THE MAD ONESCRAZY JOE GALLO AND THE REVOLUTION AT THE EDGE OF THE UNDERWORLD
Weinstein BooksCopyright © 2008 Mad Ones Corp.
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-1-60286-081-0
King of the Streets
The body rested comfortably in tufted velvet eggshell, dressed in a double-breasted navy blue pinstripe suit with a dark blue shirt and deeper blue polka-dot tie. A bouquet lay below the folded hands, right over left, the right ring finger decked out in a large square blue stone. A gold cross and chain hung around the neck. A lithograph of Jesus hung on the bright pink curtain behind the bier.
Carmella knelt beside the bronze coffin at the private family viewing in the baroque Morgan Room, paneled in dark wood with ornamental wallpaper. Dim chandeliers hung from the high ceiling. Among the wreaths of red roses, orchids, and yellow and white chrysanthemums, a book made of flowers lay open on a stand, spelling out in petals, "To My Brother, Joey Gallo."
For nearly an hour in the funereal quiet, Carmella stroked her brother's slicked-back hair and kissed the mole on his cold cheek. Joey could've taken the Gallos to greatness in a dynasty to match the Kennedys. The papers wrote only the bad things about him, but Carmella knew the possibilities, cut short by a hail of bullets at Umberto's Clam House in the heart of Little Italy.
"Blood in the streets!" screamed Carmella. "The streets are going to run red with blood, Joey!"
Joey's mother, Mary, fainted. She wore old-country black. Four young men carried her downstairs to the basement parlor of Guido's Funeral Home, a Greek Revival brick mansion built by robber barons. Someone held smelling salts under her nose.
"My Joey, my Joey, what did they do to my Joey? What did they do to my Joey?"
The night before, a doctor had been sent to Mary's wood-frame, asbestos-shingled rooming house in a rundown section of Flatbush to administer tranquilizers. He walked in and saw a bunch of guys standing around. He was told not to say much.
"What happened to her son?" asked the doctor.
"He had an accident," said one of the guys.
Mary's portly and bald seventy-one-year-old husband now sat on a chair in the corner of the funeral parlor.
"He's all right," remarked an onlooker. "Don't worry. He's been ready."
According to an FBI informant, Umberto, the bootlegging father of the three notorious Gallo brothers, "raised his sons to be hoodlums and killers," "encouraged them in their criminal activities," and influenced them to "remove all competition in their illegal enterprises." His eldest, Larry, was buried with a thick purple ring around his neck, seared into his flesh by a manila cord. The baby of the family, Kid Blast, was the last living son. Handsome, with thick muttonchops down his cheeks, Blast dutifully attended to his grief-stricken mother. Mary cursed at a woman whispering consolation in her ear and renounced the heavens, shouting, "Jesus Christ? Jesus Christ? You know I don't believe in Jesus Christ!"
On this clear blue Sunday in South Brooklyn on April 9, 1972, two hundred mourners filed into the Morgan Room to say goodbye to Joey.
Jacques Levy, the shaggy-haired director of the madcap off-Broadway play Scuba Duba, stood before the bier. Years later, during a late night with Bob Dylan, Levy would recount this sad day when sitting down to write "Joey," an eleven-minute ballad on the flip side of the Hurricane Carter story on Dylan's album Desire.
"I never considered him a gangster," said Dylan of Joey. "I always thought of him as some kind of hero in some kind of way. An underdog fighting against the elements." Dylan crowned his eponymous hero "King of the Streets," nobler than the fool in The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, the gangster farce by hard-boiled newspaperman Jimmy Breslin. Inspired by the Gallo gang, the novel featured a band of ragtag crooks led by Kid Sally Palumbo, played in the film version by the city's favorite lanky actor, star of stage and screen, side-burned Jerry Orbach.
Orbach made his name over a decade before playing El Gallo, the bandit star of the hit musical The Fantasticks. Looking down on his dead friend, he couldn't help but regret playing Joey as such a bumbling idiot in The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.
"Breslin's book had portrayed Joey as a clown," Orbach told Time magazine. "Then when I met Joey, I was absolutely amazed to find out that maybe he had been a wild kind of nut before he went to prison, but something had happened to him inside."
"Joey had an intense sense of destiny," added Jerry's wife, Marta. "If he was truly marked for dying, this old-fashioned way-in style-would have been a point of honor to him. He was afraid he would choke on a piece of steak or slip in the bathroom."
Marta and Joey forged a friendship over hours in the kitchen of her Chelsea brownstone. She towered over him as he sipped his coffee spiked with anisette. Joey affectionately nicknamed her the Big Job. "I loved Joey. I've said that from the moment I met him. He was like a member of my family," Marta told Women's Wear Daily, the foremost authority on the newest rage in New York City. Radical chic was out. Gangster chic was in.
"He almost became one of the Beautiful People," dapper author Gay Talese told WWD. "I went to a dinner party about a month ago in the home of Linda Janklow and all they did was talk about Gallo."
High society had more to chew on after Joey's murder, which sent "a shudder throughout the social and literary circles of New York," reported WWD. Susan Sontag, the skunk-haired voice of the city intelligentsia, regretted her missed opportunity. "I wish I'd had the chance to talk to Joe Gallo before he died," she said.
Ironically, Jimmy Breslin was to be the keynote speaker for the upcoming A. J. Liebling Counter-Convention-a gathering of journalists who revolutionized reporting in a fiction-inspired style known as New Journalism. Joey was supposed to be the mystery guest. The convention's chairwoman, Nora Ephron, was "not to tell a soul," she later revealed to the Washington Post, "because they might come here and shoot him."
Joey had been slated to join writer Gore Vidal, radical Abbie Hoffman, film director Otto Preminger, and political powerhouse Bella Abzug to discuss the topic "How They Cover Me." His death made for page one news. Paparazzi staked out spots to pop off the bereaved coming in and out of Guido's Funeral Home. Tough guys threatened a New York Post photographer, leaving Pete Hamill, already a tabloid veteran in his mid-thirties, to paint the scene in his column.
"The first time I saw Joe Gallo," wrote Hamill, "he was standing against the far wall of the Ace Pool Room on Church Ave. in Brooklyn. He was wearing a wide-brimmed pearl gray gingerella hat, a dark blue shirt with a white tie. A few of the Irish guys laughed when they saw him; he looked too much like Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death to be true, but then someone suggested that we shouldn't really laugh. The guy's name was Joe the Blond and he was packing a gun."
Joey was a little guy, listed by the NYPD as 5 feet 6 inches. Small, like the toughest guys in the B-pictures, Jimmy Cagney or George Raft, the steely henchman in the original gangster epic, Scarface. In his teens, ruling the corner of Fourth Avenue and Sackett Street as King of the Cockroach Gang, Joey flipped a silver dollar, Raft's signature move. Joey wasn't going to be stealing copper piping from Brooklyn brownstones for the rest of his life. He was going to make it to the big town. Give big lunks the score.
"I could have worked my way up to head soda jerk at Whelan's Drugstore," said Joey, "but what kind of life is that for a guy like me?"
In 1949, nineteen-year-old Joey sat in a South Brooklyn movie theater, likely smoking in the back row. The lights dimmed and the silver screen faded in to the evening skyline of New York City. PARK CENTRAL HOTEL blinked down on the urban jungle.
In the Tombs, the city jail, psycho killer Tommy Udo sneered at a cop walking past his cell.
UDO For a nickel I'd grab him. Stick both thumbs right in his eyes. Hang on till he drops dead.
Tough guys weren't supposed to be blond, blue-eyed, and wiry, but pretty-boy radio actor Richard Widmark stole the film noir classic Kiss of Death in his breakthrough role as the unhinged Tommy Udo. Decked out in a black suit, black shirt, and white tie, Udo set out at night for Club 66. A juicy dame at his side, he sipped Château Martin at his usual table and snapped his fingers to the fast beat of the jazz combo, riffing, "How da ya like that music, man? Right upstairs. Send it, Jack!" Then he got to work.
"You know what I do with squealers?" asked Udo, right before he ripped out the electrical cord, tied the old hag to her wheelchair, and dumped her down the rickety steps. "Let 'em have it in the belly, so they can roll around for a long time thinking it over."
In the dingy bathroom of the Gallo home in Flatbush, blue-eyed Joey stood in front of the mirror and pulled a comb like a switchblade. At four, he'd taken his father's straight razor, sliced off his golden locks, and shook them in a fist at his pale blonde mother, who'd cursed him with sissy curls. Now, slicked back with a goop of Wildroot Hair Dressing, the hair made him a dead ringer for Tommy Udo. He called himself Joe the Blond.
"You got two ways to go," figured the Blond. "You need money or nerve. You wanna new suit? You don't have the money? Steal one. Looks just the same. Feels even better, if you don't get caught."
The Blond boosted a crate of twenty men's suits from the warehouse. He put on a black double-breasted jacket over a sleek black shirt. He knotted his white silk tie and hit the streets. His Udo grin was unnerving, something like the Joker in the Batman comics. Joey's high-pitched giggle filled dead spots with menace. He got off on making guys squirm. "Laugh at Joe the Blond," concluded Pete Hamill, "you're liable to get your brains blown out."
Hamill gave the city its first in-depth look at the Blond in the summer of 1961, in a New York Post profile titled "Brooklyn's Joe Gallo-Young Hoodlum of the Old School." Joey made for the best tabloid copy since the bad days of Prohibition, when Al Capone would pose for shots on his way to the opera house, angering President Hoover and sparking a drive to "Get Capone!" After that, mobsters longed for obscurity, preferring to run things without any heat from the press, but Joey stood outside of the courtroom and wisecracked to the television cameras.
"How can I be afraid when my bodyguard is with me?" he once told NBC man Gabe Pressman. The camera panned down to Mondo the Midget, official mascot of the Gallo gang. The pugnacious dwarf scrunched up his face. Notorious for impromptu press conferences, Joey loved getting his name in ink, and kept his clippings in his back pocket to show around to his gang. He phoned reporters when they forgot to print his infamous nickname, Crazy Joe.
Immortalized in black and white in a Life magazine cover story, "Death Throes of the Gallo Mob," Joey and his brothers posed for the cameras, looking like gangsters were supposed to look in cheap black suits and skinny black ties. "He should've been in show business," said Albert Seedman, chief of detectives of the NYPD.
Instead, Joey played out his wildest film noir fantasies in the Naked City, dressed like Cagney, right up until the bitter end.
"Joey always looked good in blue, except that now you could not see the tormented eyes," wrote Hamill about the body lying in state in the Morgan Room. "They seemed to range from the color of slush to the color of fogged blue steel. They watched everything ... For a few years, in the early '60s, I would see him in police stations, along with his brothers and some of the other hard guys from South Brooklyn; he would joke with the cops, and smile for the reporters, but the eyes never changed."
Sitting in a parked blue Cadillac across from Guido's Funeral Home, plainclothes detectives from NYPD Intelligence drank stake-out coffee. Nobody knew who killed Crazy Joe, but it was no secret that he had it coming. "More than anyone else," predicted a cop years before, "this guy reminds me of Legs Diamond. Legs was crazy too, and wouldn't play ball with any of the other racket guys. Eventually he got shot down. That's what'll happen to Joe Gallo too."
Early Monday morning, cops combed through the mob scene gathered outside of Guido's. Most in the crowd were rubberneckers, waiting hours to see a real live gangster, even if he was dead. It was something to tell the grandkids, that they'd seen a guy who inspired The Godfather, which had been earning a million a day at the box office since it opened a month before. Fans wondered if Kid Blast would "go to the mattresses" to revenge his family, like Sonny Corleone did after his brother Michael wasted that Turk in the old-time spaghetti joint.
Shortly before ten, NYPD blue coats parted the crowd to make room for the main attraction. Cameras snapped Joey's widow, Sina, walking out of Guido's into the cold morning light. Dark Jackie O's hid her puffy eyes. She looked lovely so sad, her lush dark hair parted down the middle. Sina, the Gallo family dream girl. She kept Joey well fed and, as a dental assistant, ensured that his teeth were perfectly maintained. After three weeks of marriage, she watched her new husband get gunned down at Umberto's Clam House after a second serving of scungilli salad.
"I want to kiss my Joey," cried Mary. "They took away my Joey and I want to kiss my Joey."
Five of the guys had to help Mary down the steps of the funeral home. They shouted at the paparazzi and placed her in the limousine at the head of the procession. Tucked away in the rear, twelve limos back, sat the darkly gorgeous ex-wife, Jeffie, sole survivor of a doomed love, played out over steamy Village nights filled with starry beatnik dreams. Death was the only way out for Joey.
"When he knew he was in a corner and couldn't beat it," said Jeffie, "then he said, 'Fuck it. I'll die. I'll die before I say I'm sorry.' Life or death, it always had to be his way."
Eight jowly pallbearers slipped the coffin out of the side door, bearing the weight of a thousand pounds of gleaming metal between thick shoulders and fleshy necks. The waxed black hearse turned onto Clinton Street, a strip of renovated brownstones with sandstone stoops and religious yard shrines, and made its way toward the western edge of South Brooklyn. It crossed the noxious Brooklyn Queens Expressway, the BQE, clogged with six lanes of blaring horns and angry Monday morning commuters, and entered Red Hook.
* * *
"In the old days, this block was moving," claimed the guy at Mastellone Brothers, a salumeria a block over on Union Street. Two doors down used to be Z. Giama's Italian-American Grocery, between the Boston Fish Store and the Jersey Pork Store. In a black shirt and a white apron, Giama would greet customers who came on pilgrimages from all over Brooklyn via the crosstown trolley line to buy imported provolone and cans of tomato paste, stacked in a pyramid in the storefront window.
Families pushed baby carriages along the sidewalks of Columbia Street to get their portraits taken at Virgilio's Photo Studio. Kids sipped malts made with Borden's Ice Cream at Ben's Luncheonette. V. Scalia had hats for sale. La Tosca Music Shop sold radios. Alexander Clothiers peddled off-the-rack zoot suits.
Bustling with frantic gestures and sidewalk haggling, Columbia Street was the heart of Brooklyn's Little Italy until the New York City highway czar, Robert Moses, declared it a slum. Hell-bent on connecting his Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to the Brooklyn Bridge, claiming it was necessary to evacuate and defend the borough in case of war, Moses wrote off the locals as insignificants in his master plan. "What can you do?" said the candy-store owner. "These were mostly immigrants here who were afraid they might get deported if they protested. You can't fight City Hall."