A Pretty Perfect Name for a Killer

A Pretty Perfect Name for a Killer

By Eugene S. Robinson



Because crime is a business, too.

By Eugene S. Robinson

He didn’t come into this world pretty. But it wasn’t too long before Russian-born Louis Amberg grew into the name that was slapped on him when he came screaming into the world in 1898 and which remained until he left it 37 years later, very much the same way. You see, by the time Pretty Amberg hit Brownsville, a notoriously resistant-to-change, down-and-out section of Brooklyn, he had entered into what was a typical Jewish-American family business at the time: fruit vending. But rather than rocking the fruit stand like his father, Pretty had a better idea. He grabbed fistfuls of produce, marched up and down tenement hallways and kicked on/in doors until, face to face with flustered occupants, he made his sales pitch, glower intact: “BUY!”

This according to the chronicler of early New York street toughs Damon Runyon, whose two most famous stories, by virtue of being made into the lighthearted MGM musical Guys and Dolls, gave a decidedly more pleasant sheen to what was actually an unremittingly dark time. Because guys like Pretty, credited with murders well north of 100, were unremittingly dark, and really, there were no guys like Pretty.

Newspaper accounts start describing those aforementioned bags popping up all over Brooklyn. Absent laundry, present corpses.

No guys who, when Dutch Schultz, an apex murderer himself, had made moves to “partner” with Amberg, said, according to chronicler of non-goy gangsters Maximillian Zellner, “Why don’t you put a gun in your mouth and see how many times you can pull the trigger?” Lest that not be a fine enough point on the pencil for you, Pretty, who by this time had moved into loan sharking as well as speakeasies and their steady trade in booze and everything else that came with that territory, had also branched out into the laundry business. Not because he liked clean clothes or needed to launder the cash from his various criminal enterprises, but because, according to a thinly disguised Pretty character in a Runyon story, he needed the laundry bags to dispose of corpses.

Which sounds like a joke until newspaper accounts from the time start describing those aforementioned bags popping up all over Brooklyn. Absent laundry, present corpses. Pulled in as a suspect in one such killing, according to Zellner, where the poor unfortunate had owed Pretty $80, Pretty shrugged it off when he got off scot-free: “I tip more than that. Why’d I kill a bum for a lousy 80 bucks?” Which was really just good business sense — killing guys for $80 made much more sense than killing guys who owed $800 for the simple fact that dead guys don’t pay out. Business acumen would explain this, but Pretty’s penchant for wandering into his favorite eateries and spitting in random diners’ soup for shits and giggles? Precisely the kind of thing that marked Pretty as not long for this world.

“Pretty wasn’t a major player like [Meyer] Lansky or Lepke [Buchalter],” says Gary Goldstein, an editor at Kensington Books who has published a passel of Mafia-related books over the past decade. “Pretty was more muscle than brains.”

Which may be why, at age 37, he was found, à la flambé, in a charred car on a Brooklyn street with a wire wrapped around his neck. And whether it was actually said, it has been widely reported as having been said, post-Pretty’s exit, that when detectives were asked if there were any suspects, the answer was beautifully rendered as, “Yeah, Brooklyn.”

“I think it’s just nice to know American Jews did once have some balls,” says Goldstein, whose maternal grandfather did some small-time bootlegging during Prohibition and whose paternal grandfather was a black marketer during the ’40s. “They did what they had to do to survive, even if that meant operating outside the law.”