Tough Jews: The Rise & Fall of the Minneapolis Jewish Gangster

When you think of gangsters and mobsters you might think of New York or New Jersey, or perhaps even Chicago. Presumably nice Jewish boys from Minnesota just wouldn’t cross our minds. So when Neal Karlen wanted to write a book about Minnesota Jews involvement in organized crime, he first went to East Coast book publishers.

Neal Karlen_AugiesSecrets“I spent nearly 25 years trying to sell this idea and no one wanted it,” he says. That is until the Minnesota Historical Society got wind of the idea and gave hometown Jewfolk Karlen, a former editor for Rolling Stone, the go ahead that he needed to write about Minneapolis Jewish gangsters through the life of Augie Ratner, a distant relative who carried the secrets of many mobsters — Jewish or otherwise — to his grave. But as some of Augie’s contemporaries got older in age, they wanted to talk. They didn’t want these stories to die with them, so they told Neal Karlen, who says younger generations need to sit and just listen more to the stories their elders have to share.

Karlen used historical research and personal interviews to bring Augie to life in the pages of his book, Augie’s Secrets: The Minneapolis Mob and the King of the Hennepin Strip. He will sign copies of the book and lead a discussion over lunch at Adath Jeshurun Congregation at 11:30 AM, Tuesday, April 1, 2014. (The $12 event and lunch is sponsored by the Women’s League. To RSVP, call Helen at 952.544.3957, or signup online by Sunday, March 30.)

Augie Ratner, the proprietor of Augie’s Theater Lounge & Bar on Hennepin Avenue, was the unofficial mayor of Minneapolis’s downtown strip in the 1940s and ’50s. In a few blocks between the swanky clubs and restaurants on Eighth Street and the sleazy flophouses and bars of the Gateway District, the city’s shakers-and-movers and shake-down artists mingled.

“Gangsters and celebrities, comedians and politicians, the rich and the famous and the infamous — all of them met at Augie’s: Jimmy Hoffa, Henny Youngman, Kid Cann, John Dillinger, Jack Dempsey, Peggy Lee, Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, and Gypsy Rose Lee. Augie Ratner knew them all and they told him everything.”

Augie, whom Karlen refers to as his great-uncle, was actually a cousin to Neal Karlen’s grandmother. “There were two words too powerful, too terrible, too ugly for my grandmother to pronounce fully aloud,” Karlen writes in his book. One of them was a word she had for Augie. Dropping her voice an octave and—shhh! Listen for it: “Geng-steh. Geng-steh,” she’d whisper again, saying the word twice in overstated understatement. “Augie is a no-goodnik — a scandal to the family! A Shanda!”

However, “Augie, who to my father’s mind, was the only interesting person in the entire family,” wrote Karlen.

Karlen says there have been two distinct reactions to his book. Most people who have read it enjoy knowing that there were Jewish gangsters, even if it’s stories of the life of Meyer Lansky or Bugsy Siegel, the idea of a Jewish gangster defies the preconceived notions of a wimpy kid. “It shows that we weren’t always accountants and lawyers and doctors. It has become part of Jewish pride to know we were not just a weak people getting kicked around. We can be as tough as anyone.”

But for some others, he says, the book, “hit a nerve.” It’s akin to airing dirty laundry. Why tell the stories of the underbelly of the Jewish mob. Some even are in denial, saying the stories in Karlen’s book just aren’t true.

“It’s 98 percent true,” he says. Any discrepancies might come because of the different versions of stories he’d get from different people he interviewed about the same ordeal. “There were people who would write to me and say ‘That didn’t happen at 6th and Hennepin, it was 4th and Hennepin.’ Or people would write in with corrections such has how Garfinkel (in the book) did not do something I said happened. However, there were two Garfinkel brothers who were both barbers and when people were sharing stories with me for the book they may have been referring to the other brother.”

But Karlen did his research as any good trained journalist might. “I have a master’s in journalism and was a factchecker for Newsweek. I wanted to make sure it is real. There is a bibliography and footnotes to the book. I had a 1935 phone book to try to check everything out as well as I could. I used autobiographies to double check some facts.”

Karlen’s intent, however, was not to write a history book on Jews associated with the mob. “I just wanted to get certain voices down. Original voices down. So many of the people I interviewed have passed away already.” He advises, don’t let their stories die with them the way that Augie’s stories did.

“Instead of seeing it as a duty to go to the Sholom Home, maybe bring a tape recorder and just ask ‘So what happened?’ There are going to be such great stories that are going to be lost if we don’t. When you are 60 you are going to wish you knew what your grandparents were like. Use your iPhone to record them. Ask questions and make it an interesting time. People want to talk. We just have to listen.”