“We’re not going to have another Watergate in our lifetime. I’m sure.” —Bob Woodward
Nineteen seventy-four was a banner year for Jimmy and me. I joined him a few nights a week in the exclusive Penn Plaza Club in Madison Square Garden, where we’d watch the first half of the Knicks game on closed-circuit TV. We would eat and drink (soda in my case) and chat up the barman. Then, that magic moment arrived: We’d pass through the secret door that led us out to the smoky, vibrant, electric Garden to take our seats. The bass of the organ, the crowd, and the haze of smoke that hung in midair ripped through my body. It was like walking into a carnival. Though we were two hundred feet from our seats in the club, there was noth- ing like the feeling of exiting through a trap door to the lower level of the world’s greatest basketball arena.
There was Clyde, Earl the Pearl, Willis Reed, DeBusschere, and Bill Bradley—in the flesh! I was flying with adrenaline and glee, and I think Dad was too.
Then there was the fight of January 28, 1974. Dad, my brother, and I sat ringside at The Garden while Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought the second bout of their legendary trilogy. We were so close that when Ali used an arm to block a glancing blow from Frazier, his sweat popped off his body, with much of it landing on me. I must have looked shocked because I remember Dad reaching over to ruffle my hair to pull me from my trance. As Dad and I shared a small piece of sports history, we were surrounded by the usual glitterati and mobsters I grew to know and love, yet it seemed as if I had Dad to myself.
Another day that year, August 9, 1974, marked a new chapter in my life with Jimmy. We both woke early after a night of grilling steaks and sipping Heinekens in a rental house on Martha’s Vineyard. My mother, whom Dad feigned anger at for renting a house without a TV, was arriving the next day, so Dad and I were up and out early. Dad had something on his mind; he woke turbocharged, as if it was summation day, so I just hung on until the mystery revealed itself.
Soon I found myself standing on a wharf trying to catch the eye of a pretty girl who must have been a production assistant on a film that had the whole town buzzing. The crew making Jaws was off that day and she stood next to the mechanical shark, nightmarishly emerging halfway out of the water, its mouth open and snarling like something pre-historic.
Before the girl could even notice me, Dad put a box of donuts in my hands. “Come on, we have something important to do.” We jumped in a 1972 Mercedes coupe to head for the other side of the island. “We need to find a TV. Something historic is going to happen today and I want you to see it. It’s something you will never forget.” He certainly was right about that.
At almost sixteen, I was at the wheel, finessing the fussy three- speed across this island of small, criss-crossing roads, as we set out to find a television come hell or high water. The event that day was still a secret to me, but if you haven’t recognized the date yet—August 9, 1974—my father wanted me to watch with my own eyes as Richard Nixon, thirty-seventh president of the United States, walked to a Marine helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House, made that awkward wave, and disappeared into history to end the long national crisis called Watergate. There had been no coup d’état or revolution, just the majesty of American constitutional law working out one of the worst kinks of the twentieth century. I had learned from my father to relish the newspapers every morning, but it was Watergate and the thousands of conversations that followed, right up until the last week of his life, that solidified our lifelong standing as fellow political junkies.
Being my father’s son meant sharing Dad’s propensity to detect the discrepancies and hypocrisies among those in power. In high school, he encouraged me to read the transcripts of Lieutenant William L. Calley’s general court-martial for the 1968 event in Vietnam known as the My Lai Massacre. I read everything I could get my hands on.
Calley and his men in Charlie Company were emotionally compromised after the death of several of their fellow soldiers. All casualties had occurred by booby traps or mines, without ever seeing the enemy. American troops responded by taking horrible revenge on the tiny village, killing men, women, and children.
People began to cite the My Lai massacre as evidence of military incompetence and poor wartime leadership. Soon, many veterans started voicing their concerns publicly, leading to further anti-war sentiment. Calley was convicted and imprisoned. My view echoed that of my father’s: Calley took the fall for the real war criminal, General Westmoreland, who had lied to President Johnson about the strength of the Viet Cong.
I could see Dad in Calley’s boots, and it shook and disgusted me. Many years later, I saw the highly recognizable General Westmoreland in a magazine store on Lexington Avenue. All I saw was a well-dressed old man. Any hatred I may have harbored was overwhelmed by civility. I held the door open for him and we nodded at one another.
History repeated itself during the war in Iraq when eleven American soldiers were charged with crimes related to the torture of Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison. The Abu Ghraib soldiers were convicted and dishonorably discharged. Meanwhile, there was ample evidence that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had authorized most of the “criminal” actions. If I had encountered Rumsfeld in a store at the time, I don’t believe I could have kept my tongue.
These were the types of injustices that had become blood-red strands in my father’s DNA. He took his revenge in a courtroom. Jimmy pushed the envelope when it came to his caught-red-handed clients, but make no mistake about it, he had an acute sense of justice. Twice he threatened golf clubs with full-blown lawsuits because the fancy-pants board members wouldn’t accept his Jewish friends as members. Sure enough, after Jimmy was done, his friends had club memberships, and preferred tee times to boot.
By the latter part of the 1970s, my father was already a household name in legal circles. He had been declared one of the “100 Smartest New Yorkers” by a national magazine, lived in a twelve-room Park Avenue floor-through, owned a French Tudor home in Greenwich, Connecticut, and was as close as a son to the streetwise Democratic leader of New York, Meade Esposito. In fact, he was Meade’s lawyer. It seemed as if he was everyone’s lawyer. If Jimmy’s picture wasn’t in the Times, the Daily News, or the Post, it was a slow week.
In those days, the city’s Democratic leader handpicked many of the state judges—a throwback to the Tammany Hall days that would die with Esposito. Meade would often ask Dad to sit with him as the candidates for judgeships, hat in hand, went to seek the blessing of the all-powerful political leader. Dad and Meade used to laugh in be- tween interviews as they drank espressos and Sambuca. Dad would say, “Half these guys think that they owe their judgeship to me.” And Meade would tell him, “That’s exactly what I want them to think.”
Jimmy walked Meade through so many legal entanglements over the years that billing him was more trouble than it was worth. This was Uncle Meade’s payback.
In the days of $99 flights on Eastern Airlines, our family would fly to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, just north of Miami almost every week- end in the winter, and drive thirty minutes west into the Everglades on the proverbial “Alligator Alley,” where one of the first residential homes/golf course/spas was built by a client and friend of Dad’s, Mel Harris. Meade bought the house directly across the street from ours. On New Year’s Eve, after we had eaten dinner, we’d go over to Meade’s, where he had bottles of ice-cold Dom Pérignon waiting for us and we’d all hail the New Year together.
Meade’s wife, Anne, was somewhat of a mystery. She guarded her privacy at all times, even on New Year’s Eve. Meade used to refer to her as “Hugo.” One day Uncle Meade explained: “Every time I say to her, ‘We have a dinner to go to,’ she’d reply, ‘You go.’” Thus, the nickname: Hugo.
Until one of our New Year’s rituals, I had never laid eyes on her. I was a young teenager, buzzed on the Dom, looking for a bathroom, when I accidentally entered a room. There was Anne, sitting in a chair, as peaceful as an Old Testament character. She invited me to sit, insisting I call her by her first name, and we talked for fifteen minutes or so. Either she liked me or was just hungry for human contact at the moment. As I quietly left her bedroom to find the bathroom, she got up and hugged me.
Every New Year’s Eve after that, I accidentally got lost on the way to the toilet and had my little celebration with Anne. One time, as Uncle Meade was walking us out, he decided to come to our house for a nightcap. As we were crossing the street, I looked back at the Esposito house and saw Anne looking out the front window. She gave me a wink and a little wave, which I returned with the same.
Nothing got past Uncle Meade—anywhere, anytime. When I caught up to everybody, he gave me a long sideways glance, as if to say, “You’re all right, kid.”
During two summers in college, Dad pulled a few union strings and I sailed as an ordinary seaman on merchant vessels to the Middle East, Europe, and the Caribbean. I did everything from water-blasting the cavernous oil holds to cleaning the heads.
Docking is a tense time on an oil tanker, especially in the Gulf of Mexico. We were all scrambling on deck when a little prick of an en- gineer got on my case about doing something wrong. I was trying to ignore the prick when two of the biggest seamen just about pinned the engineer to the deck by his ears. I only found out weeks later that the experienced guys had been told to “watch out for the kid.” When we finally docked, I had a moment of rotten luck as the engineer and I found ourselves alone in the machinist’s room. Like the dope he was, he came at me with something big and metal that he could barely throw. I picked a smallish fourteen-inch wrench off the wall and gave him a crack. An hour later, the third mate came to my bunk to fire me. He liked me—I could hear the regret in his voice. The last words from the two big guys who’d helped me out on deck were, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of that fucking engineer.” I set off down the gangway with about five grand in my pocket and all of New Orleans at my feet. I had a blast while that little prick took the beating of his life.
Back in New York two weeks later, I picked up a ringing phone and found Uncle Meade on the line. “What are you doing home so early? You a lazy fuck or what?” I laughed. I knew he knew, so I didn’t even bother to go into what had transpired.
“Tomorrow, you go to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and see my friend, Nick Montanti.”
For the rest of the summer and most of the next school year, I worked the midnight shift helping machinists drill parts for Navy carriers and battleships. The bottom line was that when Uncle Meade called, you’d better have your shoes laced up and your jock strap on tight.
We were barely ten minutes into our ride on Martha’s Vineyard when I begged Dad to stop for breakfast. In those days, I often started the day with six eggs and six strips of bacon, so I was famished. We found a greasy spoon and settled in.
To get a one-on-one with my father, I usually had to compete with young, smart, funny lawyers named Shargel, Ross, Mitchell, Dontzin, Weinstein, or Kirshner. On those rare days when I had his undivided attention, I tried to get every bit of information I could before the rest of the larger world started picking at his sizable brain. This had started out to be a “day I wouldn’t forget.” So while Nixon was putting the final touches on his parting address, I had other fish to fry—and a captive audience—because the car keys were in my pocket!
There was a lot about Dad’s professional life that we could not address until many years later. In essence, his entire life was a series of confidences that he guarded as a matter of course.
Something had happened a few weeks into the New Year that was odd, even for us. Frank Bove, my father’s driver for two years, was an ex-U.S. marshal who carried a firearm. Out of the blue, he started taking my brother and I to school and picking us up. Someone I had never seen before took Dad into the City. Frank also slept in a spare room in the house. Even Mom stayed close to home. I could tell she was unnerved, so I didn’t bother asking the obvious. This went on for more than a week.
So, in the diner on the Vineyard, I didn’t hold back. I asked Dad flat-out what had happened that week when Frank tailed us, knowing it was unlikely I would get the entire truth. He tested me a bit at first, asking if I was “old enough to keep a family secret. Don’t just say ‘yes.’ Think about it,” he warned me. I made the necessary assurances. For a moment, I felt like Batman’s sidekick, Robin, just before the caped crusader tells him about that secret button in the cave. It would not be the last time that I felt like Dad and I were “co-conspirators.”
“Two very rich Albanian brothers retained me after killing a man who owed them money,” Dad said.
“How?” I asked, realizing it was the dumbest first question I could ask.
“They beat him to death with a steel pipe. They said they didn’t mean to kill him, but he died. No matter. As the trial went on, I man- aged to vacate so many of the major charges that when the jury came in guilty, the judge had no choice but to give each of the brothers just six months.”
“How did you do that?” I asked. When it came to Dad, I could have tattooed that question on my forehead, because almost every- thing he did was … well, unbelievable!
“It’s complicated. Let’s just say Lady Luck was shining down on us. They were very happy… at first. But, as it turned out, they were two spoiled little brats. They came to me demanding that I get them out of the six months, which I couldn’t, so they threatened me. Even more stupid, they mentioned you kids and your mom.”
Now it was my turn not to be stupid. I just waited. After a while, I looked up from my plate.
“It died down after a while.” “Come on, Dad! That’s a load.” He threw me a bone. “Well, you remember the night we went to the fights at The Garden?” DID I REMEMBER? “Sure, I remember.”
“While we were at the fight, Mr. Castellano spoke with them and set them straight. They were acting very ungrateful and that had to be pointed out to them…in rather strong terms.”
By and large, members of the Albanian mob were known for their smarts, guile, and toughness. These two guys were the excep- tion. Decades later, I found out what had really happened to the two stupidest Albanian brothers in the history of the world.
There was a glitzy nightclub in Queens that catered to the showy foreign crowd who liked to throw money around. These pricks often hung out there.
While Dad and I were at the fights, Dumb and Dumber are greeted like royalty by the club doormen and are whisked inside, only to be grabbed and thrown down a long stairway into the basement, where they are beaten unconscious. When they awake, they find themselves tied to ceiling pipes, gagged, bloodied, and bruised. Four or five big men stand and sit in the basement, smiling at the brothers when they open their eyes. One very ominous-looking man sits closer to the captives, a large steel pipe in his lap. Two of the men have pistols strapped to their bodies.
A man in the basement clears his throat and everyone stops talk- ing. All anyone can see is the back of a very large guy wearing a thick leather apron and leather gloves, working at a large tank, hidden underneath a welding helmet.
When the man turns around, he has a lit blowtorch in his hand. The figure slowly approaches the wide-eyed brothers as he adjusts the torch, until it is a yellow and violet inferno. He methodically brings the torch a few feet under the first brother’s neck. As the heat under his neck builds, the man begins to panic and screams into the gag. The would-be killer takes a step back and looks at the other brother. One of the men can be heard saying, “Yeah, do him first.” Though the Torch Man’s eyes are hidden beneath the steel helmet, it’s as if the two Albanian brothers can feel his lifeless blue eyes boring into them. In the blink of an eye, the torch just stops. The killer drops it to the floor. He removes his helmet with a gloved hand. The brother’s eyes bug out.
Standing before them is one of the “Family’s” legendary as- sassins and captains, Dom Coffini, known by insiders as Dead on Arrival (D.O.A). His jet-black hair and his muscled build accentuate his lifeless blue eyes.
Coffini removes the Albanians’ gags. “Do you know who I am?” “Yes, yes, Mr. Coffini,” Dumbass #1 says. He looks at the other brother. “YOU?” “D.O.A., Mr. Tony Coffini,” stutters #2.
“Do you know why you’re here hanging from the ceiling?” “I think so,” says #1. “Good. If you so much look sideways at our mutual friend or his family, we’ll get you. You’ll die hard—very hard. Do you fuck- ing understand everything I just said, because your lives and the lives of everyone you know within a hundred miles are hanging by a fucking string?”
The brothers nod vigorously.
“I hope so for your sake. Because if you ever see me again, know that it will be your last moment on earth.”
D.O.A throws his gloves and apron over a sawhorse and disappears up the stairs.
Back at the greasy spoon, I was in disbelief.
“Is that it, Dad? Really? ‘While we were at the fight, Mr. Castellano spoke with them and set them straight.’ You’re going with that?”
Dad just gave me the look.
When it came to mobsters, though, the two scariest men I had ever met, bar none, were Joe “The German” Watts from the Gambino Family and William “Wild Bill” Cutolo, who was a major player in the Columbo Family.
The last time I ever saw Joe Watts could not have been more inopportune. In the winter of 2001, I had run (in the truest sense of the word) into Rao’s, a restaurant known for its “connected” clientele on a protected block of East Harlem, thinking I was to dine with Dad and some family friends. I had the wrong week and Dad was having a Wednesday dinner meeting with Watts and a colleague.
Only the top echelon of made men had regular tables at Rao’s. Before Watts’ last trial, Jimmy made him swear that if he were acquit- ted, Dad could have Watts’ Wednesday night table as part of his fee.
Watts was a gangster’s gangster whose resumé went all the way back to the reign of Carlo Gambino, for whom he had served as hit man. Watts could never be made, or officially indoctrinated into a Mafia family, because he wasn’t Italian, but he was nonetheless afforded the status of not only a “made man,” but a capo. Watts was highly respected by Gambino higher-ups because of his ability to “earn” and do “work” as a true strong-arm enforcer.
In 1999, I built a new ten thousand-square-foot loft/office for MedWorks at Varick and Vandam Streets, giving me the perfect vantage point to observe the Twin Towers two years later on 9/11. I saw the second jet pierce through the south tower as I was talking to a cop on Canal Street. When that building fell, I was evacuating my office and shutting down the compressors.
Later, I watched as the north tower fell into itself. I gave a bottle of water to an obese black woman who was vomiting and ran to get Sofia and Gianni at school. Juliana, who was a little more than two, was with my wife, Maria.
For those of us living in Lower Manhattan after the 9/11 trag- edy, the smell of burning wires, steel, and flesh was a constant pres- ence until the weather finally turned cold in late December. When President Bush lifted the FAA ban, I went to Madrid for a meeting and forgot about New York for a week. The moment I landed at JFK and the plane docked and the door was opened, the smell crept in and I was back.
Someone once told me that clichés die hard because they are rooted in truth, and so it was for me. My marriage had been rocky before 9/11. When the sun set every night, I looked for a stool and a martini long before I thought of home or my family.
So it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that as I was driving my new Audi six-speed bi-turbo up to Rao’s on an icy December night, I was more than a little sloshed. I somehow flipped the turn on 114th Street and hit a patch of ice. The Audi spun and spun and one of the tires blew. Somehow the car came to rest at the curb directly in front of Rao’s. Unbeknownst to me, all the patrons inside had a good view of my loopy stunt.
In those days, if you parked at Rao’s and put your wipers up, guys would come out of nowhere to spit-shine your car. Mobsters are very fussy about their cars. That December night, I came within inches of taking one of these guys out. As the barman, Nicky the Vest, told me later, “I was talking to your father and these bright white lights are coming straight at us. I thought you were going right through the front.”
I turned the car off, swung the door open, and shouted to no one in particular, “Hey, Mom, I’m home!” Frankie Pellegrino, the restaurant owner’s son, came out and grabbed me by the arm and helped my inebriated ass inside. By then, everyone was giving Dad the business.
Jimmy gave me the look the second I walked in. When I saw he was in the middle of dinner, I realized that I had the wrong Wednesday. When Dad said, “You know Joe Watts and his friend,” I could have fainted. There in the flesh was the assassin himself. I greeted the men respectfully, begged a double vodka off Nicky, and headed for the bathroom to straighten myself up. I must have slapped myself five times in front of that mirror.
I found out weeks later that Dad had come clean with Watts. While I was in the bathroom, he told him that I was just blocks from the towers on 9/11, had to run for my kids, and wasn’t taking it that well. That was all anyone needed to hear. All New Yorkers were still raw and messed up.
I have never addressed a senior mobster by his first name, so it was “Mr. Watts this” and “Mr. Watts that.” A giant mistake that many citizens make in the company of these men is to talk tough, so when his lieutenant baited me with a question I could have answered flip- pantly, I said, “You know, Mr. Watts, the same thing happened to me at prep school in Greenwich, Connecticut.”
Joe laughed hard. “I like this kid,” he said. “Always have.”
By then, Frankie Pellegrino had one of his guys pulling the spare and changing the tire. I kissed my father, whispered apologies, and went around the table kissing the killers. “Sorry to drop in like this, fellas,” I said on the way out. I threw Frankie a bill and bolted west on foot for the closest avenue. The car would be safe in front of Rao’s.
I jumped in the first cab. “Please, just drive,” I begged the cabbie.
On our way out of the greasy spoon in the Vineyard on August 9, Dad saw that the cooks in the back kitchen had an old black and white television. He stopped, pulled out a pile of cash, and offered the cook a cool $100. The cook gleefully accepted and I quickly scooped up the television. That’s my dad, who never ceased to surprise.
Later in the day, we sat in front of the small black and white screen as Richard Milhous Nixon resigned. Not a word was spoken between us. I knew how much Dad detested this doomed man, yet he showed no pleasure in the scene. I could hear the bay and the dock creek out the windows, but other than those few sounds, it seemed as if the world had inextricably stopped.
Somewhere in all the emotion of the day was knowing that I might not have Dad to myself again for a good long time. We ate, sipped a few beers, embraced warmly, and headed to bed.
I slept in, not quite used to the effects of the beer. I woke up to hear footsteps on the dock. A seaplane was tied to it. A pilot was loading bags into a compartment as Dad got into the plane, trying not to get his shoes wet. Then I remembered: Dad had to head back to the City for a day. Mom will be out in the afternoon. That gave me all day to myself.
Just before he disappeared through the cockpit door, Dad looked back at the house and smiled. I bolted for the dock in my boxer shorts and gave the plane two thumbs up. I couldn’t see my father, but I knew he was watching. When the plane’s engine rumbled on, I dropped my boxer shorts to MOON him. That’s me: The son who never ceased to surprise, having learned at the feet of the master.
The plane steadied on the bay’s rolling waves and the engine gunned. For a moment, there was just noise. Then the plane began to move, lumbering at first, then more swiftly. It fought the waves until the pontoons glided on top of the chop and they began to rise, finally disappearing into the sun’s reflection on the bay.
That moment, like so many others when it came to my father, is frozen in time for me. When Dad and I were together, it was as if anything was possible. He was invincible and he made me feel the same. Whenever he left, which was often, a tinge of sadness crept up my spine. Then I would remember something, like the way he laughed when he ruffled my hair after Ali’s sweat covered me at the fights, and I’d watch the seaplane in the distance, hoping for his speedy return.
After I was good and done mourning my loss by reveling in our twenty-four hours together, I was ready to assume my position in the world. Jimmy didn’t raise a schmuck. So I fired up the coupe and went to find the girl on the wharf.