Jack Dragna

Born - Corleone, Sicily, April 18, 1891

Died - Hollywood, CA, February 23, 1956

Jack Dragna was an early influential Los Angeles figure who rose to prominence through bootlegging, political, and gambling endeavors. During the early part of prohibition, he helped quell the bloody vendetta between LA’s warring Sicilian clans and solidified this power under one banner. Heading up the “Organization” out West for a quarter century—from 1931 until his death of natural causes in February of 1956—he would serve as their most powerful leader. Although sources suggest the West Coast was too insignificant to be included in the formation of the New York Commission or to attend its meetings, federal files and the account of high-ranking la cosa nostra member, Nicola Gentile, refute such claims. In his book, Vita Di Capomafia (1963), Gentile divulged “The first to go to the restaurant, which had been chosen by Maranzano, were the representatives of California and the far West, a dozen in all” (translated from Italian). Not only did they travel the greatest distance to take part, they arrived first.

During the violent Castellemmarese War of the early 1930’s, Jack Dragna sided with the New York Corleonese and rallied with Salvatore Maranzano against Giuseppe “the Boss” Masseria. During the war, Jack--with the blessing of the newly formed syndicate--seized control of the LA Brugad from its leader, Joe “strong man” Ardizzone. Federal files state that Jack Dragna attended higher echelon meetings back East during the thirties and on, and official travel documents show that he entertained distinguished guests from all over the country by as early as 1932. An airline manifest for a flight from Agua Caliente, Mexico to San Diego, California in the summer of ‘32, lists the following passengers: Jack Dragna and his local associates Jimmy Costa and Jack Russell (Russell is an alias for Johnny Roselli); Cleveland Boss Frank Milano; New York Boss Vincent Mangano; Salvatore Maranzano’s former Under Boss, Angelo Caruso, who’d since become second to Joe Bonanno; a New York based associate of Meyer Lansky and Ben Siegel, named Phil Kovelick; and at least one other potential big player traveling under an assumed name—L. W. Smith of Chicago.

Although pop culture outlets are quick to spout that Jack Dragna never got a foothold in Las Vegas—which is fairly true—in a manner he actually contributed to the formation of Sin City; Jack Dragna was largely responsible for purging the founding fathers of modern day Las Vegas from their earlier turf of Los Angeles. Guy McAfee, Tutor Scherer, Milton “Farmer” Page, Chuck Addison, and Eddie Nealis—a group commonly referred to as The Combination—were all well-established LA gamblers and racketeers before ever landing in Nevada. During prohibition they had the city’s rackets fairly well sewn up, and even put their own man in office—Mayor George Cryer. The Combination was far too comfortable and rooted in SoCal vice to just give up all they’d built, and yet, when Guy McAfee arrived in Nevada abruptly in 1939, he was quick to tell reporters he hadn’t been run out of Los Angeles. The statement was likely made in order to save face. Here’s another side of the story.

 

The Italians had long been a stone in the shoe of the Combination’s bootlegging enterprise but became a greater threat once Joe Ardizzone and Jack Dragna entered politics in the mid-20s by forming the influential Italian Welfare League. And after Jack Dragna took over the LA Brugad in 1931, matters got far worse for Guy McAfee and his associates. Under Dragna, the Organization moved in on the rackets earlier leaders shied from, namely gambling. It wasn’t long before the Italians “were cut in”—as the federal files state. The Combination continued to operate in LA during the remainder of the depression-ridden thirties, predominately in slot machines, gambling, and prostitution, but now they paid a tithe to the Italians. And what the Combination had in Mayor George Cryer, the Italians soon mirrored. Leveraging the League’s pull over the city’s large Italian workforce, they influenced the vote. Come 1933, the Organization had their own man in a seat of power—Mayor Franklin Shaw. The Combination no longer ran the show.

The Los Angeles Combination, taken from Dr. J. Michael Niotta’s

Las Vegas Mob Museum lecture, Southland Syndicates

If the Italians hadn’t entered politics or muscled in on the Combination’s gambling rackets, Guy McAfee and his associates might have stayed in the City of Angels. They had a good thing going, and at that time, there was little allure to Southern Nevada. If that happened, who knows what Las Vegas would be today. But the Italians can’t take all the credit. Several other forces certainly motivated this decision to flee California. This included the crusading efforts of the new mayor, Fletcher Bowron, and the overzealous Governor Earl Warren. And we can’t forget the syndicate’s man, Ben Siegel, who relocated in the second half of the 1930s. That being said, by far, the most aggressive and enduring assault on the Combination came by way of the Organization. Through all-out warfare Jack Dragna carved a piece for the Italians. And much of what they took belonged to the Combination. A description of this exchange is offered in the federal files—in their assault, the Dragna brothers proved “ambitious,” "domineering," and “utterly ruthless.”

 

The Combination departed Los Angeles by 1939 and pioneered what is now referred to as the Fremont District, having a hand in the Frontier Club, El Rancho, Pioneer Club, the Golden Nugget, and a variety of other gambling establishments. Guy McAfee is even credited with branding Las Vegas Boulevard, “the Strip,” naming it after Hollywood’s own Sunset Strip. Who would have ever thought the guys who couldn’t hack it in LA would make such a big splash in South Nevada?

 

Jack Dragna and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel are often portrayed as bitter enemies, with Dragna typically pitted in a subservient role. Some theories even stipulate that Salvatore “Lucky” Luciano delivered an ultimatum to Dragna, telling him to stay out of Siegel’s way. There is little if any truth to these yarns. For Siegel, getting out of New York was likely about survival. He no doubt wanted to avoid Special Prosecutor Tom Dewey, who had just put away Luciano on a trumped up charge of compulsory prostitution. As a result, Siegel’s pals, Lucky and Lansky, likely urged him to leave the Big Apple. Siegel’s visits out West a couple years earlier may have sparked his decision to relocate to Los Angeles—he’d fallen in love with Hollywood. Although it makes for a fantastic plot to a noir story, it is doubtful the move had anything to do with expanding the interests of Meyer Lansky or Lucky Luciano. Bill Bonanno addressed the topic in his book, The Last Testament of Bill Bonanno. The son of Bonanno family Boss, Joe Bonanno, explained “The truth is that it wasn’t the Commission who sent Bugsy Siegel to California. The Commission did not have the authority to make that decision.” The purpose of the Commission—which Bonanno contends pop culture and write writers have completely fabricated—was merely to keep peace among the various families. In line with this, sending a Jew to invade a Sicilian’s territory and take over goes against the very premise of the syndicate and the Commission. Jews and Italians were now working together—which is exactly what came to pass.

 

Fiction about the Commission and about Ben Siegel’s move to Los Angeles in around late 1936, no doubt take root in the efforts of crime journalists. Many of these newsmen who wrote about the mafia during the 50’s and 60’s became bestselling “true crime” authors. The mythology surrounding “Bugsy” was certainly strengthened by Burt Turkus’ and Sid Feder's early 1950's true crime title, Murder Inc, which became a syndicated column shortly after Jack Dragna's passing. While certainly insightful for its time, Murder Inc gave birth to an inaccurate theme which managed to survive. Ignorant to the protocols of this society, Turkus mistakenly uses the word “lieutenants” to describe Dragna and Cohen. Although this has spurred a newer belief that these two men were on equal footing or stature, this was NOT at all what Turkus was suggesting. In fact, his true intent is a complete turnaround from what is now considered an accurate account of the past. According to Turkus, Jack Dragna was Ben Siegel’s “most valuable asset” out West, while Mickey Cohen was a mere “small shot” going “for the sandwiches when the big-boys have their hotel room sessions.” Somewhere along the way, Hollywood and a bevy of crime writers managed to get this backward.

Excerpt from Burt Turkus and Sid Feder's Murder Inc after portions were released as a  syndicated column in 1958.

One factor contributing to this shift is the popularity of Mickey Cohen’s autobiography, In My Own Words (1975), and the trend of its use as a primary resource during research. This should raise an immediate red flag. When you hold the pen, your printed self is always more popular, powerful, feared, and successful than the flesh ever was. As Charles Bukowski aptly put it, “I’m the hero of my own shit, baby.” In My Own Words reads like a new chapter from J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye—Cohen “Caulfield” rattles on and on about how he is backed by the syndicate, liked by all, and has been tasked with overseeing everyone’s interests out West. When this tall tale is paired against the federal files though, it becomes exceedingly evident that what has been “divulged” is a far sight less than true. Many similar books have been written since, and unfortunately, most of these efforts and other titles covering the early Los Angeles crime scene defer to Cohen’s side of the story.

 

Mickey Cohen began lying to the press about his past back in 1949, when he openly began working with newsmen from the original LA Daily (1923-1954) on a series of articles about his life story! La Cosa Nostra (LCN) members took a vow that forbid such activity and Jack Dragna shied away from the practice of giving interviews far more than some. As a result, the inaccuracies surrounding Jack and the lasting power of the Mickey Cohen hype is of little surprise. But as the feds less-than-delicately noted in Mickey’s federal files, the ruse he sold reporters in the late 40's failed to align with his arrest record. Agents portray another character altogether; a “braggart” who—in order to bolster his “reputation as a tough”—often took credit for crimes he didn’t commit. This included murder! In his autobiography, Mickey Cohen crafts himself as a real cool gangster when he describes how he—while unarmed—managed to out-gun bookie Maxie Shaman. But in truth, as the federal files also explain, Cohen didn't do the killing. East Coast hitter Hooky Rothman shot Shaman dead and the syndicate paid Mickey to take the fall. Hooky was valuable and Mickey expendable.

 

Despite Mickey Cohen’s contentions and what has since become popular belief, Jack Dragna and Ben Siegel worked together on establishing the racing wire out West. This industry catered to the large number of bookmakers taking off-track bets throughout the country. Without the wire, bookies couldn’t operate, which made it a very lucrative racket—one which greatly appealed to the national crime syndicate. After failing to muscle in on Continental Press—the country’s dominate racing news provider—Dragna and Siegel partnered with a variety of parties Back East to establish a competing service known as Trans-American. In California and Nevada, Jack Dragna and Ben Siegel took charge, with Dragna setting up Southern California and Siegel tending primarily to affairs in Las Vegas. Each had a number of players assisting in a variety of capacities; men like Mickey Cohen, Moe Sedway, Joe Sica, and Frank Bompensiero.

Mickey Cohen’s role during this syndicated partnership can be summed as a short step up from mere muscle—he did the delegated dirty work, which mainly involved persuading bookies to subscribe to the new service. Likely in an effort to boost his own worth and level of involvement though, Cohen attempted to sell a rivalry rather than a partnership. And naturally, he presented himself as a much larger player in the scheme of things. This may account for the current pop culture theme of dominance and animosity between Ben and Jack. In his book, Mickey claims that “Benny Siegel’s knocking over Continental was kind of a slap in the face to Dragna and Roselli who thought they were running the West Coast.” Contrary to this contention, is a report from the Senate’s Special Committee. According to the committee, when Mickey Cohen and Joe Sica tore up the office of SoCal Continental Press head, Russell Brophy, this was not in opposition of Jack Dragna. In fact, the committee stipulated that the pair was “undoubtedly acting on behalf of Jack I. Dragna.”

Their statement stemmed from the testimony of a Brophy employee named George Redston. Under oath, Redston relayed that prior to the assault, Jack Dragna personally met with Russell Brophy “and explained that he wanted Mickey Cohen and Joe Sica to distribute Continental’s racing sheets.” This detail—a detail which clearly demonstrates a working relationship between Dragna and Siegel—is conveniently left out of Cohen’s book. But in truth, Jack was very well liked and the Siegel family came over to the Dragna family home for dinners. Even Cohen wrote, "Dragna was very powerful and well respected," and admitted having a deep respect for Jack and his family.

Another vital piece of LA past left out of the Mickey Cohen autobiography centers around the level of wreckage he instigated. Cohen’s very public involvement in the Brenda Allen scandal led to “a grand jury investigation of police-protected vice” and the resignation of Police Chief Horall. It also put a knife in a bevy of longstanding under-the-table arrangements; arrangements that allowed the rackets to quietly thrive in Southern California. Horall’s replacement, Chief William Worton, was a regular Boy Scout. Bent on change, the former Marine “made more than 200 transfers” in his first few months on the force. Although it had taken men like Jack Dragna a lot of time, effort, money, and political pull to put together a system that worked in the City of Angels, it didn’t take Mickey Cohen long to loudly knock it all down. After that, LA was too hot for money making rackets and folks on both sides of the law wanted the little gambler dead. Vice out West would suffer from then on out.

 

Following Ben Siegel’s murder in the summer of 1947, Mickey Cohen grew ambitious. For many, his loud public methods and bold moves were a very serious problem. As a result, during the final breaths of the 1940’s, a number of attempts were made on his life. The crime books convey it as a “war” between Dragna and Cohen for control of the city’s bookmakers, referring to the struggle as “The Battle of the Sunset Strip.” Countering this description, enemies trade blows during a war, and in this instance, all the bullets flew in just one direction. Although Mickey Cohen did manage to survive a number of assassination attempts, he and his men never killed a single made member of the Los Angeles Brugad, and ultimately the ordeal resulted in the death, disappearance, or desertion of his small crew. Several of Cohen’s men even shook their head at bail, opting instead to remain in jail where they felt safer.

 

In February of 1950, shortly after the bombing of Mickey Cohen’s Brentwood home, authorities hauled in several of Jack Dragna’s relatives, along with his Under Boss Momo Adamo. But the group didn't stay locked up long. Lawmen weren’t exactly sure who was to blame for the explosion; there were just too many potential suspects who wanted him dead. Police even had intel that hitters from Cleveland were coming to California for that very purpose. Despite current accounts, which generally list Cohen’s lucky survival as an inability and embarrassment on the part of Jack Dragna, the newsmen of the day reported it from another angle. They, along with members of law enforcement, called him out in print and humiliating him. And they did it often, poking fun at his small size by referring to him as Mickey "Mouse" Cohen and "the little gambler." Mickey Cohen’s henchmen became the “7 Dwarfs” and they even crowned him their queen, Snow White. But Mickey’s run in Los Angeles was about to hit a cliff. Following a tax evasion conviction in the summer of 1951, Cohen spent the next 4 years in prison. His old bookmaking and union interests fell to Jack Dragna. If you could call it a war, then Dragna was certainly the victor.

Mickey Cohen, posing for newsmen

1950 is the year organized crime broke, and Senator Estes Kefauver is certainly deserving of the credit. His crime committee aggressively spotlighted the American gangster problem. During these televised proceedings, the commission alleged that with his dying breath, Continental Press head James Ragen, Sr. called Jack Dragna the “Al Capone of Los Angeles.” Gunmen shot down the racing wire mogul in Chicago in 1946. And when it looked like he might recover, (allegedly) assailants found a way to poison him with mercury while laid up in a hospital bed. The Chicago Outfit rather than the LA Brugad is likely responsible but that didn't stop the committee from making claims. Reinforcing their contention, they added that the “statement did not overestimate his importance.” From then on out the dime-store title stuck, appearing nearly every time Jack’s name hit the papers. Going further with their descriptions, Senator Estes Kefauver’s representatives publicly named Jack Dragna the “Mafia Boss” of the “Pacific Coast” and the “Kingpin of the Southern California Bookie Syndicate.” A lifetime of efforts to fly beneath the radar were at an end.  

The loss of his wife, Frances, to cancer in 1953, along with his own failing health made life exceptionally difficult for Jack Dragna. His lifestyle and gambling operations suffered as well, hampered again and again by excessive deportation efforts and an aggressive campaign of harassment led by the LA Gangster Squad and Captain Lynn White’s Intelligence Unit. Obstacles such as this kept him from getting better-established in Nevada. Although he and his brother Tom Dragna owned various properties in Las Vegas and even had a residence built on the outskirts of the city, continued rousts and an order restricting Jack to LA County, kept their plan from seeing its true fruition. Despite these hurdles, the Dragnas were able to put together a “juice” arrangement with the Sheriff’s Department which proved beneficial to the syndicate. Federal files also indicate that the Dragnas held a stake in the endeavors of casino owner, Benny Binion, and suggest that they may have owned a percentage in the Desert Inn with their friend and business associate, Frank Milano, and his Cleveland partners.

 

Jack Dragna's end came peacefully. He died in his sleep on February 23, 1956, passing from a heart attack while a guest at Hollywood’s Saharan Hotel. An abrupt decline of the LA Brugad set in immediately following the loss of their longtime leader. Oddly, three decades later, a newer description of the man and his legacy sprouted. Around the late eighties, crime writers began to take liberties with a statement made in a leaked wiretap. Using these words out of context, they had all the ammo they needed to spark the rumor that Eastern gangsters had always looked down upon Jack Dragna and his organization, and that they referred to the group by the derogatory title, the “Mickey Mouse Mafia.” Dispelling this farce, the conversation in which Chicago operators made this comment about their western counterparts took place at the tail end of the 1970's. The statement no doubt came in response to the current turncoat activities of Jimmy "the Weasel" Fratianno, who at the time was actively touring the country testifying against his fellow mafioso. What the media usually fails to mention in regard to Fratianno, is that he began cooperating with the Feds while still a member of the Chicago Outfit. Although Chicago newspapers printed the comment police listening devices picked up in 1979, the Mickey Mouse phrase did not gain any real favor with the press until LA's own police chief, Daryl Gates, uttered it in late 1984, following the wrap up of Operation Lightweight. But Gates wasn't talking about the older regime led by Jack Dragna. He meant the Organization under its current leader, Peter J. Milano. After Gates, the title stuck; in nearly every newspaper article about the LA Brugad that followed, reporters referred to them as the Mickey Mouse Mafia. But this theme of belittling organized crime via the media was by no means limited to the West Coast. Around the same time Chief Gates’ words went “viral,” criminal families throughout the country felt a similar sting, suffering busts at the hands of turncoats and law enforcement agencies who'd since grown wise to mafia tactics. And newsmen took their swings as well. Journalists  pointed out that "in Cleveland and Denver, where Mafia gangs once flourished, FBI officials say each city is left with a lone mobster who was made," and they even labeled the Bruno-Scarfo group the Geritol Gang!

Although Mickey Cohen's 1975 autobiography never uses the Mickey Mouse Mafia phrase once, by the close of the 1980's, the monikers came to encompass the older regimes in Los Angeles as well. The flood gates open, crime writers took jabs at Jack Dragna, calling him weak, inept, and the best of a poor lot. Conversely, despite these assertions, there is not a single description matching them that can be found in the federal files or in any of the newspaper articles printed during Jack's lifetime or in the three decades following his passing. Perhaps at fault for at very least perpetuating this misconception about Jack Dragna and the Los Angeles family, are the efforts of Hollywood, which picked up in 1991 with the disrespectful and highly fictional film, Bugsy. Equally damaging was the more recent flop, Gangster Squad (2013). These depictions have painted a backward picture of personal and business relationships out West and negatively impacted ideologies. Unfortunately, thus far in the LA story, the Italians of Los Angeles have only ever been cast as antagonists. Following the Hollywood formula, this has slated them as fools and villains. Perhaps it’s time to take a deeper look at the past.

 

In 1987, smack in the middle of the media rise of the “Mickey Mouse Mafia” hype and Tinseltown’s studio fabrications, the Los Angeles Times gave its own assessment of the city’s longest reigning leader, naming Jack Dragna “the only classic Godfather the city has ever known.”

 

 

Jack Dragna’s eldest great grandson, true crime author J. Michael Niotta, is currently working on a Dragna biography.

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