A Fly On The Wall
“If your eyes could speak, what would they say?”
—Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
There exists a recurring theme in books and movies that some people come “full circle” in order to face their own, true life’s story. And so it is with me.
One of my first memories is of my mother waking me from a dead sleep to see my father on television. At the time, he was a young prosecutor. Over the subsequent decades, as he gained influence and power in law and politics, I would find myself trying to catch a glance of his picture in The New York Times over someone’s shoulder while riding on the subway. A friend would call me from Rome, excited that he had just seen my dad on TV. Once, I was passing an electronics store on 72nd Street when all of the TV screens in the display windows simultaneously showed a close-up of my father’s face. I was with a woman I should not have been with, and for a brief second, I thought my all-knowing father had caught me again.
Last of the Gladiators comes from a place deep within me—well beyond a descriptive, snappy metaphor—and has swept me to a destination I had no idea I could even reach. A person adrift in the middle of the ocean is not lost if he has a bead in the sky on Last of the Gladiators, a meridian of longitude. When I lacked direction, I needed to look no further than to my father to reacquire my bearings. Dad was the ultimate realist, with a razor-like ability to shine a corrective lens on some of my more quixotic moments. He had a strong inner core of tranquility and reasonableness—qualities that he endeavored to pass on to me as his life wound down. Jimmy was and always will be my “Last of the Gladiators.”
Before he became a criminal defense lawyer, Dad was Robert Kennedy’s shotgun man in the US Attorney’s Office in New York’s Eastern District. As a former prosecutor and Marine Corps officer, he had learned to speak truth to power. More accurately, perhaps, as a born and bred New Yorker who received a thoroughly Jesuit education, he was a natural prodigy in the ways of outsmarting power.
Knowing the ways of all these worlds later made him a new, revolutionary kind of defense lawyer, who dramatically changed the methods of the defense bar. This is a widely acknowledged fact among lawyers, and not merely a son’s braggadocio.
By all accounts, Jimmy La Rossa may be the most famous person you’ve never heard of. For the thirty-plus years in which he was in his prime, Dad was always in the middle of a great maelstrom of lawyers, guns, and money, smiling that enormous, knowing smile of his and taking no prisoners.
Law professor Lawrence S. Goldman summarized Dad’s life succinctly: “Jimmy La Rossa was one of the last of a dying breed of old-fashioned criminal trial lawyers who tried big case after big case, often with little time for preparation. For him, cooperators were snitches and cooperation akin to treason. He was an extremely talented lawyer, with great courtroom presence and a lightning quick mind. He was probably the best cross-examiner I have ever seen in a courtroom. He was [among] the last of a generation of courtroom gladiators who were combative, never brought their clients to the prosecutor’s office to make a plea proffer, and fought the government at every turn.”
Born in 1931, Dad came of age professionally in the one place at the one time that really mattered. New York City was the gladiatorial epicenter of the criminal world. In 1979, Dad tried United States v. Scotto, the first major case in which the government used the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO. Dad pioneered defenses to thwart the government’s guillotine of a statute.
John Gotti’s killing of the Gambino Family crime boss, and my father’s longtime client, Paul Castellano, in 1985, just moments after leaving a meeting with my father, was one of the seminal crimes of the 20th century and hastened the demise of the American Mafia. By September 11, 2001, organized crime (OC) was so decimated that federal task forces that had spent decades fighting OC were reassigned overnight to the war on terrorism.
In 1977, Denis Hamill wrote a feature story about my father in New York Magazine titled, “Jimmy La Rossa: The Bionic Mouth of White Collar Crime.” After that, everybody referred to him as “Jimmy,” which was confusing because my mother called me Jimmy and my father Jim. (Later, when my publishing career took off, I migrated to “James,” which stuck.) No matter. It had become quite obvious to me that my five-foot-nine father had become an important fellow. I have been trying to steal my name back ever since.
I was still his namesake, after all, so at an early age he taught me to conduct myself like an important man. Part and parcel of whether I received his approval was, quite literally, my presentation. I learned that if I prepared my request carefully and came to him with a yellow legal pad of notes as to why he should grant my request, he took me more seriously and often granted me the privilege I sought. Make no mistake, he sent me back more than a few times to rethink my notes, knowing if it was important enough, I’d find a more convincing way to make my argument.
I was the son of a man blessed by the universe, and some of his luck rubbed off on me. If I had to choose one and only one mantra to repeat for eternity, it would be, “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.” Jimmy gifted me that luck, sure as shit.
Dad’s propensity to defend the underdog and to question power with knowledge nudged me in the same direction. I was the only kid in middle school, for example, who read three newspapers a day, had dissected the transcripts of the court-martial of Lieutenant William L. Calley for the 1968 My Lai Massacre, and had witnessed an oral argument before the United States Supreme Court in which the government was the defendant.
Great trial lawyers like my father’s idol, Edward Bennett Williams, live in the grays that mirror the impurities and variable winds of criminal acts. These cases are especially complex because virtually everyone involved—witnesses, defendants, and even the government itself—is already irreparably compromised on Day One. The great trial lawyer thus must have an intuitive sense of those things that do not fit easily into neat boxes.
Dad was poolside at a posh Miami resort having a quick bite in between depositions of his client, a New York congressman who was about to stand trial. In the pool, the famed lawyer and former Commie hunter, Roy Cohn, was frolicking with a young man. When Cohn noticed Jimmy, he popped out of the pool to say hello. Dad introduced him to the congressman. They made lawyerly small talk, then Cohn jumped back in the pool and went right back to his antics with the other man. Jimmy didn’t like much about Roy Cohn, but he admired that the man owned who he was, regardless of who was watching or what they were thinking.
When I penned the first words of this memoir in my chicken scratch on the beach, I did not fully understand how much my personal, circular journey with my father would match that of our nation’s current state of affairs. Dad joined the Marines during the Korean War to fight for democracy. His sense of right and wrong was a product of what he saw as the gross inequity of segregation and, above all else, governed by the abuse of power that Watergate represented.
Dad had felt the sting of prejudice when he was rejected by a big-name law firm because of his Italian American name, and was defensive of his many Jewish friends, who had experienced the same type of ethnic-directed bias. Dad was old school through and through, but abhorred any kind of prejudice, taking to heart the axiom that, regardless of race, or the pedigree you may or may not have been born with, “character is destiny.”
It is true that my father was regarded as a “hired gun” by much of the media of his time. As his son and confidant, I knew intimately that at his core was the distrust of an unchecked government. His life’s experiences, and especially his time as a federal prosecutor, further solidified that core belief.
Like so many people who came “of age” in the late 1950s, my father felt that the era of the Kennedys would deliver to our nation something profoundly better. Dad was a bona fide Kennedy-era member of the Democratic Party, which has little or nothing in common with the Democratic party of today. That must sound quaint to some, but it meant everything to Dad and (his protégé) me, who still longed for the promise of hope that the Kennedys once represented.
In a story by the writer Pete Hamill that I plucked off a shelf as a young boy and have never forgotten, Hamill describes a man whose car breaks down in a poor, rural area of Mexico, where a gringo can go missing with little or no fuss. When the lost soul fearfully knocks on the door of a ramshackle house looking for help, a large, unshaven man answers. Before anything is said, the stranger glances into the entryway to see candles illuminating two figures on the wall. The first is the Virgin Mary. The second is that of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
As Hamill describes it in the most breathtaking and meaningful moment I had ever experienced in a book, the stranger knows at that moment that no harm will come to him. Dad and I, likewise, would greet that man as our brother, knowing in our hearts we would be safe with a person who shared our love and respect for what could have been so long ago.
Every morning, for what seemed like a hundred years, I watched my father decked out in an immaculate blue Brioni suit, Zegna tie, and Ferragamo shoes, say his goodbyes to us like a warring conqueror, and head down the elevator to his waiting car. I thought to myself, “That is what men do,” so I followed his example.
As I was raising a family and growing a New York publishing company, (beginning in 1994, when I was 35-years old), Dad reveled in my success, which I have no doubt was a result of watching him lead a fearless life.
Part of my “success” was through happenstance. My emergence to professional adulthood in the 1990s—the decade in which my children were born-marked the pharmaceutical discovery of the magic “cocktail” that would enable me to control the near-homicidal mania I had struggled with throughout my twenties. As counterintuitive as it may sound, being able to manage my newfound mania would come in handy as I fought to save my father’s life time and again during our last five years together.
(Last of the Gladiators, itself, is a lesson in what is possible when happenstance is imbued with the divine. This true story was drafted in eight months—January 17, 2017 to September 17, 2017—while the profound grief of my father’s death was still upon me with fury. It was accepted for publication within just weeks of its completion. The final edits were penned in the California dawn hours in between World Cup games beamed live from Russia. Other than these salient facts, how I got here is largely a mystery.)
Dad was nothing if not lucky. And so, it seems, am I. So, in honoring one of my father’s first lessons, I find myself, at this very moment, a grown man with three children in college, perched on a beach chair just yards from the Pacific Ocean with a stack of yellow legal pads and a box of black Flair pens. To document this journey of a lifetime, I have, quite literally, come full circle.
From our house in Manhattan Beach, California, you can hear the foghorns toll at night in the Pacific when a marine layer blows in. The last night of my father’s life, the horns were blowing in the distance. For a man who, by the end, had little or no functioning lung tissue, Dad’s last breath was the deepest, longest, most powerful breath I had ever heard pass his lips.
Strong man. Strong life. Strong goodbye.
Friends and family have thanked me for “saving” my father and “giving” him those last five years. The fact is, I didn’t save him; he saved me. I became a better man and father thanks to him—a more joyous, grateful, and grounded soul. I think Jimmy knew I’d write this story someday, and that doing so would help ease the immense heartbreak I still experience every day without him.
This memoir has a unique undercurrent running through it: The love story between a father and son—a theme not often seen in American arts and letters. We were birds of a feather, who trusted and relied on each other without question throughout a long and storied life.
As you will come to know first hand, I was not the perfect son. Think of me as a fly on the wall of this big, ribald story, watching and bidding my time until the whole tale could be told.
It is no coincidence that the start of this book echoes the classic novel, Moby Dick. Like Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, it may be my voice you hear, though I am but a minor character.
I was lucky enough to witness some of what transpired. Dad told me the rest over the course of his final five years. This true, fantastic tale was the last of the many gifts my father bestowed on me. It is my honor to be able to share it with you.
James M. La Rossa Jr.
Manhattan Beach, California