Ron Cohen
Ron Cohen

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Posted 10.31.15
Near Washington DC


[EDITOR'S NOTE:] This is an excerpt from Ron Cohen's forthcoming memoir, "Of Course You Can Have Ice Cream for Breakfast: Love Letters to My Grandkids". Cohen retired after four decades with United Press International and Gannett News Service, and is the author of the award-winning "Down to the Wire: UPI's Fight for Survival."

Remembering Hallowe'en with Longie of Murder, Incorporated

In honor of Halloween, I share this chapter from my still-under-construction memoir

I have fond memories of a Hallowe'en more than seventy years ago when somebody was extremely generous to me.

My benefactor was a man named Abner "Longie" Zwillman, who was the stepfather of a slightly older playmate of mine on South Munn Avenue in East Orange, New Jersey.

I was seven, far too young to be yet aware of the gangsters and hoodlums who comprised Longie Zwillman's nefarious crime kingdom.

Google him and read that his 747-page FBI dossier identifies Zwillman as the "boss of New Jersey's underworld, beginning in 1935 and ending in 1959, when he 'committed suicide'; one of the six bosses of Murder, Incorporated."

His FBI files are a treasure trove of "illegal liquor, racketeering, waterfront extortion, income tax evasion, jury tampering, obstruction of justice, contempt of court and corruption of public officials." Quite the Bill of Particulars.

But missing is the fact that on Halloween night in 1944, Longie stepped out of character to add "kindly benefactor" to his otherwise ghastly resume.

Costumed as a ghost and bearing an empty pillowcase to carry home the goodies, I left our apartment at 18 South Munn, with this admonition from my Mom: "You can go in this building, and to 14 and 20. But don't cross the street to 32."

So I canvassed the three identical apartment buildings as she had instructed, then returned to empty my sack and to beg to go off-limits to my Uncle Sam's apartment at 32 South Munn. Just to show him my costume, of course. She finally relented, and I headed off to the magnificent building that dwarfed its dowdy neighbors, including ours.

Uncle Sam was duly impressed by his ghostly nephew, but he had no candy -- nothing in his bachelor's fridge, really, besides Scotch and a jar of pickled herring packed in cream sauce. But he made an inspired suggestion:

"Go knock on Longie's apartment. I bet he'll have stuff for you."

Up to the Penthouse I go -- because I couldn't reach the top button, Uncle Sam punches it and slips out before the elevator door closes.

Longie answers the doorbell in a red smoking jacket.

"Whaddya want, kid?"

"Trick or treat," I cleverly reply.

Longie disappears, then returns with a box of 48 Hershey bars. Plain, no almonds.

"Open the bag, kid," he commands, and dumps the entire contents into the pillowcase.

Be still my heart! This bonanza would last until New Year's!

Happily, I ride the elevator to the lobby (I could reach THAT button!), cross the street and run home to show Mom my treasure. Twenty yards from safety ... disaster! Three masked bullies (maybe they were a couple years older) mug me and steal my pillowcase. I know I should go home, but greed prevails.

I return to 32, get the doorman to push the elevator button, and soon I am knocking on Longie's door.

"What the hell, kid. Whatsa matter?"

"The big kids stole my Hersheys," I whimper.

Longie wheels and disappears, and returns soon with one of his own silky pillowcases. Stuffed with replacement Hersheys. No almonds.

And a bonus. In the dimly lighted hallway materialize two of the meanest-looking torpedos on planet Earth.

"Walk the kid home, and make sure nuthin' happens," Longie orders his stevedore-sized bodyguards.

Which they did.

It was fifteen years later that Longie Zwillman, his coin-operated machines racket under fire by the feds, and the G-Men after him for taxes, was found in the basement of his home on Beverly Road in West Orange, hanging from a clothesline. Suicide, the authorities said. Yeah, right. How many gangsters live long enough to commit suicide?

As often happens after sinners depart, stories began surfacing about Longie's generosity, with which, of course, I already was well acquainted. Seems that during the Depression he had bankrolled the Mt. Carmel Catholic soup kitchen in Newark; he always gave holiday food baskets to needy Jews on Hanukkah, and he played Santa to Christian kids on Christmas.

And he was very good to the ladies. A special squeeze was Jean Harlow, the legendary platinum blonde movie star so stunning that she was known as one of first legendary "IT Girls."

Longie secured a two-movie deal for her with a $500,000 cash "loan" to film mogul Harry Cohn; he also gave Harlow, who was godmother to racketeer Bugsy Siegel's daughter, a jeweled bracelet and a red Cadillac.

"The IT Girl" really loved that big red Caddy.

Probably almost as much as I loved the Hersheys.

No almonds.