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Jan. 16, 2012 Special to Crime Magazine:
This is an excerpt from the book, Queenpins: Notorious Women Gangsters from the Modern Era, by Ron Chepesiuk. The book is published by Strategic Media Books (www.strategicmediabooks.com) and is available from the web site, Amazon.com and other publishing outlets.
In 1912, Pearl Adler, a 12-year old girl from the small village of Yanow, Russia, embarked on a long, perilous oceanic journey. For support, the young girl, whom her family called “Polly,” had nothing more with her than the high expectations of her large family and a potato sack that contained her belongings, some garlic, apples, four loaves of black bread and four hunks of salami that her mother Gertrude had packed for her. Joining Polly on board the good ship Naftar was a diverse mix of Poles, Italians, Danes and Swedes, all determined to make a prosperous new life for themselves in the Promised Land of America. It was a rough voyage and nearly all the passengers got sick, but not Polly. No sickness was going to impede her determination to reach America.
Unlike many of her fellow passengers, Polly did not leave a life of abject poverty. She was the eldest child in a family that included two daughters and seven sons. But her father, Morris Adler, was a tailor, a respectable occupation, and the family was well-off by Yanow standards. Still, the family’s ethnic roots were Jewish and it was a time of virulent anti Semitism in Russia. The Adler family could be a victim of a pogrom, or violent attack, at any time. It had happened frequently between 1903 and 1905. In the course of one week alone, there had been 50 anti-Jewish pogroms. In the village of Binlystok, for instance, 19 Jews were murdered and 24 injured. The Kishinew pogram left 120 dead and 500 injured, while the Odessa pogrom had 299 victims.
Until the pogroms, Morris Adler’s plan for Polly was to have her attend school in a nearby village and then complete her education under the village Rabbi’s guidance. Given the insecurities of life in Russia, the father decided that she would be the first link in a line of emigration that would bring his family to America.
The voyage was Polly’s first taste of freedom from the strictures of rural life and she was wired with excitement and anticipation. When the day of arrival finally a came and the ship glided into New York City harbor, Polly joined her fellow passengers on deck. A male passenger shouted in Yiddish: “The American Lady: The Statue of Liberty!” The passengers gazed and marveled. Polly joined in a chorus of ecstatic shouts and screams. After de-embarking, Polly caught the train to Holyoke, Massachusetts, where the Grodesky family claimed her at the depot. The Grodeskys were not friends of the Adlers, but friends of friends, and they had agreed to take care of Polly, provided the Adlers paid for her upkeep and schooling.
Polly arrived two years before the start of World War I, but the war’s outbreak cut off communication with her family and the money it provided for her, dashing the family’s hope of joining their daughter in the New World. It was a bad break, one of many Polly would have before eventually finding success in her new life. Eventually, she would make money, enjoy a comfortable lifestyle and mix with the rich and powerful. As a leading member of world’s so called oldest profession, Polly would claim as her friends not only members of New York’s elite but also some of the most prominent gangsters of her time, bringing her more notoriety than admiration.
| Pearl "Polly" Adler
Polly’s first job hardly fit her vision of the American Dream. With World War I in full swing, cut off from money from home and on her own, Polly had to find a job to pay for her keep. She found one at a paper factory, a sweat shop that paid her three dollars a week. Two years later, her father decided to send Polly to Brooklyn, New York, to live with her cousins, the Rosen family. The change was a shock to Polly. As she later explained: “The Grodeskys had not been rich but compared to the Rosens their house was the Taj Mahal.”
Polly found another job in a corset factory, making five dollars a week, from which she had to pay three dollars for room and board and a $1.20 for car fare and lunches. Polly hungered for an education, and she continued to attend night school as time from her job allowed, hoping once again to get on the path to the American Dream. Money was tight and Polly had to walk a mile to and from school so she could pay for her lunches.
By 1917 the factory had closed down, but in April of that year, the United States entered the Great War and Polly found another job at a factory manufacturing soldier’s shirts. At age 17, she stood just 4’ 11’ tall and had matured physically. A new foreman at the factory named Frank noticed her. Young and naïve, Polly loved the attention. Frank invited her to go to Coney Island on a date and Polly eagerly accepted. The date turned into a nightmare. Instead of going to Coney Island, Frank took her to a cottage where they were alone. HHHHHHJHHe tried seducing Polly, but put off by his rough advances, Polly got scared and resisted. Frank knocked her out cold and raped her.
A month went by at the factory as if nothing had happened. Polly was ashamed and afraid. Then Polly discovered she was pregnant. Sidonia, a friend and worker at the factory, took Polly to a doctor to see about an abortion. It cost $150 but all Polly had in savings was $35. Polly went to Frank but he refused to help. Sidonia found a doctor who was willing to perform the abortion for $35. When the doctor heard Polly’s sad story, he took just $ 25 for his fee and told her to use the other $10 to buy shoes and stockings.
The experience traumatized the young girl. “I went through the motions of living,” Polly Adler later recalled. “I was changed; I had lost heart. I no longer had hope.”
Polly’s fortunes continued to decline. Frank harassed her at work and she quit her job. She met Harry Richman, a performer who later became a Broadway star, and they became friends. Harry invited Polly to a nightclub, where, for the first time in her life, she drank something stronger than soda pop. She gulped the whiskey as it was soft drink. Blind drunk and out all night, her clothes disheveled, Polly was a mess when she got back to her home in Brooklyn. The Rosens did not like what they saw and kicked Polly out of the house, telling her to leave immediately. Polly quickly wrapped her clothes in a newspaper and left.
In her autobiography, a House is not a Home, Polly summed up her life in America to this point: “So far I had certainly racked up a row of goose eggs in the Golden Land. I had failed in my quest for an education. I might have gotten back home. I had lost my virginity, my reputation and my job. All I had gotten was older.”
Polly found a cheap, $20 a month, windowless apartment at Second Avenue and North Street and began hunting for a job. She spent two tough weeks looking, hungry and frustrated, before finding another dreary, dead-end and low-paying factory job. She worked at it for about a year before bumping into a fellow Russian Jew named Abe Shornik, a man about Polly’s father’s age who worked in a dress factory. He was a gentleman who took an interest in Polly’s welfare, introducing her to a well-to-do dress manufacturer in the hope that he would hire her.
The dress manufacturer was related to the head of a big theatrical supply house, and Polly was introduced to the theater crowd. Polly became friends with a beautiful blond actress and singer whom she identified as Joan Smith. The actress brought Polly over to her apartment and introduced her to several of her friends in show business. A brand new world opened for the young girl and Polly loved it. About a month after they met, Joan invited Polly to move in with her at her nice apartment on Riverside Drive.
Polly lived with Joan through the spring of 1920, but then Joan began to change. The heroin and cocaine she used in abundance made her frequently temperamental, often sullen and sometimes violent. Joan behavior concerned Polly, but when Joan started showing tender feelings towards her, Polly knew it was time to leave. She became friends with a bookkeeper she identified as Tony and confided her troubles. Tony offered the use of his apartment, provided Polly help him out. He would pay the rent if Polly allowed him to meet a lady friend at the pad. Not really considering the implications of the offer and desperate to get out her dead end life, Polly jumped at it, and with the money Tony gave her, rented a two-room furnished apartment on Riverside.
Tony’s affair did not last long, and a few weeks after she had moved into the apartment, Tony asked Polly to find him another woman. He would pay Polly $50 and the woman she provided, $100. Polly accepted and found Tony a pretty blonde. Polly was now in a new line of work. “It was in this informal, almost casual fashion that I began my career as a madam,” Polly wrote in her autobiography. “I didn’t think of it then as a career or myself as a madam. I suppose, in the way, people do, I managed to sell myself a bill of goods—I didn’t invent sex. Nobody had to come to my apartment who didn’t want to. I was really doing them a favor—that sort of thing.”
But Polly had found her calling and her life changed dramatically. She bought nice clothes and frequented speakeasies and dance halls. She met several wealthy men, and to those whom she believed would be discrete, she gave her address. Polly hired three girls which began entertaining her acquaintances several times a week. . Polly had no illusions about her new found career. After tasting the good life and making good money, it was a question for her of economics, not morals. No way did she want to go back to her former lifestyle that left her wondering from where her next dollar would come.
It wasn’t too long, though, before Polly was booked on suspicion of prostitution. It would be the first of 17 such arrests in her long sex-industry career. The case, like the many others that followed during Polly’s life as a madam, was dismissed because of a lack of evidence.
Polly moved ahead in her new profession with the energy and smarts of an entrepreneur, even though it was not an easy profession in which to succeed. Prostitution’s illegality made the consequences of arrest very serious. By 1917, the anti-prostitution efforts of the so-called Progressive Era had closed down every important red light district in the U.S., including the hitherto untouchable Storyville in New Orleans. The following year, prostitution was illegal in nearly every state in the Union. One of the biggest brothels in America, the Speedway Inn, was run by the notorious gangster Al “Scarface” Capone of Chicago. Capone and the criminal underworld took over much of the sex trade, and gangsters were not inclined to treat women of the night decently.
Polly was trying to run a high class house of ill repute, but she had to pay protection money to the gangsters. It was an experience shared by other madams of the day. Helen McGowan, a Detroit madam, recalled what it was like being a madam in the 1920s: “If the take was a thousand dollars for a particular night, five hundred went to the racket boys, four hundred to the girls and $100 to me. The great bulk of our funds went to hoodlums and lawyers, thanks to our righteous laws that protect the public against the world’s oldest profession.”
Polly did not have problems with the criminal element, and she began building her clientele in a discrete business like manner. At the night clubs Polly patronized, she advised headwaiters and captains that her establishment was not your typical whorehouse, and they should only send men to her bordello who could afford to pay $20 or more. For those who could pay that amount, Polly Adler was available 24 hours a day. The money began rolling in, and by the spring of 1921 she had saved $6,000.
In her mind, Polly thought her career choice would only be temporary until she found success in a legitimate business. Polly saw an opportunity and she and a friend opened a lingerie shop at 2487 Broadway. The business broke even at first, but, unfortunately for Polly, she and her partner were inexperienced business-wise and they had no cash in reserve to cover the lean times a start up can experience. Meanwhile, their business became prey to crafty shoplifters who stole the owners blind. The business closed after a year.
Once again, Polly was broke. Her total assets consisted of her furniture, a dog named Nicko and $800 in cash. Her financial situation continued to deteriorate, and when she was down to her last $100, Polly once again entered the prostitution business. This time it would be for good; however, her clientele was different. Many of her new clients were gangsters, some of whom would become the country’s biggest mobsters of the 1920s and ‘30s. They were often drunk and unruly. When some of the gangsters roughed up one of her girls, she decided to move, hoping to attract a more civil clientele. To stay ahead of the law, Polly adopted the tactic of moving from apartment to apartment, before eventually settling into a large rented apartment near 7th Avenue.
She now set out to be, in her paraphrased words, “The best goddamn madam in America.” Once again, she exhibited the Midas touch when it came to whoredom. She could now afford the sumptuous style of a successful madam and hired an interior decorator, spending lavishly on furnishings, and carpets, while lining her walls with books. Much of the expensive décor in her bordello was in the style of Louis XV and Louis XVI. She also hired a cook, maid and hairdresser.
In the late 1920s she set up shop at the majestic Tower at 215 West 75th Street, an edifice the firm of Schwartz and Gross, one of the major designers of hotels and high rise buildings in the early 20th century, erected. In an interview with writer Lisa Jacobs, James Nassy, a long time resident of the Majestic Towers, revealed that the building, with its many hidden stairways and secret door ways, was designed as a bordello. “The layout was conceived to protect secretive behavior,” Nassy explained.
Given her hours of operation and her business success, Adler did not have much of a personal life. She was in her 20s and single but stayed to herself and rarely dated. Later Polly recalled: “I couldn’t behave like other women and the house was forever uppermost in my mind and it was too much to expect a man to take out a woman who can’t keep her mind on the date, who remains a business machine even off duty and even in an ostentatiously hilarious mood. So I decided the best thing I could do was put me as a private citizen in cold storage, and so long as I was madam, ‘temporarily disconnect’ my life.”
Polly’s life was her work, and her bordello became a kind of clubhouse where the women were not necessarily the main attraction. Patrons from the elite and privileged class began to frequent her bordello, coming as much for the drinks, the socializing and the card games as for the prostitutes. The clientele included members of the famous Algonquin Roundtable, a group of influential New York City intellectuals, journalists, editors, writers and artists that began lunching together at the Algonquin Hotel in June 1919 and continued on a regular basis for the next eight years. In their articles and columns, the journalists in the group disseminated the gist of their conversations across the country.
Algonquin Roundtable members included Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, George S. Kauffman and Edna Farber. Benchley was a wit, writer and humorist who wrote essays and articles for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker magazines. He was also a film director whose movie, How to Sleep, won in the Best Short Subject category at the 1933 Academy Awards.
Benchley liked to rent Polly’s establishment for lavish parties. At one of them, a despondent prostitute jumped out of an open window. Benchley checked to see that she was okay and insisted that the party goers keep celebrating. Polly remembered Benchley fondly, describing him as “one of the kindest, warmest hearted man in the world.”
Benchley’s friend, Dorothy Parker, a poet and writer, also frequented Polly’s bordello. Following the breakup of the Roundtable, Parker traveled to Hollywood to pursue a screenwriting career. She received two Oscar nominations for her work, but as a result of her left-wing political activism, was placed on Hollywood’s Black List. Both Parker and Benchley helped Polly pick out books for her bordello. Roundtable member George S. Kaufman, who was lauded as Broadway’s greatest comic dramatist, reportedly had a charge account with Polly.
Jimmy Walker, another client, was mayor of New York City from 1925 to 1932 when he was charged with corruption and resigned. When Mickey Walker started frequenting Polly’s bordello, he was the world’s middleweight boxing champion. Naïve about the role of a madam, Walker kept propositioning Polly to go to bed with him. Polly had to take one of Mickey’s handlers aside and tell him that she was the madam of the establishment and was not available. Further, if the champ kept badgering her, he would have to leave. Walker got the message, straightened up, and eventually, Polly became fond of him.
In addition to the intellectual elite, some of the most notorious gangsters in American history frequented Adler’s bordello. The most powerful, no doubt, was Charles “Lucky” Luciano, a Sicilian mobster who by 1925 was grossing more than $300,000 annually from overseeing the Big Apple’s largest bootleg operation. In a power struggle within La Cosa Nostra, Luciano outmaneuvered two other prominent mobsters, Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano, to become the most dominant godfather in America. Luciano headed a Mob Commission that oversaw its nationwide activities.
Polly considered Lucky a gentleman and recalled that success did not change him. During their friendship, Lucky remained quiet, polite and considerate of her girls. The feeling was mutual. In his 1962 autobiography, Luciano spoke warmly of Polly, the madame, enthusing that Polly ran “the best damn whorehouse in New York.”
In 1936, New York State Special Prosecutor Thomas Dewey, a future Republican presidential candidate, successfully prosecuted Luciano for operating a prostitution ring. Polly expressed amazement that Luciano had been linked to prostitution since she often supplied Luciano with girls when he entertained. “I think Dewey never called me as witness because the only testimony I could possibly give was in favor of the defense (Luciano),” she later recalled.
Adler’s relationship with another prominent gangster, Dutch Schultz, was much more complicated. By the time Polly met Dutch, he was one of the most influential gangsters in New York City. Born Arthur Flegenheimer in 1902, Schultz was known as “The Beer Baron of the Bronx” for his phenomenal success in the illegal bootlegging industry, which made him a fortune and one of the richest gangsters in New York City during Prohibition. In the early to mid 1930s, Dutch took over the Harlem numbers racket after a bitter battle with a Queen Pin named Stephanie St. Clair and became even richer.
When Polly first met Dutch, she was still trying to recover financially from the Stock Market Crash of 1929. In their initial meeting, Dutch gave Polly a thousand dollars, instructing her to “Use the money to get a bigger apartment. You will be seeing a lot of me.” With that revelation, Schultz proceeded to Polly’s bedroom and fell asleep on her bed. After Adler moved into the new apartment, Dutch used the bedroom to run his criminal business.
Polly later recalled: “I realized this was the first of many nights. By taking Dutch’s money, I was on my way out of my financial hole, but in return, I had put myself in bondage – from now on my life will be ruled by fear.”
Polly viewed Schultz as a psychopath who could go ballistic at the slightest provocation, and she knew well his reputation for violence. Schultz’s henchmen once kidnapped a stubborn wholesale beer distributor named Joe Rock, who had refused to let the Dutchman bully him out of business. The thugs beat Rock, strung him up by his thumbs, and then put a strip of gauze smeared with infectious material across his eyes and taped the gauze securely. By the time they tossed Rock out in the street, the hapless wholesaler was probably blind and crippled by the severe beating. The message was clear: Do not mess with the Dutchman.
Polly would never know when the unpredictable gangster would show up at her apartment. The strain was intense, but she never did get up the nerve to tell Schultz to take his patronage elsewhere.
Polly was also in fear of Dutch’s rivals, especially a gangster named Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll. Coll earned the name, “Mad Dog,” from the media after he had killed a child in a botched assassination attempt. Coll had been a Schultz enforcer but decided to organize his own gang. The ambitious Mad Dog had tried to kill Dutch, and Polly worried that the gangster might get the wrong idea if he learned Dutch was hanging out at her apartment. Polly’s anxiety ended when Schultz had Coll murdered.
Schultz tried to dominate Polly’s life. Punctually around 7 at night, the gangster would take a bath, commanding Polly to scrub his back. He once ordered her never to drink, fearing that, if she did, she might get careless and talk too much. But one day Polly returned home inebriated. Schultz got angry and asked her where she had been. He didn’t like Polly’s answer and decided to teach her a lesson. He punched Polly on top of the head, knocking her to the floor, and stormed out of the apartment.
Terrified, Polly moved to West 54th Street, hoping to break free of the Dutchman, but a few weeks later, he showed up again. He didn’t apologize for beating her but gave her $500. “Next week is Christmas,” the gangster said. “Buy yourself a gift.”
As Adler grew in prominence in the New York bordello scene, Dutch Schultz was not her biggest worry. Polly’s association with major underworld figures had drawn the attention of the authorities. Adler had entertained many members of the court, law enforcement officers and officials in city government agencies, and she had paid thousands of dollars in bribes—half of her income by some estimates—to keep her bordello running smoothly and to keep her call girls out of jail. She had made sure all of her bases were covered. For instance, half of the head waiters in Manhattan were said to be on her payroll.
So Polly was not particularly worried when ex-judge Samuel Seabury began conducting an investigation into the New York sex trade in 1929. The Magistrate’s Court of the City of New York was the court in which many people charged with crimes first encountered the legal system. Seabury headed the Commission investigating the charges of widespread corruption within the municipal court system as well as the police force. Among the allegations found to be true—hundreds of women had to pay exorbitant bonds or go to prison on dubious convictions for prostitution. Throughout the autumn of 1930, the Seabury Commission heard testimony from more than 1,000 witnesses.—judges, lawyers, police officers and former defendants—describe and document the corruption.
Polly did not want to testify, but the Seabury Commission wanted to know why she had never been convicted of prostitution, even though she had been arrested 11 times. Polly’s name had come up in the testimony of John C. Weston, a former official in the New York City’s District’s Attorney’s Office. Weston admitted to being bribed twice to “go easy” when Polly appeared before the Magistrate Court judges. According to a New York Herald report, “Weston testified that Adler is represented by lawyers who were in the habit of bribing him to lay down when their client’s interests were concerned.” Weston further stated that Polly’s power and influence was so great that a prosecutor could be removed unless “he laid down” when prosecuting a charge against her.
Then Polly received a call from an anonymous source warning her to leave the house immediately because representatives of the court were on their way to serve her a subpoena. Polly threw her clothes in a bag, dashed out of her apartment and hailed a cab. Polly headed for Newark, New Jersey, where she checked into a hotel. Later Adler explained her reasoning for leaving town: “I had to get out of town because I wasn’t going to squeal; if I accepted a subpoena, a lot of people might be dubious about my ability to keep clammed up and decide to insure my silence in ways I didn’t care to dwell on.”
Polly eventually fled to Miami, Florida, where she checked into a hotel under an assumed name. Polly knew she could not be extradited from Florida so long as she stayed out of New York State. Polly was a celebrity—the Big Apple’s most famous madam. The New York newspapers reported on rumors speculating on where she was hiding. Meanwhile, representatives of 13 of New York’s best known and respected hotels, including the Biltmore, the Ritz, the Carleton and the Vanderbilt, were summoned before the Seabury Commission in the hope they could help the authorities trace Polly’s calls.
Eventually, Adler tired of life on the lam. In need of money, she returned to New York City and turned herself in. Surrendering on May 7, 1930, Polly publicly vowed never to tell what she knew about the New York City vice trade. Adler was grilled about her financial affairs and her dealings with an Irwin O’Brien, a former member of the New York City vice squad. Charges were brought against many corrupt officials, but not because of Adler’s testimony. The madam did not wilt under the questioning and denied everything.
Ironically, Polly Adler believed the Seabury Commission investigation actually helped her illicit business. In her memoir, she recalled: “I found when I got back to business that the Seabury investigation has sure as hell made my life easier. The police no longer were a headache; there was no more kowtowing to double crossing Vice Squad men. No more hundred dollar handshakes, no more police raids to up the month’s quota. In fact, thanks to Judge Seabury and his not very merry men, I was able to operate three years without breaking a lease.”
|Pearl "Polly" Adler|
For the next five years, Polly continued to be one of the country‘s most successful and high profile madams. Then New York City began another anti-corruption campaign under Fiorello LaGuardia, the New York City mayor from 1934 to 1945. LaGuardia went after Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello and other mob bosses, declaring: “Let’s drive the bums out of town.” LaGuardia had well known gangsters arrested whenever they appeared in public and waged war against the gambling rackets.
On July 10, 1936, police and city officials knocked down the doors of Adler’s sixth floor Central Park West apartment. The officials found Adler, a 25-year old Black woman and two men sitting at a table, drinking. Under questioning, the two men revealed that Adler had “procured” two women for them. Adler was arrested and arraigned; bail was set at $1,000. It was Adler’s 16th arrest in her career as a madam. “I can’t possibly furnish that much,” Adler complained to the magistrate. “I’m broke now and I owe a lot. Besides, I’m innocent of this charge.”
The case was continuously postponed, but whenever Polly appeared in court, the press would report about her, often with sympathetic observations. The New York Daily News, for example, wrote: “the police tap this woman’s wires…. and in other ways keep her under surveillance as if they suspected her of being the Lindbergh kidnapper.”
Polly pled guilty and received a sentence of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. In her autobiography, Adler claimed that a well-known gangster helped get the charge reduced from what could have been a three-year sentence. She felt lucky to spend only 24 days of her sentence in jail, given that she was at center stage of La Guardia’s anti-corruption campaign.
Yet, jail time traumatized Adler. The madam had confidence that she could always beat the legal system now began to have doubts, fears and insecurities. It didn’t help Polly’s state of mind to learn that the police had tapped her phone when she moved into her new apartment on East 54th Street. The cops were still after her. The experience of being under constant scrutiny was getting old. Still Polly felt lucky. When the State of New York launched another corruption investigation in 1936 under Special Prosecutor Thomas Dewey, the police raided bordellos, rounding up and arresting call girls. Despite the crackdown, Polly was never arrested or called as a witness. But her friend, Lucky Luciano, was busted.
Polly remained in the prostitution business until the early 1940s, opening and closing her bordello many times. Polly, however, had become disillusioned about the business, and her heart was not in it any more. In 1941 she was arrested for the 17th and final time, but the judge dismissed the charge because the prosecution failed to establish a case against her. In 1943, the Teflon Madam retired from the sex racket altogether and moved to Burbank, California, where she completed high school at age 50 and enrolled in college courses. In 1953, Polly Adler published her best selling autobiography, A House is Not Home. In 1964 a forgettable film starring Shelley Winters as Polly brought the legendary madam’s life to the big screen. In 1962, Polly Adler died of pancreatic cancer. When the Museum of Sex opened up in New York City in 1964, its premier exhibit included material on the legendary life and career of Pearl “Polly” Adler.
It was a remarkable life for a woman who once said of herself: “I’m one of those people who just can’t help getting a kick even when it’s a kick in the teeth.”
Ron Chepesiuk is an award winning freelance investigative journalist, documentary producer and executive producer and co-host of the “Crime Beat” radio show (www.artistfirst.com/crimebeat.htm/) . He is a Fulbright scholar and a consultant to the History Channel's Gangland documentary series. His true crime books include Drug Lords, Black Gangsters of Chicago, Gangsters of Harlem, Gangsters of Miami and Sergeant Smack: The Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, and his Band of Brothers.