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American Shylock: Arnold Rothstein (1882–1928)

The World Series begins tonight with the San Franciso Giants hosting the Detroit Tigers. In an essay from Jewish Jocks, a new book about important Jewish sports figures edited by TNR's Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy, Ron Rosenbaum recalls the most controversial Fall Classic ever played and the Jewish gangster who was accused of fixing it: Arnold Rothstein.

It’s hard for me not to feel conflicted about Arnold Rothstein. On the one hand I can’t forgive him for the day, the moment, I realized I’d never be able to read The Great Gatsby again.

I guess I had known it was coming; I had loved Fitzgerald’s book, it is the Great American Novel, and yet the more times I read it, the more times I had to recognize that this beautifully written book concealed—revealed!—at its center, like a nugget of radioactive poison, a heart of savage anti-Semitism. This heart is embodied in a shadowy figure out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: “Meyer Wolfsheim”—Fitzgerald’s version of the Jewish mobster Arnold Rothstein, the gambler blamed for fixing the 1919 World Series. Wolfsheim is the symbol of all that is corrupt about America. Corrupt and evil in a crudely caricatured, stereotyped Jewish way. Meyer Wolfsheim is Scott Fitzgerald’s Shylock

It was always there, that ugly animus in Fitzgerald’s portrait of the evil Jew, but I somehow managed to keep separate my love and admiration for the novel from this unsavory truth about it. The same way I still try to keep Francis Ford Coppola’s portrait of his Meyer Lansky figure, “Hyman Roth,” as the hidden Judas behind the machinations of The Godfather Part II.

But then came a dismaying, even shocking moment when it was no longer possible to feel the same way about Gatsby again. When I was forced to take the anti-Semitism personally.

It started off from a matrix of gentility in every sense of the word. I had been interviewing, over lunch at the Algonquin, one of my Shakespearean scholar idols about his thrillingly erudite, careful close reading of the sonnets. At first I felt gratified that he understood that I understood the importance and brilliance of his scholarly project. I must have asked one question too many, however, one question I think he perceived as a challenge to his exegetical method. For there came an unmistakable moment when we both experienced a transitory sense of dissatisfaction with the other—and sensed each other’s sense. But then this fleeting disjuncture passed, and the check came and we walked out into the broiling sidewalk heat of a July day in midtown Manhattan.

Just that phrase “broiling sidewalk heat” conjures up the day Fitzgerald’s narrator Nick Carraway, the moralizing Midwesterner, is introduced by Gatsby to Meyer Wolfsheim and learns about the cuff links and the World Series. “Roaring noon” is the phrase Fitzgerald uses for the midtown setting of these revelations, which take place in a “well fanned cellar” off 42nd Street where the big shots retreat from the heat to eat.

“Don’t you know who Meyer Wolfsheim is?” Gatsby asks Nick. “He’s the man who fixed the 1919 World Series.”

Of course he’s more than that. He’s the Jew who, in Fitzgerald’s vision, violated the innocence and despoiled the purity of an iconic American institution. He was the Jew who corrupted baseball—of all things.

“It never occurred to me,” Nick reflects, “that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people—with the single mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.”

But in the novel that’s who Wolfsheim a.k.a. Rothstein is. When Gatsby introduces him, we see in close up that he’s a smarmy, Yiddish-accented character, “a small flat nosed Jew” whom Fitzgerald goes the extra mile to make repellent by endowing him with “two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril.” Wolfsheim talks about “gonnections” and flashes his cuff links, which, he tells Nick, are made of the “finest specimens of human molars.”

Has there ever been a more succinct and repulsive anti-Semitic description? Perhaps T. S. Eliot’s “The Jew squats on the window sill . . .” Fitzgerald flashes a distaste for Jews as savage as the display of those molars.

To return to the broiling sidewalk outside the Algonquin that day decades later: as the two of us, me and the revered scholar, stood in the roaring noon on the sidewalk of 43rd Street and said our good-byes, he just happened to mention something about his uneasiness about what I would write about him, and made what seemed to me a conspicuous reference to the scene in Gatsby where Wolfsheim displays his molar cuff links with casual menace. The message: I was a potential Wolfsheim!

I felt it like a slap in the face. He was in effect saying—however jokingly—that he was apprehensive about receiving the kind of treacherous treatment of the sort one might expect from a Jew who wore human molars for cuff links.

We parted amicably on the surface, and it took a while for it to sink in. Why had he brought up that repulsive scene? Suddenly the anti-Semitism in Gatsby became personal. Not because the scholar was an anti-Semite, but because he treated the archetypal Protocols of Zion scene as if it were just a jocular reference, and I knew I just could not, could not ignore its thematic centrality to the novel—its thematic centrality to centuries-old evil Jewish mastermind mythology—anymore. It couldn’t be included in an appreciation of Gatsby of the sort that appended, “Of course the anti-Semitism is distasteful, but . . .” Because the anti-Semitism was at the heart of the book. The green light that Jay Gatsby gazes at across the water is the color of money, the true American dream; and Wolfsheim is its true face.

Which brings us to Arnold Rothstein himself, lately restored to notoriety by the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, in which he is played with some subtlety by one of my favorite American Shakespearean actors, Michael Stuhlbarg. Boardwalk Empire doesn’t pretend that Jewish gangsters like Rothstein are somehow the worm in the rose of American innocence, but rather a distillation, like illicit booze (these illicit Jews), of a thoroughly corrupt and venal “legitimate” society in which their early arrival has allowed WASPs a license to steal and call it legal. You know, Wall Street.

But just what was the relationship between Arnold Rothstein and the 1919 World Series fix?

A recent investigative biography of Rothstein by David Pietrusza sheds new light on this question. Yes, Rothstein paid to fix the World Series. But he seemed to be one of several groups who were paying off players. It was multiply fixed. He fixed the World Series, but the World Series, contrary to the Fitzgeraldian myth, was no spectacle of innocence. Baseball games had been fixed with regularity by gamblers and players on the take at the time, and practically every American ethnic group had been in on it.

Unknowingly, I had accepted Fitzgerald’s Field of Dreams–style, Edenic sanctification of baseball and thus Fitzgerald’s unique diabolization of Rothstein as the first to ever dare tamper with the sacred sport. It’s a belief that seems ridiculous once viewed through the cold light of reality, as portrayed in Pietrusza’s biography.

Here’s just one sample of what Pietrusza has dug up about the reputation of baseball, and especially the World Series, before Arnold Rothstein entered the picture:

[Chick] Gandil [one of the so-called Black Sox, the eight Chicago White Sox players accused—but never convicted—of taking bribes to throw the Series to the underdog Cincinnati Reds] had heard the whispers about the 1914 Series. And you didn’t have to go back that far. The American League heard rumors that the 1918 Red Sox–Cubs World Series was fixed . . . There were even question marks surrounding the 1917 Series. John McGraw suspected his second baseman Buck Herzog of taking a dive in that one.

In other words, Fitzgerald’s myth of the noble national game despoiled by the greedy Jew ignores the reality that not just the Series but, as Pietrusza also points out, individual games as well were up for sale before the Series. Baseball was no field of dreams but a swamp of corruption, a field of schemes. Rothstein was in on the fix but so were a couple carloads of other wise guys of different ethnicities.

If you build it they will bet. If you build it they will bribe, and take bribes.

The hypocrisy about Rothstein—oh the horror, the horror—is inextricable from the hypocrisy about sport in general in America: the pretense that the billions of dollars bet on games in every sport (except maybe curling) have nothing to do with the purity of it all.

And consider whether things have gotten more pure in baseball. Consider the way the owners turned a blind eye to the obvious steroid use that fueled the super-lucrative home run derbies of recent memory. All those new billions in stadium attendance, publicity, and television revenue were essentially bought with banned drugs.

Do you think that all those people watching pro football love it for the graceful arc of a spiral—or for some illusory opening they see in the point spread? And haven’t football owners and broadcasters been cavalierly cashing in on the entertainment value of brain-damaging, concussion-causing hits? And I say this not as some prude but as a devotee who used to watch three games a weekend plus Monday night.

Basketball? Point-shaving, corrupt refs. Hockey? Body-breaking fights and bone-breaking delight. I’d venture there’s even some bad shit going on with curling.

What Rothstein reminds us about sport in America is that it has never been the pure refuge from everyday grimy and gritty realities like greed. It’s been a field of crooked gamblers, hoods, and cash-hungry players, and it’s not the players alone who were cash-hungry.

At the time of the fabled Black Sox scandal Rothstein could have been considered a “sportsman” of sorts. He loved horse racing. He was a wizard at pool (pool’s a sport, kind of, isn’t it?). Indeed pool halls were the original enterprises upon which he built himself up to sports gambling royalty in the hectic proto–Jazz Age gilded palaces of sin that spread like an inkblot over the map of Manhattan after the First World War and the beginning of Prohibition. Rothstein, a dapper, non-thuggish-looking figure, was soon sultan of such palaces, played cards and shot craps with some of the biggest “legit” capitalists of the day, and enjoyed a legendary status eventually transmuted into musical myth when the stories of Broadway newspaper columnist Damon Runyon were made into Guys and Dolls and a defanged Rothstein became yet another alter ego: “Nathan Detroit,” played in the movie by Frank Sinatra.

But here we come to the conflicted feelings some of us have about Jewish gangsters, loving the raffish, haimishe side of them. (The only real one I met ran jukeboxes for the Jersey guys and was lovably avuncular, though not necessarily in his past.) And we love tough Jews, the way they counter the neuresthenic Woody Allen image for us Woody Allen types. We love it that Meyer Lansky and pals gave brass-knuckle beatings to Hitler-worshiping Bundists in Yorkville way back when. They take our mind off Jewish victims.

And we love it when the tough Jews are also brainy Jews. Rothstein’s nickname was “the Great Brain.” The Godfather Part II’s Hyman Roth/Meyer Lansky is a mastermind. Later, they ran guns for the Irgun, some of them.

But on the other hand, there’s something a bit hypocritical about making heroes out of them. Our crooks are tougher than your crooks? It’s still not great, not an achievement to tell the kids about at Seder. It’s wrong to internalize the anti-Semitic narrative Fitzgerald perpetrated. But it’s wrong to make it a pride thing, isn’t it? A critique of capitalism that consists in outsmarting it isn’t exactly a plea for social justice.

Let’s face it, if we want to take credit for the Jewishness of the mastermind of relativity theory, we’ll have to take credit—or some responsibility—for the Jewishness of this mastermind of organized crime.

Arnold Rothstein is the price we pay for Albert Einstein.

Ron Rosenbaum's books include Explaining Hitler, The Shakespeare Wars, and, most recently, How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.

From the book JEWISH JOCKS: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame. Compilation Copyright © 2012 by Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy. "Arnold Rothstein: American Shylock" © 2012 Ron Rosenbaum. Reprinted by permission ofTwelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.