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May 26, 2009

The Self-Righteous Mobster

Brooklyn gangster Joe Gallo was once the toast of NY society.

Benjamin Samuel

The public has always loved its Hollywood-concocted bad boys, but Crazy Joe Gallo stole hearts and headlines as the bad boy gone Hollywood. Growing up in 1940s Brooklyn—Red Hook, to be exact—Gallo was inspired by B-movie gangsters such as Richard Widmark, star of the seminal film noir Kiss of Death, though years later he would exert his own influence well beyond the local shops strong-armed by him and his brothers. So embedded within the consciousness of the Manhattan intelligentsia was "Joey," he even earned an eponymous Bob Dylan ballad-eulogy of his own.

At the height of his fame, Gallo's photo of himself and his gang posing outside their Brooklyn hideout could be seen hanging in the post office or in the pages of Life Magazine. So writes Tom Folsom in The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld, a portrait of an atypical criminal. Curious and possibly eccentric as Crazy Joe was, his era was a familiar one, an epoch when it "wasn't paranoid to be paranoid," a time when Hollywood sat firmly alongside the Mafia, when the glitz coexisted with the grit.

Tom Folsom. Photo by Mark Seliger
Crazy Joe paralleled the decade, as the "cool" revolution of the Beats turned hot with militants like the Weathermen.

Tom Folsom. Photo by Mark Seliger

Media darling, prison scholar, poet, painter, mafia insurrectionist; such were the varied and romantic roles played by Crazy Joe, right through his death in 1972, as he sat in Little Italy downing a plate of pasta. (The murder was eventually reenacted in a little mafia flick called The Godfather). In The Mad Ones, which itself was recently optioned for a movie, Folsom reveals the many sides of the legendary Gallo, an enigma who intimidated deadbeats with his pet lion and frustrated Bobby Kennedy by pleading the fifth, and whose jukebox racket allowed him to exercise a "monopoly on teen rebellion." Folsom lives in New York City, and is also the author of Mr Untouchable, a biography of, and written with, Harlem druglord and Gallo associate Nicky Barnes.

In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Folsom tells Gelf why he chose to write about a gangster 35+ years dead, how Gallo may have been just as much John Stuart Mill as John Gotti, and what the Gallo brothers' would make of their beloved Red Hook were they alive today.

Gelf Magazine: Why Crazy Joe Gallo? Why did you need to tell his story?

Tom Folsom: Crazy Joe was an icon in his time. Dylan fans know him from the ballad "Joey" on Desire; tourists know him as the guy who got whacked outside Umberto's Clam House. Few know his full story and the extent to which his bloody mob revolt was central to the dramatizations of The Godfather. "Going to the mattresses" wasn't a time-honored Sicilian tradition, but a scheme original to the Gallo brothers.
In The Mad Ones, I set out to capture a spirit I felt traditional "mob books" overlooked. In the turbulent '60s, as America was undergoing a revolution, Crazy Joe waged a revolution against the Mafia establishment.

Gelf Magazine: What was it like to research Gallo?

Tom Folsom: Exhaustive. Joey yearned to be more than a common hood. I took on his extensive prison reading list, which could be the syllabus of a great books seminar—Camus and Sartre to Plato and Sun Tzu. Like an actor playing Crazy Joe, I wanted to know what turned Joey on, to go a little nuts and experience the madness of the '60s. Joey wasn't so crazy in the context of the decade.

"Joey," by Bob Dylan

Gelf Magazine: As a boy, Gallo was inspired by the style of Hollywood's gangsters. What would he think about how he's been represented in art? And what would he think of your book?

Tom Folsom: The Gallo brothers, Joey, Larry and Kid Blast, modeled themselves on B-gangsters and played out their wildest noir fantasies like Godard's anti-heroes. Joey relished playing a role akin to Richard Widmark's giggling psychopath in the noir classic Kiss of Death. In mug shots, Joey looks like a young Robert De Niro playing Johnny Boy in Mean Streets. One FBI agent told me Joey was a dead ringer for the Riddler in the original Batman television series, the favorite show of the Gallo gang.
Would Crazy Joe like The Mad Ones? He'd certainly appreciate the A-list talent in the film version. He became friends with Jerry Orbach, who played a character based on Joey in The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. I think he'd approve of Leonardo DiCaprio playing Joe the Blonde, Joey's original nickname, with Martin Scorsese directing, of course.

Gelf Magazine: Your title comes from On the Road. Why did you make this connection?

Tom Folsom: There's a revolutionary spirit in the air, a continuation of the legacy of the '60s, witnessed in Village folksinger Pete Seeger's performance at Obama's inaugural celebration. Joey twisted that spirit to meet his own criminal ends.
Like the Beats, Joey moved to Greenwich Village to escape the shackles of the establishment. He immersed himself in the counterculture. Turned on to revolution, Joey rallied his brothers to overthrow the Mafia in a violent, bloody coup waged on the mean streets of New York. Crazy Joe paralleled the decade, as the "cool" revolution of the Beats turned hot with militants like the Weathermen.

Gelf Magazine: What was Gallo's relationship with the media like?

Tom Folsom: Joey loved being in the newspapers. He'd call reporters when they forgot to print his nickname. Smart gangsters stay out of the limelight; Joey craved fame like John Gotti. Joey made regular headlines in the New York Post and Daily News. Sharply dressed in black suits and skinny black ties, he cultivated gangster chic. (Agnès b. dressed Harvey Keitel accordingly in Reservoir Dogs.) The Gallo brothers even invited Life magazine to their Red Hook headquarters to do a photo spread.

Gelf Magazine: Was he, as a gangster, ever truly accepted or was he more of a spectacle?

Tom Folsom: In the weeks before Joey's death, when The Godfather was released in theaters, everybody who was anybody wanted to meet a real-life gangster. Joey became a sought-after second act to "radical chic," how Tom Wolfe described Leonard Bernstein's fundraiser for the Black Panthers. Joey argued existential philosophy while hobnobbing with literary giants, socialites, and celebrities like his good pal Jerry Orbach at Elaine's on the Upper East Side. As evident by his Hollywood ending, gunned down at a clam house, the party couldn't last forever.

Gelf Magazine: Essentially he wasn't the typical career criminal. Did he have another calling? Why did he become a criminal?

Tom Folsom: Crazy Joe said, "If I'd had been born at the right time and place, they'd have put my statue up in the streets." Joey saw himself among history's great revolutionaries, Fidel Castro and Garibaldi, whose statue looks over Washington Square Park.

Gelf Magazine: You recently ran a Joe Gallo tour in Brooklyn, where you visited what was once the site of the Gallo's hideout. Are there traces of the Gallos left? What was Joe Gallo's legacy?

Tom Folsom: The entire block of President Street between Van Brunt and Columbia was where the Gallo brothers went to the mattresses. All the old buildings have been razed, as if city planners wanted to eliminate the block's notorious past. That said, tourists to Little Italy stop by Umberto's Clam House (since moved up the block) and ask to see the bullet holes from the infamous shooting. With American Apparel only a few blocks away, perhaps they're nostalgic for Joey's gritty world.

Gelf Magazine: What would Gallo think about the gentrification of Brooklyn, the hipsters that occupy Williamsburg, the IKEA in Red Hook?

Tom Folsom: I'm not [sure] what Joey would make of the hipsters who invaded his turf of Red Hook. Maybe he and his brothers would've gone to the mattresses and waged guerrilla war against the IKEA store inching in on Gallo territory.

Benjamin Samuel

Benjamin Samuel doesn't live in Brooklyn.







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Article by Benjamin Samuel

Benjamin Samuel doesn't live in Brooklyn.

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