by Yona Zeldis McDonough

Women and Mobsters in the Jazz Age

dollfaceChicago and the jazz age have always fascinated Renee Rosen so it seemed almost preordained that she would set her first novel, Dollface, in that particular milieu. A former advertising copywriter with a serious yen for fiction, Rosen let her invented characters rub shoulders with real ones like Al Capone and Hymie Weiss—who, by the way, was not Jewish. But she talks to Lilith’s fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about mobsters who were Jewish—and about the women who loved them.

YZM: How did you make the leap from advertising copywriter to novelist?

RR: I was actually writing fiction before I got into advertising, so for me it was more about pretending to care about my work as a copywriter when my heart was so clearly vested in my own writing. I remember I would get up at 4 a.m. and write until about 8 a.m. when it was time to get ready to go into the office. I’d get home and try to put in another couple of hours in the evening. There were many a days when I wrote though my lunch hour, jotted down notes on my legal pad during meetings and my weekends and days off were always devoted to writing.

YZM: Can you describe your research process for Dollface?

RR: I started with the basics and spent many hours at the Harold Washington Library poring over actual newspaper clips from historical events in the 1920s. Because I live here in Chicago, I was also able to visit the actual landmarks where these events took place. So I’ve been to the site of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and I’ve seen the bullet hole in Holy Name Cathedral, etc. Once I had a real feel for the lay of the land, I started looking for people to interview who had ties to 1920s gangsters. That resulted in meeting with a man whose father had been a bookie for Al Capone which was fascinating. I also had lunch with Al Capone’s great niece. There were other people I spoke to as well and some who developed “Chicago Amnesia” and refused to talk to me, which I also found very interesting. To think that some 70 or 80 years later, they were still standing by their oath of silence. The mob runs deep!

YZM: Vera is every Jewish mother’s nightmare: a nice Jewish girl who moves away from home and takes up with gangsters. Who or what was your inspiration for this character?

RR: Vera wasn’t based on anyone in particular. She really developed on her own out of the times and out of what young women were doing with their lives in the 1920s. She came to me in bits and pieces and took on more definition with each draft. She was a tricky character to make sympathetic or relatable because she was so indecisive in the beginning and yet she taps into a core of strength that even she didn’t know she had. Hopefully readers will enjoy how she changes and grows throughout the story.

YZM: Were there many Jewish gangsters in Chicago during the 1920s? More than in other cities?

RR: There were Jewish gangsters all throughout the 1920s and in all cities. The key ones in Chicago would have been Jake “Greasy Thumbs” Gusak and Samuel ‘Nails” Morton. And of course people assume that Hymie Weiss was Jewish but he was a devout Catholic who had adopted a very Jewish-sounding name. Detroit was home to the predominately Jewish Purple Gang whom some believe was responsible for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. And of course New York’s key Jewish mobsters were Meyer Lansky, Arnold Rothstein and Bugsy Siegel.

YZM: Vera oscillates between two men, one Jewish and the other not. Did you have a particular goal in pitting a Jewish man against a non-Jewish one?

RR: Nothing conscious in terms of a goal. I just knew that she was going to be caught in the middle between two rival gang members. The fact that one of them happens to be Jewish only complicated matters for Vera. She felt a familiar bond with Shep because he was also Jewish. But beyond that, I really didn’t think of it as Jew pitted against a non-Jew. It really more of a North Sider pitted against a South Sider.

YZM: The Jewish Women’s Council gets significant play; can you say more about that group and its importance for Jewish women during that time?

RR: The Jewish Women’s Council was largely a fictional creation although Jewish women did form their own organizations—primarily because they weren’t always welcome in the other more established women’s groups. I wanted to bring the group into the book to show that Vera was really conflicted between being a gangster’s wife and being a Jewish wife, mother and homemaker. She wanted to be accepted by them but at the same time, she knew they could never identify with the realities of her life with the gangs.

YZM: The conclusion of the novel is somewhat open-ended; can you see continuing Vera’s story?

RR: I would love to revisit the Roaring Twenties. It’s really one of my favorite time periods but I think this might be the end for Vera. I can’t see doing a sequel that would have the same kind of action, the same kind of intensity. I do love Hannah but I right now I don’t see another novel growing out of that. BUT… I’ll never say never!

YZM: You have a novel coming out from New American Library next fall; is it also historical fiction?

RR: Yes, my new novel, What the Lady Wants is the story of Marshall Field and his 30 year illicit affair with his neighbor, Delia Caton. It spans from the Great Fire in 1871 to 1906 when Marshall Senior died. I go into the development of his famous department store, his issues with the labor unions that led to the Haymarket Riot and even the 1893 Columbian Exposition World’s Fair. So it covers a lot of ground in addition to the love affair and I’m very excited about this book as well!

© 2011 Lilith Magazine