A number of people have said I bear a strong resemblance to Kevin Costner. O.K.; the number of people who have said it is one; but no one disagreed when I said it. Perhaps the raucous laughter drowned out their comments. Several people did tell me I reminded them of one of The Untouchables in the movie. I was less flattered when I realize the movie they’d seen was Gandhi. It doesn’t matter really. I believe in taking a compliment where I find one. Now, there is another reason to make the Costner comparison. I spent the weekend tracking down a gangster; and I found him!
There was a request on Find A Grave for a volunteer to take a photo of the grave of William Bioff who died in 1955 and was interred in the cemetery of a local synagogue. The request had been unclaimed; meaning no volunteer had agreed to take the assignment, for several days. It is not a cemetery with which I’m familiar but I had some free time om Sunday so I decided give it a try.
The cemetery is not large. It dates to the mid-19th century so it is interesting. Luckily, the cemetery expanded in phases so, once I located a concentration of 1950’s graves, it did not take too long to find Mr. Bioff. It is very modest, more modest than many of it’s neighbors in fact. It is at the base of a tree so it is shady much of the time; as was he. I’d never heard of William Bioff though apparently, in his day, he was somewhat famous. Infamous may be a more appropriate adjective.
William Morris (“Willie”) Bioff; (October 12, 1900 – November 4, 1955) was an organized crime figure who operated as a labor leader in the movie business from the 1920s – 1940s. During this time, Bioff extorted millions of dollars from movie studios with the threat of mass union work stoppages.
His death certificate indicates he was born in what is now the Russian Federation. All of the biographical information I found on-line indicates he was born in Chicago. Responding to the 1940 Census when he lived in Los Angeles Bioff stated he was born in Illinois. In any event, he lived in Chicago as a young child. Leaving home at age 8, Bioff soon became involved in criminal activity beginning with petty theft, then minor protection rackets and working his way up to pimping for which he was convicted in 1922. Bioff later worked for Harry and Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik where, through Guzik, Bioff met Al Capone and later Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti.
In the 1930s, Nitti sent Bioff to California as an enforcer for Mafia-controlled union leader George Browne, who later became President of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Bioff, aided by John “Handsome Johnny” Rosselli, eventually became the collector for the Syndicate-controlled unions in Hollywood, extorting millions of dollars from major motion-picture studios, and keeping several hundred thousand for himself. As one source notes, however, “Amusingly, Bioff, a glorified Chicago thug, went Hollywood in a big way with his sudden wealth. But his fancy suits and solid gold business cards made him too high profile.”
In 1943, Bioff was indicted for tax evasion and related crimes, as well as extortion and racketeering, along with a number of his associates. Rather than face prison, Bioff testified against his companions, including Paul “The Waiter” Ricca, Philip D’Andrea, Charlie “Cherry Nose” Gioe, Johnny Rosselli, Lou Kaufman, and Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti. Nitti committed suicide shortly after Bioff’s testimony. Bioff and Browne received reduced sentences.
After his release, Bioff moved to Arizona and assumed a new identity, “William Nelson,”; Nelson was his wife’s maiden name. He reportedly developed a friendship with then senator; later presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, contributing to his re-election campaign and going into business with the senator’s nephew. Bioff and wife reportedly vacationed with the Goldwaters. Senator Goldwater attended Bioff’s funeral though later denied knowing about his criminal past. While living in Arizona, Bioff worked for Riviera Casino manager Gus Greenbaum, at the Chicago mob-owned Las Vegas casino.
Bioff was assassinated on November 4, 1955, through a bombing described as follows:
- Bioff walked out of his home and slid behind the wheel of his truck. A moment later, an explosion rocked the neighborhood. Parts of Bioff and his truck were strewn all over the driveway. Police found the remains of a dynamite bomb wired to the starter. The killers were never found.
Bioff’s boss, Gus Greenbaum and his wife were found murdered in their Phoenix home 3 years later.
Bioff’s name appears to have inspired the fictional “Billy Goff,” a Hollywood labor leader with ties to organized crime who makes an appearance in The Godfather by Mario Puzo. Like his real-life counterpart, he is killed by unknown enemies.
The home where Bioff lived, and died, is only a few blocks from Harper’s Other Dad’s office and less than a block from a restaurant where we’ve eaten several times. Actually it was one of our favorite restaurants; until it burned down. I’m sure the two events are unrelated.