“And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”
A Culture of Spectacle
At the time Frank Costello was planning out the logistics of uprooting his gambling operation from New York and into New Orleans, Carlos Marcello, who would soon would become the Prime Minister’s New Orleans ambassador, had been temporarily predisposed, locked up at the Louisiana State Penitentiary— Angola— for “masterminding” the robbery of an A&P grocery store.
Then, one day, seemingly out of the blue and well before he’d been set to be released, Marcello was given back his freedom, allowed to walk out of jail, and granted a full pardon by the state’s new governor, a Long-machine lackey named O.K. Allen. However grateful Marcello may have been for Gov. Allen‘s reprieve, he had one man to thank more than anyone else, a total stranger from New York that he was told needed a trustworthy local who could help him set up his business on the other side of the New Orleans city limits in Jefferson Parish.
Frank Costello learned about Carlos Marcello when he began asking his contacts in Louisiana for the name of a reliable, loyal person who could handle part of his operation on the ground. The fact that Marcello was behind bars would be only a minor inconvenience.
Peter Hand, a two-term state legislator from the area who was eager to help the celebrity mobster, offered to put a word in with the governor, and that would be that.
They’d use a jukebox and pinball distribution company that Carlos’s brother Joe owned, at least on paper, Jefferson Music Company, to roll out a few hundred of Costello’s machines into the bars and juke-joints in the Quarter and in the outskirts of town, including the place Carlos ran himself in Gretna, the Brown Bomber. They’d need to pay off a few of the local politicians, a part of the business that would frustrate Marcello for the rest of his professional career, even though he proved himself to be quite masterful at the art of bribery.
There was a brief interruption in the operation in 1938, a year after the government made marijuana illegal nationwide. An undercover agent had set up Marcello on a deal to sell him 23 pounds of dope, and once the deed was done, the government boasted about the “biggest bust” in the country and shipped Marcello off for a year’s vacation at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia.
If the intention was to teach him a lesson about respect for the law, it backfired. His stint in federal prison made him a more knowledgeable and sophisticated criminal, and it’s easy to understand why someone getting locked up for selling a plant that had been perfectly legal only a few months prior would be disenchanted with the government’s conception of “equal justice under the law.”
But his stint behind bars— for the second time— hadn’t done any damage to his relationships with his business partners; Frank Costello and “Dandy Phil” Kastel were both fighting their own battles against the government at the time, accused of tax evasion. The charges didn’t stick though, and when the three men were each back at work, they picked up right where they’d left off.
The slot machines made everyone a whole lot of money, except for the poor fools who played them. Carlos and his brothers got a cut. Frank and Dandy Phil got a cut. The bar owners got a cut. And, of course, the politicians and the police got their cuts too.
The idea that anyone who already had one of the Jefferson Music Company’s pinball machines or jukeboxes inside of their establishments felt like they had been forced to haul in a slot machine or threatened with their life if they dared to refuse, that was absurd. Pinball and jukeboxes barely made anyone money. The slot machines made everyone money, lots of money. Maybe too much money.
With their newfound wealth, Costello, Kastel, and their accountant and shadow investor, Meyer Lansky, decided to open up some clubs of their own, and in appreciation for his loyalty and a job well done, they offered Carlos Marcello to join their new venture as an equity partner.
They ultimately ended up controlling a few places on Bourbon Street and some small establishments out of town, but the most valuable asset in their portfolio was the Beverly Country Club in Metairie.
In his review of Jason Berry’s book City of a Million Dreams, Garry Willis notes, “(New Orleans) has what sociologist Clifford Geertz called the cohesion of a ‘theatre state.’”
Geertz, as Willis reminds readers, wrote about “the power of grandeur to organize a world” and of “creating a belief system from “a lexicon of carvings, flowers, dances, melodies, gestures, chants, ornaments, temples, postures, and masks.” “
Berry does not refer to Geertz,“ Willis writes,“but he is undertaking something similarly ambitious when he claims that New Orleans has always had a culture of spectacle. Spectacle in New Orleans could not only underline authority but also undermine it” (emphasis added).
The same can be said about the spectacle of the Mafia, and in 1951, Sen. Estes Kefauver, after learning about the Beverly outside of New Orleans, discovered it was a spectacle the American public wanted to see for themselves.