In the short seven years since its opening on the Upper East Side, the hotel had acquired the reputation of a quiet place at a discreet location. Surveying the lobby, he thought it perfect for the put-up job he had in mind.
Accompanied by a very curious concierge, William prowled the meeting rooms, and having rejected the first offerings, now stood before two dark, paneled doors. He paused, studying them a moment before entering the room. What he saw inside reminded him of a baronial library he had once seen in a photograph.
A conference table of ornate design reigned amid polished wood paneled walls and coffered ceilings. Parquet flooring in a herringbone pattern contended with deep-pile carpeting, upon which the table rested. Coupled with the rest of the furnishings, William thought it all came close to reeking of old money.
After the concierge finished his orientation, William sat at the head of the table and took his time adjusting the level of light sheening off the walls and ceiling. The effect he sought was one of quiet elegance and refinement—something in stark contrast to the personality of his guest. Satisfied, he rose to leave the room and join Ridley for dinner.
William and his chartered accountant, Vernon Ridley, had left Southampton on April 14, 1934, arriving five days later in New York. There had not been a moment to relax and enjoy the cruise, Ridley thought, his angular face lined with worry. How could he be so calm? he wondered.
Ridley was still trying to sort through the different potential outcomes. In his mind, the least likely one was obviously the best, and the rest, well, he hesitated to consider in any detail.
In a small Italian eatery across town, Frank Costello ate and drank in the company of his bodyguards and Irving Haim. Born Francesco Castiglia in 1891, and Costello being his favorite alias, he had made the name change official in 1916. Of medium height with dark brown hair and swarthy face, he favored expensive, well-tailored suits. Haim by comparison was taller and nine years younger, with an open, friendly face that now gazed into the dark brown eyes of his “associate.”
Costello had just finished describing the assignment he had given to Haim, who said, “So, Alliance Distribution wants exclusive rights to distribute both King’s Ransom and House of Lords.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Costello said, still chewing.
“But what we really want is the distillery.”
“And if William’s…not ready to sell?” Haim asked in a mild tone of voice.
“Your job is to get him ready,” smirked Costello.
Irving Haim had met Frank Costello in their early days of rum running, working out of Canada. In 1926, Costello, on trial for bootlegging, had escaped conviction. At no time during his bootlegging career had Haim ever attracted the attention of the authorities, and Costello wanted to know why.
Haim took the money he had made bootlegging and used it to begin running a legitimate business as a tobacco merchant. He was also a broker, buying the cured leaf at auction in several of the many warehouses of Durham, North Carolina, and Danville, Kentucky. Known to be one of the “speculators” who tried to outbid the company buyers, he would occasionally buy a grower’s entire load at the front door before other buyers had a chance to make a bid.
After Haim had known Costello for a while, he felt he knew why Frank could not escape the attention of law enforcement. Eschewing violence, Costello made certain his gunmen were under orders not to shoot first.
Yet, there was the necessity of dealing with the rapacious, murderous Al Capone.
After Capone assassinated a rival gang, during what became known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Mafioso led by Costello held a meeting in Atlantic City. Capone soon found he had lost all support, and in the end, had to agree to spend time in jail while things cooled down in Chicago.
The meeting at the President Hotel was widely publicized, and pictures of Costello posing with other gangsters appeared in local newspapers. Despite his professed disdain for strong-arm methods, in the minds of most who knew of him, Costello continued to be associated with the darker side of the underworld.
Over the years, Haim had found many reasons to doubt whether Costello really wanted to escape the connection.
The telephone rang in the room William and Ridley were sharing. The front desk called to say that a Mr. Irving Haim would like to speak with William.
“He wants me to come down and have a drink with him,” William explained to a startled Ridley.
“You want me to come with you?” Ridley offered.
Shaking his head, William said it would not be necessary and left the room.
As the hour was late, there were few patrons in the hotel bar. Haim was alone and rose to meet William when he entered the room. He hadn’t changed much, Haim thought, extending his hand to the short, unassuming Britisher.
“Good to see ya again, William. Have a seat,” Haim offered as he waved the waiter over. With drinks ordered, Haim began to make his pitch. “Frank wanted us to talk before the meeting tomorrow. He’s gonna ask you about selling the distillery. Wanted me to see what you thought.”
The drinks arrived. William thanked the waiter, but before he could sign the check, Haim reached for it.
“This is on me, William.”
“I think not, Irving.”
William handed the pen and receipt to the waiter. Raising his glass, he offered his “cheers” and sat back in his chair. He looked at Haim for a moment before he began speaking.
“How did you come to know Frank?” William asked pleasantly.
“We met in the ’20s, back durin’ our bootlegging days.”
Haim traced his history with Costello briefly and then brought the conversation back to the matters at hand.
“So, William, you thinkin’ about retirement any?”
“I am not.”
A silence fell on them for a moment.
“How did you get your start in distillin’?” Haim resumed.
“I was raised in it, you might say,” William began. “My family had a wine, spirits, and tobacco shop, with my parents and I living in a flat above. Later, I went to work for a distiller and blender as a sales agent and after that went on my own.”
William paused to take a sip before continuing. “The distillery, we purchased last year…to secure a reliable source for the making of our whiskies.”
Haim nodded and sat back in his chair, reflecting upon his own life story. Born in Romania at the turn of the century, he and his family had immigrated to the States in 1905. Originally born Irvine Haimorrtz, and no longer observant, he decided to change his name to Irving Haim and became a naturalized citizen in 1912.
“I grew up in a tough part of Philadelphia on Morris Street, in the First Ward,” Haim concluded. “My sisters and I went to work young to take care of our parents.”
“And when did you go to work for Frank?”
Haim paused for a moment before he replied. “I don’t work for him exactly. You might say I work with him…when he needs an honest front.”
William allowed a small smile. “Like my distillery, perhaps?”
“That’s it,” Haim countered.
“And Frank wants it in a bad way. He’s willin’ to pay, of course….”
“Just like that sub of yours.” William set his unfinished drink aside. The submarine, he mused. Yes, that had been instructive. There was a slight edge to his voice, and he looked directly into Haim’s eyes, replying, “There might certainly come a time when I may be ready to sell. But as of the moment, there is no interest in selling…to anyone.”
So, the answer is no, mused Haim. That ain’t good….