Gold Diggers, Gamblers and Guns
By: Ellen Mansoor Collier
“Champagne?” A tall, young waiter in a penguin suit hovered over us, holding a bottle of Dom Pérignon. “Compliments of Sam Maceo.”
“Of course. Just don’t tell anyone.” I smiled at the young waiter, nodding my approval as he poured us two glasses of fizzy bubbly, hands shaking—no doubt uncomfortable serving Champagne to a Prohibition agent in public.
Agent James Burton and I were celebrating at the swanky Hollywood Dinner Club a week after Galveston’s annual Bathing Beauty Revue
(“The Pageant of Pulchritude”), pretending all was swell despite the death threat hanging over his head. He single-handedly managed to make a fool out of Johnny Jack Nounes, leader of the Downtown Gang—and how! Rumor had it, Nounes once partnered with Frank Nitti, Al Capone’s enforcer, learning all the tricks of the gangster trade.
The crowd gasped, ostrich-feather fans quivering with excitement, waiting for Burton’s reaction. Who watched us from behind those oversized menus? Gold diggers? Grifters? Goons?
“Yes, ma’am.” He set the bottle in a silver ice bucket, blinked at me and scurried away.
Ma’am? At only twenty-one, I was already a ma’am?
“Do I look like a ma’am to you?” I asked Burton, feeling my face flame. After all my primping, did the waiter mistake me for an old maid?
I’d dressed to the nines in my silk chiffon gown with a low-cut back and halter neck, long faux pearls and sparkly chandelier earrings. My mother always told me: Who needed money when you had style?
“You’re the tiger’s stripes,” Burton replied, chivalrous as usual. “But I’d rather not be spotted here.”
“Why not relax and enjoy the evening?” I smiled at him, sipping Champagne, awed by the lavish surroundings. “This is Sam Maceo’s way of thanking you for locking up Johnny Jack. A Beach Gang club is the safest place to be, especially with the Downtown Gang gunning for you.”
Who was I fooling? I was so nervous, my knees were knocking.
“I’m more worried about my reputation than Johnny Jack.” Burton eyed the glasses. “This may not be such a smart idea. Drinking in public. What if we’re seen—again?”
True, the scene was eerily familiar, reminiscent of the Surf Club fiasco, but now circumstances were completely different.
“You know drinking is legal if the liquor is on the house. Besides, it’s considered rude to refuse a gift from our host.” I smiled, pointing to the bottle. “As you can see, it’s French Champagne and there’s no Prohibition in France. When in Rome...or should I say Paris?”
“Galveston isn’t exactly Rome or Paris. But I get the telegram.” He grinned, taking a sip.
“A votre santé’!” I toasted him, lifting my glass. I wished I could pull out a Bakelite cigarette holder and have him light it for effect, but frankly, smoking made me nauseous.
I took a sip of Champagne, pretending I was a regular at the ritzy Hollywood Dinner Club, the high-class hotspot where everybody came to see and be seen. Lucky for us, the Maceos were on the best of terms with local officials, who liked to frequent the posh bar and casino.
Burton leaned forward. “Do you feel like we’re in a zoo, being watched from all angles?”
“I’ll say!” I nodded. “Remember, you’re a local celebrity now. Getting noticed comes with the job, like it or not.”
“How can I do my job when your newshounds are always following me around, trying to take my picture? Can’t you do anything?” he complained.
“Me? I’m just a lowly society reporter. They never pay much attention to me.”
Not the kind of attention I wanted, anyway.
“Well, I may have a word with your editor-in-chief.” Burton drummed his fingers on the table. “People are starting to recognize me on the street. They even come up and shake my hand, tell me I’m doing a good job. That’s fine and dandy, but I’m not running for public office. How can I raid any speakeasies or stop any booze drops if they see me coming a mile away?”
He was right: With notoriety came a loss of freedom, and privacy. After all, he’d made a name for himself as the new up-and-coming Prohibition agent in town with articles and photos galore in the Galveston Gazette. If my social-climbing boss—Mrs. Harper, queen of Galveston gossip—found out we were here, we’d no doubt get a bold-faced mention in her society column.
I prayed none of the Gazette staffers had hidden among the guests, waiting for a scoop. Not that we reporters could afford such a ritzy joint, but a few promises at the door never hurt. Truth was, gangsters liked positive press as much as the Old Guard.
As I glanced around the swanky club, outlandish in its tropical safari theme, I noticed the well-heeled couples tittering behind cupped hands. A couple of vamps even had the nerve to make googly eyes at Agent Burton! Did they recognize him from the paper?
The ten-piece band cranked up, playing a soft instrumental jazz medley, covering up our conversation. Swarthy Valentino look-alikes locked limbs with Theda Bara and Gloria Swanson copycats, in a sea of breathless tangos and rumbas. When the band played Ain’t She Sweet?, a swarm of couples rushed out to dance the Charleston and Black Bottom.
I sank into the plush plum leather booth, not in the mood to make a spectacle of myself on the dance floor, and broached the subject we’d avoided all evening: “What will you do when Johnny Jack gets out of jail?”
“Word is, he’ll stay behind bars for a while,” Burton said, smug attitude in place. “I hear he’s got lots of old scores to settle and the cops and councilmen are cashing in—literally.”
I stifled a smile. “So the longer Johnny Jack is locked up, the more money they collect? That’s one way of making crime pay.”
“I’ll say. And they’re in no hurry to release him and lose their cash cow.”
I grinned at the image of Johnny Jack on display like a prize steer at a state fair, leaving a trail of twenty dollar bills. Everyone knew he liked to flash his cash in public, but I bet his pockets were getting lean in prison. Still, I couldn’t help but worry.
“Be realistic, James. You know they’re bound to let him out soon.”
“Why do you think I’m here? I’d rather be out with you than sitting at home alone, waiting for Johnny Jack to attack. Look at this place. Security is tighter than Fort Knox.” He flashed a sly smile. “And this way, we both get a free meal out of the deal.”
True, several bodyguards, armed and foreboding, lurked like massive lions stalking the fake jungle. I crumpled up my crisp white napkin. “Can’t the police help? Watch your back?”
His mouth turned up. “Those palookas? They’d rather stand in line to get rid of me, right behind Johnny Jack.” No secret that the local cops resented his presence on the island, claiming he interfered with their under-the-table shenanigans. So far he’d stuck to his principles and his guns. Fact is, he needed a few weapons if he wanted to stand up to Galveston’s gangs.
In the background, I heard a scuffle, loud voices, furniture scraping across the floor, an object being thrown. Burton tensed up and turned toward the noise, his slate-blue eyes darting around the room.
“What’s all the ruckus? A fight?” I stared at the casino, hoping for some excitement. The other diners also shifted in their chairs, whispering and clucking like nosy busybodies. Finally a diversion from the “James and Jazz nightclub act.”
“I’ll go see what’s wrong.” Burton stood up just as two bouncers escorted, or rather dragged, a dark, disheveled middle-aged man in a top hat and tuxedo, toward the exit. His swollen face had taken quite a pummeling, resembling raw beefsteak. A bleached blonde floozy wrapped in a feather boa followed him, loudly complaining, “Unhand him, you beasts! That’s no way to treat a paying guest. He won fair and square. The Maceos owe us money!”
I gripped Burton’s arm, his muscles taut beneath his sleek suit. “James, wait. You’re off-duty now. This isn’t your department.”
“I can’t stop being a lawman just because I’m out with my girl.”
My girl? When had we made it official?
Holding my breath, I watched as he approached the Maceos’ men, asking, “Where are you taking him?” When they refused to answer, he rushed toward the commotion in the back.
How could I blame him? Curious, I leapt out of my chair and pretended to look for the powder room, making eye contact with the gun molls giving me the once-over. Did they think Agent Burton was going to raid the place?
Rows of slot machines and black jack tables sat positioned in full view of the dining room, beckoning diners to try their luck. A few gold diggers decked out in beaded gowns and feathers draped their arms over geezers old enough to be their fathers, if not their grandfathers, betting at the craps tables.
“Want me to blow on your dice, honey?” I heard one gal purr to a fat cat in a top hat. How could he refuse? Some guys in tuxedoes guarded a couple of closed rooms, frowning as I glanced their way. I imagined the high-rollers were losing their shirts while club owners Ollie Quinn and the Maceos counted their profits like Ebeneezer Scrooge.
In the powder room, the mirrored walls reflected the elegant seating area with its marble wash basin and gold fixtures—real gold or plated?—straight out of a movie set.
“Nice gown.” I smiled at a flashy flapper who wore an ice-blue sheath with a big bow on one hip, her plunging neckline dangerously close to revealing all her assets.
“Gee, thanks!” she drawled. “You don’t look so bad yourself, sister.”
“Any idea what that fight was all about?” I washed my hands, acting nonchalant.
“Who knows? Those gamblers are always accusing each other of cheating.”
I wanted to ask more questions, but an older Negro attendant handed me a fluffy towel with a frown. I rushed back to the table just as Burton returned with Sam Maceo glued to his side.
“Don’t worry, Agent Burton, we’ve got this little misunderstanding all under control.”
With Maceo’s help, Burton stiffly sat down, Sam’s hand clamped hard on Burton’s shoulder, pushing him into place.
Burton raised his brows. “So what happened?”
Maceo’s eyes widened before he smiled, ever the gracious host. “Just a friendly game of poker that got out of hand. You know how boys get when they’re losing all their jack.”
“Who was that man?” Burton pressed. “The one with his nose out of joint.”
“Some wiseguys got hot under the collar, that’s all. Accused this city slicker of cheating. So Rose took care of the situation on the spot.” Maceo shrugged it off, knowing his brother Rosario Maceo provided in-house muscle and protection. “We call it cleaning house.”
“Does this city slicker have a name?” Burton asked.
“I’m sure he does.” Maceo gave Burton a pointed look, then turned his full charm on me. “Wouldn’t you rather be enjoying the company of this lovely lady?” He took my hand and kissed it in an Old-World manner. I was dying to ask questions, but his courtly gesture caught me off-guard. “You write all those love stories for the Gazette, right?” His dark eyes pierced mine.
“I wouldn’t call them love stories...” I sputtered. “You mean weddings, engagements, charity balls, that sort of thing.”
“Well, keep up the good work, doll. I hope you two lovebirds enjoy your evening.”
Lovebirds? I squirmed in the plush booth and stole a glance at Burton to see his reaction. But he seemed distracted, probably focused on the poor saps at the poker game.
Maceo patted my back, his hand warm against my bare skin, and disappeared into the crowd. I shivered, not only because I was freezing. The Maceos kept the temperature low to prove to patrons that the Hollywood Dinner Club was indeed fully air-conditioned—the first nightclub in the country to provide cool climate-controlled comfort.
“He wasn’t very forthcoming, was he?” I said to Burton. “Did you see anything fishy?”
“A bunch of stuffed shirts sitting around a table playing poker. Seems a few goons ganged up on this joker, beat him to a pulp. Wonder if he really tried to cheat them?”
“Did you recognize anyone?” I asked. “Any bigwigs?”
“Not off-hand. I think the victim is from out of town, maybe a card shark. I wonder what they plan to do next. Take him for a ride?” Burton suddenly stood up, put on his new Stetson and held out his hand. “Let’s go. Maybe we can follow them?”
Flustered, I grabbed my mesh bag, nervous yet excited at the thought of going on an actual police chase. “If you don’t mind, I’ll take the Champagne.” I shoved in the cork and picked up the bottle. “Hate to let all this fine bubbly go to waste.”
All heads turned as we made our exit, the staff gallantly opening the wide double doors. Outside, the humidity hit me like a slap and my carefree curls began to droop.
“It’s a 1925 Packard convertible,” Burton told the valet, scanning the area for signs of the men. “Say, did you see the last car that just left? Any idea where it was going?”
“Beats me,” the youth said with a shrug. “But they were in some kind of hurry.”
As Burton stepped off the walkway, following the valet into the parking lot, an old Ford swerved around the corner, brakes and tires screeching, headed right at Burton.
"Look out!" I screamed, dropping the bottle of Champagne, hearing it shatter on the pavement, spraying liquid and tiny specks of glass.
Everything seemed to happen in slow motion: I saw a flash of light and heard loud popping noises, covering my head as shots rang out,
staring in shock when Burton collapsed on the lot.