Independent investigative journalist Dan E. Moldea is a specialist on organized-crime and a best-selling author of nine nonfiction books. We’re turning our attention to one of these books, “Dark Victory: Ronald Reagan, MCA and the Mob” (1986), and have abridged key takeaways.
Ronald Reagan’s introduction to organized crime and the illegal gambling industry came when he was a sports announcer for WHO radio in Des Moines, Iowa. Though not a gambler himself, he frequented Chicago’s mob-controlled Club Belvedere (an illegal casino) at a time when Chicago underworld figures operating in Iowa “had a special interest in college athletes and sports writers,” according to a Chicago law enforcement official.
Reagan’s association with organized crime figures continued in Hollywood where, as president of the Screen Actors Guild, he granted Chicago mob-founded and controlled Music Corporation of America (MCA) an extremely lucrative monopoly that made the company the only studio permitted to both represent talent and produce shows.
MCA’s top executives were three Jews out of Chicago: Jules Stein, Taft Schreiber and Lew Wasserman. Wasserman was named president of MCA in 1946, and Stein then became chairman of the board.
Wasserman understood from the start that control of Hollywood’s unions was the key to power in the entertainment industry. With the help of compliant unions — some of them shadowed by mob involvement — Wasserman dominated the labor scene for 40 years. His close friend Sidney Korshak, a Jewish mob lawyer, had powerful leverage over the unions in Hollywood.
Realizing early on that Hollywood needed support and favors from Washington, D.C., Wasserman emerged as a dominant political figure in town. The Newsmeat Power Rankings identify Wasserman and his close friend Jack Valenti as two of the top five “most famous and powerful Americans whose campaign contributions result most often in victory.”
In 1966, he single-handedly installed Jack Valenti as head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Together, they orchestrated and controlled much of how Hollywood operated and was allowed to do business for the next several decades.
Wasserman was characterized as abrasive and mean.
Tony Curtis said of him, ”As long as I’ve known Lew, everyone’s been frightened of him.”
Beverly Hills attorney Sidney Korshak (1907-1996) has been described by federal investigators as the principal link between the legitimate business world and organized crime. His partnership with Chicago mobsters led him to be named “the most powerful lawyer in the world” by the FBI.
Per the Jewish Forward, “For much of the past century, the real center of mob power was a Chicago-born Jewish lawyer — or so says investigative reporter Gus Russo in his book, ‘Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America’s Hidden Power Brokers.’”
The supermob — a term coined by late Senate investigator Walter Sheridan — was, according to Russo, a group of mostly Jewish men who made a fortune by collaborating with Chicago’s underworld. Generally, these men took mob money and funneled it into such respectable outlets as real estate and the burgeoning film industry.
Korshak and gangland operatives was a central figure in the looting of Japanese Nisei properties on the cheap during WWII:
As Art White, the veteran Los Angeles political journalist, later described the situation:
During these years some hundreds of associates of Greenberg, Evans, and others of the Capone crime syndicate, and of Arvey and Ziffren, poured hundreds of millions of dollars into California. They bought real estate, including hotel chains through apparently unrelated corporations from San Diego to Sacramento. They invested in vast tracts of land, built or bought motels, giant office buildings, and other commercial properties. More importantly, they invaded the loan field, establishing banks and home loan institutions. By 1953, Ziffren and his associates had gained control of an enormous block of California’s economy. They could finance political campaigns with the best of the native barons.
Korshak allegedly inspired the Tom Hagen Irish consigliere character, played by Robert Duvall, in “The Godfather.”
While MCA was representing some of the top motion picture stars, Chicago mobsters took control of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which was the major Hollywood labor union. This operation was run by William Morris Bioff, a Jewish hood, who was supervised by Chicago mob lieutenant Johnny Rosselli. The studios made payoffs to the underworld for labor peace — and to keep their workers’s wages and benefits to a minimum.
On a side note, Winter Watch strongly believes Rosselli personally handled James Files, the shooter of JFK at Dealey Plaza.
Willie Bioff is an interesting character indeed. After serving time for extortion and racketeering, he moved to Arizona and assumed a new identity — one “William Nelson” — and developed a friendship with then-Sen. Barry Goldwater, going even so far as to go into business with the senator’s nephew, Bobby. Bioff, then began working for Riviera Casino manager Gus Greenbaum at the Chicago Outfit-owned Las Vegas casino. On Nov. 4, 1955, Bioff was assassinated by car bombing.
The Chicago Syndicate liaison in the motion picture industry, Korshak, also represented Bioff. Charles Gioe, a top Chicago Mafia figure, told Bioff that Korshak was “our man,” and “any message he may deliver to you is a message from us.”
FBI wiretaps revealed that the Syndicate bosses warned California gangsters never to contact Korshak directly, but instead to always use his Chicago superiors as the conduit for all requests and communications. Korshak avoided conviction and prison time his entire life.
As a lower public profile version of the more flamboyant Roy Cohn in New York, and despite a growing awareness of his enormous power in Southern California and his very unsavory connections, Korshak successfully used his connections and influence to ward off almost all newspaper coverage.
In 1962, the top management of the Los Angeles Times suddenly dismantled that newspaper’s star investigative unit in order to terminate a long series they had begun running on the Teamsters Union funding for suspicious real estate transactions, which would have inevitably led to Korshak and his inner circle of syndicate associates.
As the Times’ managing editor later described the situation: “Once you get to the point where you can get a guy to talk, then either you or he or both are going to end up in a lime pit somewhere.”
Over the years, several determined journalists across California would find their heavily-researched stories killed by their editorial superiors, sometimes causing them to quit their newspapers in disgust.
MCA first began to receive national attention in 1946, when a federal court in Los Angeles ruled against the company for antitrust violations. At the time, MCA was a talent agency, booking bands in nightclubs and actors in motion pictures.
MCA had little interest in finding new talent. Primarily they bought off actors for cash payments from other agencies. Among the first were Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Betty Grable and Ronald Reagan. They would also bribe owners to starve performers out of work who they couldn’t sign or needed to remove as competition to their stable. In this way, MCA monopolized the big-band business and as well as hotels, resorts and nightclubs. MCA also made sweetheart deals with top officials of the American Federation of Musicians.
The feds came in with anti-trust actions to break the broadcasters hold on talent. Only CBS decided to divest the agency side but incredibly were allowed to sell to MCA, further consolidating the industry. One has to assume corrupt officials and politicians were paid off to look the other way.
In the late 1940s, the FBI shifted its attention away from the Mafia’s infiltration of the film industry to its infiltration by communists. Ronald Reagan, a young actor who was represented by Wasserman and MCA, was a star player during the investigation and hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), serving as both an informant for the FBI and a friendly witness for the committee.
Wasserman became a guiding force in Reagan’s political ambition by helping Reagan to win the presidency of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), then election as governor of California in 1966, and finally president of the United States in 1980.
Reagan was inserted and served as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) from 1947 to 1952. In 1952, Reagan engineered a “blanket waiver,” exempting MCA from SAG rules that prohibited talent agencies from also engaging in film production. Reagan’s second wife, actress Nancy Davis, was also a member of the SAG board of directors at the time the MCA-SAG deal was made. MCA was the only such firm to have been granted such a favored status, giving it the ground floor in television production. It placed the company in a position where it could offer jobs to the actors it represented. Other talent agencies complained that this situation gave MCA an unfair advantage.
Wasserman was the person responsible for landing Reagan the job of television host of General Electric Theater in 1954 — and that job was a stepping stone to Reagan’s political career.
In 1959, the SAG membership reelected Reagan to serve as president for a sixth term, and to lead an impending strike against the studios — despite the fact that Reagan had been producing episodes for MCA/Revue’s General Electric Theater.
According to SAG’s by-laws, producers, even if they were primarily actors, are disqualified from serving on the SAG executive board. Previous board members faced with similar situations had resigned. Reagan refused to do so.
Although MCA and a handful of smaller studios made an early, separate peace with SAG and continued production, the major motion picture companies held out, causing the strike to last six weeks. In the end, according to the president of IATSE, Reagan’s final settlement with the big studios came with the help of Korshak.
The 1960 contract was so unsatisfactory to the SAG membership that it was dubbed “The Great Giveaway.” Reagan resigned midterm soon after the strike — mission accomplished.
Later, a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request led to the release of records showing that Reagan was the subject of a federal grand jury investigation whose focus was Reagan’s possible role in a suspected conspiracy between MCA and the actors’ union. According to Justice Department documents, government prosecutors had concluded that decisions made by SAG while under Reagan’s leadership became “the central fact of MCA’s whole rise to power.”
After several abortive attempts to investigate MCA for antitrust violations, the federal government — upon the election of John Kennedy as president and the appointment of Robert Kennedy as attorney general — began a concentrated probe into MCA’s business affairs. The government had evidence that MCA had engaged in numerous civil and criminal violations of law and empaneled a federal grand jury to hear the specifics of its charges, which included restraint of trade, conspiracy with SAG to monopolize talent and film program productions, extortion, discrimination, blacklisting and the use of predatory business practices.
Among those called to testify was Ronald Reagan, who displayed a remarkable loss of memory while on the witness stand. Soon after, the federal income tax records of Reagan and his wife were subpoenaed for the years following the MCA-SAG blanket waiver.
This little “problem” all went away after the assassination of President Kennedy, in which there was clearly mob involvement.
Among the guiding forces in the shaping of Reagan’s political philosophy were MCA’s Jules Stein and Taft Schreiber. According to law-enforcement authorities, several of Reagan’s campaign financiers were close friends and associates of Korshak.
Stein and Schreiber — as well as Reagan’s personal attorney, Los Angeles labor lawyer William French Smith — made several questionable transactions on Reagan’s behalf, making him a multimillionaire overnight. Once governor, Reagan made executive decisions that were greatly beneficial to MCA and other corporations with motion picture studio interests.
According to David Burnham’s history of corruption in the Justice Department in the book “Above the Law,” the Reagan administration was the most organized crime-friendly administration in the nation’s history.
President Reagan took Nevada Sen. Laxalt’s advice and, at first opportunity, a revised federal budget yielded a one-third cutback of the FBI’s investigations into gambling, prostitution, arson-for-profit, gangland murders, organized crime and pornography, along with a hiring freeze and dramatic staff reduction within the FBI.
Reagan also indicated that no new undercover operations would be authorized against organized crime or white-collar crime. Instead, the Reagan Justice Department wanted to concentrate on street crime and small-time drug use [from “Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football,” Dan Moldea, p. 341].
According to Moldea, Reagan classified several organized crime cases right after he was elected president.