On a fine, late October afternoon in 1957 I came home from school to a great commotion at the foot of the block where we lived. TV trucks and news reporters were clustered at the gates to the long drive leading up to Albert Anastasia’s enormous Spanish Mission-style home. The Palisades section of Fort Lee, New Jersey, then as now, was a sleepy, leafy enclave, overlooking the Upper West Side, a mile or so across the Hudson.
My mother came out the front door of our house, walked up to me, knelt down, and said: ‘Augie, Gloriana’s daddy got very, very sick, and Gloriana and her mommy are going to have to go away for a while, so Gloriana won’t be coming over to play.’ Gloriana’s daddy sure did get sick. Albert Anastasia, head of Murder Incorporated and capo of the Mangano family, had been assassinated that morning at 10.20 while getting a shave at the Park Sheraton Hotel on Seventh Avenue.
The Gallo brothers made the hit: Joseph ‘Crazy Joe’, Larry, and Albert ‘Kid Blast’. They were accompanied by an ugly little torpedo named Joseph ‘Joe Jelly’ Giorelli, who finished the job with a bullet to the back of Anastasia’s head. These four were the aces of Joseph Profaci’s hit squad. But the order had come from higher up, from Vito Genovese himself. Anastasia was whacked because he was too dangerous. His appetite for killing had made him reckless and a liability, and the other mobsters had called him (behind his back of course) the ‘mad hatter’.
It wasn’t very considerate of him to kill our plumber, Mr Ferri. Reliable plumbers are hard to come by; they were then, they are now. Mr Ferri was Anastasia’s plumber as well and he must have seen something he wasn’t supposed to see. The Feds put Mr Ferri and his wife in the witness protection programme, down south in some Miami suburb. Ha, ha, ha. Who the fuck did they think they were dealing with, huh? Too bad about Mrs Ferri. But on balance my folks found Anastasia an exemplary neighbour. He minded his own business and was very polite when their paths crossed. I’m not sure when that was, given that Anastasia tended to keep odd hours and spent a lot of time in his Oldsmobile luxury sedan going back and forth between Jersey and New York, driven by his most trusted bodyguard, Anthony ‘Tough Tony’ Coppola. ‘Courtly’, was how my parents described Anastasia.
I don’t suppose it was Tough Tony who brought little Gloriana to my parents’ house every day and baby-sat for the two of us while my mother went off shopping or visited friends. It was some other affectless gorilla with a shoulder-holster. ‘Play-a nice children,’ he would say if things started going to hell in the sandpit. Apart from Gloriana and her mommy it was my mother who was most saddened by Anastasia’s untimely death. For with him went the best baby-sitter on earth. Mother knew that if anything, anything at all, happened to either of us, the baby-sitter would have his dick shot off.
New Jersey was famous for gangsters way ahead of The Sopranos, and Fort Lee most famous of all. Like Walt Whitman before them, a number of enterprising souls had come over to the ‘Left Bank’ from Brooklyn. Guys like Willie Moretti, Tony Bender and Joe Adonis, né Doto, who took the name Adonis on account he was so fucking good-looking. The ‘Al Capone of New Jersey’ was another good-looking guy named Longy Zwillman, whose favourite party trick was to produce from his wallet a pubic hair belonging to Jean Harlow, with whom he’d had a hot affair.
The local headquarters for these men was an Italian restaurant called Duke’s Place in Cliffside Park, the next town south from Fort Lee. My folks went there quite often because it was close by and the food was good. That is, until my mother, who is given to irrepressible asides about people’s appearance and speculation about their personal lives, remarked to my father one evening at Duke’s: ‘How old could that little blonde number be over there with those two hoods?’ My mother does not have a small voice and this met with a poor, but not fatal, response. My father was not given to asides, but tended in his younger days to grow very agitated in restaurants when he felt the service was lackadaisical. This is a circumspect way of putting it, but my father is still alive and reads this journal. One evening at another local hood joint, probably Joe’s Elbow Room, my parents hadn’t even received a menu after sitting there for twenty minutes. The place was empty aside from a plenary council of silk suits involved in a confab over some ziti. Having enjoyed many episodes of my father’s behaviour in such situations, I shudder to think what might have happened next. Fortunately one of those silk suits belonged to Mr Anastasia. The folks were served with remarkable dispatch, and the pasta was al dente, as my father liked it.
Fort Lee was, in those days, a vivid little town, not the usual American suburb. My family lived at the southern end, a couple of blocks from Cliffside Park and only three blocks from one of the largest amusement parks in America, where for six months of the year you could hear the screams of people riding the Whip or the Cyclone, the giant roller-coaster.
At the north end of town was the George Washington Bridge and just above the bridge a famous hood nightclub called the Riviera, which always booked star entertainers and put on gala floor shows. But it was more famous for its plush gambling casino at the back, the Marine Room, which was off-limits to ordinary patrons. The Marine Room was run by the Zwillman-Moretti syndicate. One of the star acts at the Riviera was Frank Sinatra, a skinny Jersey boy from down the road in Hoboken. Moretti took a shine to Sinatra, whom he probably first saw perform as a singer-waiter at a little roadhouse called the Rustic Cabin in the next town north, Englewood. He helped the youngster get some band dates. Later on, Sinatra signed with Tommy Dorsey, became a star, and then wanted out of his contract. Dorsey wasn’t having any of it, however, at least not until Moretti jammed a gun down his throat, petitioning the band-leader to exercise reason and good judgment.
Twenty years ago, shortly after I came to live in San Francisco, my cousin Seymour, who lived in Mill Valley and for a time had been Sinatra’s agent, or one of them, took me to dinner at the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill. Seymour was showbiz and liked to make a flash impression. After dinner he made me drink a sambuca with a coffee bean in it. He told me this was what classy guys drink. I asked him if Sinatra was Mob. Without missing a beat, Seymour laughed and said: ‘Are you kidding, Frankie’s a pussycat; he couldn’t hurt a fly, even if he tried. He just likes to pretend he’s a gangster.’ Which is presumably what he was doing in 1946 when he posed in Havana for a photo-op with his arm around Lucky Luciano’s shoulder. Another nice picture shows him with Carlo Gambino, who was the intermediary between Vito Genovese and Joseph Profaci in the Anastasia hit: Frankie-boy is smiling in his dressing-room at the Premier Theater in Westchester, New York, next to Carlo and the hit-man (later informer) Jimmy ‘the Weasel’ Fratianno and three other hoods later convicted and sentenced for fraud and skimming the theatre’s box office.
Frank, who was a good son, bought a lovely home for his mother, Dolly, in Fort Lee. I’m sure Dolly enjoyed her stay, even if she missed some of the gang from her local ward in Hoboken, where she did quite a few favours for the local big shots. Fort Lee in those days was about 98 per cent Italian. There were a few Jewish families, like mine, a couple of Greek families, an Irish family, an Armenian family, but everyone else was Southern Italian. You might as well have been in Palermo, except the buildings were newer.
David Chase, The Sopranos’ creator, grew up in Essex County. Fort Lee is Bergen County, but never you mind. I played as a child with Tony Soprano and his pals, if you can imagine them as eight-year-olds. During recess and the lunch hour the schoolyard at #4 Elementary School in Fort Lee was like a theme park for Tourette’s Syndrome. There is a scene in Scarface, the movie by Brian De Palma (born Newark, NJ, Essex County), in which Al Pacino is sitting in the bath, cranked up on coke, and launched on a rant, when his ice-goddess new wife, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, says something like: ‘Are you capable of finishing a whole sentence without repeating the word fuck?’ Sometimes there was a bit of va fungule. Other popular terms of abuse were ‘faggot’ and ‘douche’. The use of the latter is somewhat mysterious: it was directed exclusively at other males and no one had any idea what a douche-bag was. It was also bellowed out in a particular fashion, in order to achieve maximum release for the diphthong. Duckie Juliano was a master of this art. One time I called someone a son of a bitch, which must have sounded preposterously foreign and Noël Coward-like. All activity ceased, and I was viciously assaulted by Tommy Grumulia and Anthony Delvecchio. Boys are formed by the playgrounds they come from. Ours was violent, noisy and profane, somewhat operatic in the Italian manner. But there were no guns or knives and no one ever got seriously hurt, except when Louis Boccia tore off most of his ear after running too close to the cyclone fence during a game of salugi. But it got sewed back on, almost like new.
Not long after Mrs Anastasia and Gloriana went away, the big house was bought by Buddy Hackett, a fat little funny-man who had a successful TV and lounge act. He looked rather cherubic, in a greasy way, with his button nose and chubby cheeks, and this allowed him to get away with stories and jokes that were quite blue for the time. Also, he had a peculiar way of speaking, almost a speech defect. He had a thick Brooklyn accent and his voice seemed to live moistly in the back of his throat, the effect much compounded by what seemed to be marbles or acorns or jelly-beans in his mouth. Each word or phrase had a messy, difficult birth. His pièce de résistance was his Chinese waiter routine, in which he put a rubber band over his head and face so his eyes narrowed like a Chinese. In the sketch Hackett took an order from a table at a restaurant, and when it was time for dessert, he would intone, in his Brooklyn-Chinese accent: ‘OK, who the wise-guy with the kumquat?’
After dinner one night my parents told me to go get Buddy Hackett’s autograph. My parents had no interest in Buddy Hackett’s autograph. They hardly ever watched TV and were convinced I was mildly retarded because I did. No, they were sending me forth, in their endearing Jersey City way, as a trial balloon.
I had never been to the big house. Gloriana and the gorilla always came to me. But I knocked at the door. A frightened, bewildered Hispanic maid in uniform opened it. I gave my little talk: ‘I’m Augie Kleinzahler from down the street and I would like Mr Hackett’s autograph, please.’ The maid, looking stricken, disappeared, and next up was a woman I took to be Mrs Hackett. She said something mildly discouraging but I didn’t budge, knowing better than to return home without a result. At which point Mrs Hackett disappeared.
I immediately registered the cause of their apprehension when the famous entertainer himself came waddling to the front door. He was barely taller than I was, and I was seven years old. He was red-faced and breathing moistly and with some difficulty, like a toy bulldog on a sultry day. ‘Whuh da you want, kid?’ he asked in one of America’s most distinctive voices. I identified myself, told him where I lived and asked for his autograph. He glared at me, incredulous, for a few moments (I could sense the wife and maid cowering inside) and said: ‘Fuck you, kid; talk to my agent!’ And slammed the door in my face.
I stood there briefly, considering my options, then turned and walked down the long driveway. It was a pleasant summer evening, fragrant, the maples in leaf, and the air filled with cries of terror from the nearby amusement park. I found my parents where I had left them, on the back porch, reading. My mother looked up from her book and smiled. ‘Well?’ she said. ‘He said: “Fuck you, kid, talk to my agent”.’ My father went back to his book. My mother, for what seemed a long time, stared at me over her reading glasses. ‘Well,’ she asked, ‘did you at least get his agent’s name and phone number?’