Born - Corleone, Sicily, April 18, 1891
Died - Hollywood, CA, February 23, 1956
Jack Dragna was an early influential figure who rose to prominence in Los Angeles through bootlegging, political, and gambling endeavors. Prior to the coming of the 18th Amendment, he engaged in black hand tactics such as extortion. Early in Prohibition, he and other key figures put an end to the long ongoing vendetta between L.A.’s warring Sicilian clans. This solidified power now fell under one banner as the Los Angeles Brugad. Leadership of this group went from Vito Di Giorgio to Rosario DeSimone to Joe Ardizzone to Jack Dragna. Heading up the “Organization” out West for a quarter century—from 1931 until his death of natural causes in February of 1956—Dragna served 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 even attend its meetings, federal files and the account of high-ranking la cosa nostra member, Nicola Gentile, refute such claims. In his memoir, Vita Di Capomafia (1963), Gentile divulged “The first to go to the restaurant, which had been chosen by [Salvatore] Maranzano, were the representatives of California and the far West, ten in all” (translated from Italian). Not only did they travel the greatest distance, they were the first to arrive.
During the violent Castellemmarese War of the early 1930’s, it appears L.A. boss Joe Ardizzone sided with Salvatore Maranzano against Giuseppe “the Boss” Masseria. Dragna, having grown up in East Harlem, had allies on both sides of this internal mafia struggle, and may have stayed neutral. With dissension brewing in SoCal, Joe Ardizzone was forced to step down and conceded leadership of his mafia family to Jack Dragna in exchange for his life. This promise was not kept. Ardizzone disappeared a short while later.
Informants reveal 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 the summer of 1932. An airline manifest for a flight from Agua Caliente, Mexico to San Diego, California lists the following passengers: Jack Dragna and his local associates Jimmy Costa and Jack Russell (an alias for Johnny Roselli); Cleveland Boss Frank Milano; New York Boss Vincent Mangano; Salvatore Maranzano’s former under boss, Angelo Caruso, who attended to represent new boss 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, in a manner he actually contributed to the formation of Sin City. Jack Dragna and his organization were largely responsible for purging the founding fathers of modern day Las Vegas from their earlier stomping ground of Los Angeles. Spring Street Combination members Guy McAfee, Tutor Scherer, Milton “Farmer” Page, Chuck Addison, Eddie Nealis, and others were all well-established L.A. gamblers and racketeers decades before moving into Southern Nevada. Throughout the Roaring Twenties, they ran the city's vice operations out of City Hall via puppet Mayor George Cryer.
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 Italo-American Welfare League. And after Jack Dragna took over the L.A. Brugad in 1931, matters got far worse for McAfee and his associates. Through all-out warfare Jack and his brother Tom Dragna carved a piece of Los Angeles for the Italians. According to an informant, the Dragna brothers proved “ambitious,” "domineering," and “utterly ruthless.”
Under this new leadership, the Organization immediately began to muscle into the area's gambling rackets. And it wasn’t long before they “were cut in.” The Combination continued to operate in L.A. during the remainder of the depression-ridden thirties, predominately in gambling and prostitution, but they now paid a tithe to the Italians as a cost of doing business.
The Spring Street Combination (Los Angeles), taken from Dr. J. Michael Niotta’s
Las Vegas Mob Museum lecture, Southland Syndicates
If the local mafia hadn’t entered politics or muscled into the Combination’s gambling rackets, Guy McAfee and his associates might have stayed in the City of Angels. And if they did, who knows what Las Vegas would be like today. But the Italians can’t take all the credit. Several other driving forces motivated the California departure as well. This included the crusading efforts of new mayor Fletcher Bowron, the overzealous antics of Governor Earl Warren, and the muscle of a new arrival--syndicate man Benjamin Siegel landed in the second half of the 1930s.
The Combination departed Los Angeles in 1938 and '39 and quickly 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 projects. 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 L.A. would make such a big splash in Southern Nevada?
Jack Dragna and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel are often portrayed as bitter enemies, with Dragna typically cast in a subservient role in the old mob books and cinema. Some theories even stipulate the powers back East, big names like Lucky Luciano, delivered an ultimatum, personally telling Jack Dragna to stay out of Siegel’s way. Although this makes for a very cinematic noir plot, Siegel's move had absolutely nothing to do with expanding New York's interests. And there isn't any creditable proof that backs this claim. In reality, for Siegel, getting out of New York was about survival rather than any kind of expansion. Special Prosecutor Tom Dewey had just put away Luciano on a trumped up charge of compulsory prostitution and Siegel was now in his sights. Siegel’s pals--Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and others--probably urged him to get the Hell out of the Big Apple. His sister lived in Los Angeles, he'd visited several times, and loved Hollywood, so relocating there made perfect sense.
The topic of this common mob misconception is breached in The Last Testament of Bill Bonanno. The son of Bonanno family Boss, Joe Bonanno, explained that “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.” Despite pop culture depictions, the Commission didn't govern internal family business; it merely existed to keep peace among the various families. And sending a Jew to invade a Sicilian’s territory would have had the opposite effect. The very idea goes against the entire premise of the Commission. Jews and Italians were now working together—which is exactly what came to pass in Los Angeles.
Fiction about the Commission and about Ben Siegel’s move to L.A. have been perpetuated by countless authors and crime journalists. The mythology surrounding “Bugsy” was certainly strengthened by Turkus and Feder's 1951 bestseller, Murder Inc, which became a syndicated column shortly after Jack Dragna's passing. While certainly insightful for its time, the true crime title gave birth to an inaccurate theme when Turkus mistakenly used the word “lieutenants” to describe Dragna and Cohen. While many an author since has used this line to suggest the pair were on an even plane (and subordinate to Siegel), this was not the authors' intent. In fact, the text indicates Jack Dragna was Ben Siegel’s “most valuable asset” out West. By their estimation, Mickey Cohen was nothing more than a mere “small shot” who went “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 the relationships backward.
Excerpt from Burt Turkus and Sid Feder's Murder Inc after portions were released as a syndicated column in 1958.
The misconception that Jack Dragna and Ben Siegel were rivals has largely been popularized by the Mickey Cohen autobiography, In My Own Words (1975). But Mickey had been lying to readers since at least 1949; that's the year he regurgitated his life story to reporters of the LA Daily. But as the feds have less-than-delicately noted in Mickey’s federal files, the ruse he sold reporters fails to align with his arrest record. Agents portray him as a “braggart” who—in order to bolster his “reputation as a tough”—often took credit for crimes he didn’t commit. This included murder!
Despite Mickey Cohen’s contentions and what has since become popular belief, Jack Dragna and Ben Siegel actually worked together. This partnership centered on the racing wire. The industry catered to the large number of bookmakers taking off-track bets throughout the country. Without the wire, a bookie couldn’t effectively operate. When Dragna and Siegel finally realized they couldn't muscle a cut of the nation's dominant provider (Continental), they collaborated with a variety of other syndicate and mafia members throughout the country to establish a competing service known as Trans-American (TA). Dragna and Siegel led the efforts out West and each owned their own subsidiary of the parent company. In California, Jack Dragna incorporated West Coast News and Globe Distribution. Like his Chicago counterparts, he printed a scratch sheet called the Blue Sheet. In Las Vegas, where gambling was legal, Ben Siegel and Moe Sedway put together another subsidiary--the Golden Nugget News. Each received its track information from Trans-American. But Dragna's organization did far more, providing spotters to take in the real time race results from the tracks throughout Southern California. The horses weren't running in Southern Nevada.
Mickey Cohen’s role during this syndicated endeavor can be summed up as the help. He wasn't a partner. In fact, his end wasn't much more complex than mere muscle. Cohen and others like Joe Sica, Allen Smily, and Frank Bompensiero were tasked with persuading bookies to leave Continental and subscribe to the new service. But in an attempt to boost his own worth and level of involvement, Mickey Cohen sold a rivalry. And naturally, he posed himself as a much larger player. “Benny Siegel’s knocking over Continental was kind of a slap in the face to Dragna and [Johnny] Roselli who thought they were running the West Coast.” Contrary to Mickey's contention, is the word of Continental employee George Redston.
Under oath, Redston explained that prior to the assault on his boss Russell Brophy, Jack Dragna personally met with Brophy “and explained that he wanted Mickey Cohen and Joe Sica to distribute Continental’s racing sheets." And he also revealed, that at a later juncture Jack Dragna and Ben Siegel came in together to speak with Brophy. Mickey Cohen conveniently left these (and other) details out of his autobiography. In truth, Jack Dragna was very well liked and respected by his peers and the Siegel family were guests in the Dragna family home on multiple occasions. Even Cohen admitted, "Dragna was very powerful and well respected," and stated he had a deep respect for Jack Dragna and his family.
Following Ben Siegel’s murder in the summer of 1947, Mickey Cohen grew ambitious. For many, his loud and public antics had become too much and a number of attempts on his life followed. Authors and journalists pitched it as a “war” for control of the city’s bookmakers, referring to it as “The Battle of the Sunset Strip.” Countering the description, enemies trade blows in battle . . . and in this instance, the bullets only flew in one direction. Although Mickey Cohen survived a number of assassination attempts, nearly everyone who ran with him was murdered. And those who didn't abandoned him for the Italians. Not one "made man" received a scratch. Turns out cash was the real motivation. With Mickey out of the way, the Italians stood to take in far more in protection money.
Mickey Cohen’s run of the rackets in Los Angeles was about at an end anyway. Convicted of tax evasion in the summer of 1951, he 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.
In 1950, Senator Estes Kefauver sought to spotlight the American gangster problem. During a series of proceedings held throughout the country (and some of them even televised), a crime committee alleged that Continental Press head James Ragen, Sr. called Jack Dragna the “Al Capone of Los Angeles” . . . with his dying breath! The claim seems highly unlikely considering gunmen shot the racing wire mogul down in Chicago years earlier in 1946. True or not, the new handle stuck. And the committee called Dragna a few other things as well--the “Mafia Boss” of the “Pacific Coast” and the “Kingpin of the Southern California Bookie Syndicate.”
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 also suffered, hampered again and again by excessive deportation efforts and an aggressive campaign of harassment led by the L.A. Gangster Squad's replacement--Captain Lynn White’s Intelligence Division. Obstacles such as this kept Jack Dragna from getting better-established in Nevada. Although he and his brother Tom owned various properties in Las Vegas and even built a ranch on the outskirts of the city, continued rousts and an order restricting him to L.A. County, kept the plan to expand in Nevada from seeing fruition. Despite the hurdles, the Dragnas put together a “juice” arrangement with the Sheriff’s Department which proved beneficial. Also, the federal files reveal the Dragnas received a piece of the action from casino operator Benny Binion, and a wire-tapped telephone conversation strongly suggests Jack Dragna and his associate Allen Smiley had an interest in the Desert Inn with Frank Milano and his Cleveland partners.
Jack Dragna succumbed to a heart attack on February 23, 1956, and passed in bed while a guest at Hollywood’s Saharan Hotel. An abrupt decline of the L.A. Brugad set in immediately after the loss of their longtime leader. The bosses that followed weren't able to keep things together and never commanded the respect of their counterparts or other family heads. A new legacy for the family in L.A. sprouted. And oddly, reporters and crime writers began to throw this new reputation over the older regime. Rumor began to spread that eastern gangsters looked down on Jack Dragna and referred to his organization as the “Mickey Mouse Mafia.” But the timeline says different.
Although it was 1979 when Chicago newsmen printed a comment about the SoCal family that officers picked up from a listening device, the phrase "Mickey Mouse Mafia" didn't gain momentum until L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates uttered it to the press in late 1984. He made the comment following the wrap up of Operation Lightweight--a crackdown on the local mafia's recent activities. But Gates wasn't talking about the older regime led by Jack Dragna. He was referring to the Organization under its current leader, Peter J. Milano. Around the same time Chief Gates’ words went “viral,” criminal families throughout the country felt a similar sting. Mafiosi everywhere were suffering busts at the hands of turncoats. Making matters more difficult for the mafia, law enforcement agencies had grown wise to their tactics. Naturally, newsmen took their swings. 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 in Philly the Geritol Gang! Clearly California wasn't the only ship sinking.
Several factors press the fact that the title "Mickey Mouse Mafia" never fell on Jack Dragna and the early regime. Mickey Cohen's 1975 autobiography doesn't use the phrase. Not even once. Ovid Demaris's bestselling Last Mafioso doesn't use it either, and the book was written after countless hours of interviews with former Dragna caporegime Jimmy Fratianno. The true crime title saw print in January of 1980. And the belittling moniker fails to appear in any of the federal files. Despite these truths, mysteriously, by the close of the 1980's, "Mickey Mouse" was being used excessively to refer to the early days. Around this time, crime writers began to take jabs at Jack Dragna too, calling him weak, inept, and the best of a poor lot. A couple years later a film jumped on board. The highly fictional (and disrespectful) movie Bugsy hit theaters in 1991, right when the world wide web went live. Things really snowballed then. Equally damaging on the big screen was the later flop, Gangster Squad (2013), a highly fictionalized picture of Los Angeles which elevates Mickey Cohen to the status of king. Even more ridiculously, the film assassinates Jack Dragna in his own house. These and similar depictions have painted an incorrect backward view of personal and business relationships. Unfortunately, thus far in the L.A. story, the Italians of Los Angeles have only ever been cast as the antagonists. Following the Hollywood formula, this slates them as fools or 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, 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.”