Abner “Longie” Zwillman has been gone for more than 50 years, but the idea of a Jewish gangster with a love for his people and the fledgling State of Israel still manages to hold interest and evoke some grudging credit.
A native New Jerseyan, Zwillman was born in Newark in 1904. Forced to quit school to support his family after his father’s death in 1918, he eventually became involved in the numbers racket before graduating to bootlegging during Prohibition, importing liquor through Canada, and earning the nickname “the Jewish Al Capone.”
Coproducers Michael Weismann and Matthew Miele, former roommates at Syracuse University, have spent the last seven years working on a documentary with the working title Gentleman Gangster: The Longie Zwillman Story, which tells the story of this man of contradictions.
“He was part of the ‘Big Six’ — Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, Joey Adonis, and Frank Costello — three Jews and three Italians,” said Weismann from his home in Phoenix, putting Zwillman in context with his criminal contemporaries. “They were all partners. They divided up the northeast part of the country. Our argument is that Longie was bigger than all these guys because he was into more things,” including bootlegging, gambling, casinos, hotels, and the film industry, among other nefarious activities.
Weismann suggested that he was even bigger than Capone because, according to the filmmaker’s research, Longie was responsible for 40 percent of all the illegal alcohol brought into this country during Prohibition. “If one person has 40 percent, that clearly, easily makes him the biggest bootlegger. He had an iron grip on New Jersey.”
Over the years, Weismann — a former resident of South Orange, Basking Ridge, and Warren — made periodic trips to the Aidekman campus in Whippany, where his research in the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest yielded photos, recordings, articles, and, perhaps most importantly, local people who knew Zwillman.
“You go to one person, who leads to another, who leads to another,” said Weismann. “It’s a whole Jewish geography. The connections were just amazing.
“Most people were open to talking,” he said, but one person interviewed in the film is not identified, and only his hands are shown when he is speaking. “Some people were nervous to [talk] because they think something is going to happen to them.”
The 38-year-old Weismann discerned a generational divide when it came to talking about Zwillman. “For the older generation, the whole gangster thing was kind of shameful. Now, with The Sopranos and The Godfather and Goodfellas, my generation thinks it’s a cool thing.”
Under the gangster radar
Like many anti-heroes, Zwillman had a certain charisma and charm. “He was a hero to the Jewish people in Newark and Irvington and the surrounding area because he would form this group of Jewish boxers who would throw these stink bombs in the meetings of the Bund” — the German-American pro-Nazi movement — “and wait for them to run outside and be waiting for them with bats, sticks, and fists and beat the crap out of them.”
Zwillman was also a Zionist sympathizer, and helped ship arms to Israel during its fight for independence.
He had friends in high places, too, according to Weismann, a former producer at News 12 New Jersey. “He had everyone from the cop on the beat all the way up to the governor in his back pocket. He had [Gov.] Harold Hoffman to his shore house; he had the mayor of Newark over for brunch every weekend.
For all his “talents,” Zwillman has gone under the gangster radar. There’s no mention of him in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, which is based in Atlantic City during Prohibition, nor in Mobsters, a series on the Biography Channel. “I’m curious to know why that is,” said Weismann. “He was huge! He dated Jean Harlow, he helped start Columbia Pictures because he loaned Harry Cohn the money.
“It’s a fascinating story.”
Zwillman died under mysterious circumstances in 1959 at the age of 54. Some say he committed suicide brought on by the stress of a tax evasion trial; others say he was bumped off. “I guess there are some compelling arguments on both sides,” Weismann said, although he declines to offer an opinion. “We want to leave it to the audience to decide.”
The initial money for the Gentleman Gangster project came from Longie Zwillman’s stepson, John Steinbach, and a few colleagues. When that ran out — part of it went to engage Richard Dreyfuss as narrator — Michael Weismann said he and his partner, Matthew Miele, “begged, borrowed, and stole to get people to work on this for free.” They decided to use Kickstarter — a website developed to help artists, musicians, authors, and other creative projects to raise awareness — and funds (see sidebar). With five days to go, they have received more than half their goal of $25,000.
“It’s an easy way to get it out there, as opposed to strictly word of mouth,” Weismann said. The site includes the trailer, so “it’s easier for people to see something.”