In 1960 funny man Leonard "Lenny" Gaines and talent agent Wynn "Brownie" Lassner partnered together to open restaurant Imperiale at 322 East 44th Street but quickly lost it to mob loan sharks after Lassner was unable to pay off his gambling debts according to an informant who dished to the FBI in February 1961. Both men were well known in the entertainment field and nightlife circles. Gaines started his career as a comedian and writer but by the 1970s had gone into acting after Martin Scorsese cast him as a record executive in New York, New York. Lassner once was married to pop singer Eileen Barton and later engaged to Meyer Lansky's daughter Sandra until the Genovese mobster put the kibosh on the nuptials. The FBI documents reference two names in connection with the record ownership of the Imperiale. Although Gaines's name is unredacted the other name is redacted but presumably is Lassner given news reports from the day which identify him as the only partner with Gaines during Imperiale's short-lived operation.
According to the FBI informant when Imperiale was launched by Gaines and Lassner in 1960 it became "an immediate success and began to earn an excellent income." Although the restaurant was not mob controlled at this time the source advised that labor racketeer George Scalise "arranged for his girl friend to obtain the hat check concession at the Imperiale, for which he paid $2,000 in cash," and "Scalise spent a great deal of time in the restaurant, but was always well behaved."
The FBI informant alleged that Lassner enjoyed gambling but it had become uncontrollable once Gambino wise guy Charles De Lutro agreed to take his bets, and eventually Charlie West was threatening Lassner with physical harm unless payment was forthcoming:
He [informant] advised that [Lassner] had a weakness in betting on sporting events such as baseball, football and basketball games. He stated that he always bet heavily, but always managed to stay about even, and therefore, experienced no difficulty in paying off his losses to the two or three bookies that he bet with on these events. [Lassner] controlled his betting until one evening he was approached by Charles De Lutro, also known as Charlie West. De Lutro introduced himself and offered to take any bet [Lassner] wished to make. He stated that [Lassner] began to increase his bets to a point where he was betting with six or seven bookies, some of whom were recommended by De Lutro. Finally, the inevitable happened over New Year's weekend, 1961, when [Lassner] lost $12,000 which he was unable to pay. De Lutro began to threaten [Lassner] with bodily harm if he did not pay off.
And a threat from De Lutro was not to be discounted. The Gambino mobster was a violent psychopath, and once "beat a young boy unmercifully" at the mob-controlled Pillow Talk according to an FBI informant:
In January, 1962, Confidential Source 3 advised that Ruby Stein and [redacted], two well known New York City factors, make a career in taking over New York night clubs which are in trouble. He advised that they have operated in many instances as a "front" for George Scalise. At the same time, he advised that recently Charles De Lutro beat a young boy unmercifully in the "Pillow Talk," 2nd Avenue and 57th Street, New York City. He advised that the beating was kept quite because [redacted] true name [redacted] is heavily indebted to shylocks who own a piece of the club.
Saul Schneiderman, the President of Nu Lite Electric Company, initially agreed to a deal with Lassner and Gaines in exchange for a piece of Imperiale which would provide weekly payments to De Lutro but the Gambino family was not in a negotiating mood and insisted upon full payment according to the FBI informant:
At the time of his trouble with De Lutro, [Lassner] was approached by Sol Schneiderman, who offered to help him settle his difficulties with the bookies. [Lassner] became desperate and he and Gaines agreed to sell Schneiderman 26 2/3 percent of the business. Meetings were held with the bookies involved and all agreed to accept weekly payments from [Lassner] except De Lutro. De Lutro brought in his boss, Aniello Dellacroce, and they insisted upon receiving their money.
Schneiderman allegedly brought in George Scalise to deal with the Gambino resistance but "subsequently, Schneiderman reneged on his deal and suggested bringing in New York factors, Ruby Stein and [redacted] who agreed to pay off the debts in return for 10 percent of the business." However, after Stein obtained his hidden interest in Imperiale, "an anonymous letter was received by the New York State Liquor (SLA) advising SLA that [Lassner] and Gaines had unregistered owners as partners in their restaurant," and "this resulted in their losing their license." Of course, Lassner and Gaines then "lost their entire investment and the Imperiale was forced to close."
And you know what's the real kicker? According to the FBI the restaurant "reopened shortly thereafter as La Fontaine with Sol Schneiderman as sole owner of record," and "is operating as a successful business and is frequented by many top hoodlums of the New York area." And don't let the French name fool you; La Fontaine served Italian cuisine.
Apparently the Mafia continued to haunt Lassner even after he had paid off his debts, lost Imperiale and moved on with his new venture. You see, once you're in for a penny with the mob you're in for a pound. In 1964 Lassner was operating the Brown Jug at 1122 First Avenue, and Genovese soldier Joseph Agone insisted upon a piece of Brownie's action by giving the poor dear an ignoble beat down according to an FBI informant. (Can't you just hear Brownie protesting: "but I used to bang -- I mean date -- Lansky's daughter!") Once again, although the name is redacted it presumably is Lassner given the press accounts identifying him as the joint's host. The FBI report provides the following:
Confidential Source 3 stated that one of the terrifying things about owing a shylock, is that even after the indebtedness is paid, the shylock always feels as though he is entitled to "a piece" of any action you have going. He cited, for example, the case of [Lassner] who borrowed money from Joseph Agone in 1961 and repaid the debt in full. [Lassner] subsequently opened a night club called the Brown Jug, East 61st Street and 1st Avenue, New York City. Agone and his associates started coming to the club every evening indicating to [Lassner] that he should make them his partners. [Lassner] continued to refuse to do so, stating that he did not owe them any money. On the morning of January [illegible], 1964, Agone visited [Lassner] accompanied by [redacted], Harry Bernow, [redacted], and two others. Agone again suggested to [Lassner] that he take them in as partners, and [Lassner] refused. They got [Lassner] in back of the night club and proceeding to assault him. [Lassner] was hit on the head with a steel water pitcher by Agone which required six stitches and was kicked and beaten by the others.
The same informant further alleged on October 7, 1964 to the FBI "that Joseph Agone had maneuvered in on Red Pollack's, East 55th Street, New York City, through a $5,000 shylock loan," and "he advised that [redacted] was afraid to make a complaint and allowed Agone to openly manage this restaurant."
Brownie Lassner also hosted The Tenement at 1046 Second Avenue according to press accounts although he was not the record owner. The owner was Frank Jacklone whose first application for a liquor license was denied due to his association with Lassner but the second application together with an alleged mob-supplied bribe for Liquor Authority chief Martin Epstein secured the license. The FBI report recounting the informant's allegations provides the following:
He advised that in July, 1962, [Frank Jacklone], the son of a garment center suitmaker, built The Tenement at the cost of $120,000 of his father's money. In business with him he had [redacted] in some way. Confidential Source 3 advised that [redacted] was an inveterate gambler and shortly after the club opened, borrowed $13,000 from Anthony Cusumano, a cousin of East Harlem gang leader, Anthony Ferro. In addition, [redacted] was $16,000 in the hole, which money he had to borrow to pay a bribe to New York SLA Chief Morris Epstein. [Redacted] were paying "vig" of $2,000 a week on this $16,000 loan, which money did not apply to the principal. Ultimately, Cusamano and Ferro took over the complete control and operation of The Tenement, and [redacted] are back working in the garment center. As a result of this operation, [Frank Jacklone] was forced to testify before New York County Court regarding payoffs to Epstein through [redacted]. He and [redacted] have, as a result been blackballed insofar as ever attaining a New York night club license.
Epstein was ousted from his spot with the SLA and indicted for his alleged role in the bribery scheme but a sympathetic judge found him too ill for trial.
If you would like to support this blog please consider purchasing a copy of The Mafia and the Gays by Phillip Crawford Jr. Thank you!
Further reading that may be of interest: