The Jerusalem Post
Mob memories are personal for two women related to gangsters
MIAMI – Growing up in Hollywood’s South Lake neighborhood with her Uncle Jim and Aunt Florence, life seemed pretty normal to Carole Cortland Russo. Uncle Jim played golf. Aunt Flo kept a lovely home. They went to church and local restaurants. But every once in awhile, something out of the ordinary happened in the family’s social circle.
“In the ‘50s, there was a family two blocks away – Phil Kovolick, he was a friend of Uncle Jim’s,” she said. “His wife was Minnie. His daughters Phyllis and Judy were my playmates. I found out that Phil was murdered and cut up and found floating in a receptacle... Somebody didn’t like something he did.”
Uncle Jim was Vincent “Jimmy Blue Eyes” Alo, righthand man to Miami Beach mob boss Meyer Lansky. The men met in 1929, the same year that Jimmy met Flo. They co-operated casinos in Cuba, Las Vegas and South Florida.
The couple, who had no children, were like second parents to Cortland Russo, whose mother was Flo’s sister.
The arrangement worked well at first, but “eventually my mother said they stole me from her, because I spent more time with them than her,” Cortland Russo said.
Florence Kane Alo died in 1990, Jimmy in 2001, at 96, leaving everything to his niece, including home movies, his copious FBI files, and what she described as “a huge collection of photos.”
Last year, Cortland Russo, a longtime South Florida actress and writer, sold much of her collection to the Las Vegas Mob Experience. The new attraction, at the Tropicana Hotel on the Vegas Strip, has an interactive section featuring live actors and holograms, and a more conventional, museum-type section.
The go-between for the deal: Cynthia Duncan of Miami Beach, Lansky’s step-granddaughter. Her father was Richard Schwartz, son of Thelma “Teddy” Lansky, Meyer’s second wife. Duncan was executor of her grandmother’s estate. Although their relatives were as close as brothers, Duncan and Cortland Russo, both grandmothers now, didn’t connect until the ‘90s.
Las Vegas Mob Experience developer Jay Bloom found Duncan through her website, meyerlansky. an online museum and store. She has owned restaurants and sells the works of her husband, artist Julio Blanco.
Duncan was born in New York in 1950, the year after her grandmother married the man called “the mob’s accountant.” She refers to him as “my grandfather,” but called him “Uncle Meyer” when they spoke.
"He gave me my first ring,” she recalled. “Double topaz. And he always sent a birthday cake.”
Through her grandmother, Duncan inherited a trove of memorabilia, including notes for a book that Lansky worked on with the late New York Post editor Paul Sann.
On his lawyers’ advice, Lansky nixed it before publication, Duncan said.
The notes are among the items that Bloom bought. But like Cortland Russo, Duncan hung onto sentimental items, like the porcelain kitty-cat figurine that the Lanskys used as a bedroom door stop, and the illustrated Old Testament that Lansky’s brother gave him in 1953. The inscription: “May these pages give you much knowledge and peace.” Teddy Lansky “was a saver” of many items, Duncan said, but unlike Florence Alo, who kept her belongings in meticulous condition, Teddy – a shopaholic – had little pieces of paper stuck everywhere.
It all ended up stored in plastic garbage bags before Bloom bought it.
Lansky was an atheist, Duncan said, but adhered to Jewish ritual. He led family seders and gave generously to the oldest synagogue on Miami Beach, Congregation Beth Jacob. He dedicated a stained glass window in the sanctuary to his parents.
He always tipped well, Duncan said, “and took care of everyone who worked for him in Cuba” where he ran casino hotels. “He had a code of honor. He never kept a gun or a knife. He was more brains and books. But when he gave the word, it was the word.” Unlike many of his colleagues who met violent ends – as did Duncan’s father, in 1977 – Lansky lived into old age. He died in 1983 of cancer, at 80. Duncan said she didn’t know much about Uncle Meyer’s notoriety until she was a teenager. She grew up on Long Island – Lawrence High School, class of ‘68 – but spent a year in Havana during the ‘50s.
“I went to the Lafayette American School,” she recalled. “Every day we’d go to the Riviera,” one of Lansky’s hotels, “and have turkey sandwiches.” As far as she knew then, he owned hotels, where patrons came to gamble in tuxedos and evening gowns. “Gambling isn’t for the poor,” Lansky told her.
Much later, she asked him about things she had heard people say.
“He said, ‘I was a bootlegger and a gambling man.’” But wherever they went, Duncan noticed everyone “made a big fuss and people whispered.” As teenagers in the early
‘70s, living in South Florida, Duncan and her siblings were warned to “mind (our) Ps and Qs” by Lansky: “‘Don’t talk about me. Don’t talk on the phone.’”
He prized education, she said, and would talk about history, philosophy, math, and “newsworthy articles.”
“If you talked about drugs, he’d turn green,” she said. “He was very stern, and if you got out of line, there was a look. But when he smiled, the room lit up.”
When she was 18, and back in New York, Duncan finally realized who Uncle Meyer was.
Both Duncan and Cortland Russo attended the Mob Experience grand opening in March, and are generally pleased with the way things turned out.
“Jimmy and Meyer were very similar,” said Cortland Russo. “Intelligent, sensible, well-read, quiet. Both of them had the desire as they matured to leave their past behind and to rise above their youth.”
Their lives of crime began during Prohibition, a “wild, dangerous time,” Cortland Russo said. “You had to be tough and brave and able to scare people so they didn’t fool around with you, and that is what it was.”
Although Nevada gaming laws aimed at ridding the casinos of organized crime effectively barred Alo from Vegas in the 1970s, his niece said he’d sneak in from time to time, and stay with a cousin.
“I remember meeting Don Rickles with him” in Vegas, she said. “All of those people worked for my uncle: Jimmy Durante, Danny Thomas, Jackie Leonard, Myron Cohen. He had a huge circle of friends from all walks of life. Everybody loved him... He had an entourage, and they went out to dinner every night. Nobody ever put their hands in their pockets.”
Her uncle and Meyer Lansky “were like movie stars,” Cortland Russo said. “They were kings.” – The Miami Herald/ MCT