Friday, July 10, 2020

The Mogul, The Heartthrob and the Mob

Another article I found in my archive... a draft but still I find it interesting...

          "The managing director of United Artists Studios, Joe Schenck spoke to reporters outside New York’s Polyclinic hospital. With his movie star wife, Norma Talmadge by his side, the Hollywood mogul was on the verge of tears as he related the details of his visit with Rudolph Valentino. As Valentino’s employer, Schenck was permitted a brief visit with the gravely ill silent film star.
Schenck and his brother Nick Schenck , President of Loew’s Theaters were pioneers in the motion picture industry. Joe Schenck produced Valentino’s last two movies, The Son of the Sheik and The Eagle and had just signed a new contract to produce two more films with the heart throb. Schenck later founded Twentieth Century Fox Films and managed, without a doubt, to control his movie studios with an iron fist. Joe Schenck had a gift for making profitable alliances which included ties to shady connections with the mob. It would have taken guts to face off with Joe Schenck, but this is precisely what Valentino’s business manager did in the weeks following Valentino’s death. Valentino died following Schenck’s visit and the job of settling his financially involved estate fell to his close friend, business manager and executor, George Ullman. It was in this capacity he took on the formidable Joe Schenck.
In an effort to collect outstanding funds and income due to Valentino’s estate, Ullman held several heated meetings with Joe Schenck. Valentino was contractually promised a percentage of the profits of his movies made with United Artists. Ullman was determined to promote those two films, The Eagle and The Son of the Sheik and generate cash to pay Valentino’s creditors. Schenck offered to buy out Valentino’s interest in the films and told Ullman that no dead man had ever made a cent as a screen actor after their death. Ullman refused the offer, proceeded to aggressively market the films and Schenck eventually paid the Valentino estate over 300,000.00 in royalties. Ullman scored victory after victory over Joe Schenck but was naïve as to just who he was crossing in the process.
His situation complicated when Valentino’s only brother arrived in Los Angeles and eventually sued him for fraud and mismanagement of his famous brother’s estate. To Ullman’s dismay, Valentino’s brother retained a fleet of highly-paid attorneys to represent him. The fact that all of these attorneys were affiliated with United Artists was not lost on Ullman. He did not realize at the time that some of the money paying Valentino’s brother’s lawyers was being generated by Schenck’s affiliation with the mob.
While Ullman engaged in what became decades of legal morass which would financially ruin him for life, Schenck’s profits soared during the height of the depression. The flagging national economy was no threat to Schenck’s bottom line or his ability to fund the attorneys…and the reason was due in great measure to one man, Willie Bioff.
Willie Bioff was a mid-level gangster from Chicago who once worked for Jake “Greasy Thumb” Gusik who introduced him to Al Capone and Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti. In the 1930's, Nitti dispatached Willie Bioff to Calfiornia as an enforcer for the mafia controlled union of the powerful International Alliance of Stage Employees. Eventually, Bioff, aided by John “Handsome Johnny” Roselli became the collector for all syndicate controlled unions in Hollywood.
As Nitti's Hollywood front man, Willie Bioff took full advantage of the economic hardships being felt in the motion picture industry. Bioff established a lucrative arrangement with Joe and Nick Schenck. As George Ullman buckled under the weight of Alberto's legal muscle in 1930, Schenck was making millions depriving his employees of overtime pay and their right to strike by handing payoffs to the mafia union front man, Willie Bioff.
There were two sides to the story as to how and why brown paper bundles of cash came to be passed between the Schenck brothers and Willie Bioff. Bioff claimed he was a willing “go-between” and that he had been asked by Nick and Joe Schenck simply to carry cash payments cross country to avoid government regulations. Joe Schenck claimed Bioff was extorting the money. But neither side of the story disputed the fact that while Joe Schenck reaped his million dollar profits, Bioff enjoyed a very high-profile ten carat lifestyle in California.
Whether the cash was handed over to guarantee control over the worker’s union or whether it was being extorted, Nick Schenck managed to keep his nose clean. However Joe Schenck was particularly vincible to Bioff’s presence and his book keeping was as faulty as the entire set-up. When Schenck made one of his payments to Bioff in the form of a personal check for $100,000.00, somehow a photo of the cashed check was forwarded to the Screen Actors Guild’s President, actor Montgomery Clift. Clift contacted the Internal Revenue Service and Schenck’s books went through a thorough scouring by Federal investigators.
The government handed down an indictment and charged Joe Schenck with income tax evasion and demanded a payment of $413,000 in taxes. He cooperated with the government and in exchange faced only a charge of perjury. To avoid a lengthy prison sentence, Schenck cut a deal with the Federal government and divulged every detail of his operations with Bioff, who he referred to as the racketeer ruler of the stagehands union. Schenck claimed Bioff had extorted millions from him and his brother by wielding the threat of union strikes at the height of the great depression.
After Schenck's testimony to the grand jury, every studio head in Hollywood was subpoenaed to testify as well as the most notorious Chicago and Hollywood mob bosses. Bioff was indicted for tax evasion, extortion and racketeering, along with a number of his associates. He testified against his companions, including Paul “The Waiter” Ricca, Philip D'Andrea, Charlie “Cherry Nose” Gioe, Johnny Roselli,, Lou Kaufman and Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti. Shortly after Bioff's testimony, Nitti put a gun to his head and committed suicide.
During the trial, Bioff maintained he “did it all for Joe Schenck.” He claimed he was a willing messenger and nothing more and painted a detailed and cozy picture of Joe Schenck cutting him in on a poker game and staking him for $8000.00. The jury didn’t buy word of his trumped up story and he was convicted on income tax fraud in California and found guilty of violating the anti-racketeering statute.
By 1941, the once powerful mogul who produced Valentino’s best movies, The Son of the Sheik and The Eagle and visited him on his deathbed was doing time in a federal penitentiary in Danbury, Connecticut serving a five year sentence on a conviction of three counts of tax evasion and one count of committing perjury to a grand jury.
Joe Schenck would not serve a long term as he was pardoned by Truman and then returned to Hollywood. Upon his release, Bioff moved to Arizona and assumed a new identity, "William Nelson" and developed a friendship with Senator Barry Goldwater helping contribute to his reelection campaign fund and even going into business with the senator's nephew, Bobby. Bioff was assassinated on November 4, 1955, through a bombing which was described as:
“Bioff walked out of his home and slid behind the wheel of his truck. A moment later, an explosion rocked the neighborhood. Parts of Bioff and his truck were strewn all over the driveway. Police found the remains of a dynamite bomb wired to the starter. The killers were never found.”