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Book Report: Hennepin Strip kingpin: Those were the days

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Hennepin Strip kingpin: Those were the days

The buzz had been pretty incredible for a local book, so I waited and waited to be sent a review copy of “Augie’s Secrets: The Minneapolis Mob and The King of the Hennepin Strip,” by Neal Karlen (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $24.95).

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It never came so for the first time in my career I had to check out a copy from the public library.

Why was I so anxious to read the book? Because I didn’t arrive in Minneapolis until 1969, some time after the famous, the notorious “Hennepin Strip” had faded from its former glorious or inglorious history, take your pick.

But I knew several of the folks who remembered it well.

One of my pals after I arrived in town was old Eddie Schwarz, who described himself as the former Minneapolis Star reporter who “covered whorehouses and nightclubs.”

I met him when I was a regular diner at Jimmy Hegg’s Starlite Lounge. Jimmy was well acquainted with the strip, having been manager of Curly’s Show Theatre back in the ’40s and ’50s.

Jimmy introduced me to folks like Henny Youngman, King of the One-Liners who always dropped in when he was in town doing a show.

Years later, I went to work for the Star Tribune, where I met Robert T. Smith and Sid Hartman, a longtime columnist who had scads of stories about the denizens of Hennepin, all of whom reminded me of characters like Nathan Detroit in the Ring Lardner inspired musical “Guys and Dolls.”

I speak of characters like Max Winter, who owned the old 620 Club and the Vikings, Isidore “Kid Cann” Blumenthal, a gambling kingpin in town who dodged murder charges that kept coming after him.

I even wrote a story about a group of dancing girls from North High, circa 1935, one of whom was a cousin of Davey Berman’s wife, the mother of Susan Berman.

Both Davey and his daughter were murdered by the mob when they opened a casino in Las Vegas. And, finally, there was Augie Ratner, a memorable character who gave his name to the new book for which I waited so long.

Augie was Jimmy Hegg’s boss, and a character beloved by local columnists for his classy and classless ways. He was a hustler who ended up owning a mansion on Lake of the Isles. Neil Karlen, the author of this new book, claims to be his grand nephew and thus acquainted with all the old scoundrel’s secrets.

So now I’ve read the new book, which describes how Minneapolis became a center for national gambling circles, murders, Protestant hypocrisy, all of which were covered in an old, old book, “Midwest Confidential,” by Jack Laitt and Lee Mortimer back in the ’50s.

Sure enough in Karlen’s book, I run into my old friend Jimmy Hegg, manager of a joint that featured a bevy of female impersonators called “The Jewel Box Review.”

I run into Robert T. Smith from whom Karlen purloins a story about Smith’s interview with Kid Cann.

Also Max Winter, whom Karlen has little time for.

It’s all pretty snarky. Karlen asks the question, when Mikan played for the Jewish mob-owned Lakers, did he shave points or didn’t he? Karlen says “we’ll never know.”

The new book is OK, but I was somewhat shocked after I finished to read a letter to the editor in the Minneapolis Star Tribune from one Betty Ratner, Augie’s widow and wife of 20 years.

She claimed that Karlen was a “very distant” nephew, not a grand nephew of her late husband. She also claims that Augie’s family never “shunned” him, as Karlen claims, but welcomed him at family reunions which he regularly attended.

Ratner also wishes Karlen had interviewed her because she knew her husband pretty well.

“The King’s Deception” by Steve Berry (Ballantine Books, $27.95) is just the cup of tea for enthusiasts of Tudor history. Or maybe just the cup of claret.

Berry is the founder of History Matters, an institution devoted to preserving our past and also the bestselling author of thrillers that feature Cotton Malone, a modern day troubleshooter.

In this outing he and his young son travel to England where the son is kidnapped by terrorists connected with the Libyan uprising. So where does Tudor England come in?

For years the CIA has been working on a mystery involving the legitimacy of Elizabeth I’s claim to the throne.

If it’s turns out to be bogus, Northern Ireland would no longer belong to England. It’s a fine mess of porridge that Berry has cooked up this time.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  Phone him at 715-426-9554.  

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