Mr. Siegel

Tablet Original Fiction: A love story at Murder Inc.

Bruce Jay Friedman
December 05, 2018
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Library of Congress
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Library of Congress
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Library of Congress
Photo illustration: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Library of Congress

Kenneth and I grew up a few blocks from each other in the Bronx but did not meet until we both attended the University of Missouri in 1947. We joined the same fraternity and would see each other when we returned to the Bronx during school breaks. It was during one such trip back east that I met Mr. Siegel, Kenneth’s father, or stepfather, as I was later to learn. He was a dark and handsome man, short in stature and menacing. I recall his wearing an overcoat each time I met him and a fedora angled down and shading his eyes and forehead. Despite his saturnine appearance, he was the kindest and most gentle man I’d ever met.

I loved my father, how could I not love my father, but he was cool and distant and given to sudden bursts of temper at which times he frightened me. Mr. Siegel was quite the opposite in temperament. He had a soft handshake and looked at Kenneth with adoration, yearning for a sign of reciprocal affection, which, in the time that I knew them together, never came. I envied Kenneth for having such a mild-mannered and caring man for a father. Yet, as is often the case in broken families, Kenneth never accepted Mr. Siegel as his biological and true father.

Mr. Siegel was a Broadway ticket scalper, and, as such, his hours were irregular. He looked at his wife, Miriam, with pride—as if in marrying her, he had won a prize. She was dark-complexioned and had great glittering teeth. Not to let the story wander, but she had experienced psychological disorders and had undergone a series of electroshock treatments. Her eyes were always opened wide; she seemed constantly to be witnessing a phenomenon. Kenneth, who was good at imitations, would often “do” mental patients, one of whom, I would guess, was modeled after his mother.

It was during our sophomore year, just before the Christmas break, that Kenneth received the horrible news that Mr. Siegel had been found dead, curled up in the trunk of a car with a bottle of whiskey in his arms. Kenneth, showing no visible emotion, caught a flight back east, to comfort his mother and to help identify the body. Kenneth’s half-brother Jules was off in Mexico and could not be reached.

I flew back home soon after. During dinner, in the kitchen of our Bronx apartment, I told my mother the news.

“Isn’t it awful?” I said. “Why would a man like that commit suicide?”

“Oh, he committed suicide, did he?” my mother said, as she took a veal roast out of the oven. “How much are we paying for that college of yours?”

What she was telling me, of course, was that people did not end their lives by locking themselves in the trunk of a car with a bottle of whiskey in their arms.

Back at Missouri, Kenneth had no further comment on the loss of his stepfather and the unusual circumstance of his death. Armed with my mother’s insight, I tried to get something more from him.

“It was a suicide,” he said, just once, and that was the end of it.

Mr. Siegel’s death did not stop the flow of financial support for Kenneth. Every few months, a heavily overweight man named Beans would show up in the parlor of our fraternity house. He wore a windbreaker and tennis sneakers and brought along cash for Kenneth’s tuition and basic needs. He also carried a shopping bag filled with clothing. One contained green socks with little designs on them, all bundled together and tied with string. We teased Kenneth about the socks calling them “Lats,” as if they’d been made cheaply for Latvian refugees. This passed for humor at the time. We were vicious with one another.

Kenneth took an interest in medicine and fell under the sway of a fierce little woman who taught Anatomy I, considered to be the most difficult and grueling course at the school. I flipped through the pages of Kenneth’s textbook and almost fainted when I saw what was required of pre-med students. Kenneth, with no apparent effort, sailed right through the course and the balance of the pre-med program. He found time to be a cheerleader, unusual for a young man, and to have a series of failed romances with petite and buxom blondes, all of whom I recall being named Mary. The affairs would last a few weeks, with Kenneth romancing the Missouri farm girls by holding an imaginary mic, as if he was in a nightclub and singing Broadway show tunes in a pure falsetto voice, very similar to that of Frankie Valli, the lead singer of The Four Seasons. The young women were initially charmed; they’d never seen or heard anyone quite like Kenneth in Boonville or the other Missouri towns in which they had been raised. But after a short period Kenneth’s appeal thinned out. He seemed to lack a romantic follow-through. Craving more, the women dropped him and took up with Missouri farm boys, leaving Kenneth frustrated and angry.

Why?” he would say, pounding a table. “Why won’t she [Mary] continue to see me? I just don’t get it.” After a day or two of brooding, he was on to the next Mary. I was almost pathologically shy and hadn’t had much luck in the dating department. The thought of even approaching a pretty blond cheerleader was unimaginable. I envied Kenneth for having gotten to the point of rejection.

Kenneth and I were only casual friends through the years at Missouri. He was closer to a boy named Harold, another cheerleader, who was shorter than he was and laughed more heartily at Kenneth’s comedy routines.

Mr. Siegel.

After graduation, Kenneth, who did not know a single word of French, went off to Paris to continue his studies in medicine. Though his grades were astronomically high, he had been rejected by the Missouri medical school, which may have had a Jewish quota. After serving in the Air Force, I became the editor of a group of adventure magazines and was asked by Kenneth to hire his half-brother Jules who had been drifting aimlessly in Mexico. Jules fast-talked a good game at the magazines but could not focus and wasn’t helpful as an editor. He did fill me in on his father’s background: Before meeting Miriam, Mr. Siegel—“Jimmy” Siegel—had spent a decade in prison for murder. He had been a hit man for Murder Incorporated and was one of the most feared men on the Lower East Side. I tried to reconcile this information with the man I knew, the gentle and kind individual I dared to wish had been my own father.

I don’t recall Jules saying anything about the peculiar circumstances of his father’s death. He lasted for a short period at the magazines and then drifted off once again to Mexico. But in the Sixties, I became friendly with an older man named Mosely who was the resident bookmaker at Elaine’s, the popular East Side restaurant and hangout. We chatted casually about his days on the Lower East Side; at one point I dropped the name “Jimmy Siegel” into the conversation. Mosely fell back on his bar stool, his mouth wide open as if he’d seen a ghost.

“Jimmy Siegel,” he said. “Are you kidding me? Jimmy Siegel was the toughest sonofabitch that ever come down the pike. The wops didn’t want nothing to do with him. They called him Shikey. At the mention of his name, the whole Lower East Side would shit in their pants.”

So, maybe that explains why Kenneth was so cool toward Mr. Siegel. He did not want a stepfather the mention of whose name made the Lower East Side shit in their pants.

After completing his studies, in Paris and in the States, Kenneth surfaced as a certified doctor of osteopathy. We continued to tease him. Or at least I did. “But you’re not a real doctor,” I would say. And indeed I thought of osteopaths as borderline quacks who manipulated the spine and did not belong to the medical profession.

Ironically, it took the Dr. Sam Sheppard murder case to enlighten me—and the world—about osteopathy. Dr. Sheppard, who bludgeoned his wife to death, was an osteopath and a full-fledged member of the medical community, one who had completed the same course of studies as Dr. Brown and Dr. Pasachoff, the doctors who had treated me as a boy in the Bronx. I stopped teasing Kenneth who, I should note, had never teased back. He moved to California, which, at the time, was the only state that granted full recognition to the practice of osteopathy. There he changed his name to Saunders and became Dr. J. Rodney Saunders, a Groucho Marx name to me, though I did not comment on it. We, or at least I, had dropped the teasing component of what had become an increasingly warm friendship.

Though he did not practice much medicine, Kenneth slowly enriched himself in California. With an Israeli partner, he bought not just one, but two clinics, both of which specialized in servicing highway accident victims. At one time, he had more than 100 doctors working for him. He added to his fortune by investing in nursing homes, early porn production, and miracle weight-loss pills. Much of what he did barely skirted the law. He kept a little bag of toiletries and pajamas close at hand, in case he was arrested. Along the way, he picked up a law degree he thought would be helpful if he had to argue his case in court. He was one of those brilliant boys from the Bronx who came from less than modest means and became multimillionaires.

I had some success as a novelist and playwright which, almost inevitably, led to better-paying jobs—and more glitter—in Hollywood. I was headquartered at the Beverly Hills Hotel—my favorite part of screenwriting—and was able to stay in touch with Kenneth, charting his course from a small apartment in West Hollywood to the purchase of an estate that had belonged to the singer Tony Orlando. Kenneth bought the house for $400,000. The math is easy to do. The estate—if sold today—would be worth more than $5 million dollars. Who knows, maybe 10. He bought a small condo nearby for his mother who had fallen in step with her son by changing her own name from Siegel to Saunders.

For all of his financial success, Kenneth continued to have failed love affairs. He was in daily contact with his mother who was, virtually, a next-door neighbor.

And then, a quiet miracle occurred. Kenneth’s real father, whose name was Gray, turned up, out of the blue, old but feisty as ever. He, too, much like his successor Jimmy Siegel, had spent some years in prison, in his case for armed robbery and assault charges. He was a small, fair-skinned, chicken-chested man who resembled Kenneth. He had a snappish personality. When I was introduced to him, he raised his chin, got up on his toes and put his face close to mine. “So, what do you think you are, a big shot?” he said. “You get smart with me, I’ll cut you down to size.” I expected him to pull the string, and we would all have a laugh at his tough-guy imitation. After all, I was Kenneth’s best friend. But he wasn’t joking. He was a pit bull, plain and simple. The years in prison had done nothing to rub away the sharp edges.

In another circumstance, I might have behaved differently, a shove, or possibly a punch in the jaw that had virtually been served up to me. But this was Kenneth’s father. I was in an impossible situation. I let it pass. It still bothers me.

Gray’s behavior—I never learned his surname—did not seem to bother Kenneth, who looked on with quiet amusement. He may have always wanted to see me brought down a peg, so to speak. Nor did Gray’s style seem to bother Miriam, who glittered and beamed at him as if he was the new doctor in her ward. Arrangements were made to have a lavish wedding under the stars for the remarriage of Miriam and her testy and long-lost first husband.

At long last, Mr.Siegel. Jimmy Siegel.

Soon after Gray turned up, Kenneth and I had dinner several times at The Grille, his favorite restaurant and one I enjoyed as well. The staff knew Dr. Saunders. There was no need for him to order. After we’d had a drink or two, the waiter brought out Kenneth’s standard main course: two grilled veal chops and a baked potato. He ate veal chops every night of his adult life. Seriously. This had nothing to do with any health-giving properties in the dish. He simply loved veal chops.

I had never seen my friend quite so relaxed. He had his father back. The years in prison, the pit-bull disposition—none of it seemed to bother Kenneth. The wheel had come full circle. The family was complete, unless you wanted to include Jules, who lived in Mexico and surfaced only when he needed money. Kenneth had had some therapy, mostly to try to iron out his difficulties with women. He brought along his therapist on a date, to observe him relating, or failing to relate, to a woman. It seemed a ridiculous Los Angeles kind of thing, but it actually produced results. The therapist was able to pinpoint a few occasions when Kenneth had become infuriated over some minor social lapse on the part of his date. (Mispronouncing a word, enjoying the wrong movie.)

But the therapy worked in another area which was of interest to me—and related to the story I have such trouble telling. Kenneth’s reaction to his stepfather’s “suicide” had been the equivalent of a clenched fist. That had changed. He was relaxed about it and without much prompting, told me, in slender detail, what exactly had preceded his stepfather’s death.

Kenneth’s “real” father Gray had violated some code of Murder Incorporated and had been sentenced to death by the senior associates. (“He did a few things you can’t do.”) Having had some exposure to his style, I was not surprised. Jimmy Siegel, the hit man of choice, had been given a contract to eliminate the offender. With a weapon in his jacket pocket, he showed up at Miriam’s apartment in the Bronx, fully intending to fulfill his obligation. Miriam—Kenneth’s mother—admitted the handsome Jimmy. When he made clear his intentions, she begged him to spare Gray, who was away gambling in Atlantic City. She would do anything Jimmy wanted. But he mustn’t shoot her husband. His death would devastate her child—young Kenneth, who was sleeping in another room. Jimmy was attracted to Miriam. Much more than that. Almost immediately, he fell in love with her. And thus began a slow dance (they actually danced) that lasted throughout the night. Miriam, feeling Jimmy’s weapon against her, continued to plead for her husband’s life. The hit man insisted that he had no choice; if he failed to kill Gray, a contract would go out on him. By the time dawn came up, they were in love and had reached an agreement. Jimmy would spare Gray, on condition that Miriam divorce her husband and marry Jimmy.

Properly warned, Gray disappeared—for years, some of the time spent in prison. Somehow, Jimmy squared the blown contract with his bosses. He would take care of some business for them upstate. Kenneth did not have to complete the story. Gray must have been seething, on the streets, and in prison. I had met the man; I could picture him waiting for his moment. I can’t prove any of this, but when the proper time came he struck. He was too small to have carried out his plan alone and would have needed a confederate. The two men waited in an alley, close to a Broadway theater where Jimmy scalped his tickets. When Mr. Siegel walked by, Gray pounced, using a piece of pipe to knock him unconscious. The two men folded his arms over a bottle of whiskey and threw him into the trunk of an abandoned car in which he had been found. A suicide.

Now, years later, up popped Gray, moving in with Miriam and preparing for a wedding, as though there had been no interruption in the marriage.

Gray and Miriam lived together, without incident, for three years. They died roughly six months after the ceremony. Kenneth had one of his hopeless love affairs, this one with a married alcoholic nurse, an affair that kept him staring at the ceiling for several years. He’d become ill, a condition that required him to be fed through a tube. Though he’d given the nurse free rein with his credit cards, she refused to sleep with him. Or to deal with the tube. (“Why won’t she feed me? Why, I ask you.”) Some time passed. More staring at the ceiling. And then he called with a startling announcement. At the age of 83, tube and all, he’d gotten married to a Filipina housekeeper who was half his age. He sent some photographs. She was the image of his mother, pitch-black hair, all gleaming and beaming with lobotomized charm. She sent me a series of emails emphasizing her love and devotion to Kenneth.

My friend died soon after he was married. There was a small memorial service. I was ill and did not feel strong enough to make the flight to Los Angeles. I mailed a eulogy. I never heard from the woman again.

I can’t say that this is a story that haunts me. Or keeps me awake at night. But I do return to it from time to time and think of it as unfinished business. At the center of it—the meat of the story—is that lovely and horrifying night—when Jimmy Siegel arrives at Miriam’s Bronx apartment with a contract to kill her husband. And that slow, murderous dance. As I’ve just set down the story, the key moments are told to the reader, told being the operative word. I’ve become heated in the classroom when it comes to exposition. If Joan of Arc has to be burned, let this happen onstage, and not have a character stare off into the wings and say, “My God, they’ve torched the poor thing.”

But why not? Perhaps it’s not a major crime to have Kenneth kick back at The Grille Restaurant and calmly give me an account of the night Jimmy Siegel arrived to kill his father.

Or perhaps it’s a movie. One that might have been filmed in the ’40s, on the back lot of early Warner Bros., in the days of George Raft and Jimmy Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck. The noirish stories that made me fall in love with the movies.

Or maybe it’s not a movie. But it’s a story that I feel deserves to be told.

Who knows; perhaps I’ve just told it.

Bruce Jay Friedman (1930-2020), a novelist, short story writer, playwright, memoirist, and screenwriter, was the author of nineteen books, including Stern and Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir. His last collection of short fiction is The Peace Process. He died at age 90 on June 3, 2020.