My MFA thesis was featured in the Connecticut Post Sunday Business section yesterday. American Swindle and Musica, a nonfiction book and screenplay respectively, look at the life of the greatest con man of the last century, who also happened to be my grandparents’ brother-in-law.
Philip Musica was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan when the island was bursting with the greatest influx of immigrants in American history. Al Capone might have been a playmate, but Philip didn’t become another godfather. Instead, he pursued the American Dream in his own inventive and uniquely dark way.
Philip was arrested twice for fraud in New York City in his formative years. Each time he avoided his sentence with a brilliant display of social networking, the first time with a presidential pardon from William Taft, the second time by ingratiating himself with and then working for the Manhattan District Attorney under an alias.
As Investigator William Johnson, Philip settled old scores with WWI sedition laws and mastered Wall Street trading and Prohibition bootlegging on the side. He met his future wife and cunningly divided her from her first husband. Then he disappeared into a third and final identity that is difficult to believe was possible for a twice-convicted forger.
Frank Donald Coster was a German chemist from Heidelberg University who lived on the Gold Coast of Connecticut and single-handedly ran McKesson & Robbins, the biggest pharmaceutical company in the world at the time. This was Philip’s final masterpiece alias and he kept it up for most of the Great Depression, until it all finally unraveled.
The story is incredible and yet completely forgotten, I believe for the simple reason that no one likes to remember that they were swindled. Yet the SEC laws that are being changed this week for Bernie Madoff were originally written in response to Philip. The story has sat crumbling in a number of scrapbooks in my parent's attic for seventy years.
And today, after two years of research and writing and editing, and a lifetime asking questions, it goes out into the world. I have a website, of course.