by Richard Lindberg & John Tuohy
Copyright © 2002
"Just one favor Joey, don't scream"
- Jack McGurn to Joe E. Lewis moments before he slashed his throat
In 1957 Frank Sinatra starred in "The Joker is Wild," the film biography of Roaring Twenties comedian Joe E. Lewis. However, in Hollywood's glamorized version of real-life events there was no hoodlum element, a syphilic Al Capone, and no psychotic killer named "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn. There were only two unnamed cafe owners who were vying for the right to hire this promising young comedian.
The real-life events are much more gruesome.
It all began with a lunatic killer named Vincenzo (Gebhardi) DeMora, better known to historians of the Windy City as "Machine Gun "Jack McGurn. He was Al Capone's top triggerman during Prohibition. As a reward for his outstanding work, Capone allegedly put up the seed money for McGurn to buy into his own speakeasy, a popular Uptown nightclub called the Green Mill Gardens that had, over the years, attracted an upscale clientele including Charley Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks when the two silent film stars worked at the nearby Essanay Studios.
Each night, for two years, comedian Joe E. Lewis had taken the stage at the Green Mill, drink in his hand, firing off corny jokes and little quips like, "behind every successful man is a surprised mother in law" or, "Behind every great women, is a great behind"
Lewis was a major national radio star and Chicago's leading cabaret acts and club owners promised to pay him anything he asked to have him appear at their clubs but Lewis always turned them down, or at least he did until he accepted an offer to work at the New Rendezvous Cafe, a place backed up by Bugs Moran and his boys.
For decades, the story that Lewis told, was that on October 10 1927, he had informed McGurn's manager, Danny Cohen, that his yearly contract at the Green Mill was over and that he was quitting, in order to begin an engagement at the New Rendezvous Café at Diversey and Broadway. There was an argument and Cohen fired Lewis on the spot, which was exactly what Lewis wanted anyway.
The next day, Machine Gun Jack McGurn waited for Lewis outside of his hotel, the Commonwealth on Diversey Parkway and asked Lewis nicely, to stay on. He said he would increase his pay and shorten his hours. Lewis refused. Then he reverted to what he knew best, harassment and intimidation. He threatened Lewis and told him not to break the contract, but still Lewis refused and said that he was taking his act to the New Rendezvous.
McGurn's final words to him were: "You'll never live to open!"
But Lewis left anyway.
It was an interesting story, and one that cast Lewis in somewhat of a heroic light.
For months Lewis had been secretly consorting with McGurn's current girlfriend, a dancer named Gloria, and everybody in Chicago knew about the tryst except McGurn. When McGurn was tipped off, he went wild with rage, grabbed his gun and decided to kill Lewis then and there.
Later on, after he calmed down, McGurn did a mental calculation of the money that Lewis was bringing into the Cafe, compared it to the $150 a week Capone was paying him as a bodyguard. He decided to allow Lewis to continue having sex with his girlfriend. McGurn figured he was only twenty-five years old, handsome and the rising star in Capone empire. What the hell? He could always find another women.
And that's the way it went for six months until word reached McGurn that Lewis was leaving to work for Bugs Moran at the New Rendezvous café a block away from the Commonwealth Hotel on Diversey.
The McGurn-Lewis feud was the talk of the underworld and bookies wagered the odds on the exact date that McGurn was planning to murder the comic.
But to everyone's surprise Lewis lived long enough to open at the New Rendezvous on November 2, 1927. That night Lewis took the stage with a .22 tucked inside of his tuxedo jacket.
Taking McGurn's warning to Lewis' "You'll never live to open" as a serious threat, as well they should have, Lewis' friends on the Chicago Police showed up in force and posted a man at each door.
The Rendezvous' manager, John Fogarty, hired a small army of thugs to surround the stage. He even posted sharp shooters on the roof of the gas station across the street from the club in the event McGurn tried to toss a firebomb in the place.
It was a tense first performance. During the show, a waiter accidentally dropped a tin tray to the floor and was almost cut down in a barrage of bullets by the jumping cops and body guards as a result, but everything else that night went off without a hitch.
And that's the way matters remained for almost two weeks.
Then at 9:15 on the night of November 9, 1927, Lewis was awakened from a deep slumber by the shrill ring of the telephone. He stopped answering the phone two weeks before when almost every call to his apartment was a threat from McGurn. Had he not been half asleep he probably wouldn't have answered that one either, but, to his great misfortune, he did.
The voice on the other end had a heavy Italian accent. "Don't open the door"
Lewis was wide awake now.
"Who is this?"
"Just don't open the door. For nobody!" came the reply.
Whatever Lewis' private thoughts were at that moment, we will never know.
At 10:30 the next morning, Lewis was still asleep in his room at the Commonwealth. There was a loud rap on the door. Lewis climbed out of bed and unlocked the door, and, assuming he opened the door for the maid, made his way back towards the bed when three men walked in.
He said later that the intruders were all strangers to him, but one of the suspects quite possibly was "Machine Gun"Jack McGurn.
One of the assailants drew a .45 and a second man hit him in the back of the head with a .38 while the third, pulled out a ten inch long hunting knife and said "Just one favor Joey, don't scream"
Then he plunged the knife into the comic's left jaw as far as he could and kept slashing until he assumed, based on the massive amounts of blood that was gushing out of neck, that Lewis was dead.
Lewis lived, but just barely. He was forced to re-learn the alphabet and it took him years to regain his voice. He lived with the physical and mental scars for the rest of his life. His promising career hit the skids. He did not pick up the pieces for the next ten years.
A few years after the slashing, Al Capone ran into Lewis at a party and asked," Why the hell didn't you come to me? I would have worked everything out." Scarface offered Lewis $10,000 to tide him over until he regained his voice and his career, but Lewis turned it down.
It seemed like a very generous offer, but the fact is, McGurn and Capone were partners in the club once managed by Henry van Horne. It doesn't seem possible that McGurn would have cut Lewis up without Capone's permission.
Lewis went to New York and eventually ended up working for beer baron Dutch Schultz and with time, he became the mob's favorite courier and message carrier. Pal Joey never learned seemed to learn his lesson.
If Lewis ended his career as a professional mob messenger boy and sycophant, at least it was a better outcome for the comic compared to the way McGurn ended up.
McGurn's role as the undisputed mastermind of the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre left him vulnerable to repeated police interrogation and when Capone fell out of power, McGurn fell out of grace. He had always been an arrogant gangster, bullying his underlings and getting away with it because he was Big Al's favorite.
But with Capone behind bars and the beer wars long over, the new bosses had no need to be associated with an internationally known killer on the skids.
By 1932, McGurn was broke, largely because no one wanted to work with him, and because he was never an "earner," that is, a money hustler. In a past life he was a deadly enforcer, a real pretty boy killer, but now he was just another scratch golfer making a nuisance of himself on the suburban Chicago links, and washed up as far as the rackets were concerned. McGurn was barely scraping by trying to pay off the mortgage on his Oak Park house. His gorgeous wife, Louise "the Blonde Alibi" Rolfe, stood by him to the bitter end, but swore to police detectives she had no idea what he did for a living.
In 1936, "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn went down to Florida and begged Willie Heeney to set up a meeting with Jake Guzik and Frank Nitti. In the old days, Heeney would have bragged to the world that one of Capone's top sluggers was interested in talking to him. Now it was different story.
By now the outfit was shaking down Hollywood and was on the brink of earning more money then it ever dreamed of, "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn had to beg for a five minute appointment to see Heeney, Guzik, and Nitti. They granted him an audience, only because of what he had once been, and because as bosses they were obligated to listen to McGurn who was a made guy, a member of the Mafia.
McGurn explained that he was job hunting and desired to join Nitti's loan sharking operation. That wasn't going to happen, but the three hoods considered the matter for a moment, but turned him down cold.
Jack McGurn launched into a tale of heroin running and cocaine shipments from the Caribbean islands into Chicago. He painted a picture of untold riches by victimizing poor African-Americans, who were flooding into northern cities from the Southern states by the thousands.
That was enough for Nitti who told him to say no more about it and forget about running dope. Prostitution and gambling were acceptable to the public, but dope was something else again and Nitti had a firm rule against made guys working in narcotics.
McGurn was told to return to Chicago and run numbers and be happy with that.
Always contemptuous of Nitti, McGurn not only continued selling dope, he approached Nitti's underboss, Paul Ricca, with the idea of approaching New York's Lucky Luciano to back them financially in an international drug smuggling ring.
These egregious acts sealed his death warrant.
It has been long rumored that McGurn walked into a Chicago tavern shortly before his death and saw Joe E. Lewis standing at the bar. McGurn approached Lewis, removed his hat and said "Joey, I miss you and I can't tell you how sorry I am, that this happened between us"
McGurn held out his hand in friendship and Lewis took it.
Exactly seven years and one day after the St. Valentine's Valentines Day Massacre, "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn went bowling with three companions. They wandered into the Avenue Recreation Parlor; second floor lanes located at 805 Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago's West Town neighborhood.
McGurn had been sitting at a table keeping score of the game, when three men crept up from behind. One of them said, "Stick 'em up and stand where you are"
Jack McGurn's companions and the rest of the bowlers scampered out the door and disappeared into the shadows as one of the three men whispered to Jack, "This is for you, you son a bitch!" Taking careful aim, he fired a single shot just below McGurn's right ear, and then carefully fired another into his lower neck.
The assassins carefully stretched McGurn's body out on the alley way and left a card lying eight feet away that showed a cartoon of a naked man and women staring at a sign that read "House for sale." The card read:
"You lost your job"
"You lost your dough
"Your Jewels and Handsome Houses"
"But things could be much worse you know"
"You could have lost your trousas"
Before the killers left, one of them turned and walked back to the table where McGurn had been sitting and removed the tally sheet which listed the names of McGurn's bowling partners on it. He shoved it in his pocket and disappeared into the night.
The cops found $3.85 in his pockets; all that was left from his mighty bankroll. There was no life insurance policy, but the widow managed to have McGurn buried in a $1,000.00 copper coffin.
Sixteen days later, on March 2, syndicate gunmen hunted down McGurn's younger brother and former bodyguard, Anthony, to a local pool hall and cut him to pieces with a rifle.
Al Capone sent several dozen white roses from his cell at Alcatraz. Joe E. Lewis just wept.