Family mysteries travel across generations, sometimes hardening into taboo and disappearing in the passing years—until a member begins asking questions.
Jana Marcus was just such a renegade, but in her case the taboo was much more than an embarrassment or a scandal. It was a threat of unspeakable violence.
In the fall of 1941, Marcus’ great uncle—Abe Babchick, the brother of her paternal grandmother—was a victim of what used to be called a gangland slaying, shot to death in his car in New York City. Shortly thereafter, Babchick’s family received an ominous phone call, a male voice that said, “If anyone tries to find out what happened to Abe, we’ll kill the whole family, starting with the children.”
Now, nearly 80 years later, Marcus reaches a culmination in her decades-long effort “to find out what happened to Abe” in her new book Line of Blood: Uncovering a Secret Legacy of Mobsters, Money, and Murder.
The tale is part touching memoir, part true-crime detective story, part history of mob violence in 20th century New York, even part supernatural thriller—there’s a crime-scene psychic involved as well. It’s a story that’s been brewing for the better part of three decades.
Marcus is well-known in Santa Cruz County, primarily for her work as a photographer. She is the author of the 2012 book of photographs Transfigurations, a collection of portraiture of transgender men and women, and In the Shadow of the Vampire, a look at the culture inspired by the novels of Anne Rice. She is also known for her prominent parents—playwright and theater director Wilma Marcus Chandler, and the late poet and film critic Morton Marcus.
Her father, one of the most prominent literary figures to come out of Santa Cruz County in the last half-century, looms large in Line of Blood as a kind of co-conspirator in the effort to get to the bottom of Abe Babchick’s cold case. It was Mort Marcus who told his daughter of the ominous phone call.
“When I heard that,” she says, “chills not only went down my spine, but I knew, ‘Obviously this is something huge.’”
As a young boy, her father was sent away to boarding school, a fact that he, for much of his lifetime, attributed to that phone call. “That was my father’s theory: The reason he had been sent away was to keep him out of harm’s way. The story does expand, and every clue I found led to deeper mysteries that spread out like rings in a pond when you throw a rock in it. It just got deeper and deeper into the crime history of my father’s family that nobody knew about.”
The Secret Drawer
Jana Marcus’s formal investigation into the deep well of her family’s history dates back to 1988. She had been primed for the job, growing up under the influence of her dad’s natural talent at storytelling, which encompassed the colorful tales of various relatives in a continuously unfolding narrative he characterized as an “Oliver Twist childhood with a Jewish accent.”
As a teen, young Jana also developed an abiding interest in genealogy, but had concentrated most of her efforts on her maternal line, of which she was able to find plenty of information. Mort’s side, however, despite his stories, was sealed off by years of accumulated silences from his relatives (Mort’s father left the family early on and was never a factor in his life).
The key to learning about the mysteries of her father’s side was her paternal grandmother, Grandma Rae, a charismatic New Yorker who had been married five times. Rae, however, was never willing to open the locked closet of her family’s history.
In 1988, Jana, who with her sister Valerie had been raised in Santa Cruz, indulged her romantic love for New York City by visiting her grandmother in Rae’s swanky apartment near Central Park. Jana had moved to New York as a young adult and was busy nightclubbing and making the scene.
One January day, she arrived at her Grandma Rae’s apartment to take part in one of the family’s occasional celebratory gatherings, which would include Mort flying in from California. She described these family get-togethers featuring various cousins, aunts and uncles as “beautiful chaos, full of Slavic loudness and a Fiddler on the Roof zest for life.”
Jana’s relationship with Rae was volatile. The older woman was capable of unpredictable mood swings, from gestures of smothering love to cold fury. It was during this particular family visit that Jana, shooed away from the kitchen before the guests arrived, began looking through her grandmother’s “secret drawer,” a cache of old photos and memorabilia. It was there she found an old newspaper clipping from the long defunct New York Daily Mirror, dated September 1941.
The clipping described “thick-necked, casaba-faced” Abe Babchick, who had recently been “a victim of gang guns,” as the Mirror put it. It was the first step in a journey that would lead all the way to Line of Blood.
Later in the day, after various relatives had arrived at Rae’s place, Jana brought up Babchick to one of her aunts, who froze in apprehension. Soon, the old clipping was making the rounds with various relatives, each of whom had only vague recollections of hazy stories involving some gambler in the family who had been killed. But when Grandma Rae learned that Jana was asking about the clipping, she exploded. “Don’t ever say my brother’s name!” she screamed, slamming the door behind her.
Her great-uncle Abe was involved in what was known as a “policy racket,” also known as “the numbers,” a form of lottery gambling illegal at the time. Mort knew almost as little as Jana about his Uncle Abe, and almost immediately father and daughter embarked on an investigation, armed only with the yellowing newspaper article.
“I wanted to find out for my father’s sake,” says Jana, “to find out who his family was. He had a lonely childhood, and I craved a sense of family. Who were they? Between the two of us, we were eager to research. As time went on, it kind of ebbed and flowed in terms of finding information until there was just no more information to be found. As the years went by, and more hints were dropped and clues were found, I really did move from eager researcher to obsessed sleuth. It really did become an obsession for me.”
Line of Blood is not only a family story, but also kind of a technology story. In 1988, the at-your-fingertips world of the internet that is such a foundational part of life today did not exist. Investigating a secret buried in the past meant doing it the analog way, looking through boxes of microfilm in the basement of some public library. In the beginning, Jana spent hours following leads on microfilm and combing over old municipal records at the police department and the district attorney’s offices in New York while Mort followed his own leads back home in Santa Cruz.
What they found was that Babchick was linked directly to the organized crime activity of the period, namely through his relationship with another Abe, nicknamed “Kid Twist” Reles, an infamous mobster and hitman for a feared syndicate luridly known as Murder Inc.
The picture of Uncle Abe began to emerge with excruciating slowness. The establishment of the internet and such websites as ancestry.com opened up new avenues for investigation. Jana’s relationship with her grandmother became even more volatile—at one point, Rae announced to both Jana and her sister than she no longer wanted to be their grandmother. Eventually, at different times and for different reasons, both Jana and her grandmother relocated to Monterey Bay. In 2001, Rae passed away, and it was only after her death that Jana learned of the menacing phone call threatening the whole family.
Several years later, in 2009, Mort himself took ill and in October of that year, after publishing his massive literary memoir, he died at the age of 73. And, for a long while, it appeared that Jana Marcus’s long obsession with her paternal family line had died with him.
“It was heartbreaking for me,” says Jana of Mort’s death. “This was something that Dad and I spent years talking about, hypothesizing about. The book is really (divided between) before Dad dies and after Dad dies, because when he passed away, I just didn’t want to finish it. I had spent too many years looking at pictures of dead relatives, trying to make their stories come to life. And I was grieving. I just put it all away.”
It was five years later, in the fall of 2014, that the long-moribund family project was revived, thanks to an out-of-the-blue phone call. The caller was the daughter of the man who was employed as Uncle Abe’s driver, and niece of Grandma Rae’s dearest friend. The dying ember sparked again.
“It was shocking to get this phone call,” Jana says. “It was five years after my father’s death. I had just been laid off from my longtime job [at Cabrillo College] and I had time on my hands. I realized that, after speaking with her, I still had the drive to figure this out, to stay on this investigation. Plus, it was a way to stay connected with my father. In writing this book, it was an exercise for me to face my father’s death.”
Diving back into the material anew, she began to piece together the story of the Jewish mob in Depression-era New York and ventured into unusual realms in pursuit of her story, which meant contacting a crime-scene psychic. Through her connections with a previous book on the literature of Anne Rice and the vampire culture of New Orleans, Jana found a third-generation psychic who claimed to be able to communicate with the dead, and proceeded to do just that with Jana’s dead father and grandmother. From that point on, the woman became a valued part of Jana’s team of investigators.
“It was pretty astounding,” says Jana of her experience with the psychic. “She was able to tell me things it took me decades to find. Even though information is now widely available online, information about my great-uncle’s murder was not. It had been wiped from the records. She was able to channel incredible information that no one could have known about.”
Before long, she assembled a team of investigators, including a retired NYPD police detective, her sister Valerie and cousin Jared, a research assistant, and a young videographer. In the summer of 2015, the team met in New York to revisit some of the sites that Jana had uncovered in her long investigation about Uncle Abe’s death.
Eventually, the deep dive into Abe Babchick’s murder went through revelations about Kid Twist Reles, Murder Inc., and the rich subculture of the Jewish mafia. But, to Jana’s surprise, it ended back at the feet of her Grandma Rae in what amounts to the story’s twist ending.
In the weeks leading up to the book’s publication, Jana has had occasion to share her story with many in her extended family, and the long journey into Abe’s death has afforded her the opportunity to get to know her family on a level she would have been unable to attain otherwise. She even received a letter from a woman who was the granddaughter of Mort’s half-sister, previously unknown to the family. The woman told Jana that she keeps the book by her bedside to conjure the spirits of her grandmother.
The book is dedicated to Jana Marcus’s nephew Zachary as a way to keep the tale in the continuity of the family. “He’s 15, and he went on the last on-the-ground investigation with us. There are still a few mysteries unanswered, and I’m leaving them to the next generation. It’s up to him to pick up the baton. I’ve taken this adventure as far as I can.”
Still looming over the story, however, is Jana’s celebrated father Morton Marcus. Line of Blood serves as a kind of benediction to him, more than a decade after his passing.
“It’s bittersweet,” says Jana, 57, of the publication of a book that has consumed half of her life. “There are so many times that I had wished Mort had been here to find out what I discovered. He would have loved to have been part of the adventure. He was as invested in it as I was.
“It sort of became our thing,” she laughs, bringing to mind a common nickname of the Sicilian mob, “which is what Cosa Nostra means in Italian.”
Jana Marcus, author of ‘Line of Blood: Uncovering a Secret Legacy of Mobsters, Money, and Murder’ will be in conversation with Good Times’ Wallace Baine on Aug. 11, at 7pm, in a virtual event presented by Bookshop Santa Cruz. Register for the Crowdcast event at bookshopsantacruz.com.