Sunday, August 17, 2008

The House Painter

My latest read is a book that was recommended by a friend of the family. A big part of the appeal of the book for me was the fact that it covers both Philly and Scranton.

Of course, that's not the focus of the story. Rather, the book, "I Heard You Paint Houses," is a true crime genre by Charles Brandt, which tells the story of what really happened to long, lost Jimmy Hoffa. As described in Hoffa Solved, the website devoted to the book:

"I heard you paint houses" are the first words Jimmy Hoffa ever spoke to Frank "the Irishman" Sheeran. To paint a house is to kill a man. The paint is the blood that spatters on the walls and floors. In the course of nearly five years of recorded interviews, long-time Hoffa suspect, Frank Sheeran - nearing the end of his life and seeking redemption in the Catholicism of his Depression Era youth - confessed to Charles Brandt that he handled more than twenty-five hits for the powerful Mafia boss Russell Bufalino, and for his friend and Teamsters mentor Jimmy Hoffa. Sheeran learned to kill in Europe during World War II, where he waded ashore in three amphibious invasions and marched from Sicily to Dachau, compiling an incredible 411 days of active combat in General Patton's "killer division." After returning home he married, had four daughters, became a truck driver, and met Mafia boss Russell Bufalino by chance at a truck stop in 1955. At age 35 Frank Sheeran's life changed forever. He began doing odd jobs for Bufalino to earn a few bucks, getting deeper into the Mafia way of life. Sheeran soon was killing on orders again. Eventually he would rise to a position of such prominence in the Teamsters and the Bufalino family that in a RICO suit then-U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani would name him as one of only two non-Italians on a list of 26 top mob figures. When Bufalino ordered Sheeran to kill his friend and mentor, Jimmy Hoffa, Sheeran followed the order, knowing that if he ever said no to Russell Bufalino about anything . . . .
Sheeran is a Philly native and Bufalino is from the Scranton area, so the local connections made the story especially interesting to me. As I've mentioned before, Russell Bufalino was the head of the Bufalino family when I lived there and I remember being shocked to read a story in Time Magazine in the early '70s, listing him as one of the top Mafia heads in the country -- living in little old Scranton (or even smaller Old Forge). See The Electric Connection. However, it wasn't until much later that I realized that he was a major mafia Don, who was linked to the FBI plot to assassinate Fidel Castro Mafia Spies in Cuba:, and the disappearance of former Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa, The American "MAFIA".

The recent grand jury investigation and indictment of Louis DeNaples, the owner of Mount Airy Casino in the Poconos has resurrected many of those memories -- of Scranton and its Mafia don, Bufalino. As I noted in It's All Who You Know, DeNaples was accused of allegedly lying about his relationships with organized crime figures to win a lucrative gambling license in the Poconos. That is, he is accused of denying his relationship with William D'Elia, the current reputed head of the Bufalino crime family in Scranton and Bufalino himself.

The book's focus is primarily on the disappearance and death of Hoffa, describing Sheeran's relationship with Hoffa as well as Bufalino, who is the one who put the hit on Hoffa. As Brian Burrough, who reviewed the book for the NYTimes, said in Killing Him Softly:

The book Brandt has written gives new meaning to the term ''guilty pleasure.'' It promises to clear up the mystery of Hoffa's demise, and appears to do so. Sheeran not only admits he was in on the hit, he says it was he who actually pulled the trigger -- and not just on Hoffa but on dozens of other victims, including many, he alleges, dispatched on Hoffa's orders. This last seems likely to spur a reappraisal of Hoffa's career. The book's title, in fact, comes from the first words Sheeran says Hoffa ever spoke to him. To paint a house, Sheeran explains, is Mafiaese for killing someone, from the blood that splatters all over the, well, you get the picture.

'' 'Houses' '' is a cut above the usual Mafia memoir. Brandt keeps the focus tightly on Sheeran and Hoffa, quick-marching the reader through Sheeran's rise from carnival gofer to klepto-trucker to union organizer to trusted assassin. The story is told mostly in Sheeran's voice, with Brandt intervening to provide chapters on Hoffa's career and the legal troubles that sent him to prison.
The juxtaposition of the narrators Sheeran and Brandt works quite well in this case, since Sheeran's words don't give the historical perspective that Brandt does in filling in certain sections with details left out by Sheeran. Based upon Sheeran's background and personality, his clipped rendering is part of his character:

Sheeran is Old School, and his tale is admirably free of self-pity and self-aggrandizement. Without getting all Oprah about it, he admits he was an alcoholic and a lousy father. His business was killing people, and, as he learned to do as a soldier at Anzio and Monte Cassino, he did it with little muss, fuss or introspection. He recalls his first assignment from the Philadelphia mob boss Angelo Bruno, whose sole directive was ''You gotta do what you gotta do.''

''You didn't have to go down the street and enroll in some courses at the University of Pennsylvania to know what he meant,'' Sheeran explains. ''It was like when an officer would tell you to take a couple of German prisoners back behind the line and for you to 'hurry back.' You did what you had to do.''

Sheeran had to do a lot, it seems. Working for Hoffa one memorable day, he says, ''I flew to Puerto Rico and took care of two matters. Then I flew to Chicago and took care of one matter. Then I flew to San Francisco . . . to meet up with Jimmy and give him the report.''

'' 'Houses' '' provides two story lines that, if true, further darken Hoffa's legacy. One involves cash payoffs Sheeran says he delivered to Richard Nixon's attorney general, John Mitchell, in return for Hoffa's presidential pardon or parole. The other is a heavy dollop of circumstantial evidence that Hoffa and his Mafia allies really were behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The evidence, however, is limited to spoken threats and spooky asides, as when one Mafia don asks Hoffa for a favor. For what? Hoffa asks. For Dallas, the don says. This, alas, does fall somewhat short of a smoking gun.

As mentioned by Burroughs, an interesting aside to the story was the bitter relationship between Hoffa and Bobby Kennedy, with the unstated suggestion that the mob was responsible for John Kennedy's assassination as a way to put a stop to Bobby's unrelenting obsession with bringing down the mafia. Surprisingly, despite Bobby's campaign against organized crime -- and Hoffa -- while he was attorney general, the book does not suggest that the mob was behind Bobby Kennedy's killing.

All of the local Philly politicians, such as Arlen Specter, Joe Biden and Frank Rizzo make appearances at one point or another during the early days of their careers. The gossipy tidbits, the inside view of the mob and the story of what really happened to Jimmy Hoffa, all combine to make this a fascintating read.

1 comment:

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