Harry Grey - the real "Noodles"

It's claimed that "The Hoods" is an autobiographical account of the life of a Jewish gangster in New York's Lower East Side written by Harry Grey (real name Herschel Goldberg) whilst he was in Sing Sing prison. Harry Grey said that the sole liberty he took with the truth was Max's death but Sergio Leone thought that the only truly authentic parts of the book were those concerning Grey's childhood.  Grey didn't like the way gangsters were portrayed in films and wanted his book to tell events just as they had happened. Sergio Leone was thrilled at meeting the real "Noodles" but thought that the book was full of citations, gestures and words seen and heard thousands of times on the big screen.

Parts of "The Hoods" are true, some parts have been unconsciously reworked by the author, some may be fiction.  Some events such as the disappearance of Supreme Court Judge Joseph Force Crater are easily identifiable and it is unlikely that Max and Noodles participated in the disposal of the body as described in the book.  By the 1950s very few gangsters had dared to tell their life story and Harry Grey makes it clear in the book on the best way of writing the story:

"As a factual, biographical piece? Nah, no good. The actual facts would land me and everybody else in jail. I'll treat it as escapist stuff, omitting time and slightly camouflaging the place. That's it. I'll sort of blend factual happenings into fiction. After I write it, I guess I'd better keep it for twenty years or so. By that time probably the alert newspapers will finally get wind of this fantastic Combine, and I won't really be spilling the beans."

Sergio Leone's first meeting with Harry Grey took place in 1968 at a bar near the New Calvary Cemetery, just off Greenpoint Avenue, Brooklyn and during the following years they had several more meetings.  Sergio Leone thought Grey was in his seventies and described him as short and thick-set with a bull neck, a very smooth face and the rosy complexion of a child, looking something like Edward G Robinson:

"Physiquement, il ressemble un peu à Edward G. Robinson, petit, gros, avec un visage rose d'enfant, comme de la céramique, beau, vraiment beau."

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There is a star dedicated to Harry "Noodles" Grey in Palm Springs which was sponsored by Harry's son Simeon.  Simeon has provided the following information:

Brief Biographical Sketch - Harry Grey

Born January 1 1901 in Kiev, Russia. Parents emigrated to USA four years later. Early schooling on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, dropped out, later received honorary degree in literature and art, and was a frequent guest speaker for the BBC on the Roaring Twenties and Thirties. When his father took seriously ill, his mother cooked in her tenement apartment for local immigrant men with no families. Soon the business took off, and his Mother opened a store-front restaurant.

Harry ran the family wholesale grocery business, Embassy Food Corporation, a firm that grew to handle all exclusive accounts, i.e. Waldorf Astoria, West Pointe, etc. He ran dockside storage facilities, dealt with unions, longshoremen, food importers. Harry was physically strong and tough, and able to deal with the myriad teamsters and gangsters that controlled the waterfront and territories in New York.

He married Mildred Becker, (the "Maybelline" girl and a Hunter College graduate in English Literature) had three children, Beverle, Harvey and Simeon. After being hospitalized by an accident in his fifties and rehabilitating in the Las Palmas area in Palm Springs (as the story goes he was hit by the tail gate of a Mack truck) and being prompted by cronies Charlie Bronson and family members, Harry decided to write about life in the twenties and thirties and those syndicates who controlled the various businesses that were the life blood of the City.

To protect himself and family he changed the family name and from Herschel Goldberg became Harry Grey. Harry's brother, Hyman Goldberg, was a syndicated columnist and food critic for the New York Post, authored a cookbook called "Our Man in the Kitchen", a compilation of recipes from his column as "Prudence Penny" and appeared on CBS for years in one of the first cooking shows.

Harry authored several best sellers, among them, "Call Me Duke", "Portrait of a Mobster" and "The Hoods", all translated into foreign languages and instant successes both at home and abroad.

"Portrait of a Mobster", depicting the life story of Dutch Schultz, became a successful motion picture. "The Hoods" became the epic movie, "Once Upon A Time In America", starring Robert DeNiro, playing loosely Harry's life as "Noodles". The stellar cast included James Woods, Joe Pesci and Tuesday Weld.

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It's possible that Simeon has played down his father's criminal activities to enable him to be accepted for a star. The following is from official records:

 
Harry's parents Born Immigrated to U.S.
Israel Goldberg 1872 Russia 1903/4
Celia Goldberg 1880 Russia 1904/5
Harry's brothers and sisters
Barney Goldberg 1899 Russia 1904/5
Bessie Goldberg 1900 Russia 1904/5
Sarah (Sue) Goldberg 1903 Russia 1904/5
Hyman Goldberg 1908 New York USA
Harry Goldberg 1901 Russia 1904/5
Harry's wife - Mildred Becker/Goldberg 1914 New York USA
Harry's children
Beverly 1934 New York USA
Harvey 1938 New York USA
Simeon Franklin 1940 New York USA

   

Census  Harry's address Harry's occupation Hyman's occupation Israel's occupation
1910 1510 Pitkin Ave Brooklyn none none ragpicker
1915 1589 Washington Ave Bronx school school restaurant owner
1920 2114 Clinton Ave Bronx clerk clothing house school not known
1925 833 E 167 Street Bronx taxi driver newspaper clerk unemployed
1930 1457 College Ave Bronx garage manager newspaper writer sewing machine salesman
1940 1205 College Ave Bronx wholesale grocery salesman newspaper reporter unemployed

 

According to Hyman Goldberg, when the family were living in the Bronx, Harry's father Israel was a blacksmith. Israel became seriously ill and had to be taken to hospital for an operation. During his stay there Harry's mother Celia began cooking meals for men in the neighborhood who were saving money to bring their families to America from Europe. When Israel came out of hospital he found that Celia had a flourishing business and Israel started a restaurant. All the children helped out.

In 1932 Harry married Mildred Becker and by 1940 he had moved to 1205 College Ave Bronx.  Their daughter Beverly was born in 1934 and their son Harvey was born in 1938. By 1940 censuses had started to include information about education and Harry is shown to have reached grade 7, whilst Mildred went further reaching H4. Harry was described as wholesale grocery salesman and in November 1940, a further son, Simeon, was born. 

According to his son Simeon, Harry had an accident in the 1940s, decided to write 'The Hoods' and to protect himself and his family, changed his surname to Grey. The 1940 census, which is the last one published, and Harry's obituary in the New York Times from October 1980 provide some confirmation of the change of name.


1940 census



Obituary NY Times October 1980


At one of Leone's meetings with Grey, Grey invited Leone to his house and they had a meal of spaghetti, badly cooked by Grey's wife.  She was, as Leone remembered, tired of everything and silent - an elderly ex-schoolteacher who had lived her whole life waiting for him, shaking with nerves every time the phone or the doobell rang. There is some evidence that Eva, Mildred's sister attended Hunter College and was a schoolteacher.

During the early 1970's, Leone introduced writer Medioli to Harry Grey, who confirmed that he had been associated with Frank Costello and the sole liberty he had taken in the Hoods was Max's death.  Max had survived and was now 70 years of age.  He still accepted one or two contracts a year to pay the rent but according to Grey, Max still had big ideas.  So, at seventy years of age, Max proposed to Grey that they do a hold-up together.  Harry's wife said to him: "If you dare do that, at seventy, after all these years I've waited for you, I will leave you." And so Grey turned down the proposal, Max attempted the job himself and was subsequently arrested.  The arrest was broadcast on TV.

When Sergio Leone had a date for filming to commence, he tried to contact Harry Grey to let him know the good news.  Grey's wife told Leone that her husband had died a few weeks earlier.