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Book Review

The renegade behind ‘gangster chic’

By James Sullivan
September 25, 2009

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The names alone constitute a writer’s funhouse - Punchy, Tarzan, Louie Cadillac, Peanuts, Vinnie the Sicilian, the Worm, Big Lollypop, and Little Lollypop. It’s no wonder Crazy Joe Gallo and his breakaway mob clan made for “the best tabloid copy since the bad days of Prohibition,’’ writes the author of this fresh take on the criminal underworld of New York at midcentury.

Joe, the charismatic one of the three Gallo brothers from Red Hook, Brooklyn, may have been behind the barbershop slaying of Albert Anastasia, the brutal “Lord High Executioner’’ of Murder, Inc. Author Tom Folsom doesn’t claim to know the answer. In retelling the gaudy saga of Crazy Joe and the havoc he created within New York’s crime syndicate, he’s more cinematographer than investigative reporter.

“The crime scene photo looked like a Weegee,’’ he writes. “A patch of sunlight hit the tiled floor, a mix of blood, hair, and bay rum aftershave.’’

“The Mad Ones’’ is less a comprehensive chronicle than a series of set pieces, which works in the book’s favor and also against it. Folsom knows he has a can’t-miss subject in the renegade Gallo. Crazy Joe fashioned himself after sinister Richard Widmark in “Kiss of Death,’’ talked existentialism with the beatniks in the Village, and became a cause celebre among actors and socialites after serving a long prison sentence.

The Gallo brothers - Joe, Larry, and Albert, better known as Kid Blast - came to prominence in the 1950s when New York, and the world, were changing rapidly. They were different from the old-timers like Anastasia. Joe, in particular, was a dreamer, a guy who burned to be a writer.

Joe integrated the insular world of organized crime, enlisting Ali Baba, the “Egyptian knife-thrower,’’ Sammy the Syrian, and Louie the Syrian. While doing time, he formed an alliance with the Harlem kingpin Nicky Barnes. Unlike the typical tight-lipped mobster, Gallo cultivated his own celebrity. After befriending actor Jerry Orbach, who played a fictionalized version of Crazy Joe in the awful film version of Jimmy Breslin’s “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,’’ Joe became identified with “gangster chic,’’ which swept portions of New York society.

“You’d go somewhere, and people would say, ‘Have you met Joey Gallo?’ ’’ said one socialite. “It was like Stravinsky and Yevtushenko. If you hadn’t met him, you weren’t in.’’

The various episodes of gangland violence in “The Mad Ones’’ will seem immediately familiar to fans of “The Godfather,’’ “The Sopranos,’’ and the rest of the Mafioso canon - the failed garroting, the fatal fishing excursion.

“Always on the outside of whatever side there was,’’ sang Bob Dylan in his 11-minute epic, “Joey,’’ co-written with a director friend of Gallo’s. The book opens with Crazy Joe’s body resting comfortably “in tufted velvet eggshell.’’ Even if you don’t know the story, it’s not giving anything away to say that Joe gets it in the end.

Not long before that happens, Gallo gets married by the same priest who presided over Lenny Bruce’s memorial service and conducted Tiny Tim’s wedding on “The Tonight Show.’’ Weeks later, Joe meets his maker at Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy. Just hours before, he’d been kidding around with Don Rickles at the Copa.

Boldface names are sprayed throughout “The Mad Ones’’ like buckshot. For readers who aren’t squeamish, that’s at least half the fun.

James Sullivan is the author of “The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America.’’

THE MAD ONES: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld By Tom Folsom

Weinstein, 244 pp., illustrated, $24.95

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