The towering neon sign atop the Hollywood Taft Building at the fabled crossroads of Hollywood and Vine, which once guided fictional private eye Philip Marlowe through a thousand lonely nights, also cast its light on one of 1930s Los Angeles’ most colorful real-life mobsters.
The building was headquarters of the impeccably dressed and courtly Willie Bioff, a convicted Chicago panderer who used the mob’s muscle and labor connections to win a foothold for organized crime in the burgeoning film industry.
Sent to Los Angeles as the shadowy advisor to Al Capone’s Mafia chieftain Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti, Bioff dominated the movie workers union and dictated to movie studio giants desperate to avoid labor problems.
But, after a six-year reign over the motion picture industry, Bioff was indicted for violating the federal anti-racketeering statute. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Three years later, he turned informer and assisted the government in prosecuting eight Chicago mobsters, including Nitti, who allegedly committed suicide before his trial.
Bioff’s descent from labor autocrat to snitch was just one more bump in a turbulent career that began when he was 8 and his father tossed him out on the streets of Chicago’s tough South Side. The boy slept in doorways, peddled papers and ran errands for politicians and underworld big shots. Ultimately, the youngster from a kosher Jewish household began stealing Swift hams from the warehouse of the city’s meatpacking giant.
Somehow, the boy thrived, growing into a burly, 200-pound man. What he lacked in height at 5 feet 6 inches, he made up in ferocity. He could lift a man off the floor with one hand, at arm’s length.
His first career setback was a pandering conviction in February 1922. He was freed on appeal after serving only eight days of a six-month sentence, but his paperwork mysteriously disappeared.
Edging away from riskier endeavors, he began selling “protection” to kosher chicken dealers at Chicago’s Fulton Street Market. Another small-time hoodlum, George Browne, also sold “protection” in the same area, but to Gentile chicken dealers.
When they met, they formed a partnership, B&B;, and agreed to share their income equally.
With Browne’s political clout and trouble-shooting skills and Bioff’s flair for force, they discovered lucrative new business opportunities among the city’s labor unions.
Gaining control of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees local, the backbone of the film industry, they began to squeeze money from theater owners by threatening to pull union projectionists from the booths.
Word of their big scores--gained, in part, by Bioff’s alleged murder of Tommy Malloy, head of the Chicago Projectionists’ Union--reached Nitti, who offered them a partnership they couldn’t refuse. The syndicate promised to support Browne in June 1934 for president of the national stage employees union. Gangsters in major cities made sure that delegates voted “properly.”
The victorious Browne put Bioff in charge of the union’s locals with a $22,000 annual salary.
With the groundwork laid and a master plan to take over all film industry unions and extort 50% of film industry profits, Bioff headed for L.A. with Mafioso Johnny Roselli, a confidant of Harry Cohn, president of Columbia Pictures.
In 1935, they opened B&B;'s West Coast headquarters in the 12-story Hollywood Taft Building--a popular spot for dentists, including one who became famous for making Clark Gable’s false teeth. Bioff briefly returned to Chicago and allegedly killed Louie “Two-Gun” Alterie, a cop-turned-gangster who stunned even his crime buddies when he pumped a pistolful of lead into a horse that had thrown a crime overlord.
Back in L.A., Bioff threatened a nationwide theater strike if the studios’ 30,000 employees didn’t sign up with one of his union’s four craft locals. Although some new members grumbled over an unexplained 2% assessment, which netted the union $1.5 million, most workers went along. As a result of Bioff’s leadership, the studio unions were among the wealthiest labor organizations in the country.
But Bioff wanted control of every studio union, including the actors’ group. He demanded $2 million as the price of labor peace. Balking at the figure, the heads of Paramount, MGM, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. eventually made annual payments to avoid “accidents” on their sets.
With a $100,000 payoff from Joseph Schenck, president of United Artists, Bioff bought his wife, Laurie, an 80-acre ranch--both farmhouse and fortress--that he called the “Laurie A.” It stood at the corner of Shoup Avenue and Oxnard Street in Woodland Hills, near the opulent estates of Tyrone Power, Clark Gable, Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck.
Aiming for a more respectable lifestyle after living out of hotel rooms for most of his 15-year marriage, Bioff enlarged an old adobe, planted alfalfa and a $600 olive tree, and retired each evening with his devoted wife, protected by a platoon of bodyguards.
Heckled by the press for living the grand lifestyle of a movie star, wearing $150 suits, $5 neckties and $15 shirts, he always shot back: “It’s the union that’s rich, not Willie Bioff.”
His most prized possessions were three solid gold, diamond-studded union membership cards from “admirers” in Cleveland, Chicago and Hollywood.
In 1937, when a cadre of studio carpenters, electricians and other technicians called themselves the Federated Motion Picture Crafts and went on a wildcat strike, they hired tough, tattooed longshoremen from San Pedro for protection from Bioff.
Eager for battle, Bioff imported several Chicago hoods, supplied them with Lincoln-Zephyr cars and obtained gun permits from the cooperative Los Angeles Police Department.
But when the gun-toting mobsters arrived at the Pico gate of 20th Century Fox Studios, they found longshoremen armed only with their fists. Although Bioff eventually won the battle, it was the beginning of the mobster’s end.
The state Assembly’s Capital and Labor Committee began hearings in L.A. But no sooner had the shouting matches started than the committee abruptly adjourned. Rumors of a $5,000 payoff circulated but there was no hard evidence.
In 1941, Browne and Bioff were convicted of extorting the studio heads. Schenck was convicted of perjury in connection with the $100,000 bribe.
In prison, Bioff turned informer.
Six other members of the syndicate were convicted of extortion. With their convictions, the syndicate’s direct control of Hollywood craft unions came to an end. Browne is said to have died of natural causes soon after his release from prison.
Released, Bioff took the name Nelson and moved to Phoenix. He and his wife were soon hobnobbing with Sen. Barry Goldwater and being flown around in his private plane. At first, Goldwater protested that he had no idea that his friend, William Nelson, was the notorious Bioff, but later said Bioff was helping him in his study of American labor, and giving him a special insight into union racketeering.
On Nov. 4, 1955, Bioff walked out of his home and slid behind the wheel of his car. A moment later, an explosion rocked the neighborhood. Parts of Bioff and his car were strewn all over the driveway. Police found a dynamite bomb wired to the starter. The killers were never found.