“Go out there and tell that kike across the street to get the hell away from here,” said Albert Anastasia, biting into a Holy Cannoli, the pastry full of pistachio ice cream nuts bits of chocolate. There was a glass of sweet wine at his elbow. He took a sip.
“Sure, boss,” a young strongman sitting beside the front door said.
The man in the car across the street looked like hell, seedy, big bags under his eyes, gray jowls, and a thick cigar stuck in his mouth. He was wearing baggy pants, scuffed shoes, a wrinkled gray shirt, and a loosely knotted worse for the wear Belly Warmer tie. A painted hula girl and palm trees swayed faded out on it.
The mob bodyguard was wearing a black shirt, razor-creased slacks, a skinny belt, and lizard shoes. He leaned into the Chevy. There was a camera on the passenger side of the seat. He didn’t give it a second look. He didn’t give the driver a second look, either.
“What do you want here, Weejee? It’s not even nighttime. There isn’t anything going on. No one is going down this afternoon. Jumping time is five in the morning when the liquor runs out. The boss says beat it.”
“I’m just waiting for a girl,” said Arthur Fellig in a high-pitched voice.
“What kind of girl is that?”
“A girl with a healthy body and a sick mind.”
“You got a sick mind.”
Arthur Fellig was a newshound photographer. His nom de guerre was Weejee.
“He always wanted to see the soul of the person. He wanted to see the essence of the person. And he certainly wanted to see the tits of the person,” said Judy Malina, who was once chased around Weejee’s apartment by the shutterbug. She escaped before he could get his paws on her boobs.
“You’re going to need some carbon tetra-chloride for that,” said the bodyguard, pointing to the beer stains on the hula girl.
“I like them on the wet side, not too icy and deadpan,” said the photographer.
“All right, enough with the wisecracks, why don’t you get in gear, maybe go down to Sussman Volk’s and take some pictures of the salamis and bolonies.”
“How about I stay right here?” said the photographer, exhaling a thick puff of smoke from his stogie.
The bodyguard stepped away from the noxious cloud coming out the car window. He looked down the street. He waved and snapped his fingers once. The policeman on the corner walked up to the car. Arthur Fellig could see the precinct numerals on the shield over the left breast of the man’s jacket. His black tie was knotted in a standard four-in-hand with a gunmetal tie clasp and he wore a blue military shirt with removable brass buttons.
“This man is bothering Mr. Anastasia.”
The policeman twirled his nightstick and rapped it briskly on the roof of the Chevy.
“Move along,” he said.
Arthur Fellig turned the engine over. “One day I’ll see him flat on his back, sooner than later, if I’ve been hearing it right, and I’ll get the shot, believe you me” he said to the bodyguard, and drove away.
Albert Anastasia motioned to the waiter for expresso.
“I got nothing against Jews,” he said to Luca Gravano. “I had plenty of kikes working for me back in the corporation days.” The corporation was the Brownsville Boys. The newspapers called it Murder Incorporated. After gunning down their man, they usually left the impression of a Black Hand on a piece of paper beside the body.
If they were in a hurry, they wore a black glove on their trigger hand and left it at that.
“Gurrah Shapiro, Kid Twist, Harry “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss. What the hell, Meyer and I still work some these days side by side in Cuba. As long as the Commies stay in the mountains, and Batista toes the line, it’s a gold mine down there.”
President Dwight Eisenhower was running for reelection against Adlai Stevenson. The smart money was on Ike. He had gotten over his heart attack and was back eating pig knuckles and sauerkraut. Fidel Castro and his brother were aggravating the President with their penny arcade talk of invading Cuba and overthrowing Battista. Ike would take care of it after November. It was money in the bank, Albert told his associates.
Luca Gravano nodded, sipped his coffee, and ate one brutti ma buoni cookie after another from the plate in front of him. They were Tuscan cookies, northern style, but he had always had a taste for them, no matter being from the Mezzogiorno. They were called “ugly but good” and were made of almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, amaretto, and oranges.
Big Paulie came from Calabria, in the south of Italy, the same as Albert Anastasia. He had come by freighter to New York, the same as Anastasia and his brothers had done years before, jumping ship the same year Anastasia was convicted and sentenced to death in the electric chair at Sing Sing for stabbing and strangling another longshoreman. But, after he got a new trial, almost everyone who had testified against him changed every single word of their testimony.
The other witnesses dropped off the face of the earth. The prosecutors threw up their hands. It was the way of the world cynical newspapermen told each over drinks.
After his release Albert Anastasia threw in with Joe “The Boss” Masseria, making book, hijacking, and running liquor. Ten years later he was one of four gunmen, along with Bugsy Siegel, who cut their boss down with a hailstorm of lead in a Coney Island diner.
Luca Gravano was the right-hand man under Tony Anastasia on the docks, which meant at the end he worked for Albert Anastasia. He had no problem with that. The only problem he had was staying on his toes wary and careful with the main man every second of every minute of every day.
The mob kingpin’s friends called him “The Executioner.” His brother “Tough Tony” called him “The Lord High Executioner.” Some of his friends and all of his enemies called him “The Mad Hatter.”
“He is one grand guy,” said Anthony Coppola, Anastasia’s sometime driver, sometime bodyguard, and most of the time crony. “Lots of people will cry when he’s gone.”
Big Paulie understood what Albert Anastasia wanted him to do. What he didn’t understand was why there were three bodyguards with them, one outside, and two in the restaurant at a nearby table. It must have shown on his face when he glanced around and behind him.
“I’m worried about my family,” Anastasia said.
“What do you mean?”
“Forget about it, forget about it.”
His wife and son lived in a mansion on an estate in Fort Lee, across the Hudson River from Manhattan in New jersey, surrounded by a 10-foot-high fence topped with barbed wire. The lawn was looked after by a pack of Doberman Pinschers. The dogs weren’t friendly, nor was the gunman who was always in the house. What was there to worry about?
There was the New York County District Attorney.
“Make no mistake about it,” the D. A. said. “These are real tough boys, and I mean really tough, but we’re tough, too.” He was pushing to get Anastasia into his office to talk about the murder of his ex-friend, Frank Scalise, a couple of months ago inside a fruit store in broad daylight.
But what was that going to come to? There weren’t any witnesses. Even if there were, there weren’t any witnesses.
Two years ago, it had been the murder of Vincent Macri, and the disappearance of his brother, Benedetto, both of them Anastasia bodyguards, that had gotten the city lawmen worked up. It had come to nothing. There was the disappearance of Charles Ferri and his wife Marie at about the same time, after the two of them testified against Anastasia in the income tax prosecution the Federals had brought.
Everybody knew Vincent Macri and Charley Ferri were friends. Everybody knew what had changed hands. Everybody knew it was going to come to nothing.
“You want me to make sure nobody gets to the doc, right, especially not the private cop.” said Luca Gravano, not exactly asking, but making sure exactly what “The Mad Hatter” was saying.
“That’s right,” said Albert Anastasia. “Nobody outside of his circle, outside of his work, nobody asking any questions.”
Luca Gravano knew now what Albert Anastasia wanted. He knew there was a secret and he didn’t need to be let in on it. There weren’t any more questions to ask, except one, to make sure he wouldn’t get the job at hand wrong in any way.
“If anybody gets too close?”
“You feed them to that lion of yours.”
“It’s a female, a lioness,” said Big Paulie.
“Even better,” said Anastasia. “A man-eater.”
“Where do you keep her?”
“In the basement of the store”
“That works for you?”
“Yeah, if we’re doing a shakedown, or if somebody owes us money, and won’t pay up, no matter what, we bring him to the store, and push him halfway down into the basement. We throw a slab of raw meat over his shoulder down to Cleo, that’s the cat. She roars her appreciation and there’s no arguing after that. We always collect.”
“That’s good, Luca, that’s good,” said Albert Anastasia.
“Luca Gravano is a savage,” said Chief Inspector Raymond Martin, head of the Brooklyn South detectives. “He held another man’s forearm between his hands and broke the bone over the edge of an office desk, as a way of collecting a debt owed to him. The man told the story to one of my detectives, but he was too frightened to sign a complaint, unless he be killed. He was killed later, anyway.”
“You take care of this, it’s important. You call me personally, day or night, if you have to,” said Anastasia.
He stood up, put on his hat, and followed his bodyguards out of the restaurant slowly and deliberately in his money-glow suit. Big Paulie had another cup of coffee and another plate of cookies. When he stepped outside, he threw a nickel down for a copy of the New York Daily News. Wall Street was up on a “rousing rally” of five points. The Woolworth heiress was in court, being sued by a Manhattan florist for not making good on $2,500 worth of flowers. He liked the dame’s style. The crime story on page 3 caught his eye when he saw the picture of George Rosen.
“There was a rubber death’s head mask, a grisly Halloween thing of gray and purple, on the seat beside small-time gambler George Rosen, 39, as he and a masked pal stepped from a stolen automobile in Brooklyn shortly before noon yesterday to stage a payroll robbery.”
George Rosen didn’t get far. In the picture he was lying on his back in a pool of blood on the sidewalk. He hadn’t even had time to slip on the Grim Reaper mask before he was shot dead.
He knew the man, and if he owed him money, Big Paulie thought, it didn’t matter anymore. He never went after the family. He would have, but It was bad business. There were always too many brothers and uncles.
He stepped off the sidewalk into the street and stuck his arm out like he meant to have the next cab. An “Otto” DeSoto Deluxe cruised up to his ankles. He got into the back, stretched out his legs, and looked up through the see-through roof. The V8 purred as it idled. The seats were green leather. There was plenty-and-more legroom.
He lit up a Camel.
“Where to, chief?”
“You got it.”
The suspension of the big car was roly-poly. It was like taking one of the ferryboats. He started thinking about what ma would be making for dinner. He liked Ossa Buco, Eggplant Parmigiana, and Pasta Primavera, with semolina bread, olive oil, and pesto on the side. His favorite was Chicken Tetrazzini, named after Luisa Tetrazzini, a soprano known as “The Florentine Nightingale.”
Luca Gravano’s headquarters was a small storefront in Brooklyn. The sign above the door said it was the Murphy Bed Company, agents and distributors. “The Disappearing Bed” was stenciled across one window. There were several demonstration models in the front showroom, although neither Luca nor his brothers had ever sold a single Murphy bed of any kind. Among themselves they joked it was “the foldaway trap for your worst enemies.”
He lived next door in an attached brownstone with three of his brothers and his mother.
“I don’t know anything about the mob. I don’t know anything about any organizations. I only know about my five children, four sons and a daughter,” Raffaella Gravano said one day when she was asked by detectives about the alleged killers, two of her own sons, of a rival bookmaker in front of a Bronx restaurant.
What she said to policemen wasn’t what she said at home.
“Women run the show in the south of Italy,” she told her sons. “Maybe our men come home with bloody boots, but I know how to cement guns inside walls. I hold my head high. I keep the memory of the dead alive.”
“Hey, driver, stop at Alleva’s when you go by,” Big Paulie said to the cab driver as they passed the Church of the Most Precious Blood.
“The cheese place?”
The Alleva Dairy cheese shop was at the intersection of Mulberry and Grand Streets. The windows were filled with printed and neon signs. Inside were ricotta, mozzarella, and the new hero sandwiches. Prosciutto hung from the tin ceiling.
“When I was young, there was one kind of prosciutto,” said one of the old-time butchers. “It was made in the winter, by hand, and aged for two years. It was sweet when you smelled it. A profound perfume. Unmistakable.”
Luca ordered a sandwich for himself and five pounds of in-bone prosciutto and a knob of fresh mozzarella for his mother. She liked hers sliced over fresh melon. He liked his wrapped around a breadstick. His brothers got the leftovers.
“When I find the original meal these leftovers have been coming from, I ain’t going to be sharing it with anybody,” said Frankie “Kid Blast” Gravano, one of his brothers. His two other brothers, Larry and Raymond, nodded solemnly that they were with Frankie, even though Frankie meant he was going to be keeping it all to himself.
Luca was the oldest of the four boys. Kid Blast was the youngest. Luca was the smartest of the four. Kid Blast was the most dangerous of the four. Luca had the authority in the family. Kid Blast wanted it.
He had taken a gunshot at Luca the summer before.
“I just blew my top. He said something about me I didn’t like. I purposefully missed him.”
Their sister, Carnellia, had been engaged to one of Vincent “The Chin” Gigante’s brothers, but backed out of the marriage. “I’m not marrying a peasant,” she said when she got the measure of the man. The jilted lover entered a seminary and was training to become a priest. Carnellia moved out of the family house, got an apartment in Greenwich Village, and went to work in pizzazz. Her new boyfriend, a third-generation German and a Protestant, who was an ad man at a Madison Avenue agency, got her a job writing TV commercials, making whatever might be nice into the must have.
She called her mother every Sunday night, but the Gravano boys had not spoken a word to their sister in more than a year. Luca flushed red the morning his mother wanted to invite Carnellia to dinner.
“She’s not coming here in her tight dress and that stuck up wise guy who thinks he’s better than us and we’re all wrongdoers, “he said. “I can see it in her eyes, ma. Except for you, she’s ashamed of us. I don’t want her in this house.”
“She’s your only sister, my only daughter,” said his mother.
“We’re from the Old World, and even though it’s the New World now, what we make for ourselves, in our own world, that’s our new place, and when Carnellia flips she can stay with her estraneo,” said Luca.
“We have our pride. When she steps on that she can’t come back here.”
Raffaella Gravano crossed her arms over her stomach, below her sagging breasts, grim and frustrated in her polka-dotted apron, her eyes speaking daggers.
“I’m the man of the house now, ma,” Big Paulie said. “Don’t bite my balls off.”