Andrew Gross has written a novelized biography of his grandfather, a pioneer in the garment industry. His protagonist is Morris Raab, born Rabishevsky, who as a boy of 12 on the lower eastside starts working in a garment factory and ultimately rises to become a major manufacturer of women’s coats and later dresses. For me the book is especially poignant because my furrier father manufactured linings, collars and cuffs for high end cloth coats, the very product made by Raab. In fact there is furrier in the book who supplies Raab.
What makes “Button Man” so interesting is Raab’s encounters with the mob that was dominating the garment and fur workers unions of the 1920s and 1930s. We see such mobsters and Murder Incorporated founder Louis Lepke Buchalter and his sidekick “Gurrah” Shapiro doing their best to intimidate Raab and his brother partner, Sol. We also run into Albert Anastasia, Legs Diamond and Dutch Schultz. At first Raab fights the mob and then is prepared to give in and ultimately he stands up to them. He does this by linking up with special prosecutor Tom Dewey through one of his lower eastside lawyer friends. And at great peril to his life and the lives of his family he plays a role in bringing down the mob.
What Gross’ novel does is that it shows the real life consequences of what happens when the mob controls the unions. Everybody, but the mob loses with workers and bosses alike suffering as worker wages and boss’ profits are drained away through protection payoffs, forced buying from mob controlled firms and fraudulent union welfare funds. For those who don’t play ball they face fires, acid attacks on their garments and their persons and murder. Gross brings to life what it was like to be a small business owner in the garment industry of that era. As the son of a furrier whose business started in 1930 the novel rings true.
The Button Man is a terrific page turner based on actual characters. Having family who grew up in that world, I found myself transported to the streets of the Lower East side of NYC and the extreme poverty that new immigrants faced after arriving in NY. One can only marvel at this time period - a one of a kind - that overtook the city and garment industry one hundred years back.