[True Crime] Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series
Near the end, I finally had to abandon this too-long, too-slow, too-discursive “biography” of Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein, the guy who — as the subtitle (and The Godfather II, and every book and article about Rothstein) tells us, fixed the 1919 World Series.
Rothstein is a fascinating figure and the times he lived in were amazing. There are a lot of great anecdotes in this book. But I’m afraid the overall information is too random and all over the place; I have no sense of the bigger picture, and that’s saying something since I read a lot of books about organized crime and early 20th century history. I just didn’t get the sense that I was really there; the information was too fragmentary.
I have read over 100 books on organized crime, so when I read a new one I should have at least a vague sense from the first few chapters where this guy fits into the overall history of organized crime in the US, and I didn’t get that sense here. It pains me to say that I got the distinct impression that it was because the author doesn’t really know where Rothstein fits in. Too often, writers on organized crime come in with agendas that have little to do with OC or with history, and I get the sense Pietruzsza might have been suffering from that somewhat, but I don’t really get what he was trying to do. Ultimately, the result was a fairly dull book that wanders all over the place and lionizes Rothstein (more or less) as a hero, which quite simply can’t be the whole story — and in any event, isn’t an interesting enough one to warrant me spending my time reading a book about it.
I will admit that in the early parts of Pietrusza’s Rothstein, there are some great stories and discursive histories of other figures of the time. But it is RARE that I make it 3/4 of the way through a book and then not decide to finish it.
The overall problem is that there’s too little information about Rothstein, which is always the risk in writing about gangsters in earlier eras. (Mike Dash’s The First Family, about the birth of the American Mafia, has exactly the same problem). But in Rothstein, that problem is compounded by the fact that there are way too many detours along the way.
I didn’t even get to Rothstein’s murder, and I’ve basically lost interest in the topic of Rothstein, I’m so disappointed by the experience of this book.
The “classic” text about Rothstein is of course The Big Bankroll by Leo Katcher. But my suspicion is that — as with many of the organized crime figures from early this century — there just isn’t enough info about Rothstein to warrant a full biography. He’s one of those figures who is incredibly important, but nobody’s 100% sure just why he’s important, except maybe the guys sleeping with the fishes. Or maybe it’s just that why Rothstein’s important is a matter of analysis, not occurrence. There’s no “story” to be told, any more than there is with William Wallace. Maybe Rothstein the man is not documented enough to be cooked down into a 3 or 400 page book. Maybe Rothstein’s just a force that weaves through the rest of the organized crime histories, especially those of Jewish gangsters…and it’s only a deep analysis of Rothstein’s effects that really communicates the changes in organized crime philosophy that can be tracked to him.
If that’s true, I really didn’t get such analysis from this book. And in the absence of a compelling series of events that form a thrilling (or at least coherent) history, I found the book a heavily-researched monstrosity that became, quickly, an unfortunate snore.