- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 13, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

BOOK REVIEW:

THE MAD ONES: CRAZY JOE GALLO AND THE REVOLUTION AT THE EDGE OF THE UNDERWORLD

By Tom Folsom

Weinstein Books, 24.95, 244 pages

Reviewed by John Weisman



Joey Gallo was a minor player in New York’s crime scene. He never had the power of the Gambinos, the clout of the Profacis or the juice of the Colombos. A pint-size, blue-eyed, blond-haired hood who looked best in blue suits, dark glasses and a pinky ring, Joey patterned himself after Tommy Udo, the nutsy movie anti-hero killer of “Kiss of Death,” played by Richard Widmark.

He was known as Crazy Joe. Because he kept a lion in his basement? Maybe. Because he could go nutsy on you? Maybe. Maybe also because he had spent time in psycho wards.

According to “The Mad Ones,” Tom Folsom’s mondo-weirdo, cinematically written book about Joey Gallo and his crowd, on one trip to the Kings County psycho ward, a psychiatrist administering a Rorschach test asked what Joey thought the ink blotch on the sheet of paper looked like. Joey said: “It looks like somebody spilled ink on it and folded it over.”

However, according to Joey himself (as channeled through Mr. Folsom) he was given the name Crazy Joe by the Kennedys because he showed up “Bobby Fitz-K” when Robert F. Kennedy was chief counsel of the Senate’s McClellan Crime Committee .

Crazy Joe even would compare the Gallo brothers to the Kennedy brothers. “Plenty of people have said to 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 could have gotten to be president.’ And you know what I always say to them? ‘… I couldn’t be that crooked.’ ”

Oh, yeah, Crazy Joe knew how to attract attention. According to Mr. Folsom’s account, by age 22 he had been profiled by Pete Hamill in the New York Post as a “young hoodlum of the old school.”

He loved playing for the TV cameras. “How can I be afraid when my bodyguard is with me,” he straight-faced local New York NBC TV legend Gabe Pressman. “The camera panned down to Mondo the Midget, official mascot of the Gallo gang,” Mr. Folsom writes.

Joey and his brothers Larry and Kid Blast even appeared in Life magazine “looking like gangsters were supposed to look in cheap black suits and skinny black ties.”

Al Seedman, the burly, well-dressed chief of detectives of the New York Police Department, said of Joey Gallo: “He should have been in show business.” In a way, he was. A Joey Gallo character was the protagonist of Jimmy Breslin’s novel (and the subsequent movie) “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.” And Joey Gallo certainly was the only wiseguy who was ever the hero of a Bob Dylan song (“Joey”).

He was, according to Mr. Folsom’s account, a walking contradiction. He could beat up people for fun. He enjoyed violence. But as a prisoner at New York’s infamous Attica prison, he also “matched wits with Wilde, brooded with Schopenhauer, reasoned with Kant, and was enlightened by Voltaire. He filled his [spiral-bound] Nifty-Steno [notebook] with quotes from Nietzsche. … He quoted Spinoza … He devoured books in a heated love affair. ‘The passion of the intellect,’ penciled Joey, ‘which can be as carnal and ecstatic as the rapture of the flesh.’ ”

Joey ran a gang he called the Mod Squad. It was peopled by guys with names like Joe Jelly Gioelli, Peanuts, Punchy, Joey T, Vinnie the Sicilian, Sammy the Syrian and Big Lollypop and Little Lollypop. But Joey’s Mod Squad received no respect. The men were used as muscle. When the Profacis needed someone to disappear, it was likely that the Gallos would get the call.

Joey and his family were never allowed to partake of any top-level activity. Joey was known as Brooklyn’s jukebox king. But jukeboxes produced nickels and dimes. The real money was in loan sharking, in skimming union dues and retirement funds, in featherbedding construction-company and garbage-hauling contracts. In protection. And drugs. Of those lucrative endeavors, the Gallos got virtually nothing.

And so, “in March 1960, the Gallo brothers, their top gun Joe Jelly, and Junior Persico sat at Piers, a south Brooklyn bar and grill. Like many revolutions, theirs fermented over a few drinks. The boys were mob stars … but all were stuck at the bottom rung of the Profaci Family. … The quintet took the risks …. The Don took the money. … The quintet plotted a coup against Profaci.”

The attempt failed, and Joey and his family received an unprecedented message, one that had been approved by Carlo Gambino, New York’s most powerful crime boss at the time. “If the Gallos,” it went, “commit acts of violence, the Profaci group will immediately retaliate not only against the Gallos and their men, but against their wives and children.” Joey would spend the rest of his gangster life as an also-ran.

Ultimately, Joey’s biggest splash was the one he made in the early hours of April 7, 1972, when, having just finished a second helping of scungilli salad, he was gunned down on his birthday and in front of his wife at Umberto’s Clam House on the corner of Hester and Mulberry streets in Manhattan’s Little Italy.

The hit probably was staged by the Gambino crime family - revenge for Joey’s purported complicity in the murder of Joe Colombo, whose organization operated out of Cantalupo Realty on Bensonhurst’s 86th Street (just a few doors away, I should note, from one of Brooklyn’s finest Italian bakeries, Mona Lisa Pastry at 1476 86th Street).

Mr. Folsom does an admirable job of re-creating the New York of the 1960s and 1970s. If there is anything disconcerting about his book, it is the way he jumps back and forth chronologically without time-stamping the material. As a documentarian for A&E and Showtime, Mr. Folsom should know about time stamps. One wishes he had employed them here to help the reader put his colorful material in context.

John Weisman’s most recent novels, “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action” are available at Avon paperbacks.

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