Crazy Joe Gallo Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Crazy Joe Gallo

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Diners sitting at tables on the pavement in Little Italy, New York.
Joey, Joey,
King of the streets, child of clay.
Joey, Joey,
What made them want to come and blow you away?

-The refrain from an 11-minute ballad called 'Joey' by Bob Dylan

The film The Godfather was released in 1972. It chronicled the lives of an Italian-American crime family called the Corleones. Many of the film's scenes were shot in the grimy streets of New York City, lending the metropolitan-based story an air of authenticity. Some locals picketed and disrupted the filming of The Godfather, for fear that it would paint an unfair picture of all Italians as gangsters. The famous scene where Marlon Brando's character, Don Vito Corleone, is gunned down while buying fruit on the street was filmed on Mott Street in Little Italy, just a few blocks away from a restaurant called Umberto's Clam House. A few weeks after the film made its hugely successful premiere, a scene not unlike the Corleone assassination attempt unfolded in the early morning at Umberto's. If one of the film's protesters had happened to pass by the restaurant that morning, they could have seen that many of the film's elements rang true. Many Italians could fit easily within the unremorseful Mafia world of The Godfather.

On the other hand, there was Joey Gallo.

In the darkness of that April morning, Joey's staggering body fell into the double glass doors of Umberto's, the taste of scungilli salad still fresh in his mouth. He was running from the screaming and booming at his back. A sharp needle pain in his back caused him to lose control, and he fell face-first onto the sidewalk. He rolled his body over just in time for his sad blue eyes to see his two assassins walk out the front door, over his body, and into the city's dark disguise. His elbow was shot to hell and there were four bullets in his back. 'Four quick knocks on the door of unhappiness', Camus once wrote. He could hear the crying and screaming, the frantic emergency call, but he only saw the limitless dark sky, the civil twilight testing the sun's garish entrance for another day of freedom.

When detectives arrived at the scene, they faced an apparent bloodbath - the walls were pocked with bullet marks and the floors were coated in red. Joey was dead, of course, but on closer inspection it was discovered that he had bled only internally. The blood that slicked the floors wasn't his. It turned out that the gunmen had not been very accurate; they had accidentally shot up containers of hot sauce and ketchup, which had painted the restaurant red. Francis Ford Coppola, the visionary director of The Godfather, could not have created a better scene himself.

Ecce Homo: Wie man wird, was man ist1

Robert Kennedy:  Mr Joseph Gallo, could you tell us where you were born, just a little bit about your background before we get into the union business?
Joseph Gallo:  I respectfully decline to answer because I honestly believe my answer might tend to incriminate me.
- From a United States Senate hearing on organised crime, 1959

Joey Gallo's parents were named Mary and Umberto. Not the same Umberto who owned the clam house where Joey would belly up many years later, but in the close Italian community of New York, they were always running out of names... maybe that's why everyone had a nickname. Joey's little brother Albert was forever 'Kid Blast'. Later on, the Gallo world was populated with Junior, Joe Jelly, Louie Cadillac, Mooney, the Worm and Bullshit to give a few examples. Joey revelled in his own nickname, 'Crazy Joe'. He'd earned it. After a bad car accident at age 16, he'd become twitchy and restless. He'd enlisted in the navy for a short stint, until he was discharged on account of being so twitchy and generally making everybody nervous. How could they put someone like that out to sea? Who knows what could have happened? Really the only time a Gallo had been at sea was in 1920, when Umberto (again, the father, not the clam joint's owner) illegally immigrated to America, stowed away aboard the SS Canapitch.

Robert Kennedy:  Just a little bit about your background. Where you went to school. Can you tell us that? Where did you go to school?
Joseph Gallo:  I respectfully decline to answer because I honestly believe my answer might tend to incriminate me.

Joey spurned conventional education. He dropped out of high school and preferred to learn the ways of the world for himself. A big part of his education was the silver screen - he idolised the gangsters who appeared in films, and modelled himself on some of the tough-guy acts. He burgled some Brooklyn houses and integrated himself into the criminal order of the city - the Mafia. Some cops found him with burglary tools when he was twenty, but he got off from serving any hard time after he convinced the judge that he was crazy. His nervous twitch and paranoia made it an easy sell. He celebrated his 21st birthday in a psych ward, diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. But then, Joey had lousy luck with birthdays. The night he celebrated his 43rd one was also the night he died.

Robert Kennedy:  Are you a racketeer and a gangster? Are you what is known as a thug or hoodlum? Is that the classification or category you would come in?
Joseph Gallo:  I respectfully decline to answer because I honestly believe my answer might tend to incriminate me.

Crazy Joe was a small guy, standing at only five feet, six inches high. He had light blue eyes, a huge mole on his left cheek and irrepressibly blond hair. His hair gave him another unimaginative nickname, 'Joe the Blond'. As a kid, Joey paid his dues in the underworld, stealing and killing in order to get some respect from the bosses... the heads of New York's 'Five Families' were like gods, moving through the world on a higher plane than everyone else. The way everyone seemed to bow to Don Profaci, a kid like Joey couldn't help but want that sort of respect for himself.

One of Joey's first jobs was the theft of a crate of suits. When police showed up at the Gallo household looking for the suits, Joey's older brother Larry took the rap and served a year in jail. The Gallo brothers, Crazy Joe, Larry and Kid Blast did gun work for Teamster Local 266 and the Profaci crime family, based in Brooklyn. Some people say Joey killed underworld legend Albert 'The Mad Hatter' Anastasia in a barbershop on a hit ordered by the Profaci family... but who can know these things for sure? Joey and his brothers killed quite a few people - and they did it well enough, because they got away every time.

The Profacis decided to demonstrate their gratitude to Joey by 'making' him – that is, accepting him as a member of the family. The only problem was that they suspected Joey of drug use because of how twitchy and strange he acted all the time; it was not an altogether unreasonable assumption. In order to prove that it was just his nervous, paranoid nature and not narcotics that caused his behaviour, Joey was bolted in a hotel room and observed by a Profaci loyalist, to see if he would break out in withdrawal symptoms.

Robert Kennedy:  You would have somebody like Mr Saul [a witness who had produced testimony against the Gallos] knocked off, but you wouldn't do it yourself, would you, Mr Gallo? You would have somebody go and do it for you, wouldn't you? Do you find it is much easier to have a big man go and do it? Rather than a little fellow like you?
Joseph Gallo:  I respectfully decline to answer because I honestly believe my answer might tend to incriminate me.

After Larry and Joey were both 'made' by the Profaci family, they expected a share of the wealth from organised crime activities in south Brooklyn. Don Profaci was a cruel monarch, however, and he barely spoke to the Gallos unless he needed someone killed. Joey was too ambitious to be a small-scale criminal his whole life, knowing he was capable of a greater role. He once said, 'Plenty of people have told me, "You know, Joey, if you'd gone another way, you might have made something of yourself. If you'd put your brains and your energy into something legitimate, you have gotten to be President." And you know what I always say to them? "Bullshit. I couldn't be that crooked".' When John Kennedy was elected President, the Gallos must have noted the irony. JFK's father had made the family fortune (with which he financed JFK's political career) by bootlegging during prohibition. Umberto Gallo almost had the same success in bootlegging, but just as he was starting out in the business, a boat bearing an illicit shipment of whisky had to turn back due to poor weather. Brighter skies might have seen an Italian in the White House in 1961.

Robert Kennedy:  Are you a physical coward?
Joseph Gallo:  I respectfully decline to answer-
Robert Kennedy:  That might incriminate you to answer? Do you think it would? Do you think it would-
Joseph Gallo:  I respectfully decline to answer because I honestly believe my answer might tend to incriminate me.

For the time being, the Gallos made their bucks muscling small-time jukebox owners into joining a union controlled by the Mafia. This scam drew the attention of Robert F Kennedy (brother of the future President), who was the chief counsel of a Senate committee investigating the nexus of labour unions and organised crime in the late 1950s. When Larry and Joe Gallo were called to meet with the committee, Joe showed up in all-black clothes and dark sunglasses, as if he was attempting to fit the stereotype of a gangster, or else on his way to a funeral. Before the hearing, Joey was sent to meet with Robert Kennedy, and he put on quite a show. He frisked one of Kennedy's staffers for a gun, demanding that no one would see the young lawyer with a gun, claiming that 'If Kennedy gets killed now everybody will say I did it.'2 Once he was granted entrance into RFK's office, he kneeled down to feel the carpet and casually said that it would be 'nice for a crap game'. Once the committee hearing started, Kennedy questioned Larry and Joey Gallo on television, but only received one answer to his many questions: 'I respectfully decline to answer because I honestly believe my answer might tend to incriminate me.' Joey's mockery of the bullish chief counsel made him something of an instant celebrity - a gangster-chic underworld idol. Joey always did have his own style.

The Prince

Sometimes I'd open up a book and see a handwritten note scribbled in the front, like in Machiavelli's The Prince, there was written, 'The spirit of the hustler.'
- Bob Dylan, from 'Chronicles Volume One'

In February, 1960, as the Presidential campaign between Kennedy and Nixon was heating up3, Joey discovered a new world. Greenwich Village in Manhattan was perhaps the biggest collection of beatniks you were likely to find anywhere. They said that stepping into the Village was the easiest way to leave America. The neighborhood was pulsing with young poets, artists and musicians. Bob Dylan rode the folk club circuit while Lenny Bruce screamed and cursed on-stage and was arrested afterwards. Joey's bodyguard took him to the Village one day, and Crazy Joe felt like he fitted in. Something clicked. These people were crazy like him.

Joey raided the Eighth-Street Bookstore, and read voraciously. He became especially fond of Nietzsche and the existentialist philosophers. He took up painting and drank coffee. He once pretentiously told someone that he had decided to base his life around Machiavelli's classic book 'The Prince'. He lived for late-night philosophy conversations. One night, he met a woman named Jeffie in the village. A beatnik girl, she was not what his family imagined for him (once his mother met her, she pronounced Jeffie a 'gypsy whore'). Nevertheless, Joey and Jeffie saw each other frequently and eventually married. He even wrote an artistic piece of prose about their love:

The random course is altered, its pounding rhythm is altered, its pounding rhythm increases, deafens and explodes! Showering the cosmos briefly upon passing comets, zooming past brilliant stars, touching Venus, then descending slowly, dizzily, in a spiral, the souls are fused - the Latin beat returns - kiss and expand, the world and universe you command.

All this time, though, Joey was leading a dual life. The Gallos had carved out a portion of southern Brooklyn called Red Hook for themselves, as their own Mafia princedom. They were benevolent rulers, for the most part. They built a gazebo and swimming pool for Red Hook's children. Joey would hand out cash on the streets to old ladies and children. A child who opened the door of his Cadillac could expect some folding money in his palm. But Joey demanded respect. According to one anecdote, Joey took his gang's pet lion, Cleo4, to a nightclub on a leather leash. When one patron frantically asked how he could get away with such behaviour, the head waiter replied, 'Because that guy is Crazy Joe Gallo. I'd rather wrassle the lion than mess with Crazy Joe.'

If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.
- Machiavelli, 'The Prince'

Joey Gallo might perhaps have been called an enlightened despot, except that his love of philosophy and the arts which he expressed in Greenwich Village seemingly had no impact on his behaviour in Red Hook. His brothers decided that the Profaci family (the criminal 'family' organisation which they had been working under their whole lives) had been disrespectful towards them, and they decided to rebel against the established order with their own crew. The Gallos were about 25 strong. Their intent was to install Larry (who was the eldest brother) as the new head of the Profaci Family. Of course, the Profacis had them outnumbered ten to one in manpower, so once the violence started brewing, the Gallos were forced to hide out in a tenement in Red Hook, eager to negotiate terms with Don Profaci.

War cannot be avoided; it can only be postponed to the other's advantage.
- Machiavelli, 'The Prince'

However, the Profacis turned one of the Gallos' closest men against them. This man, called Junior, lured Larry into a nightclub where a man strangled him with a line of rope. Larry's life was spared, however, when a police officer walked in on the scene. Larry walked away with his life, but for the rest of it, he carried a dark purple line around his neck where the rope had dug in. After that, the Gallos laid mattresses down in their headquarters and began a full-scale guerilla war (this was well before The Godfather popularised the phrase 'going to the mattresses' as a metaphor for mob warfare). Their families were sent away from the city and residents of Red Hook were told to stay off the streets.

Larry remained resistant to all-out war, despite the protests of Joey (who was the angry, Sonny Corleone type). The Gallo headquarters on President Street remained under siege, and quiet except for the occasional raid by police (who frequently arrested the men inside... Joey once claimed that he had been arrested for consorting with criminals - his own family, in his home). The police arrested the various hoods literally hundreds of times for small offences, intending to prevent a bloodbath. They couldn't prevent the violence completely, however. The Gallos saw many of their best men murdered. They once had a whacked friend's clothes returned with dead fish inside - years before Luca Brasi slept with the fishes.

No Exit

...my only thoughts were those of a prisoner. I waited for the daily walk, which I took in the courtyard, or for a visit from my lawyer. The rest of the time I managed pretty well. At the time, I often thought that if I had had to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but look up at the sky flowering overhead, little by little I would have got used to it.
- From 'The Stranger', by Albert Camus

31 January, 1962 was one of the dull days of the Gallo siege. It was cold in the Gallo headquarters, because they had run out of money to pay the heating bills. They had been eating the same spaghetti for months, and they slept on the same sheets. The Gallo-Profaci War had not been going well. The Gallos, a small scrappy bunch to start with, were being whittled down by desertions and killings. Police surveillance prohibited them from engaging in their usual activities to finance their organisation - stealing, extortion, racketeering, contract killing. But this January day was very different. One of their number noticed some smoke emanating from the Gatto house down the street from the headquarters. Larry shouted, 'Come on!' and the gang followed through the road and into the burning building. They scaled the smoke-soaked stairway and reached the children's rooms to find a mattress on fire. One hood named Punchy had to put out a fire in the hair of a five-year-old child. The Mafia men herded all of the six Gatto children onto the street, where their mother (who had just gone to the grocery store for some milk) was understandably emotional and grateful. The gang tossed the mattress into the street, and Kid Blast directed them all to empty their pockets for the family.

Their unlikely good-samaritanism earned them headlines in newspapers across the country. People sent the Gallos food, encouraging words, advice and even a television set. They were, for a brief moment, national heroes. Kid Blast sadly commented, 'If Joey was here, he would've been the first one up to the fire.'

So where was Joey Gallo during the Gatto fire? He'd been locked up in a prison in Attica, New York for shaking down a nobody who had tipped the police off. But even though he was in prison, he was putting out fires just like his brothers. Not a very popular inmate, Joey had to react quickly when a white supremacist whom he had offended tossed a burning cross into his cell one day5. Never one to embrace the establishment, Joey had refused to join any of the prison's gangs, and had annoyed most of them by associating and speaking with whomever he damned well pleased. He was especially well accepted by the prison's black population, for whom he financed a gambling ring.

His existence, however, was largely a solitary one. Fearing an assassination from the Profaci Family, he sometimes asked to be locked up alone in his cell. But he was never bored. He learned to speed-read and was soon burning through six to eight books every day... not the breezy light fiction of romance novels or crime mysteries. He occupied himself with Kant, Schopenhauer, Voltaire, Nietzsche, Spinoza, Wilde, Lenin, Mao, Sun-Tzu and Hood... the Beats, the existentialists, the ancients, the communists, Enlightenment philosophers, and the eastern ones too. He prepared for his eventual conviction appeal by devouring legal books and journals6.

He took up painting, and would take out his oils during recreation time in the Attica prison yard. Other inmates would stand behind, offering their expert opinions on his work's progress. He debated philosophy with a black Muslim nationalist inmate named Nicky. He wrote long love poems to his wife Jeffie. He even began to write about philosophy and politics. In many ways, prison was Joey's intellectual haven; he had nothing but time to think. But it wasn't all oil landscapes and Aristotle; he was also deeply disturbed in prison. The cornerstone of his conviction appeal was the contention that he was insane - a conclusion which at least one psychologist agreed with. He was stressed, paranoid and nervous most of the time. Sometimes, having no other outlet for these feelings, he clutched the pillow on his bunk into his mouth and let out a deep scream.

yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts
and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks
and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars

- Allen Ginsberg, 'Howl'

After he'd finally convinced the prison establishment that he was crazy, having spent more years in Attica than he would care to recall, they granted him a transfer away from the prison and the many enemies who were seen as exacerbating his mental condition. He was sent to Green Haven Correctional Facility, which was much closer to his friends and family in the city. One day at Green Haven, Joey got a chance to showcase the same bravery his gang had exhibited back in Red Hook with the burning Gatto house. When a riot broke out, Joey stood before the crowd and demanded that they stop the violence and go back to their cells. The crowd's reaction was not favourable, but Joey had enough friends that he managed to walk away from the mob unscathed, taking a hostage prison guard with him.

The establishment men were pleased enough with his actions that they cut his sentence down significantly, and in a few more months prisoner #62167 walked out a free man, aged ten hard years in the clink. He was fresh with ideas about philosophy, as well as a plan to start a dope-running operation in Harlem with some of the people he had met in jail. However, upon his return to Brooklyn, Joey found his criminal organisation in shambles. Don Profaci had died - not by a Gallo bullet, but of liver cancer - and the Gallos had failed to consolidate their power or take over the Profaci Family. A new Gallo-Profaci war threatened to break out at any moment, but Larry was also dead of cancer and the entire gang was constantly in and out of prison themselves. They were all getting old. Lenny Bruce, who had roamed the Village in Joey's day, had once said that there was nothing sadder than an ageing hipster. The same might go doubly for ageing gangsters. But Joey defied that description. He was anything but sad - he was reborn in the fresh light of freedom.

He had missed the 1960s almost entirely; though when it came to that decade's music, he was grateful for his absence. It was all crap - the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, the Beatles and that guy who'd been knocking around the Village in his day... Robert Zimmerman. Sinatra and Nat King Cole were his kind of music.

The Importance of Being Earnest

It was true that in his later years he would not carry a gun
'I'm around too many children,' he'd say, 'they should never know of one.'
Yet he walked right into the clubhouse of his lifelong deadly foe,
Emptied out the register, said, 'Tell 'em it was Crazy Joe.'

One day they blew him down in a clam bar in New York
He could see it comin' through the door as he lifted up his fork.
He pushed the table over to protect his family
Then he staggered out into the streets of Little Italy.

- From 'Joey' by Bob Dylan

Joey was swept up in the revolutionary, anti-establishment ethos of the time. If there was one consistent thread in Joey's life, it was that he never bowed to anyone's authority but his own. Whether he was challenging the Profaci Family for control of southern Brooklyn, challenging a prison hierarchy or challenging the conformist ideas of the world around him with existentialist philosophy, Joey was a born revolutionary.

A farcical gangster film based loosely on Joey's life had been produced while he was in prison. It was released the year he got out. Someone had decided to call it 'The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight' - unfair, the Gallos were above-average marksmen. The movie's main character, Kid Sally, was essentially a bumbling fool. That was the role supposedly inspired by Joey Gallo.

'Kid Sally' had been played by an actor named Jerry Orbach. Once Joey got out of prison, Orbach decided that he should meet the gangster in order to decide if his depiction had been accurate. Once he met Joey, Orbach was immediately remorseful. Gallo was anything but a fool. Five minutes with the guy and you had to be impressed with his intelligence and style. In fact, Orbach was so impressed that he introduced Joey to his wife and they began to take Gallo to all the best parties in New York City. Within a few months of his release from prison, Joey became a fixture in New York society. One socialite explained, 'Everyone talked about it. It was the thing to do. You'd go somewhere, and people would say, "Have you met Joey Gallo?" and it was like Stravinsky and Yevtushenko. If you hadn't met him, you weren't in.'

The other New York mobsters gave Joey a wide berth for the most part. Rumours persisted about his time in prison - some claimed that Joey had recruited a 200-man army with whites, Puerto Ricans and blacks alongside one another (a frightening prospect for the all-Italian Mafia, who had held a near monopoly on crime in the city for decades). But Joey showed no sign that he had such grandiose criminal plans. In fact, it seemed more like he was heading for a legitimate lifestyle. He told friends that he was thinking of writing a satirical play set in a prison. Having fallen out with his wife Jeffie, he met and married a new woman he had met in a dentist's office named Sina. Viking Press gave him a book deal to write his memoirs.

Perhaps the best part is that he was still a relatively young man. Only three weeks after his wedding to Sina, he went out on the town to celebrate his 43rd birthday. He watched Don Rickles at the Copacabana, mocking and ridiculing the audience, drank and ate merrily with his friends and family and then ended up in Little Italy for a bite to eat at about 5:00 in the morning.

That's about where we came in. Umberto's Clam House. Bang. Rushing for the door. Bang, bang. No exit. The end of Crazy Joe Gallo.

He was only a year out of prison, bright and full of ideas. No one knows for sure who ordered the hit, or, indeed, who the shooters were. Some say that the Mafia had him whacked because they were afraid of his memoirs. Indeed, some stories are best left untold. But Joey Gallo's own story is one that many people wish we could have read.

1'Behold the man: how one becomes what one is.'2Both Robert Kennedy and his brother John would be assassinated later. The commission formed to study the assassination of President John Kennedy discounted the idea of Mafia involvement in the killing. Part of their reasoning was that the criminal underworld was too distracted by Joey Gallo's troublemaking at the time to be involved in the affair.3Joey had offered his support to the Kennedys the day of his hearing. Robert had arrogantly responded, 'The second biggest favour you could do me is to keep your preference quiet, and the biggest favour would be to announce for my brother's opponent.' Joey had laughed.4Apparently Joey kept the lion in the basement of his gang's headquarters. He used the beast to intimidate people who owed him money. The Gallo headquarters could resemble a circus. They kept a little person they called 'Mondo the Midget' around for kicks.5Joey later evened the score by biting the Klansman's ear off.6His appeal was only turned down at the highest level - by the US Supreme Court.

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