Some schoolkids are inspired by reading and writing, others by music and art.
Harry Gross, a Flatbush laundryman’s son, favored lunch and the study of financial margins.
“I remember him as a nice little fat boy,” Anna Ledwith, his sixth-grade teacher, told a writer. “But he was always the little businessman, always with some business interest after school. I felt like he was going to be a big man.”
Shlubby little Harry became such a big deal that he singlehandedly toppled the NYPD’s hierarchy in a forgotten scandal from the 1950s.
Harry quit school after Mrs. Ledwith’s class, having mastered the calculation of vigorish.
His spent his adolescence sweeping floors in Brooklyn candy stores while dabbling in nickel-and-dime bookmaking out the back door.
By age 24 in 1940, Gross was a heavy-pocketed bookie, a business with risks.
In 1941, a cop approached disapprovingly as Gross was palming cash on a Flatbush streetcorner.
“You’re a sucker for working this way,” the cop growled. “You ought to get an OK.”
The OK was procured via police bribes. The cop explained that small contributions might keep him safe in a precinct or division, but bigger boodles would percolate up the chain of command.
Gross recounted the cop’s lecture: ”He says, ‘I can get you an OK from the division, but you’re a sucker if you don’t go all the way. We won’t bother you, but what about the men from the other commands?’ So I said I wanted to go all the way.”
Did he ever.
In wartime New York, he built a network of wire-room shops handling thousands of weekly bets on thoroughbreds and prizefights. Gross lorded over 20 rooms in Brooklyn alone, and his web eventually extended across the city and into the suburbs.
He was a prototype sharp-dressed mobster, though his mug and physique were more John Belushi than John Gotti.
Gross hid his family away in affluent Atlantic Beach, L.I. He lived at the opulent Towers Hotel in Brooklyn Heights and conducted business from The Dugout, a smudgy Empire Blvd. saloon in the shadow of Ebbets Field.
He was soon pulling in $20 million a year—roughly $300 million today. He tithed $80,000 monthly to an enabling syndicate of 300 dirty cops, from busted-shoe beat-walkers to the suits in Oxfords at headquarters.
Bag men would heave stacks of cash into The Dugout, where a paymaster apportioned the loot and channeled it to bluecoats and brass.
Gross shrugged off the $1 million a year as a business expense—a 5% vig for the cops.
He sometimes negotiated bribes right inside stationhouses, including confabs with Capt. Joseph Workman at the 70th Precinct and Capt. Jacob Abowitz at the 71st.
Gross became a police fixer, using his cash influence to finagle transfers and promotions. He was tight with Inspector Frederick Hofsaes, a Brooklyn division boss. He pulled strings to get Hofsaes’ daughter into Sweet Briar College in Virginia, and he gave the inspector a television set for Christmas 1948.
Word got around, and a year later a dozen cops stood in line. He dished out TVs like holiday turkeys.
The graft racket was an open secret by 1947, and Brooklyn DA Miles McDonald placed a wiretap on The Dugout, mining a trove of evidence.
This included verification of a remarkable financial rescue when a run of hefty payouts threatened to bankrupt the bookie in 1949. Cops fronted $100,000 to get Gross back in the black—and keep the bribes coming. The loan included $15,000 from Capt. Workman and $35,000 from a lowly patrolman, William Campbell.
Amid whispers of impending indictments in June 1950, 30 cops suddenly retired to preserve pensions. With headquarters on tenterhooks, Mayor William O’Dwyer, the Irish-born ex-cop and noted pal of mobsters, fired a preemptive salvo—echoed today by America’s tweeter-in-chief—when he declared McDonald’s probe a “witch hunt.”
But facing denouement, O’Dwyer resigned on Aug. 31, 1950. Two weeks later Gross was arrested on 66 counts of gambling and bribery. Twenty-one cops were charged with protecting the bookie from “police molestations, detection and interference.”
It was a complicated prosecution. Gross agreed to cooperate, then reneged — and briefly went on the lam — when his wife got letters threatening their children.
He was persuaded into court, where his testimony led to 10 convictions. More importantly, the scandal lowered the boom on top-floor police brass, including the commissioner, many deputies, and several chiefs, all O’Dwyer’s lads.
Complicit or unaware, they were forced to resign. The NYPD was purged of some 250 cops, and all 336 plainclothes officers were busted back into uniform.
O’Dwyer was handed a controversial ambassadorship to Mexico by President Harry Truman, but he never escaped the stink of the scandal.
Harry Gross served eight years in prison and migrated to Los Angeles after parole, still just 42. He followed the same crooked path there. He was locked up for three years after beating his wife’s grandfather to death in 1959 and was subsequently arrested many times for bookmaking.
In March 1986, Gross was cuffed again while paying $100,000 to buy 13 pounds of heroin. His connection proved to be an undercover federal agent.