It's believed Zwillman was born on July 27, 1904, in Newark, New Jersey. He was forced to quit school in order to support his family after his father's death in 1918. Zwillman first began working at a Prince Street cafe, the headquarters of a local alderman in Newark's Third Ward. However, in need of more money, Zwillman was eventually forced to quit, later selling fruits and vegetables in his neighborhood with a rented horse and wagon.
Unable to compete with the cheaper Prince Street pushcarts, however, Zwillman moved to the more upper-class neighborhood of Clinton Hill, where he began selling lottery tickets to local housewives. As Zwillman observed that much more money was made selling lottery tickets than produce, he concentrated on selling lottery tickets through local merchants and, with the help of hired muscle, by 1920 Zwillman controlled the bulk of the numbers racket.
At the start of Prohibition, Zwillman began smuggling whiskey into New Jersey through Canada, using several World War I armored trucks. Zwillman used this revenue to greatly expand his operations in illegal gambling, prostitution, and labor racketeering, as well as legitimate businesses, including several prominent night clubs and restaurants.
Zwillman dated actress Jean Harlow at one time and got her a two-picture deal at Columbia Pictures by giving its head, Harry Cohn, a huge loan. He also bought Harlow a jeweled bracelet and a red Cadillac. He referred to her in derogatory terms to other mobsters in secret surveillance tapes. He later married Mary Mendels, the only daughter of Eugene Mendels—a founder of the American Stock Exchange (then known as the Curb Exchange).
The "Al Capone of New Jersey"
After Dutch Schultz's death in 1935, Zwillman took over those of Schultz's criminal operations which were in New Jersey. The press began calling Zwillman the "Al Capone of New Jersey." However, Zwillman often sought to legitimize his image, offering a reward for the return of the Lindbergh baby in 1932, and contributed to charities, including $250,000 to a Newark slum-clearing project.
Shortly after taking over Schultz's operations, Zwillman became involved in local politics, eventually controlling the majority of local politicians in Newark for over twenty years. During the 1940s Zwillman, along with long-time associate Willie Moretti, dominated gambling operations in New Jersey, in particular the Marine Room inside Zwillman's Riviera nightclub, The Palisades.
During the 1959 McClellan Senate Committee hearings on organized crime, Zwillman was issued a subpoena to testify before the committee. However, shortly before he was to appear, Zwillman was found hanged in his West Orange, New Jersey, residence on February 27, 1959.
Although Zwillman's death was ruled a suicide, police found bruises on Zwillman's wrists, supporting the theory that Zwillman had been tied up before being hanged.
While his death was ruled a suicide because of Zwillman's intractable income tax problems, it is often speculated that Vito Genovese had ordered Zwillman killed. Others have alleged that Meyer Lansky, suspecting that the New Jersey gangster had agreed to become a government informant, gave permission for the Italian Mafia to take action against Zwillman. The theory that he was hanged was also supported by deported mobster Charles "Lucky" Luciano, who allegedly told journalist Martin Gosch in Italy that the suicide theory was nonsense, and that before hanging him, Zwillman's killers had trussed him up like a pig. Martin Gosch's biography (which he co-authored with Richard Hammer) of Lucky Luciano is somewhat controversial and considered fictional by many mob experts. However, the authors have claimed that the contents are entirely based on interviews with Luciano, who died before the book was ever published.
- Joseph F. Sullivan (March 9, 1980). "Jersey Man in Abscam Case Is Experienced With Inquiries". New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-12. "Mr. Zwillman, who later was found hanged in his West Orange home, also testified about his relationship with Mr. Bozzo ..."
- Hutchings, Harold (February 27, 1959). "Zwillman, Millionaire Racketeer, Hangs Self". New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-12. "Abner [Longie] Zwillman, 54, bootleg era millionaire who tried to hide his past in the respectability of his 20..."
- Stuart, Mark A. Gangster: The True Story of The Man Who Invented Crime. W.H. Allen & Co. Plc, 1985.
- Almog, Oz, Kosher Nostra Jüdische Gangster in Amerika, 1890–1980 ; Jüdischen Museum der Stadt Wien ; 2003, Text Oz Almog, Erich Metz, ISBN 3-901398-33-3