Tura Satana's "tassel act," incorporating acrobatic and martial arts movements, was a popular attraction on the burlesque circuit of the 1950s. The performer's voluptuous figure and exotic, multiracial look caught Hollywood's eye and brought Satana the starring role of "Varla," a murderous go-go-dancer, in director Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! The "exploitation" film's sexual innuendo pushed the limit of acceptable taste in the 1960s. It became a cult classic and turned Satana into a sex symbol.
Satana was open about many aspects of her personal life. She posed nude for screen legend Harold Lloyd, she told journalists she had a romantic relationship with crooner Frank Sinatra, and she claimed she once turned down a marriage proposal from Elvis Presley. But she had another relationship that she kept secret. Satana spied on the Mafia for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Former FBI agent William Roemer first alluded to Tura Satana's cooperation in his memoir published in 1989. Roemer, who spent twenty years investigating the Mafia in Chicago, made a name for himself recruiting some of the city's most significant underworld informants, including mobsters Richard Cain, Butch Blasi, and Ralph Pierce. Informants or sources are one of the best ways federal agents like Roemer acquire information on their targets.
In Roemer: Man Against the Mob, Roemer wrote about a "burlesque queen" who supplied him with confidential information that he used against the Mafia. He called her one of his "most interesting sources ever." But Roemer, to protect Satana's privacy, never identified her by name and left enough ambiguity in his description that Satana's association with the FBI was never questioned during her lifetime.
Satana's undercover role was revealed after she died, when the FBI declassified intelligence reports that confirmed she was Roemer's source. Nonetheless, Satana's relationship with the FBI has never been examined before now.
Susk and Alex
Tura Satana was born in mid-1930s Japan to an Asian father and a mother of Native-American and Scots-Irish ancestry. She was brought to the United States as a child. She was briefly held in a World War II internment camp for Japanese-Americans in California. Her family later settled in Chicago.
As a teenager, Satana became a burlesque dancer. She wore a kimono on stage and billed herself as "Miss Japanese Beautiful." She reportedly earned $1,000 per week stripping.
She frequently performed at mob-controlled venues like the Follies Burlesque Theatre in Chicago. Augie Circella, brother of Mafia member Nick Circella, owned the Follies. While dancing in Chicago in the mid-1950s, Satana became romantically involved with Henry Susk. He was an affluent auto dealer with Mafia connections.
Susk introduced Satana to his associate Gus Alex. Alex was a Mafia big shot who supervised gambling and vice in Chicago's underworld and eventually rose to its upper echelon. He was a top target of the FBI. Satana developed an "intimate" relationship with Alex that attracted the FBI's attention.
Roemer and the Feds
In 1958, FBI agent William Roemer was conducting surveillance on Gus Alex. Federal law enforcement had begun to investigate the Mafia, and Roemer's assignment was to find out all he could about Alex. Other federal agents investigated their own high-ranking Chicago mobsters.
Roemer tracked Alex to the city's harbor, and a yacht owned by Henry Susk called the "Mollianna." Roemer observed Alex on board enjoying himself in the company of a "statuesque young lady." Keen on developing a source close to Alex, Roemer immediately set his sights on flipping the mystery woman.
After establishing Satana's identity, Roemer discovered she was the "star attraction" at the Follies and arranged to interview her. When questioned, Satana admitted a friendship with Susk but denied knowing Alex. Savvy and streetwise, Roemer concluded he would have to "finesse" Satana before she opened up. Used to interacting with murderers and thugs, Roemer considered her development a welcome "change of pace."
Roemer interviewed Satana three times before she admitted that Alex was a romantic partner. She told Roemer that Alex and Susk were close friends and business partners. She said Alex had an undisclosed financial interest in Susk's auto dealership and restaurant business. At the end of their meeting, Satana agreed to spy on Alex for the FBI.
St. Clair Hotel
Tura Satana was not in a position to supply overly incriminating information about Gus Alex's criminal activities. Alex was careful around her, so what she revealed was mostly inconsequential. For example, Satana told Roemer she cruised Lake Michigan with Alex and his cronies on a boat owned by hoodlum Louis Arger. She also stated that Susk had dinner at Alex's residence, and Alex's wife burned the meal.
However, Satana furnished one bit of crucial information. She told Roemer that Alex used a suite at Chicago's St. Clair Hotel to hold business meetings or make incriminating telephone calls. Susk initially set up the space for Alex and him "to entertain their girlfriends," but Alex later took it over for the Outfit's use. Satana said all the "top Chicago hoodlums" used it. She provided the suite's floor plan in case the FBI wanted to bug it.
Opened in 1928, the twenty-storey St. Clair Hotel was a five-minute walk to the Loop, Chicago downtown core. Located around the corner from another underworld hangout called Celano's Tailor Shop, high-ranking mobsters like Sam Giancana, Frank Ferraro, and Murray Humphries regularly shuttled between the two buildings to conduct meetings. Satana's tip permitted the FBI to stake out the hotel and watch hoodlums come and go.
Roemer explained that "[Satana] confided that Dave Gardner, manager of the hotel, was very friendly with [Alex] and that if anyone came around asking questions, [Alex] was immediately alerted. The suite was 14E and consisted of a parlor, a bedroom and bath with a private phone. She told me that the suite was rented under the name of Joe Henry, and that when [Alex] met there with his associates, Gardner would cater a lunch so that the meetings could continue without interruption. As the years went by this information was to serve me very well."
Tura Satana acted as an FBI source between 1958 and 1960. In the early 1960s, Satana took up acting and had parts in many films, including Billy Wilder's Irma La Douce. In his memoir, Roemer wrote how he lost touch with Satana [he referred to her as the burlesque queen] after she started acting: "I used to catch [Satana's] movies as they came to Chicago. I thought she had considerable talent and beauty, but I also speculated that Gussie [Alex], especially with the help of his close Hollywood buddy Sid Korshak, was her guardian angel, influencing her success through his contacts in the movie industry."
Satana enjoyed a short film and television career, usually playing femme fatales, before she dropped out of sight. In her later years, Satana saw a revival of interest in her work and stepped back into the spotlight. She appeared at film conventions and gave interviews about her life. However, even though Gus Alex was long dead, and Satana could safely talk about her relationship with the FBI, she never spilled the beans.
She died February 4, 2011, apparently of heart failure, at Reno, Nevada.
1 Elder, Robert K., "Grandma had an interesting past," Chicago Tribune, Oct. 24, 2008, section 3, p. 6; Johnson, Geoffrey, "Slower, Elvis... Kiss... Kiss!" Chicago Magazine, chicagomag.com, Feb. 10, 2011. Satana claimed that she taught Elvis how to "shimmy" on stage.
3 William F. Roemer, Jr., Roemer: Man Against The Mob, New York: Donald I. Fine, Inc., 1989, 85-86.
4 "High class stripper bares all," Honolulu Advertiser, Dec. 9, 1957; Itzkoff, Dave, "Tura Satana, actress with a cult following," New York Times, Feb. 7, 2011, p. D-9; "Slower, Elvis... Kiss... Kiss!" The year of Satana's birth is uncertain, with some sources indicating 1935 and others indicating 1938.
7 Roemer, 161.
11 Roemer, 85-86.
12 Roemer, 85-86. Korshak was a Hollywood lawyer who allegedly acted on behalf of the Chicago Mafia.
13 "Tura Satana, actress with a cult following."