LIKE MOST GANGSTERS, IRVING WEISS wanted his daughters, Arlyne and Barbara, to be perfect schoolgirls, wives and mothers. Weiss, a New York City operator who sold luxury cars and dabbled in the rackets of his high-rolling clientele, managed to keep his second child, Barbara, now 54, on the law's right side. But her elder sister, Arlyne Weiss (later Brickman, from her brief marriage to a furrier), had ideas of her own. Growing up on New York's Lower East Side, she chose as her role model Virginia Hill, girlfriend of the notorious Bugsy Siegel. "In my eyes," she told Teresa Carpenter, author of a new book about Brickman called Mob Girl: A Woman's Life in the Underworld, "here was a broad that really made it good."

As a teenager Arlyne plunged into the world of small-time Italian mobsters, hanging out in their seedy nightclubs, seducing them in the backseats of Cadillacs and in later years helping them run drugs. At 35, she was raped and beaten by some wise guys—and discovered that none of her gangland pals would protect her; after all, she was a woman, and Jewish at that.

Still, Brickman didn't turn on the mob until eight years later, when, she says, a loan shark threatened to harm her only daughter, Leslie, then 18, unless Arlyne paid off a loan. Arlyne contacted the FBI and agreed to wear a wire on the shark, secreting the microphone in her purse or bra. In return the government paid her debts (and used her tapes to elicit a plea bargain). As one prosecutor told Carpenter, "Arlyne's best trait was that she would press and probe, ask the second and third question when most informants wouldn't."

Over the next 10 years, Brickman continued to work as an informant (or, as Arlyne prefers to call herself, "a cooperating individual"). In 1986, Briekman's testimony helped convict reputed Colombo capo Anthony Scarpati and several confederates on charges of racketeering conspiracy. The convictions threw the powerful Colombo family into chaos.

Since the trial, Brickman, 58, has steadfastly refused to participate in the Witness Protection Program ("That's the quickest way to get killed," she says), though she won't reveal the exact location of her new Florida home. Early on, she decided that her best insurance against mob retaliation was to go public. She found New York City writer Teresa Carpenter, 43, who had won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles in the Village Voice (one of which, on the murder of Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten, became the basis for the movie Star 80) and who had also written the 1988 best-seller Missing Beauty.

But Carpenter and Brickman had their dicey moments before getting Mob Girl into the bookstores last month. "Teresa and I are from different worlds," says Arlyne in the kitchen of her home. Carpenter, a native of Independence, Mo., attended Graceland College in Iowa before graduating from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and moving to New York. Having written, as she says, "about middle-class women gone wrong," Carpenter wasn't entirely prepared for a dame like Arlyne. "She really dominates a room," says Carpenter. "I felt pale and WASPy by comparison."

Indeed, Brickman, with her flaming red hair and flamboyant clothes, can present a number of faces to an interviewer. For example, she told Carpenter that she was the niece of Meyer Lansky, the notorious gangster, but then Carpenter did some digging and found it wasn't true. "That was part of my facade," Arlyne says with a laugh. Mostly, though, Brickman's sordid tales did check out. Says Carpenter: "She spared herself very little."

Certainly the most difficult part of the story to tell involved Brickman's daughter, Leslie, who began using drugs intravenously at the age of 21 and died of AIDS while the book was in progress. "I may have been crazy, I may have neglected Leslie, but I was a good mother," Arlyne insists. Yet, as Carpenter notes, drugs were being run in and out of Arlyne's house while Leslie was growing up. "If there's anything I'd change about my life," Arlyne admits, "I think I would go back and save Leslie."

"Arlyne and I went through a lot together," says Carpenter, who was pregnant with her first child while writing the book. (Husband Steven Levy is also an author.) "Andrew's birth, the death of Arlyne's mother and daughter. I wouldn't exactly say we became friends, but there was this peculiar bond."

The bond was very nearly severed when Carpenter showed Arlyne the finished manuscript. "It was like holding a mirror up to someone and saying, 'This is how you look in the harsh sunlight.' " Says Brickman: "When I read the book, I cried. Then I hired a lawyer and called Teresa."

In the end the book was published with only minor changes, mainly having to do with Brickman's safety. Yet author and subject will probably always disagree about its moral. "Arlyne and I see her life through different lenses," says Carpenter. "She sees her life as glamorous, and I see it as a tragedy."