Robert C. Donnelly’s history of organized crime and political corruption in Portland in the 1950s could have been as riveting as a James Ellroy novel. Instead, it reads like a textbook written by an assistant professor of history at Gonzaga University, which, of course, Donnelly is.
Dark Rose (University of Washington Press, 208 pages, $22.50) tells how a cabal of Seattle mobsters, Teamsters union officials and corrupt politicians tried to muscle in on the vice rackets controlled in the Rose City by “vice czar” Jim Elkins, an unlikely godfather who resembled John Gotti less than he did Pa Kent. Elkins double-crossed the wiseguys—and a Multnomah County DA on the take—by taping their conversations and ratting them out to two Oregonian reporters who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé on vice in Portland. This inspired act of public-service journalism was clouded by the fact the intrepid reporters shielded their source’s own criminal hijinks.
In recounting one of the most fascinating and colorful periods in Portland’s history, Donnelly has managed to drape blankets over the hoochie-coochie girls, pour all the bootleg liquor down a street drain, and drive spikes into the pinball machines that once proliferated as gambling devices throughout the city.
Sin in Stumptown never seemed so dull. Early in the book, for instance, Donnelly quotes a visiting sailor describing “the endless rows of girls who play tick-tack on windows as one passes by.” Instead of taking a few lines to explain “tick-tack” (in this case, apparently a system of hand signals for soliciting prostitution), the author leaves his readers scratching their heads. Throughout Donnelly’s book, no racy dialogue or gritty anecdote that might shed an informative or entertaining light on the inner workings of Portland’s once-flourishing vice industry goes unwasted.
Part of Donnelly’s challenge is that this den of vice has been raided before, to much more lurid effect by former Oregonian and Portland Tribune columnist Phil Stanford in his 2004 book, Portland Confidential: Sex, Crime and Corruption in the Rose City. Stanford included a lot of shady characters Donnelly leaves out and splashed his book with the kind of grainy photos that once filled the pages of True Detective magazine.
Donnelly an opening, however, by admitting in the acknowledgements of
his book that it was “hardly an analytical work.” Donnelly tries to fill
this gap, with limited success, by tracing how the Portland vice
scandal of the 1950s helped Senate investigators link the Teamsters to
organized crime, boosted the political career of Bobby Kennedy, and
eventually led to civic reforms Portlanders still enjoy today. Too bad
he expects his readers to do the time without enjoying the crime.
READ: Robert C. Donnelly’s Dark Rose: Organized Crime and Corruption in Portland is on sale in bookstores now.