How New York’s Most Notorious Gangster Bankrolled Mae West’s Broadway Hit
In my book about local history, Greenpoint Brooklyn’s Forgotten Past, I told the story about how in 1927, local Greenpoint gal Mae West scandalized New York by staging a play called Sex, which presented prostitution and so outraged the acting mayor of New York that he had Mae and the cast arrested. The arrest catapulted West to stardom, but I only knew half the story. The real life drama behind the staging of the play is every bit as salacious as West’s racy drama.
Staging a Broadway play has always been an expensive proposition, and it was beyond the means of West, who in 1926 was an out of work actress. West, however, was resourceful and if she did not have money, then there were men who did; so she decided to use her considerable feminine charms to finance her Broadway drama.
The man she chose was no boring Wall Street financier, but instead was one of the most notorious criminals in the city: Owney Madden, the leader of the infamous Gopher gang, called “Owney the Killer,” for good reason.
Born in Leeds, England in 1902, Madden arrived in the Irish ghetto, Hell’s Kitchen, and soon gained an infamous reputation. Through cold-blooded murder he soon gained control of he West side below 42nd Street. A big time bootlegger, prohibition made Madden very rich. He controlled a major chuck of the city’s illegal alcohol distribution and underwrote a number of the city’s most famous nightspots, including the Cotton Club, the Stork Club, the Silver Slipper, Duffy’s Tavern and the Central Park Casino.
His headquarters was the Harding Hotel, right in the heart of the theater district where he hung out with some of the most infamous names in New York’s city’s gang culture including Dutch Schultz, Legs Diamond and Arnold Rothstein. Madden may have been an evil criminal, but he was also drop dead handsome. A woman remembered him; “He was sleek, slim and dapper, with a gentle smile of a cherub and the cunning and cruelty of a devil.” He looked, and acted the part of the perfect hood. He was lean and tough, a “catlike gentleman” with a falcon’s profile, slicked-back black hair and piercing blue eyes. Madden looked just like a Hollywood movie-star gangster, even though he was a real one.
Mae’s mother worked in the Harding Hotel. She must have introduced the two. Mae was an uninhibited bombshell who needed money. Madden liked sassy showgirls and they soon had an understanding. Madden provided the money for her Broadway drama and the show became a hit, but Madden’s handsome bagmen was destined to do more than merely collect his boss’s share of the earnings. The story continues.