Sunday, Oct. 26, 2008

Everyone Loved Toots

By David Luhrssen
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During Prohibition Toots Shor was the only Jew in New York’s Irish mob. And when he became a big time player in his own right, he never discriminated. Shor was a Damon Runyon picture of the big-hearted lug. Everybody loved him. The swinging nightclub that bore his name was the toast of the town during the swanky 1940s and ‘50s. On any given night the bar was crowded with judges and gangsters, professional athletes and movie stars, bookies and reporters. Shor affectionately called Frank Sinatra “the dago” and Joe DiMaggio “the other dago.”

During the ‘60s the sweet life turned sour and by his death in 1975, Short had lost it all.

Toots, a documentary by Shor’s granddaughter Kristi Jacobson, is more than the story of one saloonkeeper from long ago. With its cogent mix of contemporary and vintage interviews, archival footage and gorgeous black and white stills of nocturnal rain swept Manhattan, Toots evokes New York when the city was the global capital and mecca for creative minds of all sorts. Shor reigned in the era when the business of America was conducted over two-martini lunches and four-martini dinners—and conducted with better sense than the Starbucks crowd of our own time, the caffeinated high rollers who gambled away the world’s economy. The mob ran entire sectors of American life in those years; they were Shor’s friends and he refused to betray them in exchange for a break from the IRS.

Shor was generous to a fault and never held onto a dollar. But he was unable to adapt to the changing world of the ‘60s, especially the rise of global narcotics trafficking and the crasser breed of criminals it empowered. New York was broke by the time of his death. The city he loved was crime ridden. People who once might have patronized the edgy glamour and easy bonhomie of his club had retreated to the sterility of suburbia.

In the years since a peculiar brand of politically correct, neo-Puritanism has gripped American life. Shor would not have felt at home in the land of his birth.

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