An Irishwoman's Diary


I would loathe Las Vegas, except I can’t take it seriously. Laughs never end at this Circus Maximus. I recently rolled back in after 10 years, fresh from hiking Utah’s slot canyons (slot canyons to slot machines) and hilarity tripped my every step, plunging me into helpless mirth.

These days, what “stays in Vegas” is from “The Hangover.” Cirque du Soleil is X-rated, and Mandalay Shark Reef invites you to dive with man-eating tiger sharks. Popular, Martini-loving Mayor Oscar Goodman’s latest hit is the Mob Museum at the Old Courthouse. After all, he defended famous people accused of being mobsters here; it’s sentimental.

So, pitying the usual teens with fake IDs at security – “No officer, no, we swear we never saw that drunk kid before!” – I squeezed past nuns with “Kiss me I’m Irish” badges, walked down the Strip for a shark schmooze, then cabbed it expensively to glittering, re-pimped Old Downtown and the Mob Museum.

It’s hilarious. You walk into a police line-up and mug shots between Bugsy and Studs. Cuffs snap. You’re taken up to the courtroom and put through oaths. Flash bulbs dazzle as you trace mafia caputi with mini-movies, and quotes such as Al Capone’s “You can get farther with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone”. But at the top my laughter stopped dead. A wooden chair with a plaque proclaims “Old Sparky”. It’s the electric chair from Sing Sing that fried 614 prisoners, from Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927 to 1953’s Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

We think about capital punishment a lot where I live in California. It was banned in 1972 but came back under Ronald Reagan. A ballot to ban it in the recent election went down 53 per cent to 47 per cent.

Maybe you’ll remember the Rosenbergs? “Atom Spies” Julius and Ethel were executed 60 years ago on evidence given by Ethel’s brother, prosecution witness David Greengrass. He’s still somewhere in the southwest, and brought out a book about it in 2003. Three years ago he admitted on TV to lying under oath during trial. While Julius and Ethel maintained they were innocent, they wouldn’t name names. They went to the chair.

So when Mayor Goodman installed the chair in here, he also revived the legend of Ethel singing Un Bel Di to Julius as he went to Old Sparky, head shaved and diapered. Had a supreme court judge died just then instead of 10 days later they would have been spared. Ethel is now completely exonerated.

I met the Rosenbergs’ son Robert in 2003. It wasn’t difficult; he’d written a memoir (An Execution in the Family) and was signing. He was very open when I asked him if he was still pursuing his parents’ pardon.

“Oh, it’s just too difficult! So much complicated emotion around,” he said, agitatedly. “Look, there were so many things out there at the time, so many accusations floating around, so much in the way of vague threats. So no, it could probably never happen now.” Just three when his mother died, Robert and older brother Mike went to the Hebrew Children’s Home. Then Abe Meeropol, writer of the Billie Holiday song Strange Fruit, took them in.

Michael and Robert have since said that, given recent disclosures, they think Julius was in espionage, but add, “To this day, there is no evidence he participated in passing the bomb, the crime for which he and our mother were executed.” Witnesses fabricated evidence against Ethel, they say. David Greengrass freely admits this.

Robert hadn’t read that Greengrass book because he refused to buy it.

But he explained his theory of constructive revenge. This comes down to replacing old-timey eye-for-an-eye with the Amnesty-style Rosenberg Fund for Children, which aids children of activists globally. I brought up the novel Book of Daniel by writer EL Doctorow. The sensational bestseller horrified Robert by showing Rosenberg supporters exploiting the two boys for their own cause, he said.

“Their cause stood on its own, I thought. But on balance I suppose it did more good than harm, and my book got a great review from Doctorow, I’m pleased about that!”

Anti-climactically, when I checked up on this particular Old Sparky, it was a replica. The original is somewhere in Florida, the Disney state.

Only four states still electrocute. Of them Florida stands out as keenest. Florida juice!

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