Scumbag studies: Arnold Rothstein

He’s the perfect subject for this series, because he was a complete scumbag–just not in the ways most people imagine.

  • He didn’t fix the 1919 Series.
  • He was a gangster of Jewish heritage, but never part of a Jewish gang.
  • He may have been the brightest underworld figure of his time, a lock to succeed in legitimate business had he chosen to do so.

Arnold entered the world in 1882, son of Abraham and Esther Rothstein, of Manhattan. His parents were respected well beyond the observant Jewish community in which they lived, Abe being well known as an honest straight shooter (and not in the literal sense). Arnold was the family’s black sheep, quitting school early and marrying a non-Jew. To Abe, that was equivalent to his son’s death, and the father performed all the mourning rituals of Judaism. Arnold never outwardly repudiated the faith of his culture and upbringing; he simply did not practice it. He would one day be buried in a skullcap and tallit (prayer shawl).

A.R., as many referred to him, built his fortune as a professional gambler. Cards, the racetrack, didn’t matter; he was in. If he could fix it, he would. Many sought to clip him with fixes of their own, and in those circles, the rule was that the winner was the winner and the loser was the chump, and still had to pay up. He was no greedier than the rest of his ilk for that era, just better at it for most of his life.

My assessment: the 1919 World Series fix was the worst thing that could have happened to him. He didn’t do it, but the bum rap stuck to him. A couple of the players initiated the fix, and pitched the idea to Rothstein through intermediaries. Rothstein didn’t believe it was feasible to fix a Series; one biographer says A.R. respected the national game too much to do such a thing, and that’s where that author loses me. I know of no other evidence that A.R. gave a damn about the integrity of anything except the obligation to pay whatever portion one must of one’s bets and debts, and if bought, to remain bought. What the Series fix did to Rothstein was make this intensely private and reserved man into a public figure. It didn’t matter that he didn’t put the fix in. Enough people believed it that his innocence didn’t matter; plus, in fairness, as Aunt Polly said to Tom Sawyer, he didn’t get a lick amiss. Before that, the public mostly neither knew nor cared about A.R. After the Black Sox Scandal, the public knew it ought to hate Arnold Rothstein–and from 1920 on, he had scrutiny like never before. He had never wanted public notice, and he now had the worst possible kind.

Rothstein was a gangster, but not as many modern folks view a Prohibition- and pre-Prohibition era gangster. The modern tendency is to see those gangs in ethnic terms, and in many cases that was so. In that of A.R., not so much. There is no evidence that he ever put heritage above money; he was an equal opportunity opportunist, if one may pardon the clanks that emanate from that descriptor. As a gangster, his genius was constant evolution and a formless organization. One could look at, for example, Dion O’Banion’s mob in Chicago and say: “Irish gang.” It was an organization, well known, and those who were in, were in. Rothstein never had anything of the kind. He had deals going, with whomever for whatever reason, and when a line of trade became less profitable, he walked away with what he had earned. He gambled, bootlegged, sold insurance, whatever came his way. Until the last years of his life, he never followed a bad play off a cliff, which explains his enormous wealth. There were always new opportunities, and payoffs were the price of doing business. He did business with Tammany, but was never their creature, nor were they his.

As a personality, he was calm, reserved, urbane, polite, private, and patient. I have no way to know, but I watched the whole run of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and I find Michael Stuhlbarg’s portrayal quite credible. A.R. was so reserved that his wife, Carolyn, eventually moved to divorce him. To go by her memoirs, he loved her as much as he was capable of loving any person, but hers was the proverbial gilded cage.

There is so much we don’t know about A.R. and never will. His 1928 shooter did not kill him immediately, and Arnold didn’t squeal; we still don’t know who did it. There were elements of the police that did not much want to solve the case. Toward the end, Arnold’s gambling wasn’t going as well as it had before. It is hard to imagine that his death was not a result either of some past grudge, or some scheme or bet more recently gone against him.

Was he a scumbag? Fair to say, but he wasn’t one for the oftenest-thought reason. He was wealthy, introverted, brilliant, and private. He was deeply corrupt, and he had plenty of company. Whatever other names we might call Arnold Rothstein, there is one I am sure no one ever used.

He was not dull, in any sense of the term.

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