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June 25, 2001
Making The Wiseguys Weep:
The Jimmy Roselli Story

Books Worth Buying

Book Review

By John William Tuohy


John William Tuohy is a writer who lives in Washingon, D.C.

     John Tuohy's book, The Last Gangster; The Life and Times of Roger Touhy and the Chicago Mob, released by Barricade Books.

Making The Wiseguys Weep: The Jimmy Roselli Story.
Written by David Evanier
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York, New York
ISBNO-374-19927-2
Hardback.
Available on Amazon.Com, from the publisher, and at some local bookstores.
256 pages, with index.
$24.00
Twenty-four photographs.


BOOK REVIEW

"If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same...." Rudyard Kipling

Before Johnny Roselli decided to flip and avoid deportation by feeding information to the feds, there was another (and is) another and different type of Roselli named Jimmy who made the wiseguys weep. But this Roselli is no rat. Thanks to the masterful writing of David Evanier, Jimmy Roselli's fascinating and frustrating story is now an open book. And what a story it is. Jimmy Roselli was and is the mob's favorite singer. He even calls himself "the sweetheart of the mob." New York mobster Larry Gallo was buried with one of Jimmy Roselli's albums resting in his arms. Roselli sang at John Gotti Jr.'s wedding reception. His rich, warm notes could, and did, bring Carlo Gambino to tears, and even on his worst day with a hangover, some people think Roselli could sing Frank Sinatra off a stage. (Evanier believes they are equally great singers)

And those names: Gallo, Gotti and Gambino are just a few of the big name hoods who stroll through the Roselli story. This book drips with Mafia figures, large and small, and colorful and vivid mob yarns that spare us the mind-numbing and useless details that are now stock in trade for the genre.

Instead, we have an enjoyable, engrossing, and skillfully crafted book about a complex but simple man who refuses to be swept up or moved from what he is, by the fickle tides of pop culture. This is a man's man who will not allow himself to be bullied by goons with guns or bulldozed by Hollywood hustlers with fast buck schemes. This is a man dedicated to his Italian heritage, to preserving the Neapolitan dialect in his music, and to singing great American ballads and saloon songs.

Jimmy Roselli is who he is, for better or worse. In fact, halfway through the book, it becomes obvious to the reader that the Old Blue eyes banner song, "My Way," truly should have been sung by Roselli and not Sinatra. In fact, some contend that Sinatra was a Jimmy Roselli wannabe but without the balls. Sinatra was very careful about where he threw his famous temper tantrums and which defenseless clerk's face he threw poker chips at. Roselli doesn't care. He was an equal opportunity ulcer. As Evanier writes, "One night a wiseguy from Boston came over to the house, and he wanted Jimmy to sing at an affair without payment of any kind. Jimmy refused, and stood up, ending the conversation. He told the mobster, `Look, I have no intention of singing for nothing. You can punch, you can do whatever you want.'"

My absolute favorite part of this book is a story that finds Roselli in Sinatra's Manhattan saloon, Jilly's, sipping a whiskey. Sinatra and gofers sashayed in and spotted Roselli at the end of the bar. Sinatra barked to Jilly: "Buy that kid at the end of the bar a drink." Roselli raised an eyebrow and said, "I got a drink in front me, Frank."

With stories like that, how can you not love this guy?

Then there was the case of mob boss Joe Colombo, whose Italian-American Anti-Defamation League did more damage to the Italian-American name than Capone on a coke binge. Colombo once came to the singer and said, 'Do my son's wedding and I'll fill your whole house with furniture."

Roselli did the gig, but, says Roselli, Colombo, a multimillionaire, "never gave me a chair." Welcome to the real world of wiseguys.

Later, Colombo actually had the nerve to draft Roselli to sing at a gathering of his Anti-Defamation League at Madison Square Garden,. Proud of his heritage and aware of an anti-Italian bias in the media, Roselli agreed to do the show. "Colombo said to me, `You gotta head the league, you gotta do this, you gotta do that.' I thought, `How could I walk away? They're all Italian.'"

However, true to wiseguy form, Colombo pulled a bait and switch on the singer. After Roselli agreed to the performance, the hood told him that Frank Sinatra, who did not play well with others, would also perform at the show and that Roselli's stage time was reduced to ten minutes. The beloved Jimmy Durante was removed from the show entirely. Sinatra and that other famous Italian-American, Sammy Davis, Jr., would be allowed as much time as they wanted to perform.

In fact, Sinatra didn't want Roselli on the stage at all. Roselli's people warned him that "Refusing to perform is what Sinatra wants you to do." Roselli, who could be an inside player when he wanted to be, saw through the scam at once: "But my fucking guina temper--I said, `Tell Joe Colombo he can suck my prick in Macy's window.' Joe Colombo said to me, `Go down the fucking aisle.' But I told him, `Fuck you, your Defamation league and all the fucking wiseguys.' I don't know how I didn't get killed. But they didn't kill me because they knew I was right. They coulda got me in a saloon, said somebody bumped into me, and go to work on me. But nobody did--because basically I never hurt anybody, and I never harmed anybody. And when I did tell somebody off, I was right. I used to say to the wiseguys: `You taught me all the fucking brains that I got. I learned from you guys.'"

Of course, to get away with that sort of behavior, one must have talent. Real talent. Roselli, who currently commands $l00,000 a performance, reeks talent from his pores. Sam Giancana, the equally colorful Chicago mob boss, came backstage after one of Roselli's performances and said, "I heard you was a prick. The way you sing, you got a right to be a prick." From the mouths of babes and psychopathic gunmen....

One factor was that Roselli always had a grudging respect for the wiseguys just as the wiseguys respected him. Deserted by his father and raised by his devoted grandfather, a longshoreman, after Jimmy's mother died in his childbirth, Roselli has always had a love-hate relationship with these "father figures" in his life. Roselli (and mad Sam DeStefano, by the way) called Giancana "Doc" or 'Doctor,' a privilege afforded to few others. Another factor was the protective love the Italian women of all ages felt for Roselli. Evanier quotes him: "When I started singing big, the tough guys were in the front row with the big cigars. They loved me so much they wanted to kill me. But their mothers and sisters and their lives wouldn't allow it."

Not only was it the women who protected Roselli, it was the bosses as well. As Evanier quotes a Roselli regular: 'But when a time came when somebody would say, `let's do away with this rotten son of a bitch,' this Godfather or that Godfather would jump in: `Oh no, nobody touches Roselli.' He was always protected."

One of his protectors was the ultimate Godfather, Carlo Gambino, who was said to have water in his veins in place of blood, but who can accurately be described as a Roselli groupie. When Roselli played the Copa or anyplace else, Gambino was there. He once sent his chauffeured limousine for the singer and had him driven to the Don's home in Massapequa, New York, the current residence of another crime family who live above the law, the Bubbah Clintons.

Roselli sidekick, Pete Cavallo, remembered: "We went to Carlo's house. Now we're with the boss of bosses. This man was in his seventies, he's sitting in his rocking chair. You thought, you're at your grandfather's house...His wife did the cooking, not the maids. It was a feast. And he was so warm...And he made a typical Italian dinner. Started off with the antipasto, and the pasta, with all the meat, and then the fresh ham, then all the celery, the olives, the cake with the cheese, the Italian expresso. I loved it there. He took us down to his wine cellar. He loved Jimmy."

Protected or not, Roselli paid dearly for being, essentially, a "standup guy,' something wiseguys say they admire, but apparently only in theory and not in practice. After Roselli refused to whore himself for Colombo, the mob boss did what mobsters do best, he stabbed Roselli in the back. (In this context, I should explain, I mean that figuratively, not literally). Taking a cue from another coward of epic proportions, Senator Joe McCarthy, Colombo blacklisted the singer by spreading a story that he was dumped from the League because he demanded 35 to 40 musicians (he didn't) and that "It's more important to Roselli that he have 25 men than that we put a few bricks in a hospital or feed hungry kids."

By the way, Colombo and his League never had any intention of building hospitals or feeding anyone but himself. The Anti-Defamation league, although Italian-Americans deserve a real one, was little more than a con job to keep the FBI off of Colombo's oversized butt and to line his pockets. The scam was so lucrative that Crazy Joe Gallo was working on his own version of it when he got his in Matty the Horse's place in Little Italy.

So Roselli, at the height of his career, was blackballed. Night clubs were pressured not to book him. There was a boycott of his records and his concerts. The Genovese family controlled, and as one FBI agent put it, "I mean controlled," the jukebox industry, so that was the end of Roselli's singles. His records simply disappeared. Once, when a patron was in a Miami bar owned by the mob, one of Roselli's records came on the box. The patron said, 'Boy, is this guy not the best singer you ever heard in your life?"

The bar owner said, "I forgot to take his records out."

In total, the boycott cost Roselli between $50,000 and $75,000 a year, a lot of money in 1969. A lot of money.

Roselli’s tie in the mob started after the singer returned home for the war in 1945. Six years later, he fell in with New Jersey’s "Trigger Mike" Coppola of the Genovese crime family.

"Trigger Mike Coppola was always good to me" Roselli recalled " He was one of the sweethearts. Beautiful man. He used to call me up every Sunday in Florida "Come on down and eat" Used to cook for me. He loved me"

From Coppola and others, Roselli was eventually introduced to Angelo "Gyp" De Carlo, a powerful Capo in the Genovese crime family and boss over Northern New Jerseys loan sharking, gambling and stolen securities operations. Its interesting to note that DeCarlo also ended his long criminal career with a complete and full Presidential Pardon dolled out by the Nixon administration. In 1955, DeCarlo and Roselli hooked up while Roselli was still struggling to build his career and DeCarlo made his pitch "I see you breaking your balls here, it breaks my heart. You got more brains than all these guys. Why should they be makin’ real money and you ain’t?"

Roselli broke off from De Carlo in 1962 when the singer financed his own record deal and by 1963, Roselli was headed for the big time.

Those of you who are old enough will remember the Ed Sullivan Show, which dominated TV screens for over two decades. An appearance on the program could, and did, make an entertainer's career overnight, as it did with Elvis, the Beatles and hundreds, if not thousands of others.

Sullivan, who had his own interesting but ugly skeletons tucked away in his closet, used his show's considerable clout to, essentially, get top line performers on the show for slave wages. And it worked, except, of course, in Roselli's case.

Sullivan, Roselli told Evanier, "used to run after me every night at the Copa with his wife. They stood up after every song screaming and applauding. I told him I didn't like his show. And I didn't. It was a bullshit show. The main thing is, he didn't pay no fucking money. He kept it all." One day, Sullivan cornered the singer in an elevator and asked, 'So when you are coming on my show?" Roselli replied, "With a little luck, never," and walked away.

Eventually, he did the show, several of them in fact, but not without tangling with Sullivan first. In fairness, Roselli also turned down the standard $450.00 fees offered by multimillion-dollar hosts like Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin to appear on their shows. As I said, Roselli is an equal opportunity ulcer.

Now it looks like Roselli will have the last laugh. A movie about his life is being planned that is adapted from Evanier's book, "Making the Wiseguys Weep." The projected film's working title is "Standing Room Only."

In the end, there's a case to be made for either liking Roselli or resenting him. I suspect Roselli would gleefully champion both sides of the argument just to annoy people. He is his own man. In an industry that crushes independent thinkers, that's no small thing. If there is a real hero of Hoboken, in the literal sense of what Hoboken means, it's Roselli. He is, as Evanier writes, "the soul of the Italian-American community." Buy this book.

 

NOTE: All of Roselli's thirty-six albums are in print. Evanier lists seven as his greatest; "3 A.M.," "Best of Neapolitan Songs,' "Jimmy Roselli," "What Is A Song," "Come Into My Life," "The Italian Album," and "When Your Old Wedding Ring Was New." The CD's and records are available on Mr. Roselli's web site: "www.Jimmy Roselli.com." His records are also available on the Webster Records website and at Tower Records stores across the country.

 

PORTRAIT OF A WRITER: AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID EVANIER, AUTHOR OF "MAKING THE WISEGUYS WEEP: THE JIMMY ROSELLI STORY"

 

David Evanier is a writer's writer. Authors study his craftsmanship.

His widely regarded books include "Making the Wiseguys Weep: The Jimmy Roselli Story," which was on the New York Times Recommended Books of the Year list and nominated for the Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award.

Evanier has also published a novel about the Rosenberg espionage case called "Red Love," and two other novels: "The One-Star Jew" and "the Swinging headhunter." He received the Aga Khan Fiction Prize.

He has also written for Commentary, New York Magazine, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, The Paris Review, Southwest Review, Antioch Review, The New York Times, The Forward, National Review, The New leader and The Village Voice.

Evanier has paid his dues along the way, working as a teenager as a copyboy at the New York Post. He received his B.A. from the New School for Social Research, working nights at the New York Times on the morgue/society news desk and later the New York Times Sunday Magazine. He received his M.A. from the University of British Columbia, where he worked as editor of the show business weekly, "Stage Door," and went on to become Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Douglas College in Vancouver. He has also taught at the Writers Community in New York and at UCLA Extension in Los Angeles. Evanier has also been assistant editor of The New Leader and a senior editor of The Paris Review.

TUOHY: Like the subject of your book, you're also a product of the east coast, big city, ethnic world, correct?

EVANIER: Yes, my friends call me a street rat. Love the big cities. I grew up in the Jewish and Italian neighborhoods of Queens: Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Corona, near the home of Louis Armstrong. Had my first Sicilian pizza for ten cents from a store with a coal oven stove across the street from my school, Junior High School l6. Was bar mitzvahed at the Corona Jewish Center, right in the Italian neighborhood. It was a real Jewish-Italian mix. My best friend was Eddie Colletti. His father was a cop and his family fed me pasta a lot. Very warm family.

TUOHY: And your family?

EVANIER: I didn't have much of a home life.

TUOHY: Did that indirectly lead to a writers life?

EVANIER: At l4 I was a copy boy at the New York Post, picking up the five morning papers on south Street on the waterfront. Later I was a copy boy at the New York Times and graduated to the morgue-society news desk at the paper.

TUOHY: Any favorite writer from your childhood?

EVANIER: I grew up on Walter Winchell, Barry Gray, the radio talk show host, the proletarian novels of James T. Farrell, who I met later, Harold Robbins' "A Stone for Danny Fisher," Richard Wright's "Native Son." The RKO Palace revived vaudeville briefly when I was a kid and I went every week. I saw Judy Garland and Belle Baker, and all the old-timers: Buck and Bubbles, Whispering Jack Smith, Pigmeat Markham, Smith and Dale. They were magic to me.

 

TUOHY: I appreciate your candor, Dave. At the risk of prying, what was wrong with your home life?

EVANIER: My parents were first-generation American Jews, very self-conscious and insecure in their skins. They had a lot of shame about their origins, and wanted to be "modern" and fashionable in their views and styles. My father was an insurance salesman, my mother a typing teacher. Their mode of communication was a lot of screaming and hollering with each other and toward me. They separated when I was eight. Their shouting told me they were very frightened of the world, and I knew and felt it from an early age. I grew up sane by finding teachers and friends and mentors who had a firmer grasp on things than my parents. I have written a great deal about my parents in my fiction. My father often told me he was my best subject in my writing, and he was not far off on that. He also told me the best writers developed from suffering, and so I was also lucky that he made my life so miserable.

TUOHY: You attended the very progressive St. John's college in Annapolis, Emerson College in Boston, graduated from the New School for Social Research and received your M.A. from the University of British Columbia. That's a long way from the world of wiseguys and Jimmy Roselli. What brought you into Roselli's world?

EVANIER: I think I was always partly in Roselli's world. Colleges, the academic community, never did much for me, except for some writing workshops at the New School. I was family-deprived, and I was always looking for a family to make up for it and an Italian girl to love. I just wanted to write and to have a family. I had a lot of static in my head from my crazy family, and I needed anchoring. I guess you could call my search reality-oriented. Went to Emerson College, did nothing there but loved Boston, especially the Italian North End, the Boston Garden and writing by the Charles River. My best memories of the University of British Columbia are meeting my dear friends and first publishers Buddy and Cherie Smith, Jimmy Colistro, publisher of "Stage Door," a show business weekly I edited, and my nights in the student lounge watching Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra together on Christmas Eve, and watching Dean every week, who I revered. That's the truth. Loved the Italian singers: Sinatra, Dean, Tony Bennett, Louis Prima, Bobby Darin. So discovering Roselli was a natural for me.

TUOHY: Why?

EVANIER: As I said, I always had a warm connection to the Italian-American community. It had character and receptivity and friendship for me. And lots of fun.

TUOHY: Who introduced you to the culture?

EVANIER: When I was l7, I was in therapy with an Italian who charged me ten bucks for three hours. He was an eccentric: taught me to breathe by playing Sinatra records for me, took me to Italian restaurants in Greenwich Village to play bocce and learn to mix my veal, broccoli and pasta together. He knew all the old-timers in the Village. When he came here from Italy, he told me, he ate out of garbage cans. Loved women, loved Sinatra, loved literature, Hemingway above all. During our therapy sessions, he drank from a vodka tumbler and by the end of the session he didn't recognize me.

TUOHY: That's a pretty good price for an analyst.

EVANIER: Well, he didn't have a license. Even the medical magazines in his waiting room were filched for him by his patients from other doctors' offices. Later, after I stopped seeing him, I once saw him sitting on a bench in Washington Square with a pigeon on his head.

TUOHY: Did he also introduce you to Roselli? Or his singing anyway?

EVANIER: While going to college, I lived across the street from the famous Rao's Italian Restaurant in the Italian area of Harlem on Pleasant Avenue, where I first heard Roselli sing on the jukebox. I started to bump into his voice everywhere, yet nobody seemed to know who he was except Italian people. His picture was on the walls of al the restaurants, beside Sinatra and the Pope. I went to Israel for three months and that was another wonderful, inspiring reality-based experienced. Returned to New York and lived in the student house of the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square, right down the block from my favorite hangout, Arturo's, on Thompson Street. I heard Roselli there. I lived on Sullivan Street in the village too. Walked down to the Limehouse, the only Italian seafood house in Chinatown then. Heard Roselli again there. Ate at Lanza's on First Avenue. The elderly waiter interrupted me when I played Roselli's "Just Say I Love Her" and said to me, "You're listening to the greatest Italian singer sing the greatest Italian love song." I was impressed by that.

TUOHY: When did you first hear him sing in person?

EVANIER: Then I went to see him sing for the first time at Westbury Music Fair. He had so many musicians bunched up on stage behind him (50 of them) they almost fell off the stage. This guy was so totally unpretentious, a man of few but succinct words. I was amazed by his voice, but also by the passion of the audience; their love for him and his love for them. The connectedness. And by all the elderly people in wheelchairs at the back who had come from across the country to see him. You knew they would do this for no other singer. I remember thinking this guy is the soul of the Italian-American community.

TUOHY: How did you locate Jimmy Roselli? How did he respond to the idea of a biography?

EVANIER: When I arrived in Hollywood, I faxed him and told him I wanted to write about him. He was receptive. I flew to Hoboken and met him and his wife Donna and his colleague Marie Greene on Christmas Day. On that first day of our meeting, he said "I'm going to work with you. Because I know you believe in what you're doing." He was right. He opened everything up to me, gave me access to his family and friends.

TUOHY: MR. Roselli seems to be a very direct fellow, to say the least, bearing in mind The business he's in. What was it like to work with him?

EVANIER: Difficult, entertaining, maddening, endearing. He's very smart and very tough, a man's man. There's no veneer. Very witty: remember his line in my book about his early days as a singer in tough saloons: "They used to have intermissions to carry out the wounded." That's vintage Jimmy. I love to listen to him talk. He's a charismatic guy; people fight to be around him. He brings out a protective streak in people. Underneath the tough guy is the little kid whose mother died in his childbirth, and who was a shoeshine boy in Hoboken. He has never forgotten his roots.

TUOHY: So he sat through a series of interviews for you?

EVANIER: Many hours of interviews, covering the entire span of his life.

TUOHY: Any one of Roselli's songs you hold as a favorite?

EVANIER: "Just Say I Love Her" is my favorite. But I love many of his songs.

TUOHY: Any one song he holds as a favorite?

EVANIER: I would guess "You May Not Remember" is a favorite of his. Also "For All We Know" and Sammy Cahn's "I Should Care."

TUOHY: Jimmy Roselli is a great singer. He's no John Tuohy, but he's great. where do you rate him as far as that generation of Italian balladeers is concerned? Better than Sinatra?

EVANIER: I rate Roselli and Sinatra at the top. To compare them is to compare apples and oranges, they're so different. You're talking about the best. They both have the riveting passion and the warmth. They both give everything they've got. Roselli has a much greater range. He has a cantorial quality. And he's also a belter. Sinatra is more nuanced, sophisticated, introspective and stylized. They're both great saloon and ballad singers. Roselli is also the greatest Neapolitan singer and a great singer in Italian. Sinatra can't do any of that. But Sinatra is more versatile and varied in English. You're talking about greatness, different kinds of greatness. They both have that intimacy: you feel as if they're singing directly to you. I listen to Roselli all the time, constantly. He's just a wonderful singer. They're both rooted in the streets; you hear the pavement in their sound. This is true of Tony Bennett as well, which was pointed out by the music critic Whitney Balliett.

TUOHY: Music and song is important in every culture, of course, but it seems to have a special place in the Italian and Italian-American community. What's your take on that?

EVANIER: Yes, there's no question of that. You will find it in every nook and cranny of Italian experience. If you examine two classics of Italian American literature: Pietro de Donato's "Christ in Concrete" and Jerre Mangione's "Mount Allegro" you will find the centrality of music and song in Italian life. In "Christ in Concrete" the impoverished, oppressed bricklayers constantly brighten their lives with music and song.

TUOHY: Why do you think Americans like Italians so much?

EVANIER: They bring us joy, character, centeredness, authenticity and vividness. It's no mystery why "The Sopranos" is probably the most popular and certainly the finest series in television history. Think about all the great films that the Italian-American experienced has evoked. I can name you 22: "Saturday Night Fever," "Mean Streets," "Rocky," "Donnie Brasco," "From Here to Eternity" (Sinatra as Magio), "Raging Bull," "Goodfellas," "A View from the Bridge," "Marty," "A Bronx Tale," "Mac," "The Godfather One and Two," "True Love," "Somebody Up There Likes Me," "Baby It's You," "Federal Hill," "Prince of the City," "Broadway Danny Rose," "Moonlighting," "Serpico," "In the Soup," "Bullets Over Broadway." That's only the start of the list. It's not an accident.

TUOHY: In 1992, you received a screen writing fellowship from Universal/Amblin. Did you ever produce any work for the studios?

EVANIER: My only work for the studios thus far has been my Roselli biography, "Making the Wiseguys Weep: The Jimmy Roselli Story." I now have other projects which the studios are considering.

TUOHY: Did you pen the screenplay for "Making the Wiseguys Weep" or did they, the production company bring in their own writer?

EVANIER: I did write a screenplay for it, which I'm proud of, but they didn't even look at it. They have their "A" list of screenwriters who they use. The screenwriters leaned heavily on talking to me and adapting their work from "Making the Wiseguys Weep."

TUOHY: John Travolta and Touchstone Pictures optioned "Making the Wiseguys

Weep?"

EVANIER: Yes, twice. Now it looks as if it will be done by someone else.

TUOHY: What's the working title for the film?

EVANIER: "Standing Room Only."

TUOHY: Travolta's good, of course, he's no John Tuohy, but he's a good,

seasoned actor, Italian-American. What brought the role to his attention?

EVANIER: The producer heard Travolta was about to go on a plane trip. She rushed to his house and gave him a copy of "Making the Wiseguys Weep" and he read it on the plane and loved it.

TUOHY: Anyone else show an interest in taking the role?

EVANIER: Oh yes: Joe Pesci, Chazz Palmintieri.

TUOHY: Anyone else you can imagine playing Roselli?

EVANIER: Sure. Jimmy Gandolfini would be great. Steve Buscemi, Johnnie Depp, Armand Assante, Tony Danza.

TUOHY: In 1992, you received a screen writing fellowship from Universal/Amblin. Did you ever produce any work for the studios?

EVANIER: My only work for the studios thus far has been my Roselli biography, "Making the Wiseguys Weep: The Jimmy Roselli Story." I now have other projects which the studios are considering.

TUOHY: Did you pen the screenplay for "Making the Wiseguys Weep" or did they, the production company bring in their own writer?

EVANIER: I did write a screenplay for it, which I'm proud of, but they didn't even look at it. They have their "A" list of screenwriters who they use. The screenwriters leaned heavily on talking to me and adapting their work from "Making the Wiseguys Weep."

TUOHY: You've got the training, the skill and the inroads; why not go into screenwriting full time.

EVANIER: I plan to do much more of it. But fiction is my first love, so it's a matter of the amount of time you have.

TUOHY: And how do you choose a subject to write about?

EVANIER: Someone who obsesses me, grips me, fascinates me, inspires me. I have to like someone a lot to write about them. Subjects by nature have to be dramatic as well. Stanley Elkin said, "I never write about someone who's not at the end of his rope."

TUOHY: How do you write? What methods do you practice? Do you sit down and go at it full steam or work your writing over a series of months?

EVANIER: I go at it full steam. Usually it's the culmination of a gestation process: you're thinking, you're taking notes. By the time I sit down to write, it sometimes jumps out of me. I start with the most far-out image I can conjure up, the wildest. You have to trust yourself. I immerse myself. The best stuff comes when you're no longer thinking about it but fully involved, when it has to come out. Getting that second wind and flying.

TUOHY: Who influences your writing style?

EVANIER: Anybody I admire. Good writing can be contagious: Stephen Dixon, Philip Roth, Harvey Shapiro, Ralph Ellison, Sherwood Anderson, Thomas Beller, Grace Paley, Daniel Fuchs, Rita Ciresi, Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams. Regarding work for the screen or TV, David Chase, who conceived, directs and sometimes writes "The Sopranos" has got to be any serious writer's inspiration.

TUOHY: Can one learn writing?

EVANIER: I've never reached a definitive conclusion about this. Sometimes I think yes, sometimes no. It depends on the individual. Some have a tin ear, and always reach for the cliché or the flat word. There are people who could never write. Yet I've been surprised more than once by someone who seemed hopeless who carved out a niche for themselves by sheer dint of will, stamina, crazy determination, finding a subject that was so important to them they just had to do it. God knows you can't know by the look of a person. There are dazzling talkers who freeze on the page. There are introverted, withdrawn, desperately shy types who take to writing like to a first lover. I think--regarding fiction writing--that scientists, philosophers, abstract thinkers, have a particularly hard time thinking fictionally. But it's a mystery, and you never really know who will turn into a writer. I'm teaching a fiction workshop now where every single student is working on a manuscript that is potentially publishable. That took us two years to achieve. I pushed, prodded, criticized, gave them emotional support and understanding, talked to them on the phone, helped them understand why they were avoiding getting closer to their material, and helped them reach an awareness of what they really wanted to write about. I got them to tell me when I was hurting their feelings. They told me they thought I was favoring one student, so I learned from that. Students do learn from my passions. If I see a published story by a writer I really love, like Stephen Dixon, who sometimes I think is the best fucking writer I've ever read in my lifetime, like his novel "Frog" or his short story, "Sleep,"I'll bring it in, pull it out, and have to read it to them. They learn from the story itself, but also from my enthusiasm about it, why I feel that way about it. And not only fiction, anything that excites me, like the autobiographies of Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan, or Alfred Kazin's memoir, "A Walker in the City." So in answer to your question, can one learn writing: who the fuck knows?

TUOHY: You're working on a piece about the legendary Buster from Chicago. Who was he? Did he exist?

EVANIER: Buster was considered one of the Mafia's most prodigious killers, working first with Al Capone and later with Lucky Luciano. His mentor was

Machine Gun Jack McGurn, who taught him about guns and about anonymity. Buster learned. He was never caught or punished for a crime in his life. Law enforcement never learned his real last name. They thought he died in l93l (that's the official version in the Mafia Encyclopedia) but he actually lived and murdered for another 59 years. He died in Los Angeles in l990 at the ripe old age of 83 and of natural causes. Some people I respect think Buster never existed. I know he did.

TUOHY: Of course he's mentioned in the Valachi papers, the memoirs of Joe

Valachi, whose memories have never been questioned, you're aware of that I guess?

EVANIER: Yes, Valachi writes about him at length. Says he looked like a student and always carried his machine gun in a violin case. Buster actually took violin lessons as a young lad.

TUOHY: Favorite mob film?

EVANIER: "Mean Streets." (Roselli sings in it, by the way). And now "The Sopranos" as well.

TUOHY: Let's step back and talk about your book, "Red Love" which is a novel about the Rosenbergs. What brought you around to that?

EVANIER: As a young man, I hung around the periphery of the Old Left, looking for a girl friend and, as I said before, a family. It was too freakish for me, but its very oddity gave it a human fascination. This was after Khrushchev's l956 speech detailing Stalin's crimes. These were people worshipping the Soviet slave state, yet they prided themselves on their humanity. The hysteria surrounding the Rosenbergs was amazing to witness.

Later, in the l980s, I decided they were a great subject for a novel. Anyone who knew the Communist Party operation knew the Rosenbergs were guilty. But after all, spying for Stalin was a high honor. The slogan I invent in the novel sums up how the Communists felt about the Rosenbergs: "Whatever they did, they didn't do it."

But it took me years to figure out how to write it, they were considered such saints in many people's eyes. And I wanted to prove their guilt, even though it was a novel. Finally I decided on the style of comedy, which freed me up and gave me a chance to get at the subject in, I think, a fresh way. One of the reviews said my book was "almost disgracefully funny." But I arrived at the writing of the book after a very long period of studying the files the history of the case, and interviewing hundreds of people, including Morton Sobell, who was convicted with the Rosenbergs, Sobell's wife Helen, and the sister of Julius Rosenberg, and scores of their neighbors and friends. I believe I got under the skin of these people. It took years of effort. When I finally wrote the first chapter, I threw out all the files and the documentation, and let my head and heart do the work.

By the way, when I wrote the first chapter, it was a rainy, miserable day, but when I finished and looked up, the sun was shining. I believe my novel would make a good film.

TUOHY: What about the infamous Pumpkin Papers? In the end, it appears that Nixon was correct.

EVANIER: I'll need to sketch in a little background here. In l948 Whittaker Chambers testified that Alger Hiss, a respected member of the Washington establishment, was a secret Communist and Soviet spy. Chambers described an extensive Communist underground that existed in Washington in the l930s. He worked with Hiss as Soviet source and courier from l934 until Chambers' defection from the underground in l938. After that, one of his key assignments was assisting secret Communists who worked for government agencies in Washington. Chambers became a Washington to New York courier, dealing with the Harold Ware group in the State department. The Ware group was a small cadre of New Deal officials, young Communist professionals including Hiss, working for the Agricultural Adjustment Agency. It was both a "Marxist study group" and transmission belt for stolen government documents. After the group disbanded following the death of Ware, Chambers kept receiving pilfered material from Alger Hiss and other Washington sources, delivering it in l935 and l936 to Itzhak Akhmerov of the NkVD and Joszef Peter, [known as "Peters"] who represented both the American Communist Party and the Comintern. When Chambers decided to defect, he began to hold back various State Department items he had received from Hiss: four handwritten notes, 65 pages of retyped cables, and three rolls of microfilm. Fearing retaliation, he called these documents "life preservers" that would keep him from harm by the Communists because he warned them he would have the documents turned over to American authorities. The documents are among the most extensive tangible evidence of Soviet espionage within the U.S. government during the Stalin era. Chambers defected in April l938, and squirreled the documents away for safekeeping. They eventually would prove that Chambers was telling the truth in his allegations against Hiss. In l948 Chambers told the House Committee on Un-American Activities that Hiss had been a member of the Ware Group and that he was a Communist. He repeated his charges on "Meet the Press." Hiss sued for slander, demanding that Chambers produce any documents relevant to his charge that Hiss had been a Communist. That was a crucial mistake on Hiss' part. On December 2, Chambers took two HUAC investigators to his Westminster farm. He walked into a garden patch and removed the top from a hollowed-out pumpkin. Reaching inside, he pulled out two strips of developed film and canisters containing three rolls of undeveloped film. The film contained State Department documents. The two rolls of undeveloped film contained Navy Department documents from early l938. These documents--the Pumpkin Papers—were powerful evidence. Hiss was convicted in l950.

TUOHY: What motivated them, the Rosenbergs, and hundreds of thousands of others, to believe as they did? Recently, I finished a work by the Chicago-based writer, Nelson Algren who also held, generally, the same leanings as the Rosenbergs. Why was it so much a part of that post-war generation?

EVANIER: Well, the Rosenbergs took their beliefs a lot further than the fellow travelers of the period, but yes, there were many who believed as they did, and others who acted as they did. These were people shaped by hard times, especially the Depression, the rise of Nazism, the feeling the world was falling apart. They were looking for a panacea, a new utopia, and for many, many years, they clung to the pipe dream that the Soviet Union was the best hope of humanity. This point of view made them feel good about themselves: they were "progressive," they were on the right side of history.

It took an endless series of disillusioning events to pull them away: there was the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Soviet concentration camps, Khrushchev’s speech, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, on and on, until there was nothing left of the illusion.

TUOHY: But don't you feel, as many people do, that there was, at least in some part, some anti-Semitic element to the execution of the Rosenbergs?

EVANIER: There has been a long history of the far right's tying Jews to Communism. Anti-Semites will blame anything on the Jews. I deal with it in "Red Love." That did not make the Rosenbergs innocent of their specific crime. The judge and prosecutor were Jewish, and they undoubtedly felt keenly aware of their role in the case. The Communist Party actually exploited the Rosenbergs as a way of diverting attention from the anti-Semitic trials of Rudolph Slansky going on in Communist Czechoslovakia at the time. I did not favor the execution of the Rosenbergs, but I do not think there was any anti-Semitic element, except to the extent that anti-Semites were happy about it. I do think, however, that America was becoming grimly aware of the dangers of Communist aggression due to the Korean war. The realities of Soviet espionage in the Rosenberg case, following upon the Judith Coplon espionage case and the conviction of Alger Hiss in 1950, also made the country feel vulnerable and afraid. All this influenced the verdict in an extreme way.

TUOHY: Joe McCarthy is an interesting figure, some swear by his name, others swear at it. What's your take on him?

EVANIER: I think McCarthy immeasurably damaged the cause of anti-Communism because of his irresponsible and wild charges. He shouted, "fire" so many times that people actually ignored the flames when they were real. Anyone could shout "McCarthyism," no matter what they had actually done, and receive a sympathetic ear. There are many superb books on McCarthy: David Oshinsky's "A Conspiracy So Immense" and Thomas C. Reeves' "The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy." Most recently, Bill Buckley, once a passionate defender of McCarthy, has written a vivid and powerful novel, "The

Redhunter" in which he comes to the conclusion that McCarthy, whom Buckley found enormously sympathetic on a personal level, was destroyed by his alcoholism, lack of discipline and personal irresponsibility. He sees his failure as a tragedy. There has been a recent effort to resurrect McCarthy by the historian, Arthur Herman. That effort has been eloquently skewered by the anti-Communist historian, Ronald Radosh, in "The New Republic."

TUOHY: No conversation about Joe McCarthy is complete without at least a passing mention of his fascinating assistant, Roy Cohn. What's your take on him?

EVANIER: No one who knew Cohn tended to think of him as anything but loathsome. Smart, gifted, but a permanent prankster. Again, see Buckley's account of him in "The Redhunter." Cohn's obsession with David Schine explained almost all of his reprehensible actions, and were part of the reason for McCarthy's downfall. That said, I found the glee with which some people reacted to his having contacted AIDS to be more loathsome than he was.

TUOHY: Back to writing for a second. So do you hold to the theory, "Write with our heart first and rewrite with your mind later?" and can you do that, successfully, when writing non-fiction?

EVANIER: No, that's much more applicable to writing fiction. But it's also relevant in a limited way to writing non-fiction. If we write about a subject we feel deeply about, care about passionately, that informs any piece of writing. But clearly in non-fiction, a profound grasp of the subject, logic, reason, organization, objectivity and factual knowledge are very important factors.

TUOHY: We are, in my opinion, a wealthy and successful society, but we are not, again in my opinion, a highly literate people, by way of comparison to our wealth. So what is the role, the function of the writer in our society?

EVANIER: To entertain, enlighten, illuminate, give us joy, give us insight, make us more aware of ourselves and of the human condition. To inspire us to be better toward each other, to right wrongs and see things in a new light.

TUOHY: How do you bring together the world of the writer, which is to some degree, at least, an artistic vocation, and the business world that is publishing? Do we, writers, write to sell or write what is important and won't sell?

EVANIER: We write because we have to, we write to sell, and we try to write what is important. We want all these things. Sometimes the good work sells, sometimes it doesn't. The business of publishing is the usual business of profit and loss. If the author's books sell, the publisher will be happy to publish the work when it is good and important. If the work is good and important but doesn't sell, the publisher will lose interest. Nevertheless, I think many if not most publishers hope to sell good work. Sometimes they will take a loss to publish it. They will sometimes stick with writers over the long haul, hoping to develop them and build their careers. Writers do get a chance in the marketplace, but if they don't produce growing profits for the publisher, their chances grow dimmer with time.

TUOHY: Fiction is your first love, yet isn't it much more difficult than writing non-fiction?

EVANIER: Yes, you write fiction because you need to and want to. The odds of making real money from it are very low. I don't know of any talented fiction writers who don't get published somehow, but I know of very few who are making a living from it.

TUOHY: And how do you write? In spurts? Over a period of weeks? In rushed frenzy?

EVANIER: Sometimes each of those things. As I said earlier, it's obsession and need. You've got to do it. When it goes well, it's one of the great experiences of life. But it has to be done in private, in isolation, so it's lonely and anxiety-ridden.

TUOHY: Advice to new writers?

EVANIER: I teach fiction writing, so I've often pondered this question. Above all, read great work. Don't start small in your reading. Talent is inspiring and contagious sometimes, if you're not intimidated and frightened by it. And don't worry about plunging into chaos and uncertainty. That's the process of fiction writing. You don't have to know where you are going when you start a manuscript. And trust yourself. Trust your instincts and your thoughts and feelings. Choose subjects that are of urgent and desperate importance to you. Those are the subjects that will make you work hard and do the job. And take notes all the time. Write down dialogue. Listen to people. Everyone has a unique way of speaking. Dostoevsky said, "Respect life."

TUOHY: You said that Eugene O'Neill was an influence. And I think, considering your family lives, that you and Mr. O'Neill would be fast friends.

EVANIER: I would have considered knowing O'Neill a great honor. He represents the highest glory of American literature. His best work will live forever: "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "A Moon for the Misbegotten," "The Hairy Ape," "The Emperor Jones," the one-act sea plays. I did, by the way, know his biographer, Louis Sheaffer, who died a few years back. Lou was a desperately shy man who lived in a studio apartment all his life--in the Brooklyn building where Thomas Wolfe had lived. Lou had been a reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle. When the paper folded, he devoted the rest of his life to O'Neill and won the Pulitzer Prize. He sacrified everything for that biography. Interestingly, Lou was not a born writer at all. He was a plugger. He rose to heights because of his obsession with his subject. He somehow willed himself to do it. I doubt he could be as eloquent about any other writer or work of literature as he was about O'Neill. You know, writers are as strange as the rest of us. You never know when they'll emerge. It's a mystery. Elia Kazan's autobiography, "A Life," is totally different from his other efforts at writing. It's a masterpiece. And yet when he tried to write autobiographically on film, with "America America" and "The Arrangement"--and we're talking about one of the greatest directors of all time--he failed, I think.

But as to O'Neill: his account of his family in his later work marks his emergence into greatness as a writer. I do feel a kinship with "Long Day's Journey Into Night," because of my own dysfunctional family. I admire it because it is so suffused with love and understanding for his parents and brother but written with absolute objectivity and beauty. O'Neill started his career beautifully with his accounts of his jobs on ships, but during his middle period he sailed away from us with "big concept," stylistic and abstract journeys that are impossible to read today, such as "Strange Interlude". Some of the plays of the middle period are just awful: "All God's Chillun Got Wings," for example. But he came back to earth with the final plays. If I were on a desert island and allowed to take only three books with me, I would choose "Long Day's Journey Into Night" among them.

TUOHY: I have no doubt "Red Love" would be a good film. Have you brought it to Hollywood's attention?

EVANIER: I agree that it would. You never know in Hollywood, but with the preponderance of films that are geared to kids, with huge technical effects and exploding missiles and firestorms and automobile chases, very few serious films get made. I would hope that one of the independents might take a look at it. "Donnie Brasco"--a great film, by the way--took nine years to get made, and it was a British director who pushed it through, Mike Newell. Publishing is tough, but Hollywood is a trip. You have to experience it to believe it.

 

 

 

Mr. Tuohy can be reached at MobStudy@aol.com


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