I borrowed a copy of "The Gangs of New York" -- the book, not the movie. I've only had time enough to read the foreword, the introduction, and some of the first chapter, and I'm already enthralled, but maybe it's just me and my fascination with gangland culture. (Also, the descriptions of lower Manhattan and its streets and avenues are awesome. I work in the area, so it's cool to actually know where these streets are. Canal Street is so named because there was an actual river flowing down it. Fact!)
And I couldn't believe that this book was published in 1927. The Prohibition Era hadn't even ended. I'm still reading Jerome Charyn's "Gangsters & Gold Diggers," which I feel picks up on the story where Herbert Asbury left off. Because while Asbury was writing this, Owney Madden was still alive and kicking. He's mentioned near the end of "Gangs of New York," but as far as I can tell, Asbury says he disappeared from sight. I find this immensely interesting, because Charyn says otherwise. Sure, he may have dropped out of the public eye -- Madden didn't like publicity anyways -- but he was still actively operating on the underground.
Why do I focus on Owney Madden so much? I guess having read his story, he comes off as the quintessential gangster with a heart of gold. Tarnished gold, of course. In the latter part of his career, he wasn't interested in killing people anymore. He didn't find a reason for it, when a "smile and an occasional firm command by telephone" would get the job done. Mae West, who was one of his lovers, called him "so sweet yet so vicious."
Whether it's grounded in fact or fiction, historically accurate or just a perpetuation of a myth, whatever it was that this guy exuded is the stuff that just grabs my imagination and makes me wonder...