The Magazine

Gangsters, Then and Now

Lunching with the Sopranos of yesteryear.

Oct 7, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 04 • By ARNOLD BEICHMAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

BACK IN THE EARLY 1950s I would occasionally lunch in New York with Jay Lovestone, the onetime secretary of the American Communist party. Joseph Stalin had ousted him in the 1930s, and Lovestone had subsequently become an anti-Communist strategist with an office at the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in midtown Broadway. He was very much clued into Washington intrigues and gossip, and in time, while still working for the AFL-CIO, he went to work for the CIA counterintelligence chief, James Angleton. Whenever we lunched (always at noon), Jay took me to his favorite Italian restaurant--up one flight of stairs on West 55th Street, nothing visible from the sidewalk except the restaurant sign. Its cooking was the best, he said, and it was patronized almost daily by the top guns of the Mafia, from Joe Adonis, the capo di tutti capissimi, down to lesser capos. With such a clientele you could be sure that the osso bucco would be top grade and the pasta truly al dente. Superb olives, stuffed artichokes, and Italian bread. Adonis's table was towards the back of the small, very unfashionable dining room. Anyone who stumbled into this place for lunch was seated by the front windows far from the Adonis table. Because the padrone knew Jay as a regular we were seated halfway up and diagonally across from the Adonis table. I tried not to look too often at where the mobsters sat: Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia, Johnny Dio, and others. One reason for the daily lunch was that it avoided using tapped phone lines. Towards the end of the meal two big, hulking types sitting at a nearby table would get up and everybody knew it was time to go. "They're Adonis's bodyguards," Jay whispered. "Let them go first.

You can never tell about what might happen on the way out if we leave now." During the meal I would look on, marveling that one of the major mobsters in America and four or five gunsels were sitting a few yards from my table, eating the same veal parmigiana as I was. I couldn't hear what they were saying, and they never seemed to be concerned about our proximity. It all seemed so normal, so bourgeois. Adonis and the others seemed so ordinary. No flashy suits, no flashy ties. And when a stray diner and a companion dropped into the half-empty restaurant he was politely received by the padrone. (By one o'clock the place would become pretty full, and I supposed that Adonis and company didn't like to dine with a lot of strangers. On a few occasions when I went for dinner, I was received politely but the table in the rear was never occupied. A sort of dedicated place.) I was reminded of all this as I read all the ballyhoo about "The Sopranos"'s new season. The character Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini, and the characters played by Tony Sirico and Federico Castelluccio look just like the occupants of the Adonis table. The successors to Joe Adonis (as an illegal immigrant and jailbird, he was deported during the Eisenhower era to Milan, where he died of natural causes) are now portrayed for us on television, with all their domestic troubles. I can't say I'm enjoying Tony's sessions with his shrink, Dr. Jennifer Melfi. Can you picture Frank Costello yakking away about erectile dysfunction? Back when Hollywood made movies about gangsters starring people like James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and George Raft, the nearest we got to their private lives was Cagney's squashing half a grapefruit at breakfast into Mae Clarke's stricken face in "The Public Enemy." The difference between the gangster movies of yesterday and today's "Sopranos" is that we wouldn't have wasted sympathy on Robinson as he tried to bully Humphrey Bogart in "Key Largo," but now we listen with fascination as Tony tells Dr. Melfi all. And yet, there is nothing like Robinson's last words in "Little Caesar": "Mother of Mercy! Is this the end of Rico?" In fact, why don't the Feds get some RICO indictments of Tony and his mob? "The Sopranos" script reminds me of a bunch of Tyco-type business executives phonying up the books. Tony and his Mafiosi could be operating a giant corporation--except that we never get a look at what they really do with their surplus funds. And except that Tony Soprano and his henchmen are killers, of course, who should all be in jail. Arnold Beichman is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.