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TERRY GROSS, host:

Joey Gallo is part of gangster lore. Bob Dylan sang about him in his ballad, "King of the Streets." Joey Gallo also inspired Jimmy Breslin's comic novel about bumbling gangsters called "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight."

Gallo was gunned down in Manhattan's Little Italy in 1972. Now there's a new biography of him called "The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld." It's by Tom Folsom, who interviewed people who knew Gallo and read through almost 1500 pages of unpublished FBI files on him. Files based on wiretaps of underworld conversations. Folsom also coauthored Nicky Barnes' memoir about his life as a drug kingpin. Barnes was portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the film, "American Gangster."

Tom Folsom, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your book starts by saying that the tale of the Gallo brothers has been recounted in the lore and legend of New York City crime, but you felt that no nonfiction book had captured the madness of the Gallos. What do you mean by that?

Mr. TOM FOLSOM (Author, "The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld"): Well, you look at a guy like Joey's life and you wonder what's the thread here? You know, he's more than just an ordinary hood. You know, in the early '60s he moves to Greenwich Village at the same time as Bob Dylan, this is in 1961. He gets caught up in the fervor of Greenwich Village. He gets caught up in the spirit of wanting to create, of wanting to paint, to write.

He's hobnobbing with high society in the early '70s, guys like Jerry Orbach and he gets a book deal from Viking Press. He's quite literally the toast of the town in the months before he gets whacked outside of Umberto's Clam House.

GROSS: It's just odd to me, you know, he's reading Kerouac. He's reading, you know, the existential novelists and, you know, identifying with all this. And I'm wondering, like, what exactly is he getting out of it? Does he see himself as like a beatnik murderer or an existential extortionist? I mean...

Mr. FOLSOM: I...

GROSS: ...how does all this like deep reading that he's doing relate to what he's doing in real life? Which is, you know, he's a hit man. He's a mobster. He's trying to overthrow the crime family, take control himself.

Mr. FOLSOM: Joey Gallo was a frequenter of the Eighth Street Book Shop in Greenwich Village. It's percolating in the coffee shops around this time. You know, when you've got the beatniks talking about whether or not a guy like Fidel Castro is hip or square. There's stirrings of revolution that we'll see later in the course of the '60s come to fruition.

But Joey picks up on that early and decides the enemy is the establishment. And Joey's seeing the establishment as the Mafia. So, you know, Joey will incorporate things, you know, when he goes to - like in the 1960s he starts creating alliances with black nationalist groups, with heroin dealers like Nicky Barnes. They forge alliances in the joint and they make plans to, you know, do things like control the distribution of heroin in New York City.

Now it's very significant that a guy like Joey Gallo is reaching out to a black heroin dealer like Nicky Barnes because this was just something that wasn't done in the Mafia. Sometimes Sicilian-only, you know, maybe put some Neapolitans in but this is a very Italian-dominated organization. So Joey, he's got some revolutionary ideas of where he wants to take street crime.

GROSS: So Joey Gallo became a made man in the Profaci family. What was the Profaci family like?

Mr. FOLSOM: When you talk about a character like Joe Profaci, The Don, it's helpful to think of Don Corleone in "The Godfather." They called Joseph Profaci the Olive Oil King because at the time he was America's largest importer of olive oil. He had ruled South Brooklyn really since about I'd say the 1930s. He was a force to be feared and he demanded really strict discipline for the members of his family. And he did what was called wetting the beak.

This is something that's famously told about in "Godfather II" which is that the Don, he's going take his cut of the profits of the underlings. So for a guy, you know, for a guy like Joey Gallo who's collecting the nickels and dimes off the jukebox industry, the Don is, he's taking a pretty hefty cut of the Gallos' profit. So therefore, this was a source of contention for the Gallo brothers when they decided to revolt against the Don.

GROSS: In one story that you tell that has resonance in fiction, both with "The Godfather" and also "The Sopranos," the Gallos' hit man Joey Jelly is taken to Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and this is by one of the rival gangs and what happens? Who takes him and what happens?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FOLSOM: Joe Jelly, he is the Gallos' bodyguard. He's got a reputation as the most feared hit man in Brooklyn. Now, in the midst of the Gallo-Profaci negotiations where we're not, you know, sure what's going on here in the Gallo war. Are they fighting? Are they not? There's a very uneasy truce in the summer of 1961 when Joe Jelly decides he's going to go on a deep sea fishing trip with some of his buddies.

Joe Jelly never comes back but a few days later there's a mysterious car driving by the Gallo family diner. It's a place called Jackie's in Flatbush. And out of the backseat of this car comes a package. Inside the package are Joe Jelly's clothes wrapped around a dead fish. Of course, the line is Joe Jelly swims with the fishes.

GROSS: So it's not just that they drowned the hit man in Sheepshead Bay...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...they did a lot worse than that.

Mr. FOLSOM: Yeah. The FBI reports say they cut off his arms and legs, stuffed him in a barrel, and tossed it into Sheepshead Bay. And one report even says the barrel actually floated back up and had to be weighed down even further so it would really sink.

GROSS: So Joey Gallo is sentenced to prison.

Mr. FOLSOM: Right.

GROSS: Convicted of conspiracy and attempted extortion in 1961 for trying to take over a check cashing business.

Mr. FOLSOM: Sure.

GROSS: He's sentenced to seven to 14 years. So is the war still going on between the Profaci family and the Gallo brothers when Joey goes off to prison?

Mr. FOLSOM: Well, there's a truce that's called when Joe Colombo becomes the Don of the family. He makes some concessions with the Gallo brothers. Joey, of course, he says, you know, it doesn't apply to me because I'm in prison at this time. But Joey's really, he's - his time in prison in the 1960s is really his time to get his intellectual ammunition for the fight. This is when he really starts becoming increasingly radicalized.

You have bank robber Willie Sutton telling a really colorful story about how Joey Gallo is walking around with one of Mao's little red books. And he's talking about the fact that, you know, all the prisoners need to join in the revolution. This is very much in keeping what Joey Gallo does when he teams up, so to speak, with Harlem heroin dealer Nicky Barnes.

By teaming up I mean that what Joey Gallo does is he starts to forge this alliance with Nicky Barnes because he realizes that if I could get a guy like Nicky and I can teach him the way of the Mafia, and a guy like Nicky, and Nicky, you know, I wrote this book "Mr. Untouchable" with him in witness protection so Nicky told me this story personally, is that Joey wants a guy like Nicky to create his own sort of Mafia as this vehicle for distributing heroin across New York City. For Joey, he's thinking well, you know, if the Gallo brothers can team up with Nicky Barnes' group then we're going to be able to rule the streets.

GROSS: So when Joey Gallo's in prison and he's reading more books from the Eighth Street Bookstore that are shipped to him, he's making alliances with African-American gangsters and heroin dealers like Nicky Barnes. And he's increasingly identifying with this uprising against the bourgeois oppressors of the world. And God, there's part of me that thinks, like, this is so ridiculous, like, the bourgeois oppressors of the world that he wants to overthrow is a crime family that's taking too big a take of the money that he's stealing from people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FOLSOM: Right, right.

GROSS: There's just, like, something so irritating about the whole thing of him kind of identifying with these larger, like, intellectual and political, social ideas.

Mr. FOLSOM: Yeah, I mean, this is really a tale of the absurdity of not only just, you know, Americans' love with gangsters, but, you know, where this - it was part of the joy in writing this book. As a writer, I just found it fascinating how Joey's taking the zeitgeist and he's twisting it to his own ends...

GROSS: Exactly.

Mr. FOLSOM: ...for criminal means.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah.

Mr. FOLSOM: It's absolutely infuriating. But, it certainly makes for good reading and it was a kick to write about.

GROSS: While Joey Gallo was in prison, the Colombo family became very powerful and his brothers became part of that family. Why?

Mr. FOLSOM: Well, essentially what happened is Joe Colombo takes over the mantle of don of what was the Profaci family, which is now called the Colombo family. Joe Colombo makes concessions to the Gallo brothers, saying that well, we're going to give you this and that. And these concessions really - they never seem to come through as the years go on. So, when Joey Gallo comes out of prison and he sees Joe Colombo not giving the Gallo brothers the respect he feels that - deserves, he very quickly re-sparks the Mafia war. And the Gallo brothers go to the mattresses again against the Don.

GROSS: So, when Joey gets out of prison, he wants to take down the Colombo family. He wants to take down...

Mr. FOLSOM: Right.

GROSS: ...particularly Joe Colombo. And Joe Colombo is shot. He remains in a coma for years and then dies. And Joey is suspected of being the man who hired the hitman. Why is Joey suspected?

Mr. FOLSOM: Well, Joey is suspected of being the hitman because it's an African-American that guns down Colombo. And the papers immediately seize on the fact that Joey was in prison making alliances, you know, with heroin dealers like Nicky Barnes, he was reaching out to black nationalist groups. And as a result, you know, the Colombo family holds a kangaroo court and they indict Joey for this murder because of the fact that a black man was the one who gunned down Colombo.

GROSS: Do you think the Joey Gallo was behind the killing and that the gunman was hired by Gallo?

Mr. FOLSOM: It's tough to say. There's evidence on both sides. But, these hits were - they were done by professionals and they made it so where - you wouldn't found out. So, I don't think there's really any way of getting to the bottom of these Mafia mysteries, so to speak. But what was significant to Joey Gallo's story is that whether or not he did it, he was pinned for doing the murder and as a result there's an open contract on his life.

GROSS: So, describe the scene of his murder?

Mr. FOLSOM: Well, I think it's significant to go back to the night that he's going out to the Copacabana on his 43rd birthday. And he goes to the Copacabana with his wife of - they've just, you know, been married three weeks ago. This is a marriage covered in the New York Post. You know, Earl Wilson, Midnight Earl sends one of his people down to cover the weddings. You know, Joey is very much a society item, as he's coming to the Copacabana to celebrate his 43rd birthday. He looks out on the stage and he sees Don Rickles there doing his act. Don Rickles makes acknowledgment to Joey. Everybody looks up, they even laugh when they see Joey Gallo, you know, he's there in his pinstripe suit, because Don Rickles makes a joke at his expense.

So, Joey Gallo is quite literally - he's the toast of the town at this point. He's got intellectuals like Susan Sontag who, she's dying to meet Joey Gallo. He's, David Steinberg who now directs "Curb Your Enthusiasm," he was the best man in Joey Gallo's wedding. Jerry Orbach, who played Joey Gallo in "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight," he -actually a character based on Joey Gallo, Kid Sally Palumbo. Jerry Orbach is a, you know, he's, he and Joey are, they're best pals, they're really tight.

So, Joey's really got what he wants in terms of all his intellectual aspirations: his idea that he wanted to be an artist, he wanted to be a writer. You know, he secured a book deal. So Joey's kind of got it made. And a few hours later he's at Umberto's Clam House for some late night snacks with his family, and in comes the hitman and he gets gunned downed.

GROSS: So, what mark would you say, what kind of, like, legacy would you say that Joey Gallo left in the world of organized crime?

Mr. FOLSOM: Well, I think in the world of organized crime, you know, there's a line in "Goodfellas" which I think really speaks to this. It talks about, you know, a young Henry Hill is looking at the heyday of the Mafia and he's seeing all the wiseguys and they're all - they're really living it up and, you know, the world is theirs, and he says, well, this was in the days before Joe Gallo decides to take on a boss.

I think what happened after the Gallo war is that, the young turks of the Mafia decided, well, you know, there's - they're not going to treat their don as, you know, as the Pope, as the God anymore here. You know, if we don't like what the Don's doing, we're going to revolt. And so this was something that eroded discipline in the Mafia. So, I think that, in part, is Joey Gallo's, you know, legacy to organized crime.

GROSS: Well, Tom Folsom, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. FOLSOM: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Tom Folsom is the author of "The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld." Coming up, Milo Miles reviews the music that wasn't jazz at he Montreal Jazz festival. This is FRESH AIR.

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