The Roaring Twenties were a time of dynamic transition, unbridled turmoil and gilded optimism. Nowhere was this more readily apparent than in major metropolitan cities like New York City and Chicago. Leo Koretz, a lawyer by trade, found a unique way to make his fortune—and his mark.
In Empire of Deception (Algonquin Press), Dean Jobb chronicles the captivating tale of a man who swindled his family, friends and numerous wealthy business associates. Though a snapshot of an America long gone, this true story demonstrates the timeless lessons of the danger not only in believing your own lie—but in not verifying the truth.
Born to Jewish parents in Bohemia in 1879, Leopold Koretz was the seventh of nine children. By 1887, the entire family had immigrated to the United States in response to rising anti-Semitism, following in the footsteps of many other Europeans who sought freedom and prosperity.
“Almost a half-million people of German descent were adding their voices to the splendid chaos of Chicago by 1890,” Jobb writes, “making them by far, the city’s largest ethnic group.” Unlike most people of his generation, Koretz pursued higher education and earned a law degree. Idealistic and persuasive, Koretz came of age just as his adopted country was beginning to come into its own as a prosperous nation and global superpower. The road to the future, it appeared, was paved in gold.
After opening his own law firm, Koretz soon realized that not everything was as easy as it seemed. Poor and struggling, he took his first “dip into dishonesty” in 1905 when he gave a fake mortgage to a friend who had trusted him to invest funds. When the money was gone, he simply drew up another fake mortgage.
“He drafted another, then another, then another—so many that when he was asked about them almost twenty years later, he could not even hazard a guess at the number.” Like a moth to a flame, Koretz had seen the light, but did not know the extent of the darkness that would consume him—and those he loved.
Mystery and deception came naturally to Koretz. Delusions of grandeur danced in his mind. As untamed as his thoughts were faraway lands, like the Bayano River Valley in Panama. The construction of the Panama Canal inspired fervent interest in the region from enterprising American companies seeking to make a quick buck by capitalizing on the country’s natural resources.
Now married and a father, Koretz, too, had an enterprising idea of his own. He travelled to the area and gathered information about land rich in timber, sugarcane, cocoa and rubber trees—and later, the most sought after resource of all: oil. “The report was part fact, part embellishment, part pure imagination. . . Finding a name for the corporation that controlled this valuable, resource-rich property was the easy part, and the Bayano River Syndicate was born.”
Investors hungered to be a part of it. There was just one small problem—Koretz didn’t own any of the land for which he sold shares. To him, this detail was inconsequential.
Leo Koretz appreciated the finer things in life and spared no expense in his extravagance. He and his wife Mae were active in their Evanston, IL community, and Koretz was generous with his wealth. Charming, gregarious, sophisticated, and seemingly self-made, he was exactly the kind of man a thriving developing metropolis celebrated.
It made the execution of Koretz’s “big idea” almost too easy. Wealthy businessmen and their wives flocked to him with money in hand, practically begging to get in on his foolproof deal. The hope of getting something for little or nothing was woven into the cultural composition, but was not unique to Koretz’s era. Decades later, Bernie Madoff would make false promises with equally expensive and disastrous effects.
Koretz thrived on being the talk of the town—wine, women and parties filled his days and nights, despite having a wife, two young children and an extended family who believed in his goodness. He was swept away by the myth he created—the persona overshadowing the person he once was.
“It doesn’t seem possible, but I came almost to believe in the property myself. I talked Bayano, and planned Bayano, and dreamed Bayano, so that I actually believed the stuff. The idea grew and grew. . . It almost seemed that I had those thousands of acres and that oil down there in Panama.”
A journalist and professor, Dean Jobb is exacting in his attention to detail of Leo Koretz’s impossibly successful swindle. When placed in the context of a nation that was drowning out the echoes of the prim and proper Victorian era and trying to shape its identity, it seems more plausible.
Crime and corruption ran rampant in Chicago. A multitude of immigrants brought with them a tangible hope of a better life, but also an uncertainty of how to achieve it. Or, at least how to do so honestly. Jobb captures this energy on the page and it drives much of the book forward.
The pace slows towards the middle, weighted by almost too much information, but soon gathers steam as Koretz traverses eastward—and later, to Canada—to avoid capture after his crimes have been discovered. The almost unbelievable ending proves, however, that Leo Koretz, the con man who savored the sweet life, had the last laugh.