In 2011, Bari Pearlman was an artist-in-residence Governors Island as part of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Swing Space program. Working in a studio alongside 22 other artists, she created the multimedia documentary installation Looking for Lepke: 13 Ways of Looking At a Black Sheep.
From the time that Bari was little, she knew she was related to the notorious Jewish gangster Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, the head of Murder Inc. Her maternal grandfather was Lepke's first cousin, and though the family claimed that Lepke was adopted, that he wasn't really one of them, and not even Jewish, he was the spitting image of Grandpa Sam. Lepke was executed by the electric chair at Sing Sing in 1944, but many family members of that generation still feel the shame of being related to this ruthless killer. But growing up in the 70s, Bari was amused by the "swagger" of her gangster blood. By then, in movies and on television, gangster life was romanticized.
The truth of who Lepke was is anything but black and white. He was a ruthless gangster who destroyed and took lives, but he was also by all accounts a devoted husband and father, a loyal son and brother, a starving young boy who overcame extreme poverty to become a millionaire who sponsored Jews escaping Russia.
Looking for Lepke, offered a portrait of this larger than-life character, attempting to reconcile the allure of the gangster with the reality of his psychopathic brutality. Inspired by Wallace Steven's poem Thirteen Ways of Looking At a Black Bird, Bari created a 13-section installation looking at her family's Black Sheep.
Lepke & Gurrah
Sean had recently learned that his grandmother's brother was Lepke's right hand man Jacob "Gurrah" Shapiro. So we did what all self-respecting descendants of gangsters do - we began swapping stories. This was our first "face-to-face" meeting on Skype.
A while back, my mother and her cousins were gathered around the table at a family party, and we got to talking. . .
This is a telling of the hit that Lepke Buchalter and Lucky Luciano ordered on Dutch Schultz to keep him from killing Thomas Dewey. It begins with a scene from the 1972 Warner Brothers film Lepke starring Tony Curtis in the title role; this is followed by images from the graphic novel Brownsville, set to William S. Burroughs performing The Last Days of Dutch Schultz