May 09

Aunt Mary and the Damned King

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Aunt Mary 2nd row, 8th from left counting the ghost

Aunt Mary and the Damned King is being guest hosted by my cousin John VanStone and is about a subject for which we all carry a soft spot in our hearts … Family.

Among our multitude of close relatives while growing up was my mother’s Aunt Mary Egan Gibbons which made her my Great Aunt. An elderly widow with one son, Jimmy, she had come to America from Leeds, England in the late 1800s or early 1900s and probably lived in Philadelphia before coming to live in Atlantic City.

I first remember her as living with us at my maternal Grandmother’s house at 36 North California Ave.  At one point during those Depression years, the families of all my grandmother’s children, the Wristbridges, the Mc Nesby’s and we Vanstones all lived in that house with my Grandmother, my Great-Grandmother and  widowed Aunt Mary.In the Summer months, a bunch of our Philadelphia relatives visited, and possibly bedded down in that house for a few days.

One of those families was that of Aunt Mary’s brother, Uncle Bill Egan, a jolly, revered,

Aunt Mary's son Jimmy Gibbons during WW II

charismatic man who came to call me “Professor.”  After my grandmother died, Aunt Mary moved to a house back an alley on Texas Avenue almost opposite our Texas Avenue house that was also back an alley. She lived there with her 90 plus year old mother and my 4-years older cousin Jack Wristbridge. Later she moved to an apartment on Atlantic and Mississippi Avenues. While living there she was a frequent visitor to our family and to the McNesby’s.

My younger sister Babs became her designated “gofer” girl visiting and/or shopping for her several days a week. For reasons beyond my recall, we and the Mc Nesby’s began referring to her as “poor old” Aunt Mary probably in recognition of her often lonely life in later years. Despite being in America for more than 40 years, she remained a loyal British subject ever ready to pronounce “God  Save the King.”  Poor old Aunt Mary ‘s respectable use of English was sorely tried at times by my sometimes raucous Uncle George Mc Nesby, a dedicated Irishman , who could set her off and loved to bait her with some ribald or derogatory remark about said King of England for the fun of seeing her reaction.

One of Uncle George’s other little favorites was what he’d do when he and my Aunt Pat visited. Poor old Aunt Mary’s room was two flights up at the top of the building. It was about as big as a matchbox and darker than a haunted house. Naturally no one was interested in going to visit, other than the family, unless you had a reason. Upon opening the door, there before you sat P.O.A.M. in a big high backed chair that seemed to swallow her. Clutched in her gnarly fingers hung a pair of rosary beads that looked permanently attached to her extremities.

Uncle George and Aunt Pat. Uncle George during one of his quieter moments

Uncle George didn’t waste any time. Immediately he’d question her. Ok Mary, where is he? She knew the routine and would, on cue, burst into laughter. C’mon, I know you’re hiding a man in here, where is he? Her bed was about a foot from her chair, that’s how small the room was. Uncle George would exaggeratedly get down on his hands and knees and holler into the shadows of the bed; Ok, we know you’re under there, c’mon out. By this time P.O.A.M. was squealing with laughter and would assure the visit would be a resounding success.

Poor, old Aunt Mary passed away in early 1953, but at least lived long enough to witness the changing of the Guard and see Queen Elizabeth II ascend the throne. I’d bet she’s been carrying on with “God Save the Queen” since she left us all behind. But it sure would have been interesting to see what Uncle George had up his sleeve with a female in charge now.

 

Apr 09

Celebrating Mass, French Toast and a Black Eye

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Cousin John, around the age he was celebrating mass

This celebrating mass article is being guest hosted by my cousin John VanStone.

In late 1939 and early 1940 my mother’s sister Aunt Pat McNesby was living with her family on South Mt. Vernon Ave. between Illinois and Kentucky Aves.

I recall visiting there most of one day playing with my year older cousin Jimmie and younger cousins Bobby and Mickey. Jimmie and Bobby went to St. Nicholas school at that time while I went to Star of the Sea.

Jim and I had both started into church duties as altar boys and we had served enough Masses to have memorized not only the altar boy’s prayers in Latin but the priest’s Latin prayers as well.

One of our games that day was celebrating Mass with Jim and I alternating the roles of priest and altar boy using the captive audience of  Bobby and  3-year old Mickey as the congregation. There were several rounds of “In nominee patris et filie et Spiritus Sancte .Adjutoriam in nostre Dominie, etc.” performed from this beginning to the bitter end.

I don’t recall what we used for the Communion consecration part. Grape juice and matza bread wafers would have been ideal, but the latter was unlikely to be found in an Irish-English Catholic home and we probably settled for Ritz crackers.

Outside we played the usual boy games with a view of the nearby Boardwalk and the massive

Brother Jim, cousin John's associate alter boy and priest

Traymore Hotel less than a block away.

A highlight of that memorable day was the delectable French toast with syrup that Aunt Pat made for us. It was something new to me then but it inspired my subsequent lifelong desire for a  Sunday breakfast of French toast and sausage. To this day, I rank the quality of any of my French toast servings against that made by my Aunt Pat those many years ago on Mt. Vernon Ave. To my recollection I’ve never tasted any better French toast than Aunt Pat’s.

Cousin Bob reminded me after reading this article that this was the scene of the crime where he gave his best second grade buddy Harry Sweeney a black eye.

It seems evil little cousin Bobby was in the act of celebrating his birthday and a party given him by his sainted mother. He was encouraged to invite any of his little school chums. Naturally he invited best friend Harry but was also thrilled for the opportunity to invite the girl of his dreams Sheila McCormack. No one could have anticipated the trouble that was about to ensue.

Little Bobby waited with breathless anticipation for his queen to arrive, and when she did all decked out in a dazzling white party dress, she did not disappoint. Little Bobby was struck dumbfounded with love, but not so Harry. Harry, a talkative chatterbox was never at a loss for words. He was one of those kids you knew from the start would wind up captain of the debate team.

Immediately, he engaged Sheila in conversation, not bothering to come up for air, while little Bobby felt his temperature rise by the second.

Mom, Mickey and Bobby a few years removed from the Mt. Vernon birthday dustup

Finally after the cake had been served and Sheila was engaged with one of her girlfriends, Little Bobby found an opening to maneuver Harry outside. Once they were alone, Little Bobby accused Harry of trying to steal his girlfriend. When Harry informed L.B. she was fair game was when L.B. struck…literally. He threw a perfect right hook that crashed along the side of Harry’s left eye. This sent Harry howling toward the house calling for L.B.’s sainted mother.

Well I guess you can guess the rest. L.B.was grounded and also encouraged to engage in more wholesome pastimes, like celebrating mass with cousin John.

Feb 03

Beautiful Cousin Babs

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 Memories of Babs or Barb If You Prefer

My beautiful sister Babs in her Sunday's finest

Beautiful cousin Babs was our families treasure. She was the glue that anchored the family after mother, aunt and sisters Betty and Pat were called home to answer a higher calling.

As I’ve mentioned before, this blog will be guest posted by my cousin John (Babs brother) on occasion.

My younger beautiful (by 3+ years) sister Babs had memorable hairstyles in her early days. My favorite was the square-cut, blond bangs that framed her pretty face but which seemingly inspired her two-year older cousin, cute little Bobby, to squeeze her head out-of-shape in a viselike, loving embrace whenever we exchanged visits with my mother’s sister and  her McNesby clan.

Before little Bobby could do irreparable damage to her head, she transitioned to pigtails in her pre-teen years which were more inline with her tomboy propensities.

Her best pal in those days when we lived on Texas Ave. was Jimmy Price. He had a minor speech impediment which  resulted in a drawn-out, sheeplike Baaaaah when he stood in front of our house and called loudly for her to come out and play. Some of the Alameno family home movies show her cavorting with our little brother Joey doing somersaults and cartwheels on the sidewalk.

When my friends and I were into the backwards namegame, she insisted on being a part of the action, becoming the unforgettable Enotsnav Sbab whose best pal was still Ecirp Semaj.

During grammar school at Our Lady Star of the Sea, her First Communion and Queen of theMay pictures in front of  the OLSS parish landmark statue of the Blessed Mother portray her beautiful enduring sweetness.

Pretty Bibsy in high school

During her highschool years at Holy Spirit, she was burdened by the teaching nuns’ unfair comparisons of academic prowess to that of her older brother who had masqueraded as a “brain” until finally unmasked in his college engineering classes. The memory of her mental anguish and  the tears shed over unreachable academic expectations of her teachers have burdened me with guilt to this very day.

When she reached the dating age, I became a perhaps unwelcome but nonetheless zealous inspector of any prospective suitors for her hand. Happily, she was never involved with any lechers or jerks to my knowledge.

She was into roller skating at that time and at the rink she met a sailor from Iowa stationed at the AC Naval Air Station by the name of Carrol Dean Cochran. It was a lucky day for her and her entire family. When they were married in the mid 1950s, I was honored to be Carrol’s Best Man . Thereafter, Babs (now Barb to match Carrol’s preference) lived in Wilmington,DE where he worked at Du Pont and became a near-professional golfer and then gardening/landscaping expert in his retirement years.

Babs in later life as wife and mother

She raised three beautiful children Linda, Mike and Kim and was further blessed with grandchildren Lauren and Stacey. My widowed father lived with Barb and Carrol, happily and productively, for the last 16 years of his life. During her adult, married life Babs/Barb became, by choice, the chief  ambassador of goodwill for our close-knit family of surviving cousins and their families. She was every bit as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside.

She never forgot to send birthday/anniversary cards, make periodic phonecalls and she hosted two of our most memorable both-side family reunions; one at her home in Wilmington and the other at aptly-named “Cousins” Restaurant in Northfield, NJ.

When she passed away, blessedly in her sleep, at age 72 she was mourned as perhaps none other in our family. Everybody has their own special cherished  memory of that beautiful blonde girl with the bangs and pigtails.

Jan 27

Neighborhood Loan-a-Kid

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Little Joey, across from his beloved Saunders

Neighborhood Loan-a-kid is a guest posting from my cousin John who will be adding interesting tales of Atlantic City from time to time.

My little brother Joey, seven years younger than me, was cute and lovable beyond words. He captivated most of the neighborhood and was highly sought after by all who wanted to spend some choice time with a darling little boy who paid off liberally in smiles and sincere gratitude for favors received.

Among his greatest fans were the Harbright brothers Jim and Joe, and the Saunders brothers, Joe Eddie and Harry. Joe and Eddie Saunders ran the neighborhood Oldsmobile dealership on the block, in partnership with Harry, who at that time was Chief of Police

They’d all come to my mother asking permission to take little Joey on an outing in the neighborhood of some kind for a few hours. Harry would often bring his latest girlfriend along to impress her with his fatherly skills.

Another of Joey’s best pals was big, black John who was the ace mechanic at the Saunders’

My cousin as a cute little kid and handsome student

garage and a universally well-liked member of our Texas Ave. bunch .

There are some of our friend’s, the Alameno’s, home movies of  little Joey in action, performing his classic somersaults on the neighborhood sidewalk while cavorting with his sister Babs, now adorned with a pigtail hairdo.

One of little Joey’s memorable events of each working day would be the lunchtime ride in dad’s truck from the middle of the block where we lived to the corner at Arctic Ave.  This monumental trip of  not much more than a hundred yards would be the highlight of little Joey’s day as he proudly walked home through the neighborhood by himself from the corner after his adventurous truck ride.

Cousin Joe 3rd from left, a terrific 3 sport athlete

When he grew older, he lost none of his boyhood charm and so attracted numerous devoted pals both male and female, not the least being his big brother, his big sister and cousins Jim, Bob, Mick, Jack and Jeep.

He was a natural athlete with considerable skills in several sports. At Holy Spirit High School during the mid-50’s he starred as an end and tailback in football, as a forward in basketball (also with Rocky Castellano’s renowned city league team) and as a catcher in baseball.

As a bank executive living in North Jersey for many years, he worked his same magic personality on a whole host of chums and acquaintances up there. When he departed this life in 1990 at much too young an age, he left behind a multitude of devoted friends and fans who would forever remember the warmth of his presence.

Even as an adult, he remained  the neighborhood kid who captured the hearts of all who knew him.

 

Jan 25

Playground in Paradise

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Brother Jim, swingin' for the fence

A playground to some kids was a designated place of fun. For us in Atlantic City the playground was our whole town.

Growing up in Pitney Village, it paid to be an athlete. For one thing, it guaranteed your social life. My older brother Jimmy was a good athlete. Not only did he play most sports, and organize our playground activities, he also doubled as a poor man’s version of owner, trainer, handicapper, promoter, announcer and overall team(s) C.E.O.

To give you an idea of his entrepreneurial skills Jim created and organized the first half ball league in Pitney Village history. Half ball was a game played with mom’s old broom handle artfully removed from the rest of the sweeper, and a tennis ball cut in half. All major league teams were represented. A team consisted of one man. Depending on how good you were individually, determined where you stood in the league’s pecking order, as far as what team you could pick–or how much pull you had with Jim. Jim was always the Red Sox and his buddy always the Yankees. From there it was get in line.

So in order to start a game you didn’t need a playground, all you needed were two guys, a backstop, distances marked off for single, double, triple, home run and it was play ball. The game was so popular that if our parents weren’t concerned for our well being, and didn’t subject us to hours, we might not have been seen for days.

Jim was also a terrific boxer and there was talk of him possibly entering the Inquirer Diamond Belt amateur boxing tournament, sponsored by the Philadelphia Inquirer Newspaper.

In order to stay in shape Jim used me for his punchin…er sparring partner. I was sort of on the porky side, slow and not very agile. Consequently, Jim got pretty good at belting me around. To my surprise I got pretty good at deflecting his punches and we even found I had a sizable punch. Jim set me up on a tour with a couple of playground pushovers he knew I could beat. After I won a few fights Jim decided I was ready for stiffer competition and signed me up to fight my cousin Joe who was two years older than me.

I liked my cousin Joe and didn’t really have any desire to fight him, plus he was bigger than me–and tough. I kept making excuses to Jim and putting off the inevitable, but one day he cornered me and told me this was the day. My playground had suddenly grown smaller.

We certainly never had these perks

In a whirlwind of activity I entered the ring…er grass a short time later. My cousin, unknown to his mother, had to be co-opted from one of his endless store duties in order to fulfill his contract. Everything had to be professional with Jim. Before I knew it my gloves were laced up and I was being sacrificed for the greater good.

I don’t think I took a complete step forward before I felt an explosion alongside my head. It would be some years before I heard the expression, “have your bell rung,” but the first time I did, I fully grasped its meaning. I didn’t need any reassurance that getting out of there post haste was the smart move. I don’t know what the gate was and didn’t care. I wasn’t waiting around to find out. Jim would just have to find himself another vict…er fighter.

I believe Jim kept promoting matches after that. It’s just that I managed to make myself scarce whenever I sensed he needed someone to fill one of his cards.

Jan 22

Street Football Reigns

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Cousin John during his naval officer day's

Relatives on both sides of my family grew up in Atlantic City, N.J. My closest cousins on my dad ‘s side of the family lived only a stones throw away. My closest cousins on my mom’s side lived just a few blocks away. We cousins were all steeped in everything Atlantic City. During different periods of our lives my cousin Johnny and I, independently of each other, began recording stories for posterity. Recently we started engaging in dueling Atlantic City tales and I invited him to share some of his stories on my site. But here, I’ll let John tell you…

“A regular pastime of my youth was street football. As the name implies it was played on the street where you lived, or hung out as the case may be.

I played mainly on Texas Avenue with our neighborhood guys or on Georgia Avenue where my Notre Dame Athletic Club pals mostly lived. The street between the sidewalk curbs was the playing field, with the two goal lines usually delineated by telephone poles, the end of a building or some other recognizable landmark.

Play was stopped temporarily when traffic was moving on the street which, hopefully, was not a frequent occurrence. Obstacles on the field such as parked cars were part of the playing field though, for obvious reasons. It was unwise to try and occupy any of the space already claimed by a 2000 pound essentially immovable parked automobile.

Team size was a matter of how many you could muster but was usually limited to three or four on a side. Usually one of these was the designated passer and the others were the receivers. Huddles were usually brief affairs with the passer detailing the routes the receivers should run. Something like, “Bud, go long down the middle.” “Carmen, break right behind the black Buick.” “Bob, fake going long past the blue ’46 Chevy and then hook left in front of it.”

Cousin John as a fierce guard during his high school days

Hopefully, the passer could deliver the passes accurately over the hoods of the parked cars, just short of the curb sideline, with pinpoint accuracy. Two straight completions gave you a first down and so sustained marches could be engineered. Kickoffs were not booted but thrown as far as possible from your own goal line. The same went for punting which rarely happened.

Running was usually confined to kickoff and punt returns though, occasionally, a surprise running play might gain big ground. Tackles were made by “two-hand touch” meaning both hands of one defender on the runner simultaneously.

Playing time was often determined by social obligations like family dinnertime, or exhaustion or by disenchantment from being on the wrong end of a blowout.

Football scores were often astronomical. If your street football days gave you the necessary skills and savvy you might be able eventually to move up to the big leagues of schoolyard football.

But–more about that later…”

Jan 16

Decline of the Queen

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Old Atlantic City Skyline

Decline of the Queen came slowly, almost imperceptibly. For years Atlantic City had been the destination to which  East Coast visitors flocked to escape the stifling summer heat and enjoy all the pleasures the city had to offer.

During the reign of Nucky Johnson there was no resort to equal Atlantic City on the East Coast. There was a massive population within three hundred miles of the city and the train service ran straight from Philadelphia to the shore.

However, Nucky Johnson at age 58 was found guilty  of tax evasion on August 1, 1941. He was sentenced to ten years in prison and fined $20,000. This turn of events probably hastened the decline of Atlantic City.

Senator Frank S. “Hap” Farley was a slick  lawyer and politician. He took over the reins of Atlantic City after Nucky went to jail. Though he served as the new “boss” replacing Nucky the city  still continued along it’s inexorable decline. Farley was no where near as flamboyant as Nucky and ran the city in a much more business like manner.

Still the decline of the city continued. Had I paid closer attention during my first ten years on the beach patrol I probably would have been more aware of the subtle changes in the city. For one thing the beaches dwindled in population each summer. The boardwalk seemed to be a little shabbier and a little more honky-tonk each new season. The summer crowds became more rowdy.

Generally however, it was not part of my concern to pay attention to the concerns of the city. That was what politicians were for. My concern was the safety of the bathers and to act as a good ambassador for the city. The decline of the city’s physical cultural and structural well being was outside my purview.

Once it was realized the city was on a downward spiral it was too late. The stage was set.

The war had brought many changes to the city. There was a new spirit of modernization in the country and the resorts politicians weren’t prepared for the sudden changes.

Atlantic City Skyline post-casinos

The events contributing most to its decline were those such as repeal of Prohibition by which the resorts popularity began  to diminish. Atlantic City didn’t have that important advantage of booze to offer anymore. Then with the improvement in transportation summer visitors were no longer limited to where they could travel and airline travel offered unlimited choices. The mass availability of air conditioning, swimming pools and television made staying put in summer much easier to digest. The coup de grace came in the form of the automobile as travelers gained unrestricted mobility.

From there, the Queen of Resorts would decline steadily and not make a comeback until the casino referendum was approved in 1976. On May 28, !978 Resorts Internation opened its doors to Atlantic City’s first casino. The age of a golden Era had been ushered in…or so it was said. But that’s a story for another time…

 

 

 

 

Dec 16

Boardwalk Empire-The Book

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Boardwalk Empire-The Book

Boardwalk Empire is another book you might enjoy since many may be familiar with the mega HBO hit series on which it’s loosely based. You will meet the real Nucky Johnson, “Thompson,” the man who ruled Atlantic City and Boardwalk Empire with an iron hand for thirty years. Here is an excerpt from the books back cover.

“Through most of the 20th century Alantic City was controlled by a powerful partnership of local politicians and racketeers. Funded by payoffs from gambling rooms, bars and brothels, this corrupt alliance reached full bloom during the reign of Enoch Nucky Johnson–the second of three bosses to head the machine that dominated city politics and society.

For those seeking a unique history of how Atlantic City came to be, Boardwalk Empire, the book, takes you through an amazing story of the City. You will learn from its wild days of being inhabited by the Lenni Lenepe Indians who called the island “Absegami” and who came to escape the heat, and on up until the time the gambling referendum passed and ushered in the era of casinos.

In between is the almost unbelievable story in Boardwalk Empire of a town run by “bosses who answered to no one and made up the rules of the game as they saw fit. Where other cities and towns throughout New Jersey were subject to Sunday Blue Laws and thus dry, Atlantic City paid no heed to these restrictions, thus the name Boardwalk Empire. Liquor, gambling and prostitution were all readily available to the visitor with the means to afford these pleasures. There were bars and clubs all over the City with an open door policy just waiting for the opportunity to take your money.

Boardwalk Empire explains how big name gangsters from other cities like New York and Chicago would come because it was established as a neutral site by Nucky Johnson and whoa to the troublemaker who got out of hand. Names like Al Capone, Waxy Gordon, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegel, Willie Moretti etc. all came to Atlantic City for business and pleasure. To avoid Federal Agents, who might be trying to gain information from these gangsters, it was claimed they would actually roll up their pants legs, wade into the ocean to avoid detection, and hold meetings in knee deep water.

In Boardwalk Empire, you will meet Nucky Johnson, Louis “the Commodore Kuehnle, Frank S. “Hap” Farley and many other interesting characters as you witness Atlantic City  spring to life in all its garish splendor.


Dec 15

Nucky Johnson

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Enoch "Nucky" Johnson

Nucky Johnson a.k.a. “Nucky Thompson in the HBO hit series, “Boardwalk Empire,” ruled Atlantic City as its premier “boss” for almost twenty years. But for all intents and purposes, Atlantic City as a “boss” town ended in the early 1970′s, after the reign of Senator Frank S. “Hap” Farley. And the do gooder’s who fought to make this happen considered it a triumph. However, there are those who would question the progress of the city since the time it went “straight.”

The years Enoch “Nucky” Johnson ruled Atlantic City could probably be consider its heyday years. The town was a haven for the upper class as well as blue collar workers looking to unwind from a monotonous  work week.

Visitors came from all over the East Coast looking to escape the heat and humidity. In addition to it’s cool ocean breezes, four mile boardwalk of shops, enticing food offerings and amusement piers, there was also pristine white beaches and a shimmering blue green ocean. Add to this that the city was wide open and offered liquor, gambling and prostitution twenty four hours a day, seven days a week and you had the formula for a “World’s Playground,” which indeed it was

Nucky Johnson achieved power during the early 1900′s. He was elected Atlantic County Treasurer, which may not sound like much until you realize he controlled the power of the purse strings. Atlantic City still had its mayors, councilmen, police chiefs etc. but they were more or less “tokens” controlled by Nucky.

Thousands of free black slaves hearing of Atlantic City migrated there to seek work in the resorts hotels. Though the only jobs available to them were kitchen help, maids, nannies etc. they earned 4 to 5 times that of which they could earn in the South.  Nucky Johnson always took care of the blacks in winter when many were laid off by providing coal, holiday turkeys for those in need, clothes and money. He was well loved by Atlantic City’s blacks and they honored him with their votes at election time. It was stated that many would go back into the voting booth as many as three times or more, for which they were duly compensated.

Nucky was also loved by children for whom he held a special place in his heart. During his daily stroll along the wooden way he would engage children and always hand them a buck or two. When suitable  sports events or other shows came to the Atlantic City Convention Center he always saw to it that the kids were allowed in free.

Although Nucky Johnson was no doubt a racketeer he was always concerned with seeing the city well maintained, knowing visitors wanted to come to a clean and viable resort town. He wasn’t so greedy as to keep all the wealth for himself. Not something that can be said for the “legitimate” politicians who’ve since followed.

On August 1, 1941 Nucky Johnson was found guilty of tax evasion and sentenced to ten years in jail. Just prior to leaving for prison, at 58 years of age, he married 33 year old Florence Osbeck, a former showgirl, to whom he had been engaged for three years. The night before he was to be incarcerated he threw a huge party at the Ritz Carlton Hotel inviting hundreds of guests.

He died in a nursing home at age 85, its been said, with a smile on his face.