Of Mobs and Namesakes: Writing the Story of My Infamous Grandfather
Russell Shorto on the Path To His Latest Book
It started one evening when I was home for the holidays. Picture a too-warm living room so crammed with relatives that people’s limbs are overlapping. A day or two after Christmas, a cloudy gray night sky, snow starting to fall. I’m a writer of narrative history, by the way, someone who makes a living telling nonfiction stories about the past, so, in terms of subject matter, you might think this one would have been obvious to me long ago. It was not. Anyway, the TV is blaring from one corner of my parents’ living room, the tree is stuffed into another, a tray of cookies is going around, and somebody mentions that Frankie is in town.
“Your mother’s cousin: Frankie Filia.”
I’d met Frankie once or twice. I knew he was a jazz singer who had left town a lifetime ago for Las Vegas, that he had a long career there, playing gigs and tending bar in casinos. After five decades of fingering the thick strings of the stand-up bass, crooning for an endless succession of smoky rooms, he’d decided to retire and come home.
An hour later, a couple of carloads of us figure we’ll head down to the lounge where Frankie now plays once a week in a local geriatric combo. Stepping from the snowy night into a dark room, confronted by the dank smell of all old bars, and there’s Frank, luridly lit on the makeshift stage, a little guy in his late seventies, roundish body flanked by the shapely neck of the bass. He puts a hand over his eyes to peer at the doorway, smiles as he sees us—distant relations here to partake of what he’s offering. We pile in, order drinks, stand there with our big coats on, ranged around like Easter Island statues. Frank’s got a nice, foggy-breezy voice, the kind that invites you to take a ride with him. Volare. Fly me to the moon.
At a break in the set there are kisses, greetings. We’re standing in a circle, and at some point Frank looks across at me and wags a finger. “Russell! I been wantin’ to talk to you. You’re a writer. What are we gonna do about the story?”
In the middle of asking, the answer is right there, fully formed in my mind.It’s not like I didn’t always know that my grandfather was a small-town mob honcho of some kind.
I feel a need to declare here that I had a normal small-town America childhood. Meaning that it was weird or quaint in all the standard ways: going on Sunday drives as a family, playing strip poker with hushed friends in somebody’s parents’ basement, whatever. There was an element of Italian American self-awareness, but it was mostly limited to food and emotiveness. Long conversations about spaghetti sauce and aunts who kissed you on the lips: those were the ways we were Italian.
Frank shakes his head in exasperation. “What story?! Your grandfather! The mob!”
A silence settles on the little group of mostly older relatives. My aunt Josie is visiting from Detroit, where she and my uncle moved about six decades earlier, but everyone else still lives in town. And while some will on occasion tell a story or two about back then, the inclination has been to maintain a bit of a veil of silence over the topic.
I maintained it too. It’s not like I didn’t always know that my grandfather was a small-town mob honcho of some kind. As a little boy, that time my mother and I ran into him on the street downtown, the discomfort I felt toward the solemn almost-stranger in front of me, who I somehow knew had been ostracized from the family, was wrapped around that awareness. Even the gesture he made in that awkward and almost wordless sidewalk encounter—taking off his watch and giving it to me, draping it over my skinny wrist (I can still see it hanging there, with a weight to it that wanted to pull me down to the pavement)—felt ominous in its inappropriateness. It telegraphed that here was someone who was used to outsized acts, to ignoring the norms. But I had no idea what that meant—no idea who he was, really. I didn’t want to learn more, and I never did.
No doubt partly because Frank had lived for so long out of town, outside the circle, he hadn’t hugged the silence into himself. Strutting the streets of his hometown, a teenage bookie with a pocketful of money who’d just dropped out of high school and was proud to be in on the action: those were golden memories for him. It’s also true that he was just an open kind of guy. Some people are natural excavators of the past, blessed or cursed with the conviction that if you haul memories up into the light of day they will glow like gems and be worth something.
Frank’s about to go back up to the mic, but he presses me one more time, tossing out a few lurid details about back in the day, oblivious to the awkward suffering of the others.
I turn to my dad, the mobster’s son, expecting to find a look of censure that will help me to end this. There’s something in his eyes—but it’s almost a glint, an eagerness. I find it embarrassing, like seeing a parent naked. Pondering for half a second, I realize I shouldn’t be surprised. My father has always been more daring than me, willing to jump into things, to risk making a fool of himself.
I shake my head confidently at Frank. “Not my thing.”
He gives me a look. “Whaddaya mean? You write history. This is American history! It’s right in front of you!”I turn to my dad, the mobster’s son, expecting to find a look of censure that will help me to end this. There’s something in his eyes—but it’s almost a glint, an eagerness.
He’s getting personal now—telling me how to do my job. And just for a second, the marketable outline of my grandfather’s world spreads across the front of my brain like a banner ad, the kind of thing you could sell to your publisher: Everybody knows the mob, but nobody knows the story of the small-town mob. How it was as much a part of midcentury American life as the hot dog. How, just like the interstate highway system, it stitched together the Schenectadys and Scrantons, the Zanesvilles and Topekas, the Wichitas and Amarillos and Fresnos. You could make a case that this was the real mob story, maybe in a way the real American story of that era.
In the same instant I get a glimmer, too, of how our family fits into that broad picture. As Frank is waiting for me to say something I have in my head the image of the somber man in a baggy gray suit forcing his watch on me, along with a few other shavings that the magnet of my childhood brain pulled in. A secondhand image, borrowed from my dad’s memory, of stacks of money arrayed across the surface of a bed. Men talking about “the boys,” and me knowing they were not boys like me: “the boys downtown . . . the boys in Pittsburgh.” In my grandmother’s basement a large cage with dice in it, which had a handle for turning it, and me halfheartedly trying to play with it but knowing it wasn’t a toy.
But no—I can’t do this. I know, standing there, that at the center of this story is this dimly lit figure of my grandfather. Which means that it would involve my long-suffering grandmother, with whom I spent so many summer days in my early childhood, sympathetically studying her solitude and bitterness out of the corner of my eye, sitting skinny-legged on her sofa pretending to read comic books while she peered beyond at the soap operas on the TV, chain-smoking Pall Malls and reflexively pouring from a quart bottle of Schmidt’s beer into a tiny glass. Such a story would gather her up into it; in all likelihood the research would lead me to the source of her pain. And the pain, like a stain, would spread.
I give Frank a patronizing smile and shake my head again. Not interested. Too much on my plate. And anyway, my subject area is further back—long ago, far away.
The things are spread out on my desk. A brisk cursive hand itemized them in blue pen on the outside of the yellowed envelope into which they were tucked, an envelope my aunt has kept for decades:
1 Pill box
1 nail clippers
1 key ring and several keys
1 match book
The itemizer—“S. Shackelford R.N.”—dated the envelope, which gives me ready access to the day my grandfather died: 5/28/81.But no—I can’t do this. I know, standing there, that at the center of this story is this dimly lit figure of my grandfather. Which means that it would involve my long-suffering grandmother.
The wallet is cheap leather. You can tell it’s of another era because it’s got the insert of plastic sleeves into which you were supposed to slide snapshots of loved ones. There are two in the front slot: both children, who as far as I can tell have nothing to do with my family. And right there is a window creaking open: the man had another life. The insides are stuffed with business cards: attorneys, concrete companies, car dealers. One card, “Compliments of Cal and Dot’s Inn,” says on the front
Pick a Number
1 2 3 4
And on the back:
. . . All Sex Maniacs Pick 3
There are membership cards: the Touchdown Club, the Elks. Little slips of paper that have carefully written lists of names and phone numbers. On a small sheet from a Jacquin’s Liquor notepad (“Prestige Liquors Since 1884”) there’s a penciled series of important dates:
Got sick Sat. June 29
Entered Hospital July 3rd
Discharged July 14
It’s odd that Nurse Shackelford didn’t note the race tickets. There is a whole handful of them, $1 to $20 bets—a few “exactas,” but mostly he liked the trifecta: betting on each of the first three finishers. Because—and this feels like cheesy fiction but is the flat truth about the end of my grandfather’s life—this lifelong gambler died, long after he’d gotten out of “the business” and after years of vacantly walking the streets he had once lorded over, at the racetrack, fist in the air, still chasing the dream.
He’d had a recurring problem with the ticker, had been seeing a heart specialist, whose card was right there in the wallet, ominously enough, right next to a card for Kitzmiller Memorials, Complete Cemetery Needs.
He’d just had his sixty-seventh birthday.
He wasn’t the big boss. He was the number two man in town—Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in those days a rollicking steel town in the southwestern corner of the state—which made him a force, but he wasn’t what they call a made man. I was told he was denied a formal position in the mob on account of his drinking, which makes the mafia sound like a police academy or something, but maybe it’s true. He was the one who knew everything, the one you talked to, the guy who got things done.She stammered something about her son at college, which caused the voice on the other end to break its professional tone.
Charles Town Race Track, in the West Virginia hills, was a three-hour drive from Johnstown back then. The phone rang at my parents’ house an hour or so later. My mother answered. The woman had a steely, professional tone. She said she was calling from a hospital in West Virginia.
Is this the family of Russell Shorto?
Did I mention that I was named after him?
I was in college in Washington, D.C., at the time of my grandfather’s death—not so far from West Virginia. My mother said she felt a long moment go by during which the room began to spin. She stammered something about her son at college, which caused the voice on the other end to break its professional tone. Oh no, I’m so sorry for any confusion. This is an old gentleman I’m calling about. My father took the phone. After imparting the basic facts, the woman added, apparently intending to comfort loved ones, that the heart attack had been so massive that he died instantly—“before his head hit the ground,” according to my dad’s recollection of the call, though I doubt the hospital representative would have been so colorful.
Namesake. Archaic term. A person named for the sake of someone else. I guess that was what kept Frank’s entreaty—his offer—alive in my mind. But for the next year or so after seeing him that night at the club, whenever I thought about my grandfather I pushed it away. I write history, not memoir. More to the point, I write nonfiction, and that requires sources. My grandfather and the small-town tough guys of his world were dead, and surely they hadn’t left notebooks behind.
I was living far from my hometown at the time: in Amsterdam, to be precise. Eventually, the voice in my head became annoying enough that I decided to make an exploratory trip home. I would devote a week to putting the matter to rest—convincing myself that not enough sources of information existed on my grandfather and the world he had inhabited to bring it to life.
I phoned Frank when I got there. “Russell! I knew you were gonna call sooner or later!” He told me to meet him at his hangout, Panera Bread. I thought we were going to have a little one-on-one, but shortly after we sat down another old man walked up and greeted us. Then two more arrived. Later others trundled over. Frank had put out the word. My grandfather’s cohort was dead and gone, but here were the youngsters who had latched onto those guys, looked up to them, did jobs for them, wanted to be them. They’d soaked it all in.Namesake. Archaic term. A person named for the sake of someone else. I guess that was what kept Frank’s entreaty—his offer—alive in my mind.
It turned into a four-hour chat. Before it was even over I realized that what they had given me—Butch, Donnie, George, Frank, and the others—was a skeleton, an outline. It was what I’d been sure didn’t exist anymore. Of course, each of these old men, sitting there nursing his coffee, shooting knowing glances at one another, eyes momentarily lighting up, had his own story, his own collection of memories, which were, surely, of variable reliability. But memories can be checked against other sources. That’s what you do as a writer of narrative history. They were giving me an inkling of a lost world, a different way of seeing a familiar time period: America in its brawny postwar prime. What I would be setting off on was a familiar kind of adventure. Basically this was history: third-person, past tense.
Of course I knew that was a lie I was telling myself. I glimpsed the truth beneath it in my father’s expression—hurt? puzzled?—when I stopped in to see my parents on my way out of town after the Panera Bread chat session. Why hadn’t I invited him along? He knew all those guys. He was Russ’s eldest son. He was the most direct connection to my subject. He belonged there.
If, during the Panera Bread conversation, I let myself ignore what might be a more intimate layer to the story, the minute it was over I was steered right to it. For four hours, while Frank and the other boys had swapped stories, the oldest of the bunch, a guy named Joe LaRocca, had sat in the back, silent, resting both hands on his cane, peering into the middle of the circle with something like a scowl on his face. I knew from things the others had said that he’d been pretty close to my grandfather. As we got up to leave I went over to him. His silence had felt heavy—I figured I would lighten it up with some small talk.
Before I could say anything, though, he spoke. “You know why I came here?” he asked, his eyes transfixing mine. I shook my head. He punched an index finger at my chest. “Because your name is Russell Shorto.”
There it was. Namesake.
Excerpted from Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob. Copyright © 2021 by Russell Shorto. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.