Nick Pileggi, author of "Wiseguys"
The Best True Mob Story:
The following story recently appeared in the New York Daily News:
What’s important about the story is not the current trial or anyone involved. What struck me was that the government wants to use material about their father, material from more than thirty-five years ago, to convict them. Why did it strike me? Because I was there. It wasn’t much more than living in the moment for me at the time. Now, I’ve come to see the time leading up to the end of Joe Colombo Sr.’s life as the best mob story of modern time. I’ve even written a screenplay about it.
If you went back far enough, Joe Colombo was unlikely to ever be boss of the Profaci Crime Family, let alone the one who would be dominant enough to have its name changed to his. He was a good soldier, an earner, a standup guy, but not in the dynamic way that other members did. Then he got a bit of luck. I’ve been told that luck is preparation meeting opportunity. Joe got that opportunity when Profaci died and his inept relative, Joseph "The Fat Man" Magliocco got the nod as boss. Fatso was weak and malleable, so when Joe Bonnano proposed they kill a couple of mob bosses, including Carlo Gambino, and rule the underworld, he agreed then palmed the job off to one of his underlings: Joe Colombo. It didn’t take long for Joe to realize the Fat Man was a fat head to go along with something so dumb, and informed Gambino of the plot. Magliocco died of a heart attack, Bonnano fled, and with Gambino’s support Joe Colombo became the next boss of the Profaci Family. Joe actually grew into the role and became a pretty decent boss, smart, forward looking, and ruthless when he had to be for the next six or seven years. Then the best mob story in modern times began.
One day Joe was informed that his eldest son, and his pride and joy, Joe Jr., had been arrested by the FBI on charges of melting down U.S. coins for their silver content. Joe believed the charges were trumped up and that the government was trying to get to him by falsely accusing his son. Infuriated, he ordered those in and around his real estate business to print up signs that the FBI was persecuting Italians. He then led a caravan to the front of the FBI Building in Upper Manhattan and began picketing. After a couple of days of picketing and shouting by a small group of Colombo’s people, the media picked up the story. Before long, picketers and media coverage multiplied until the nightly marches took on a circus-like atmosphere: legitimate Italians who felt that the government had stereotyped them marched with signs and yelled alongside real mobsters. Other mob bosses gave permission for their people to picket too. In fact, many mobsters were actually ordered to march. Joe Colombo led them all from the platform of a truck, yelling things like "The FBI persecutes Italians," but always punctuated by "We’re Number One," over and over again. As a writer, it is nearly impossible for me to relate the heady feeling of power Joe instilled in everyone, even as FBI Agents spit down and threw water on us all. Small skirmishes broke out with police. Newspapers who wrote bad stories about the picketing had their trucks overturned. In a big win for Colombo, New York Supreme Court upheld the right of the crowd to picket.
It was a short leap from simple picketing to the formation of an organization, the "Italian American Civil Rights League," headed by Joe Colombo Sr., himself. Chapters of the League opened all over the city, most run by mobsters. Members joined by the thousands: doctors, mob guys, priests, mob guys, housewives, mob guys, politicians, mob guys. Governor Nelson Rockefeller was an honorary member. All over the city, signs, jewelry, pennants, all read "#1." Joe Colombo became a national hero to many. He was named Man of the Year by one organization, was profiled in magazines, and appeared on television interviews with Dick Cavett and others…all the while denying any participation in any criminal organization and running on a day to day basis what was by that time known to law enforcement as the Colombo Crime Family. As his profile grew, so did Joe’s power. He forced the U.S. Attorney’s Office to publicly announce they would discontinue the use of terms like "Mafia" and "Cosa Nostra." He demanded Paramount eliminate those same terms from their upcoming film, "Godfather," and got it. He had an Alka Seltzer television commercial removed from the air because he believed it was offensive to Italians. Sinatra and the Rat Pack did a huge fundraising concert for the League at Madison Square Garden. That summer he conducted an outdoor First Annual Unity Day Rally at Manhattan’s Columbus Circle that drew almost fifty thousand people, from Italians who closed their businesses, FBI Agents, hot dog vendors cashing in, media people, politicians and entertainers on the podium, kids, mobsters, grandmothers. For those of us who were there, it is one of the most memorable celebrations in our lives. The rally ended with a march from Columbus Circle to the FBI Building to continue picketing.
But the high profile also brought a downside: heat from the FBI. Mobsters who marched became FBI targets. Acting Genovese Boss Thomas "Tommy Ryan" Eboli was shaken down and strip searched by customs when he returned from a trip to Italy. Other bosses felt the heat and determined that Colombo was profiting from the League and they weren’t getting any of it. They "asked" Colombo to step down as head of the League and let some legitimate figurehead fill in. Joe refused. He really believed that without him at the helm, rallying support and leading the fight to intimidate enemies, the League would collapse. To make matters worse, "Crazy Joe" Gallo was released from prison after serving a stint for extortion. Colombo had inherited the Gallo-Profaci War and had pretty much tamped things down by that time. Without his brother Larry, who had died of cancer, to keep him under control, Gallo went straight after Colombo, demanding what he considered his due. Colombo’s peace offering was rejected. Battles between the factions broke out in the streets of Brooklyn. Crazy Joe went after Colombo operations. The other bosses demanded Colombo step down from the League. He refused again. Orders went out for underlings and associates of other crews to abandon the League.
By the time the Second Annual Unity Day Rally was scheduled at Columbus Circle, a struggle was in full force between Colombo and Gallo. Colombo men placed signs in the windows of Brooklyn stores announcing they’d be closed the day of the rally, only to be removed shortly thereafter by Gallo’s men. Though severely outnumbered, Gallo obviously had the support of Carlo Gambino, who, by that time, while there was no boss of bosses, was the most venerable of family bosses, and therefore deferred to by the others. I remember as the rally approached, I was summoned by an old highly placed relative, who has since passed on.
"The rally is coming up next week. Make sure you don’t go."
"I had no intention of going," I replied.
"You’re not listening to me," he said, annoyed. "I said, make sure you don’t go."
"I heard. I’m not going."
He repeated the make sure thing a couple of more times. I left thinking he’d gone senile. I thought sadly that it wouldn’t be long before he didn’t recognize me any more.
The following week the rally took place. Joe Colombo had decided that this would be his last hurrah as head of the League, and would indeed step down afterward. Attendance was down about sixty percent. The cheers, as I watched television coverage, seemed forced and somewhat defeatist. Then Joe stepped up onto the stage. A black man with news credentials and a camera hanging from his neck stepped behind him…and shot him in the head. The black man, Jerome Johnson, was set upon and murdered on the spot. Since Joe Gallo had befriended blacks while in prison, it was speculated that he had sent Johnson.
Joe Colombo, paralyzed, lingered for seven years before succumbing. As Colombo had predicted, without him the League collapsed. Joe Gallo was later murdered in Umberto’s Clam House, in Little Italy.
Later, when I was writing the screenplay, living through the events again, I was surprised at how short a time encompassed them. I called other old pals who also lived through it. To a man, they all answered that it was somewhere around three years. Amazingly, everything from Joes first night of picketing the FBI Building with makeshift signs to his being shot in front of nearly twenty thousand people took place over an event-filled, fast moving fifteen months.
Are there any modern mob stories that match the impact of this man who tried to live in two diametrically opposed worlds and paid for it with his life? Any other mob story that demands a filmed version more than this one? I don’t think so.
And, Joe himself: we know he was a sinner; how much of his was saint? A lot of the bad things he did are already public knowledge, and no point going over again here, but in the course of building the Italian American Civil Rights League, Joe helped do a lot of good. The League worked in concert with the United States Department of Agriculture to supply lunches to a lot of kids. League officials did a lot of local, personal work for seniors and families in the neighborhoods surrounding their chapters. Most of all, Joe Colombo instilled a sense of pride in Italian-Americans. He also helped destroy that pride. Saint and sinner. How much of each? Your thoughts?
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Sonny Girard, a former mobster, decided to have his protagonist be caught between three agencies: the GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence), the FBI, and…you guessed it…the mob.
SONNY GIRARD BIOGRAPHY:
Though born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Girard spent most of his formative years in the Red Hook and Navy Yard sections of South Brooklyn. Making little use of an IQ of close to 150, he instead chose to follow the path of the only people in that desperately poor neighborhood who seemed to have money: "wiseguys."
By the time a three-and-a-half year undercover operation by New York’s Organized Crime Control Bureau, targeted at Sonny Girard, was culminated with the arrest of seventeen, Girard was characterized by the New York Post as "…a middle echelon member" of one of New York’s five mob families. As a result of the arrest, Girard was sentenced to three years in State Prison, which he served to maximum time in Sing Sing, Dannemora, Downstate, and Arthurkill.
In 1985, Sonny Girard was convicted of racketeering, under the RICO statute, by Rudolph Giuliani’s office, and was sentenced to seven years in federal prison. During that term, which he also served maximum time on, Girard became interested in writing. Along with another inmate, who had sold a manuscript to a major publisher, Girard helped form a fiction writers’ workshop. It was during that time that Girard completed his first novel, BLOOD OF OUR FATHERS (Pocket/Simon & Schuster, hardcover, June, 1991; softcover, May, 1992).
Due to his experience in and ability to communicate about organized crime, the author has been in demand from various television shows and newspapers as an expert on various crimes, including organized crime activities. He recently appeared on Fox Network’s "National Enquirer T.V.," to analyze the authenticity of HBO’s hit show "Sopranos," Fox News Channel’s "The Edge," with Paula Zahn, to discuss John Gotti’s legacy, and "The O’Reilly Factor," regarding the disappearance of Chandra Levy, and ABC’s "Politically Incorrect," with Bill Maher, for "Mob Week." He was also called in to consult with the screenwriter of record on "Mickey Blue Eyes," starring Hugh Grant, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and James Caan. Italy’s RAI T.V. has done a biographical piece on Girard, as have Italian national newspapers "Corriere Della Sera" and "Il Tempo."
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