I began seeing my old grade-school classmates recently. Like any other kids, they grew up and did the usual things grown-ups do. I read in the Tribune a few years ago that one of the boys had killed his mother during an argument. Another one grew up to become a jewel thief, but has since straightened out. Several people became drug dealers and petty criminals, but I don't suppose that's so uncommon.
What did set my class apart was that so many of their parents were mobsters. Bateman was a private school in a mansion on the corner of Astor and Burton (it's since become nine condos), and for some reason it was very popular among the gangster set. The school had liberal policies toward kids with learning disabilities, and a lot of the mob kids had them, so maybe that had something to do with it. One classmate's mother, the widow of a bookie, told me that she had recommended the school to all her mob-connected friends--and that lots of them never paid their tuition. (I started first grade at Bateman in 1956 because a neighbor in Uptown told my mother what a great school it was; her son and I rode the bus together.)
Last year one former classmate, now in his 40s, spent months tracking down hundreds of Bateman alumni. His search culminated in a big reunion last September at the Como Inn (the Marchetti brothers, who own the restaurant, went to Bateman too). After that, smaller groups of us started seeing each other again for dinners and parties. About 20 of us met for dinner recently at the Angus on Western Avenue, a few blocks north of a place that had been a hot spot back when we were in school and was known as a mob front. An alum reminisced, "My mother had to get their liquor license for them because no one connected with the place [was clean enough to] get one."
One of my old friends, now a bistro singer, said that one of the "kids" was selling coke now; he couldn't come to the dinner because Saturday night was his busy time. The singer's father had been a big Rush Street nightclub owner and her mother was a manicurist.
Another alumnus, whose father was gunned down years ago, couldn't make it because of the flu. There was talk that it was his father who had squealed on another alumnus's father and sent him to the clink, where he died in the mid-60s--in his mid-60s.
My best friend from 30 years ago strolled in late. Her father had made millions manufacturing a certain auto accessory. Once, when we were swimming at Outer Drive East on Randolph (they lived on the Gold Coast but had extra apartments all over downtown), we needed someone to watch us because no one under 16 could swim unattended. Her father appointed the famous mobster Allen Dorfman as our baby-sitter.
Everyone was talking about the hit movie Bugsy. "My father was with him the night he died," said an alum. "And they had a fight. And my father was afraid they'd think he killed him. The night before he died wasn't like it was in the movie at all. Not according to my father. There was business." (Later, when we went back to her house, she pointed out a mirror from the Desert Inn in Las Vegas--scratched by two gangsters who'd had a fight.)
"You know, they really did meet Mussolini," said someone else. "Because my father told me he went with them [Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky] and they almost killed Mussolini but they decided against it at the last minute. They had a chance to kill Hitler, too, but they didn't."
The twins (one is a scientist, the other a clerk--and they still live with their mother) took the movie very seriously. Their uncle was portrayed prominently as both a big mobster and Virginia Hill's ex-boyfriend, and as the guy who helped her skim Flamingo seed money and hide it in Switzerland. Some of the kids said that he had had a son with her in the early 50s who would be the twins' cousin.
Two days later I went to see Bugsy with my old best friend and another classmate from the dinner party. This guy claims his dad was one of the biggest bookies in Chicago (he died in jail in 1964) and was very close to Siegel and Lansky and Luciano. He said his mother was Virginia Hill's best friend. "You should come and see my mother," he said. "She's got Virginia Hill's clothes--you could try 'em on."
I had a special interest in Bugsy too. My maternal grandparents (from Streator, Illinois) had moved to Las Vegas as pioneers--they were never connected to the mob. At one time my grandfather had owned lots of land in Las Vegas but sold it before it was worth very much. My grandmother, who's 98, and her son (my mother's brother) still live there.
My grandmother's brother and his son moved to Las Vegas even before my grandmother and opened a retail store. The son, my cousin Chic Hecht, became a U.S. senator from Nevada in 1982--with Ronald Reagan's avid support--but lost the last election (now he's the ambassador to the Bahamas).
As a little girl, and through my teens and young adulthood, I went to Las Vegas over and over again to visit my grandparents and uncle. I cried at the end of Bugsy when his dream came true--the Flamingo gets built and changes America (and my life) forever. During the scene where Bugsy tells Hill he's decided on a glass-enclosed casino--necessitating the move of a supporting wall--I remembered the day in the late 1950s when my grandfather gave me some money to buy books at the Flamingo gift shop. In the movie, the spot where Siegel and Hill are standing discussing their plans is the same spot where I bought two paperbacks--a "Dear Abby" collection and a "Dennis the Menace" collection. They're still on my bookshelf.
A few days after we saw the movie, I drove with my daughter and my classmate and his daughter to a small town a couple of hundred miles away to visit his mother, Virginia Hill's best friend, and see the clothes.
On the way, my friend's daughter said she had done a paper for school on Jewish gangsters, and she asked me if I remembered the scene in the movie where Bugsy pushes Hill's brother through a glass door because he thinks he's her lover, not her brother. She explained that really wasn't Hill's brother in real life. It was Hill's best friend's brother--her grandmother's brother.
When we arrived at the run-down Victorian house, Hill's best friend, now in her 70s, didn't want to talk. She said she'd been offered lots of money to tell mob stories but always turns it down--"and you can tell I can use the money."
But after a few drinks, she reluctantly spilled a few stories. She told me that Hill hitchhiked from Alabama to Chicago, hooking up with Chicago mobsters like Joe Epstein before venturing to the west coast. She wouldn't tell me how she and Hill got to know each other and why they became best friends. Ironically, when she pulled out pictures of herself as a young woman sitting in nightclubs with her late husband, she looked almost exactly like Annette Bening, who plays Hill in Bugsy.
"[Hill] loved the life-style," she told me. "But she took her money and invested it in the carnival business.
"Men came to her like a homing pigeon--everyone from ski instructors to shoe-shine boys."
Then she pulled out a plain black evening dress, which she said had belonged to Hill. "She was voluptuous, not skinny," she said, pointing out parts of Hill's dress that she had filled out.
"She was very nice," said her former best friend. "She had a lot of charisma. She was a good, generous person and everyone liked her.
"When my son was born in 1950 she sent me a beautiful bassinet from Marshall Field's--the very finest one Marshall Field's had. I gave it to him for his daughters," she said disgustedly in the direction of her son, "and he loaned it to one of his friends.
"Are you ever going to get it back? I'm upset. Will you get it back? It's excellent quality, you know."
He wouldn't make eye contact with her. "Yeah, Ma," he said. "I'm going to get it back. I'm going to get it back from the guy I loaned it to--as soon as the guy gets out of jail, he's gonna give it back to me."