We here at the Dead Guys in Suits studio were fortunate to have one of our favorite true crime authors, Rose Keefe, and one of our favorite gangsters, Big Jack Zelig (who happens to be the subject of Rose's latest book, The Starker, due out this October from Cumberland House Publishing) stop by for a brief chat.
Dead Guys in Suits: I'd like to thank the both of you for stopping by. Jack I must say you look great for a guy whose been dead almost 100 years.
Rose Keefe: Thanks- great to be here. I've been reading this blog for awhile- people are starting to think I'm a necro or worse.
Jack Zelig: I feel funny doing this interview. Last time I did one, it was for the Herald in August 1912. I got a nice-looking lady reporter that time though. She sure was a dimber mort!
DGIS: Rose your previous two books were on Chicago gangsters Dean O'Banion and George "Bugs" Moran how'd you make the jump from Chi-town to the Big Apple and how'd you decide on a relative unknown like Zel?
RK: After writing about O'Banion and Moran, I became curious about the type of criminal that preceded them. I wondered whether the early gangs really were just a collection of alley rats and barroom brawlers, as Asbury's 'Gangs of New York' implied. Then I saw a photo of Zelig- that famous shot of him wearing a straw hat and smiling into the camera. Up until that point the only pictures I'd seen of pre-Prohibition gangsters were scowling mugshots. In contrast, Zelig appeared so confident and relaxed. That grabbed my interest, so I read everything I could find on him, which wasn't much, but what I did locate was all contradictory. One book said he was a heartless killer, another insisted that he was the first real defender of Manhattan's Jewish quarter. In terms of his connection to the Becker case, he was either a prosecution or a defence witness: it varied from book to book. This forgotten gangster was a total mystery that I decided I had to solve.
DGIS: Jack how does it feel having a full blown bio in your honor as opposed to the few pages you usually get in crime books.
JZ: It feels great. Just goes to show you, though, that you gotta die first to be appreciated. I was never an alley rat or barroom brawler- those lowlifes all lived across the river in Hazlet, New Jersey.
DGIS: Rose how was working on Zel's story different than you're previous subjects?
RK: It was ten times harder, if not more. I was successful in bringing O'Banion and Moran to life on the page because I was able interview people who knew them, and didn't have to rely 100% on newspapers and court documents. Zelig was dead for ninety-one years by the time I began researching his story, so I didn't have an advantage like that. But I got lucky VERY unexpectedly when one of his relatives contacted me in response to a posting I made on a True Crime newsgroup. This gentleman had been researching Zelig since the 1950s and gave me free use of his files. Joe had interviewed people who had known and in some instances worked for Zelig, and their stories really brought him to life.
DGIS: Jack how about this air conditioning huh? To bad they didn't have it back in July of 1912 eh?
JZ: Air conditioning, computers, all that stuff- it's all great. But I don't know how the guns and stalls make a living these days. No one carries cash any more. I lifted a dame's poke on the bus and all she had were credit cards. What am I supposed to do with those? Do I look like I could pass for a Sandra Lewis?
DGIS: Speaking of July 1912 is there anything you'd like to say about the Rosenthal slaying or do readers have to wait until October?
JZ: Jack Rose is a lying asshole and Phil Davidson couldn't beat up his own shmeckel. The rest you gotta wait to read.
DGIS: Rose, without giving anything away, what can readers expect to find in the Starker that they haven't heard before?
RK: The Starker includes the following, previously unpublished information:
*The testimony that Jack Zelig intended to give at Charles Becker's murder trial, provided posthumously by his relatives.
**The real reason why Red Phil Davidson killed Zelig in October 1912.
***Details about the accident that turned Zelig Lefkowitz the pickpocket into Big Jack Zelig the gangster.
DGIS: Sounds great I can't wait. Jack please don't touch that.
JZ: Good thing for you that you said 'please'.
DGIS: Rose, if memory serves correctly your Bugs Moran bio was a result of your O'Banion book. Can we expect a Zelig spin-off, perhaps a Dopey Benny or Monk Eastman tome?
RK: I'm playing with the idea of doing Dopey Benny Fein's story next. Fein succeeded Zelig like Moran succeeded O'Banion, and his story covers the New York underworld from 1900 until at least the 1950s. That's a pretty big bite to take, so I have to consider just what approach I'm going to take.
JZ: Yeah, do it! Benny was a swell fellow.
DGIS: Jack have you been out to Coney lately, if so what are your thoughts?
JZ. Same shit, different decade. I was there last weekend to catch some shows and see that they got a fella coming in a couple of weeks, a guy that drives nails into his face. I have to find out what kinda money he gets for that racket, and if you can get paid just as much for doing it to someone else's face.
Thus completes part I of the DGIS's interview with Rose Keefe and Big Jack Zelig. For more Keefe & Zelig be sure to visit-
Zel also has his very own myspace page: www.myspace.com/jackzelig