When Jo Winter’s parents send her off to live with her rich cousin on the glittering island of Manhattan, it’s to find a husband and forget about her brother Teddy’s death. But all that glitters is not gold..
Caught up in the swirl of her cousin’s bobbed-hair set—and the men that court them— Jo soon realizes that the talk of marriage never stops, and behind the seemingly boundless gains are illicit business endeavors, gangsters, and their molls. Jo would much rather spend time the handsome but quiet Charles, a waiter at the Algonquin Hotel, than drape herself over a bootlegger. But when she befriends a moll to one of the most powerful men in town, Jo begins to uncover secrets—secrets that threaten an empire and could secure Jo’s freedom from her family.
Can her newfound power buy her love? Or will it to ruin Jo, and everyone around her?
1920s: Gangsters, Gun Molls, and Gin JointsDanny Connor, in SIRENS, is a gangster. Lou is his moll, or girlfriend. While both are fictional characters, I could envision that when the very real Al Capone left New York for Chicago in 1921, someone had to fill the void, so I made up Danny. He’s not a nice man. Gangsters are not nice men.
Gangsters really can’t get a foothold unless they can offer something everyone wants but nobody can get legally. In the 1920s, that something was alcohol.
Let’s face it: Prohibition was a bad idea. It glamorized alcohol by prohibiting it. Gangsters like Al Capone – already involved with other criminal activities – saw the opportunity to provide the people with what they wanted, and “rum-running” or “bootlegging” was at the top of the list.
Al Capone was the most notorious of the 1920s’ underworld mobsters. Tough and determined, he rose to the top by his intelligence and by his determination to rise above his poor immigrant upbringing, both fueled by his brutality. Mobsters in general were society’s outcasts, and as the son of immigrant Italians, Capone couldn’t find success in legitimate enterprises. He turned instead to the underworld: gambling, theft, corruption, gun-running, and alcohol.
Girlfriends of gangsters were known as their “molls.” A penniless girl didn’t have many choices in the 1920s – women were only just beginning to break into the job market – and being a rich man’s girlfriend sure made life easier.
Gin joints – speakeasies – were a product of the prohibition of alcohol. Sure, speakeasies could be fun places – joints like “21” with its upscale décor, joints in Harlem featuring great jazz, or the “Nineteenth Hole Club,” made to look like a golf course – were swanky, happening places. Dancing, smoking, and drinking were extolled in the society columns of writers like “Lipstick”. A girl who couldn’t find a glamorous job, like that of a secretary? She could earn an ok wage as a factory girl, sewing machine operator or domestic servant, but how could she afford to buy the clothes she needed for work and the clothes she wanted for play, plus all the other extras?
The life of a gun moll must have been very tempting.
But short. Bonnie and Clyde were gun moll and gangster, and they came to a pretty rough end. Most did.
Even Al Capone paid, although not until 1931. He was finally carted off to prison but not for murder or racketeering or any of the other myriad activities he’d engaged in, but, ironically, for evading taxes on his illegal profits. It was all the violence around him that really brought him down, culminating in the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, when the public finally turned against him and the cops could no longer look the other way. (Although it must be said that no one was ever brought to trial for that crime, including Big Al.)
The Roaring Twenties had a bright side and a dark side. Bright were the changes that brought new style, new music, new ideas to society. Dark was the greed and criminality that fed off of Prohibition. It’s important that we recognize both.
Janet Fox is the author of award-winning books for children and young adults. FAITHFUL (Speak/Penguin Young Readers 2010), set in Yellowstone National Park in 1904, is a YALSA Best Fiction for YA nominee and an Amelia Bloomer List pick, 2011. FORGIVEN (Speak 2011), set in 1906 San Francisco during the great earthquake, is a Junior Library Guild selection 2011, and a 2012 WILLA Literary Awards Finalist. Her most recent novel, SIRENS (Speak 2012) is set in 1925 New York. Janet has numerous MG and YA projects underway. She is a former high school English teacher and received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults in 2010 (Vermont College of Fine Arts). Janet lives in Bozeman, Montana.
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