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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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
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.”
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.”