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01.18.10

Rachel Uchitel: Mob Princess?

For Tiger’s alleged mistress, partying is family business. Gerald Posner reveals her grandfather’s secret Mafia ties (and the hit put on his life). Plus, PHOTOS of Uchitel nightlife, then and now.

Next Friday, Rachel Uchitel, the alleged Tiger Woods mistress at the center of the golfer’s scandal, plans a return to the world in which she was previously a mainstay: nightlife. The party girl, who for the past few years worked at various velvet rope spots in Manhattan, will host her 35th-birthday bash at a Palm Beach, Florida, club called PB 251, complete with “special guests” and “celebrity DJs.”

It’s a role she was born to play. While thousands of articles have been written about Uchitel, whose media reticence has just generated more interest in her, largely omitted is the fact that nightlife is in her genes. Her grandfather, Maurice Uchitel, who died in 2000, owned New York’s legendary El Morocco nightclub and Miami Beach’s iconic Eden Roc hotel.

It gets yet more colorful. I did some digging on Maurice during the past two years, in conjunction with my recently published book, Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth and Power—A Dispatch from the Beach. From that investigation, and additional reporting since the Woods scandal broke, it seems that Maurice Uchitel was both friends and partners with some of the 20th century's great mobsters, and likely managed to avoid a contract hit that had been placed on his head, as well as his brother, Hy’s.

Click Image to View Our Gallery of Uchitel Nightlife, Then and Now

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A lot of the Maurice Uchitel saga is a classic immigrant’s tale: Ukrainian refugee moves from manufacturing women’s shoulder pads to owning El Morocco in the late 1960s. From there, things get dicier.

Let’s start with business. Besides the hotel and club, Maurice invested in Scopitone, a video-jukebox technology that swept Europe in the 1960s. The Securities and Exchange Commission thought it was a Mob front. The main partner was Al Malnik, a Miami Beach-based attorney who had mobsters as clients and friends (Malnik has never been indicted or convicted of any crime, but after the death of Meyer Lansky, the Jewish godfather, Reader’s Digest dubbed Malnik his “heir apparent”).  Minority investors included Abe Green, a New York City slot-machine baron with deep Mob ties (New Jersey’s Mafia chief, Gerardo Catena, was a principal in Green’s company); Irving Kaye, who was denied a Nevada gaming license because of possible Mob associations; Alfred Miniaci, a 30-year veteran of the coin-machine business, whose claim to fame was hosting the dinner for Frank Costello at which a hit man tried to kill the don; and, Aaron Weisberg, a Las Vegas investor who testified reluctantly in the tax-evasion case of notorious mobster Joseph (Doc) Stacher. It was veritable who’s who of Jewish wiseguys.

The SEC never proved its case. The only scalp they got was Vincent “Jimmy Blue Eyes” Alo, a Genovese crime captain and Lansky associate, who Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau called “one of the most significant organized-crime figures in the United States” and who the SEC was convinced was the real owner, along with New Jersey boss Cartena, of Scopitone. When Jimmy Blue Eyes conveniently forgot the details of how he worked out a deal to get Malnik to give more stock and ownership in Scopitone to Uchitel and the other partners, he was convicted of obstruction of justice and sentenced to five years.

Scopitone wasn’t Maurice Uchitel’s only questionable deal, but it was typical of most of them:  shady partners, rumors of some Mob involvement, and often a business-ending lawsuit. The Uchitel brothers also ran the Place for Steak restaurant, a popular hangout for South Florida hoods and celebrities. Frank Sinatra was a regular and occasionally even took the mike to sing a song or two. Jerry Lewis held court at a large rear table that had his name emblazoned on a small metal plaque. On Halloween 1967, Thomas "The Enforcer" Altamura was in the foyer waiting for his regular table when Anthony "Big Tony" Esperti calmly walked up to him and put a bullet in his head in front of the horrified diners.

In 1984, a partner in the restaurant, Mike Schwadel, filed a lawsuit charging that the Uchitels were trying to cheat him out of several million dollars. Schwadel alleged he had been duped to give up to a third of his stock to Maurice, that Maurice and Hy later sold the company without informing anyone, and that they diverted corporate funds for their personal use, including house renovations and personal debts.

The depositions in the case provide a glimpse into the not-so-genteel world of the Uchitels. 

“People threaten to kill me all the time,” shrugged Hy Uchitel.

Hy testified that after Anthony Plate, a Gambino captain, and Hyman George Levine, a gambling-junket organizer with a long loan-sharking history, threatened to kill Hy and Maurice unless they paid protection money for keeping a Place for Steak off-limits to labor unions, the Uchitels reached out to Schwadel. According to Hy’s testimony, Schwadel paid them “a lot of money” to go away.  When a Miami Herald reporter caught up to Hy, he shrugged off news that a hit that might have been put out on him and his brother. "People threaten to kill me all the time.”

Both Plate and Levine mysteriously disappeared in 1979, not long after the encounter with the Uchitels. A retired FBI agent who worked the case told me the Bureau believed the two men were murdered by other mobsters. Their bodies were never found.

Hy Uchitel was the stepfather to Suzan Lewis, comedian Jerry Lewis’ biological daughter.  On her Web site, she says, “As a child growing up in Manhattan, I led a charmed life. My mother Lynn and my stepfather, Hy Uchitel, were quite well-to-do. They owned the Voisin Restaurant and El Morocco Night Club in New York City. My family also owned the Eden Rock Hotel in Miami Beach and the Place for Steak in North Dade, Florida. Hy and his brother Maurice Uchitel had many other enterprises, and it was rumored that they were connected with ‘the syndicate,’ but they never spoke about that.”

The rumors spread beyond the family about the unsavory connections. The Uchitels were good friends, according to people I’ve interviewed in Miami, with Lansky, New York crime captain Frank Costello, and Sam Cohen, president of Las Vegas’ Flamingo Hotel during the 1960s. (Cohen would be convicted of illegal trading and tax evasion, and also was charged with skimming $30 million in profits from the Flamingo casino in Las Vegas in 1973.)

As for today’s famous Uchitel, Rachel, her mother, Susan, divorced Bob Uchitel—Maurice’s son—in 1979 when Rachel was only 4. He moved to Alaska and started a construction company before founding Anchorage’s first cable-TV service, Multivisions. He socialized with politicians and business magnates and was best known for his wild parties, and also for organizing a massive celebration of the 25th anniversary of statehood in 1984.  But Uchitel became a heavy drug user and, increasingly, a recluse in his sprawling Anchorage estate.  An EMT crew found him there in 1990, at the age of 44, bleeding profusely from his nose. He died of a cocaine-induced seizure. 

Judy Blake, an Alaskan who dated Bob for five years, told The Anchorage Daily News that Rachel visited her father only once in Alaska, a two-week trip when she was 11. They stayed in touch by phone, but toward the end of his life, his addiction was so bad, says Blake, that it made it difficult to have a conversation with him.

"The last time he spoke to her, he was in a stupor," Blake said.

As for Rachel’s relationship with her grandfather, Maurice, it wasn’t much better. He had retired to Las Vegas where he spent much of his time gambling.  Shortly before his 2000 death, Colleen Clabby, Maurice’s’ girlfriend for 20 years, persuaded him to reconnect with Rachel.  Although they only talked over several months on the phone, she obviously charmed him. Uchitel left his granddaughter $150,000 in his will, as well as a new goal. Before the Woods scandal broke, Rachel told the New York nightlife magazine BlackBook that her “dream” was to recreate the kind of nightclub her grandfather owned.

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Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's chief investigative reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, on topics ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. His latest book, Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth and Power—A Dispatch from the Beach, was published in October. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.