Tag Archives: History

Capone, the Cobbs, and Me

Originally published in Alabama Writers’ Forum on Jan. 11, 2016

Capone, the Cobbs, and Me

Capone, the Cobbs, and Me

By Rex Burwell
Livingston Press, 2015
$17.95, Paper; $30,Hardcover,


Reviewed by Ed Reynolds

With a title like Capone, the Cobbs, and Me, (and featuring photos of Al Capone, Ty Cobb, and Cobb’s drop-dead gorgeous wife Charlene on the cover), the reader is intrigued right off the bat. The story told within doesn’t disappoint, either. The “Me” hanging out with Capone, his thugs, and the Cobbs is a Chicago White Sox catcher named Mort Hart who quickly falls in love with Cobb’s wife. Hart is second in hitting percentage in the Roaring ’20s when a knee injury places him on the disabled list. Hart also happens to be the only major leaguer with a law degree. The ballplayer’s life suddenly catapults into spellbinding adventure when Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis needs someone special to investigate Capone’s fixing outcomes of ballgames using Cobb.

Author Rex Burwell spins a fictionalized tale based on a real-life major league catcher named Moe Berg, once described by baseball Hall of Famer Casey Stengel as “the strangest man ever to play baseball.” Berg was an average major leaguer who was a spy for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) during World War II and later for the CIA. Over the next 200 pages, the author takes readers on a surreal journey through baseball, gambling, organized crime, murder, and mayhem—with enough subtle descriptions of sex and violence to spice things up. Burwell also tosses in a few musical elements to make for a fascinatingly quick read.

Among the characters is Milton Mezzrow, a jazz clarinet player. Better known as “Mezz,” the musician is a bookkeeper at the Arrowhead Inn in Burnham, Illinois, a hotel owned by Capone where Mezz not only keeps two ledger accounts but also leads a house band called the Mezzophonics that features guest trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbek. In one memorable passage, Burwell shares Mezz’s description of the Mezzophonics as a “zebra band,” the first mixed-race band in history. “Black and white cats, Matts. And some hot guests with good chops too. You never seen a mixed-race band before, did you? And nobody else did either. This is history.”

Mezz is actually a white Jew who had decided years earlier to pass himself off as an African American, with the author referencing Mezz’s “perfect Negro hipster accent.” Burwell lets Mezz do the talking: “We got a real tight band,” says Mezz. “historic, like I told you, the dark and the light and the lightly toasted playing together so hot, Jack. You’ll hear it tonight. You can’t hear it anywhere else in the universe, nowhere but here, tonight.” Our hero Mort Hart elaborates on Mezz: “His metamorphosis from Jew to Negro with no change in complexion was a bold strike, not undertaken foolishly, but knowingly. Only white people thought Mezz a fool. Negroes took him as a brother who talked their language. I thought him crazy at first. Then I thought him courageous. One changes one’s mind.”

Dig it. Especially the Mob violence. Hart wanders into an icehouse loaded with meat while exercising his baseball-playing damaged knee, only to discover the dead husband of a woman who was sleeping with a Capone thug named Jimmy. “I walked in a few steps on the soft, wet sawdust, and lit and held up the cigarette lighter I always carried,” says Hart.” Behind hams and a side of beef hung a dead man wearing a hat, suspended by a noose and a hook. I got a good look at the waxy face. I never forgot the face.”

Burwell uses several references to indicate that Hart is telling his story in today’s world. Hence, the introduction of a pitcher named Dutch used by Detroit Tigers manager Ty Cobb to throw a ballgame for Capone. Hart notes, “My complete baseball record is available on the internet. I batted against Dutch eight times in the 1926 season and got only one hit—that after he’d hurt his arm and had nothing.” The fix was in because Dutch was forced to pitch though “Dutch’s arm was so sore that he couldn’t comb his hair, but Cobb started him anyway…. In the first inning, with two runners already on base, I batted against him for the eighth and last time that 1926 season. The first pitch Dutch threw was a nothing spitball—he had nothing. He was through as soon as he started. Even as I swung and knocked the ball on an arc to the wall, I felt a drop of his saliva fly up and hit my eye.”

In a strange twist, Hart becomes a spy for Kennesaw Mountain Landis as he also serves as legal advisor for Cobb and lusts after Cobb’s wife. Burwell writes in sexually flirtatious descriptions of our hero’s first introduction to Mrs. Ty Cobb during a blizzard: “At the hotel I met Charlene for the first time. She was outside in a bulky coat that could not hide her good figure. Without vanity, she was aware of her beauty…. She took off a glove and shook my hand. Women, ladies, did not offer a hand in those days, much less take off a glove…. She unbuttoned her fur. One does not often see such a beautiful figure. A man must take advantage of rare occasions. I could feel Cobb watching me look at her.”

Hart continues: “Charlene and I had been corresponding for months, exchanging typed, unsigned letters. I fell in love by mail…. Tucked in one of those letters had been a picture of her that I still have today. She wears a cloche with wings, like Liberty on the dime. In profile her upper lip pushes out…. Cobb made his first wife his ‘trophy wife,’ as they call it nowadays, and kept her thereafter above his mantelpiece with the boars’ heads.”

The musical passages are among the most memorable, historically speaking, especially when Capone is present. Referencing Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, Burwell writes: “Both musicians were Mezz’s friends. Beiderbecke happened to be living and drinking himself to death in a farmhouse somewhere in the area. This was not the first time he’d played with the Mezzophonics. He was the acknowledged best white jazz cornet player in the nation. Armstrong, of course, was simply the best, white or Negro…. After the show, the band members all ate where the Negroes ate, in the kitchen. Beiderbecke had five shots of free whiskey in three minutes, fell off his chair and had to be helped outside to puke. From here he was poured into the back seat of a car…. Mr. Capone joined us, stepping through the swinging doors, a Heavy on either side of him…. Vain Capone was adept at keeping people, especially photographers, from seeing his left profile with its two long, vivid scars. His wide-brimmed fedora was canted left. He carried his head toward his left shoulder. He wore high collars and often carried a handkerchief to hold his left cheek…. ‘Good music,’ he said to the musicians. ‘Good music, everybody.’”

As long as Mr. Capone is happy, I’m happy. Capone, the Cobbs, and Me is a hell of a novel. Jan. 2016

Ed Reynolds is a writer in Birmingham.


Last of the Showgirls

Last of the Showgirls

Local TV family bids goodbye to matriarch Daisy Dean.

February 09, 2006
A locallyproduced, shoestring-budget operation known as “Dean and Company” appeared on television screens throughout the Birmingham area. Matriarch Daisy Dean, daughter Dana (rhymes with “Hannah”) Dean, and granddaughter Deanie Dean featured an assortment of tap dancers, 9-year-old karate kids breaking boards in half with their feet, singers, a trained rabbit, ballet dancers, and a trio of puppets often up to no good. The program was a crude mix of “Captain Kangaroo” and “The Ted Mack Amateur Hour.”On January 24, 2006, Daisy Dean died at 94—that’s the family’s best guess at her age. Her birth records were destroyed in a fire at the courthouse in Havana, Kansas. At age 10, Daisy watched as her mother and grandmother were murdered in front of the family general store after moving to Sedan, Kansas. According to Daisy’s daughter Dana,“Some kid high on dope came along and blew their heads off with a double-barrelled shotgun.” Daisy’s sister Opal Sparks went to New York City, where she joined the original Rockettes when they danced at the Roxy Theater before moving to Radio City Music Hall. Daisy soon followed and found work as an actress at Paramount Studios. She was chosen as a member of WAMPUS stars, the name given to young future starlets that the motion picture industry was willing to invest in. She appeared in a short film called The Noose with Barbara Stanwyck and Ann Harding, and Daisy’s husband was one of the chariot racers in the original silent movie version of Ben-Hur. “My father said there weren’t many regulations in the film industry back then,” explained Dana. “They lost a few people filming the chariot races.”

An original Rockette and motion picture starlet, a glamorous Daisy Dean is captured in her publicity shot for Paramount Pictures. (click for larger version)

“Dean and Company” remains local television’s reigning program, since “The Country Boy Eddy Show” was put out to pasture. “Dean and Company” is still vibrant enough to appear every Monday evening at 7:30 on Channel 4, for viewers lucky enough to be in the Bright House Network cable market. The cable-access show spares no expense; The Caribbean and Acapulco are favorite “on location” sites. In Hawaii, Podo the puppet (he’s a dog) interviewed Arnold Schwarzenegger at the opening of a Planet Hollywood restaurant on the island of Maui, during which Schwarzenegger introduced wife Maria Shriver to Podo. In Steamboat Springs, Colorado, the family shot snow footage for their annual hour-long Christmas special, including Dana’s attempts at skiing (“I was hoping not to be the next Sonny Bono,” deadpanned Dana).

The show’s weekly introduction hasn’t changed in a more than a decade. “I’m Dana Dean . . . I’m Lesley (Deanie) Dean . . . I’m Daisy Dean . . . You could see your relatives . . . or your friends . . . or it could even be you!” Then the show begins. Dana and Deanie croon “Thanks for the Memories,” changing the lyrics to celebrate the Alabama Theatre’s 50th birthday. Nine- and 15-year-old brother and sister karate experts teach Dana a few moves. Deanie and the puppets (all puppet voices are done by Dana) hold a discussion about life with a group of children. Then it’s time for Marie Gillespie and Gene, an elderly woman and her middle-aged son (who bears an eerie resemblance to the late comedian Wally Cox) to do their “Philosophical Thought for the Week” segment:

“What saying have you got for today?” Gene asks his mother in halting tones as he pets CJ Bunny, a trained rabbit who can sit up on command and obligingly wears whatever costume they put on him. “Keep trying. Unearth the worm and its mobility increases,” is Marie’s pronouncement. “Yes, we do agree,” responds Gene.


The ladies of “Dean and Company” From left: Dana, Daisy, and Deanie Dean. (click for larger version)

Before show’s end, Deanie’s husband, Charlie Gee, the NNT (News Now and Then) weatherman, discovers white flecks falling from the ceiling and deduces that it is snowing. Upon closer scrutiny, he realizes it’s paint and screams, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!” in his best Ernest T. Bass impersonation. “Well, I’ll be dadblamed, I must be psychotic! You know, one of them fellers there who knows everything before my mouth says it!”

Sinatra songs filled the chapel at the memorial service for Daisy Dean. Photos of Daisy posing with daughter Dana and granddaughter Deanie surrounded her open coffin. Judy Garland sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as the curtains closed for the family’s final viewing. Within minutes, the curtain reopened to glorious fanfare as Sinatra belted out “New York, New York.” It’s too bad a Rockette didn’t dance across the stage in front of the closed casket. Podo or D.D. the French monkey puppet could have delivered the eulogy. Daisy would’ve loved that. &


Dead Folks 2006 (Part 7)

Dead Folks 2006 (Part 7)

A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.

January 26, 2006 Authors/Illustrators

Arthur Miller



Arthur Miller

What was the difference between the McCarthy hearings and the Salem witch trials? There weren’t any witches in Salem. Ignore that, though, and maybe you can find some meaning in “The Crucible” and the other writings of Arthur Miller. He hadn’t written a successful play since 1968, but Miller’s passing was still celebrated as an important event. This wasn’t because he was an important playwright. It’s because all of today’s good leftist playwrights have to celebrate Miller for bringing his absurd politics into high schools all over America. Fellow playwright Harold Pinter even tried to pretend that Miller was some kind of blacklisted figure.

Miller’s own leftist contemporaries, unsurprisingly, never considered him to be of much importance. “Death of a Salesman” wasn’t bad, but it still can’t compete with anything by Rod Serling or Paddy Chayefsky. At least Miller could proudly claim to have married Marilyn Monroe—but that achievement was pretty much ruined in the wake of “After the Fall,” a stage chronicling the marriage that was a pioneering masterpiece in midlife self-absorption. It helps to bear in mind that Bebe Buell once attributed her lust for Elvis Costello to “Arthur Miller Syndrome.” His final play would be yet another rehashing of having sex with Marilyn, so at least Miller had an understanding of his ultimate place in pop culture. –J.R. Taylor

Stan Berenstain

Plenty of parents and former children became very nostalgic when Stan Berenstain passed away. His wife Jan had been his partner in almost 40 years of Berenstain Bears books, as the clan’s illustrated adventures showed kids how to clean around the house and get ready for trips to the dentist—along with weirder stuff, as the Berenstains began to address issues such as drug abuse over the decades. The Berenstain Bears also made the inevitable transition to animated adventures and a bigger world of merchandising. However, all of this was pretty baffling to kids who’d first stumbled across the Berenstains’ hilarious early work as chroniclers of suburban angst. Racy paperback collections such as Baby Makes Four suggest that they could have been Erma Bombeck for those parents who’d just missed living by the Playboy Philosophy. —J.R.T.

Ed McBain

Fans of detective novels and mysteries are familiar with the 50-odd novels in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. Fans of Hill Street Blues, Law & Order, Homicide, Police Story, and dozens of other television detective series are indirectly acquainted with McBain; his novels were the blueprints for a now well-established genre—the ensemble detective story. Ed McBain is a pseudonym, among others, for Evan Hunter, an amazingly successful mystery writer whose first novel was the controversial Blackboard Jungle. Based on Hunter’s experiences teaching at a vocational school in a rough urban environment, the book was adapted for a sensational motion picture starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier. His screenplays for the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” television series led to Hunter’s screenplay for Hitchcock’s The Birds. —David Pelfrey

Frank Kelly Freas

Anyone who so much as passed by a bookstore or newsstand in the last 50 years has seen an illustration by Kelly Freas. That’s his work on the covers of countless Ballantine, Avon, Signet, or DAW publications. From 1957 to 1962 Freas drew many of those hilarious, but amazingly realistic, fake ads for MAD Magazine, and provided Alfred E. Neumann’s moronic visage for their covers. Freas’ regular gig was creating otherworldly illustrations for works by such science-fiction legends as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke. The insanely prolific Freas earned 10 Hugo Awards for his work in the science fiction and fantasy field. He did real science, too; his illustrations for NASA missions hang in the Smithsonian. The cover illustration for the October, 1953, issue of Astounding Science Fiction (for whom Freas worked for 50 years) depicts a very troubled and puzzled giant robot holding a mortally wounded human in his hand. This legendary image became the album cover art for Queen’s News of the World. –D.P.




Leo Sternbach

In the 1950s, pharmaceutical prospects for relieving anxiety were few: Barbiturates were highly addictive and easily overdosed on; “major tranquilizers” such as Thorazine had emptied mental hospitals but were instruments too blunt for everyday anxiety; and the only “minor tranquilizer,” Miltown, was weak in regular doses and toxic in high ones. What was needed was a drug that relieved anxiety safely and without overt sedation.

Austrian-born Jewish chemist Leo Sternbach, working with a couple of other chemists at Hoffman-La Roche Labs, serendipitously concocted just such a substance in the compound chlordiazepoxide, marketed under the name Librium in 1960. Librium was the first benzodiazepine, but its more potent successor, Valium, would change the face of American culture. It ultimately proved to be addictive, but Valium’s ability to take the edge off of daily stresses with surgical precision, plus its relative safety (you’d have a hard time killing yourself with Valium alone) made it the most-prescribed drug from 1969 to 1982. It was even immortalized in The Rolling Stones’ hit “Mother’s Little Helper.” Such a level of popularity can probably be explained in part by the fact that, for some, it was a readily concealable alternative to alcohol abuse. Sternbach also invented the drugs Dalmane, Mogadon, and Klonopin. –Paul Brantley

Robert Kearns

Robert Kearns invented intermittent windshield wipers, which allowed pauses between swipes during light rain. Ford and Chrysler implemented Kearns’ idea, and Kearns, often acting as his own attorney, successfully sued the automobile corporations in 1978 and 1982, respectively, for nearly $20 million. He had previously shopped the idea to automakers but could never reach a licensing deal. Lawsuits against General Motors and foreign automakers were dismissed. Kearns died of cancer at 77. —Ed Reynolds

Charlie Muse

Half a century ago, baseball players were real men who didn’t bother with helmets when batting. In 1952, a Pittsburgh Pirates executive named Charlie Muse forced his team to wear batting helmets despite taunts from opponents that the Pirates were “sissy.” Slowly, opposing teams began to adapt, and in 1954 the Braves’ Joe Adcock credited the helmet with saving his life after being knocked unconscious while batting against the Brooklyn Dodgers. The next day, the Dodgers began wearing helmets. —E.R.

George Mikan

The first “big man” to dominate the game of basketball, the 6-foot, 10-inch Mikan would simply stand beneath the basketball goal of opponents and swat their shots out of the rim. Mikan’s advantage forced the sport to outlaw “goaltending,” where a ball is deflected away once it begins its downward trajectory to the basketball goal. —E.R.

John Ebstein


George Mikan (click for larger version)

In 1962 John Ebstein created the first airbrushed rendering of Studebaker’s ridiculous-looking Avanti, the ugliest sports car ever. With its extended underbite front end, the Avanti appeared to have lost the futuristic design war that the Corvette Sting Ray had easily won. Hideous though it may have appeared, the Avanti nevertheless turned heads just as the DeLorean once did. Ebstein also designed the Lucky Strike cigarette package and Greyhound buses. —E.R.

George Atkinson

A former Hollywood stuntman and occasional actor, George Atkinson didn’t need Grauman’s Chinese Theater to leave his imprint on the film history. Atkinson pioneered the home video rental industry. In 1979 he turned a 600-square-foot store into a goldmine called Video Station by charging $50 for a membership card and a $10-per-day rental fee for any of 50 available titles. Scoffing at earlier entrepreneurial notions that people would buy movies, Atkinson summed up his business philosophy: “You listen to Beethoven or The Beatles over and over again. You don’t watch Burt Reynolds over and over.” Currently there are more than 24,000 video stores around the nation. Atkinson died at 69 of emphysema. —E.R.

Joseph Owades

Weight-conscious beer drinkers can thank Joseph L. Owades for inventing the first low-calorie beer. Miller Brewing Co. acquired the rights to the process Owades invented and launched Miller Lite in 1975, spawning the phrase “you might as well drink horse piss,” which was almost as popular a slogan as “tastes great, less filling.” —E.R.

Strange Angel


Strange Angel

The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons

For the past two years, a pair of robot vehicles, each the size of a golf cart, have been exploring the surface of Mars. The robots were created by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, which was also responsible for the first spacecraft to orbit another planet (Mariner 2, around Mars in 1962) and the first to land on another planet (Viking 1, on Mars in 1976). In the late 1930s, an explosives genius named Jack Parsons co-founded JPL, which was sometimes referred to as the Jack Parsons Laboratory, with his gang of curious rocketeers known as the Suicide Squad.

Parsons’ legend is the most peculiar chapter in the history of space exploration, told with wide-eyed fascination by author George Pendle in Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons. Parsons’ revolutionary work with liquid propellants and sustained engine-powered rocket flight introduced America to the jet age. Without the Suicide Squad, Neil Armstrong would never have walked on the moon, nor would shuttle flights today ferry crew and supplies to the International Space Station. Despite his respected status as a true rocket pioneer, John (Jack) Parsons was beyond eccentric. As a genuine mad scientist and a dedicated follower of occult figure and sexual hedonist Aleister Crowley, he baffled the scientific community. Parsons however, did not view science and magic as contradictory: “It seems to me that if I had the genius to found the jet propulsion field in the United States, and found a million-dollar corporation [Parsons started Aerojet Corporation, which today employs 2,500] and a world-renowned research laboratory, then I should be able to apply this genius to the magical field.”

Parsons began playing with explosive black powder as a teen in the Southern California desert just before the Depression hit. Mixing chemicals to create explosives to launch crude bamboo rockets, he soon realized that in order to achieve the dream of reaching the moon, a sustained flight required liquid fuel-powered engines that could fire repeatedly. After high school, he supported his family with work as an explosives expert at the Hercules Powder Company in California. The family fortune disappeared after the 1929 stock market crash. Before then, a limousine took Parsons to school daily. He continued his desert rocket experiments and started informal discussion groups that included his Suicide Squad comrades and writers of science-fiction pulp stories obsessed with interplanetary travel. Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov often attended meetings.

Members of the American Communist Party also began showing up at meetings. Their inclusion in the book adds an element of intrigue to a story of good guys, bad guys, and those caught along the blurred line that separates the two. Though he declined to join the organization, Parsons’ loose affiliation with the Communists would come back to haunt him as World War II evolved into the Cold War. His security clearance to work on government projects was removed and reinstated several times. Meanwhile, Joe McCarthy would pick off several of Parson’s pals one by one.

Interestingly, Parsons had earlier been in regular communication with Wernher Von Braun, the German scientist who built the V-2 missile for the Nazis and who was later primarily responsible for designing the rockets that put Americans into orbit. Ironically, Von Braun never hesitated to share ideas with Parsons and his friends in the 1930s. The father of American rocketry, Robert Goddard, however, refused to help the young Suicide Squad when they visited his laboratory in Roswell, New Mexico. That Goddard lived in a desert city which would later become best known as the place where an alien was supposedly discovered adds an even weirder note to the curious story of Jack Parsons.

Strange Angel is more than weird tales, though. The book is not only a fascinating peek at the history of American rocket science, it also provides glimpses into the world of explosives that anyone fascinated by Fourth of July fireworks should appreciate:

Learning explosives from other workers, Parsons soon discovered such essentials as the difference between a high explosive and a low explosive. A high explosive such as nitroglycerine (the base constituent of dynamite, made by treating a natural by-product of the soap-making process, glycerine, with sulfuric and nitric acids) decomposes into gases in a few millionths of a second, about a thousand times faster than a low explosive such as black powder or gunpowder . . . Because of their rapid and violent detonation, high explosives are better suited for demolition work, while low explosives such as gunpowder are better used as a propellant, pushing projectiles out of gun barrels.>Three-quarters into the story, the most unexpected of antagonists appears in the life of Jack Parsons: L. Ron Hubbard, the mid-century science-fiction writer who stole Parsons’ girlfriend (who was also Parsons’ sister-in-law, a relationship he flaunted in front of his wife) and dashed off to Florida to start the religious cult known as Scientology. Descriptions of Hubbard’s charisma convey the image of an irresistible snake-oil salesman, and readers may subsequently understand how Hubbard would mesmerize Hollywood’s finest decades later.

Parsons does not meet with a happy ending. Having forsaken much of his dark-side infatuation as he approached 40, he met his fate in an ugly but predictable manner. Lying on the ground with half his face blown off and one arm missing amidst the rubble of an explosives accident, he died at age 38. The explosion was determined to be the result of the mad rocket scientist’s careless insistence on mixing explosives in a coffee tin rather than reliable chemical flasks. Regardless, his short but fascinating life had lived up to the original birth name his mother later changed to John: Marvel Whiteside Parsons. Decades later, JPL scientists named a crater on the dark side of the moon “Parsons Crater.” &