Joe and Jack, Part 4: “The Man the Gangsters Couldn’t Kill”

(If you haven’t read the earlier “Joe and Jack” chapters, start with Part 1 of this four-part story.)

Joe Lewis was released from the hospital sometime in December, but he still had a long recovery ahead of him. “For a man who could not move his right hand, who had a hole the size of a dollar on top of his head, who was stitched from his left ear to his jugular vein and whose memory was obliterated by vast expanses of darkness, Joe was at peace with the world and grateful,” Cohn said. 1

Cohn wrote that Lewis was released four days before Christmas,2 but Variety reported that Lewis had been spotted in the audience at the New Palace Theatre on December 11. There was a big round of applause when one of the performers onstage pointed him out.3 In any case, Lewis was out of the hospital by December 21—when police arrested him for carrying a concealed gun. Rendezvous Cafe manager John Fogarty was with him at the time, as well as a man named John Borcia, who was reportedly a bodyguard. Lewis, his head still bandaged, said he’d armed himself for protection.4

According to The Joker Is Wild, Lewis had gone looking for Jack McGurn that day on the South Side because, as he told Fogarty, “I hear McGurn switched to the South Side.” This remark suggested that McGurn’s change in loyalty had happened recently—as far Lewis knew—perhaps during the time Lewis was in the hospital. Fogarty exclaimed: “It’s suicide crossing the line!” But Lewis supposedly insisted on going to the Frolics, the cabaret where he used to perform for Capone. Police officers stopped the three men as they exited the café.5 Afterward, Captain Goldberg told Lewis: “And you claimed you were an entertainer, not a hoodlum.”6

But Lewis couldn’t have spent too much time prowling the South Side with Fogarty on the day of his arrest—because December 21 was also the night when he stepped back onto the stage at the Rendezvous Cafe, performing in front of a packed house, according to a report in Variety. The book’s version of events contradicts this evidence from newspapers. The way The Joker Is Wild told the story, Lewis’s wounds hemorrhaged during his arrest for carrying a gun, so he had to go back to the hospital, finally getting out and returning to the Rendezvous stage in late January.7 Clearly, something is amiss in Cohn’s chronology, though it’s possible that Lewis did go in and out of the hospital.

The front of the Rendezvous Cafe advertised Joe Lewis’s impending return. Salt Lake Tribune-Sun, January 29, 1928.

“How he beat the reaper no one knows,” Variety’s critic wrote about Lewis’s December 21 show. “Joe looked good, at home, on that floor. Not the old Joe quite yet, but still the cafe master of ceremonies of Chicago. With his head swathed in gauze, his left cheek scarred and his voice still short of attaining pure pig-Latin, he is nevertheless a cured man, looked like one and worked like one. He gagged about that certain affair and those certain parties. He said he’s written a new song called ‘Who’s That Knocking at My Door.’ He said the boys came in to talk over old times and wound up by playing with his head. ‘Laugh!’ said Joe, ‘why I laughed so much I thought I’d die.’”

Lewis didn’t yet resume his old job as master of ceremonies, handing over those duties that night to Sophie Tucker. “Joe’s performance will be cut to a minimum, temporarily, upon the advice of physicians,” Variety reported. “He will slowly regain his former stride.” The crowd applauded when it was announced that Fogarty was giving Lewis a share of the Rendezvous’s ownership.8

Variety’s writer marveled at Lewis’s recovery as well as the entertainer’s incredible dominance of the Chicago cabaret scene: “Joe Lewis is back and so is the cafe business of Chicago. One means the other. Perhaps nowhere in this wide world is there a man who so influences a branch of show business as Joe does the night clubs in Chicago. When they slashed him on that terrible night at the Commonwealth hotel, they broke not only Joe, but everyone in Joe’s racket.” The writer concluded that “Joe Lewis is the nite club business of Chicago.”9

At 11:30 p.m. on December 23, federal prohibition agent Robert M. McNaught stopped into the Rendezvous for an hour. This was the seventh time he’d visited the nightclub since early September, as the government gathered evidence of people bringing alcohol into Chicago’s most prominent nightclubs.

On this occasion, McNaught reported seeing about 125 patrons seated at 40 tables. “Very little food was served at the tables,” he noted. But nearly everyone was ordering “setups”—ginger ale and cracked ice. McNaught himself ordered ginger ale, which was $1.25 a bottle. As McNaught watched, patrons sitting at most of the tables pulled out bottles or flasks, pouring “a liquid which appeared … to be whiskey or gin” into their glasses, adding some ginger ale, and drinking these cocktails. Meanwhile, “waiters moved about the room but did not interfere with the use of liquor by the patrons.”

McNaught didn’t seem to think much of the show, dryly observing: “the entertainment consisted of the usual musical comedy character with scantily clad and bare legged women dancers.”10

Salt Lake Tribune, January 29, 1928.

Over the next two months, reports suggested that Lewis had made a miraculous comeback. “Now Joe Lewis has returned to his work with scarcely a mark on his face,” the International Feature Service reported in late January, in a syndicated story that ran in newspapers across the country. “He dances and sings, and his smile is the same old infectious grin. Science has beaten the gangsters.”11

In February, Variety reported that a brand of cigar had been named after Joe Lewis, and that his name was also “emblazoned on a snapping brand of suspenders.”12

And the Tribune wrote: “Joe Lewis is rapidly regaining his former popularity and is entertaining his friends and followers in the good old-fashioned manner. His gay show, enhanced by the spontaneous interruptions of his own witticisms, is keeping the merry throngs who infest the Rendezvous constantly in an uproar.”13

Chicago Daily Tribune, February 19, 1928.

Lewis tried to turn the horrific attack he’d suffered into comedy. When he told the story, he included a reference to the hitmaking music publisher Leo Feist, whose motto was “You Can’t Go Wrong With a ‘Feist’ Song.” (The Feist company’s biggest hit song was 1927’s “My Blue Heaven.”)14

Joseph M. Bruccoli Great War Collection, Sheet Music, University of Southern Carolina.

Here is the story Lewis told to Rendezvous audience each night:

I was in my room when three good friends of mine walked in. They seemed pretty sad.

“Whose songs are you singing, Joe’?’’ they asked.

“Feist songs,” I answered. “You can’t go wrong with any Feist song.”

One of the men shook his head. “Joe, he said, “you oughta sing my songs, don’t you think?” And he pulled out a little knife and whittled on my face just a bit.

Then another of the guys butted in and told me I oughta sing his songs, maybe. I explained to him that you can’t go wrong with a Feist song, but he didn’t understand, and he whittled on this side of my face.

The third guy fingered a little gat as he said he thought it was a pity I didn’t sing his songs and he touched me on the head with the butt—just enough to put me to sleep. I woke up in the hospital a few days later.

Anyway, I’ve learned something. You can go wrong!15

While Lewis was performing at the Rendezvous, Chicago’s gambling war was raging just around the corner—and Jack McGurn reportedly began overseeing a Capone-controlled gambling joint just a block away from the stage where Lewis told jokes each night. The Tribune reported that McGurn was “the manager of the gambling concession” in Louis Barsotti’s restaurant16 and the Surf Smoke Shop,17 which opened in early February at 2835 North Clark Street—one block northwest of the Rendezvous.18

“Barsotti himself only was a restaurant keeper, devoted to the culinary arts,” the Tribune reported. “The story is that McGurn was put in to handle the gambling. … As a combination of bookkeeper, bouncer and guard he was a success.” 19 The place had “plentiful” gambling.20

But its location would cause trouble; it was a block away from a gambling joint controlled by the North Side gang. “North Side” Frankie Pope’s cigar store at 2725 North Clark Street, which the Tribune said was “long identified with north side gambling activities,” had been raided by the police back in November and December, when it continued operating in defiance of the police chief’s orders to shut down for the holidays.21

By late January, Pope was back in business. According to the Daily News, a “graft collection syndicate” of politicians was regulating the city’s gambling joints now, trying to keep the mobsters from running the show. Pope was this “syndicate’s outside man for the district north of the river,” the Daily News explained, suggesting that he had approval from politicians to run his illegal business. “His place operating practically all forms of gambling is said to return the biggest dividends of any resort in the city,” the newspaper reported.22 (Pope, who was known as “The Millionaire Newsboy,” was reportedly one of two gambling mobsters with the same name. The other was “West Side” Frankie Pope, who ran gambling operations on the West Side—but, confusingly, resided on the North Side. Remarkably, “West Side” Frankie Pope was living at 6832 North Sheridan Road, the same apartment building in Rogers Park where Al and Ralph Capone had been tenants six years earlier.23)

Key locations around Clark, Broadway, and Diversey

1. The Rendezvous Cafe, northeast corner of Diversey and Broadway.
2. The Commonwealth Hotel, where Joe Lewis stayed—and where he was attacked. North Side gangster Vincent “Schemer” Drucci also stayed here and was arrested outside the hotel.
3. Frankie Pope’s gambling joint in a radio store at 2711 North Clark Street.
4. Frankie Pope’s cigar store at 2725 North Clark Street.
5. Location of Frankie Pope’s earlier gambling joint, 648 West Diversey.
6. Louis Barsotti’s restaurant and the Surf Smoke Shop, 2835 North Clark Street, where Jack McGurn was “the manager of the gambling concession.”
7. Green Mill manager Danny Cohen’s home at 526 West Surf Street.
8. Apartment building at 2907 North Pine Grove Avenue, where a bomb exploded. The tenants included Lawrence Cuneo, Cook County state’s attorney Robert Crowe’s brother-in-law and secretary.
9. Former home of the late North Side mob boss Dean O’Banion at 448 West Surf Street.
Composite of maps in the Sanborn Map Company’s Chicago, Volume 9 (1923).

The neighborhood around Clark, Broadway, and Diversey was a hub for nightlife and gambling. Other hot spots included the Avalon Club on Diversey, where Joe Lewis had performed back in 1926. It was now operating as “an expensively equipped resort catering to woman as well as man patrons,” featuring “everything in a gambling way,” the Daily News reported.24 The cops had also shut down another gambling joint run by “North Side” Frankie Pope, at 648 West Diversey. But now he’d purchased a radio store at 2711 North Clark Street, offering games of chance in either the back of the store25 or the basement.26 The Tribune described it as “somewhat lavish,”27 and the Daily News said it was twice as big as Pope’s previous gambling establishment. 28

As Chicago’s gambling places reopened, the whereabouts of Al Capone were a mystery. He’d spent much of January basking in the Florida sun, until officials there asked him to leave. “We decided it would be to the best interests of all concerned if he departed,” Miami Beach’s mayor said.29

An anonymous source told the Daily News that Capone was gone from Chicago for good, thanks to the city political syndicate’s control over gambling, which had supposedly shut out the Capone mob. “Capone himself realized the situation as hopeless, and beat it,” the source said. “It is doubtful if he ever comes back here, particularly while Thompson is in power. He’s in Havana now, having been ordered out of Miami. … He can’t go on in Chicago, while the present political combination is in control.”30 Police superintendent Michael Hughes said he was waging “the damnedest drive against the racketeers ever saw.” He elaborated: “I don’t care what the racket is—gambling, booze, con games, anything—any man who makes anything but a legitimate living in this town is going to be locked up. And I’ll keep locking him up until he goes away from here—permanently.”31

In the first days of March, contradictory reports emerged about Capone: He’d either returned to Chicago32 or was still in Florida.33

Roanoke World-News, March 2, 1928.
Chicago Daily Tribune, March 3, 1928.

The Daily News later reported that he’d been hiding in Cicero and using the Paddock Grill, at 2507 South Wabash Avenue, as a new base of his operations.

Jack McGurn leaving a phone booth at felony court in 1933. ICHi-051231, Chicago History Museum.

Under Capone’s command, McGurn and “an educational committee of high-pressure salesmen” installed the mob’s slot machines downtown and in the Near South Side.

“So well did McGurn and his crew of peddlers do the task that Capone instructed him to see what he could do in the territory north of the river, territory in which Capone had never been able to gain a successful foothold,” the Daily News reported. “Capone’s invasion of the north side was based on the theory that the north side gang was broken and spiritless and that the territory was a ‘push-over’ for any enterprising underworld chief with a pack of ‘muscle men’ at his command.”

Capone reportedly ordered “his shock troops headed by Jack McGurn” to “invade the north side territory of Jack Zuta and George Moran, and plant Capone slot machines,” the Daily News reported.

That’s how McGurn reportedly ended up working in the same neighborhood as Joe Lewis, managing Louis Barsotti’s new gambling joint. The former North Side gunman “returned to his old stamping ground, this time in direct conflict with his erstwhile mates in arms,” the Daily News wrote.34 Or as the Tribune put it, McGurn was “serving Capone interests on the north side.”35

Barsotti was a close ally of mayor Bill Thompson’s administration. “He is supposed to have been inspired to open this place by the assurances of some one in touch with the organization,” the Tribune reported.36 If that was true, the political bosses had apparently said it was fine for Barsotti and Pope to operate gambling parlors on Clark Street. But it wasn’t fine with the mobsters.

On February 17, a bomb exploded at Barsotti’s gambling joint, wrecking the place. This seemed to be the North Side mob’s way of telling Capone and McGurn to get out of their neighborhood. At virtually the same time, another bomb jolted 708 North Wells Street, the undertaking chapel of John A. Sbarbaro, who was also a municipal judge and a close political ally of Robert Crowe, the Republican state’s attorney. Sbarbaro was hurled from his bed on the third floor. The North Side mobsters reportedly targeted Sbarbaro because they believed—mistakenly—that he’d given Barsotti permission to open his gambling joint.37

The aftermath of the bombing at John A. Sbarbaro’s undertaking chapel. Chicago Daily Tribune, February 18, 1928.

Three days later, another bomb went off in the neighborhood, exploding in the vestibule of a building at 2907 North Pine Grove Avenue, where the tenants included Lawrence Cuneo, Crowe’s brother-in-law and secretary. “They’re trying to bomb me out of politics,” Crowe said.38 Authorities said they were looking for McGurn for questioning in this bombing.39

Bombings had become an alarmingly routine occurrence in Chicago that winter. In some cases, the Capone mob was suspected of blowing up places operated by the North Side mob40—or vice versa. It wasn’t always clear who the target was. A large black powder bomb had been found in Ballilo Donzelli’s shoe shop in an apartment building at 4720 North Racine Avenue, half a block south of Riviera Theatre and the Green Mill, after it failed to ignite. “Had that bomb exploded it would have endangered the lives of people in the apartments above it and any passersby on the usually busy street,” a police official said. “The bomb is exceptionally powerful.”41

Some of the blasts targeted politicians, as mobsters fought back against the police crackdown42 and protested politicians’ efforts to curb gambling.43 A primary election was coming up on April 10, and it came to be known as “The Pineapple Primary,” named after a slang word for explosives.44 “So prevalent did pineapple cultivation become that the joke mongers the country over soon began using the word pineapple as a synonym for Chicago,” Hal Andrews wrote in Chicago Gang Wars in Pictures: X Marks the Spot.45

Men from Crowe’s office raided four of the Clark-Broadway-Diversey area’s gambling spots on February 25. No gambling was underway at three of the places, but the lawmen found 200 to 300 people in Frankie Pope’s radio store,46 playing blackjack, roulette, and chuck-a-luck games or dropping coins into six slot machines. As people rushed out, the state’s attorney’s cops managed to arrest 43. Local merchants applauded the raid, saying they’d been losing customers because of all the money lost on wagers.47

Chicago Daily Tribune, February 26, 1928.

Meanwhile, federal authorities targeted the Rendezvous for violating prohibition laws, as part of their citywide investigation of cabarets. On February 5, agents raided the Rendezvous, finding 35 bottles of whiskey and gin—some of them full, some nearly empty. Patrons had apparently brought all of this booze into the nightclub. Two days later, the U.S. government sued the Rendezvous, seeking to shut the place down. The feds identified the owners as Joe Lewis, Max M. Perliter, Henry Finkelstein, and the Rienzi Company. (Fogarty wasn’t on this list—was that because he’d given his share to Lewis?) A deputy U.S. marshal served Lewis with a writ. 48

By the end of that month, Lewis reportedly decided that he couldn’t continue performing at the Rendezvous, because he hadn’t fully recovered from the attack. According to The Joker is Wild, he worried that audiences were taking pity on him rather than enjoying his performances. “His voice became weaker and the customers fewer,” Cohn write. “Only three or four tables were occupied the last night. Even with the waiters helping, the applause was a death rattle.”49

The Daily News reported that “his strength gave out.”50 Noting that Lewis “can no longer cater to night life devotees,” Variety reported: “Partially recovered from the attack on him while in his hotel room, Lewis tried to stage a come-back, but ineffectually. … he is advised by physicians that he must say goodbye to his old love, take a six months’ vacation in a different climate, and then undergo further surgical treatment.”

In a March 6 dispatch, Variety’s correspondent reported that the Rendezvous had gone out of business.51 And on March 13, a judge issued a permanent injunction, shutting down the nightclub.52 According to The Joker Is Wild, Lewis departed for a vacation in Florida a few hours after the feds padlocked the Rendezvous, supposedly unaware of what had happened in the court proceedings.53

McGurn was staying three miles south of the Clark-Broadway-Diversey area, lodging at the McCormick Hotel, at Ontario and Rush Streets. On March 7, he was in the hotel’s first-floor smoke shop with another Capone associate, Nick Mastro,54 when some men sprayed the shop with a dozen bullets from a submachine gun. According to one report, it was two men. Another story said there were four. In any case, the gunmen quickly sped away after shooting McGurn through the right side and in the left shoulder. Mastro, who’d also been wounded, left for a hospital while McGurn retreated to the room where he’d been saying, room 906. When the hotel’s doctor arrived, the gangster said: “I’m Jack McGurn, but around here I’m known as Johnson. See if you can’t do something for me.”

Chicago Daily News, March 8, 1928.
Belleville Daily News-Democrat, March 8, 1928.

An ambulance took him to the Alexian Brothers Hospital, where he offered a barrage of profanity when cops tried to question him about his assailants. “I’ll take care of this matter myself,” he growled.

At first, detectives considered the possibility that someone had shot McGurn as an act of vengeance for the stabbing of Joe Lewis. But they quickly concluded that this shooting was part of the gang conflict over gambling.55 Investigators believed that the men who’d shot McGurn were affiliated with Frankie Pope’s gambling operation.56 “I know who plugged me, but that’s my business,” McGurn said. “I’ll attend to this myself—if I ever get up.”57

According to Gusfield, “It has long been thought that the gunmen are Moran’s henchmen Frank and Pete Gusenberg in their second attempt to kill McGurn.”58 Those were the same brothers who’d guarded Joe Lewis at his hospital room, according to The Joker Is Wild.

Although newspapers said McGurn nearly died, he survived. And then he escaped alive from another shooting in April, when someone—reportedly the Gusenberg brothers—sprayed his car with bullets. “I heard the rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire,” a witness said.59

An organization of entertainers called the Chicago Comedy Club organized a benefit show for Lewis—a “monster testimonial,” as Variety called it—at midnight on the night of Thursday, March 29.

Balaban & Katz donated the 2,200-seat Oriental Theatre for the event. Musicians and stagehands agreed to work for free, along with performers from practically every show onstage in Chicago at the time. This outpouring of support was further evidence that, as Variety put it, “Lewis …  was the most popular cafe artist ever in Chicago,” and that he was especially well-liked among his show business colleagues.60

An advertisement for the benefit called him “Chicago’s Most Popular Entertainer,” noting: “Joe Lewis, of high standing and wide popularity, was cowardly attacked and seriously injured through his work as a performer.”61

Lewis returned from Florida to attend the show honoring him.62 With the “Jazz King”63 Paul Ash serving as master of ceremonies, the event featured Al Jolson, Abe Lyman, Ruth Etting, Ethel Waters, Ted Healy,64 and Sophie Tucker, who canceled a weeklong engagement so she could be there.65 (The Keith-Albee-Orpheum Corporation enraged its entertainers by ordering them not to take the stage at the Lewis benefit, possibly because it was taking place at a venue owned by the rival Balaban & Katz Corporation.66) With most tickets going for $5—and some as high as $25—the show raised $16,000, filling all but a few seats at the Oriental.67 Lewis received $14,000.

“It isn’t a fortune, Joe, but it’ll get you started again. You’ll do all right,” Jolson apologetically told Lewis over breakfast the next day, according to The Joker is Wild.

“Don’t rib a ribber. I can’t sing a note.”

“I wasn’t thinking of show business,” Jolson said. “The testimonial was to stake you to a haberdashery store, wasn’t it?” Lewis apparently didn’t know it,68 but the Chicago Comedy Club planned to establish a haberdashery for Joe Lewis on Randolph Street.69

One day, apparently sometime in 1928, Lewis supposedly ran into McGurn at a Capone-owned dog track in Cicero. McGurn was standing there alongside another Capone mob associate, Charlie Fischetti. They were blocking Lewis’s path. McGurn motioned for Lewis to walk around him. But Lewis refused to walk around them. “I trusted you once before,” Lewis said.

“McGurn’s eyes narrowed,” Cohn wrote in The Joker Is Wild. “Then he walked away. Fischetti followed. The long jagged scar on Joe’s face wrinkled into a smile, contemptuous and triumphant. He had his revenge.”70 It was a small sort of revenge, but still satisfying to Lewis.

In January 1929, Lewis returned to perform at the Green Mill, which was under new ownership.71 The Joker Is Wild claims that two members of Bugs Moran’s North Side gang—brothers Pete and Frank Gusenberg—stopped into the Green Mill as it was emptying out just after 4 a.m. on February 14. The Gusenbergs wanted to joke around with Lewis. They were already inebriated, and they continued to drink even more. By the time they departed, Frank was pissed off at Lewis, convinced that the comedian had slipped a Mickey Finn into his drink. According to the book, it was actually was one of the Green Mill’s owners who’d given Frank a drink containing a “powerful purgative,” apparently as a ploy to get him to leave. (Cohn incorrectly gave the owner’s name as Al Leonard. In reality, the Green Mill’s owners at this time were Leonard Leon and Leon Sweitzer.72)

After Lewis went to his hotel and got some sleep, he went looking that morning for Frank, hoping to smooth things over with the gangster. Lewis supposedly happened upon the SMC Cartage Company garage at 2122 North Clark Street, where the Gusenberg brothers and three other members of Bugs Moran’s gang, along with an auto mechanic and an optometrist, just had just been mowed down by machine gun fire.

Lewis believed he’d narrowly missed becoming another victim of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Or so the story goes in The Joker Is Wild. Like many of the book’s anecdotes, it’s impossible to verify and it seems too good of a story to be true.73 It’s remarkable serendipity that Lewis would have seen two of the famous massacre’s victims only hours before they died, and that he then would have stumbled upon the crime scene.74

In his dying moments after the shooting, Lewis’s erstwhile bodyguard and drinking companion Frank Gusenberg reportedly said, “Cops did it.” But not surprisingly, suspicion fell on Capone. Tribune reporter James Doherty, who arrived at the gruesome scene within minutes after it was discovered, later recalled: “I thought Al Capone was responsible, and so did the police. Bugs Moran agreed when he was reached later. ‘Only Capone kills like that,’ Moran said.”75

As Capone’s most notorious henchman, Jack McGurn became a top suspect. But when police arrested him, McGurn scoffed at the notion that he was involved. “Me, mixed up in that gang killing? Don’t make me laugh! The Gusenberg boys would have plugged me if they saw me a block away.”76

Louise Rolfe in 1929. DN-0087855 and DN-0087576, Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection, Chicago History Museum.

McGurn had an alibi—a “Blonde Alibi,” as the newspapers called her. Louise Rolfe testified that she’d been in bed with McGurn downtown at the Stevens Hotel (now the Hilton Chicago) that entire morning.77 “When you’re with Jack, you’re never bored,” Rolfe commented.78

Jack McGurn and Louise Rolfe in court in 1929. DN-0088600 and DN-0088601, Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection, Chicago History Museum.

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre remains Chicago’s most famous unsolved murder mystery, with many theories about who did it. Get Capone author Jonathan Eig concluded that the killings may have been committed by William “Three-Fingered Jack” White, a Chicago criminal taking vengeance on the Gusenberg brothers for killing his cousin. But others continue to believe that Scarface was behind the slaughter. “The consensus among researchers for many years has been that it was a Capone operation,” John Binder wrote.79

The Joker Is Wild also told a story about Joe Lewis meeting up with Capone, sometime after Capone returned to Chicago in March 1930 (following a year-long stint in a Pennsylvania prison for a gun crime). One night, when Lewis was sitting in a South Side nightclub, someone came up and told him, “The Big Guy wants you.” Lewis was escorted to Capone’s headquarters in a hotel suite, where Scarface supposedly told him: “Why the hell didn’t you come to me when you had your trouble? I’d have straightened things out.” Was Capone implying that he would have told McGurn—or whoever Lewis’s assailants were—to leave him alone? Do Capone’s remarks suggest that he had some connection to the Green Mill—that he could have ordered Danny Cohen to cool it? Or was he simply saying that he would have used his considerable clout to protect Lewis? He seemed to be suggesting that he hadn’t been aware of the plans to attack Lewis.

In any case, Lewis simply answered, “It’s over now.” Capone offered to give Lewis $50,000—repeating the offer he’d made back in 1926—and Lewis once again declined to take the money. Capone said, “You’re a sucker, Joe.”80

Even if Lewis turned down cash from Capone, he did benefit from his mob connections, according to Hank Messick’s 1973 book The Beauties and the Beasts: The Mob in Show Business. Lewis’s career was allegedly helped by New York mobster Arthur Flegenheimer, a.k.a. Dutch Schultz, a partner of Johnny Torrio, Capone’s old mentor. “And so it was that Joe E. Lewis, the entertainer who couldn’t entertain, became Johnny Torrio’s roving goodwill ambassador, moving from New York to Chicago to Miami to Hollywood to Cleveland to New Orleans as the situation demanded,” Messick wrote. “While Torrio … laid the foundation of the national crime syndicate-to-be, Lewis served as shill, courier, court jester, and peacemaker.”81

The New York Times noted that Lewis’s “ardent fans included princelings of the underworld, ordinary nightclub patrons, bookies, jockeys, hotel keepers, showmen and cronies, as well as an impressive sampling of persons of wealth and social standing.”82

It’s debatable how much credit the mob deserves for Lewis’s comeback. In any case, he did become a popular attraction for decades to come, telling jokes in his raspy voice. His witticisms included: “There’s one good thing about the future—it never lasts.” … “Rich or poor, it’s nice to have money.” … “But the seats were bad in all the houses we played. They faced the stage.”83 … “I’m working under a terrible handicap tonight. I have no talent.” … “Live within your means, even if you have to borrow.”84

One of his trademark bits was “Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long,” a ditty satirizing the 1932 song “Lawd, You Made the Night Too Long.” Lewis reportedly paid Fred Whitehouse $25 for the parody song in 193285; Milton Berle has also been credited as one of its authors.86

“Trousers draggin’, slowly draggin’ through the street,” Lewis sang. “Yes, I’m walking, but I’m walking without feet / I’m not finding fault at all / With what’s too big and what’s too small / But Sam, Sam, you promised me both ends would meet / You made the coat and vest fit the best / You made the lining nice and strong / But Sam, you made the pants too long…” (Barbra Streisand later recorded the song.)87

Lewis had one last encounter with Jack McGurn around 1935. The gangster happened to see Lewis in Chicago, just after he’d watched a movie starring George Raft.88 Knowing that Lewis knew people in Hollywood, McGurn reportedly said: “You’d better tell that pal of yours, George Raft, that I’m gonna knock all his teeth down this throat.”

“Raft do something to you?”

“I don’t like the rat playing those stool-pigeon parts in pictures,” McGurn said.89 (He may have been talking about Raft’s 1935 movie The Glass Key. The plot doesn’t exactly match up with the way Lewis remembered McGurn describing it, but Raft does play a mob associate who helps authorities solve some crimes.90)

Lewis said that Raft was a fine fellow. “No, he ain’t,” McGurn insisted. “I saw him turn on his pals, and I’ll kill him if I ever see him.” Lewis tried to explain that actors weren’t the same as the people they played on screen. Recalling this conversation with McGurn a few years later, Lewis mused about the intelligence of gangsters. “A surprising number of those fellows had the mentalities of children,” he said.91

By this time, McGurn’s glory days, if you can call them that, were long over. He was suffering from an abscess, left over by one the bullets that hit him in 1928. He was not getting along with Frank Nitti, the mob boss who’d taken over the Outfit when Capone went to prison. And he was low on money. He and his wife—Louise Rolfe, the former “Blond Alibi”—had lost a house to foreclosure and were now living in an apartment 1244 North Kenilworth Avenue in the west suburb of Oak Park. In July 1935, a reporter found McGurn running a small-stakes gambling joint inside a defunct bank in west suburban Melrose Park, where people placed 50-cent wagers on horse races.92

McGurn had become paranoid. “A dozen times McGurn has called us to say that his life was in danger,” Oak Park police lieutenant Harry Wilson said. In October 1935, “we went to the house on a call and found him locked in a clothes closet. He wouldn’t come out until he was sure we were policemen. He couldn’t have been very prosperous, as a finance company took away his big automobile only a few months ago.”

Late on the night of February 14, 1936—which happened to be the seventh anniversary of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre—McGurn went bowling at the Avenue Recreation Rooms, 805 North Milwaukee Avenue. Around 1 a.m., some men walked in and shouted, “This is a stickup! Nobody move!” The robbery was just a diversion, according to Jeffrey Gusfield’s McGurn biography. While just about everyone was ducking for cover, one of the men McGurn had been bowling with walked up behind him, firing two bullets into the back of his head.93

A Valentine’s Day card was found next to McGurn’s body, carrying a message that, oddly enough, seemed to echo Joe Lewis’s ditty about overly long trousers:

You’ve lost your job; you’ve lost your dough;
Your jewels and cars and handsome houses!
But things could still be worse, you know …
At least you haven’t lost your trousers.

(Photos of McGurn’s dead body lying in the bowling alley can be seen in the Chicago History Museum’s collection and via Getty Images.)

Police investigators suggested that some of McGurn’s own friends may have killed him to put him out of his misery. “McGurn was through long ago as a big shot,” they told the Tribune. “He was broke and a nuisance to his friends who still retained a little of the old business of the gangs—vice, gambling and bootleg alky. They were tired of his interference or of his begging. So they put him away for good.”94

At the morgue that morning, McGurn’s wife looked at his corpse and exclaimed, “Poor Jack! They shouldn’t have done it!”

An assistant state’s attorney questioned Louise about the couple’s recent financial straits. “What has your husband been doing for a living lately?”

“I don’t know.”

“How has he been making money?”

“He hasn’t been making much, but he always seemed to have some when he needed it. No, I don’t know where he got it.”

“Who has he been hanging around with? Who are his associates?”

“I don’t know. He never told me much about those things.”

“Who would want to kill him? Who would profit by his death?”

“I haven’t any idea. I thought that sort of thing was all past and gone.”95

Years later, an old Chicago con man named Doc Graham mentioned Jack McGurn when he was talking about mobsters who’d had trouble adjusting to life after Prohibition was repealed. “The ones that were adroit enough branched into other fields,” Graham told Studs Terkel. “If they didn’t have any knowledge, they fell by the wayside. I achieved some small success in race tracks. Machine Gun Jack McGurn couldn’t stand the traffic. He got his brains blowed out, branching into other fields.”96

Joe E. Lewis. Top: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 9, 1948. Bottom, left: San Francisco Examiner, October 21, 1955. Center: Chicago Daily Tribune, October 30, 1955. Right: Newsday, June 5, 1971.

For the first decade after Lewis was nearly killed by thugs in Chicago, he didn’t talk much about it. “After the excitement died down in Chicago, I decided to let old dogs sleep,” he recalled. But then he began to open up about it. “McGurn’s dead now,” Lewis said in a 1937 interview. “So are his killers. So, it doesn’t make any difference.”97

Lewis sometimes joked that he got even with the mobsters who’d attacked him—by writing them “a very nasty letter.”98 Although he could joke about it, he was still haunted by what he’d gone through. “There are nights when Joe E. Lewis starts up from a restless slumber and sees once again the slow opening of the door,” the United Press wrote in 1941. “He sees again the three men advance on him, the flash of the knife that ripped through his cheek and almost cut off his tongue, the flailing gun butt that all but crushed his skull.”99

After Frank Sinatra starred in the movie version of The Joker Is Wild, Lewis remarked, “Frankie enjoyed playing my life more than I enjoyed living it.”100

When Lewis died in 1971, Newsday noted that he was “ranked by many professional comedians as the greatest night club comic of all time.”101 By then, the story of “The Man the Gangsters Couldn’t Kill” seemed like well-established history. But a closer examination shows a complicated tangle of contradictory clues about what really happened.

I see a few possible explanations. It may well be that Joe Lewis was attacked because he’d dared to leave the Green Mill, just as the story was usually told. This is supported by the statements of a Chicago police captain, Joseph Goldberg, who said Lewis had told him about the threats he faced for changing venues.

What would be the logic of such an attack? Was it simply an effort to knock out the competition? Thugs working for the Green Mill may have wanted to stop Lewis from continuing to perform at the Rendezvous, where he was drawing big crowds. If that was the motive, the attack backfired, merely giving the Green Mill a ton of bad publicity. Or maybe the attackers were just following through on the threats they’d reportedly made against Lewis if he left the Green Mill. If nothing else, the violence served as a message for other entertainers: Don’t you dare disobey the mob’s orders.

It’s also possible that Lewis was attacked for an entirely different reason. The police and Lewis himself dismissed the rumors that it was the outcome of Lewis and McGurn feuding over a woman—and it would seem strange for a trio of thugs to attack Lewis at his hotel room if it was motivated by one thug’s romantic jealousy.

It may be more relevant that Chicago’s gangs were battling over gambling at the time. And Lewis had been getting a cut of gambling money from the Green Mill’s manager until Lewis complained that the mob battles over gambling had cut off that revenue. Did this attack have something to do with that? Or was Lewis attacked because he had gambling debts?

Who were the attackers? Should we believe what Joe Lewis reportedly indicated when he was in his hospital bed—that he’d been attacked by Danny Cohen and someone named Tony R., but not by Jack McGurn? If McGurn was behind the plot, it does seem curious that this notoriously violent mobster would send three other thugs to do the job for him.

Finally, Al Capone’s possible connections to the incident are murky. There’s evidence that the Green Mill and the Rendezvous were both controlled by the North Side mob, Capone’s rivals. That raises the possibility that this attack was the result of some feud between different North Side factions. McGurn’s presence at the Green Mill—and his seemingly new allegiance to Capone—might indicate that Capone was involved somehow. But that’s far from clear.

A question posed in 1928 by syndicated newspaper article still persists today: “Will the identity of Joe Lewis’s cowardly attackers remain another question mark in Chicago’s history of crime?”102



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2 Cohn, Joker Is Wild, 29.

3 “Chicago,” Variety, December 14, 1927, 56,

4 “Cabaret Entertainer Held as Gun Toter,” Chicago Daily News, December 21, 1927, 6; “Police Nab Entertainer,” Rockford Republic, December 22, 1927, 13.

5 Cohn, Joker Is Wild, 29–30.

6 Cohn, Joker Is Wild, 34.

7 Cohn, Joker Is Wild, 34, 47.

8 “How Science Saved…”

9 “Joe Lewis Back; Now Fogarty’s Partner,” Variety, December 28, 1927, 48,; “Night Club Reviews: Rendezvous,” Variety, January 11, 1928, 55,

10 U.S. v. Rendezvous Cafe.

11 “How Science Saved…”

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18 “Police Scurry After Bombers Without Luck,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 19, 1928, 4.

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20 “Police Scurry After Bombers Without Luck.”

21 “50 Gangsters Captured; New Truce Rumors,” Chicago Daily Tribune, November 24, 1927, 1, 8; “Machine Guns, Tear Bombs in Gambling Raid,” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 22, 1927, 7.

22 “Nab 2 Gunmen in Police Gang Drive,” Chicago Daily News, January 27, 1928, 1, 4.

23 Bullets for Dead Hoods, 166–167; “Blast Resorts on West Side; Capone Leaves,” Chicago Daily Tribune, November 29, 1927, 1.

24 “Nab 2 Gunmen in Police Gang Drive.”

25 “Police Scurry After Bombers Without Luck,”

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39 “Hunt Capone Aid in Cuneo Bombing,” Chicago Daily News, February 21, 1928, 1, 3.

40 “Gaming Club, Hotel Bombed in Vice War,” Chicago Daily Tribune, January 3, 1928, 1; “Policeman Slain in Gang Chase; Bomb Marks New War,” Chicago Daily News, November 23, 1927, 1, 3.

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48 U.S. v. Rendezvous Cafe.

49 Cohn, Joker Is Wild, 48.

50 Margaret Mann Crolius, “Amusement Notes,” Chicago Daily News, March 16, 1928, 17.

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52 U.S. v. Rendezvous Cafe.

53 Cohn, Joker Is Wild, 49.

54 Gusfield, Deadly Valentines, 137.

55 “Machine Gun Spray Laid to Capone’s North Side Invasion,” Chicago Daily News, March 8, 1928, 1, 4; “Machine Gun Roars; 2 Shot,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 8, 1928, 1.

56 “Assailants of M’Gurn Known, Police Assert,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 12, 1928, 3.

57 “Lost Shipment of Machine Guns Now Sought by Chicago Police,” Reno (NV) Evening Gazette, March 9, 1928, 9.

58 Gusfield, Deadly Valentines, 137.

59 “McGurn Again Guns’ Target; Escapes Unhit,” Chicago Daily Tribune, April 18, 1928, 1.

60 “Joe Lewis’ Big Benefit All Set for March 29,” Variety, March 14, 1928, 57,

61 Advertisement, Variety, March 21, 1928, 68,

62 Cohn, Joker Is Wild, 50.

63 “Paul Ash to Top Benefit Play Tonight,” Chicago Herald and Examiner, December 22, 1927.

64 “Joe Lewis’ Big Benefit All Set for March 29,” Variety, March 14, 1928, 57,

65 “Movie Megaphones,” Chicago Daily News, March 28, 1928, 29.

66 “Kahl’s Bar Order Makes N.V.A. Suffer,” Variety, April 4, 1928, 34,

67 “$16,000 for Joe Lewis,” Variety, April 4, 1928, 56,

68 Cohn, Joker Is Wild, 50.

69 “$16,000 for Joe Lewis.”

70 Cohn, Joker Is Wild, 57.

71 “Where the Funseekers Go,” Chicago Daily News, January 12, 1929, 21.

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75 James Doherty, “Al Capone King of the Hoodlums,” Chicago Daily Tribune, April 1, 1951, Grafic Magazine, 6–7, 19.

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78 Keefe, Man Who Got Away, 242.

79 Binder, Al Capone’s Beer Wars, 187.

80 Cohn, Joker Is Wild, 65–67.

81 Hank Messick, The Beauties and the Beasts: The Mob in Show Business (New York: David McKay, 1973), 33–35.

82 McCandlish Phillips, “Joe E. Lewis, Nightclub Comic Noted for Garrulousness, Dies,” New York Times, June 5, 1971,

83 Virginia Irwin, “Broadway Loves Joe and He Loves Horses,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 8, 1946, part 9 (Everyday Magazine), 1.

84 McCandlish Phillips, “Joe E. Lewis, Nightclub Comic Noted for Garrulousness, Dies,” New York Times, June 5, 1971,

85 Ed Sullivan “Little Old New York,” (New York) Daily News, March 2, 1947, 29.

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88 Cohn, Joker Is Wild, 96–97.

89 Ed Sullivan “Little Old New York,” (New York) Daily News, March 2, 1947, 29.

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91 Dale Harrison, Associated Press, “Wall Street Doom Again Pronounced,” Oakland Tribune, July 2, 1939, 19.

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93 Gusfield, Deadly Valentines, 256–261; Edwin A. Lahey, “Killer Jack McGurn Is Slain; Surprised by Three Assassins,” unidentified newspaper clipping, February 15, 1936, in FBI files on Al Capone, part 11b, (Lahey was a Central Press correspondent.)

94 “McGurn Slain in Gang Purge,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 16, 1936, pp. 1, 2.

95 “‘Blond Alibi’ Seized, ‘Knows Nothing,’” unidentified newspaper clipping, February 15, 1936, in FBI files on Al Capone, part 11b,

96 Studs Terkel, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (New York: Pantheon Books, 1970), 180, 185.

97 Allan Keller, “Comedian Enjoys Making Them Laugh, But Gangsters Almost ‘Froze’ His Smile,” Evansville (IN) Press, June 11, 1937, 27.

98 Leonard Lyons, “Nail Polish Removed…,” Detroit Free Press, June 6, 1941, 32; Clarissa Start, “Man Who Got Custody of Bookmakers,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 9, 1948, (Everyday Magazine), 3F.

99 Bob Musel, United Press, “Big Town Medley,” Suffolk (VA) News-Herald, September 17, 1941, 4.

100 Hank Messick, The Beauties and the Beasts: The Mob in Show Business (New York: David McKay, 1973), 25.

101 Paul Schrieber, “Comic Joe E. Lewis Dies at 69,” Newsday (Suffolk, NY, edition), June 5, 1971, 6.

102 “How Science Saved…”