This Day in Jewish History |

1996: A Mobster and Lawyer Who Defended Himself Beautifully Dies

'A nod from Korshak, and Vegas shuts down': Sidney Korshak had an A-list of clients, but his true power arose from organized crime

David Green
David B. Green
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Sidney Korshak (left) on the book cover of Supermob by Gus Russo and Al Capone. Korshak defended members of Al Capone’s crime syndicate.
Sidney Korshak (left) on the book cover of Supermob by Gus Russo and Al Capone. Korshak defended members of Al Capone’s crime syndicate.Credit: Screenshot/AP
David Green
David B. Green

On January 20, 1996, Sidney Korshak, a lawyer who parlayed his knowledge of the law into avoiding arrest or indictment while carrying on a profitable career in U.S. organized crime, died, at the age of 88. In the first of a series of investigative pieces about him, in 1976, The New York Times noted that, “To scores of Federal, state and local law enforcement officials, Mr. Korshak is the most important link between organized crime and legitimate business.”

With his role as lawyer to some of the nation’s biggest labor unions, his reputation among the Chicago mafia as “our man,” and his connections in the entertainment and hotel industries, Korshak became known as a “fixer,” someone who could make seemingly impossible deals materialize, and the threat of crippling strikes magically evaporate.

Writing about his close friend in his 1994 memoir, former Paramount Pictures chief Robert Evans put it like this: "Let's just say that a nod from Korshak, and the teamsters change management. A nod from Korshak, and Santa Anita [racetrack] closes. A nod from Korshak, and Vegas shuts down. A nod from Korshak, and the Dodgers can suddenly play night baseball."

How to entrap a senator

Sidney Roy Korshak was born on June 6, 1907, in Chicago. His father, Harry Korshak, was a Kiev-born Jew who had succeeded as a building contractor in Chicago. His mother was the former Rebecca Beatrice Lashkovitz, born in Odessa.

Sidney’s older brother, Theodore, became a small-time Chicago criminal and drug addict, who died in obscurity in 1971. His younger brother, Marshall, also became a lawyer, but he went on to a career in Chicago politics and in the Illinois state senate, which was at least nominally different from a career in organized crime.

Al Pacino in Godfather II.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Growing up in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood, Sidney attended the Theodore Herzl elementary school, Marshall High School, the University of Wisconsin (where he was a boxing champion), and DePaul University, where he obtained his law degree in 1930.

Within months, Korshak was defending members of Al Capone’s crime syndicate. When necessary, he would arrange for a judge to be paid off so as to guarantee the desired verdict. Additionally, as one former Chicago judge told the New York Times, “Sidney always had contact with high-class girls. Not your $50 girl, but girls costing $250 or more."

It was Korshak too, according to a source interviewed by The Times, who arranged for Senator Estes Kefauver, who had come to Chicago in 1952 to take testimony for his organized-crime commission, to be entrapped by a prostitute (and a hidden camera) at the Drake Hotel. Confronted with the images, Kefauver hurriedly left town without hearing a single witness.

Guess who cast Al Pacino in 'Godfather'

Korshak’s secret strength was his ability to mediate between his legitimate clients - which included Hilton and Hyatt, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Max Factor and General Dynamics - and the crime organizations and powerful labor unions with which he was involved.

It was he, for example who organized all of the pension funds of the huge Teamsters labor union under a single roof. He then used the truck drivers’ collected retirement savings as a private bank for off-the-books loans to the film industry and the burgeoning hotel scene in Las Vegas. It was not out of graciousness that Teamsters chief Jimmy Hoffa famously vacated the presidential suite at the Riviera Hotel in Vegas for Korshak, when the latter arrived for a conclave of Teamsters lawyers in 1961.

And, according to long piece in Vanity Fair that ran shortly after Korshak’s death, he was the man who made the phone call to MGM owner Kirk Kerkorian that convinced him that is studio should release actor Al Pacino from another film so that he could appear in Paramount’s “Godfather.” Korshak had reportedly asked Kerkorian, a hotel magnate, if he really wanted to get construction on his next hotel finished.

Sidney Korshak died of a heart attack at his Beverly Hills home, just one day after his younger brother, Marshall, died in Chicago, at age 85.

Credit: YouTube

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