Friday, June 15, 2012

It Only Hurts When I Smirk: From Cook's Champagne to Jack Beers

Willetta on the left with bandleader Lawrence Welk.

"Willetta Stellmacher danced at Chicago's prestigious Edgewater Beach Hotel for eight years while rubbing elbows with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Lawrence Welk. She moved back to Dallas but didn't slow down; establishing a reputation as a stern business women managing hundreds of apartments in Texas and California."

Willetta Stellmacher was my landlady after I was forced to move out of the legendary "Funnybook Shack of Power" on Oliver Street in 1995. Her apartments were located near Henderson and Ross Avenue. Willetta was a stern (but if she liked you, generous) landlady. You could just tell Willetta would brook no nonsense, and that she was one "tough cookie" with an iron will.

I lived in the apartment directly across the way from her own. Willetta was famous for her offbeat tenant rules -- no motorcycles or men with beards. Willetta nicknamed me 'the Professor" because I taught art at Eastfield College and had lots of books. She had me sized-up correctly as a man of letters. Willetta was celebrated for a newspaper article that described how she once caught a burglar in the act, and put a cap in his ass with her .22.

Willetta was a ravishing beauty in her youth and after she became a teen-aged chorus girl, she left Dallas for the stages of Chicago, and eventually became Joe Fischetti's steady girl friend. Willetta once told me how she got her kicks by mowing her lawn while wearing a tight, flesh-colored bathing suit, just to cause rubberneckers to have wrecks. This was but one example of her irreverent sense of humor.

Wikipedia has this to say about the Fischetti brothers, "In the 1920s, the New York-raised Rocco Fischetti and his two brothers, Charles Fischetti and Joseph Fischetti moved to Chicago to join their first cousin Al Capone in the Outfit. During this period, the Fischetti brothers alternated between driving for Capone, acting as his bodyguards, and distilling bootleg alcohol. After Prohibition ended, Rocco Fischetti started running illegal gambling operations for the Outfit. In 1932, Rocco was acting as a bodyguard for John Capone, Al's brother, when the two men were arrested on the streets of Chicago for a minor offense.

Rocco Fischetti was soon operating some of the largest illegal gambling establishments in Lake County, Illinois and Cook County, Illinois. In Cicero, Illinois, a Chicago suburb controlled by the Outfit, Rocco Fischetti operated the notorious Rock Garden Club. In 1943, a grand jury investigation of gambling in Cicero prompted Rocco to move his establishment to the Vernon Country Club in Lake County, Illinois, one of the most elaborate establishments in that area. In later years, following investigations in Lake County, Rocco moved his gambling operation into Chicago.'

Charley "Trigger Happy" Fischetti

Rocco "Ralph Fisher" Fischetti
Willetta left the dancing and Chicago scene behind, perhaps in the early sixties, and married a "Professor" of her own, and lived in Hawaii for years. He may have had a beard. She divorced  him and moved back to Dallas, to oversee her real estate empire.

Almost every Friday at the complex, Willetta would host champagne cocktail parties and jovial chin sessions for her tenants and friends, where she often held court with the ribald tales of her colorful adventures. We always drank Cook's champagne because Willetta was Cook's Champagne Girl of 1940. Her walls were a rich mosaic of photos of the notable celebrities and entertainers that she knew. Back in the day, Joe Fischetti even used to send Frank Sinatra to squire Willetta around, if you can imagine that.

I had been reading Nick Toches' Dean Martin bio, Dino, and it had a key passage detailing an Outfit summit in Havana, Cuba. When I made a remark about what I'd read, Willetta's eyes lit up, and she chimed in with, "I was there."

According to Wikipedia, "During this time period, Rocco and his brothers became friends with Frank Sinatra. In 1946, Rocco, Charles Fischetti, and Outfit boss Tony Accardo attended the Havana Conference, a convocation of mobsters from all over North America. Sinatra accompanied the Chicago men on the flight to Havana. The official cover story for the Havana Conference was that the mobsters were attending a gala party with Sinatra as the entertainer. Charles and Rocco delivered a suitcase containing $2 million to Charles "Lucky" Luciano, the founder of the national Mafia Commission who was not allowed inside the United States. The money was Luciano's share of the American rackets he still controlled. In February 1947, according to the FBI, Rocco and Joseph Fischetti traveled again to Havana with Sinatra. During this visit, the three men again met with Luciano. In 1947, Rocco attended the funeral of Al Capone in Chicago.

In 1957, with Accardo's retirement as day-to-day boss and Outfit frontman, Sam Giancana became boss of the Outfit. He had Rocco once again running the gambling operations in Cicero. In 1964, Rocco Fischetti died of a heart attack at age 60 while visiting relatives in Massapequa, New York. He was buried on Long Island in New York."

Tony Accardo

Sam Giancana
Willetta's close encounters with underworld notables were something, but for me, the capper came later. I went to one of the Friday cocktail parties and was the first to arrive, since my door was but six feet from Willetta's. No worries about getting an early start and driving home drunk. On her coffee table was a large, vintage, black and white photo of Jack Ruby popping Lee Harvey Oswald. However, this particular photo was taken from a different vantage point than the iconic shot of record below -- it was ten feet to the right, and it struck me as odd.

Already aware of Willetta's past associations with members of gangland, I wondered aloud, "Why do you have this photo? What's it doing here?" Willetts answered, "You see that Dallas policeman who usually goes unnoticed behind the Sheriff with the big hat? -- that's my brother.

Photo by Robert Jackson

Here's the crime scene shot I spotted. "I was there. I was prepared. But I didn't get it." Photo by Jack Beers.

 From the moment he lunged out of the shadows and pulled the trigger on his .38-caliber Colt Cobra, Jack Ruby did more than blast his way into history.

Lee Harvey Oswald, the man suspected of killing President John F. Kennedy two days earlier, suffered a single, fatal shot from Ruby's gun.

But other men standing in the basement of the Dallas police station on Sunday morning, Nov. 24, 1963, saw their own lives change, none more so than a pair of photojournalists who captured the moment in black and white.

For Robert H. "Bob" Jackson, then a 29-year-old photographer for the Dallas Times Herald, taking a picture of Oswald's murder meant winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1964.

But for Ira Jefferson "Jack" Beers Jr., who worked for The Dallas Morning News — and who took an almost equally vivid picture — the basement events left an entirely different legacy.

Those who knew him say he never recovered from missing the Pulitzer by six-tenths of a second — the time between his photograph and Mr. Jackson's

If you ever wondered what it looked like during a night in Jack Ruby's Carousel Club, wonder no longer.

Judith Exner claimed to be the mistress of President John F. Kennedy and Mafia leaders Sam Giancana and John Roselli. She was also known as Judith Campbell Exner.

Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams by Nick Tosches

"Only a handful of showbiz biographers can lay claim to posessing the literary acumen of writers like Michael Holroyd and Peter Ackroyd. Nick Tosches is one of these writers, and his unauthorized biography of Dean Martin stands as a testament to his genius. Several inimitable sequences in which Tosches adopts his subject's perspective (most of which are regrettably unsuitable for quotation here) make the book a real standout.
Dino is a fascinating portrait of a man who had it all -- money, fame, women -- and didn't give a damn about any of it and suggests that, even as he wallowed in the excesses of Hollywood and the Rat Pack, Martin stayed critically aloof from that world, albeit often in a booze-and-pill-addled haze. He got into showbiz precisely because it required so little effort of him: "I can't stand an actor or actress who tells me acting is hard work," he once said. "It's easy work. Anyone who says it is hard never had to stand on his feet all day dealing blackjack." Nobody could impress Martin. While Frank Sinatra would do anything just to hang out with reputed Mafioso, the Mob would have to make special trips to ask Martin in person to play a show at one of their casinos.

Tosches' portrait, written only a few years before Martin's death in 1996, depicts its subject as nothing so much as a Zen master without the spiritual anchor; after sampling everything that life had to offer and finding it lacking, Martin spent the last years of his life waiting to die in virtual seclusion."

Mafia Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy by John H. Davis 

"This 'engrossing, detailed' biography of Mafia don Carlos Marcello, who rose from street thug to undisputed boss of the oldest Mafia family in the country, "also presents a well-organized summary of the large body of evidence pointing to Marcello as mastermind of the assassination of JFK," 

Willetta in a recent photo for the Lakewood Advocate magazine, age 94.

1 comment:

  1. You're really brave to lay it all out there about your landlady's connections to the Mob and the Kennedy assassination!