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Billingsley, Sherman (10 March 1900–04 October 1966), nightclub owner and real estate developer, was born John Sherman Billingsley in Enid, Oklahoma Territory, the son of Robert Billingsley and Emily Collingsworth. Sherman Billingsley’s parents were so poverty stricken that the youngster was forced to quit school after he finished the fourth grade. His first job was collecting discarded whiskey bottles for resale to bootleggers in the new “dry” state of Oklahoma. In 1912 the youth moved to Anadarko, Oklahoma, to join his two older brothers who had developed a chain of cigar shops and drugstores, establishments that also illegally sold whiskey. Later going into business for himself, he owned and managed a confectionery in Houston, Texas, before moving to Charleston, West Virginia, to take over a cigar store. After going into the drug business, he owned drugstores in Seattle and Omaha, successively. While still just a teenager, he moved to Detroit and opened a grocery store; soon, he had three. In 1923, after saving about $5,000 in capital, he moved to the Bronx, New York City, where he opened a drugstore....

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Bricktop (14 August 1894–31 January 1984), entertainer and nightclub operator, was born in Alderson, West Virginia, the daughter of Thomas Smith, a barber, and Hattie E. (maiden name unknown), a domestic worker. Christened Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia, because her parents did not wish to disappoint the various neighbors and friends who offered suggestions for naming her, Bricktop received her nickname because of her red hair when she was in her late twenties from Barron Wilkins, owner of a nightclub called Barron’s Exclusive Club in Prohibition Harlem....

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Eddie Condon © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB13-0165 DLC).

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Condon, Eddie (16 November 1905–04 August 1973), jazz personality and organizer of Chicago-style jazz bands, recording sessions, and concerts, was born Albert Edwin Condon in Goodland, Indiana, the son of John Condon, a small-town saloonkeeper, and Margaret McGrath. As a teenager, Condon played rhythmic dance band accompaniment on the tenor banjo and, once established in jazz, favored the four-string tenor guitar....

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Crosby, James Morris (12 May 1927–10 April 1986), businessman and entertainment entrepreneur, was born in Great Neck, Long Island, New York, the son of John F. Crosby, an attorney, and Emily M. (maiden name unknown). After attending preparatory school in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, he went to Franklin and Marshall College in 1945. From that year to 1946, he served in the U.S. Navy, but 1946 found him back stateside, attending Bucknell College. He enrolled in Georgetown University later that year, graduating in 1948 with a degree in economics. He attended Georgetown Law School from 1948 to 1949. From 1949 to 1951 he was a shipping representative for the International Paint Company of New York City....

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Dalitz, Morris B. “Moe” (24 December 1899–31 August 1989), developer, casino operator, and rumored organized crime associate, was born Morris Barney Dalitz in Boston, the son of Barney Dalitz, who ran a laundry business, and Anna Dalitz (maiden name unknown). The family moved to Detroit when Dalitz was a child, and his father owned several laundries there....

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Downey, Morton (14 November 1901–25 October 1985), singer, composer, and businessman, was born in Wallingford, Connecticut, the son of James Andrew Downey, the fire chief of Wallingford and a tavern keeper, and Elizabeth Cox. When Downey was eight, he received $5 for singing at a church social. Engagements at picnics, political rallies, and Elks Club meetings followed. He developed an act with Philip Boudini, both playing accordions. For Downey, the accordion was mostly a prop. By the time he was fourteen people were paying $15 to hear him sing....

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Durante, Jimmy (10 February 1893–29 January 1980), comedian, was born James Francis Durante on New York City’s East Side, the son of Barthelmeo Durante and Roséa Millino. His French-Italian father operated a barber shop. His mother endowed him with the enormous nose that was to become his trademark. After dropping out of school in the seventh grade, Jimmy tried a variety of odd jobs, but he spent most of his time at a piano his father had bought for him, complete with lessons. Although his father hoped that his son would pursue a classical career, by age seventeen Durante was playing in Diamond Tony’s saloon (“Twenty-five bucks a week; hours from eight in the evening until unconscious”) on Coney Island. Later he played ragtime piano at various clubs and organized a five-man jazz band for a club in Harlem. There he met a singer, Jeanne Olson, whom he hired and, in 1921, married. They had no children. Another new acquaintance was Eddie Jackson, a singer....

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Guinan, Texas (12 January 1884–05 November 1933), nightclub personality, was born Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan in Waco, Texas, the daughter of Michael Guinan, a grocery wholesaler, and Bessie Duffy, both of whom had emigrated to the United States from Quebec, Canada, although their forebears had emigrated to Canada from Dublin, Ireland. Guinan was first married to John J. Moynahan, a Denver newspaper cartoonist, in 1904. It was a brief union and Guinan was on her own again by 1907. She entered show business as a rodeo driver, appeared in an operetta, ...

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Harrah, William Fisk (02 September 1911–30 June 1978), casino owner and automobile collector, was born in South Pasadena, California, the son of John Garrett Harrah, a lawyer and businessman, and Amanda Fisk. Harrah attended Chapman College in 1931 and studied mechanical engineering at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1932. He was an undistinguished student and was once caught cheating on a chemistry examination. When his family encountered financial problems during the Great Depression, Harrah dropped out of college. His family moved to Venice, California, where his father served a term as mayor. In 1932 Harrah’s father opened an establishment featuring the circle game, a variation of bingo in which some skill was required in shooting balls into a hopper. The circle game was akin to gambling, putting the operation at the edge of the law. William began as an employee but soon purchased the operation from his father for $500. Since gambling was illegal in Venice, the game was periodically closed when authorities chose to enforce the law strictly. In 1937 Hannah moved with his father to the more hospitable gambling environment of Reno, Nevada, and opened a bingo parlor....

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Meyer Lansky Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-114645).

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Lansky, Meyer (28 Aug. or 4 July 1902–15 January 1983), bootlegger and gambling entrepreneur, was born Meyer Suchowljansky in Grodno, Belorussia (then Russia), the son of Max Suchowljansky, a garment presser, and Yetta (maiden name unknown). Lansky’s father emigrated to New York City in 1909 and brought the family over two years later. Meyer, who left school in 1917 at age fourteen, was fascinated by the street life and crap games of the Lower East Side and while still a teenager associated with other hustlers, such as ...

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Lewis, Ted (06 June 1890–25 August 1971), entertainer, musician, and bandleader, was born Theodore Leopold Friedman in rural Circleville, Ohio, the son of an owner of a dry goods store whose name cannot be ascertained. Young Theodore began his show business career performing in a nickelodeon in his hometown and learned to play the clarinet in his school band. As a beginning clarinetist, Lewis was something of a prodigy. Although he was never regarded seriously as a musician, he played easily and improvised naturally. Having no desire to go into the dry goods business and still in his teens, he went to Columbus, Ohio, where for a time he demonstrated instruments in a music store. His freewheeling improvisations amused customers but eventually caused him to lose the job....

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Rose, Billy (06 September 1899–10 February 1966), songwriter, show business impresario, and philanthropist, was born on the Lower East Side of New York City, the son of David Rosenberg, a button salesman, and Fannie Wernick. He was born William Samuel Rosenberg, according to most biographical sources, though one source states he adopted that name in school after being born Samuel Wolf Rosenberg. He grew up in the Bronx and attended public schools there, winning junior high school medals for sprinting and English. Medals and honors were important as proofs of stature and worth to Rose, who never grew taller than five feet three inches. In the High School of Commerce, he became an outstanding student of the Gregg system of shorthand, winning first a citywide competition (1917) and then a national competition (1918). In 1918 he left high school shortly before graduation to become head of the stenographic department of the War Industries Board, headed by ...

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Rosenbloom, Maxie (06 September 1904–06 March 1976), boxer, was born Max Everitt Rosenbloom in Leonard’s Bridge, Connecticut, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants (names unknown). In 1907 the impoverished family moved to New York’s Lower East Side where Rosenbloom’s father worked as a shoemaker; they later moved to Harlem. Rosenbloom was expelled from public school in the fifth grade for striking a teacher and was sent to the Hawthorne Reform School. He started boxing at the Union Settlement House in Harlem, influenced by an older brother who fought as Leonard Rose and perhaps encouraged by ...

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Rubell, Steve (02 December 1943–26 July 1989), entrepreneur and discotheque owner, was born in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Philip Rubell, a postman who later became a tennis pro, and Ann Hirschbein Rubell, a schoolteacher. He received his early education in local public schools before entering Syracuse University, where he captained the tennis team and first displayed the entrepreneurial talent that would distinguish the rest of his life. It was at Syracuse that Rubell first met Ian Schrager, who had, ironically, grown up a few blocks from where Rubell lived; the two men became fast friends and, later, business partners....

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Ventura, Charlie (02 December 1916–17 January 1992), jazz tenor saxophonist and bandleader, was born Charles Venturo in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of a hat factory owner. His parents’ names are unknown. During summer vacations from high school, Ventura apprenticed as a saddle maker. Around 1934 he acquired a C-melody saxophone. While working by day in the Philadelphia Navy Yard during the last years of the depression, he played in local night clubs. Jam sessions at the Down Beat Club brought him into contact with jazz trumpeters ...

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Charlie Ventura © William P. Gottlieb; used by permission. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress (LC-GLB23-0887 DLC).