The old men behind the gay bars and bathhouses of yesteryear are like Grizabella the Glamour Cat singing Memory.
And they're also singing like canaries.
In recent years memoirs have come out by Steve Ostrow who owned the Continental Baths and Charles Scaglione Sr. who owned the hustler bar Rounds in which the historic role of the mob in New York City's gay venues is discussed.
And now Chuck Renslow, the 82-year-old businessman who has been a dominant fixture in gay nightlife in Chicago, IL since 1959 with the opening of Gold Coast, is the subject of the biography Leatherman by Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen in which the barkeep and bathhouse operator is quoted extensively concerning the historic pervasiveness of the Outfit in the industry.
Renslow believes that at the time he opened Gold Coast it was the only gay bar "not Mafia controlled," and claims he remained one of the few operators well into the late 1970s and early 1980s -- a period during which he owned dozens of gay establishments -- who was not a mob front. However, he readily admits that he otherwise had to play ball with the syndicate boys which included a monthly cash payment of $200 and the use of their vending services. Renslow states:
That was the reality of having a bar in Chicago at that time. I got lucky. I had some protection early on. In all fairness, they didn't want to own you -- they just wanted a little bit, they just wanted their cut. It was maybe a couple hundred a month. Like clockwork on the first of the month or whatever, two bagmen in silk suits would come around asking for money. Then there were other things, like we had to use the Outfit's jukebox company. * * * We also had to use their towel distributors, glass distributors and bar goods companies -- things like that.
Although $200 a month in 1959 was no small sum, Renslow says the Mafia "made more money" by requiring the use of its suppliers.
The principal contact with whom Renslow dealt was Johnny Gattuso who was a Cook County sheriff's deputy and the nephew of Rush Street crew boss James "Jimmy the Monk" Allegretti . The Monk, a degenerate who was charged in 1959 with paying $30 for oral sex from an underage girl although the case inexplicably was dismissed a month later, controlled many gay bars for the Outfit on the Near North Side.
When someone attempted to muscle in on one of Renslow's bars in 1971 he went to Gattuso who promptly took care of the problem by "beat[ing] the crap" out of the interloper. In 1972 the FBI opened an investigation after an informant alleged that Renslow was a front for Gattuso; however, Renslow always denied that he was a mob front, and no charges were ever brought.
Frankly, Gattuso let Renslow off cheap. By the mid-1960s Gattuso had convinced dozens of tavern owners to convert their strip tease joints and B-girl dives into gay watering holes, and "he would receive 50 percent of the profits" in cash and half of the tavern's corporate stock was "placed in the name of a mob front man" as reported by Robert Wiedrich in a May 15, 1966 article from the Chicago Tribune:
In the last year, mobsters have been using force or the lure of high profits to convert at least 14 financially foundering taverns into lucrative hangouts for homosexuals. Investigators estimate that these places are putting at least one million dollars a year into crime syndicate coffers.
Although Renslow may not have been a front for Gattuso, he certainly jumped when Gattuso said jump.
In May 1973 Renslow purchased the landmark three-story limestone Dewes Mansion for $240,000. However, after accusations surfaced at the end of the decade that Renslow was holding the property for the Outfit, Gattuso and "the clothing store mobster who had a men's store on State Street" together allegedly told him to swap it at a significant loss with a local politico for a more humble dwelling. The "clothing store mobster" to whom Renslow refers presumably was haberdasher Joseph "Little Caesar" DiVarco who took over as the Rush Street crew boss after the death of Allegretti in 1969. That certainly would have been one high-powered visit for a mere barkeep to receive.
DiVarco was a focus of an intense FBI investigation in the early 1970s -- perhaps the same investigation which encompassed Renslow -- for his suspected role in trafficking drugs, skimming profits and blackmailing homosexuals out of the gay bars. An October 4, 1973 article ("Cops, pols, mob in gay bar payoffs") by Bob Wiedrich from the Chicago Tribune states:
Scholars seeking a textbook example of the unholy alliance between crooked police, politicians, and mobsters need look no further than Chicago's North Side. For there, in a network of 20 nightclubs and bars catering to the specialized recreational needs of homosexuals, the mutually avaricious interests of these groups are interwoven in a tragic tapestry of corruption. In short, thieving lawmen and politicians have joined forces with crime syndicate gangsters to prey upon some of society's most vulnerable—the gay people. * * * From the Chicago River to the northern city limits, the Justice Department men have spent two years probing a cesspool of extortions and blackmail, not only of tavern owners, but successful and prosperous homosexuals fearful their secret will be exposed to business associates. Also involved in the inquiry is an estimated multi-million dollar rip off of state, local, and federal taxes thru the illicit "skimming" of profits from certain gay bar operations in which gangsters are known to have a hidden interest, plus a flourishing traffic in narcotics. * * * Probably the most tragic victims of the widespread shakedowns, investigators report, are the well to do homosexual businessmen who have submitted to continuing blackmail under threat of arrest on real or trumped up charges.
Gattuso's last visit with Renslow was in early 1983 when the mobster confessed to the barkeep that he had botched the February hit on Ken Eto who controlled the numbers racket, and now feared that his own number was up. Eto incredibly survived 3 bullets to the head to become a government informant. A few months later the decomposing bodies of Gattuso and his accomplice Jasper Campise were discovered in a car trunk. DiVarco fared much better. Investigators suspected he merely was demoted, and that Joseph "Big Joe" Arnold -- DiVarco's partner in the haberdashery -- took over the Rush Street crew.
As a result of Eto's cooperation in December 1983 the feds indicted five defendants, including reputed Rush Street crew bosses DiVarco and Arnold, for their alleged roles in shaking down gay bars in the Old Town and Near North Side neighborhoods. However, charges were dismissed against DiVarco after his defense lawyers produced records showing that a bar from which he allegedly extorted payoffs in 1979 had gone out of business three years earlier, and three out of the other four defendants, including Arnold, were later acquitted at trial.
The Outfit allegedly continued to shake down some gay bars at least well into the 1980s. During the so-called Family Secrets trial against the Outfit in 2007 government witness Red Wemette testified that from 1974 through 1988 during which he operated his smut shop "all the adult bookstores and gay bars in the neighborhood a mile north of downtown were paying street tax to mob extortionists" from the Grand Avenue crew headed by Joseph "Joey the Clown" Lombardo.
Who knew running gay bars and baths could involve such mob drama?