Friday, September 27, 2013

Interview with Robert Donnelly, author of Dark Rose


For those who haven’t heard, what’s the book all about?

Dark Rose is the story of Portland's vice scandal of 1956, which was the zenith of repeated and often failed efforts to flush out vice, organized crime, and municipal corruption in what is today one of the country’s most progressive cities.  Portland’s vice rackets, police graft, and dirty politicians were not unique; it is a familiar story for many mid-twentieth-century American cities.  This fascinating event, however, headlined one of the most notable U.S. Senate committees, the McClellan Labor Rackets Committee, led by Senator John McClellan and his chief investigator, Robert Kennedy.  Federal investigators were particularly interested in Portland because the Teamsters union was involved.  Teamsters leaders attempted to organize Portland’s vice industry as they had legitimate industries.  So, Dark Rose is about Portland’s seedy side, which was exposed by a snitch, two maverick reporters, and…well…Congress, with Robert Kennedy.

What was one of the big things you learned from creating this book?

I learned that there are many people around in Portland today who are personally and even emotionally connected to this story.  It was an incredible time in Portland.  I also learned that it takes time and a network of friends and professionals to create a book.  Thanks especially to UW Press.

Which part of the book was most compelling to you?

A few years ago, I was presenting my early research in Portland and a gentleman approached me with irrefutable evidence of graft, corruption, and labor racketeering in the Rose City: wiretap tapes from 1955.  These were tapes made by Portland’s infamous crime boss, James Elkins, who at the time feared he was being double-crossed by the corrupt district attorney and his friends in the Teamsters union.  It is amazing to listen to these guys talk about white-washed investigations, their plans to expand their vice rackets, and which gambling den paid out and how much to the city’s law enforcement officials.  Incredible!

What’s been the most rewarding part of this process?

The most rewarding part of the process came when I first saw the cover for Dark Rose.  I love the cover!

What new projects do you have on the horizon?

I am writing a biography of Teamster Dave Beck.  Beck and Jimmy Hoffa were the big fish Robert Kennedy hoped to fry during the McClellan Committee investigation.  Plenty has been written on Hoffa, but not Beck.  Beck was president of the Teamsters from 1952 until 1957.  He was a millionaire and an incredible fundraiser for many Seattle charities.  He also served on the Board of Regents for the University of Washington and the Washington State Parole Board.  He was “Mr. Seattle.”  When he retired in 1957, however, it was amid a scandal that included allegations of labor racketeering, tax evasion, and embezzlement of Teamster funds.

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