Saturday, September 27, 2008

Joe Lewis, the Rendezvous Cabaret, and the Commonwealth Hotel

Joe E. Lewis was a popular comedian and singer from New York, who became a favorite at "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn's speakeasy, the Green Mill in Uptown. In August, 1927, a rival saloon, the Rendezvous Cabaret, located at 622 W. Diversey, where this Panera Bread currently stands, lured Lewis away from the Green Mill with a big raise and a share of the business.

McGurn was an associate of the Chicago Outfit, while the Rendezvous was operated by their mortal enemies, the North Side Mob. Lewis had committed treason. McGurn was a close associate of Al Capone, and a loyal lieutenant of the Torrio-Capone Outfit. Worse yet, on opening night at the Rendezvous, November 2, 1927, Lewis played to a packed audience and ridiculed McGurn as a part of his act. Perhaps he thought he was safe since gangsters only killed other gangsters.

A few days later, November 9, Lewis awoke in his room at the Commonwealth Hotel, 2757 N. Pine Grove (pictured below), to three armed men, who proceeded to bludgeon Lewis with a revolver and slice his face and neck with a hunting knife.

Jack McGurn, who later masterminded the "Crime of the Century," the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, was a one-man bad publicity machine for the Capones. In this case, his men failed to finish the job.

Unbelievably, Lewis survived the attack and, after some time, regained the ability to speak (his attackers had paid special attention to his jaws, the source of his income). He even returned to entertain an overflow audience at the Rendezvous, taking on the moniker "The Man the Mob Couldn't Kill."

After gaining fame in this unfortunate way, a star-studded group of entertainers, including Al Jolson, held a benefit for Lewis and raised $14,000 (most of which Lewis, an alcoholic, managed to drink away). Sensing the growing bad publicity for his group associated with the hit, Al Capone offered Lewis his old job at the Green Mill at terms matching those the Rendezvous had offered him, and made sure he and McGurn never tangled again.

The Commonwealth Hotel, where Lewis was attacked, still stands, though its days as a posh hotel are long over. It currently serves as a home for the elderly.


Chicago Joe said...

Actually the Rendezvous Cafe was located a bit the corner of Clark and Diversey in what was the Diversey Arms Hotel now a Days Inn. The Cafe on the first floor is now a Jamba Juice.....Famous Jazz musician Bix Biederbeck lived there in 1925, and Louis Armstrong made some of his early recordings there.

Anonymous said...

My father, Eddie Capps, Was working at the Rendezvous as an entertainer when Joe E Louis was killed. He was about 19 year old at the time and said he ran all the way home and never went back there.

Chicago Joe said...

That would be Joe E. Lewis and he was not killed in the attack but badly injured!