On the rolling estates of Old Westbury, Long Island the homes are solid and so is the money. Both are set well back from the road, behind scrolled ironwork, and at night the scene is mostly sedate, with soft lights on the well-tended lawns and Lincolns. Mostly, but not entirely. Behind the white picket fence over at No, 8 Old Westbury Road—that's the George Morton Levy place—the yard is festooned with high-power spotlights that flare up every night after the old man comes home from the racetrack. He had the lights installed to frighten off burglars, Mr. Levy solemnly told Mrs. Levy, and she believed him—"Ahh, how naive I used to be," she says—until that first night he lit up the whole place and got out his golf bag and a bucket of balls. Now on clear Long Island nights there is an occasional shattering of glass at the estate next door, and neighbor Joel Jayson will awaken and murmur to his wife, "Well, old man Levy is hitting them pretty good over there tonight. He's knocking out our downstairs windows again."
The distance from Levy's back stoop to the Jayson windows is a couple of hundred yards over the high elms and natural rough that divide their property, and no sincere Old Westburian would ever complain about such a shot at any hour, so Jayson doesn't mention it. But he keeps a standing account with the town glazier and sends the window bills to Mrs. Levy. Everybody along the road is particularly fond of neighbor Levy—they point him out like a Long Island historical monument—and they will say that if anyone has the right to relax by hitting a few old golf balls at night, why, he has after what he's been through. And if the name doesn't stir an immediate response, one neighbor will say, "Don't you remember? He is George Morton Levy of Roosevelt Raceway. There was all that trouble, remember? The stories about gangsters. Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello. The Kefauver investigation, remember?" Levy was around so many years ago that a lot of people think he is dead. It is a little like going to a baseball game and having someone say, "Why, there's old Abner Doubleday." But there he is: old George Morton Levy.
In Old Westbury, (there is a new Westbury but the lots are considerably smaller and more suited to, say, wedge shots) the old man stirs the special tender regard that people show, not to a celebrity, but to the survivor of a hurricane. His friends see Levy as the lone patriarch of a sporting enterprise that consumes men early in life. That isn't enough for his business associates; they regard him as the Jewish Brigham Young of American harness racing, who led the sport out of the wilderness into the Zion of milk and pari-mutuel honey.
This season Levy's Roosevelt Raceway, which is the citadel of U.S. trotting, completes its 25th year in the glow of success. It is the biggest enterprise of its kind in the sport. The attendance for the year will be more than three million, and the betting handle will total some $252 million—both records for trotting tracks. New York State, which once regarded the Roosevelt operation with open hostility, will accept without a twinge of conscience more than $27 million as its share of the activities. Every evening but Sunday through August and September an average of 25,000 people will arrive about sundown at the field from which Lindbergh once took off for Paris, bringing money to the pastel-tinted structure that dominates the Hempstead Plain like an 11-story block of architectural Neapolitan ice cream. (George Levy will be watching them arrive from a tiny, specially built aerie tucked into a niche near the roof. The sight never fails to stimulate him.) They will bet at an array of 362 mutuel windows, dine in four restaurants, drink in 16 bars. The hidden speakers will play—softly, subliminally—music to handicap by. About midpoint each evening, when things might otherwise drag, the tapes will get to the Jersey Bounce and Strings of Pearls, pumping a subconscious free-spending mood back into the air. For those who cannot stand the sight of live horses pulling those little wagons with the bicycle wheels, the whole proceeding will be closed-circuit telecast and simultaneously flashed on monitors in the lounges and lobbies—every place but in the toilets and elevators. The horses will trot—in that wonderful, high-stepping gait—and the money will roll in.
All this is Levy's doing. He did not invent harness racing; he found it where it had always been in the years before 1940—a country-town sport—and redesigned it on his personal theory that if a thing is exciting, if it happens at night and if it moves, New Yorkers will bet on it. It took him a quarter of a century, all the money he had and all he could wheedle from friends to do it.
Now that night harness racing has rounded the turn toward status and become a sporting bonanza and George Morton Levy is honored for making it so, his friends are paying him the tribute he does not really need. They have already begun to edit his career, trimming out the bad parts and building up the good—creating the image of a man too good to be true.
"Oh sure, George once defended Lucky Luciano on that white slavery thing and Luciano was later deported," a close associate of Levy says. "And, sure, he once paid Frank Costello $60,000, and Costello later told Senator Estes Kefauver's committee, 'I don't think I did a damn thing' [for the money]. But all that was a long, long time ago."
It was, indeed, a long time ago, and Levy now has the historical edge by having outlived most of his enemies and converted the survivors. Nowadays he is mellow about the past. "I would do it all over again," he says. "I have been, in my time, maligned, attacked, called a companion of gangland elements, a crook by innuendo—I was cleared of the charges in writing, incidentally—and sometimes it all seemed more than a man could bear. But the truth will out; it has in my case, and now I can leave my children the finest thing of all, a thing more important than any money I will leave behind. I will leave them a good name." (Levy has three children, George Jr., 42, by his second wife, and CeCe, 11, and Robert, 7, by his present, fourth wife.)
Speaking this way, punctuating each sentence with little jabs of his cigar, Levy is at his best—a fighter ready to fight again. He is about 5 feet 5� drawn up to his indignant height (about three-quarters of an inch shorter when he relaxes), and most of the time he looks somewhat like James Cagney playing Admiral Bull Halsey in The Gallant Hours. His hair is white, wavy and parted slightly off center. He wears rimless, octagonal glasses, and his suit is always cigar ashes on rumpled blue serge. He is 73, 74, 75, 76 or 77 years old, estimates varying with everybody who has a run at guessing his age, and when his golfing pals say they are going to use mysterious legal means to find out just what the exact year is, Levy will growl jovially, "The hell you will. Nobody will ever find out."
But constitutionally Levy is somewhere around 40 years old, with just enough of a paunch to keep his pants up when his suspenders are down. This is his standard Sunday morning appearance while playing baseball with Robert and CeCe on the 5�-acre estate. "Daddy, your pants are falling down," CeCe will scream, and Levy will say with quiet dignity, "That is just to distract you; you'll note that I just pitched a strike. Now pay attention to the game." Sunday is family day at the Levys'; breakfast is always pancakes and ham, and it is always served all morning to anyone who drops in. A great many people do—"my wife has about 50 relatives, and even a few strangers come by," says Levy—and they fill up the yard, the swimming pool and the 160-year-old house. In the afternoon Levy sits in his den and watches baseball on the monster color television set. When the game is in black and white it always appears slightly out of focus to everyone else—but it always looks sharp to Levy, and most people in the den are too polite to mention it.