Minneapolis journalist and author Neal Karlen is in a unique position to write about Augie Ratner, the burlesque club owner once known as “the King of the Hennepin Strip,” and his relationship with the Jewish-dominated Minneapolis Mob from the 1930s to the 1950s. Karlen grew up listening to his dad talk about Ratner, who was a member of the family and loosely connected to the Mob. In “Augie’s Secrets,” Karlen offers a colorful and impressively researched account of the Minneapolis underworld and his fascinating great-uncle that feels right out of Damon Runyon’s “Guys and Dolls.”
Karlen describes how some members of his Jewish family shunned “gangster” Ratner (who died in 1979 at age 79) for bringing shame upon the clan, but Karlen’s father clearly admired Augie and shared that admiration with his son. This is a loving, page-turning biography of a man who mixed affability, ethnic pride and a life-preserving ability to keep secrets. It’s also a vivid picture of the Minneapolis underworld, including the city’s then-breathtakingly corrupt politics. Karlen describes Minneapolis in those years as a hotbed of corruption and anti-Semitism, detailing how Jewish gangsters took matters into their own hands by violently disrupting pro-Nazi groups in the city right before World War II.
Augie Ratner knew everyone, writes Karlen, and literally “knew where the bodies were buried” in Minneapolis. A prominent nightclub owner, Augie befriended an eclectic group of friends that included Chicago Mob boss Al Capone, Minneapolis Laker basketball star George Mikan, comedian Henny Youngman, Minneapolis mob boss Kid Cann (real name, Isadore Blumenfeld), bank robber John Dillinger and legions more from all sides of the tracks.
Karlen serves up innumerable subplots about the Minneapolis Mob’s crucial role in the nation’s bootlegging, bookmaking and other illicit activities (including widespread bribery of public officials). It’s a lost world, revived by Karlen in all its eccentric swagger and hard-boiled, madcap edginess. As Karlen notes at book’s end, the dominance of Minneapolis’ Jewish gangsters diminished after the 1950s because they “were not interested in passing down their vocations to their sons,” whom they pushed to become doctors and lawyers instead.
Luckily for us, Augie shared his secrets: “Augie told my father stories, secrets, about all kinds of things he knew, and my dad passed them on to me.” This entertaining and nostalgic look at a bygone Minneapolis is the result of that sharing, and Karlen’s skillful research, allowing his readers inside a picturesque, hardscrabble world.
Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He also reviews for the Boston Globe.