The Chicago Syndicate: Joe Columbo
Showing posts with label Joe Columbo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joe Columbo. Show all posts

Friday, March 08, 2019

Carmine the Snake: Carmine Persico and His Murderous Mafia Family

Carmine “the Snake” Persico has been identified by the FBI and the Justice Department as the longtime head of the New York Cosa Nostra Colombo crime family.

Although incarcerated in 1987 due to his conviction in the 1986 famous Mafia Commission federal RICO caseCarmine the Snake: Carmine Persico and His Murderous Mafia Family, he reputedly still runs the Colombo crime family from prison. He made his name in the Profaci crime family as part of the hit team that shot and killed mob boss Albert Anastasia in a New York barbershop in 1957.

Anastasia, known as “The Mad Hatter” and “The Executioner,” was the co-creator of Murder Inc., the notorious enforcement arm of organized crime in New York in the 1940s. A famous photo was taken of the slain Anastasia, lying dead next to a barber’s chair as detectives look on.

In 1961, during a conflict between the Gallo crew and Joe Profaci, the Profaci crime family boss, Persico switched sides and attempted to strangle and kill his friend and fellow hit man Larry Gallo, which earned him the nickname “the Snake.” The attempted strangulation in a darkened bar was fictionally re-created in “The Godfather, Part II.”

Frank DiMatteo, who describes himself as a mafia survivor and previously wrote “The President Street Boys: Growing Up Mafia,” offers a “street level” view of the Colombo boss in “Carmine the Snake: Carmine Persico and His Murderous Mafia Family.” Michael Benson, a true crime author who wrote “Betrayal in Blood,” is the co-author of this book.



As Mr. DiMatteo notes in the book, his mother knew Persico when they were teenagers in Brooklyn, and his father was a bodyguard and driver for the Gallo brothers. He grew up in Brooklyn around the Gallo crew and heard numerous stories about Persico.

“Some men’s lives are measured by wealth and power. By that standard, Carmine John Persico, Jr. is a very successful man. His blood family is estimated to be worth upward of $1 billion,” the authors write in the beginning of the book. “Even allowing for inflation, he became one of the richest gangsters ever. His superpower was instilling fear. He made many thousands afraid, and they paid to stay safe.” But as the authors also point out, Persico’s life from street kid to mob boss might best be measured by the pain, suffering and death that he caused.

“Using a combination of brashness, cunning, and an appetite for extreme violence, Carmine Persico rocketed from gangbanger on a Park Slope, Brooklyn street corner to boss of the Colombo crime family, where he reputedly became the longest-reigning godfather in modern Mafia history — mostly from behind the bars of a federal penitentiary,” the authors tell us.

The book covers in detail the internecine mob war between the Gallos and the Profaci crime family, with each faction murdering and attempting to murder each other. The Gallo crew put a bomb in Persico’s car, but the detonation failed to kill him. The war ended with Profaci’s death and the murder of Crazy Joe Gallo in a restaurant.

Joseph Colombo, once a Profaci captain, later took over the organization and renamed it the Colombo crime family. Persico became a Colombo captain and later the boss of the crime family.

The book also tells of a Persico enforcer whose story would be unbelievable if told in a novel or film. The authors tell us that as Persico was heading to prison he chose Gregory “The Grim Reaper” Scarpa as his battle leader. Persico’s man was a mass murderer and a sociopath. “He was nuts, thought he was James Bond, and told his kids that he worked for the government.”

In a sense it was true, as the Colombo hit man was a longtime FBI informant. From the 1960s on he was involved in extortion, murder and other crimes. He told his fellow mobsters that he enjoyed killing people. “Scarpa’s actual cooperation with the U.S. Government went at least as far back as 1964 when the feds used him to help solve the ‘Mississippi Burning’ murders of three civil rights workers in 1964,” the authors inform us. “Somewhere there is a tape of Scarpa cajoling a KKK member to disclose where the bodies are buried.” And by cajoling, the authors write, they mean he beat the KKK member and stuck a gun in his mouth. Scarpa later died from AIDS.

The story of Carmine Persico, the Gallo brothers and the internecine mob war has been covered previously in several books, including a fine satirical novel, “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” by Jimmy Breslin.

“Carmine the Snake,” written in a conversational style with street vernacular and sprinkled with Frank DiMatteo’s personal anecdotes and reminiscences, offers another look at the infamous crime boss.

Thanks to Paul Davis.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Mob Menu: Donunts Followed by Jail

Friends of ours: John "Sonny" Franzese, Joe Colombo, Alphonse "Allie Boy" Persico
Friends of mine: Michael Franzese, Frank Sinatra

At age 89, John "Sonny" Franzese still enjoys sitting for a bite with his friends. The problem, according to federal authorities, is when the octogenarian mobster inevitably puts his criminal interests on the menu.

For the third time since 1996, Franzese was back in federal lockup _ this time after authorities spotted him sharing donuts with associates in the Colombo crime family, violating his parole. In the two earlier arrests, Franzese was nabbed after meeting with alleged mobsters in a coffee shop and a restaurant.

It's enough to give the reputed family underboss indigestion. "It's really sad," said his son, Michael, who followed the elder Franzese into organized crime before leaving the mob and becoming a born-again Christian. "I believe he wasn't very active (with the Colombos) at all, but then again, I'm not with him 24/7. Many of his friends are dead."

No surprise there, since the elderly Franzese's contemporaries included mob veterans like Joe Colombo (RIP, 1978) or Alphonse "Allie Boy" Persico (RIP, 1989). But authorities said Franzese was spotted more than once in recent weeks sharing breakfast pastries with 21st century Colombo members.

Franzese was picked up last Wednesday during a scheduled check-in with his parole officer, said FBI spokesman Jim Margolin. He will remain behind bars pending resolution of his case, which could take up to three months, according to Tom Huchison of the U.S. Parole Commission.

If Franzese has a weakness for old friends, he also has an unfortunate predilection for meeting them in public places _ a major problem, since his parole bars him from any contact with organized crime figures.

A November 2000 sitdown for coffee with three Colombo associates at a Long Island Starbucks landed him behind bars for three years. A February 1996 bowl of spinach soup at Pucinella's restaurant in Great Neck led to a two-year term after authorities identified his dining companions as mobsters.

A decade earlier, Franzese was popped after a mobbed-up meal at Laina's Restaurant in Jericho. In all, Franzese has racked up five parole violations _ and gone to jail for each one _ since his November 1978 release on a bank robbery conviction.

By then, Franzese's reputation as a stand-up guy was already well-known among the Colombos.

He was once a frequent patron at the Copacabana nightclub, taking in headliners like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. And he was among the investors in the legendary porn movie "Deep Throat." But the up-and-coming mob star's career was derailed by a 1967 bank robbery conviction and subsequent 50-year jail term, which included parole restrictions that now extend though 2020 _ when Franzese would be 102 years old.

Franzese has not been convicted of any new crimes in the last 40 years.

When Michael and his father speak now, the discussions still focus on family _ Sonny's seven grandchildren (another son, John, went into federal witness protection). Michael says the old man is no longer in the best of health, and sometimes has trouble recognizing his voice.

The arrest, in an odd culinary twist, also denied Franzese one last good meal: A friend says they were due to share dinner in a Long Island restaurant just hours after his arrest.

Thanks to the Niagara Gazette

Friday, May 04, 2007

Crazy Joey Gallo's Widow Reflects on being Married to the Mob

Friends of ours: Joey "Crazy Joey" Gallo, Joe Profaci, Albert Anastasia, Jackie “Mad Dog” Nazarian, Joe Colombo, Bobby Bongiovi, Sam Wuyak

When gunfire erupted in Umberto’s Clam House, Sina Essary watched her husband of three weeks throw over the dinner table, absorb three bullets to his frail body and stumble out into Mulberry Street to die. It was April 7, 1972, in New York’s Little Italy, and Sina’s husband was no ordinary victim. He was Joey Gallo—“Crazy Joey,” they called him—an intellectual and charismatic kingpin of the New York rackets.

Today, largely unknown among her neighbors, Sina lives on a small farm in rural Leiper’s Fork, surrounded by a barn full of horses and rescued dogs and cats. Most people know her, she says, only as “that crazy woman from New York who keeps all those animals on her place.” Now 65, she has an elfin stature and a rich, resonant voice that carries just a trace of a New York accent. She is a commercial photographer by trade—trained at New York’s famed New School for Social Research—and she keeps her life very quiet and private. But in the early 1970s, at the height of gangster chic, the petite woman with the snapping dark eyes was at the center of a maelstrom. She was both a celebrity and a target. As the wife of one of New York’s most feared—and most glamorous—mob bosses, she lived among superstars and triggermen in a cosmopolitan jungle where wealth and power went hand in hand with bloody retribution. The tabloids took her picture when she became a bride. Less than a month later, they took her picture when she became a widow.

Now, safely sequestered among the peaceful hills of Williamson County, 35 years after her husband’s murder, Sina has decided for the first time to tell the story of her life with Joey Gallo. “I haven’t told it before,” Sina Essary laughs, firing up a Benson & Hedges and fending off her three-legged cat, “because I’ve been too busy wiping horses’ asses on the farm. But I’ve been writing my memoirs in my head while I’m shoveling manure!”

Sina began her adventurous life as a pregnant nun. No kidding. She attended Catholic schools and entered the convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph when she was only 18. “I was very, very religious as a youngster,” she says. While Joey Gallo was growing up to join the New York syndicate, Sina was preparing to take her final vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Outside the convent walls on a sick leave, however, she got together with an old boyfriend. “Before you knew it,” she says in her deep chuckle, “I wasn’t a virgin anymore.” She became pregnant from that single encounter and her short life in the convent was over.

Sina married the old boyfriend, had a child with him, divorced him and found herself a single mom working in a jewelry store. But her daughter, Lisa Essary, now a Hollywood casting director, was a theatrical prodigy. She soon became a child star on Broadway, changing Sina’s life for the better.

As Lisa’s career grew, Sina fell in love with Lisa’s music coach, a man who was destined to become a conductor of the New York City Opera and the Houston Grand Opera. She wanted desperately to marry him—she still calls him “the love of my life”—but she adds with a laugh, “What I didn’t know was he was gay!”

With a track record like that, it was perhaps inevitable that the nun would become a gangster’s moll.

Joey Gallo was a Brooklyn kid, the son of a loan shark and would-be rumrunner. A 1973 book by Harvey Aronson, The Killing of Joey Gallo, chronicles his violent rise through the ranks of the mob. He became a career criminal at a very early age, and though he was arrested many times as a youth, he was never sent to prison. He was convicted only once—for burglary in 1950—but when a court psychiatrist declared him paranoid-schizophrenic, Joey received a suspended sentence.

Joey had flair. In 1947, he saw Richard Widmark in the film Kiss of Death, and with his drowsy, heavy-lidded appearance Joey began to pattern himself after Widmark’s giggling psycho Tommy Udo. He began to dress and act like Udo and could recite long passages of the movie’s dialogue. But despite his theatrical posturing, Joey was still a violent and deadly man. Writing after Joey’s death, the legendary New York Post columnist Pete Hamill said of the young Joey:

“He might have been a fresh twenty-one-year-old kid dressed in a zoot suit, but the eyes were ancient…eyes devoid of time or any conventional sense of pity or remorse…. [H]e would joke with the cops and smile for the reporters, but the eyes never changed…tormented eyes.”


In 1957, Joey became a “made” man in the Joe Profaci organization by (it was said) assassinating Albert Anastasia, one of Profaci’s enemies and boss of the notorious “Murder Incorporated.” According to witnesses, Anastasia was having his hair cut in a Sixth Avenue hotel when two disguised gunmen rushed through the hotel lobby. They shot Anastasia dead in his chair and escaped into the crowd. No one was ever charged with Anastasia’s killing, but the story on the street was that the shooters were Crazy Joey and an accomplice named Jackie “Mad Dog” Nazarian. Tommy Udo would have been proud.

Profaci’s business was run by coercion, and Joey was his top enforcer. Multiple beatings and murders were attributed to Joey during the late 1950s, and Time magazine claimed that he stabbed one target to death with an ice pick. But nothing against him was ever proven. The Mafia code of omerta—silence—protected Joey among his own.

In time, though, Joey became disenchanted with the way Profaci was dividing the family profits. So along with his two brothers and several other Profaci henchmen, he converted a Brooklyn warehouse into a fortress and launched a revolt. As the 1950s came to a close, a gang war raged between Joey and Profaci. It was an onslaught of killings, beatings and kidnappings. It was also successful. In the end, Joey succeeded in wresting away a significant part of Profaci’s holdings.

Joey built his winnings into a small empire based on violence and extortion. For years he evaded punishment. But finally, in 1961, he was taken down for threatening to kill a Brooklyn bar owner. He was convicted of extortion and sentenced to seven to 14 years in prison. The judge who sentenced him said that Joey “[has] an utter contempt for the law and is a menace to society.”

Joey’s time in prison was marked by the Attica riots, which he helped to settle, and at least two mob attempts on his life. But he spent most of his time profitably. He set out on a project of self-education, becoming a fine painter and reading history, art, politics and philosophy.

Then in 1971, after serving almost 10 years, Joey was released and began parlaying his newfound education and refinement into a fresh image around New York. Tommy Udo was gone. In his place—as far as the outside world could see—was a well-mannered and intelligent man.

That’s when he met Sina.

Even though she grew up in a large Italian American community, Sina knew very little about the Mafia. Born into a close-knit family in Ohio, she grew up in comfortable circumstances. She attended private Catholic schools. She lived a somewhat sheltered life.

Sina’s maternal grandfather had come to America from Bari, Italy, an old city on the Adriatic coast, and developed a thriving Italian grocery business. Her maternal grandmother became famous in America for hosting a popular radio show called The Italian Hour—all Italian opera and popular songs—every Sunday afternoon.

Her aunt Dorothy attended Juilliard and later sang with the San Francisco Opera. “I was raised listening to opera,” Sina says. “My earliest recollection as a baby was hearing my aunt sing ‘Un bel di’ to me in my high chair. Even today I keep Live From the Met and WPLN playing in the barn to keep the horses company.”

Sina’s only exposure to organized crime came from a family legend she heard from her grandparents. After her grandfather’s business began to prosper, she says, figures from a local syndicate came to him and demanded that he surrender part of his business as tribute. He refused. As a result, both he and Sina’s grandmother were beaten. Her grandfather stood firm, however, and eventually the gang gave up. He had a strong temperament, and Sina inherited it.

In due course, Sina and Lisa moved to New York and quickly became well known on Broadway. Lisa landed big parts in a number of plays, and the two of them became friends with some of the biggest names in show business. Soon Lisa was attending private schools, and they moved into the penthouse of an upscale apartment building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 15th Street.

Life was good. Sina never dreamed she was about to meet, and marry, a man like Joey Gallo.

While Joey was still languishing in prison, his old enemy Joe Profaci died. Control of the Profaci mob passed to Joe Colombo, one of the “new” Mafia dons who knew something about politics and public relations. He formed an organization he called the Italian American Civil Rights League and used it to rally support against the FBI’s claim that he was a mobster. With the league as his mouthpiece, Colombo maintained that there was no such thing as “the Mafia” and that he was “just an honest businessman.” The league was hugely successful and so powerful that Colombo was able to win concessions from the producers of The Godfather about the way Italian Americans were portrayed in the film.

The Profaci organization’s racketeering remained profitable too, but many of Colombo’s subordinates were bridling at the way he ran the business and divided the spoils. To his hardened street enforcers, Colombo was a lightweight and a publicity seeker. Dissension in his family was building.

Into this unsettled world, Joey arrived fresh from prison, bearing a 10-year grudge against the Profaci family. Joey might have been flashing his new cleaned-up image in public, but in secret he was re-energizing the Gallo gang. He planned to depose Colombo. Less than six weeks after his release from prison, Joey demanded a $100,000 tribute payment from Colombo as a condition for staying away from his business. Colombo refused to pay. Instead, he placed a contract on Joey’s life.

On June 28, 1971, just four months after Joey’s release from prison, Colombo held a rally of his Italian American Civil Rights League in Columbus Circle, just off Central Park. Thousands of people attended the noontime affair. But as Colombo began making his way to the dais to speak (along with the mayor and several other luminaries) he was shot and severely wounded by a black man later identified as Jerome Johnson.

No one ever discovered who Johnson was working for. As fate would have it, he was immediately shot and killed by yet another never-identified gunman. Colombo was left in a near-vegetative state and was off the board as far as the rackets were concerned. The event made the cover of Time magazine the following week.

Joey claimed that the FBI was behind the Colombo attack, but most reasonable minds concluded that Joey had engineered it himself. He had a clear motive, and he was certainly capable of pulling it off. While the police and FBI looked for clues, the heirs to Colombo’s power renewed the contract on Joey’s life. By July 1971, one month before he met Sina, Joey had less than a year to live.

The obvious question is why a respectable former nun like Sina Essary would fall for a mobster with a price on his head. Sina chuckles and says, “The story is kind of complicated.”

Sina first saw Joey on her apartment building’s elevator. She lived in the penthouse and Joey happened to live in an apartment downstairs. Joey was smitten by Sina, but she was not immediately attracted to him. The first few times she encountered him, with his retinue of bodyguards, she says he appeared “extremely frail and pale. He looked like an old man. He was a bag of bones.” What Sina didn’t know was that Joey still bore the marks of 10 years in prison.

Still, Sina says, Joey had an attractive aspect. “You could see the remnants of what had been a strikingly handsome man in his youth,” she remembers. “He had beautiful features—beautiful nose, beautiful mouth and piercing blue eyes.”

Joey also had a special charisma, she adds. “People were mesmerized by him,” she says. “He had that quality that attracted people to him, no matter who they were. He was extremely intelligent and he could talk about anything. He could talk about art, theater, politics, philosophy—all the things he had been reading about in prison.”

Joey launched an immediate pursuit of Sina, even though he had recently remarried his former wife, Jeffie. “She looked like a movie star,” Sina says. But nothing stopped Joey, and during the following weeks he began to win Sina over with gifts and plates of Italian food. Before long, their children were playing together and Sina was having dinner at Joey’s apartment. Because Joey was married, Sina felt safe from a more complicated relationship.

Sina gradually learned of Joey’s past, but he told her he wasn’t in the rackets anymore. He still carried bodyguards out of necessity, he said, but he was no longer strong-arming anybody. “It didn’t bother me much that he had been in the Mafia,” Sina recalls. “He told me he was through with the mob. I thought, so what, this is New York, so he’s in the mob, big deal. I didn’t realize who he actually was until I married him and had my picture in the newspaper!”

What Joey really wanted, Sina says, was to get into show business. Several years earlier, Jimmy Breslin had written a comic send-up of the Mafia called The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, supposedly based on Joey and his gangland pals. The book spawned an equally popular movie starring Jerry Orbach—that’s right, the same Jerry Orbach who played Lenny Briscoe on Law & Order—as a Joey-like character named “Kid Sally Palumbo.” Joey didn’t like the way the film portrayed him, but he liked Orbach and wanted a meeting. They quickly became friends, as did Sina and Orbach’s wife Marta.

From that point forward Joey was hooked on celebrities, and before long they were hooked on him too. There was an aspect of danger about Joey that appealed to show business people. Being with Joey gave them a vicarious sense of living the romantic life depicted in The Godfather, which had just opened to acclaim and unprecedented box office. The movie ushered in an intense new public fascination with the underworld. Joey exuded excitement, and people loved it. “He loved walking into Sardi’s,” Sina recalls. “You could hear a pin drop when he came in.”

In addition, many people knew about the Colombo hit and the possibility that Colombo’s soldiers might try to kill Joey. That gave his relationships with friends an unusual intensity. Orbach told Time magazine, “Joey compressed time with us because he knew…he might not have much time, that he could go at any minute…. [A] minute talking to Joey was like an hour spent with someone else…. It was startling to talk with him.” Women were particularly drawn to Joey’s fatal aura. “Joey was a terribly sexy person,” Marta Orbach admitted to Time. Even highbrow critic Susan Sontag wanted to meet him.

Pretty soon the former nun and the gangster became lovers. Sina was a beautiful 29-year-old, and Joey had just spent 10 celibate years behind bars. For Sina’s part, she says, “Part of me was craving that sexual thing which I hadn’t had for 10 years. I’d been divorced for 10 years and all the men I ever hung around with were gay!”

Joey soon began insisting that they get married and, after Joey sent Jeffie packing, they did. The wedding was held in the Orbachs’ apartment in March 1972. “The ceremony was performed by the same pastor who had married Tiny Tim and Miss Vicky on the Johnny Carson show,” Sina says, laughing. Joey’s best man was the comedian David Steinberg, and the small ceremony was reported the next day in the pages of the New York Post and the New York Daily News. But in three weeks Joey would be dead.

Not long after the ceremony, Sina began to realize that Joey was not entirely free of his past. On April 5, 1972, three weeks after the wedding and two days before Joey died, the apartment building’s doorman buzzed Sina to say that a deliveryman was in the lobby with a package for her. Sina told the doorman to send the man up, but when Joey overheard her he got angry. At his instruction, two of his bodyguards intercepted the deliveryman at the elevator and attacked him, pulling a gun and choking him. “Joey feared that the package contained a bomb,” Sina says, “but it turned out to be a Tiffany ice bucket for me from the producer Bruce Jay Friedman.”

Joey blew up at Sina, throwing her into a chair and raging at her. He screamed at her never to do something like that again, with a ferocity that Joey’s associates in the mob knew well. For Sina, it was an abrupt and terrifying wake-up call. “I didn’t know this was part of the deal,” Sina says. “I realized there was something I didn’t know about going on, there was something bigger than me. That was the day I knew it was over, that I couldn’t live like that.” So she threw Joey out of her apartment. “If this is what my life with you is going to be,” she told him, “you have to leave.”

The following day, however—April 6, 1972—was Joey’s 43rd birthday, and there was a celebration planned at the Copacabana with the Orbachs, Steinberg, comedian Don Rickles and Joey’s usual crowd of celebrities and hangers-on. Still intending to leave Joey, Sina nevertheless relented and agreed to go to the party with him.

Late on the evening of the 6th, Joey’s group picked Lisa up from her performance in Voices at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (she had third billing behind Julie Harris and Richard Kiley), and they drove to the Copa. It was a great night. Rickles introduced Lisa from the stage, and everyone sat and drank champagne until almost 4 a.m. Then the Copa closed and they all went in search of breakfast.

The party now consisted of Joey, Sina and Lisa, along with Joey’s sister and a single bodyguard, Pete “The Greek” Diapoulos. Another bodyguard, Robert “Bobby Darrow” Bongiovi, had left earlier in the evening with a woman from the Copa. By then, it was early morning, April 7, 1972.

The search for breakfast took them to Umberto’s Clam House at the corner of Hester and Mulberry streets in Little Italy. No one in the party had been to Umberto’s before, but it was the only place open at that hour. “We were all sitting around a big heavy table, with Joey facing the door and Lisa and I sitting next to the wall,” Sina remembers. “Joey thought the food was excellent and ordered seconds for everybody.”

Without warning, several gunmen burst through the door and began firing. Accounts vary as to how many shooters were involved, but Sina swears there were five. Colombo’s wiseguys had apparently seen Joey going into the restaurant and had rounded up some of Colombo’s soldiers to put him away.

When the shooting started, Joey turned the table over to protect the others while Sina dragged Lisa to the floor and covered her with her coat. In a matter of seconds, more than 20 shots were fired. Joey was struck three times—in his arm, his spine and finally in his carotid artery. He staggered out the door, followed by his assailants’ fire, and collapsed on the pavement. When the shooting stopped, there were 17 bullet holes in the wall behind Sina’s and Lisa’s chairs. Joey lay dying in the street.

“Joey had an intense sense of destiny,” Marta Orbach says. “If he was truly marked for dying, this old-fashioned way—in style—would have been a point of honor with him. Joey’s death would have appealed to his sense of drama.” Pete Hamill called it “a supreme New York moment.” But for Sina, huddled with her daughter on the floor of a restaurant filled with shells and screams and blood, it was anything but supreme.

“I thought I was observing all this through the eyes of death,” Sina says today. “In fact, I thought I was dead.” Her next thought was an irony that struck her in light of their earlier fight. “Fancy that,” she thought, “somebody was trying to kill him. My God, he wasn’t kidding!”

Today Sina tells her stories in the living room of her modest farmhouse, surrounded by photographs of her family and friends. These include a prominently placed picture of Joey. At 65, she still retains her classic Italian beauty and charm. She lives alone and maintains only a few close friendships. Hearing her relate her stories in the quiet of her living room or outside her sunny barn is a surreal but wholly believable experience.

Sina came to Tennessee in 1991 to get away from her notoriety. She says she had become almost a novelty in New York. “I wasn’t introduced to people as Sina Essary anymore,” she says. “I was ‘Joey Gallo’s widow.’ I had become like a stop on a sightseeing bus, like the Statue of Liberty or something.” She was besieged with requests for interviews in New York, all of which she declined. She even turned down an invitation to appear on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.

But she had good reasons to keep quiet. One, she says, was the possibility that she herself might be marked for murder. She had been a witness to Joey’s shooting, after all, and might have identified the killers. For a long time afterward, she was followed by FBI agents, the NYPD and members of the Gallo gang in what she calls “an unholy alliance” to protect her from the Colombo crew. After a while, it all became too much for her.

For Sina, the attraction of Tennessee was its entertainment business. “I felt I could practice my photography in Nashville,” she says. “I had been in the business of photographing celebrities in New York, so I figured I could do it in Tennessee too.” She is presently planning a retrospective show at the Nashville Design Center in Melrose, where she intends to represent the large portfolio of pictures she has amassed over the years. In perhaps the richest irony of all, she photographed a young actress who would play the most famous Mafia wife of all: Edie Falco, who stars as Carmela on The Sopranos.

Sina admits that her move to Tennessee was also an act of “menopausal madness” which in some respects she still regrets. “I had always planned to go back to New York,” she says. “I had my box at the Metropolitan Opera, my rooftop rose garden and, of course, all my friends. For three years after I moved here I kept my apartment on Fifth Avenue, thinking I might go back. But when I bought my first pregnant mare, I fell so in love with her baby foal that I knew I could never leave. I still love New York, and I cry when I think about it, but I love my horses more.”

Sina has no fear from the Mafia today. Those days have passed, and the principal actors have died. She still speaks and corresponds every month with the only remaining member of the Gallo gang she knows, Bobby Bongiovi, the bodyguard who left early on the night Joey was killed. Bobby, movie-star handsome in his youth, is old, sick and now serving a life sentence in Dannemora for the murder of another mobster, Sam Wuyak, the year after Joey died. Bongiovi denies killing Wuyak, but he told Sina, “There is plenty of other stuff they could have sent me up for.” According to press accounts, when Bongiovi received his sentence at the hearing, Sina Essary was there, brushing away tears.

Joey’s life has been written about a number of times, but the accounts have not always been consistent. Some facts are hard to come by, and arguments about Joey still simmer among scholars of the Mafia life. Perhaps the most comprehensive treatment of Joey’s career is the Aronson book, though Sina says that it too contains errors. But Joey’s death only hastened his passing into myth. In 1974, Italian director Carlo Lizzani made a biopic called Crazy Joe starring the young Peter Boyle as Joey, with Eli Wallach, Paula Prentiss and even Henry Winkler in supporting roles. It was a spaghetti-Western take on gangland life, but critic Jerry Renshaw called it a gem—“a rawer Scorsese without the polish or panache, relying instead on pungent dialogue and gritty performances.”

By 1976, the fallen mobster had been rehabilitated as the romantic hero of “Joey,” from Bob Dylan’s 1976 album Desire—a combination Tom Joad and Pretty Boy Floyd whose “closest friends were black men ’cause they seemed to understand / What it’s like to be in society with a shackle on your hand.” In 1993, soon after Sina’s move to Nashville, Dylan even paid a visit to her home. They spent an afternoon discussing life in New York, shared acquaintances—and, of course, Joey.

More measured accounts of Joey’s life have revised the romantic image he carried while he was alive. He was a man capable of ruthless, and remorseless, brutality. His war with the Colombo family continued for a long time after he died, and several more killings took place, including those of two innocent people. The ferocity of the gang war caused Jimmy Breslin to change his thoughts about the rackets, writing that he considered The Godfather “hardcore pornography” and his own The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight “the product of demented thinking.”

Still, Sina has no regrets about marrying Joey. “It’s part of life,” she shrugs.

Joey’s funeral was huge, front-page news in all the papers. Pictures showed Sina and Lisa, grieving, standing on the steps of the church. The local parish priest refused to bury Joey—whether for doctrinal reasons or fear of Colombo mob reprisals was never made clear. So Sina arranged for a substitute priest to fly in from Cleveland to conduct the service.

Along the route to the cemetery, the sidewalks were jammed with people paying their respects to Joey Gallo. They strained to catch just a glimpse of his gleaming copper casket. Because of the attendance of so many gangland figures, police lined the streets and the rooftops to head off further violence.

Looking back, in the faraway seclusion of her Williamson County farm—a lifetime ago from the vendettas and tangled allegiances of Little Italy—Sina Essary says the procession would have appealed to Joey’s sense of show business. Tommy Udo was dead, and Sina says, “You would have thought the Pope was passing by.”

A former nun should know.

Thanks to Wayne Christeson

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Godfather of All My Tours

Friends of ours: Carlo Gambino Aniello "The Hat" Dellacore, Joe Columbo, Vito Genovese, Salvatore "Lucky" Luciano, "One Lung" Curran, Owney "The Killer" Madden, Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll, Ray Matorno, John "Dapper Don" Gotti, Albert Anastasia

The best place to start mixing with The Mob is in St John's Cemetery out on Long Island. This is where the Mafia Dons of New York are buried.

Beneath their sepulchres and towering granite angles lie the bodies of such notorious mobsters as Carlo Gambino and Aniello "The Hat" Dellacore. A few tombstones away are the vaults of Joe Columbo, Vito Genovese and , Salvatore "Lucy" Luciano.

They each headed one of the Families -- the euphemistic name for the gangs who ruled New York -- with the ruthlessness of medieval monarchs. Today they remain identifiable entities only through their names carved in wood and stone. But there is not so much as a chisel mark to commemorate their links -- and fights -- with that other great Mob, the Irish Mafia. Born in the early 19th century out of street gangs protecting and exploiting immigrants from the Old Country, by the arrival of Prohibition the Irish Mafia had become a powerful player in bootlegging -- and all the crimes that went with it: burglarising shops, dominating pool halls, stealing from the docks.

No racket was too small for the Irish Mafia. And like their Italian counterparts, the Irish Bosses attracted colourful names: "One Lung" Curran, Owney "The Killer" Madden, Vincent "Mad Dog" Coll.

Hard drinking, flashily dressed and always a girl on their arms, they extended the Irish Mob's influence to all the major US cities. Many of the great crimes were laid at their door. One was the Pottsville Heist, when half a million dollars was stolen in a Philadelphia bank robbery by the K&K gang in 1974. Its members were Irish born Americans, many of them blue-collar workers and the gang had become a powerful player in gambling, loan sharking and mass thievery across the State.

By the 1980s they had moved into drugs. Thirty-six K&K members were arrested. One fled to Dublin. But the gang still thrived. In 2003, its then leader, Ray Matorno, plotted to remove the Italian Mafia's hold over the Philadelphia underworld. He brought in a dozen hitmen for the coming war. But before he could issue the time-honoured order "time to go to the mattresses", he was gunned down on his way to keep a doctor's appointment. His physician was quoted as saying: "The amount of led he took would have required a foundry to plug all the holes".

To visit St John's cemetery is to step back in your mind's eye to the days of the G-men, Tommy-guns and Omerta -- the code of silence of Cosa Nostra, the generic name for the Families. It was this the Irish mafia has continued to subscribe to.

Strolling through St John's I sensed that look of surprise which must have crossed the face of Carlo, head of the Gambino family, as he had left the Brooklyn apartment of one of his mistresses in July 1972 -- to be shot dead as he entered his chauffeured car.

The roll call of names is the history of the Italian Mob in New York. Some died in harness. Most succumbed to a bullet in the head. Their silent tombs don't distinguish. But for those who want a social history of a different kind, a visit to St John's is a starting point for a journey back in time -- one that spawned probably more classic gangster movies than any other genre.

The Irish Mafia sprang on to the screen with a series of film noir movies in the 1940s starring super stars of their day like James Cagney, Spencer Tracey and Pat O'Brien. They became known in Hollywood as "the screen Irish Mafia". You can still catch them on late night movie screenings of, "Angels With Dirty Faces" (1938) in which Cagney returns to New York's Hells Kitchen to reclaim his right as the area's Irish Gang Boss; or "The Racket" (1928) where Thomas Meighan plays an Irish Chicago police officer taking on the local criminal syndicate. And don't forget the "St Valentine's Day Massacre" (1967) that captures the mood of the turbulent Thirties for the Irish Mafia as well as any gangster movie. Right up to "Brotherhood" (2006) the relationships, and influence, of the Irish gangs are caught on screen.

Among the gravestones at St John's cemetery you remember the voices of other stars who played the mobsters: George Raft as the head of a Family; Mickey Rooney, the swaggering hit-man for another; Marlon Brando in his greatest of all roles, "The Godfather".

Here in the graveyard, with the wind whistling in from the Atlantic and the distant sound of planes coming and going from Kennedy Airport, you can conjure up again those memorable words of Brando: "I'll make you an offer you can't refuse."

I'll make you a promise, spend a morning in St John's and you won't regret it. Here they are, the bad and the ugly, the fat and the profane, rich beyond dream. And most venerated -- at least within the closed world of the Mafia -- is the godfather of them all. The Gangster they called the "Dapper Don".

To the untold millions who have watched the movie trilogy, The Godfather, he was the inspiration for the memorable role Marlon Brando created. The "Don of Dons" was feared even from within the prison -- but a life-without-parole-prison-cell -- where he died in June 2002. He was ten years into his sentence, and the cancer finally did what no bullet had been able to do.

All it says below the brass cross on the polished wooden door to vault 341, Aisle C in the cemetery is "GOTTI". Below this word that once instilled terror throughout New York are the words: "John 1940-2002".

Born into an era when the Mob ruled New York, Gotti was given a funeral that has not been seen since those days.

Many of his peers ended their lives in New York's East River or out somewhere beyond the Statue of Liberty. Weighed down with their feet encased in concrete blocks, or iron bars welded around their waists. But instead of being laid to rest with the fishes, Gotti was carried in his hand-polished coffin through the streets of New York's Little Italy. His hearse was festooned with wreaths in the shape of horses' heads (Gotti was a great gambler); a giant cigar (one was always in his mouth); a winning hand of cards and a champagne glass (his favourite game and tipple).

The drive from the funeral home to the cemetery where he now lies in his air-conditioned vault takes about ten minutes.

For those who want to recreate the drive, a New York cabbie will oblige. Or you can do it in style, renting a gangland style white Cadillac from one of the firms which specialises in unusual tours. They're listed in the New York Yellow Pages.

Viewers of the smash-hit TV show, The Sopranos, will recognise some of the places en route to the cemetery.

There is Russo's Ice Cream Bar and Vincent's Original Clam Shop (both are close to 85th Street at 160th). Here you can sample some of the best ice cream in a Little Italy that prides itself on serving an unbeatable selection of iced confections. Or, if you fancy something more substantial, Vincent's clams are as juicy and perfectly cooked as you will find anywhere. Both places were where Gotti liked to sit with his hitmen, his accountants, and the lieutenants who ran his rackets.

Most mornings he would stroll down from his home at 160011 85th Street, his bodyguards fanned out around him, jackets bulging with guns. It must have been a scene no movie director could better.

Gotti's home is small for a man with such a huge appetite for everything criminal. It's a wood and brick fronted bungalow in Cape Cod style. The only unusual addition is the huge satellite dish on the roof, and the state-of-the-art security camera covering the front door and windows.

Gotti ran his operations from an office behind the city's Old St Patrick's, New York's first Roman Catholic cathedral. It was also the setting for the christening at which Michael takes up his duties at the end of The Godfather. The scene was recreated in a studio. But many a future Mobster was christened at the cathedral font.

Gotti's actual headquarters was at 247 Mulberry Street, just south of its junction with Prince Street. On almost any day you can see some of his men strolling along the pavement, their destination is often Umberto's Clam House. It's one of the best in Little Italy. The waiter will take your picture at one of the tables the Dapper Don like to sit at.

A slow walk away -- everyone in Little Italy seems to have that special not-quite-a-stroll way of moving -- is Mare Chiaro, at 176 Mulberry Street. The bar has been in the family for almost a century. It's also one of those places that will instantly be recognisable to anyone who has seen such movies as Kojak with Telly Savales, or Contract On Cherry Street with Frank Sinatra.

As you sip an ice cold beer you can listen to Old Blue Eyes belting it out on the jukebox in the corner. The time to go is mid-evening. The place then seems filled with characters who could have stepped out of any Mobster movie: hard-faced men and their over-painted women exchange rapid-fire dialogue few movies have ever captured.

Sparks Steak House at 210 East 46th Street has some of the best meat in town. But to eat like a Godfather you can expect to pay $100 a head -- and then comes the tip. You forget that extra 15% and you would be wise not to return.

As well as fine food Sparks is part of Mafia folklore. It was on the kerb outside that Paul Castellano, then the "Don of Dons", was assassinated on a pleasant day in 1985 by his own bodyguard -- John Gotti. Locals still walk carefully around the place where the body fell. To walk over the spot is deemed to be bad luck.

Over in Hells Kitchen, west of Time Square, is Druids on 10th Avenue. This was the headquarters of the Westies, the gang who became immortalised on film as the Goodfellas. The bar staff will tell you the bar was the place of countless murders -- and that at the end of every night their Mobster clients would always smash their glasses to destroy any evidence of fingerprints.

One evening so the story goes, a mobster took a head from a hatbox and rolled it down the bar. As it passed each drinker, he poured his beer over the head. True? Who knows? When you take a tour of the Mafia sites, it becomes hard to know what is real and what has been actually created on film.

Remember all those scenes in the old movies where a gangster is shot dead in a barber's chair? Well it did happen, more than once, in the barber's shop in the Park Sheraton Hotel at Seventh Avenue on 55th Street.

The most famous victim was Albert Anastasia who ruled Murder Incorporated until that day when a hitman shot him while he was being shaved.

The chair is still there. But the barber doesn't like to discuss it. Those days are gone, he will smile.

Maybe. But the flavour of that period still remains. And there is no better way to sample it than the New York City Mafia Tour Guide. Read it in your hotel room while watching the original Godfather. Then go out and see how many locations you can spot. It's fun -- and a rewarding way to get to know the city that never sleeps -- and where many a Mafia mobster rests, if not in peace, at least in that magnificently ornate cemetery at St John's, where the shadow of the Irish Mob hangs over their tombs.

Thanks to Gordon Thomas

New York Crime Families

Flash Mafia Book Sales!

Al Capone's Vault

Crime Family Index


The Sopranos Library