Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Berry Gordy's Lost Portrait

Rare, faded photo of DeVon Cunningham's portrait of Berry Gordy
--washed out from a flashbulb.

Berry Gordy and Motown Records did for popular music what Henry Ford and his company did for the automobile business--they changed American culture. Coincidently as a young man, Gordy worked on Ford's assembly line and learned lessons he would apply to his music empire allowing Motown to crank out an unprecedented number of hits enriching the American songbook--bringing what was once labeled "race music" into the era of "rhythm & blues." While Henry Ford made automobiles available to the masses, Berry Gordy brought his Motown sound to a national and international audience crossing racial barriers once thought impassible.

In the late 1960s, Anna Gordy Gaye--sister of Berry and wife of Motown performer Marvin Gaye--commissioned Detroit artist DeVon Cunningham to paint a portrait of her mogul brother. The first two attempts with Berry in a shirt and tie were cast aside because Anna felt they didn't capture Berry's "spirit." When Marvin Gaye complained after losing an argument with Gordy about a creative issue, he said, "That man is a fierce warrior." That image resonated with Anna. She showed a portrait of Napoleon to Cunningham which evolved into a portrait of Berry Gordy.

Napoleon Before St. Helene by Paul Delaroche

Anna presented the portrait to her brother on October 4, 1969, at the annual Loucye Gordy Wakefield Scholarship fund raiser, enabling twenty-six inner-city high school graduates to attend college. The fundraiser was held at Gordy's Boston-Edison, tile-roofed Renaissance estate.

Mrs. Gaye maneuvered the guests into a large parlor where the huge painting hung. Artist DeVon Cunningham unveiled the four by six foot portrait before the assembled guests--including many of Detroit's glitterati. There it was, Berry Gordy with an imperious look of command on his face as a Black Napoleon. Berry took one incredulous look and broke into laughter. Cunningham remembers him saying, "Damn, I like it."

Gordy displayed the portrait in his Detroit mansion for years before moving to Beverly Hills, California to expand Motown into the movie business. When the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute sought to locate the painting to verify its condition and ownership for their catalog of important American portraits, Berry Gordy could not be reached for comment, but his publicist stonewalled the researchers about the whereabouts of the portrait.

"The Smithsonian has been searching for almost two years," said Bethany Bentley--National Portrait Gallery spokesperson. "Getting on the list can lead to art museums requesting pieces for exhibits." The National Portrait Gallery gave up searching for the portrait but listed it anyway marking its location as "unknown."

Artist DeVon Cunningham talking about his "docu-art" in 2017

Artist DeVon Cunningham hasn't seen the portrait since he painted it. When interviewed by the Detroit News, Cunningham said he spoke to several of Gordy's associates who told him someone put it in Berry's head that it's not a compliment to be shown as Napoleon. After several books came out critical of Gordy and his Motown hit factory, he was concerned with his legacy and may have had the portrait destroyed.

If true, Cunningham was deprived of the public exposure and acclaim the National Portrait Gallery listing would have surely brought him. 

DeVon Cunningham speaks about his art

Hitsville USA 

Sunday, September 8, 2019

The Fleisher Brothers--Harry and Sam: Crime Doesn't Pay (Part 2 of 2)

Harry Fleisher 1920 (seventeen years old)

Harry Fleisher started his professional criminal career in 1920 as a driver and strong-arm man for the Oakland Sugar House Gang. The leaders of the gang and twelve young thugs were rounded up and charged with extortion in the Cleaners and Dyers War in 1928. The young enforcers put the fear of God into their victims and witnesses against them. Key witnesses recanted their original statements to police or simply disappeared. The Sugar House Gang beat the rap but suffered from the public exposure.

Soon, the leaders of the Sugar House Gang were arrested on a Federal charge of violating the Volstead Act (the Prohibition law) by providing brewing supplies and equipment for the illegal manufacture of beer and whiskey, and for running several industrial-sized stills around the city. The gang disbanded with Charles Leiter and Harry Shorr under federal indictment. What hurt the organization more than anything else was the destruction of their equipment and massive supplies of distilled alcohol.

Joe Burnstein
Joe and Ray Burnstein were now free to form a spin-off gang of trusted neighborhood friends and former Sugar House members who soon became known as the Purple Gang. Harry Fleisher was part of the gang's inner circle; his brothers Louis and Sam became foot soldiers. Louis specialized in hijacking and labor racketeering, and Sam was a truck driver and strong-arm man for the organization.

Ray Burnstein
In a tactical move that threatened the Purple Gang's existence, Ray Burnstein, Harry Keywell, Irving Milberg, and Harry Fleisher laid in wait for several members of the Little Jewish Navy--a group affiliated with the Purples. Izzy Sutker owed Burnstein $1,300 dollars for a liquor purchase he was two weeks late paying back. But there were other issues. Sutker and his boys were interloping Chicago hoods nibbling away at Purple Gang territory by opening several speakeasies on their turf.

Believing the Burnsteins were phasing out of the liquor business and going legit, Izzy Sutker, Hymie Paul, and Joe Lebowitz showed up at an improvised meeting they thought would make them rich men. Burnstein childhood friend Solomon Levine--and business partner of Izzy Sutker--was duped into driving Sutker and his wing men to the Collingwood Manor Apartments on September 16, 1931 to discuss the deal. But the Purples were harboring another grudge which could not be forgiven or go unanswered. One of their men was murdered outside a Purple Gang protected gambling joint on their territory. Word on the street pointed the finger at Sutker as the trigger man.

Levine, Sutker, Paul, and Lebowitz were greeted at the front door of apartment 211 by Ray Burnstein and ushered-in to sit on the living room couch. After a brief conversation, Burnstein left the room sayin he had to make a phone call to the gang's business manager from the corner drugstore. Minutes later, Ray was behind the wheel of his Chrysler sedan honking the horn and revving the engine. That was the signal for his boys to stand up and torpedo the Little Jewish Navy where they sat.

The assassins left with Solly Levine in shock. He had no idea he was driving his associates to their deaths. The gunmen scurried down two flights of stairs, burst out the alley door, and jumped into the waiting car. "I let you live, Solly, because you're my friend," Ray told him before he hit the gas pedal and sped off squealing his tires.

Shortly after they fled, Levine was dropped off a few blocks away and given cab fare to return to his sports book (betting parlor). Detroit homicide detectives recognized the victims and knew where they lived. After questioning several residents of the boarding house, they discovered that Solomon Levine had driven off with the Sutker, Paul, and Lebovitz a couple of hours earlier. The police detectives were quick to arrest Levine, who turned state's evidence. Levine knew he was as good as dead if he didn't.

Burnstein and Keywell were captured later that evening, and Millberg was caught early the next morning while packing his bags in his apartment. Conspicuous by his absence was Harry Fleisher. He had the good sense to go home, hug his wife goodbye, grab his bug-out bag, and leave town immediately. For this, Fleisher earned the underworld nickname "Slick." After a highly publicized three-week trial, Ray Burnstein, Harry Keywell, and Irving Milberg were convicted and given life sentences at Marquette Prison dealing a staggering blow to the gang.

Fleisher remained at large for nine months. While "on the lam," the Detroit press corps missed no opportunity to drop Harry's name in the newspapers or on radio news broadcasts. Because of his alleged involvement in Detroit's "snatch racket" (kidnapping), Fleisher's name was implicated as a possible suspect in the Lindberg baby kidnapping. The FBI charge gave Harry national exposure as his face and description appeared on wanted posters hung in every police station and post office in the nation. Fleisher was being hunted coast-to-coast.

On June 9, 1932, Harry Fleisher surprised Detroit Prosecutor Harry S. Toy by showing up with his lawyer at the prosecutor's fifth-floor office in Detroit Police Headquarters. Fleisher was arrested and held without bond. Despite the prosecutor's best efforts to try Fleisher, Toy's star witness who could link Harry to the Collingwood Massacre was unable to be found. The case against Fleisher was dismissed. Twenty years later, missing witness Sol Levine reappeared in Detroit. Levine told a Detroit Free Press staff reporter that he had shipped out of New York on a tramp steamer to make himself scarce. "I made $135 a month--the first honest money I ever made. It felt good."


Harry Fleisher's arrest file was one of the thickest in the history of the Detroit Police Department coming in at 204 pages. He was arrested thirty times for charges ranging from receiving stolen property, grand larceny, violating the prohibition law, armed robbery, assault with intent to kill, kidnapping, possession of an unregistered gun, suspicion of murder, and a traffic violation. Convicted four times but serving no jail time, Fleisher paid fines totaling $715--chump change for him. What he paid in lawyer fees was much higher.

Despite Prohibition ending on December 5, 1933, there was still money to be made in trafficking illegal alcohol. Now that the state and federal governments were in the liquor business, the cost of legal booze with a federal tax stamp was costly. Harry and his youngest brother Sam were operators of a 4,000 gallon unregistered distillery that took up three stories of a warehouse building at 5620 Federal Avenue.

Sam Fleicher 1935 (twenty-four years old)
While under FBI surveillance, Sam drove a semi-truck loaded with 10,500 pounds of brown sugar--purchased from a wholesaler in Cleveland, Ohio--to the Guardian Transit Company warehouse at Sixteenth and Pine Streets in Detroit. The brown sugar was loaded into smaller vans and transported to the Fleisher brothers' distillery. On April 11, 1935, a Federal alcohol tax unit raided the operation and arrested former Purple Gang members Sam Fleisher, Jack Selbin, and Joe Stein. Once again, Harry managed to escape before he was arrested.

Harry Fleisher was named in the original warrant but remained at large until he surrendered himself to Federal authorities on October 29, 1935 when he was indicted, placed under a $2,500 bond, and held over for trial with the other men. All four men were convicted on April 11, 1936 of conspiracy to violate the Internal Revenue Service Act, given eight-year prison sentences and fined $20,000 each. Additionally, the Fleisher brothers had a federal tax lien of $14,028 levied against them for unpaid taxes on 2,275 gallons of alcohol.

The convicted men were transitioned into the federal penitentiary system in Leavenworth, Kansas. After a month of quarantine, they were taken by train to San Francisco, and from there were ferried across the bay to Alcatraz Island where they served four and a half years of their eight-year sentence. They were released early for good behavior. Again, the men were transitioned to Leavenworth before being released on June 28, 1940. In 1941, Harry Fleisher opened a florist shop on Twelfth Street. Sam went to work at his father's junkyard in Jackson, Michigan after his release.


Michigan State Senator Warren G. Hooper
Harry and Sam were habitual criminals determined to lead a life of crime. On January 11, 1945, State Senator Warren G. Hooper--while en route to his home in Albion, Michigan--was shot three times in the head at close range and found next to his burning car on U.S. Highway 99 near Springport in Jackson County. Passing drivers told state police they saw a maroon car blocking Hooper's sedan on the wrong side of the highway. Hooper was slated to be a key witness against Frank D. McKay--former Republican National Committeeman--in a state government race track bribery case.

Chief of the Michigan State Police Detective Harold Mulbar told the press that Senator Hooper had refused police protection. "The Hooper murder was definitely a paid gangster killing," Mulbar said. An intensive search for the killers kicked up several ex-cons who pointed the finger at four men who tried to hire them to assassinate the state senator. Fearing they would violate their paroles and be sent back to prison, the ex-cons turned state's evidence. The corroborated testimony of Henry Luks, Al Kurner, and Sam Abramowitz led to the convictions of Harry Fleisher, Sam Fleisher, Myron "Mikey" Selik, and Pete Mahoney for conspiracy to commit murder. 

The conspiracy was hatched at O'Larry's Bar located at Boston and Dexter Streets in Detroit. First, Henry Luks was asked if he knew how to wire dynamite to a car's ignition. Luks said he did. Several days later, he reconsidered and said he didn't have access to dynamite and refused the $3,000 job. Alfred Kurner was then asked and offered the same amount, but he also refused citing problems with the parole board. Then, Sam Abramowitz agreed, but after making several trips to Adrian in preparation for the hit, he dropped out of the plot when he saw Hopper at home with his wife and kids. Abramowitz didn't have the stomach for it. He returned to Flint, Michigan where he had worked as a barber since his parole from Jackson Prison in 1943. 

On July 31, 1945--after a grand jury trial lasting two weeks--a jury of five women and seven men reached a guilty verdict after only two hours of deliberation. The grand jury was unable to determine who shot Hooper or who financed the $15,000 fund to murder him. The defendants were sentenced to serve four and one-half years in Jackson Prison. Pending an appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court for a new trial, the men were released on $25,000 bonds on July 10, 1946. When their appeal was denied, Harry Fleisher and Mikey Selik jumped bail.

Fleisher dodged arrest for fifteen months. Acting on a phone tip, he was seized by FBI agents in Pompano Beach, Florida--thirty-five miles north of Miami. He and a woman companion Bernice Jackson were registered at a tourist court as Mr. and Mrs. Marvin Goldwyn of Toledo, Ohio. The couple left the cottage and drove to the beach in Fleisher's pickup truck. A squad of four agents dressed in sports shirts and slacks slowly closed in on the couple sunning themselves on the beach. When the agents were noticed fifteen feet away, they rushed on Fleisher and held his face down in the sand while they handcuffed him. Miss Jackson stood quietly with her hands up in the air. When their cottage was searched, a submachine gun was found with 400 rounds of Colt ammunition. Fleisher had $1,200 cash in his possession. He was arrested on a Federal fugitive warrant, and Miss Jackson was jailed as a material witness.

Fleisher was extradited to Michigan arriving at Willow Run Airport aboard a Capital Airlines plane in the custody of two U.S. Marshalls and a Federal guard. He was whisked away to Milan Federal Prison on January 22, 1950. Two days later, the beleaguered fugitive confessed to Detroit Free Press reporter Ralph Nelson that "I'm glad it's over. It hasn't been fun being hunted. I'm looking forward to seeing my wife Harriet. I expect to have a rough time with her. She knows about the other woman, but Hattie knows that a man travels practically unnoticed when he travels with a woman. She'll understand that. I've always tried to keep Hattie from being involved in any of my troubles."

Fleisher pleaded guilty on the Federal fugitive charge on February 1, 1950. On February 24, 1950, Bernice Jackson--a former Detroit prostitute--was sentenced to five months in the Miami City Jail for harboring an escaped criminal.

After Fleisher served his five-year sentence in Milan Prison as a Federal fugitive, he was shuttled back to Jackson State Prison to serve his five-year sentence for conspiracy to murder Senator Hooper. Because of a conviction for the armed robbery of the Aristocratic Club in Pontiac, Michigan in 1945, Fleisher had an additional 25 to 50 years to serve. Once again, Slick jumped bail while out on appeal.When Harry was released from Jackson Prison in the mid-sixties, he took a legitimate job as a warehouse manager for Ewald Steel Company.

Harry Fleisher died in 1978 at the age of seventy-five. He was preceded by Louis, who died in Jackson Prison on April 3, 1964 at the age of fifty-nine and Sam, who died on January 18, 1960 in Miami, Florida at the age of forty-nine. All three brothers succumbed to heart failure.

The Fleisher Brothers (Part 1)