BALLSTON SPA – The locals got to know Luellen Smiley when she came here from the West Coast and bought a large rambling Victorian on East High Street in 2000.
She became even more well known when she won the village’s contest for coining the phrase, “A Village of Friends.” Now, Luellen Smiley is making a name for herself on both coasts as the author of her recently published memoir, “Cradle of Crime: A Daughter’s Tribute.”
Smiley describes the writing of her book, which took 20 years to complete, as a way of reconciling growing up with a gangster father. Allen Smiley was a well-known gangster and right hand man to the infamous Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel.
Allen Smiley, born Aaron Smehoff, immigrated to Canada from the Ukraine with his orthodox Jewish parents when he was five years old. Smehoff, whose name was changed to Smiley when the family emigrated, was always looking for adventure. His father wanted him to grow up to be a rabbi, but young Smiley had other plans.
At 15, he ran away from home and stowed away across the border into the United States. By 17, he and some other boys were nabbed for robbing a local store and sent to Preston Reformatory for Boys in Ione, California. It was there that the young, charming and exceedingly handsome Smiley met director Cecil B. DeMille.
DeMille was there filming for his movie “The Godless Girl,” the last completely silent film he directed.
“My dad’s looks were phenomenal and he was also very confident and direct,” Smiley said. “He asked DeMille for a job, and DeMille’s answer was, ‘Absolutely!’”
Once Smiley was out of reform school, he made his way to Hollywood, where he worked for DeMille until he and Siegel crossed paths.What followed was a deep and long one-way journey into the world of the Mafia.
During that time, he met and married Luellen Smiley’s mother, whom he divorced when she was 8. By the time Luellen was 13, her mother had been diagnosed with cancer and died. It was then, that she went to live with her father until she turned 18.
During those years, she learned some hard truths. She also learned how to never speak of things like the Mafia or anything related to Siegel and her father’s activities. Smiley said the reason it took her so long to write about her father was because it had been drilled into her to never talk about the mob.
Her first attempt to defy her father’s dictates came in the form of an 800-page fiction manuscript, which she sent to an agent. He promptly returned it to her, telling her to cut it down to 500 pages.
Following that, she began to experiment with memoir, going through four versions, before a friend told her that she was writing too much for herself and not for other readers. To improve her skills, Smiley attended Skidmore’s annual summer writer’ conference in 2000 and she fell in love with the area, eventually purchasing the home on East High Street where she lived with her partner for the next three years.
After enduring three long, cold winters, Smiley couldn’t tolerate the weather any longer. She found a long-term renter for the house and returned to San Diego, where she continued to write weekly columns for the Del Mar Times and contribute monthly articles to MORE magazine
About two years ago she fractured my foot and couldn’t walk for six months. While she was recuperating, she said it finally came to her how to write the book.
“I just wrote it by instinct,” she said.
Smiley, who described her youth as a life of privilege and punishment, hopes readers will consider her perspective about men in organized crime.
“They bear a life and death burden as fathers,” she said.
Smiley will also be returning to Ballston Spa and Saratoga this summer, when she plans to rekindle friendships and schedule book signings across the Capital Region.
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