July 2024

The Talented Mrs. Mandelbaum

By Margalit Fox
Review by
Decades before Prohibition-era gangsters controlled New York City, a clever, driven crime boss had the town under her thumb. Margalit Fox tells all in The Talented Mrs. Mandelbaum.
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The likes of Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and their Prohibition-era gangster pals have been great fodder for movies and TV shows. But they were actually latecomers. By the time the first immigrant Mafioso got off the boat in the 19th century, organized crime was already well-established in the United States.

Fredericka Mandelbaum was the queen of the New York underworld in the 1860s and ’70s—and, as far as we know, she never fired a shot. Her MO was more sophisticated. Margalit Fox’s rollicking new book, The Talented Mrs. Mandelbaum: The Rise and Fall of an American Organized-Crime Boss, tells all.

A big lady (upward of 250 pounds) who wore silk dresses and lavish jewelry, this German-Jewish immigrant and mother of four ran a nationwide fencing empire from a phony storefront in the Lower East Side neighborhood then known as “Kleindeutschland” (or Little Germany). She recruited the crooks, fronted the capital and hid or sold the loot after the crimes, which ranged from simple pickpocketing to bank vault extravaganzas.

How did this all come about? As Fox tells it, Mandelbaum’s timing was fortuitous. The agrarian economy, where most goods were custom-made and easily traced, was evolving into an industrial-consumer society, where everything looked alike. Honest cops were overwhelmed—and dishonest ones were on “Marm” Mandelbaum’s payroll.

It was also the first Golden Age of journalism, so Fox, a former New York Times obituary writer with four previous books, is able to draw from contemporary news stories to detail Mandelbaum’s audacious heists, replete with colorfully nicknamed robbers and ethically challenged lawyers. She even gives us a delightful floor plan of Mandelbaum’s lair, which was published in 1913 and revealed a drab store up front and labyrinth of secret rooms in the back. Marm is depicted peering through a hidden window.

Mandelbaum was clever and driven, but she couldn’t hold back the anti-corruption reform movements that battled the Gilded Age’s worst excesses. An upper-crust Manhattan district attorney bypassed the cops and brought in the infamous Pinkerton private detectives. Fox chronicles Mandelbaum’s duel with the private dicks to its surprising end. After decades of books about 1920s bootleggers and the rise and fall of the 20th-century Mafia, The Talented Mrs. Mandelbaum is a genuinely fresh story of American crime and culture.

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The Talented Mrs. Mandelbaum

The Talented Mrs. Mandelbaum

By Margalit Fox
Random House
ISBN 9780593243855

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