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Former Cellmate of Al Capone : Morris (Red) Rudensky; Criminal Turned Author

April 23, 1988|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Morris (Red) Rudensky, who began a lengthy and well-publicized career in crime by stealing bagels on New York's Lower East Side but became an unconventional member of conventional society, is dead at the age of 89.

The former cellmate of Al Capone who became literate while in prison and wrote a best-selling autobiography died Thursday in a rest home in St. Paul, Minn.

The now-respected humanitarian who was appointed to St. Paul's Crime Commission after telling the mayor, "I know more about crime than all those people . . . ," had lived in the Sholom Home for the last five years.

3M Consultant

Outspoken and iconoclastic, Rudensky, who passed out business cards that read "Crime Wouldn't Pay if the Government Ran It" late in his life, had become a lock consultant and alarm expert for the staid Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co.

Sam Bates, a spokesman for 3M, said Rudensky, who once purchased a Chicago house of prostitution with $50,000 in gold he had stolen, said the reformed Rudensky--dubbed "Rusty" by Capone when they shared a cell at Atlanta Federal Prison--was a natural choice "because of his background and his expertise."

"He toured the country, appeared on talk shows (including) . . . the Dinah Shore show and the Merv Griffin show and developed sort of a celebrity status because of that."

In 1970, Rudensky published his autobiography, "The Gonif," Yiddish for thief.

That same year while on a national tour publicizing his book, he visited Times columnist Jack Smith but didn't stay long after bungling two attempts to pick the lock to Smith's office.

"It's good Red can write. He'd never make it as a crook," Smith wrote afterward. But Rudensky, despite some lengthy incarcerations, did fairly well in the first of his two careers.

The high point of his life in crime came during Prohibition when he and some friends heisted $2 million worth of confiscated liquor from a government warehouse.

Cracked Safes

He cracked safes for Capone's mob and any other gang that would meet his price before being sent to prison for the first time.

Born Max Motel Friedman, Rudensky later changed his name when he was mistaken for another criminal. At age 13 he was sent to the New York State Reformatory as incorrigible. He escaped and made his way to Chicago where he joined the Capone and George C. (Bugs) Moran mobs. He also traveled, cracking safes on consignment in Kansas City, St. Louis and Detroit.

About 1927, he was sent to the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan., but escaped from the prison twice, once by crawling into a body bag with a corpse.

In all he spent 35 years in prison. In Atlanta, where he lived in a cramped cell with Capone until that icon of the Roaring 20s was sent to Alcatraz, he also was befriended by Earl Browder, the Communist who taught him English and encouraged him to write.

Margaret Mitchell, author of "Gone With the Wind," and Atlanta newspaper editor Ralph McGill took an interest in him, as did Charles Ward, a fellow inmate serving time for tax evasion who would go on to become president of Brown & Bigelow, a St. Paul publishing firm.

Worked as Copy Editor

When he was released from prison in 1944, Ward offered him a job at the publishing firm where he worked as a copy editor until taking the more glamorous position with 3M.

Three years ago, Rudensky's gangland memorabilia, including his lock-picking tools and photographs of fellow mobsters, were donated to the Minnesota Historical Society.

In his later years, Rudensky was active in the St. Paul Clown Club, which often performs for children in hospitals, and organized the Red Rudensky Variety Show, a vaudeville troupe that performed at nursing homes.

"He used his past to make the future count," said Lynn Mastenbrook, a distant relative.

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