In his rise from car thief to president of America’s largest labor union, Jackie Presser used every ounce of his street smarts and rough-edged charisma to get ahead. He also had a lot of help along the way—not just from his father, Bill Presser, a Teamster power broker and thrice-convicted labor racketeer, but also from the Mob and the FBI. At the same time that he was taking orders from the Cleveland Mafia and New York crime boss Fat Tony Salerno, Presser was serving as the FBI’s top informant on organized crime.
Meticulously researched and dramatically told, Mobbed Up is the story of Presser’s precarious balancing act with the Teamsters, the Mafia, and the Justice Department. Drawing on thousands of pages of classified files, James Neff follows the trail of greed, corruption, and hubris all the way to the Nixon and Reagan White Houses, where Bill and Jackie Presser were treated as valued friends. Winner of an Investigative Reporters & Editors Award for best reporting on organized crime, it is a tale too astonishing to be made up—and too troubling to be ignored.
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Jackie Presser's High-Wire Life in the Teamsters, the Mafia, and the FBI
By James Neff
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 James Neff
All rights reserved.
"Jackie was a bully." JACK KLEINMAN
On August 6, 1926, in Cleveland, Ohio, a frightened eighteen-year-old girl bore a healthy, hefty infant son. It was her first child, and she named him after her brother Jack. Asked at the hospital to fill out a birth certificate, she and the boy's father gave their first names as Fannie and Joseph. They said their surname was Fayf. In careful longhand script, the birth certificate noted that he was a salesman, she a housewife, and that they lived on East Fifty-fifth Street.
None of it was true. There was no Mr. and Mrs. Fayf. The father was William Presser, a nineteen-year-old hatmaker, the mother Faye Friedman, daughter of a bootlegger and gambler. They weren't married and had used false names not only to avoid embarrassment, but also to stick the hospital with the bill.
Their plump infant son, Jackie Presser, just a few hours old, didn't realize he had just played a part in his first scam.
When Jackie was born, Faye Friedman and Bill Presser lived with their parents in Glenville, a middle-class, mostly Jewish neighborhood on Cleveland's east side. Bill's family lived in half of a relatively new two-family frame house, which had small patches of grass in front and in back. Bill, the oldest of Benjamin and Yetta Presser's six children, was short and barrel-shaped, with a quiet, round face marked by dark, brooding eyebrows. Even in lean times, Bill looked well fed; years later Teamsters Union president Jimmy Hoffa would nickname him the Plug.
Faye Friedman lived a few blocks away in a house that seemed huge compared to the three-bedroom home Presser's family squeezed into. Built in 1920, the Friedman home had five bedrooms, two full bathrooms, a finished attic with three gabled windows facing the street, and a full basement complete with hidden compartments and a secret exit for quick escape. The basement was the most important room in the house. Faye's father, Louis, had constructed an illegal distillery there that produced a steady stream of alcohol and income. Louis Friedman told people that he dealt in cattle, but dealing cards and selling booze more accurately described how he supported his five children.
Unlike Bill, the father of her child, Faye Friedman was outgoing and high-strung. Friends said she had a steam engine of a personality, thrusting her voice into laughs or screams, spending her prodigious energy on running the family or on gambling. Born in Austria-Hungary on May 8, 1908, she was sturdy and short, with blue eyes and blond hair. She inherited her father's lust for gambling—horses, cards, gin rummy, anything. Bill Presser hated gambling; he considered it a waste of money, a sign of weakness, a sickness. Eventually, this sickness would help ruin the lives of two of Faye's brothers.
Bill made hats, a hot, smelly, semiskilled trade that brought a steady paycheck to a young man with a new family. "It was hard work, because in those days everything was done by gas," he recalled. "After a while you could pick up the hottest pot and you wouldn't burn your hand—it was all calloused." Hatmakers would heat a pot, or mold, over an open gas flame and then roll and press the unshaped hat around it, constantly brushing the nap of the material. "Oh, it was quite a bit of work and that was under tremendous heat," he said.
The first year or so of Jackie's life, a family member recalls, Jackie lived at a farm for orphans outside of Cleveland; he wasn't reunited with his parents until they secured a place to live, reconciled with their parents, and got married. It was a fancy ceremony, complete with bridal attendants, tuxedoed groomsmen, and Faye dressed in a long white dress. Rabbi S. Goldman performed the service on January 15, 1928, seventeen months after Jackie was born.
In 1929, shortly after the stock market crashed, Bill declared bankruptcy and folded up the retail hat shop he operated on West Twenty-fifth Street. Like many other Glenville families during the early Depression, Bill and Faye squeezed by on little money. For a while, they lived with Bill's parents and younger brothers and sisters. Jackie and his brother Marvin, two and a half years younger, slept in the same small bed.
For the next several years, Bill and Faye were often on the run, moving from house to house, apartment to apartment, beating landlords out of rent. They'd put down a month's rent and never make another payment. Two or three months later, a sheriff's deputy would take the streetcar out to the apartment and tack an eviction notice on the door. Between September 1931 and March 1942, Bill and Faye had at least thirteen different addresses. "I grew up in a neighborhood where I can remember where my father used to move into an apartment on the first of the month and on the twenty-ninth of the month we'd have to move out because he couldn't pay the next month's rent," Jackie said. "It was a jungle out there."
In October 1931, a month after enrolling Jackie in public kindergarten, his parents restored his real name by filing an affidavit with Cleveland's bureau of vital statistics. This officially ended his double life, but it wouldn't be the last time Jackie Presser operated under a secret identity.
Before the Depression, Glenville teemed with commerce, mostly small shops—kosher butchers, bakeries, barber shops, candy stores, delis, dry cleaners, drug stores—all clustered along East 105th Street, the crowded, narrow business artery that cut through the heart of the neighborhood. Residents could walk down East 105th and within a few steps hear the Old World sounds of Yiddish, smell fresh-baked rye bread, and, if they listened carefully, detect the clinking payouts of illegal penny-a-pull slot machines tucked in the back of candy stores.
At the time, Glenville was an overwhelmingly Jewish neighborhood, one of three in the city. The suburb of Cleveland Heights was where middle-class Jews lived. The Kinsman area, slightly poorer than Glenville, was the home of trade workers. Glenville was mostly populated by small-business owners, and it was politically less radical than Kinsman. Glenville's anchor, dominating its social and intellectual affairs, was the Jewish Center. It was an impressive red brick building that contained not only a synagogue, but a swimming pool, a gymnasium with a basketball court, classrooms for the Cleveland Hebrew Schools, and a library. On Sunday mornings, the center's lectures attracted hundreds of people, many from outside the neighborhood, who nourished themselves on speeches about Zionism, the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany, the trade-union movement, and local politics. Afterwards, they stayed around to socialize, cultivate business, and make friends.
Most of Glenville's small shops survived the Depression; after all, people still had to buy bread and repair their shoes. Unemployed workers were in a more desperate situation. In fact, while waiting in lines at the Jewish Social Service Bureau for food handouts, out-of-work Glenville residents rioted after being told that the matzoh for Passover had run out. This was in 1933, the depth of the Depression. "We were growing up at a time when there was nothing, no hope for anything," says Jack Kleinman, who grew up in Glenville and knew Jackie. "As kids, we played kick the can and buck buck, how many fingers up. As far as parents were concerned, it was a lot harder. Having children made your problems even worse. Lot of times, parents were so involved in trying to make a living that they didn't have a handle on what their kids were doing."
The newly married Pressers did frequently pick up and move, but they always stayed within the same few blocks in the heart of Glenville. The moves shouldn't have disrupted young Jackie's schooling at Miles Standish Elementary, but he was a poor student nonetheless. According to family members, Faye didn't encourage Jackie in school, which was unusual for a Glenville parent. Many were the sons and daughters of undereducated immigrants, and as a rule they pushed their children to get an education and get ahead. Teachers were revered. Faye had ended her formal schooling at age seventeen when she dropped out of seventh grade at Miles Standish, just across the street from the Presser home. Bill got halfway through the eleventh grade at Glenville High School before dropping out in 1925.
During the thirties, Glenville High School enjoyed a reputation of academic excellence. Students took their studies seriously, competing for grades and honors. "It was a Jewish neighborhood, and parents held high aspirations for their children," says Abba Schwartz, a retired Cleveland school administrator who grew up in Glenville. "And the teacher was always right. You were expected to perform." Many Glenville graduates won Ivy League scholarships. The school's median IQ, measured in the mid-thirties, was an astoundingly high 117. Years later, in one week in 1977, three Glenville graduates from this era were appointed to U.S. ambassadorships in Austria, Bali, and Costa Rica. It was that sort of student body.
Jackie didn't fit into this culture of education and intellectual achievement. He and his family were outsiders. At age ten, he was still in the slow-learner section of second grade at Miles Standish. For the next five years, he was on the ungraded track at school, meaning that he wasn't promoted from grade to grade each year. Instead, he was moved along as fast or as slow as he was able to learn.
Outside the classroom, on the playgrounds and the streets, Jackie excelled, foreshadowing the leadership he'd display later in life. He was the ringleader of a crew of first- and second-grade boys who roamed Miles Standish and its two huge new playgrounds. They'd enter the school and tear around its giant boiler room, hiding out, playing cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers. Jackie insisted on being the cop. Built like his father—squat, broad-shouldered, heavy—he was the leader, partly because he was the biggest, a friend says. "Jackie was in charge, I was his lieutenant," says Sheldon Schecter, who left the neighborhood and became a successful lawyer, ran for Congress, and kept up ties to Jackie. "He was a husky kid then."
Though he gave a dozen or more in-depth interviews throughout his life, Jackie was extremely secretive and revealed little about his early years. One relative who was close to him says that it's because Jackie's earliest memories were unpleasant. His mother, Faye, has been described as cold and unaffectionate; her younger sister, Millie, became Jackie's surrogate mom, baby-sitting for him for several years. This relative also insists that Jackie eventually learned that he had been left in a foster home as an infant. The news was a shock, embarrassing him and making him unsure of his parents' love.
Many of the Pressers refuse to discuss Jackie or his parents at all, sheltering their extraordinary family history. "The good stories are in my heart, and that's where they're going to stay," Jackie's brother, Marvin, explains. He says he doesn't trust writers and brings up the time a Cleveland News reporter called him at home and asked, "Are you the son of William Presser?" "Yes, I am," Marvin said. "I'd like to take you to lunch." "What's your name?" The reporter told him, and Marvin recognized it from the byline on a series of stories about the Teamsters Union that were critical of his father. "You stick that lunch up your ass," Marvin advised.
When Jackie did talk of the old days, he often painted them in rosy hues. "I remember the streets I lived on had front porches and nobody carried a key for their door," Jackie said. "I knew my neighbors. My mother had a swing on the porch, and my grandmother baked her own bread. Friday night was a big night for all of us for homemade soup of meats and stuff." Jackie's childhood friends and acquaintances also tell wistful stories about Depression-era Glenville, stories that clash with the harsher memories of their parents. Jackie and the neighborhood boys would play among the Cultural Gardens, then under construction by Work Projects Administration crews, who sweated with pick, shovel, and shears to grade lawns and mold shrubs and create ceremonial gardens that honored the various ethnic groups of Cleveland. The gardens were located along East Boulevard, which snaked through a narrow valley of woods and a stream that separated Glenville from a Slovakian neighborhood to the west.
In the summers, Jackie and the kids in the neighborhood sometimes watched baseball games between the Glenville ball players and the Catholic players from the Slovakian neighborhood across the boulevard. They played every Sunday afternoon, competing fiercely. "It was between the Jews and the Gentiles, a doubleheader," Jack Kleinman recalls. "Lots of money was bet. When it was all over, there'd be fights. These were guys in their late teens, early twenties. I used to go down and sell them ice cream or cold pop."
Bettors could find many outlets in Glenville. Every few blocks along East 105th Street, they could bet a horse or a ball game with bookies in the back of barbershops or in card rooms. In the established card rooms, you could sit down to a game of poker or stusch, a thirteen-card gambling game. Sol Tick ran a place in a room behind a barbershop on East 105th; the Kibbitzer's Club was a few blocks away; the Log Cabin Club, at East 105th and Superior, was tucked into a tiny building that resembled its name. "Everybody knew it was there," Kleinman says. "It was against the law, but anybody could walk in."
Jackie's grandfather, Louis Friedman, haunted the card rooms until he died of a heart attack in 1934. He was only forty-eight. His youngest son, Allen, only thirteen, was crushed. Allen was extremely close to his father and wanted to be a gambler and racketeer just like him. Allen's fondest memories include helping his dad make moonshine in the basement still, stirring the hootch and preparing bottles.
Lou Friedman had been born in Hungary, where, according to family legend, he stole horses, painted them to hide characteristic markings, then sold them to unsuspecting customers. Years later in Cleveland, he was kidnapped by a rival bootleg gang while driving two big shipments of whiskey to Chicago. Lou's wife, Theresa, called prominent racketeer Maxie Diamond for help. "All the racket guys loved my mother," Allen says. Within a day, her husband was back, unharmed, his liquor intact, thanks to Maxie. "I had a lot of fun," Lou Friedman said of his adventure.
Big bootleggers risked their lives, but Lou managed to outlive Prohibition. Another notorious Cleveland family, whose fortunes would intermingle with Jackie's over the decades, wasn't so fortunate.
One evening in October 1927, Big Joe Lonardo, the dark, three-hundred-pound don of Cleveland bootlegging, sauntered into a barbershop in the Italian area of Woodland. Big Joe was a flashy dresser who fancied diamond jewelry. This night, he wore diamond rings, cuff links, and a stickpin and carried several hundred dollars in a billfold. He and a younger brother, John, had come to meet the Porellos, newcomers from Sicily who were trying to move in on Lonardo's wholesale corn-sugar cartel. The Lonardos illegally sold corn sugar, a key raw ingredient of bootleg booze, to hundreds of small stills throughout town.
The narrow barbershop served as a social center for the neighborhood, so Big Joe saw no reason for alarm when two men appeared from a back room. The men were on the Porello payroll, but they hadn't come to discuss the corn-sugar market. They pulled out guns and fired a hail of bullets at Big Joe and his brother, stirring up a racket in the busy neighborhood. John Lonardo died instantly in the ambush. Big Joe started to chase his assailants and managed to stagger into the street, blood pumping from his chest. He pulled out a pistol, then collapsed. Cleveland's first Mafia boss was dead.
Angelo, Big Joe's oldest son, was fifteen when his father was murdered. Quickly, he and his cousins and uncles began a campaign of revenge. Soon, the murder of Big Joe had ignited Cleveland's notorious Corn Sugar War. Before the war ended, seven Porello brothers and two more Lonardos were dead.
Excerpted from Mobbed Up by James Neff. Copyright © 1989 James Neff. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Cover Page
- Cast of Characters
- 1: Early Days
- 2: The Rackets
- 3: Young Jackie
- 4: Stealing Cars
- 5: Buying Off Bender
- 6: Jackie’s First Shot
- 7: Roy Williams, the Mob, and Kennedy
- 8: Eastgate
- 9: Carmen
- 10: The Local 507 Story
- 11: Pardon Me
- 12: Courting Nixon
- 13: The Forge
- 14: Skimming Vegas
- 15: Polishing an Image
- 16: Sweethearts
- 17: The Weasel
- 18: The Mob at War
- 19: Informing
- 20: Rebels
- 21: Bribing a Senator
- 22: Presidential Politics
- 23: The Chase
- 24: The Fix
- 25: Obstructing Justice
- 26: The Marble Palace
- 27: Cover-up
- 28: Epilogue
- Image Gallery
- About the Author
- Copyright Page