Stories that feature ‘Harold Gibbons’

On the plane

This story takes place in 1962. It was told on March 18th, 2011 by Frank.  1 Comment

About a week before the Sinatra comeback date, I called Peter Epstein one last time to make sure we were doing everything that was expected of us. Epstein said, “Say, Harold Gibbons and I are taking the four o’clock flight over to Cleveland Thursday to catch the show there. Why don’t you come with us?” I’d been planning to go up there anyway, to get a first-hand look at how this organization wanted their shows done, but this was even better. On the plane for an hour and a half with these guys, I figured, I would get to hear some of the inside scoop. I might get a peek at the real balance of forces in the entourage, and even at the widely-rumored role of the mob in all this.

“Great idea,” I agreed, trying hard to match his enthusiasm. “I’ll get a ticket and go up with you. Pick me up at my office, will you?” Two days later I was sitting with Epstein in the back seat of his enormous black Pontiac. As the Chicago tenements flashed by, Epstein told me he had sold his home and was selling his business. “We’re moving into a house in Palm Springs, right near where Frank Iives,” he said, wide—eyed. “So that’s your next move, huh?” I said.

“You ought to come along next time Frank takes a trip to Palm Springs,” he said. “You could maybe get on the plane, even. Bring your wife.” That might be fun, I agreed.

It was in fact a very dangerous move Epstein was making, because he was not quite in the inner circle in Sinatra’s throne room. He was still only in the second tier, and the contours of the court changed all the time. I stared at him as he chattered on. This man was living his whole life in the shadow of somebody else’s fantasy.

We boarded the plane with Harold Gibbons and a third man I don’t remember well, a groupie-in-training from the oilfield supply business. This was his first invitation into the inner circle and he was patently thrilled to be included. He wasn’t saying much, just grinning and nodding.

To my disappointment, the only two subjects discussed on the plane were status and women. As the flight wore on, I heard nothing about Sinatra’s people or any other questionable characters. Epstein and Gibbons went on at length about who was going to be at the concert, who was traveling with Frank on his plane, who had got in to see him, who would get to go back with him to California, where in the pecking order they fit, and where they might end up.

There were people who just got to the ramp of Sinatra’s airplane, and there were those who got to go aboard. On the plane itself, there was an even finer set of distinctions. No women were allowed, except those currently being used by one of the men in the inner circle. There were some men who got to ride in the plane but sat in the front. Then there were those who evidently had unlimited entree. There was no question that Gibbons, the former radical labor leader from St. Louis, had that.

They carried on about women until I was just embarrassed for them. I was neither a prude nor an emancipated man, by today’s standards, but the way these men went after the stewardess would have been enough to make a Bob Packwood flinch. I said nothing. I just wanted to get out of this situation as quickly as possible.

Grasping for a way to get them to shut up, I turned to Gibbons. “So, Harold,” I broke in. “Heard from our mutual friend Sid Lens lately?” Gibbons turned so white I thought for a moment he was airsick. He didn’t ask what that meant, and he never did find out — not from me, at least. Old leftist connections were no small embarrassment to Gibbons. He was running the St. Louis joint board, he was Jimmy Hoffa’s number two man, he was beginning to play a national role in “liberal-labor” glamour politics, and he was part of the Sinatra entourage; all these interlocking things made him a far cry from the Harold Gibbons who founded one of the more dynamic warehouse unions in the country. I sat there quietly for the rest of the flight, enjoying his shaken expression.

Big, big, big

This story takes place in 1962. It was told on February 25th, 2010 by The editor.  4 Comments

Peter Epstein took the stairs up to my office two at a time, his blue silk jacket unbuttoned and floating along behind him. “I knew this was gonna be big, big, big,” he announced. “Harold Gibbons is coming in ahead of the Sinatra tour!” I sat up. “The Harold Gibbons?” “Teamster Number Two,” Epstein nodded triumphantly.

I wondered what Epstein would think if he knew what I knew about Harold Gibbons. I decided to keep it to myself for now.

Eight weeks ago I’d taken a long-distance call from Willard Alexander in New York. All I knew about him was that he was the agent who booked Count Basie, Harry James, and some other big ballroom acts.

We exchanged pleasantries. “Sinatra,” he told me, “is going out on tour with Basie.” Alexander had come up with the idea himself, he said. “I told him just last month, I said, ‘Frankie, you ought to be playing with Basie. You should go out on a tour.’ He says to me, ‘Gee, you think I can draw that many people?’ Of course he can, right?” Right, I agreed.

I was not in the ballroom business, however, and I knew very little about that side of the market. “What does this have to do with me?” I wondered.

“You, my friend, are the promoter on the Chicago dates,” Alexander said, exhaling again. My eyebrows went up. “Who says?” “Me,” he answered. “Frank says Iet’s do it, so right away I think, who’s the only guy in that town for the kind of show we want to do? Frank’s people want a first-class production at a major venue. Mr. Fried, of course.” He was gilding things a bit, I thought — I had never done any business with Alexander. He was the agent for most of the remaining big bands. I didn’t do big bands. But I said, “Yes? Go on.”

“We’II take a thirty-five thousand dollar guarantee against sixty percent, you keep the rest. Deal?” I thought for a moment. It was the most money I’d ever paid for an act. But this was a huge infusion of prestige to be handed without so much as asking.

I had a virtual lock on the use of McCormick Place, and I knew I had enough in the bank to come up with the front money. “DeaI,” I said.

“Peter Epstein — do you know him? He’s gonna be taking care of some things for Frank on the Midwest part of the tour, outside of the actual concerts,” Alexander said. “He’ll be in touch.”

That evening I was sitting across the table from a booking agent friend of mine at the Chicago Hilton, my favorite place for dinner. When I told him about my unexpected conversation with Willard Alexander, he straightened up and gave me a long look. “I hope you know what you’re getting into,” he said.

“What do you mean?” He shook his head. “Frank, Frank. Haven’t you been paying attention? Sinatra played the Villa Moderne last year with Sammy Davis and Dean Martin. People said it was the biggest floating crap game in America.”

“ReaIly?” I asked. The Villa Moderne was a small club outside the city limits, where you could do things the authorities didn’t want to know about.

“The heaviest collection of heavies in many years,” he nodded. “Word was they were paying off some kind of obligation. Obviously, Sinatra’s people want to clean up their image. There’s a lot image and money riding on this comeback of his, and they don’t want to jeopardize it by letting the mob reputation get out of hand.” Aha, I thought. Hence the presence of Willard Alexander, a booking agent who never booked anything like this. Add the innocent Frank Fried, and you have yet another layer of kosher. I told him about the man who was supposed to be calling to oversee things.

“Epstein? The biggest Pontiac dealer in the country? Nice guy. They say he’s General Motors’ link to the mob.” I stared at him for a moment, wondering, not for the first time, if I knew what I was doing.

Strike at Montgomery Ward

This story takes place in 1943. It was told on January 8th, 2010 by The editor.  Be the first to comment

I guess the Montgomery Ward strike was my introduction to the radical movement. lt was one of those struggles that turn people bigger than life, when the radicals’ dreams fuse with the workers’ own aspirations and things get really heady.

The Montgomery Ward workers had done everything right: they had gone through the long process of getting the War Labor Board to certify their complaints, they had spent time working without a contract, they had followed every government order. Now it had come to a showdown: these workers’ right to decent wages and conditions, against the labor bureaucracy’s pledge not to strike while the war was on. The national labor leaders (with the help of the Communist Party, which had switched sides on this one) were doing everything they could to quiet things down and break this union.

I found myself in a group of about thirty students, just about all the anti-Stalinists on campus, from the liberals to the Trotskyists. A group of us went downtown to the strike office and said, “We’re the University of Chicago Labor Rights Society. How can we help?” The organizers told us we could help raise money, we could help picket — it was one of those wide-open situations in which you just do what you can. We went to work getting University of Chicago students to give money to the strike fund, and we shivered with the picketers in the cold outside Montgomery Ward. Nobody seemed to mind that we were students.

Sidney Lens was a radical labor organizer and writer, and an SWP veteran. Harold Gibbons had built a militant warehousemen’s local years before in St. Louis. Lens and Gibbons made a pilgrimage up to the Communist Party‘s labor stronghold in Minneapolis to try to get the Party to change its line and support the Montgomery Ward workers. Without the support of the unions the Party led, there was no hope of winning this strike. (Keep an eye on Gibbons. He shows up again later in the story.)

Gibbons and Lens came back two days later and told us it was no go. After that the Montgomery Ward workers finally lost hope. The union was broken.

I was awfully disappointed that those people had to go back in without a contract. I was angry at Roosevelt, who I’d admired greatly for his New Deal reforms. I was angry at the whole system — the contrast between what our democracy professes to be and what it really is. Young as I was, I knew hypocrisy when I saw it and I yearned for a way to attack it. l decided I was a radical, maybe a socialist.