People Who Don’t Turn the Other Cheek: An Interview with Dylan & Drew Struzan, Author & Illustrator of A Bloody Business

A Bloody Business Cover ImageA Bloody Business is a unique gangster epic in many ways. For one it is from the source of Jimmy “Blue Eyes” Alo, a retired mobster the author Dylan Struzan met in a nursing home. In his teens, at the dawn of Prohibition, he began working for Meyer Lansky and rose up through the ranks during the Roaring Twenties. He became the model for Johnny Ola in The Godfather Part 2. He had rare view of organized crime moving between the strategy meetings between Lansky, Bugsey Siegel, and Lucky Luciano and the street soldiers, which are both depicted in these books as well as their domestic and social scenes. The book also has illustrations by Dylan’s husband, Drew Struzan, mainly known for his iconic movies posters, such as Raiders Of The Lost Ark and The Star Wars film. Both were kind enough to take a few questions from us.

1. (Both Dylan and Drew) Did you immediately see this as a project to work together on?

Dylan: Not really.

Drew: I did, being the husband of the writer. I wanted to support her in what she was doing as she always wanted to be a writer. I thought, gee, a book. I will draw some pictures for her and maybe it will help promote the book and make people want to read it.

Dylan: Once upon a time, we were planning on doing children’s books together. I would write and Drew would illustrate. It sounded like a fun thing to do. This project came along and since it was definitely not a children’s book, I didn’t think Drew would join in with illustrations. Primarily, I didn’t think that publishers would be interested in including illustrations as it adds a lot to the cost of making the book. When he started drawing, I didn’t imagine he would do a piece for each chapter but he did. I figured that even if the illustrations weren’t included in the published work, they would be very helpful in selling the story. When Titan and Hard Case Crime said they wanted to include the illustrations, I rejoiced. It was a boon to the content of the book. I hope everyone enjoys them.

A little side story. Our grandson, Nico, is in the fifth grade. The school has “Author Day.” Nico asked what the subject of the book was. I said “gangsters.” He asked if there were Tommy guns in the story. I told him of course. It’s set back in the ‘20s when Tommy guns were very available. Because of Fortnite, he gave me a great description of the history of the Tommy gun and then asked if there were other guns and violence. Undeterred by the answer, he said, “I guess I can’t ask you to come to school on ‘Author Day’ because there are first graders and the school doesn’t want to scare them.”

I have a very supportive family.

The next three for Dylan

2. What about Vincent Alo’s story made you realize it was worth telling?

Dylan: My initial interest was aroused by the fact that no other man of his stature has spoken (on tape) about his life and the events that occurred during his lifetime. History has always fascinated me and this was an untold story, not just another gangster tale. As Jimmy used to say, the press paints everyone with the same brush. These men were not typical gangsters. Jimmy, as he was known, was partners with Meyer Lansky for nearly 60 years and although this story is about Meyer and Charlie Luciano, Jimmy came into that relationship when he was released from jail after his first offense. He stuck with those two men. Jimmy once said of Meyer, “His philosophy was…you’d be surprised. They had him built up as a villain. He was very far from that. He died a poor man. His philosophy was for the common people. He liked to see justice done. He always thought there was a double standard here in this country. The rich pay the fine and the poor go to jail. He wouldn’t lie about anything. He was a nice fella, a highly principled fella.

3. What surprised you about the mob in that era surprised you when talking to him and doing your research?

Dylan: This is a hard question to answer, there were so many things. The greatest surprise was the personal integrity of Jimmy and Meyer. I’m not suggesting they stepped aside from the things that their world demanded. They did what they had to do. As Jimmy said, “These aren’t the Boy Scouts, you know.” But I was reminded of the Raymond Chandler quote about the mean streets down which a man must go. Jimmy liked to tell the story of his work as a Wall Street runner when he was a kid. How he sat out on the street waiting for the chance to run messages between broker and client. He did this in the scorching heat of summer and the freezing cold of winter. Others were promoted while he was passed over and when he asked why he was told, “Do your job and don’t ask questions.” With that, he turned to crime and then did time. Jail time changed him but he still clung to a gangster’s code of right and wrong. That’s not usually the picture we get when it comes to men of the street.

4. One of my big takeaways from the book was how smart most these guys were. How do you think these mostly young men who grew up on the streets with little formal education could think like chess masters?

Dylan: Meyer was born in Grodno, Poland. Immigration records show that he entered America through Ellis Island on April 4, 1911. They record him as being 8 years old. According to Robert Lacy’s book The Little Man, Grodno was nearly 70 percent Jewish, according to the census of 1887. Communities such as these valued education. Meyer was an avid reader of history throughout his life. As Jimmy said, “He was much smarter than all the guys you got around even then. He had foresight cause he knew history, see. He had foresight and he knew human nature and he knew just how to deal with it.” Meyer followed the trials of Clarence Darrow. Studied the Constitution of the United States. Meyer and Charlie consulted with each other. Charlie knew the ways of the “greasers,” as the old Mustache Petes were called. Such knowledge meant the difference between life and death. They were on a mission not to stake out territory but to take the violence off the streets of NYC so that everyone could earn. They had to come at that job with understanding and wisdom or get killed or imprisoned for their ignorance. I admit, what they accomplished was pretty impressive.

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The next three for Drew

5. Drew, what did this project allow you to do as an illustrator, you hadn’t been able to do?

Drew: First of all, I got to work at my own pace and without any direction from the outside. It was just between me and my wife. I drew what I felt was right for the chapter and I chose things I thought would open people’s eyes just as my wife’s words opened eyes. The illustrations make the book richer. I never had an opportunity to do illustrations within a book. I enjoyed the process.

6. As an illustrator you strike a great balance in capturing the story of the filmmaker or in this case writer. Do you have an approach to this success?

Drew: My illustrations are not meant to give away the story but to enlighten the reader and to get them to want to know more. The pictures are designed to let the reader know there is something here worth seeing, in the case of a film, or listening to, in the case of a story. These illustrations are meant to let the reader know there is wisdom here, understanding, history, something you will want to read.

In trying to decide what to use, rather than just showing a portrait of the Godfather which opens people’s minds to the fact that he is a human being, this is also about a time period.  I live today. I didn’t live a hundred years earlier. Researching it and trying to get people’s mind’s eyes back to that period so that they would understand it with pictorial reference was, I think…it increased my joy. I think it will increase the reader’s joy also. 

8. (Both Dylan and Drew) What do you think draws us to gangster stories?

Drew: There were wonderful movies that were made, but we all know they were fiction. This is the truth. Is the truth any different from what we’ve seen in the movies? It is so obviously different. We’ve got to know why and what. 

Dylan: That’s a good point. My first introduction to gangsters was the movie The Godfather. That’s all I really knew about gangsters for a long time. But that story is one particular vision about one group of people. It is elegantly told to be sure, but it is a small piece of the picture. I’m glad for it. People know the movie inside and out so I don’t have to explain that side of gangster life when I talk about the Italians. The Sopranos gave us a new look at the agony of that life and the toll it takes on families so when I was talking to Jimmy, it was interesting to just focus on his life experience in that world. That was Jimmy’s gift to me and to Tommy (who wrote the foreword to the book and made the recordings with Jimmy) and, hopefully, to everyone that reads the book. He lived that life. He was there and that’s what I tried to bring to the story. Gangsters in general…speaking personally now, after living many years in religion, I was curious about the lives of people who don’t turn the other cheek. What impacts their life? I wanted to know Jimmy’s story and what made him turn to crime. I think we are all interested in that question. It is a moral conversation that we like to have perhaps with ourselves and our friends.

Drew: I was thinking along the same line because we suffered many things in our lives. Jimmy suffered a lot in prison as a young man. One of Dylan’s driving forces was for Jimmy to tell us why he chose this way of life. What was his motivation. They didn’t necessarily choose that life but that life chose them, their circumstances chose them.

Dylan: Yes, and I think part of the interesting thing there is that he had his own moral ethic, too. There will be more on that subject in the next book which is about the gambling years. I’m working on that now. That book will center more around the relationship between Meyer and Jimmy where this book is more about Meyer and Charlie.

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