everyone who came and went from that place — the Dragnas, the whole bunch.
“The Dragnas and Momo also had the Trans-American Wire service that provided the odds on different things. On horses, or whatever, and the usual extortion and shakedown. The wire service came on wires across Hoover Dam. It was a real wire. They would print out the information and deliver it to bookmakers. That was the information that the bookmakers needed because back then there weren’t any scratch sheets. I know that Louis Dragna, Jack’s nephew, back then, was also working down at the banana warehouse, running the wire service to bookmakers, delivering it."
Bompensiero, in September, 1946, would celebrate his 41st birthday. He had served Jack Dragna loyally for 20 years. Bompensiero, with his mother to support and wife and child, still lived from day to day, dependent always on what Thelma could earn in dress shops. At last, Bompensiero was about to receive his reward. August 22, 1946, Bompensiero became partners with Frank Paul Dragna and Louis Tom Dragna in ownership of the Gold Rail at 1028 Third Avenue in downtown San Diego. He would also move his family into a home at 5878 Estelle Street.
Both Jack and Tom Dragna had sons named Frank Paul. My retired Los Angeles policeman friend explained, about the sons: “Jack’s son Frank Paul lost an eye in World War II, so he was ‘One-Eyed Frank Paul.’ Tom’s son Frank Paul never amounted to much, he drove a bread truck; he never really was involved in anything, so he was just ‘Frank Paul.’ Louis Tom was Tom’s other son, older than Frank Paul, and he was the most active one; he, I think, was being groomed to be the boss.”
The Gold Rail altered Bompensiero’s life in several ways. He no longer would be so entirely dependent upon Dragna for money. He would be able to stay in San Diego, near his mother, whom he visited daily, and to make a permanent home in San Diego for Thelma and Mary Ann. And, he would become Dragna’s man, the Mafia’s man, in San Diego.
If San Diego had a godfather when World War II ended, Tony Mirabile, owner and part-owner of myriad bars, clearly was that man. He had garnered his power, in part, by loaning money — between 1935 and 1958, the sum accumulated to $850,000 — without interest, to his Sicilian-American countrymen. But out in the world beyond San Diego’s bar owners, Mirabile was nobody, or, worse than nobody. He was described by “connected men” as a man “who never did any work, couldn’t do any work.” He was known among these men to have paid Jack Dragna, in 1941 or 1942, $150,000 to “make” him. After World War II’s end, Mirabile’s power began to ebb. Rumors had it that Mirabile loaned Bompensiero $20,000 to buy the Gold Rail and that Mirabile “gave” Bompensiero and the Dragnas $25,000 to furnish the Gold Rail; if those rumors are fact, Mirabile likely handed over the money more from fear than from generosity.
I talked one day with a gentleman in his mid-80s, a retired San Diego lawman. About Bompensiero, this gentleman said, “Frank was the only local man who had the connections and the moxie to do things. Frank had the out-of-town connections, the good stuff. Frank was a center of power, you just knew it. Frank was no dummy. You couldn’t help but like the guy because he was man, this guy was all man. Oh boy, he was a little short guy, but he must have weighed 200 pounds on a short frame. I mean built right straight up from the ground, tougher than hell. A lot of difference between him and Tony Mirabile. A lot of difference.”
“The only time my mother and I ever saw the Gold Rail,” said Mary Ann, about her father’s bar, “was when he had already closed up, everybody was out, and he was doing his final work to prepare for the next day. He didn’t want us there during business hours.
“From the outside, the Gold Rail looked like one little round window stuck in a wall. Bars in those days only had a doorway and maybe one small window. Inside was just one, long straight bar, long and narrow. There weren’t any booths or tables. As you walked in the front door, the bar was on the right-hand side and that’s all it was, a bar. And on the left-hand side was a hallway and then a wall. You walked straight back and then you could see that staircase going upstairs.
“My father’s office was upstairs. It was dinky, the size of my bathroom. It had a desk. It had a little teeny refrigerator. It had a little two-burner stove. This was all upstairs where they were supposed to cook for the steak house. My father would get a call at home, from somebody, vice squad or somebody. They’d say, ‘Frank, we’re coming down. You’d better get some food in that refrigerator.’ My father would get up and say, ‘I gotta go put some food in the refrigerator.’
“He had a bartender, Jessie. He wasn’t Italian. My dad would tell Jessie, ‘You get robbed like crazy at a bar. You have to know the bar business.’ My father could look at a bottle and know how many shots were gone out of it. He didn’t measure it with anything. He’d just look at it. He told me, ‘You gonna run a business, you gotta run a business. You gotta be in charge of your stock.’ He would put so many bottles out and he’d say to the guys working there, ‘You see these bottles, keep the stockroom locked up, when you’re through with these bottles, there’s got to be so much money in that register. And if there’s not — you got a problem.’ In other words, he controlled his stock that way and kind of put a little fear in them.
“He was open seven days a week. I don’t think my dad ate three meals a day. I don’t remember his ever sitting down having breakfast, because he’d get up and shower and go. First, he’d drive over to his mother’s on Columbia and have coffee and a chat and give her some money. Then he’d go to the bar. He would stay there at the bar, maybe until six in the evening. Then he’d come home, take a shower. We’d have dinner. He slept for a couple hours after dinner, smoked a cigar, lay on the couch. My mother always had pretty French furniture. She’d look at my dad, stretched out there on the couch, and she’d shake her head and say, ‘Frank, you know, the oil from your hair...’ and she’d want to bring him a towel. He’d say, ‘I don’t want a towel. When this couch gets old and used up, we’ll get rid of it and we’ll get another one. I want to enjoy my furniture.’ He was funny, that way. He would never, ever, at home, use a paper napkin or stainless steel flatware. We didn’t even have stainless steel. We had silver, we had china. My father said, ‘You want a paper napkin, you have one, I want a cloth one.’ He said, ‘What are we saving it for, the company? Who deserves it better than we do?’
“So, after his after-dinner nap, my father got up, put on a clean shirt, and went back down to the bar at maybe eleven or twelve, sometimes as early as eight. They had one car — a blue Hudson and then a green Cadillac — and my mom was taking him, back and forth. She would take him down if she wanted the car for anything, and she’d go pick him up at two in the morning.”
Her dad, Mary Ann said, was never a heavy drinker. “He enjoyed a beer. But he enjoyed beer with certain foods. At home he enjoyed a nice, cold beer, but out of a crystal glass. And he would only pour just enough beer for a few sips. Very cold. He drank scotch. Not Chivas Regal, but J&B or Johnnie Walker Red Label. He paced himself. He’d have a couple of drinks and then if he were out, or my mother and he were out, he’d have wine with dinner.”
Mary Ann said that not infrequently, she meets someone who knew her father when he owned the Gold Rail. She mentioned a couple to whom she’d been introduced. “I don’t know how my maiden name came into the conversation, but it did. The husband asked, 'By any chance was your father’s name Frank?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Jesus, I loved your dad. I was a kid in the Navy. I used to go into the Gold Rail and I was young and I’d get drunk. In those days, they’d roll you. Your father was like a father to me. He would take away my watch, whatever jewelry I had on, take away my money. Leave me with my ID, call a cab, put me in a cab, and tell them, “Take him back to his ship.” ’ He said the next day or two days later when he had leave again he would go to the Gold Rail and my father would have his watch, his money, all packed into an envelope for him. He said that my dad told him, several times, ‘You’re not supposed to get that drunk.’ He said to me, ‘I would have done anything in the world for your dad. He was great. I was a kid and got stupid drunk.’ So, here was this guy, he was not Italian, not Sicilian, he wasn’t in the family and my dad took a liking to him and watched out for him. And that is not by any means the only story like that about my dad.”
I asked Mary Ann about her father’s appearance during the late 1940s. “My dad was broad shouldered, built like a V-8 engine. He was short, five foot nine. He was a dapper dresser. He wore gorgeous suits. He had his suits made. Pinstripe, one-button roll. One-button roll was popular then. Never wore a vest. Had every color there was. I don’t mean gaudy. He wore beige and navy. He tied a beautiful tie, a nice big fat Windsor knot. He always wore a hat. He liked his hats. He wore a homburg. Just like the stuff you saw in the movies in the ’40s. Beautiful handkerchiefs and a topcoat. He wore two shirts a day. He had his shirts made, a dozen at a time, French cuffs, with his initials embroidered on the pocket, white on white. He never wore a sport shirt. For the summer he’d say to the guy who did his shirts, ‘Make all these shirts just like you make ’em for winter.’ So they’d make all these French cuff shirts and then he’d say, ‘Okay, now, cut ’em off to here for the summer,’ and show them where he wanted them cut just above his elbows for short-sleeved summer shirts.”
Her father, said Mary Ann, “loved, absolutely loved to see my mother all dolled up. He’d say to her, ‘Honey, doll up.’ He wanted her to wear strapless dresses. Not that she was showing that much off. She had a darling figure. In other words, he wanted to show her off and actually show himself off too, that she had these beautiful clothes. She was so gorgeous. She wore her hair in a pompadour, because that was the style, then. But she never wore it on her face or real fluffy, it was like in a bustle-back. Not a knot but all brought up in a bustle-type back. She would sit at her dressing table, look in the mirror, look in the front, look in the back, spray cologne. She was beautiful. She wore Shalimar. She also at times would wear Coty’s Emeraude. And Chanel No. 5. I think she preferred Shalimar to Chanel No. 5. She had a huge bottle of Chanel No. 5, from Tijuana, on her dressing table. My dad used to go to Tijuana and visit somebody he called ‘Little Frank’ [Three-Fingered Frank]. I don’t know what his last name was. He must have been 4 foot 11, Little Frank. My father always went by to see him in Tijuana.”
The Bompensieros went out on Saturday night. “My dad would come home in the afternoon. He’d rest for a while. My mother naturally would take longer to dress. It didn’t take my dad long to get dressed. He’d take a shower. He’d turn to my mother and say, ‘What tie, baby, what tie shall I wear?’ He was color-blind. So my mother coordinated his colors. And she picked out his ties for him. Later on, I picked them out. He had beautiful shoes. When he dressed at night he had black patent shoes or spectators.
“Some Saturday nights at Tops, my father had people in from other towns, Chicago or wherever. Or somebody from Los Angeles would come down. Momo Adamo and Marie were still living in Los Angeles then, near Jack Dragna. At the time he was in the banana boat business with Uncle Jack. They would come to San Diego and stay at the El Cortez, but they would have dinner with Memo’s brother Joe and his wife Mary and my mother and father. That’s when I first met Marie. I was young — 13 or 14 or 15. I was fascinated by Momo because of this scar that ran down one side of his face. And the way he would talk. How he would call Marie, ‘Maa-riiii-a!!’ His English was very broken. Memo's was.
“Even though they had waitresses at Tops, when my father was there he’d have this big table and they would bring the bottles out and set them right on the table. So that the drinks were there. So that you didn’t have to wait or want for a drink. And if it wasn’t strong enough — you could pour what you wanted in. The flower girl would go by and he’d buy everybody a flower. Everybody sitting at the table he’d buy a flower. Gardenias, usually.
"There was music at Tops. People danced. My father loved music. At home, he used to say to me, 'Baby, put the Jolson records on.’ He’d be in the shower and he’d sing ‘My Mammy.’ ‘Mammy, how I love you, how I love you, my dear old Mammy... ’ And then he’d whistle the tune, like Jolson did. He was so cute. He was so funny. But at Tops, my dad and mom and their friends sat around and talked and maybe they danced a little bit. The night wore on and it would get to be closing time. My father would call the owner over, whisper to him, ‘We don’t want to go home yet.’ ‘Okay, Frank,’ the owner would say. So two o’clock comes, they locked the door. My dad says, ‘We got to have some music. Do me a favor. Go talk to the musicians and whoever wants to stay, they got a hundred dollars.’ A piano player would stay, a singer might stay. In those days a hundred dollars was a lot of money. So at five o’clock in the morning, he’d give them a hundred bucks each. Waitresses and bartenders he treated very, very well. He knew it was hard to work and he appreciated that.”
Often, Mary Ann said, when her father came home at night from the Gold Rail, or, he and her mother came back with friends from a night out, her father cooked. “He would cook spaghetti with garlic and oil. That’s what they would have instead of going out to breakfast. He loved Italian food. And veal cutlet. He loved veal cutlet. My mother couldn’t stand garlic. Isn’t that crazy? From a pure Sicilian family and not to like garlic. My dad would cook the pasta with garlic, and he’d smile at her and say, ‘Honey, I know you don’t like it, but I enjoy it.’ ”
Sundays, Mary Ann said, were family days. “Everybody had families by then; the inlaws, the outlaws. My mother never had 20, 30 people. She would have 8 or 10. My mother was a good cook but every Sunday was the same meal. If you came over to the house every Sunday for six months in a row, every Sunday you would have spaghetti and meatballs. Salad, the meatballs, the veal cutlets came out with the bread, and vegetables. After dinner the fruit came out, apples, oranges, whatever was in season. We never had heavy sweets for dessert. Only time we had desserts was Italian cookies at the holidays, cannoli for Easter and holidays. We used to sit around the table and talk. We would sit and talk and peel oranges. We had orange-peeling contests. We would go round and round and try not to break the peel.”
In late 1946, when Mary Ann was 16 going on 17, Jack and Frances Dragna “asked for Mary Ann.” As Mary Ann explained it, “They wanted to do an arranged marriage between me and their son Frank Paul, the one they called ‘One-Eyed Frank Paul’ because he lost his eye in the war. Frank was seven years older than I was. This whole thing was, ‘Let’s put the kids together.’ They wanted, so to speak, ‘to keep the marriage in the family.’ Nobody at the time said a word to me about this. I mean, I am just this young girl. What do I know? But my father, I learned later, said to Jack and Frances that we could give it a try but that the marriage would happen ‘only if Mary Ann likes him.’
“My father said, ‘I’m going to send Mary Ann to Los Angeles for a week, with the family, and if she likes him — okay.’ I had no idea. I think I’m just going up to LA to visit my godmother Josie, my Auntie Jo, who had been married to my mother’s brother Frank. He was still alive then, but they were divorced. I think I am just going to spend a few days in LA with her and then I’m going to go spend several days with Anna Dragna at Jack and Frances’s house, and nothing ever entered my mind. So I’m sent up to LA after Christmas for Christmas vacation. I’m at my godmother’s house, my Auntie Jo’s. Anna Dragna, Jack’s daughter, was in college at the time. She came over and picked me up from my Aunt Jo’s.
“Jack Dragna’s house was a pretty house. But their house was not pretentious. Everybody kind of modified things. Nobody lived to the hilt. You didn’t want to live to the hilt because it called attention to you and attention was what you didn’t want. Anyway, Anna’s room was beautiful. She had a French bedroom set. The room wasn’t round, hut on the ceiling they had painted a circle all in hand-painted roses. My mother did my room like that too on LaSalle Street, a border of hand-painted roses.
“For about three or four days, Frankie and Anna in their red convertible took me here and there, all over LA. We’re just being friends, not a word was spoken. Frankie, to me, he was like an older brother. I had no romantic interest in him. I didn't think he was cute at all. I thought he was ugly. He seemed really old to me and he had lost an eye in the war.
“New Year’s Eve comes and I had this white lace dress, nothing gaudy, but strapless, and I was wearing a Merry Widow under it and had my hair up. I was trying to look older. Jack and Frances and Anna and some other people, we all go to some big place downtown and have dinner at this long table. Frankie’s not there yet. I’m sitting with Frances and Anna and Jack Dragna. I don’t know who the other people were. We’re halfway through dinner and here comes Frankie Dragna and he’s got this gorgeous, gorgeous gal on his arm, this terrific tall blonde. She was like a showgirl, not hard-looking, I mean she was so beautiful. You know, as a young girl you look at someone you admire and you wish you could be that beautiful. All I thought at the time was, Boy, I wish I could figure out how to look like that.’ She was gorgeous. And that’s his date. I didn’t care. I was having a wonderful time.
“The next day, Frankie and Anna and I went to the Rose Bowl game. I can’t remember who played [University of Illinois beat UCLA 15-14]. So then the day after that my father came to get me. I think it was a Buick he was driving then, I’m not sure. We’re driving home, just me and my father. My father turns to me and says, ‘So, baby, did you have a good time?’ And I say, ‘Yes, Uncle Jack and Auntie Frances treated me beautiful, and I really like Anna, and we had such a good time. They took me to Chinatown. We went all over in their red convertible.’ And then my dad says, ‘How did you like Frankie?’ I looked at him, ’I liked him, but as a brother, that’s all. Don’t get any ideas.’ Then it registered. All at once, like that old bolt from the sky, I got it. The whole thing registered.
“So then Daddy said, Frankie asked for you.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s too bad, I like him but as a brother, only as a brother, I always wanted a brother.’ And then I said, ‘He liked me, he wants me? He’s asked for me and New Year’s Eve he brings this beautiful girl as his date? What’s he trying to do, show me what my life’s going to be like?’ I got all wound up. I said, ‘Is he going to show me that he wants to marry me, and he wants me to have his children, hut this is what I’m going to be going out with? A guy who brings a blond showgirl type as his date on New Year’s Eve while I sit around with Jack and Frances and Anna in my white dress? If he wanted me, if they asked for me, why did he bring that girl? I don’t want him anyway. Daddy. I wouldn’t have him even if he hadn’t brought that girl.’
“I remember that Daddy reached over and patted my hand and calmed me down and told me not to worry. I didn’t think much more about it, after that. So along in the spring, that same year, Anna Dragna got engaged. We were invited up to the engagement party. Momo and Marie [Adamo] were there with her kids. I was there with my mother and father and a lot of people. Frankie Dragna, of course was there. So, by then. I’ve turned 17. I’m out in the yard, talking to Marie’s son, Paul Adamo, and other guys my age who were there. It was a big, big party, inside and outside, maybe a hundred people. So Frances Dragna comes up to my mother and says, ‘Thelma, look at your daughter over there.’ My mother was so cool. She says, ‘Yes, Frances, what about it?’ Frances comes right back with, ‘Look over there at Mary Ann talking with all those boys. She shouldn’t be over there. Frankie’s not gonna like it.’ And my mother said, ‘Frances, my daughter is not doing a thing wrong. She’s right in front of our eyes, she’s young, she’s talking to the young boys, and besides that, my daughter doesn’t want your son.’ That did it with the idea I was going to marry Frankie Dragna.
“But the nice thing was, I wasn’t forced. Some people, some families, they make the arrangements for the marriage and the girls just smile their way through the whole thing and they do what their daddy tells them. Not me. When I look back on all that I realize that it was the Dragnas that wanted to make that marriage and that poor old Frankie, as far as I know, never knew anything about it. Jack never brought his son in on any of this. That’s how Jack was. But that’s not how my dad was. If I hadn’t been crazy for somebody, my mother and father would not have insisted on an arranged marriage.”
To track Bompensiero’s life, another detour is needed. In June, 1946, 33-year-old Aladena “Jimmy the Weasel” Fratianno had arrived in Los Angeles from Ohio. Fratianno, an ex-con, started making book out of the Chase Hotel in Santa Monica. He quickly made the acquaintance of Salvatore “Dago Louie” Piscopo (aka Louie Merli). A book-maker who’d been in LA since the 1930s, Dago Louie also served as driver and bagman for Johnny Rosselli. Dago Louie introduced Jimmy to the Dragnas. Through the Dragnas, Fratianno met Rosselli, Frank and Tony Milano, James Iannone, Momo Adamo, Anthony “Tony Dope” Delsanter, Simone Scozzari, James Licavoli, “Leo the Lip” Moceri, Charles Dippolito and his son Joseph “Joe Dip” Dippolito, who owned a vineyard in Cucamonga, Sam Bruno, Nick Licata and his son Carlo Licata, Carmen Carpinelli, attorney Frank Desimone, Biaggio Bonventre, Mickey Cohen, and Frank Bompensiero.
A retired Los Angeles policeman told me about seeing Fratianno during the late 1940s, “When he first came to LA, he was just a small-town-bookie type. We watched him, but he didn’t appear to be much of anything. He was just a punk from Cleveland. He worked for the Dragnas and he worked for Mickey.”
On the evening of June 21, 1947, Walter Winchell began his radio newscast with “Flash! Beverly Hills, California. As Confucius say, ‘Gangland gold always pay off in lead.’ ” Winchell went on to announce that 42-year-old Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel had been murdered.
The question of who murdered Siegel would never be answered. Some stories have it that Dragna’s family made the hit; others have it that out-of-town men, sent by Siegel’s old friend Meyer Lansky, did the job.
Siegel's murder altered Southern California’s crime syndicate's balance of power. In All-American Mafioso: The Johnny Rosselli Story, Charles Rappleye and Ed Becker postulate, “Eliminating Bugsy Siegel may have bolstered Dragna’s ego, but it left the Los Angeles underworld in a state of chaos. Siegel’s mercurial lieutenant Mickey Cohen was assigned control of book-making in 1942 with Dragna and Rosselli’s consent, but with Siegel gone, Cohen renounced any ties to the Italians."
After Siegel's death, Meyer Lansky’s protective hand no longer extended over what Jack Dragna called the “Jew boys." Dragna began to work out a plot to kill Cohen and break Cohen’s bookmaking franchise. An operation of this size and complexity needed soldiers. Dragna would have to enlist new men.
Dago Louie, soon after Siegel’s murder, set up a meeting between Jimmy Fratianno and Johnny Rosselli. The meeting took place in September, 1947, in what Jimmy described to Ovid Demaris as Dago Louie’s “parlor.” Fratianno explained to Rosselli that he wanted to be “made.” In Demaris’s The Last Mafioso: The Treacherous World of Jimmy Fratianno, Fratianno recalled the conversation: “Johnny, I’ve been wanting this since I was a kid. I knew the Italians on the Hill had something special going for them, but it’s so fucking hard to crack.”
To which Jimmy remembered Rosselli replying: “That’s right, Jimmy, and that’s the way it should be. When you get the wrong guy in there, you’ve got to clip him. There’s no pink slip in this thing."
The scene of Jimmy’s becoming a “made man" opens The Last Mafioso. Jimmy’s “making" took place in the basement of a winery on South Figueroa Street in Los Angeles. “Made” with him, according to Demaris’s book, were Dominic Brooklier, Charley Dippolito, Dago Louie, and Tom Dragna’s son, Louis Tom. Jack Dragna initiated the new men, according to a further account in Rappleye and Becker’s All-American Mafioso, “incanting in Sicilian with a dagger and a revolver lying crossed on the table before him. John Rosselli greeted the initiates at the door and led them to Dragna.”
In Vengeance Is Mine: Jimmy the Weasel Fratianno Tells How He Brought the Kiss of Death to the Mafia, Michael J. Zuckerman uses Fratianno’s testimony in a later deposition to tell the story of Jimmy’s “making.” Jimmy was asked, “Who decides if a person can become a member of La Cosa Nostra?”
His answer: “Well, number one, you’ve got to be proposed [by a member]. The boss decides if you’re to become a member, the bosses of the Family.... Sometimes you have to do something significant, like kill somebody.”
Then, Fratianno describes his initiation. “There were five of us.... I think at the time we had fifty to sixty members, and maybe forty to forty-five were present. They had a long table. The boss and underboss would sit on one side; the capos on the end. There was a gun and a sword in the middle of the table crossing each other.
“We would all stand up. We would hold our hands together, and the boss would rattle something off in Sicilian.... After that they would prick your finger with a sword or with a pin to draw blood. And they take you around to each member, introduce you and you kiss them on the cheek. That’s the initiation.”
After the ceremony, Fratianno and Rosselli celebrated in Dago Louie’s parlor. “For a while there,” Fratianno told Rosselli, “I felt like I was in church.”
Mary Ann, meanwhile, was attending Grossmont High School. “I should have gone to Hoover High, but my father didn’t like the reputation. He felt Hoover was kind of rough. We lived on Estelle, then, but I gave a different address, one of my girlfriends’.
“My girlfriends and I hung out at my house. Because my father didn’t want me to spend the night at anybody’s house. He wanted his daughter home. Saturday night, kids would come to my house — Beverly, Betty Dodd, and my cousin, Lorraine, and they’d spend the night. I had a small bedroom with a four-poster bed. The four of us would all sleep in that bed, two at the head of the bed and two at the foot of the bed. We’d stay up half the night.
“My mother would be home or maybe she’d go play cards with her lady friends who lived close to the Gold Rail in Little Italy. At two o’clock after the Gold Rail closed, my mother would pick up my father.
"Saturday nights, when my girlfriends stayed over, we would still all be up. We would be smoking. We were just trying it. Well, we’d be up. We were smoking, trying to smoke really was more like it. We weren’t smokers. We’d have the windows open. And then we’d hear the car drive up and, boom, we’d jump into bed.
“My father would walk in the front door and you could hear him asking my mom, ‘Anybody been smoking in here?’ My mother smoked, she’d say, ‘Frank, no, I don’t smell smoke.’ She covered for us.
“This one night, I remember, we’re pretending we’re sound asleep, right? My girlfriend, Betty Dodd, was where
I usually am. My father would always come into my room when he got home and kiss me goodnight on my forehead. I don’t care if he came in at three or four o’clock in the morning. He came in my room and kissed me goodnight on my cheek or my forehead. So he leans over and kisses not me, but Betty. We burst out laughing. My father, though, is truly embarrassed. He says, ‘Oh my God, Betty, I’m sorry.’ Betty said, ‘That’s okay, Mr. Bompensiero, that’s okay.’ ”
Mary Ann said that as a teenager, she “pretty much stayed out of trouble. My dad was always warning me, ‘-Don’t do this. Don’t do that.’ He would say, ‘Don’t ever steal anything.’ He said, ‘If you’re going to do anything, go big, because you get the same name.’ He’d say, ‘Don’t ever steal anything. You don’t need to steal anything.’ Shoplifting is what he meant. You know how kids will shoplift. Not me. Never. I would have disgraced him, are you kidding? ‘Frank’s daughter gotta steal, when she’s got a hundred dollars in her pocket?’ Which, then, in those days you could buy a whole outfit.”
I asked Mary Ann if her father ever grounded her. “Never,” she said. “For all he knew, I never even went out. My mother was the one who would let me go out once in a while. But my father didn’t want me dating. Are you kidding? I was my daddy’s pet. I could do no harm except go out with boys. He wasn’t allowing anything like that. For all I knew if you French kissed you’d get pregnant. I knew about life what my mother told me. Which was not much.
“In 1948, when I was 17, I was going out with Jack Lonnie Roberts, whose nickname was Dutch. Nelson Roberts Sr., his father, was a big shot with the San Diego Union. He was an advertising manager. Dutch’s parents were divorced. We were both the same age. Dutch was gorgeous. He looked a lot like Tab Hunter. Dutch had lied about his age and been in the military. He wasn’t in school anymore. My father didn’t want me seeing him or even talking to him. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Dutch, he just thought it was getting too serious and he thought we were too young. He also probably wanted me to be married to an Italian. I was allowed to go on dates, but they had to be highly supervised. For instance, I could go to all the Catholic formal dances. But he was very careful about who I went out with and if I went out at all.
“It was April 4. My mother knew I was going to a wedding with Dutch. Dutch was the best man in his buddy Larry’s wedding. Everybody got married young in those days. I was going to the wedding with him. My father didn’t know. It was on a Saturday afternoon. I wore a gray suit, and my mother said to me, ‘You’re not going to get any ideas and run away and get married are you?’ I said, ‘Mama, the day I walk out of here with my white suit on,’ because I did have a white suit, ‘is the day you might have to worry about it.’
“We went to the wedding and were partying afterwards. It got later and later. Dutch was driving his mother’s Plymouth. He said, ‘Let’s go get married.’ I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ He said, ‘We’re going to catch hell anyway.’ So we drove all the way to Yuma. Didn’t kiss. Didn’t neck, pet, nothing. I swear to you. I was a virgin. I wasn’t touched. I was petrified of doing anything like that. I knew my father would kill me. So we got married in Yuma, turned around, crossed the Arizona border. When we got to the border, the officers there asked us, 'You Bompensiero and Roberts?’
“The border people said, 'Bompensiero and Roberts! Congratulations, kids. You got married, right?’ We nodded. We were petrified. The border officer said, ‘Well, kids, you just made it, then. There’s an all-out bulletin out for you two.’
“How they knew who we were of course is that when I didn’t get home, my mother said to my father, ‘Frank, I let her go to the wedding.’ My mother knew, too, that we were driving Dutch’s mother’s car. So they got the license number and a description of the car and called the police and got out this all-points bulletin.
“So we drive home. I felt like I was going to die. We drive up Estelle Street and there’s every car out of my family — my Aunt Grace’s car, my mother’s sister Annie, my grandmother, everybody was there. It was like when somebody dies in an Italian family, the whole family comes over. I said, 'Dutch, we’ve got to go find a phone booth and I’ve got to call home. I can’t walk in there.’ So we went to the gasoline station on El Cajon Boulevard and I called. My mother answered the phone. ‘Mary Ann,’ she said, ‘is that you?’ I said, ‘Mama, Mama, yes, it’s me.’ Boom, she slammed the phone down on me. She was so distraught. She was relieved I guess to hear that we were alive. So we go home.
“Oh, it was bad. My father was there and my whole family was there. My grandmother Bompensiero was there, in her black dress. My father had on a white shirt, unbuttoned, he was chewing his cigar. He had a funsha — that means a ‘long face.’ Oh, God, he was pacing, pacing, pacing. He looked over at me, and said, ‘You’re okay? You’re all right?’ So my father, a raving maniac with everybody in the house, he told Dutch, 'Get your father. Get your father on the phone. Call your father and get him over here.’
“Meanwhile, everybody hugged me and kissed me. My mother called me in the bedroom, she wanted to know if I was pregnant. She was crying. I said, ‘Mama, Mama,’ and I was bawling. She said, ‘Why did you do this?’ And I said, ‘Daddy wouldn’t even let me talk to him, so history has repeated itself.’ She said, 'I want to know one thing from you. Did you have to go get married?’ I said, ‘Mom, I’m the same girl that left here this morning. I haven’t been touched.’ And so she says, ‘Okay, honey.’ And she believed me.
“My father didn’t even go in the bedroom. I went back into the living room and I said to him, ‘If you want to keep me home tonight, take me to a doctor.’ I told him that I was a virgin. Then my father calmed down a little with me. But not with poor Dutch.
“They had been up all night. My father was so upset, before we got home. My mother told me later that my father was saying, ‘I hope they find him, the son of a bitch.’ ‘Goddamit.’ And that my grandmother Bompensiero, trying maybe to calm him down, she said to him, in Italian, ‘Frank, son of mine, didn’t you run away and get married, didn’t you go get married. What are you gonna do?’
“So Dutch called his father and his stepmother. He got them over there. In the meantime everybody starts dispersing. There’s coffee, my aunts are gone. Dutch’s father and stepmother show up. My father says to Nelson Roberts Sr., 'My daughter is a virgin. Get your son aside and tell him the goddamn facts of life because we don’t want to have any babies in nine months.’ Can you imagine that?
“Dutch and I spent our wedding night in a little house connected to Dutch’s mother’s house. A house on Kansas Street, a block off of University Avenue. It was a little house, and like a duplex, but there was a private door that didn’t go into the main house, and a bedroom and bathroom and that’s where we spent our wedding night.
“We never went to church. But my father gave the church a lot, donated a lot, bought a lot of tickets to this and that. My father, after we eloped and got back, said that he wanted us married in the church. I’m Catholic but Dutch wasn’t. So my father went down to see the priest. The priest said, ‘The young man’s got to do this and that before I can marry them.’ My dad said, ‘Father, I think you need some new shoes.’ He gave him $50. So we got married in the church and Dutch didn’t have to turn Catholic. I don’t know if the priests were afraid of my father, or what. I think they liked him.”
In Bompensiero’s FBI files, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, I found the following notation: “On June 20, 1948, Special Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation observed FRANK BOMPENSIERO in attendance at a wedding of (*)." The Three asterisks indicate that the name of the bride, surely Mary Ann, were blacked out. Did Mary Ann realize that the FBI attended her wedding? No, she said, but added that she wasn’t surprised.
By early summer, 1948, Jack Dragna had decided to open his battle with Mickey Cohen and Cohen’s bookmakers. In his autobiography, in Chapter 13, “The Battle of Sunset Strip,” Mickey Cohen writes: “It was really a battle of recognition more than anything else. After Benny Siegel got knocked in, people like Jack Dragna kept feeling that their prestige was badly shaken.... When a war starts, it is just an understanding who fires the first shots. I wouldn’t want to say that the responsibility in this war was completely on one side or the other. People just declared themselves, and that was it.”
The first attempt took place on a Wednesday evening, August 18, 1948, at Michael’s, Cohen’s haberdashery at 8800 Sunset Boulevard. Fratianno’s account in The Last Mafioso and All-American Mafioso, has Fratianno serve as point man for this first hit against Cohen. Five men were assigned to the hit team — Bompensiero, Simone Scozzari, Biaggio Bonventre, Sam Bruno, and Frank Desimone. The plan was that Jimmy, on Wednesday evening, August 18, 1948, would go by the haberdashery to visit Cohen. If everything looked right, he’d walk out onto Sunset Boulevard toward his Buick and give the okay sign to the team.
Looking back in old copies of the San Diego Union, a reader can learn that the weather had been chilly for August, with the low for August 18 dropping to 63 degrees and the high 74. Bompensiero would have backed the blue Hudson out of his driveway at 5878 Estelle and headed for Los Angeles. The drive, then, on old 101, took two hours.
Meanwhile, in LA, Fratianno had decided he’d take along Jewel and their nine-year-old daughter Joanne. The family sat in the haberdashery office, chatting with Cohen about the hit musical, Annie Get Your Gun. Also in the office were Hooky Rothman, Al Snyder, and Jimmy Rist, who variously served Cohen as collectors for his bookie shops, as muscle, and “entourage.” Cohen was praising Annie Get Your Gun as the best musical to come to a Los Angeles stage in years. Cohen offered the Fratiannos tickets. Jimmy stood from Cohen’s couch, took the ticket envelope from Cohen, and then put out his hand and shook Cohen’s hand.
Cohen had a hand-washing fetish. He sometimes scrubbed his small compact hands every five minutes. His office, of course, was fitted out with a bathroom.
The Fratiannos walked out. “Jimmy,” Demaris writes, “spotted Frank Desimone standing on the far corner of Holloway Drive and Palm Avenue and he gave him the signal. They had taken less than a dozen steps up the sharp incline toward Sunset where their car was parked when he heard a door open behind him and he turned to see Hooky Rothman coming out.
“At that exact moment Scozzari had pulled up and three men were jumping out of the car. Bompensiero, wearing dark glasses and a white Panama hat pulled low over his forehead swung the sawed-off shotgun in front of Hooky’s face and ordered, ‘Get back in there.’ Bruno and Biaggio ran around Hooky and into the office just as Hooky tried to hit the shotgun out of Bompensiero’s hands. The explosion was deafening.
“Jewel and Joanne screamed and began running in opposite directions. Jimmy, who had just seen Hooky’s face blown away, stood there for a split second, not knowing whom to chase. From the corner of his eye, he saw Bompensiero step over Hooky’s body and charge into the office, his body hunched over.
“When they got back to the car, Jimmy saw Cohen run out the front door of his haberdashery and head toward an apartment building as swiftly as his short legs would take him. With wife and daughter screaming at his side, Jimmy stood there not wanting to believe his eyes. He felt ill. Ail that planning. Hooky dead, and there was Mickey running like a deer for cover.”
When Jimmy read the newspaper account of the hit, he discovered that Cohen had escaped death because he’d rushed into the bathroom to wash the hand Jimmy had shaken. Hooky Rothman was dead, Jimmy Rist had a bullet nick on his ear, and Al Snyder took a slug in the arm.
Back home on Estelle Street, on Thursday morning, August 19, if Bompensiero picked up the San Diego Union off his front lawn and turned to the front-page account of the failed hit, this is what he read:
MICKEY COHEN ASSOCIATE SLAIN; GANG WARFARE REVIVAL SEEN SHOTGUN BLASTS WOUND ANOTHER IN SUNSET STRIP HABERDASHERY
SHOTGUN BLASTS LAST NIGHT LEFT ONE MAN DEAD AND ANOTHER WOUNDED CRITICALLY
The shooting, he would have read, “was conducted in typical gangland style with the killers escaping in a fast automobile.” He would have seen a photograph of an LAPD investigator pointing his flashlight at the holes made in the wall of Cohen’s office.
Cohen noted in his autobiography, “Nobody could identify anybody in the shootout for the cops. That isn’t the way of the racket world.” Cohen regretted his old pal Hooky’s loss. "He was a solid Jew. If you take a Jew that is completely solid, it makes no difference if he gets hit with a thousand-year sentence or if he’s facing the loss of his life a second later. He won’t be a stool pigeon. I believe a rotten cocksucker is either born a rotten cocksucker or he’s not.”
The Dragna-Cohen battle continued. But in the ensuing attempts to kill Mickey Cohen and his workers, Bompensiero seemed to have no part.
Del Mar brought mafiosi in from all over the United States. “Very seldom," said Mary Ann, “would my father go to the track. He also rarely bet on anything, including horses. He used to say, ‘You can’t win with those horses. You may as well just throw a dart.’ ”
FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, a race aficionado, first came to Del Mar in 1938. Hoover continued to visit Del Mar yearly with his longtime companion and coworker Clyde Tolson. Hoover scheduled his annual physical at Scripps Clinic to coincide with the Del Mar season.
Del Mar’s 1948 meet lasted 41 days; it opened on July 27 and closed on September 11. According to Jimmy Fratianno’s testimony, as recorded in Anthony Summers’s Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, Fratianno and Bompensiero were at the Del Mar track on an afternoon in 1948 when Hoover was in attendance. “I pointed at this fella sitting in the box in front," Fratianno recalled, “and said, 'Hey, lookit there, it’s J. Edgar Hoover.’ And Frank says right out loud, so everyone can hear, ‘Ah, that J. Edgar's a punk, he’s a fuckin’ degenerate queer.’ ”
Later, according to Fratianno’s account to Summers, when Bompensiero ran into Hoover in the track's men’s room, “the FBI director was astonishingly meek. ‘Frank,’ he told the mobster, ‘that’s not a nice way to talk about me, especially when I have people with me.’ It was clear to Fratianno that Bompensiero had met Edgar before and had absolutely no fear of him.”
By Christmas, 1948, Dutch’s mother had remarried and Mary Ann and Dutch had settled into his mother’s house on Kansas Street. “By this time, my father’s heart had softened. He had taken Dutch under his wing. He had come to love him like his own son.
“My father then called another meeting with the Robertses. I don’t know exactly how the Robertses felt about my father at this time. Because he didn’t ask them, he told them. Very nicely though. He says, ‘Okay, now the kids have got this house on Kansas Street, and they need furniture. Mary Ann is going to take her bedroom set. A really nice set. And we’re going to buy her the living room and dining room. So it looks like we’ve got the bedroom, living room, dining room, dishes. Now,’ he said, 'they need a stove, a refrigerator, and a washing machine. That’s what you’re giving them for their wedding.’ And Nelson Roberts said, ‘Okay, Frank.’
“My father gave Dutch a job. But my dad really didn’t want him in the bar, down at the Gold Rail. And I wanted my husband at home with me at night. Also, my father never wanted my husband — not because he wasn’t Italian or anything, but simply because he was my husband — mixed up in anything. But I was his daughter and we were married, and he wanted him to make a decent living. So he gave him a job, with this outfit that my father owned part of. Maestro Music Company, which leased jukeboxes to bars and cafés.
“My father would tell him, ‘Dutch, all you gotta do is go to the bars, you’re gonna go in, you’re going to get the owner or the manager, whatever it is, you’re going to count all the money. You take half, you give him half. But I’m going to show you how to count it.’ What I’m saying is he taught him how to count the money so he’d come out ahead.
“He told Dutch, ‘If you go to a place and you don’t see a jukebox there, write the name of the place down and bring it back to me. That’s all you need to do.’ One time I said, ‘Daddy, how do you get all these jukeboxes, how come they use Maestro Music everywhere?’ He said, ‘Honey, it’s very easy. We go in and tell them, "We’ve got a better jukebox, more players,” and the guy says, “I’m happy with this jukebox.” ’ So my father says, ‘Pretty soon, the jukeboxes don’t work anymore.’ They sent people in with slugs or whatever, with gum on them. Didn’t do any rough stuff, just gum. And the jukeboxes got jammed. So that was the end of that. They’d guarantee them no problems if they got the Maestro Music jukeboxes.
“My father had to prove that he had food at the Gold Rail because of the liquor license. It was called the Gold Rail Steak House. Well, my father really didn’t serve any food. So he said to me and Dutch, ‘There’s a charge account down at DeFalco’s on India Street.’ And he said, ‘I want you to go down, that’s where you buy your food and just sign your name. Tell them to put your order on the Gold Rail account.’
"Dutch felt funny. He didn’t like them doing that much for us, because my mother would go shopping and she would bring me clothes and things for the house. And Dutch would say, because he was making $125 a week now, that he worked for Maestro Music, and my father gave him a salary. But my mother would see cute things and bring them to us. Dutch said, ‘I don’t want your mother buying you this.’ I’d say, ‘I’m not going to tell my mother she can’t buy me anything.’ And we’d argue about that.
“Finally, I said, ‘Mama, Dutch feels funny. He says, “I want to support you — your father is giving me this job, but let’s live off the money I make from your father.” ’ My father respected him for that but he said, ‘Dutch, you’re doing me a favor if you charge the food, because I don’t serve food there, and I’ve got to show bills, receipts that I’m buying food.’ This was when I knew, for sure, about my dad that things weren’t necessarily always on the up and up.”
Mr. Willis, my friend who’d retired after many years in San Diego law enforcement, one day told me a story about a murder that occurred, he believed, in late 1949. “Nobody ever knew the reason for this one. It was the Tony Regina murder out in East San Diego, in Regina’s house on 43rd Street. He was in a coma for almost a year before he died. He never came out of it. The hell was beat out of him. The murder occurred while his wife was gone. She was at Mass, she went to Mass every morning at Sacred Heart Church, there at 42nd and Orange. She was a very devout Catholic. Funny thing, when she got back home and found Tony beat to a pulp, she didn’t call the cops, she called Frank Bompensiero, and Frank came out. Nobody ever knew the reason for this. Her name was Vincenza Licata Regina. She was the sister of Nick Licata Sr., the aunt of Nick Licata Jr. and Carlo Licata. After her husband’s murder she left San Diego and nobody could ever get to her from then on because she was in a rest home in Burbank. She wasn’t culpable, she was not involved in it, she was elderly, these people were then in their 50s or 60s. San Diego Police Department investigated it.” Mr. Willis shrugged, then smiled. “Instead of calling the police first, she called Frank Bompensiero. But again, this doesn’t necessarily manifest culpability, this is family, this is the way these people think, they don’t trust police, they trust each other to take care of things. I don’t know whether her husband was beating hell out of her or if he was involved in crime, nobody knows. Nobody will ever know.”
Mr. Willis, given all the years that had passed, had remembered the details of this case fairly well. When I went back into the old newspaper files and looked up Regina I found several articles. The first appeared on November 5, 1949, in a San Diego Union article headlined:
Wife Held As Slugged Husband Fights for Life in Hospital
“Gray-haired Mrs. Vincenza Regina, 49, was booked in the City Jail yesterday on suspicion of attempted murder, 10 hours after her husband, Tony Regina, 61, was found critically beaten in a bedroom at their home, 4383 Forty-Third Street. Regina, co-proprietor of the Melba Cafe, 727 Twelfth Avenue, clung to life at Mercy Hospital last night. A priest administered last rites alter his arrival.
“Mrs. Regina, married to the victim for 26 years, was booked at 6 p.m. She gave conflicting statements when questioned by Detective Sgts. R.L. Ormsby and A.J. Maguire, Ormsby said. She had notified police of her husband’s wounds after being unable, she said, to arouse neighbors. She said she found him in the blood-stained room upon returning from church about 8 a.m.
“The husband’s condition was very poor a physician said. Regina, who suffered a compound fracture of the skull, remained unconscious last night. He had received three pints of blood in transfusions.
“In the disarrayed room at the residence, police found a large pool of blood soaking half of the top of the bed. Regina was on the floor beside the bed, wearing only an undershirt. His trousers, also on the floor, contained nine dollars. A key was beside Regina.
“During the police interview Mrs. Regina said her husband gambled and that out-of-town guests frequently came to the house at night and had access to a front door key. She said Regina kept large sums of money in a wallet, hidden in the house. Detectives found an empty wallet. No attack weapon was located.
“Mrs. Regina claimed she was not familiar with her husband’s arrivals and departures, police said. Investigators did not disclose details of the conflicting versions which led to their suspicion of the wife.
“The Reginas, who have no children, have lived here 18 years and bought the house on Forty-Third Street about three years ago, neighbors said. Mrs. Regina, a native of Italy, said she had been assisting her husband in his cafe. Regina formerly owned the Lobby Cafe, Ninth and Broadway."
On November 8, 1949, the San Diego Union reported:
“Mrs. Virginia [sic] Regina, 49, booked Friday in the City fail on circumstantial evidence police gathered after her husband was found bludgeoned and near death was released yesterday from the jail. Police said evidence did not justify holding her.”
And on March 28, 1950, the Union noted:
Beaten Cafe Owner Dies in Hospital
“Tony Regina who was bludgeoned into a permanent coma nearly five months ago died yesterday at Patton State Hospital where he had been cared for since February 1.
“His wife told police that upon returning from church she found her husband beaten severely on the head and lying on a bedroom floor. He had been struck repeatedly with a weapon that never was found. No motive for the assault was uncovered. Mrs. Regina blamed enemies of Regina, but Geer said yesterday officers have not been able to trace any suspect who might have had a motive for killing him. He never regained consciousness. Mrs. Regina now lives in Los Angeles."
When I asked Mary Ann about this story, she said, “Women would come to my dad if they had trouble with their husbands. He was a peacemaker. He kept families together. They were afraid of him in a way. If a woman was having trouble, he’d talk to the woman and then go talk to the husband. He would say, ‘Look, you stupido, you got a wife, you got three kids, you’re not going anywhere. Your family comes first. Okay?’ ”
— Judith Moore Judith Moore has received two NEA Fellowships for literature, most recently in 1996. Last April, she was named as recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is coauthor with Sue Coe of X, published by Raw Books and Graphics and reissued by New Press, and author of The Left Coast of Paradise, Soho Press. Her essay collection, Never Eat Your Heart Out, was published in 1997 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and was reissued in paper last summer by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straws & Giroux.