Creator Digs Into Household’s ‘Smalltime’ Mob Operation, Finds Household Secrets and techniques : NPR
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. When we think of organized crime, we usually picture “The Godfather” or “Goodfellas” and New York tabloid murder stories. Our guest, writer Russell Shorto, says there were also mob families in countless smaller cities across the United States, where the picture was a little different. He knows in part because he grew up in Johnstown, Pa., and his grandfather was a mob boss there when Johnstown was a bustling post-war industrial city. Shorto has a new memoir about his grandfather’s colorful life running a criminal enterprise and running around on his wife, creating family havoc which would stretch across more than one generation. It’s a well-researched and richly told story, from Shorto’s immigrant ancestors overcoming discrimination and grinding poverty to his own father making some tough choices about how he would fit into his father’s life outside the law.
Shorto is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and author of several books of narrative history, including one about the origins of New York, “The Island At The Center Of The World.” His new book is “Smalltime: A Story Of My Family And The Mob.” He joins me from his home in Cumberland, Md. Well, Russell Shorto, welcome to FRESH AIR.
RUSSELL SHORTO: Thank you, Dave. I’m happy to be with you.
DAVIES: You grew up in Johnstown, Pa., which today has a population just under 20,000 people. Tell us a little bit about the place.
SHORTO: It was a classic boomtown on the East Coast. It’s now a Rust Belt town. It was booming with the steel mills mostly. Bethlehem Steel was still going pretty strong when I was growing up. At its height, the population was, I think, 66,000, and as you said, it’s now like 19,000. So it’s really – in the following so many towns, it’s a shadow of what it once was, but it’s still a lovely place to – and I always say it’s a lovely place to be from.
DAVIES: Right. You mentioned an East Coast town. It’s really in western Pennsylvania, closer to Pittsburgh than Philly, kind of amid some of the hills there. Now, when you were growing up, your father was not in organized crime like your grandfather. Before you embarked on this project, how much did you know about your grandfather’s life and business?
SHORTO: You know, I assume every family has its secrets, the things that people don’t talk about. And yet kids somehow kind of absorb some things, some information about it anyway. So I knew that he was involved in that stuff, and I didn’t know what it was. I wouldn’t go so far as to say there was a veil of silence, an official thing about – on the topic. But we kind of knew. I was an obedient son, and I kind of knew about it but also knew you didn’t talk about it. So, you know, it was that kind of story. And it was – that veil was thick enough, I guess you’d say, that I – even though I write narrative history, it never occurred to me to sort of turn around and look at my own past as a potential subject.
DAVIES: You know, I’ll tell you, I read a lot of books for this job, and this one was just such a pleasure. And it is a rich history, kind of under your nose all this time. What prompted you to finally look into it?
SHORTO: Well, in a nutshell, a guy named Frank. All of the people in the family who stayed in town, I think, pretty much internalized this we don’t go there. We’re not going to talk about that. But Frank Filia, who is – so it’s my father’s father who we’re talking about, who was kind of this small-time mob guy. But Frank was my mother’s cousin. And all the Italians in town, I think, or a lot of them were connected in some way. And Frank had worked for my grandfather. He was a numbers runner. And he worked in a pool hall until he was around 20. And he was a musician. And then at that time, he left, went to Las Vegas and spent his whole career there. He plays stand – he still does – he plays stand-up bass. And he sings, you know, like “Fly Me To The Moon” and all that. And he then had retired. And he came back home. This was a few years ago. And I was home, visiting over Christmas. And somebody said, hey, you know, Frank’s in town, and he’s playing at a club. You want to go see? And I said, Who’s Frank? And they said, Frank Filia, your mother’s cousin.
So we all go down to this little club. And there was a break between sets. And we’re all kind of standing around in a circle. And he looks across at me, and he kind of wags his finger. And he says, Russell, you know, you’re – I’ve been wanting to talk to you. You’re the writer. What are we going to do about the story? And I said, what story? And he said, your grandfather, the mob. And all the others – I could feel everyone else kind of cringing a little bit because, you know, they had this reflex like we don’t go there, but for him, these were golden memories. And I, as the sort of dutiful son, said at the time, well, yeah, I’m not going to – I don’t – you know, I write about the distant past. I’m not going to go there. But, you know, he kind of pestered me a little bit, and it stayed in my mind. And eventually – I was living in Europe at the time – and eventually I said, Frank, you know what? I’m going to come home. And I’ll spend a week just seeing, looking into this.
DAVIES: So your grandfather was the No. 2 guy in this organization which ran, you know, the mob in Johnstown, Pa. Give us a sense of what they did, where they hung out, how they made their money.
SHORTO: Yeah. They – he and his brother-in-law ran the operation together, and it was essentially gambling. And these are the days before television or before television was big. And everyone in town who I interviewed over a certain age knew all about them. They all participated. Everybody played the numbers. And it was quite in the open.
The center of their operation was a place called City Cigar on Main Street. It was two doors from city hall. And they had – in the front, you walked in, and on the left was a little counter selling cigars and newspapers. And on the right was the lunch counter, where a guy named Nino Bongiovanni (ph) would make sandwiches for you. And there was a door behind that. You walked through the door, and there was a long, narrow room with 10 pool tables and one billiards table and a counter. And the counter had a ticker tape machine on it that spat out sports scores. And this was their home base.
And from here, they had – they operated another pool hall further down the street that was for the mill workers. It was kind of a blue-collar hangout. But here, this was for more of the elite, you know. The lawyers and the mayor would come by. And so this was the center of the operation. And upstairs, they had an office. And from there, that’s where all the bookies would report and bring their earnings. They had – the center of their business was a numbers game that they called the GI bank. And everybody in town played it. And they had something like a hundred people in their employ, most of them just sort of on the side, but some full-time bookies. And they would – that was the center of their operation.
They also ran big-time card games for the big wigs in town. And they sold something called tip seals, which were kind of like a lottery ticket. And that was an extremely popular game. And they had pinball machines. And pinball was actually a form of gambling. And people – the way it worked was you would have a pinball machine in your bar or your lunch counter or cafe or whatever it was or in the lobby of a hotel. And you would win so many free games. And then you’d go up to the bartender, and they would pay you for those free games and then reset the machine. So they had many different ways to entertain you and to take your money.
DAVIES: All right. So we’ve got all these gambling operations, numbers runners all over the town in kind of the Johnstown and outlying towns. And they’re all getting a take. It’s right out in the open. Their headquarters is in the shadow of city hall. They paid off – what? – politicians. I mean, you know, Johnstown had a police – a mayor and a police chief, and there was a county prosecutor. They all got a little cut?
SHORTO: Yeah, they paid people off. And as I say, it was out in the open. And periodically, there was – they would have to raid for form’s sake. And so they would give them a call and let them know, OK, we’re going to send a guy down to raid. And so the idea was you would leave somebody behind. Everybody would clear out, and you’d take most of your slips, your betting slips. But you’d leave one guy behind, usually an older guy who – kind of down on his luck and didn’t have anything to lose by going and hanging out in jail for a day or two. And he would be there to take the fall, and then they’d kind of reset and start again. And one – a friend of my dad’s told me the story that he was a young guy, and they said, you know, hey, Bob, why don’t – you want to make a little money? You take the fall. And he told me he was really indignant at this because he looked at himself as having a future and having promise. And he knew that the guy you picked to take the fall is a loser, basically.
SHORTO: So he was really indignant at this. And in fact, he told me the story that he marched right out the back door, and the back door gave out onto another building where the draft office was. So he walked right in there and signed up for the Army. And he said, that’s how I joined the Army.
DAVIES: Wow. Now, this mob operated in Johnstown, but it had connections, right? There was a guy in Pittsburgh that the leader – the Johnstown boss had to report to – right? – and pay homage to, right?
SHORTO: Right. That’s how – it seemed to operate, again, sort of following a corporation. So Johnstown paid off regularly to Pittsburgh. And then Pittsburgh paid off, apparently, regularly to New York. I didn’t follow that connection. But they – and they were – you know, they were all over the country in towns like from Schenectady to Fresno, in places like Amarillo and Butte, Mont., and Anchorage, Alaska. And there were connections. You know, they knew – certainly, they knew the people around them. My grandfather knew all the guys in, like, McKeesport and Altoona and Braddock and Pittsburgh and, you know, all the towns in western Pennsylvania. And to some extent, you were connected with some of the other guys. And people got promoted. The guy who before this time had been boss in Pittsburgh got promoted to San Jose.
SHORTO: So, you know, you – it was – you know, the parallels with corporations kept surprising me.
DAVIES: I wonder if you could describe what place this organization, this gambling enterprise that your grandfather and his partner, his brother-in-law, ran and kind of how it fit into the town.
SHORTO: Well, Frank Filia, my mother’s cousin, who’s the guy who prompted me to do this, described it for me when he was 16 years old, and he wanted so much to work for them. This was in 1952, I think. And they were the energy. They were the action. And so he marched into the Clinton Street poolroom, which was run by a guy who worked for Russ and Joe, and he asked for a job there. And he gave it to him. And that involved working in the poolroom but also running numbers and a variety of other things. And he described for me just walking down the street. He said it might have been the happiest day of his life. And he described walking down the street. And, suddenly, he’s aware of the town as an organism and how all the different pieces fit together. The guys who work in the steel mill. And here’s where they shop. And here’s when they proposed to their girlfriend. Here’s where they buy their wedding ring. And and here’s where they eventually buy their gravestone (laughter) when – you know, when they’re at the other end of life. So he sees this whole organism functioning together and he’s just walking down the street. And what he says to himself is, I’m in the mob.
DAVIES: You know, the picture you paint is a pretty benign picture of this organization that, basically, is providing gambling which. Everybody participates in willingly. You know, it’s entertainment and, you know, nobody goes broke and under. Very few people do. What about the other things that rackets are known for, like, you know, protection rackets, where you come to businesses and say, pay us, or something might happen to you? Or getting into the unions and getting your fingers into their treasuries and pension funds and that kind of thing – did that go on?
SHORTO: Well, you know, one of the differences, I think, between the small town mob and, you know, New York or Chicago is that it was really focused on gambling. They did not – and people told me this over and over. And I guess I have to believe them that they did not get into, for example, prostitution or drugs. And people told me – many people told me that, you know, your grandfather And Joe, his brother-in-law, had this rule – drugs – that’s dirty stuff. We don’t mess with it. So I guess I have to believe them.
Regarding payoffs and things like that, they were very much involved in local politics. They engineered to get a DA into office, who they liked. And they were involved in unions. So that sort of thing was part of their world. And another thing that they would do is they would – you know, they had – they used the pinball machines. Like they’d put the pinball machines in a guy’s bar. And then later, if the guy was falling on hard times, they’d come in and say, you know, do you want us to help you out? And they’d make a loan. And then if he couldn’t pay back, eventually, they would take a piece of the business. So they kind of got their fingers into a lot of legitimate businesses in this way.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Russell Shorto. He is a contributing writer to The New York Times magazine. His new memoir is “Smalltime: A Story Of My Family And The Mob.” We’ll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARY GROSZ AND THE COLLECTOR’S ITEMS CATS’ “OPTIMISTIC RHYTHM”)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We’re speaking with Russell Shorto, who’s written several books of narrative history. His latest is a memoir focusing on his own grandfather, who was an organized crime boss in the industrial city of Johnstown, Pa., in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. The book is called “Smalltime: A Story Of My Family And The Mob.”
So your grandfather was the No. 2 guy in this organization that ran all kinds of gambling operations in Johnstown back in the day. They made – you know, there wasn’t a lot of violence. I mean, a murder was a rare thing. There was one in 1960 of this bookie named Pippi DeFalco (ph). That’s one of the stories in the book. But by and large, it was a gambling operation. It did make a lot of money, didn’t it?
SHORTO: Oh, it sure did. Yeah. One insider – I eventually made my way to a guy who was my grandfather’s protege, who was a great source of information. And he said that they made about 2 million a year over about a 20-year period. So a huge amount of money in those days.
DAVIES: There’s a photo in the book of your grandfather, Russell Shorto, who bears your name, and his wife, your grandmother, Mary. It’s in the front of the book. They are dressed to the nines. And they’re at a nightclub in Atlantic City. What kind of lifestyle did this afford your grandfather and, you know, his brother-in-law, the boss, Little Joe, who ran the organization?
SHORTO: Well, on the surface, it was plain, you know? They had this – they had a no-Cadillacs rule. You couldn’t be showy. They didn’t wear tailored suits. But when you got out of town, that was a different story. And so when they were in Atlantic City, where they went – they spent much of the summer every year with the whole family, they would bring a whole entourage of cars down to Atlantic City. And they rented a suite in the swankiest hotel. And they had waiters for everything.
So you know, they really lived it up. And they were often in Florida as well. So they lived it up when they were out of town. And when – and everybody told me that, you know, when you saw Russ, when you saw Joe, you just – you’d nod to them. And, you know, you’d have a little conversation. But, you know, everything was kind of – my grandfather was a very quiet guy. He mumbled (laughter) a lot. He was – some people said he was almost – they thought he was maybe pathologically shy. So he was good at putting up that kind of front.
DAVIES: One of the details I love about the lifestyle is Russell’s, your grandfather’s, wife, Mary, would get some nice clothes and a TV set and other goods, but sort of not in the way you typically get them – right? – by (laughter) going to buy them.
SHORTO: Right. Well, he – so you know, we’re talking about my grandfather as an organizer. But I think, you know, from what people tell me, his real flair was as a cheat. I mean, he was a brilliant cheat at cards. And he would arrange, he would organize big card games. And my dad said he remembered, as a kid, watching him. He would practice for a couple of hours beforehand at the dining room table, you know, dealing from the bottom of the deck and dealing the second card. And so he would get into these big games with the owners of the department stores and the jewelry store. And he would take them to the cleaners.
And they – he would agree to take the winnings in merchandise. And so he would just tell his wife, go down to the – go down to April’s go down to Mark’s furniture store and, you know, get whatever you want. And the manager would have to walk behind her and, you know, take – put every – pile up all these dresses on his arm and that sort of thing. And my dad said they would – you know, things would arrive on the front – on the porch, you know, boxes of chewing gum and things like that.
DAVIES: You know, it’s – a lot of people point out that there was all this pressure to crack down on the rackets in Johnstown in the 1960s. And that – what they essentially were doing was, you know, a lottery game, which is now legally run by the state of Pennsylvania. There’s a state lottery, as there are in many, many states. And what’s really the difference? And I guess someone would say, well, the difference is that those are programs that are actually run by government and are – the proceeds go to help senior citizens. Whereas, you know, this did throw off a whole lot of money for the mob bosses. I mean, I think you had an estimate of…
SHORTO: Forty million. Yeah.
DAVIES: Yeah, 40 million in today’s dollars would be something like 370 million. You know, and maybe they weren’t murderers – or at least a lot of them. But, you know, they had muscle. People did carry guns. They worked people over. I mean – I don’t know – is there a tendency to romanticize this, do you think?
SHORTO: Sure, there is (laughter). I mean – and I think it’s an understandable tendency among the people I interviewed, who are maybe in their 70s or 80s and looking back at a time when they were 20 years old and involved in this. And I try to – when I was researching and when I was sitting down to write, I tried to take that into account and to say, yeah, they’re looking at it this way. But there was a rough side to it. And it wasn’t – the proceeds were not going to, you know, fund a senior citizens’ home or something like that. So it was the mob.
DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We’re speaking with Russell Shorto. He’s a contributing writer to The New York Times magazine and the author of several books of narrative history. His new memoir is “Smalltime: A Story Of My Family And The Mob.” He’ll be back to talk more after this break. I’m Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. We’re speaking with Russell Shorto, who’s written several books of narrative history. His latest is a memoir focusing on his grandfather, who was an organized crime boss in the industrial city of Johnstown, Pa., in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. The book is called “Smalltime: A Story Of My Family And The Mob.”
You trace the story back to your ancestors in Sicily, where your grandfather’s father, right? – your great-grandfather was born and immigrated to the United States in 1901. Tell us just a bit about his story.
SHORTO: Yeah, I really felt as I went into this that this is just the American immigrant story, is just one variation of it. So you got all these waves of Italians coming, southern Italians coming at that era. And I found – I went to the village in Sicily that my great-grandparents were from. And I actually found the house that my great-grandfather was born in. He immigrates first. He gets a job working in a coal mine in Punxsutawney, Pa. Then he sends for his girlfriend. She comes and she then eventually becomes my great-grandmother. They move. And at the time, his name is Antonino Sciotto – S-C-I-O-T-T-O. And when they make the move from Punxsutawney to Johnstown, there’s a name change. So they’re no longer Antonino and Annamaria. They become Tony and Mary Shorto. So you see them sort of Americanizing or trying to. But he’s still working in the coal mines. And that generation remains immigrants. They mainly speak Italian or Sicilian. That who they associate with. And it’s really, then, their children who are truly Americans but still in this kind of limited, discriminated against way.
DAVIES: Yeah. Tell us just a little bit about – I mean, this is interesting because I think people think of immigrants coming over and, you know, going through Ellis Island and then populating New York. A lot of them ended up in other places, including in these industrial areas in Pennsylvania. What kind of life did they have in the coal mines or the steel mills?
SHORTO: Yeah, the second at – New York and Pennsylvania are No. 1 and No. 2 in the migration of Italians to America. And it was mostly not to the city because it was mostly coal mines that were bringing them. And they were on the outskirts. And they were in places like outside of Johnstown. And they lived first in mining towns, where you had to shop at the company store, and your movements were restricted. And slowly, then, they moved into a neighborhood, you know, a very ethnic neighborhood of Johnstown. And they had a very rough life.
Their grandchildren, who are now in their 80s, would tell me about – you know, that the house had rats and cockroaches. And they kept a pig under the front porch. And the pig got so big that they remembered they had to tear down the porch to get the pig out. And they kept a goat in the basement. And then my great-grandfather died. And she – the great – my great-grandmother had to raise nine kids on her own. And she would go forage for dandelions and mushrooms. And when they had meat to eat, they would eat everything, they said. They would eat the lungs. They would eat the brains. They would eat the – it was – you know, and that’s what I mean. This is kind of, I think, in a way, a standard American immigrant story of that generation and that kind of hardship.
DAVIES: That was your great-grandmother trying to manage with nine kids. What kind of discrimination did they face as Italians?
SHORTO: Italians – you know, Southern Italians – there was a distinction. Southern Italians – because they came in such waves, they were considered quasi-Black, so to speak. And people – the migration, this huge influx of southern Italians is what largely brought about the return of the Klan, the KKK, which had, of course, come about after the Civil War and then died out. But they – it came back with a vengeance to defend American values against especially Catholics and especially these kind of dark-skinned, swarthy immigrants who were threatening the American way of life, which meant this Protestant way of life. So they experienced real hardship and real discrimination. For example, the steel mill was the big employer in Johnstown. Blacks and Italians couldn’t work there except in, you know, certain, very low-level, dangerous jobs, unless there was a strike, and then they were in as the scabs.
DAVIES: So your grandfather grows up really poor, 1 of 9 children of this immigrant woman. When Prohibition comes, your great-grandmother actually keeps a still in the basement. And your great-grandfather carries bottles of this stuff around, Coke bottles full of the hooch. How did he get embarked upon this life of gambling and card sharking and all this?
SHORTO: His story really tracks the rise of the mob in the country that grows out of Prohibition. This was – you know, these were people discriminated against. They didn’t have access to the mainstream. So they sort of created their own system. And when Prohibition happened, here was an opportunity. There was a demand everywhere for a product. And the legal – what had been the legal makers of it couldn’t make it anymore. So they began doing it. And it was neighborhood organizers. In this case, there was an old Italian guy in the neighborhood who seems to have organized families to operate stills. And kids would go out and sell it. And so he grew up with that. And after Prohibition, the mob generally, and in the case of my grandfather in particular, shifted to a different revenue stream. And that was gambling. And so he’s – then we kind of see him. His first arrests that I – the records that I got were of him running card and dice games out of the trunk of a car. So he’s now late teens, early 20s, and he’s moved into that. And that’s how he kind of moves into that that operation.
DAVIES: Right. He’s sort of taught by this guy named Phillip Verrone (ph), teaches him how to palm cards, deal from the bottom of the deck and to skeech (ph) dice, which is – you can actually make dice do what you want them to.
SHORTO: That’s what they tell me. I haven’t tried myself, but you can – you know, it’s not loaded dice. This is a way of how to hold them and throw them. And again, this protege of my grandfather’s was taught by the same guy who taught my grandfather. And he taught him to cheat as – like a pro.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you once again. We’re speaking with Russell Shorto. His new memoir is called “Smalltime: A Story Of My Family And The Mob.” He’ll be back to talk more after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SUFJAN STEVENS SONG, “CITY OF ROSES”)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We’re speaking with Russell Shorto, who’s written several books of narrative history. His latest focuses on his grandfather, who was an organized crime boss in the industrial city of Johnstown, Pa., in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. The book is called “Smalltime: A Story Of My Family And The Mob.”
So eventually, your grandfather and his brother-in-law put together this organization and expand gambling and have a big thing going in Johnstown by the end of the 1940s. When you embarked upon the research, you got your father to become a partner in this. I mean, there’s this moment when you go to, I guess, the Cambria County Courthouse and get this file – the criminal file on your grandfather, which is just huge. Was it hard to get your father involved in this?
SHORTO: The hard thing was me, not him. He had – he was – it turned out he was willing. But I was reluctant initially, which is strange because he was my grandfather’s eldest son. And I knew that he was – had been affected by my grandfather’s career more than anyone. But I just had this block because I knew – you know, it’s kind of a hard thing to get into in a radio interview, which is why you write a book, but, you know, there was all this history between my father and me. And I guess I knew somehow that it was related to his relationship with his father. And because of that, it was hard for me to go there. But once I did, I said, will you help me with this? He just said, yeah.
And it then transformed the whole project because it was now the two of us undertaking – trying to find this figure, this murky figure who was my grandfather, who was my namesake. And my dad, you know, then took me around town. He would call up old guys who I had never even heard of and say, we’re coming over. And we’d sit down and, you know, hear his whole story and his whole perspective on this. So it became this – you know, this very – I started out thinking I was writing history, and it became something much more personal.
DAVIES: Yeah. I mean, you talked to all these guys who were young then and are now old and, you know, in nursing homes and the like. There was a story in your family about your father, who, as far as you knew, you know, did not get involved in this organized crime. And the story was that the rift between your father and his father – your grandfather – was because your dad didn’t want to get into the rackets and that that was the source of the estrangement. You got into this and found out a different story, didn’t you?
SHORTO: Yeah. Somehow, I had grown up with this story that my grandfather, the forbidding figure, wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, and my father refused. And as a child, I think I saw this as, you know, he’s valiant. You know, he’s doing this for us. He’s keeping his family protected. As I talked to more and more of the old guys, I would – I kind of repeated this and they looked at me like, what are you talking about? And, you know, one of them said, are you kidding? Tony – my dad – wanted nothing more than to get into it.
So it turns out – finally then I confronted my dad with this, and he admitted it. And he said – and he admitted that, in fact, he had desperately wanted to get into it. And he would hang out at City Cigar, the center of the operation. And if his father caught him there, he would beat the crap out of him. And it – so, you know, in this strange way, my grandfather, who’s this, you know, dark figure in my childhood, ends up being kind of this hero who’s trying to save his son from this life that he doesn’t want him to have.
DAVIES: And then what you learn about your dad when he’s young is pretty remarkable, right? I mean, wearing suits when he’s in the eighth grade because he wants to be a big shot. I mean, tell us a little bit more about what he did.
SHORTO: My dad was – the personality difference is striking. My grandfather was this quiet, shy, mumbly figure. And my dad, I think from the get-go, was this bright, open, energetic guy. And that energy, I think, he just naturally put into – toward that business. He wanted to be part of it. He would go hang out there. And he was trying to be a pool shark. And he was doing all that. But his father, in his inarticulate way, knew somehow this wasn’t good for his son and didn’t want him around. And so he would just, you know, beat him up. And that set – you know, what I kind of uncovered was this really sad inability to communicate between the two of them that went throughout their lives. It colored their relationship. And it really had to do with that. I kind of think that if my grandfather had been able to say to him, look, I just want to protect you from this, that would have changed everything. But instead, it instilled this bitterness in my father toward his father.
And my father then went on to become this small-town entrepreneur. You know, he had bars. And he ran a disco at one point. And he was involved in real estate. And it was only late in the process of working on the book that I realized he was trying to emulate his father. You know, he was trying to get him to look at him and respect him. And he was doing it on the up and up, in a legitimate way. And his father had been doing the same thing – involved in all these different businesses – but at this kind of murkier level.
DAVIES: So while your grandfather was running this gambling operation in Johnstown – and he was a big guy around town – he was also – had a lot of affairs. This is a complicated story. But, I mean, there are – two of them resulted in illegitimate children. And given the mores of the day, you know, there was – no abortion was not readily available. These kids became integrated into the lives of these people in ways that was extremely painful for your grandmother and just created just calamity. Was this stuff that you knew of growing up, or did you discover this as you did the research?
SHORTO: I had some awareness, but I uncovered a lot as I did the research. My – you know, my grandfather was kind of like – I think he acted like a he was a medieval king or something (laughter). He did what he wanted. And he would decide – I mean, he had a – this woman had his child, and she was actually the housekeeper who cleaned his house and his partner’s house. And he decided eventually, you’re not going to keep the baby. His partner and his wife were unable to have children. So he decided – the two men decided they would announce that this was their child whom they had adopted. And that’s who raised the child.
He had another child with another woman. And this – you know, when I talk about having – me having this sense of darkness which came from my awareness of how the older people in the family reacted to my grandfather, it’s not so much about the mob per se. It’s more about the fallout from his personality and his behavior. This kind of thing really kind of colored – and I think to this day really, in a sense, colors a lot of people in the family.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Russell Shorto. His new memoir is called “Smalltime: A Story Of My Family And The Mob.” We’ll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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SHORTO: This is FRESH AIR. We’re speaking with Russell Shorto, who’s written several books of narrative history. His latest focuses on his grandfather, who was an organized crime boss in the industrial city of Johnstown, Pa., in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. The book is called “Smalltime: A Story Of My Family And The Mob.”
So this organization that your grandfather and his brother-in-law ran in Johnstown had a great run in the ’40s, ’50s. Things changed in the ’60s, and it kind of fell apart. Why?
SHORTO: Well, throughout the ’50s, of course, there was this growing pressure in American society to – for the government to recognize that there was this organized crime syndicate that was all over the country. And until then, during their heyday, they were able to – my grandfather and his brother-in-law were able to operate quite in the open. And I think that Kennedy coming into the White House, Bobby Kennedy deciding he’s cracking down on the mob and then this inconvenient murder of a bookie in town – all those things happened at the same time. And that brings this new focus.
Suddenly – so in town, you had that you had The Tribune-Democrat, which was the main newspaper, and they would, you know, report main stories. But you had this weekly called The Johnstown Observer, and they would report gossip on what was going on. And so for several years before this, they were saying, hey, these guys out of City Cigar, they’re just, you know, running the town and doing whatever they want. And why aren’t the police doing anything about it? Well, it was because they were being paid off.
But now, suddenly, those stories get shifted from the Observer to the regular paper. And suddenly, all this pressure is being brought to bear. And the mayor – there’s a new mayor, and he’s kind of a we-got-to-clean-up-this-town kind of mayor. And that spelled the beginning of the end. That murder – suddenly, within a couple of months, City Cigar shut down for good. They continued their operation for a long time, but it was on a much lower level.
DAVIES: I want to talk just a little bit more about Johnstown, Pa. You know, I live in Philadelphia. And anybody who is in Pennsylvania, when you hear the term Johnstown, you typically think of an event in that city’s history, which was a disaster – I mean, essentially on the scale of 9/11, back in 1889. You want to just tell us that story?
SHORTO: The Johnstown flood – of course, everybody in Johnstown grows up with the story of the flood. There were actually three floods. One in – the big one was 1889, and then there was one in 1936 and one in 1977, just – really the day that I went off to go to college. The big one, David McCullough wrote the great book about, so that very much colored my impression of it.
And it was this massive story of, really, the haves and the have-nots where they built this lake, this artificial lake on the top of a mountain, and the town is in the valley. And you had engineers warning that the structure wasn’t going to hold, and they ignored it. And one day, the dam burst. And it was – the lake was built for, you know, the wealthy people in the area to sail around on their boats and have their cottages and so on. And the dam burst, and 2,000 people in town were killed. And it was, I guess, in a way you’d say the town never recovered, although it was some decades later that the steel mills came into full force.
But what it did, I think, is it set up this – a real kind of haves and have-nots, the blue-collar and the white-collar distinction in town. And that – you know, there was a strong union presence, and then there was the management of the steel companies. And it set up that kind of dynamic.
DAVIES: You know, you started writing this book about your grandfather and his work. You learned a lot about your family that it – that you didn’t know, certainly a lot about your father you didn’t know. Did it change your perceptions of yourself at all?
SHORTO: Yeah, sure. I’m now kind of a great believer in family history in general. And people, you know, doing – research your family. And – but do it if you have the stomach for it because generally speaking, you know certain stories about your family. Once you start researching them, you’re going to find out that’s – they’re probably not true, or there’s a veneer of truth there. But the reality is something quite different. And I actually – then I taught a course at Baruch College writers workshop, and I made it about family history. And I saw that again and again with all the different students. They said, I’m going to write about my grandparents. It’s this great story. And once they got into it, they would come to class and say, I had it completely backwards. It wasn’t like that at all. And it’s really when you – investigating your family history is part of growing up, basically. It’s moving yourself to another level of maturity, which is why I think, you know, everyone ought to do it if they dare.
DAVIES: Yeah. You said if you have the stomach. What was hard for you to stomach?
SHORTO: The hard – mostly the very personal stuff, the relationship between my grandparents. I was very close with my grandmother. My grandfather – you know, I barely knew him. I met him only a few times in my life. The pain he inflicted on her, the pain he inflicted on my father and how that then colored my father’s whole life, which, in turn, colored my life. You know, these things – even though it’s generations ago, it carries through. So it’s kind of like – if you’re willing to do it, it’s kind of like doing therapy. But it’s a wonderful experience. But it’s hard.
DAVIES: I don’t know if this is too personal, but, you know, you learned how your grandfather hurt your grandmother and hurt your dad. And how did that affect you, do you think?
SHORTO: It affected my relationship with my father. And I – you know, my grandfather – my father became this really can-do kind of guy. And he was this razzmatazz salesman. And he just always had that energy. And I – and it’s somehow – it flies off from his dark father, and he’s trying to just push himself away from all of that. And I realized in the process of doing the book that my own – my relationship with my father – I’d grown up kind of pushing that away, you know, his energy and his you know, you can do anything kind of thing. And I just thought it was too cheap. And, you know, my dad worked with me very intensely on this book. And then he died just as we were – just as I was finishing it. And – sorry. And I came to realize that, you know, rather than seeing his energy and his approach to life as somehow cheap or not earned, I realized that he was entitled to it. I mean, it’s a strange thing to say, but I realized he – we all react to the way we were brought up, to whatever our parents were, whether they were a mob boss or whatever they were. And we take that with us and move forward. And so he was entitled to approach life in the way he did. And it was only at the very end that I kind of had that realization, was able to see and appreciate my father for what he did in this and what he had to overcome.
DAVIES: Yeah. He had to overcome a lot. You had a moment early in the research where you were going to start working with your father, and he had a very serious medical episode. And you really thought he was going. You thought it was the end. And then he recovered, and you had this extended period at which you went on this voyage of discovery. Do you feel like you – I don’t know – got to both appreciate him in a different way and let him know before he died?
SHORTO: I hope so because I didn’t let him know terribly overtly. I didn’t say it in those words, but I think that by involving him and making this a father-son project, I think that we were both saying, let’s understand each other and ourselves together. You know, as corny as that may seem, that’s what the book ultimately became for me.
DAVIES: Well, Russell Shorto, thank you so much for speaking with us.
SHORTO: Thank you, Dave.
DAVIES: Russell Shorto is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine and the author of several books of narrative history. His new memoir is “Smalltime: A Story Of My Family And The Mob.” On tomorrow’s show, reversing the decline of America’s middle class. We’ll speak with New York Times economics reporter Jim Tankersley about the Biden administration’s plans to get the economy back on track and about Tankersley’s book “The Riches Of This Land” on what built a thriving middle class in the 20th century and how he says we can rebuild it. I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR’S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I’m Dave Davies.
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