Abe Saffron

Sydney's 'Mr Sin'
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The Independent Online

Abraham Gilbert Saffron, nightclub owner: born Sydney, New South Wales 6 October 1919; married (one son, one daughter); died Sydney 15 September 2006.

At the funeral service on Monday of Abe Saffron, "Mr Sin", last of the so-called East Coast Milieu who dominated organised crime in Sydney from the 1940s to the 1980s, the rabbis spoke of him as "acknowledged as a man of goodwill" and "a true Australian icon". One of his former employees thought differently, saying,

He made sure his girls had enough heroin to work and make him a dollar. He always took 60/40. He was a hoon.

The small, dapper Abraham Gilbert Saffron was born in 1919, one of five children of a draper in Annandale, Sydney. According to underworld legend there was a judge in his family tree. Saffron's mother wanted him to be a doctor but he had a taste for business begun by selling cigarettes to players at his father's poker games.

Educated at Fort Street High School, whose other alumni included the New South Wales Premier Neville Wran and another Sydney identity, James "Paddles" Anderson, Saffron left at the age of 15 and began work in his father's shop. In 1938 he acquired his first gaming conviction and the next year he was sentenced to six months' hard labour, suspended provided he joined the forces.

Despite this, he was able to open a number of clubs. His most celebrated, the Roosevelt, in Orwell Street, Kings Cross, which catered for resting American troops, was temporarily closed in 1944 when it was described by Mr Justice Maxwell as "the most notorious and disreputable night-club in the city". Saffron then took up bookmaking in Newcastle, New South Wales, acquiring the licence of the Newcastle Hotel. By the end of the Second World War he was one of the biggest of Sydney's illegal liquor dealers, owning a string of clubs and hotels and often using his family as front men.

In addition to the clubs his interests included brothels, arson, bribery, blackmail and extortion and by the 1950s he was regarded as one of the principal figures in organised crime. He was also heavily involved in illegal baccarat games. He denied involvement in drugs, but the comments of his employee seem to give the lie to this. In 1974 he was dubbed Mr Sin at the Royal Commission into Organised Crime conducted by Mr Justice Moffitt. To his great annoyance it stuck.

The next year the renegade and crusading heiress Juanita Nielsen, who was trying to prevent redevelopment of part of Sydney's Kings Cross, disappeared, presumed murdered, after a mid-morning appointment at Saffron's transvestite night-club Les Girls. Her body was never found.

In the early 1980s Saffron had free access to high-ranking police and in particular to the office of Bill Allen, the Assistant Commissioner, something which contributed to the officer's speedy dismissal. The next year he was named by Senator Don Chipp in the Federal Parliament as "one of the most notorious, despicable human beings - if one can use that term loosely - living in this country".

Because of Saffron's connections, over the years there were few prosecutions and those which were brought mostly failed or convictions were overturned on appeal. In perhaps the most celebrated of them, in 1956, he was acquitted of "scandalous conduct" involving four girls, feather dusters and oysters.

In 1988, Saffron fell out with a former partner in his night-clubs who gave evidence against him about the book-keeping. Now, Capone-like, Saffron went to prison for three years for tax fraud and served 17 months. While inside he organised the cabaret from his club to give a performance for his fellow prisoners. Another prisoner had food brought in for the concert from a Chinese restaurant he owned.

Either out of the goodness of his heart or, said his critics, an effort to improve his image, he turned to charitable work, organising a party for crippled children - at which he nearly electrocuted himself - and helping to raise money for the Miss Australia Quest.

He remained spiky to the end of his life, in 2004 suing The Gold Coast Bulletin over the answer (3, 7) to a crossword clue, "Sydney underworld figure, nicknamed Mr Sin" and, rather less successfully, John Silvester and Andrew Rule over his entry in their Tough: 101 Australian gangsters (2002). He settled the action on part payment of his lawyers' costs, and the sales of the book increased enormously.

Abe Saffron is survived by his son, Alan, and by Melissa, his daughter from a long-standing relationship with Rita Hagenfelds, a former Tivoli dancer. His wife of 52 years, Doreen, died in 1999.

James Morton