FEATURE

The Insanity Offense

The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld BY Tom Folsom. Weinstein Books. Hardcover, 256 pages. $24.

IN A VIDEO CLIP of Joseph “Crazy Joe” Gallo testifying at the McClellan Committee’s 1958 hearings on organized crime, the mobster wears a black shirt and dark oversize sunglasses. His hair is slicked back, and sly comedy can be detected in his repeated assertion of his Fifth Amendment rights—especially when the exasperated chairman asks, “Have you a father and a mother?” and Gallo hits his mark: “I respectfully decline to answer because I honestly believe my answer might tend to incriminate me.” The performance-ready look—lifted from Richard Widmark’s character Tommy Udo in the 1940s noir Kiss of Death—is enhanced by the sardonic addition of “honestly,” as well as the provisional note struck by the verb “tend,” both actorish improvisations on an otherwise blandly legal script.

Despite his alert sense of style and intellectual pretensions, which included reading Camus and Nietzsche while hanging out in the Village listening to jazz, Gallo was a thoroughgoing gangster and sociopath. “All of his life they told him he was nuts,” writes Tom Folsom in his hard-boiled ode to Joey, The Mad Ones: Crazy Joe Gallo and the Revolution at the Edge of the Underworld (2008). The doctors concurred, diagnosing the young Gallo as schizophrenic after a 1950 arrest landed him in a psych ward. Operating out of his native Red Hook, Brooklyn, Gallo worked as a hit man for the Profaci family and is generally believed to have been one of the killers who gunned down Albert Anastasia in the Park Sheraton barbershop in 1957. Gallo had tried his hand at watercolors but this was his masterwork: The crime-scene photograph—Anastasia, arms outstretched, lies beneath a barber’s chair draped in bloody towels—is one of the most enduring pieces of Mafia iconography.

During a prison stay in the ’60s, Gallo befriended Harlem drug kingpin Nicky Barnes and members of the Black Muslims. With Barnes, Folsom reports, “Joey had finally found a sparring partner to debate finer points of existentialist philosophy. Talk devolved from Camus to what they knew best. Nicky dug the chicks that came up to visit Joe. ‘Beautiful fucking women,’ said Nicky, ‘like they’d just came off of the beach somewhere.’” Other made men disdained Gallo for associating with black inmates, but Crazy Joe, ever on the cutting edge, had a plan to bring uptown criminals into his own gang. The broad daylight murder of family boss Joseph Colombo—during a rally protesting the depiction of Italian Americans in The Godfather—was thought to have been arranged by Gallo because it was committed by an African American. It was “like Joey leaving a ‘calling card,’” one reporter put it. The oblique theatrics were not unlikely for a murderer who told his parole officer, according to Folsom, that he wanted to write a play about his prison years—“something like Genet.”

Of course, he never wrote that play, although his story was told and retold by others: A tabloid sensation in his own time, the subject of articles by Pete Hamill and a novel by Jimmy Breslin, Gallo would eventually have his own biopic and be lionized by Bob Dylan as a “king of the streets and a child of clay.” An artiste of mayhem, whose disorganized mind served organized crime, Gallo could have staged his own Grand Guignol demise: Dining with his wife, sister, and daughter at Umberto’s Clam House, he was set upon by assassins, who chased him out the door, bullets flying. He collapsed at the intersection of Mulberry and Hester, the heart of Little Italy, and died there with his head cradled in his sister’s lap.

Albert Mobilio’s book of short fiction, Games and Stunts, will be published by Black Square Editions in the fall.