Monday, March 19, 2018

Marc and the Mob

As did so many crowding the Italian immigrant enclaves of the United States, Vito Marcantonio contended with the Mafia, coexisted side-by-side, knew people who knew people, and walked the same tight rope.

Marcantonio's enemies worked hard at linking him to the rackets in his working class and immigrant district. Available evidence suggests Marc was clean on the charge.

But he judged not those who came for help, often the stragglers and maladroits of his East Harlem bailiwick. “People come to me for help. People who are not in trouble do not come to you for help," Marcantonio observed.

A memo from Marc’s FBI file reads: “There are numerous indications in the files that Marcantonio is associated with hoodlums, particularly in the Eighteenth [Congressional] District in New York City. Many of these individuals have apparently been associated with him in connection with his election campaign. The problem, however, is to present facts which could be introduced in Court and we do not have any such material available.”

Which is a roundabout way of saying there was no proof. The song remained the same throughout Marcantonio’s congressional career. Nothing was ever proven, but a taint slowly took hold, as it did for many immigrant Italians and their American-born children.

In “The Italian American Table,” Professore Simone Cinotto suggests that, for deeper rooted Americans, organized crime and Italians were of a piece.

“The popular press,” he writes, “titillated readers with accounts of the gruesome enterprises of the Black Hand, the all-Italian crime organization that plagued Italian neighborhoods. Italian immigrants were regularly depicted not only as natural born gangsters, but also as anarchists and terrorists…”

At the same time, Cinotto notes, movie theaters offered “multifaceted representations of Italian immigrant identity. Films like the ‘The Black Hand’ (1906) and ‘The Italian’ (1915) showed evil Italian criminals alongside happy-go-lucky, sentimental, hardworking, and family-oriented immigrants trying to survive in Little Italy.”

A Childhood Criminal Acquaintance

Marcantonio knew gangster Tommy Lucchese from his youth. J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, which held leftists to be on the same moral plane as gangsters, found the association worthy of its attention.  
Tommy Lucchese

One FBI memo states that an informant, “advised in October of 1947 that Vito Marcantonio is an associate of Gaetano Lucchese, with alias, Tommy Brown, according to [redacted] is believed to be the head of the Unione Siciliana in New York City and has been involved in labor, building racketeering, and gambling.”

Another FBI missive quotes an unnamed informant claiming that Marcantonio nominated Lucchese’s son for a commission to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

In November of 1952, Lucchese sat down with prosecutors. The juice from that squeezing was poured into a “New York Times” article entitled, “Gangster is Heard” by ace reporter Meyer Berger.

The long testimony, Berger noted, “showed, on one hand, a thirty-year association with criminals of the lowest order. Paradoxically it showed on the other hand an association with judges and other public figures of the highest standing in the community.”

Lucchese’s contacts included big fish like Mayor Vincent Impelliteri and Tammany Hall boss Carmine DeSapio.

“Did you make any contributions or loans to Marcantonio?” the prosecutor asked Lucchese at one point.

The gangster answered: “He said, ‘No Tom, I have all the money I need.’”

Alexander Feinberg’s follow-up, “Analysis of His Testimony Before Board Unfolds Unsavory Record,” dispatched with the urban legend that Marc had gotten Lucchese’s son into West Point.

Lucchese told prosecutors he returned to Marcantonio with the request each of the six years his son was enrolled at LaSalle Military School and that Marc told him, “I have no control” and did him no special favors.

In "Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician," professor Gerald Meyer writes that, "Marcantonio's natural impulse was to help the underdog, and he included racketeers in that category. To him they were the clever boys from the neighborhood who never had a chance to attend De Witt Clinton." 

According to Meyer, the Mafia provided "discreet but substantial" support to Marc's campaigns. "Of considerable importance to Marcantonio was the use of Mafia-related social clubs as centers of election activities." 
Al Pacino longed to play Marcantonio. 

Richard Rovere, in an April 11, 1944, “Harpers” article, “Vito Marcantonio: Machine Politician New York Style,” observed that, “The truth is a state of neutrality exists between [Marc] and the racketeers. His machine could not possibly operate in the face of their opposition. Few of the voters whom he helps at his Sunday afternoon Good Will Hour would get to the polls if the gangsters decided that East Harlem needed another congressman.”

The Mayhem of Marc

Marcantonio’s story is not devoid of violence.

His entire life was lived on the streets of a crowded, lively tenement district rife with the typical urban ills: unemployment, garbage-strewn vacant lots, candy store corner gangs, and racketeering.

Sydney Shallet wrote for the “Saturday Evening Post.” When Marc dodged the Republican sweep in 1946 that eliminated so many of his leftist allies, Shallet covered the campaign and rendered some colorful post-reportage in “They Couldn’t Purge Vito” (January 1947).

Marcantonio’s political education, he wrote, “was rough, including a brief arrest and the loss of several teeth in a campaign brawl.”

Shallet confronted Marcantonio about the purportedly unsavory reputations of certain fans.  

“I was born and raised in this district,” the radical responded. “There are men with criminal records here who are my supporters, and I’m not going to turn my back on anybody. But I’ve never had anything to do with a racket or with protecting rackets. Of course,” he conceded, “some of the boys are a little rough, and if anybody crosses them they don’t turn the other cheek!”

“The Boys,” were a group of men known as the Gibbones (for which various spellings exist).

A Nov. 1, 1950, FBI memo notes:

“In [Westbrook] Pegler’s columns of December 16 and 17, 1943, he makes reference to the “Ghibbones” characterizing them as a mob of muscle men used for political purposes. He says that according to his information, there are approximately 1,800 of these individuals, who are still doing business but that at the present time (1943) they are more attached to LaGuardia’s old protégé, law partner and friend, Vito Marcantonio.”

In his book “American Demagogues” Reinhard Luthin dedicated a chapter to, “Vito Marcantonio, New York’s Leftist Laborite.” 

“In later years,” Luthin wrote, “when critics charged that the Gibbones were a sinister band of Italian Black Shirts, Marcantonio hotly protested: 'There never was any secret society. The younger second generation Italians all belonged to the Democratic Club…  We started organizing the older people, most of whom were immigrants. The young ones started taunting them and their broken English with the cry of Gibbones. It means hick or Wop.'”

There is at least one more version of how the name came about, but nowhere is the existence of the Gibbones disputed. 

Police Riot

Not that Marc needed them.

Among the recorded incidents of violence involving Marcantonio directly is an infamous rally at Madison Square Garden on behalf of Works Progress Administration workers that turned into a police riot.

Again, Marc’s FBI File:

“According to Confidential Informant T-83, of known reliability, V.M. was taken into protective custody after leading twelve hundred relief workers against four hundred policemen in a riot at Madison Square Garden in 1937.” 

Luthin renders a more literary accounting in “Leftist Laborite": 
Marc is released from jail
after the police riot. 

“Marcantonio shouted defiance of the Mayor’s [La Guardia!] order against any parade. He called upon the assembly to sing the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’ Catching the police off guard as they stood at attention with the playing of the national anthem, he shouted, ‘Forward! Parade!’ The police pitched in. Bluecoats and demonstrators went sprawling in the slush, Marc received a bloody nose and was hustled into a police patrol wagon.

“A congressman cannot be arrested for violation of a local law while Congress is in session, so Marc was released. He told reporters: ‘I admit I can’t lick a lot of cops, but I’d like to get Valentine alone in the gymnasium.’ Police commissioner Lewis Valentine, in mock alarm, answered: ‘Has he selected the weapons yet? Tell him, then, that I’m going up there with a ‘flit gun’ and exterminate him.’”

The FBI file also highlights a sloppy incident involving one Sol Silver whose beating led to Marcantonio’s arrest. He was charged with “directing an assault” on Silver who required ten stitches in his scalp.

According to the memo, on October 9, 1936, at the age of 33, Marcantonio “was arrested at 125 Center Street by Detectives Land and Bruder, 25th Squad, on a warrant charging him with acting in consort with a number of others and directing the assault of Sol Silver of 1815 Madison Ave.”

Trigger Mike and his
Dancing Doll.

According to Randolph Hearst’s “Daily Mirror," which Marcantonio spoofed with his own publication, “The Daily Schmirror,” Silver, a Democratic poll watcher, saw two men he considered “floaters” and contested their presence at the polls. Marcantonio arrived and told two of his watchers, “Get that man out of the way – don’t let him bother us anymore.” Silver was later jumped by what he claimed were Marcantonio henchmen.

Marc called the whole thing “A cheap Tammany conspiracy.” His campaign pressed countercharges against Silver for an attack elsewhere in the district against its own people. The indictment against Marc was ultimately dismissed.

“It vindicates me completely,” he stated.

Another FBI item reports Marc speaking in Italian from a sound truck in Jamaica (New York) when “he was called a liar by some in attendance. [A]n attempt was made to throw him off the sound truck, which was thwarted by V.M.’s bodyguard.”

In an Oct. 4, 1949 piece, “The New York Times” reported that, during the same campaign, cantaloupes came sailing into a crowd of about 1,000 assembled to hear the American Labor Party candidate for mayor at 95th Street and Broadway.

The next day “The Times,” published, “Campaign Rowdyism,” grudgingly conceding that, “We disagree with much of what Mr. Marcantonio has to say. His right to say it must be zealously defended.”

L'Affaire Scottoriggio

It was in this environment that the beating death of a Republican district captain, Joseph Scottoriggio, transpired.

The scandal represents that moment in Marcantonio’s political career when the violence and racketeering endemic to his universe finally caught up with him.
Joey "Tough Boy" Rao. 

For the “Post's” Shallet, no stranger to rough-and-tumble politics, the 1946 campaign in East Harlem stood apart:

“To one who does not live in East Harlem, or who has seen politics from the comparative sedateness of, say a Jersey City Hague-managed brawl or a quiet shooting at the Tennessee polls, the spectacle of The Marc's constituents in action and the little congressman himself running a campaign is simply fantastic.”

Weeks later, writing the piece, Shallet said he was still, “gaping at my notebook and wondering if what I set down and what I saw was real.”

On, Nov. 4, 1946, just before election day, the “New York Times” called the campaign “the most violent in the city.”

In a telegram to the Police Commissioner, Marcantonio complained: “I protest against the exclusive use of police protection on my opponent’s trucks. He has all of the police. I have none... I’ll ask you to correct this situation…”

Scottoriggio was working for Marc's opponent, Patrick van Pelt Bryan. The fatal, early morning beating on First Avenue, witnessed by his wife from the window of their apartment in the East River Houses, reeked of racketeers.

Two past-their-prime Prohibition thugs – Mike Coppola and Joey Rao – were the prime suspects.

“Trigger” Mike's wife, Doris Lehman, a dancer, split town after his jailing only to be caught many months later and dragged before the grand jury, pregnant.

Lehman gave birth in a New York hospital where she died mysteriously the next day. 

Marc after testifying before grand
jury in Scottoriggio affair.

For his part, Marc immediately volunteered to testify before a grand jury. He was then called before a special House of Representatives committee, sent on a fishing expedition to New York, under the pretense of investigating voting practices in East Harlem during the 1946 campaign. A second grand jury was then convened.

The whole sordid affair dragged on for many months.

One of Marc's staffers, Anthony “Kid” Lagana, disappeared and was later found floating in the East River. Scottorigio's wife went into politics. Every new wrinkle in the case was assiduously reported and invariably concluded with a paragraph that featured Marc's name.

The scandal stuck like a dog latched onto his pant leg. In spite of the enormous resources expended, the murder was never solved. Marcantonio survived the 1948 election, but by 1950 could no longer combat his re-branding as a red racketeer.

In “Disseminating the Story of the Italy-to-U.S.A. Avventura,” James Mancuso suggested that the success of “The Godfather” in the Italian-American community was rooted in the fact the portrayal was not considered offensive.

“[Author Mario] Puzo, in creating the figure of ‘The Godfather’ Don Corleone, portrayed a character who constantly expressed the idea that a real man takes care of his own affairs. He doesn’t waste time by appealing to the structural institutions of society, and he has no faith in the possibility that these institutions will change as a result of communal action.”

Perhaps, but not universally.

Marcantonio, a prominent member of the Italian-American community, certainly believed in communal action of the engaged type. He did not shrink from institutions, he stormed them and, where possible, kicked open the door for those barred from entering.

In a Dec. 1, 2002, “New York Times,” article written by Jim O'Grady, “The Loneliest Man in Congress,” Vito Marcantonio Forum co-chair Roberto Ragone said of Marc:

“He made himself accessible to people regardless of race, creed or color; black, Hispanic, Italian, Jewish. He’s essentially the good Godfather, the antithesis of Vito Corleone. His story shows how ‘The Godfather’ is actually the bizarro world of the real Italian-American experience.”

"Bread of the Poor"

The Marcantonio Papers Collection (link), located in the main branch of the New York Public Library, houses 86 boxes of production from the hyperactive congressman's political life.

In the categories by which the contents are divided, we hear the echoes of bygone battles: telegraph merger, Progressive Party, Vinson strike bill, Anti-Fascism/NLRB, Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Box 2 contains, “constituency problems, aid requests.” Box 42 holds “office appointments and messages.” Box 43 contains “Card files of names relating to routing constituents' requests." Boxes 6 through 35 offer, “Congressional Correspondence and Papers: Relating to routine constituency matters, congressional committees, sponsorship of various bills, and constituents' correspondence and papers.”
First Avenue, Italian Harlem.

In these constituency correspondence boxes – a goodly portion of the collection – can be heard, or read, the voice of the people Marcantonio represented.

The letters evidence the level of service he rendered them and the deep trust with which they shared their misfortunes. Utterly vulnerable, they approached Marcantonio, not for policy or advocacy, but for mercy. 

There are hundreds of letters and responses alike in the boxes which bring into full relief the radical congressman's personal touch to representation. 

A Constituent.
Here are culled a few of the plentiful kind that earned Marcantonio the sobriquet, “Bread of the Poor.”

“We are a family of 6 and my husband is a WPA worker earning $13.20 a week,” wrote Mary D'Ambrosio of 309 E. 106th St. “We would appreciate your help on Christmas. Please don't forget us we will be waiting.”

Ms. D'Ambrosio's epistle conveys to Marc both the importance and the inadequacy of the WPA program to a working family. 

Marcantonio regularly distributed to his constituents gift baskets with toys and food for the Holidays. Rose Tudesco of 1974 Second Avenue was so aware of this fact she doesn't even specify the basket.

Little Italy street scene.
"Dear Vito Marcantonio, I am a poor woman. I have 3 children. I used to work and now I have no job. My husband is sick and he is in the hospital. I get no help from no place. I have no money to buy any food, toys or clothes. Try to make it a happy Christmas for my children and me. Thank you. Respectfully yours.”

In this next letter, Alexander Fraskella manages to roll his illness, his need both for a Christmas basket and a new job, into a tightly woven two-sentence message.

“Hon. Vito Marcantonio, Dear Sir, I wish you remember me with a basket for Christmas as I have been home sick this week expect to go back to work next Wednesday Dec. 1 as labor on WPA.
P.S. I received a letter from WPA that they have no vacancy for the watchman's position.”

In response to a request for help, a constituent would usually receive a letter such as this one:
Italian family doing piecework at home.

“Dec. 5, 1940

My Dear Mr. [Joseph] Coniglio (of 231 E. 106th), I am in receipt of your letter and wish to inform you that I shall be at the Marcantonio Club, 1679 Madison Avenue, this Sunday, December 8th, and will be glad to see you there at 2:00 p.m in regard to the matter you wrote me about. Sincerely yours, Vito Marcantonio.”

Or such as this: 

Dear Mr. Gonzalez,

I have been told that I can be of service to you with reference to your application for citizenship. I suggest that you go to the Marcantonio Club, 247 East 116th Street, next Wednesday, October 2nd, between 1:00 and 2:00 p.m. Mr. Pizzo will be there at that time and he will talk to you about the application. Sincerely Yours.”

In “They Couldn't Purge Vito” Sidney Shallet of the “Saturday Evening Post” wrote of Marcantonio:
“He is willing to live in their slums, rub elbows with the best and the worse of them, work himself to the end of a frazzle for them. He spends his dough on them, takes up their battles against the landlords, sends his lawyer to get them out of jail. On occasion East Harlem lore has it, he has carried scuttles of coal personally to heatless tenements. Anyone who wants to see him, to clasp his hand or bend his ear, can do so. That, in short, is why Vito is their boy, and why Vito, who, incidentally, sits at the head of one of the tightest, most thoroughgoing, brass-knuckled political machines in the country, keeps getting reelected.”

The constituent letters found in the Marcantonio papers tell us who “they” were in Marc's work.

Vito Marcantonio Forum member Lulu LoLo is researching the letters for a book and play, and has rendered them live as well.

The writing is thick in disappeared urban argot, and textured with rich hand-scripts the likes of which have passed from usage.

Dusty, crumbling texts, they open windows on a forgotten world.

VMF Screens Oliver Stone's "The Untold History of the United States."

Artwork by Adam Milat-Meyer
The Vito Marcantonio Forum (VMF), recently presented a second installation of director Oliver Stone's documentary, “The Untold History of the United States.”

The VMF screened the second of four chapters from Stone's opus magnum, which cover the period coinciding with Marcantonio's seven-term congressional run and includes the Depression, World War II, and the Korean War.

VMF co-chair Roberto Ragone delivered a reenactment of Marcantonio's address, “How the Marshall Plan Betrayed Democracy: The Case of Italy.”

The event took place at the Mulberry Street Public Library on March 10.

VMF member Al Freda said the documentary loosely parallels a book of the same title co-written by Stone and Peter Kuznick, and “reveals, or better, exposes all the facts which are intentionally omitted from standard histories of the U.S. of Amnesia – Gore Vidal's appropriate designation for the U.S.”

The next screening will take place April 14. Chapter three is entitled, "The Bomb." It will be followed by another May 12; both at the Mulberry Street Public Library, 10 Jersey Street.

Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Anniversary

The VMF is urging members and friends to join Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition March 25 in marking the tragedy's 107th anniversary.

The commemoration will take place at the corner of Washington Place and Green Street (just east of Washington Square Park) and run from 11:30 to 1 p.m.

The fire took the lives of 146 people - garment workers - 123 of them women, mostly Italian and Jewish in origin.

VMF co-chair Gerald Meyer notes that, “On this day we remember these victims and pledge to redouble our fight to rebuild the union movement and political organizations capable of protecting the lives and livelihoods or workers – native-born and foreign-born, men and women – Americans all.”

The Vito Marcantonio Forum is an associate of the coalition and a financial contributor to its efforts. 

Coalition member Annie Rachele Lanzilloto will launch a double book of memoir poetry and short prose, "Hard Candy: caregiving, mourning and stage light," and "Pitch Roll Yawl" (Guernica), with a Prosecco tasting at NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimo, 24 West 12th Street, New York City. The event takes place on March 22 at 6 p.m. She'll read again, along with poet Mia Fama', at an April 14 event in which the Italian American Writers Association will celebrate its 27th anniversary. Sidewalk Café, 94 Avenue A, Sixth Street, East Village, New York City 10009. 

VMF co-chair Roberto Ragone will play a prosecuting attorney in the play, "A Cop Shot My Son" at the Sonnett Theater at the Producer's Club, 358 W. 44th St., between 8th and 9th Avenues. Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Sunday. The dates are March 21-March 26. Tickets are $15. 

VMF Member Lulu Lolo will perform in "Art in Odd Places: Matter," at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville on April 5 and April 6.