THE COLUMN: A Model Immigrant

Michael Walsh19 Dec, 2023 6 Min Read
Tough guys: Owney Madden, right, with Hoppo McArdle.

And a very happy 132nd birthday (yesterday, Dec. 18) to the greatest Irish gangster of them all, Owen Vincent Madden! Leader of the Gopher Gang, inmate at Sing Sing, NYC's leading beer brewer during Prohibition, Mae West's lover (hardly an exclusive category), Broadway producer, founder of the Cotton Club, the man who hired Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, and Harold Arlen and made them all stars, owner of five heavyweight champs, including Primo Carnera and James J. Braddock, stone killer, the man who led Mad Dog Coll to his death in the call box at the London Chemists on 23rd St., very likely the guy behind the hit on Dutch Schultz in the Palace Chop House in Newark, boss of Hot Springs, Ark., and mentor to young William Jefferson Blythe/Clinton in his final years. Truly a great American, even if he was a criminal.

Happy 132, Owen Vincent.

Using Madden's voice, I recounted Owney's exploits in my 2003 novel, And All the Saints, which went on to win an American Book Award for fiction. This is how it begins:

Lately I’ve been thinking about the Mad Mick and how he died bloody in the London call box on 23rd Street, and about Little Patsy and his gunsels, Granny and his damsels, and Texas and her brassy lungs, and about how we shot the Dutchman in the Palace john in Jersey along with his dear boy Lulu.

The Cotton Club has crossed my mind more than once, which was after it was Jack’s Club Deluxe, although if you ask me, it was never the same after they moved it from darktown to midtown and Hymie Arluck went Hollywood and turned into the Wizard of Oz. So has the Duke, for that matter, although nobody ever called him that when I was around, because I was always the real Duke, if you ask anybody who knows. Like Walter and Damon and Jimmy Hines and Joe the Boss and Arnold and Lucky and Meyer, and Estes the Senator from Tennessee and John the Senator from Arkansas, and Joe’s kids Jack and Bobby and all the rest of them who made my life so remunerative and difficult more or less at the same time.

Not to mention the Kitchen gang, One Lung, Razor, Happy Jack, Art and Hoppo, but also Legs, Lucky and the Bug, the Big Fella and the Little Man. Gone now, most of them long gone, except for old friends like Mae and Georgie, big stars now, four-letter household words. And here I sit in Bubbles, alone with Agnes and my pigeons, gazing out on North Mountain and West Mountain and the rest of the Ouachitas, which remind me of Ireland, at least the Ireland my mother used to tell me about, which was probably mostly a lie. Whereas they’ve all been plugged, fried, planted and otherwise disposed of.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about them all, and what we did and how we did it and sometimes even why. Most of all I think about them that died and those what lived, whether any of them deserved it or not, and wonder how it all turned out the way it did and why I’m still here, with five bullets in my gut and six gone but God it hurts, still hurts, fifty years on and more. And most of all, in this month of April I think of May.

Being both a connoisseur of classic Gangland and Irish myself, I found that Madden made an appealing subject for a fictional "autobiography." The "Duke of the West Side," was the most successful of the great Roaring Twenties gangsters, stylish and handsome, hell on the ladies, wealthy, influential politically, and a great contributor to American culture by way of the Cotton Club. An indigent boy, with a dead father left back in Liverpool, he made the crossing as a boy and took right to the streets, racking up seven kills during the course of his life in crime because by his way of reckoning if a man crossed you, you simply killed him, and if you got caught by the law, you did your time in "college" and then went right back to work. "Owney the Killer" loved to be loved by beautiful women but preferred to be feared by his enemies, who only got the drop on him once.

The one and only.

With immigration much in the news today, Madden as it happens was a model immigrant, who gave back more than he took. Yes, he was a gangland kingpin, but as the greatest living American novelist, James Ellroy, consistently illustrates in his works -- a la Balzac -- behind every great American institution is a very great crime, or series of crimes. Madden's influence was felt as bootleg brewer (Madden's No. 1," the best-selling beer in Manhattan during Prohibition), on Broadway (he produced Mae West's shows), and in Hollywood, to which he introduced his protégé, Georgie Ranft. Tinseltown turned the German-Italian Ranft into George Raft, the second banana in 1932's classic, Scarface, directed by Howard Hawks, and Raft went on to a career of portraying a snazzy Jazz Age gangster much like Madden for the rest of his career.

But the larger point is that Madden arrived in New York with his older brother, Martin, and their baby sister, May, with absolutely nothing. Immigrants were certainly welcome in the United States, but nothing was given to you at Ellis Island. If you had no one to vouch for you -- no sensible country wants to import beggars or public charges -- or if you were ill, you found yourself right back on the next boat home. Therefore, they aspired to become something, to be somebody. The Irish women who came over either went straight to the mills (as my own great-grandmother did) or worked as domestics. Their sons and daughters wanted more, and got it.

Unlike most gangland figures of the era -- and by "gangland" I refer to the urban hoods, the Irish, Italians, and Jews of the big-city streets, and not to the Bonnie-and-Clyde bank robbers of the Midwest -- Madden survived getting shot (eleven times at one go) and various other attempts on his life, as well as a couple of stints in jail, to "retire" from the rackets under a special deal with the new Roosevelt administration and live out his life in the spa town of Hot Springs, Ark., a wide-open, cheerfully corrupt burg (gambling was the stock in trade), known as Tammany South. Married to a respectable woman (who in her private life had been something of a visiting gangsters' moll), Madden died in 1965 and is buried in Bubbles alongside his wife, Agnes.

Gangs of New York. Gopher leader Madden is at center.

During the course of my research, which lasted seven years, I tracked Madden's ghost from Tenth Avenue in Hell's Kitchen to Hot Springs, finally stumbling across a treasure trove of his belongings and correspondence, from which I was able to piece together an account of this pilgrim's progress across the landscape of America during the first half of the 20th century. "How much of this true?" I've been asked by readers, to which I reply -- "Every word of it, except for the parts I made up."

The end result of this exuberant, fanatically detailed rendition is something akin to a long, engrossing jazz solo, musical with the sounds of struggle and conquest, keeping up a fast rhythm that spins through Madden's criminal career until his retirement, at age forty-three, a grand time of life to step more or less away from a vocation that claimed most of its adherents by the time they reached half that age. And All the Saints will keep you on your toes through every one of its nearly 400 pages  -- and keep your toes tapping.

So wrote reviewer Kilian Melloy after the novel came out. That it has resonated so well with both critics and the public is something for which I am eternally grateful, both to my readers and to the great man himself.

Michael Walsh is a journalist, author, and screenwriter. He was for 16 years the music critic and a foreign correspondent for Time Magazine. His works include the novels As Time Goes By, And All the Saints, and the bestselling “Devlin” series of NSA thrillers; as well as the nonfiction bestseller, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace and its sequel, The Fiery Angel. Last Stands, a study of military history from the Greeks to the present, was published by St. Martin's Press in December 2019. He is also the editor of Against the Great Reset: 18 Theses Contra the New World Order, published on Oct. 18, 2022. Follow him on Twitter: @theAmanuensis


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4 comments on “THE COLUMN: A Model Immigrant”

  1. The Cotton Club (1984 or thereabouts). Bob Hoskins played Madden in a very sympathetic portrayal. One reason he took the part was that his assistant was to be played by Fred Gwynne. Hoskins got excited, "I'm going to act with Herman Munster!"

  2. Owney was an interesting fellow, that's for sure, but I'm more intrigued by Mickey Featherstone and his saga. Once the angel-faced kid enforcer for the Westies, he went straight, disappeared into witness protection with his loving wife Sissy, and has kept his nose clean ever since. He's still alive, still married to Sissy, and his whereabouts are still unknown -- except to his family, of course. About ten years ago he seems have showed up for the funeral of an older sister only to disappear, after it was over, back whence he came. At least one of his sons served honorably in the army and was deployed to Iraq during the worst of the fighting over there. His story has a kind of an "angel with dirty faces" trajectory, a good boy who went bad and then turned it all around to find redemption. Anyway, happy birthday, Owney.

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