Neal Karlen's Gangster Paradise

Neal Karlen lives in a different Minneapolis than the rest of us.

Neal Karlen
Photo by Caitlin Abrams

Imagine a country gripped by a hot new period cable series, but it’s not Downton Abbey or Mad Men. It’s Boardwalk Empire meets Fargo, centered on Jewish gangsters in Minneapolis in the 1920s to 1960s. This isn’t too far-fetched, because the executive producer of the cable drama Weeds has optioned Minneapolis writer Neal Karlen’s latest book, Augie’s Secrets: The Minneapolis Mob and the King of the Hennepin Strip.

The book is about his grandmother’s cousin Augie Ratner. Augie’s name, of course, lives on—on that well-known sign on Hennepin Avenue. Ratner founded Augie’s Bourbon Street Cabaret, then a burlesque house, and he was pals or pals-once-removed with seemingly every Jewish gangster in America. He was best friends with Yiddy Bloom, the brother of Kid Cann, the Minneapolis bootlegging king, who in turn was best friends with Meyer Lansky, the greatest Jewish gangster of them all, who was in turn allied with Bugsy Siegel, who has been played by Warren Beatty.

Meanwhile, a hit man named Icepick Alderman roamed Minneapolis, killing people by getting them very drunk and inserting something long and steely in one ear. And Hubert Humphrey figures in there somewhere, as the great reformer, who was not as Polly Pureheart as he seemed. If there were to be a cable series, it would have big cars driving through big blizzards, rough-talking showgirls with carefully waved and set hair, big Swedish cops on the take, and a through-line of anti-Semitism in which Jews became gangsters because they were barred from much of the upright world—banned from businesses, golf courses, even the Automobile Club of America. But will this cable series really get made? You never know with television, but if it does, it will be because Neal Karlen never gave up on a very particular version of Minneapolis, one he sees clearly.

“I had been trying to sell this book for 25 years in New York—no one would touch it,” Karlen said over lunch at the Oak Grill at Macy’s, a place that Ratner probably occasioned when it was in Dayton’s. “I had to write it. Minneapolis has totally covered up its past. Nobody remembers that the betting line that every bookmaker in the country used came out of Minneapolis—it was called the Minneapolis Line.” (True, every sports bettor used a spread generated in Minneapolis by one Leo Hirschfield. Why? Because you could mail stuff from the middle of the country and hit the East and West Coasts at the same time, and we had really good phone lines. Bobby Kennedy ended the Minneapolis Line with laws banning the transport across state lines of the materials bookmakers used to create their spread.)

“Everything that Minneapolis is known for is what I pine for—children and a happy home and good schools. I call myself the disloyal opposition, because I love it here, but I want to show the other side, too. The icepicks and gangsters and discrimination.

It turns out that taking 25 years to write about this other Minneapolis was a good thing. Over the years, his sources opened up. “The first time I went to visit them, the reaction was, ‘None of this ever happened. Who told you this?’” Karlen says. “Everyone considered it shameful. Criminals! But something changed. I don’t want to call it gangster chic, but Bugsy, The Godfather, The Sopranos—the old gangsters went from being something everyone denied the existence of to something they were almost proud of.”

With that, Karlen re-enacts a conversation between an elderly husband and wife in different rooms, calling details of bootlegging through the walls and contradicting one another. If you would like to know about old Jews and their memories of the Jewish gangster heyday, an icepick in every ear and a bought cop on every corner, Augie’s Secrets is the only book you need. “The Jewish gangsters all faded away because they had no bench,” Karlen says. “The Italian mobsters wanted their sons to follow them into the business; Jewish gangsters wanted their sons to be radiologists.”

Karlen’s Minneapolis

Where he lives: Kenwood.

Hobbies: Tap dancing and the Minnesota Twins.

Dinner: A fish fry at his dad’s house. “He’s the last of the ice-fishing Jews.”

Dessert: Sebastian Joe’s, where there’s a drink named after him. “I’m trying to teach them cynicism. They’re too nice.”

Sports: Hanging out in the stands at St. Paul Saints games—he’s been a season ticket holder since 1993.

Drinks: Everyone knows his name at Rye Deli and The Lowry, which he frequents with a very Minneapolis group of friends: a member of the school board, a psychologist, a documentary filmmaker, and an aerospace professor.

Speaking of radiologists, Karlen’s father was a doctor and would have liked his son to follow him into medicine, but Karlen felt the call to write. After St. Louis Park High School, he went to New York and ended up at Newsweek and Rolling Stone. He still writes for The New York Times. “But when I was in New York I realized New York Jews are much more confident and much less worried about what the goyim think, so I had to come back. A New York Jew and a Minneapolis Jew are much different animals. This is home. These are my fallacies I need to expose. There’s an earnestness here that bothers me. And I can never quit it.”

If Augie’s Secrets doesn’t end up on cable, his next book just might. He calls it a scurrilous Peyton Place of Minneapolis, a roman à clef about corruption, sex, and decay. “Gay men pretending to be straight. A fancy house on Lake of the Isles housing three consecutive trophy wives. A doyenne of society who used to be a stripper at Augie’s.”

And he’s writing it because he cares.

“I was Rollerblading around Lake of the Isles once and I crashed, I broke my leg, I was lying there in pain, almost blacked out in pain. All of these Kenwood moms were just hurrying past me. My first thought was: ‘Why aren’t you stopping to help me?’ My second thought was: ‘Why aren’t you stopping to marry me?’” says Karlen, who is unhappily single.

“And that’s why I can never leave. I don’t know why I have this urge to prick these people, but I do.”

In the process of pricking these people, Karlen turns what we knew about ourselves upside-down—icepick hit men? serial trophy wives?—and presents a story that’s strangely just as alluring and perhaps more fit for the big screen.