There are at least 50 synonyms for the word swindler and every one of them applies to Leo Koretz. In this fascinating book, we meet Koretz, king of the world in 1920s Chicago, living large and throwing around money as if he had a licence to print it. As it turns out, he did. Not in the counterfeit sense, Leo Koretz bought his mansion, jewels, fine clothes and furnishings with real greenbacks. The licence came from his victims who clamoured for his golden touch and begged him to invest their life savings. From mortgages not worth the paper on which they were printed to phoney land and oil deals, Kortez bilked friends, family and some of Chicago’s wealthiest citizens out of millions of dollars. Even his own mother invested in his Bayano River Syndicate, a fake oil field in Panama.
Eventually, his fragile house of cards came tumbling down. He scurried out of Chicago just ahead of the law and ended up, by sheer chance, in Queens County, Nova Scotia. There, he changed his name to Lou Keyte and befriended some of the locals, including Thomas H. Raddall. Kortez/Keyte continued his penchant for excess until the day he was caught and sent back to Chicago to stand trial, whereupon another of his pseudonyms was discovered – Al Bronson, a name he used to secure a love nest for one of his many mistresses.
Award-winning journalist Dean Jobb’s meticulous research pays off in numerous ways. He takes the reader into the glittering world of Chicago’s moneyed society of the early 1920s and out onto Al Capone’s dangerous streets. Drawing on newspaper accounts of the day, which are frequently hilarious in their overblown headlines (LAMBS SOUGHT OUT KORETZ AND BEGGED FOR A SHEARING; GOT IT), and interviews with surviving descendants of the con man, we discover a man anxious to please, mild-mannered (most of the time), who maintained that he was only giving the people what they wanted. References to fictional (Jay Gatsby) and real (Bernie Madoff) fraudsters permeate the text, providing context for Koretz’s schemes.
Fast-paced with larger-than-life characters, Empire of Deception is a must-read cautionary tale about greed and how avarice makes fools of us all.
Empire of Deception: From Chicago to Nova Scotia – The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated the Nation
by Dean Jobb
$29.99, hardcover, 322 pp.
HarperCollins, May 2015
Reviewed from an ARC