Neal Karlen dives into Hennepin’s gangster era

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May 20, 2013 // UPDATED 6:20 pm - May 30, 2013
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

If Augie Ratner, the unofficial mayor of Hennepin Avenue of the ’40s and ’50s, visited the street today, he’d likely be bored.

That’s the theory of Neal Karlen, a great nephew of Ratner who is out with a new book on the legendary burlesque club owner called “Augie’s Secrets: The Minneapolis Mob and the King of the Hennepin Strip.”

Hennepin had a much different flavor in Ratner’s era. He ran Augie’s Theater Lounge Cabaret at 424 Hennepin at a time when organized crime was rampant in the city and the Gateway District was still around. Big-time mobsters like Kid Cann, John Dillinger and Jimmy Hoffa visited his establishment alongside politicians and up-and-coming celebrities like Peggy Lee.

Ratner was a friend to everybody and managed to stay on the right side of the law despite his connections to gangsters. Minneapolis was an epicenter for gambling and brothels were prevalent in the city in his heyday.

“Augie knew everybody who was a somebody and everyone who was a nobody. And he treated them all the same,” Karlen wrote in “Augie’s Secrets.”   

The city was also a bastion of anti-Semitism. Jewish men and women were barred from many areas of public life. Given limited job opportunities, some turned to organized crime giving rise to the Jewish mafia that was a strong force until the 1960s.

While the old gangsters of St. Paul are more notorious, Minneapolis mobsters had more power — at least financially, Karlen said. Some of them were worth millions when they passed away. They made their money from bootlegging, gambling and real estate deals. 

Karlen said he had been thinking of writing about Augie for 20 years before he dove into the project. He’s worked on several other book projects and written for the Rolling Stone, the New York Times and Newsweek.

Researching material for “Augie’s Secrets” has been a labor of love. Old friends of Augie’s — some in their 90s now — have also been more willing to share their stories than they were two decades ago.

Karlen said he’s worked hard to verify the authenticity of the stories shared by people he interviewed in the book by going through old newspaper stories and corroborating accounts with multiple sources.

Ratner was something of a black sheep in the family but Karlen’s father was an admirer of the colorful man and passed down stories to his son.

Karlen never got to meet Ratner, but he left a big impression.

“Unable to attend my bar mitzvah, he sent me two 1927 silver dollars in an envelope postmarked Las Vegas,” Karlen wrote. “I thought he lived there, and I imagined him to be the only relative I had who’d ever escaped Minneapolis.”

One of his favorite stories is about Ratner placing an ad in the Minneapolis newspaper requesting people RSVP to his funeral before he died so he could see how many people would attend. The unusual move got national media attention.

Ratner ran the burlesque club at 4th & Hennepin from the mid-1930s until 1964. He died in 1981.

While there was corruption and crime, in some ways, Hennepin was a friendlier place in Ratner’s time, Karlen said.

“It was a simpler time. People related to each other,” he said. “It was more of a village.”

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Upcoming reading

Neal Karlen will discuss “Augie’s Secrets: The Minneapolis Mob and the King of the Hennepin Strip” at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S., on Sunday, June 9 at 2 p.m.