Among the many criminal charges Frankie Carbo incurred throughout a lifetime of transgression—a list that included vagrancy, felonious assault, grand larceny, robbery, conspiracy, and murder—one rap stands out: suspicious character. It was as apt an overall description as any for a man who was rotten to the marrow. Although Carbo was an underworld force in boxing in the late 1930s, he became the czar of the fight racket ten years later, when he controlled the International Boxing Club behind the scenes, and when television flooded Jacobs Beach with so much money, it might as well have been confetti.
If anything, his long and deleterious association with boxing obscured the gravity of his mafia career. His milieu was that of concrete shoes, double-decker coffins, and Sicilian neckties. A man whose soft-spoken demeanor masked his sociopathic nature, Carbo was a top gun for the Lucchese crime family, and his talent as a torpedo made him a go-to favorite of Murder Inc., the death-dealing clearing house based out of the Midnight Rose Candy Store in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Here is how Burton Turkus, the assistant District Attorney who prosecuted a slew of Syndicate members in the 1930s and 1940s, described the variety of unhinged techniques used by this ruthless execution squad: “There was no method of murder their fiendish ingenuity overlooked. They used the gun, the strangling rope, the ice pick—commonplace tools for homicide. There was the unimaginative mob-style ride, the shotgun blast on the lonely street. And there were the bizarre touches, too. Dozens were dropped into quicklime pits. Others were buried alive, cremated, roped up in such a way that they strangled themselves by their own struggles for life. The killers thought they had come up with an especially appropriate effect the night they tied a slot machine to the body of a pinball operator who was ‘cheating,’ and dropped him into a resort lake.”
This was the vile netherworld from which Frankie Carbo descended into boxing, like a ghostly shadow. While his criminal exploits sparked more nicknames and aliases than ordinary even for gangsters, in boxing he was primarily known as “Mr. Gray,” “Mr. Fury,” and “The Gray.” Born in 1904, Carbo was a child on the treacherous streets of the Lower East Side, a melting pot of grift, graft, and grime, and the fitting backdrop for both How the Other Half Lives (Jacob Riis) and The Gangs of New York (Herbert Asbury).
Carbo was a juvenile delinquent, packed off to the Catholic Protectory when he was eleven years old. He was twenty when he faced murder charges for the first time, after shooting a man in a dispute over a stolen taxi cab. Carbo, peripatetic by nature, skipped town to avoid prosecution. Four years later, he was arrested in Philadelphia, extradited to the Bronx, and pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter. Mystifyingly, Carbo served only seven months in Sing Sing before being paroled in October 1930.
From there, it was a diversified crime portfolio: bootlegging, leg-breaking, bookmaking, and, most profitable of all, killing. As a hired gun, Carbo was linked to the murders of several prominent mob contemporaries during the gangland wars of the 1930s.
There was the 1931 slaying of New Jersey beer baron Mickey Duffy in Atlantic City, for example, a rubout that earned front-page coverage in The New York Daily News because of its element of betrayal: Duffy had been marked for death by his own henchmen, “Quick Trigger” Sammy Grossman and Albert Skali. In the end, Carbo avoided charges.
Less than two years later, Max Hassel and Max Greenberg, two associates of Waxey Gordon, ex-partner of Arnold Rothstein, were found shot to death at the Hotel Cataret in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Carbo was indicted for that double whammy in 1936, but when witnesses became scarce, the charges were dropped.
In 1938, Harry Greenberg was on the run from Louis “Lepke” Buchalter. After pit stops in Montreal and Detroit, Greenberg wound up in Los Angeles, within shooting distance of his childhood friend Bugsy Siegel. Unfortunately for Greenberg, Siegel was a poor choice for a neighbor. Pressed to fulfill a sudden contract, Siegel recruited a murderous pick-up team composed of Carbo, Whitey Krakow, and Champ Segal (ex-lightweight and manager of Phil “KO” Kaplan and Maxie Rosenbloom). Once again Carbo, identified as the triggerman, escaped the electric chair. This time it was because the star witness for the prosecution, mob stool pigeon Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, somehow fell out of a hotel window in Brooklyn while under police protection.
For years, Carbo has been the leading suspect in the still-unsolved assassination of Bugsy Siegel in Beverly Hills, California. “Bugsy had built the Flamingo Hotel out in Las Vegas, but he made the mistake of welshing on his creditors,” former New York State Assistant District Attorney Jack Bonomi told David Remnick. “You’re not supposed to do that. So they gave Meyer Lansky the contract to collect of kill Bugsy. Frank Carbo got the call.”
With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Carbo turned to boxing to bolster his sagging income. His first pug was Connecticut club fighter Eddie Hogan. Then Carbo entered The Big Time when Gabe Genovese invited him to co-manage short-lived middleweight champion Eddie “Babe” Risko. Through Risko, who won the NYSAC title in 1935, Carbo single-handedly Bogarted the middleweight division and set up a profitable daisy chain that included Risko, Freddie Steele, Sol Krieger, Ken Overlin, and Al Hostak. During his early years as a budding prizefighting capo, Carbo operated in Seattle, where Steele and Hostak were as locally famous then as Starbucks is today.
Back in New York City in the late 1930s, Carbo got his claws into Mike Jacobs, the toothless ex-fishmonger now head of Madison Square Garden boxing and the most successful promoter in the United States. With the help of Nat Fleischer, who perpetuated his “Uncle Mike” schtick (in his stiffest Edwardian-era prose) throughout the pages of The Ring, Jacobs had a square reputation during his reign as a promotional powerhouse. That reputation could not withstand the historical record: Frankie Carbo controlled Jacobs the way a ventriloquist controlled his dummy. (Like J. Edgar Hoover, omnipotent G-man behind an Art Deco desk, who dismissed La Cosa Nostra as an urban myth, Fleischer did not believe in wholesale mafia infiltration of boxing. He even offered a cash reward for any Ring reader who could provide definitive proof of mob activity vis-à-vis fights, as if $100 or so could somehow defray hospital bills or funeral costs.) While boxing was a lucrative hustle for Carbo, it would take until the late 1940s for him to hit the jackpot.
Thanks to beloved heavyweight champion Joe Louis, the boxing world was introduced to—and nearly destroyed by—the International Boxing Club. In the late 1940s, Louis realized that his storied title reign was almost over. He had never recovered from the years he lost serving in the US Army during World War II, and his return to the ring included a farcical KO of a shot Billy Conn, an embarrassing gift decision over Jersey Joe Walcott, and a momentary case of the staggers against Fordham Road terror Tami Mauriello. It was time to cash out, and Louis, with the help of lawyer Truman Gibson, devised a plan for a golden parachute never before seen in boxing. Louis formed a promotional company, quickly signed the top four heavyweight contenders (Ezzard Charles, Jersey Joe Walcott, Lee Savoldi, and Gus Lesnevich) to exclusive contracts, relinquished his title, and announced a tournament to replace him as champion.
Enter a handsome, wealthy playboy named James D. Norris, whose empire, bequeathed mainly to him by his father, included holdings in oil, wheat, real estate, racehorses, hockey teams, and sports stadiums. He also owned a percentage of Madison Square Garden. Norris had the financial backing to make the plan Louis and Gibson had drawn up into a reality. In 1949, Norris gave Louis $150,000, 20 percent of the stock in the newly formed International Boxing Club, and a yearly salary of $15,000 in return for the contracts of the four heavyweight contenders. Then Norris bought out his remaining East Coast promotional competitors, including frail and ailing Mike Jacobs. From the beginning, Norris had designs on a monopoly and the TV contracts he signed with multiple networks (combined with his ownership of several major arenas) set him up as a potential national boxing kingpin. But Norris immediately hit gridlock when the Boxing Managers Guild—a motley collection of chiselers—bucked him at every turn. To keep his television dates filled, Norris turned to Frankie Carbo for help.
Eventually, his partnership with Carbo transcended utilitarianism. Despite his riches, Norris admired hoodlums, and he took the concept of slumming to new lows. He even named one of his racehorses “Mr. Gray.” Truman Gibson, his partner in the IBC, explained how Norris and Carbo became so chummy. “Among other things, Jim Norris was a horseplayer,” Gibson told Remnick. “He kept a stable called Spring Hill Farms and was all around the New York tracks and knew the various Italian bookmakers. He was an inveterate gambler. The horse world is where he met Frank Carbo. Slowly but surely, Jim got close with Carbo. The big mystery that no one can solve is why he got that close to Carbo.”
In fact, Gibson knew that there was no big mystery. A few years later he would tell Nick Tosches what everyone who knew Norris had realized from the beginning: “Jim,” said Gibson, “was enamored of all the mob guys.” The Carbo-Norris axis was set, and its ultimate goal: domination of the boxing industry from coast to coast.
To septuagenarians, the 1950s was The Golden Age of Boxing. “Friday Night Fights,” Jimmy Powers, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Gillette, Chuck Davey, and Kid Gavilan invariably trigger nostalgic memories, with almost Pavlovian effect, even now. Even so, the fact remains that the IBC was the horrible flip side to the glory days when boxing would TKO I Love Lucy in the ratings books over and over again. Many fighters had their wages suppressed (usually a $4,000 cap per main event and a percentage of steadily dwindling live gates), competition was bushwhacked (Ray Arcel, an independent operative, had his skull fractured in a mob-style communiqué), and the fights themselves were often suspect. A lot of babbos—who metaphorically resembled Carl “Bobo” Olson getting starched repeatedly by a blazing Sugar Ray—fell for what they saw on the Bendix or Magnavox, what art critic Robert Hughes once called “the idiot box,” until Senate Committee hearings, broadcast in the starkest black and white, exposed the dark heart of the Sweet Science to wholesome suburbanites from Levittown to Panorama City. Behind that pixel haze? Gambling, fixes, shakedowns, fraud, payola—all tied to the twisted tube and corporate sponsorship, sources of income that were not only new to boxing but also effortless. It was a dream grift, for the two-bit and legit alike, seemingly never-ending profit from a gift that had fallen into the collective lap of Jacobs Beach.
Although Carbo controlled fighters through countless managers whom he used as beards, his preferred stooge was Frank “Blinky” Palermo, a Philadelphia numbers runner with a criminal record stretching back to 1928. Palermo could have been a bit player in a mid-century noir, his sinister eyes glinting in the background of The Big Heat or Kiss Me Deadly. His DNA seemed rotten to its final strand. Indeed, the Palermos had a family tree whose branches were as twisted as those of a corkscrew willow. Frank Palermo, Jr. was such a wastrel even his father disapproved of him. Frank Jr. had been arrested at least eighteen times between 1957 and 1969, on a variety of charges, including forgery, arson, impersonating a police officer, fraud, and larceny. Not to be outshined by his older brother, Fred Palermo also made sensational headlines when he shot former welterweight TV star Jimmy Flood during a dustup over money. Even his nephew, Charles Harrison Allen, was a convicted mob hitman who eventually turned rat in the 1980s.
Because Palermo somehow contrived to earn a pair of gubernatorial pardons, he was able to apply—successfully—for a legitimate license to manage fighters. Over the years, his stable included men whose post-boxing lives were bleak and blackened nightmares: Ike Williams, Johnny Saxton, and Billy Fox. Williams, the talented lightweight champion whose career was marred by suspect performances, once told Jim Murray, “Blinky stole everything from me but my eyes.”
Together, Carbo and Palermo staged fixes, scored betting coups, chiseled in on dozens, if not hundreds, of fighters, and intimidated anyone who refused to go along with their crooked arrangements. In 1947, before the IBC existed, they had co-produced one of the most infamous hoaxes in boxing history, when Jake LaMotta took a dive against Fox at Madison Square Garden. Television and the IBC strengthened the Carbo-Palermo combo, and for nearly ten years, they ruled and ruined the dreams of one fighter after another.
At its peak, the IBC dominated boxing, and it filled its coffers by mastering another new medium: closed-circuit theater, which brought maximum profit from the biggest names and events in boxing. As the IBC expanded both its riches and its reach, however, its obvious, almost brazen, monopoly attracted the wrong kind of attention. As early as 1952, the Department of Justice had the IBC trained in its crosshairs. By using baseball as a precedent—the great American pastime was exempt from antitrust considerations—Norris and his attorneys managed to forestall a legal KO blow.
On March 8, 1957, however, that all changed. U.S. District Court Judge Sylvester Ryan shocked the boxing world when he ruled that the IBC was, indeed, a monopoly in violation of the Sherman Act. A few months later, he ordered the IBC to dissolve within five years. The most profitable—and possibly corrupt—corporation in boxing history was nearing its end. So, too, was Carbo, who continued operating business as usual while the judicial system closed in. With Truman Gibson now operating the remnants of the IBC, fights continued to be marred by the grubby fingertips of Carbo and Palermo.
A grand jury investigation finally led to an indictment against Frankie Carbo—one that seemed almost anticlimactic considering the wide range of crimes he had committed over the decades. Carbo was charged with orchestrating the details of a matchup between Virgil Akins and Isaac Logart, the semifinal of a tourney for the vacant welterweight title. As he had whenever the heat became too intense, Carbo went on the run. He got as far as Haddon Township, New Jersey, where he holed up for nearly a year before cops finally arrested him. To avoid a trial—and the damaging exposure his Borgata would face—Carbo pleaded guilty to three counts of undercover managing and matchmaking. Before Carbo was sentenced, Assistant District Attorney Alfred J. Scotti read an eighteen-page statement to the court that included this blistering doozy: “The evil influence of this man has for many years permeated virtually the entire professional sport of boxing. I believe it is fair to say that the name of Frankie Carbo today symbolizes the degeneration of professional boxing into a racket. This man is beyond redemption.” Carbo was sentenced to two years at Rikers Island.
The welterweight title would cost Carbo more than just a short bid at Rikers Island. When Akins, who had demolished Vince Martinez to win the vacant championship in 1958, dropped a decision to middling Don Jordan, the stage was set for Carbo to plummet from the dark heights he had attained. Jordan was managed by a used car salesman named Don Nesseth, an amateur with no ties to the Jacobs Beach mob. West Coast Promoter Jackie Leonard had facilitated the Jordan–Akins matchup, promising Palermo and Carbo that Nesseth would cooperate with them if his fighter scored an upset. He was wrong. “You son-of-a-bitching double-crosser,” Carbo eventually told Leonard. “You are no good. Your word is no good. Nothing is good about you. Just because you are two thousand miles away, that is no sign I can’t have you taken care of. I have got plenty of friends out there to take care of punks like you.”
After threats, intimidation, a beating, and a firebombing, Leonard became a witness for the prosecution. Carbo was found guilty of extortion and conspiracy, among other counts, and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. Palermo received a fifteen-year jolt.
Carbo served some of his sentence at Alcatraz before transferring to McNeil Island Penitentiary. In 1975, he was released because of deteriorating health, and he died on November 9, 1976, in Florida, leaving only memories of broken dreams, this pitiless man they sometimes called “The Gray.”
In the early 1970s, after splitting his prison sentence between Leavenworth and Lewisburg, Blinky Palermo returned to Philadelphia, where he tried picking up where he left off. He rekindled some friendships with subterranean holdovers from the gangster era, including “Honest” Bill Daly, now operating out of sunny Puerto Rico. Then it was revealed that he owned a piece of heavyweight contender Jimmy Young. Finally, Palermo ignited a firestorm when he applied to the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission for a managerial license. Public opprobrium, however, was overwhelming, and Palermo withdrew his application.
After Palermo died in 1996, Al Braverman, a boxing lifer, offered the perfect Blinky anecdote to Robert Cassidy of The Ring. “He couldn’t resist a candy bar,” Braverman said. “He’d walk into a place and walk out with a candy bar. Only he never paid for them.”