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Kefauver Show

June 2024
1min read

The mob gave the nation its first major television event


Sen. Estes Kefauver had warned the American public of a national crime syndicate several years before it surfaced at Apalachin. During his committee’s climactic hearings in New York City in March of 1951, the impact of his investigation was vastly magnified by a novel medium.

The sale of television receivers had boomed during the previous year; the proportion of New York City-area homes with sets had jumped from 29 percent to 51 percent. The hearings, broadcast live, became the first major television event. Viewers looked on by the tens of millions. New York’s Consolidated Edison had to add an extra generator to power all the sets. Stores were deserted during “Kefauver hours” and swamped when the committee took its noon recess. “Never before had the attention of the nation been riveted so completely on a single matter,” Life magazine said.

Kefauver, as the low-key moderator of the show, leaped from obscurity to national prominence overnight, the first television politician. He stage-managed the production well, calling to the stand the talkative mobster Willie Moretti, who, to general laughter, declared, “Jeez, everything is a racket today.” Virginia Hill, erstwhile mistress of the Las Vegas racketeer Bugsy Siegel, had little to say about crime in America, but she acted the exemplary moll before the cameras.

A conspiracy had to have a “Mr. Big,” and central casting couldn’t have provided a better candidate than the dapper Frank Costello. After his lawyer objected to the Cyclopsian stare of the camera, the television audience saw only Costello’s hands, their nervous ballet conveying a message of evasion and guilt. He insisted that his business interests, which, in addition to oil and Wall Street real estate, had once included the manufacture of Kewpie dolls, were legitimate; Costello had said earlier he was “cleaner than 99 per cent of New Yorkers.” Kefauver, himself a horseplayer, pressed the “Prime Minister” for answers about his gambling empire. Costello finally walked out.

Reaction to the hearings far exceeded Kefauver’s expectations. He received glowing letters from citizens by the tens of thousands, congratulating him for exposing “these carrion.” The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded the show an Emmy. Kefauver found himself on the cover of Time as his supporters ballyhooed his presidential prospects.

In 1956 the senator rode his notoriety to a vice-presidential nomination. His committee’s fifteen months of work, though, yielded almost no legislative or policy prescriptions. Kefauver would claim that his most important function was as a Cassandra, alerting the public to the hidden menace of the mob.

Critics later took Kefauver to task for alarmism and oversimplification. “The committee unquestionably exaggerated the degree of centralization within the underworld,” says the Kefauver scholar William H. Moore. In the end, rather than leave the country with a deeper understanding of organized crime, the Kefauver hearings served as a prototype of the drama-laden televised investigation that has become a staple of the political scene.

—J.K.

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