Hugh Addonizio’s hometown newspaper called him a “large, rotund” man. Sweat stood out on his shiny, round head as he sat in a hot federal courtroom in New York City in the summer of 1970, on trial for corruption, racketeering and tax evasion. He was Newark, New Jersey’s last white mayor, and the New York Times had just dubbed him “chunky” and “bull-like.” To Hugh’s mob friends, he was “The Pope.”
The mayor appeared in the courtroom on those days only under duress. When the grand jury was getting ready to indict him, his response had been to take some vacation time in Puerto Rico with a few members of the Genovese crime family. When he eventually returned, he pleaded the 5th and refused to answer any questions at all. One of those questions was whether or not he was the mayor of Newark.
When they asked him if he knew Richie “The Boot” Boiardo, Hugh just sat and stared back at them. When asked if he knew Richie Boiardo’s son, Anthony “Tony Boy” Boiardo, he refused to respond, even though he’d been a guest at Tony Boy’s wedding 20 years before. He’d also just spent a week hanging out with him on the beach in Puerto Rico. Asked again later whether he knew Tony Boy, Hugh admitted that yes, he did. Then he got up and walked out of the room.
Federal prosecutors charged Hugh with running the city with the Boiardos as a crime operation, “taking a cut from building contracts, fixing dockland deals … running health insurance schemes and extorting ‘taxes’ from every business with a cash register.” The trial featured contractor Paul Rigo, the government’s star witness, who testified that he paid the mayor a total of $253,000 in kickbacks to do business with the city. If he didn’t, Rigo told the jury, Tony Boy would break his legs.
Rigo reportedly gave the mayor $14,000 in loans and paid for his gambling and hotel rooms on his trips to Florida, and Rigo’s construction company renovated the mayor’s summer house for free. Rigo told the jury that once the investigation started, mob henchman Ralph Vicaro called him up and warned him to “stay away from the Pope. Keep your mouth shut and remember you have a pretty daughter in Suffern.”
For most of Newark’s history, it had the highest-paid city government in the country, and re-election was virtually assured for white candidates unless they died. But by the summer of 1970, that was no longer the case. Hugh spent long days in the defendant’s box in an attempt to keep himself out of prison, followed by long nights campaigning to defeat challenger Kenneth Gibson in an attempt to keep his mayoral seat. He was not successful on either front. The jury found the Addonizio administration guilty of “literally deliver[ing] the city into the hands of organized crime.” New York Times reporter Thomas Brady wrote that they mayor sat “slumped in his seat, his head in his hands, his eyes closed” as the foreman read out the verdicts on each of sixty-four counts of his various misconducts, mispronouncing his last name every time.
U.S. District Judge George Barlow called the extortion scheme “a crime of monumental proportions, the enormity of which can scarcely be imagined,” and sentenced Hugh to pay $25,000 and serve ten years in federal prison. He sobbed as they led him out of the courtroom.
That night in Newark, hundreds of black men and women marched in support of Ken Gibson as he became the city’s first black mayor. “Addonizio got busted because he couldn’t be trusted,” they chanted.
“In a sense, all of us come from the ghetto,” Hugh had told the Times that summer. “Some of us make it, some don’t.”
Hugh Addonizio shared a grandfather with my grandfather, Fred Addonizio. They were cousins. I think. From what I can tell, that makes us second cousins once removed, though I could be wrong about that, too. I didn’t find out that one of my relatives had been mayor of Newark until 1997, when I was thirty and working in Manhattan as editor of Fordham University’s magazine, and his name turned up on a list of law school alumni. At the time, all I could find on the Internet about Hugh was a listing of the years he’d spent in Congress, then Newark city administration, and then federal prison. Then I found a mention of his grave marker in a cemetery in New Jersey.
My Grandpa Fred’s parents came to New York from Naples in the early 1900s. He was born in a house on a Manhattan street that is now an exit lane for the Holland Tunnel. Fred would have been in his early teens when Hugh was born in 1914, about fifty miles away in Red Bank, New Jersey. I don’t know whether they knew each other or not. Hugh’s parents were also Italian immigrants from Naples. Hugh got a law degree from Fordham in 1939 and went to work for A&C Clothing in Newark, eventually becoming the company’s vice president. He married an Irish woman named Doris and they had six children. The Army drafted him in 1940; he served in North Africa, Italy, and France and earned a Silver Star. He was elected to the U.S. House as a Democrat in 1948 and quit in 1962 to run for mayor of Newark. He served in that office until defeated by Ken Gibson in 1970. Hugh was sitting in a federal courtroom in New York when he got the news that he’d lost.
I was six when “The Godfather” came out; I learned how to say “bafangool” and to make the accompanying hand signals. I watched “The Sopranos.” New Jersey mob families were just coming into vogue when I was first learning about Hugh; people were walking around with fake Italian accents, saying “fahgeddabout it” and talking about ziti.
The characters on “The Sopranos” talked just like my Grandpa Fred did, like my father’s entire side of the family did. They dressed and decorated their houses in the same way. “The Sopranos” was like a window I hadn’t thought to look through before, with millions of viewers watching mobsters hunch their shoulders and purse their lips like my grandmother did, with Frank Sinatra bellowing in the background.
In the late 60s, when my parents were first married, they went to visit family about thirty miles outside Newark in what’s now Tinton Falls, New Jersey, where Hugh bought a large estate with a pool just after being elected mayor. They say they don’t remember whose house they went to or why, but my dad recalls being struck by the grandiosity of the place and asking someone what the owner did for a living. He says he was surprised when people told him the owner was a garbage man. When “The Sopranos” debuted in 1999 and the camera panned over “waste management consultant” Tony Soprano’s house for the first time, my dad was floored.
“That’s the house,” he said after they aired the first episode. “I’ve been in that house.”
My grandparents, Fred and Josephine, lived in a little stucco house next to the C-130 canal in Miami when I was growing up. We went over there sometimes on Sundays for multi-course, marathon dinners. This was back in the days of those mirrored wall tiles that had gold running through them that you could get at Ace Hardware. My grandmother had those up on the wall in the living room, showing us off in fuzzy gold splendor as we ate.
Grandma also had a gold-brushed birdcage-type thing, the size of a five year-old, that hung from the ceiling on a chain. Stuffed inside was a little plastic Garden of Eden, with a Barbie-sized Adam and Eve living naked among fake, fish tank-sized greenery. The birdcage plugged into the wall. When you turned it on, a light came on inside and little beads of hot oil cascaded slowly down the cage bars.
While I was searching online for tidbits about Hugh, I came across a Life magazine spread from September 1967. On its cover in white all-caps is the headline “Brazen Empire of Organized Crime: The Alarming Growth of a Multimillion-Dollar Cartel Founded on Corruption, Terror and Murder.” I ignored for a second how weird it was going to be to find a family member’s name in the article, and read on to see that it showcases Genovese family godfather Richie Boiardo’s ornate 17-acre spread in Livingston, New Jersey, where Tony Boy Boiardo grew up.
I bring this up because the pieces I knew from childhood, the ephemera of mid-century Italian style – ornate, often-garish marble, gold-flaked mirror tiles and Barbie-stuffed birdcages – were all over the Boiardo mansion. I knew that house.
And not, as the kids say, in a good way. The Life Magazine spread is dubbed “Macabre Home of a Capo, Monument to Mob Murder.” “It is a chilling place even in the warmth and sun of an August morning,” according to writer Sandy Smith, mostly due to a backyard crematorium that reportedly even made guys were scared to set eyes on.
In those days, if you got in past the guards and made your way up the dark, winding driveway to the huge “Transylvanian traditional” castle, you were met with mausoleum-type statuary on stone pillars showing the head and shoulders of each of the capo’s children and grandchildren. A triumphant, youngish Richie sat right in the middle, on horseback, as if trying to lead them all somewhere away from the big pit in the back where they burned up the guys who got whacked. Block letters named the family members, each depicted as a blank, gape-mouthed, freaky-looking ghost with white eyes staring out into the middle distance, flanked by jagged, jarringly multicolored mosaic tiles.
The Boiardo family’s white stone heads reminded me of elephant figurines that my grandmother collected. She had them in various sizes and configurations all over the house. This pissed my mother off because she also liked to collect elephant figurines.
One night I sat at the big dinner table with my parents, brothers and grandparents. It was dark out, but we’d been sitting there, my grandmother bringing out course after course, since mid-afternoon. The conversation landed on my grandmother’s elephant figurines. There was a big one missing, a shiny white ceramic elephant with a board on its back that had functioned as an end table. Grandma had told me earlier that night that Grandpa Fred had run into the elephant and knocked it over.
“There used to be a big white elephant right over there, right, Grandpa Fred?” I asked him, pointing at a corner in the living room.
“Nah, that was your Aunt Clara,” he shot back.
Grandpa Fred and I shared a birthday. His brother Johnny had achieved medium celebrity being a fight announcer at Madison Square Garden, and Grandpa Fred cashed in on that for the rest of his life. He would be in the middle of a meal in some Italian restaurant in Miami, and he’d let the waitress know he was related to the famous Johnny Addie from New York. More often than not, they’d invite him to get up and sing a few songs at the piano bar and entertain the place for hours. It made him a little different, special, better.
He had a full head of white hair that fell across his forehead like a snowdrift. He had his black-and-white, 8 x 10 head shot tacked up in the kitchen, signed with love, as though he’d meant to send the photo off to some fan but then couldn’t bear to part with it. When I was younger, watching him made me think that if you want to be a star, all you really have to do is act like one.
We asked him once whether he’d ever been involved with the mob while he worked as a steamfitter in New York. At first he wouldn’t say. Then he allowed that he might have made a couple phone calls. Like if the cops were planning to raid a business of a friend of theirs, somebody might ask Grandpa Fred to give the guys a call and tip them off.
“That’s all. Nothing special,” he told us. Then he made a joke about dishwashers: A wife is grumbling about having to work hard to keep the house clean, so she makes her husband get her a dishwasher.
“What kind?” the husband’s friend asks him. “Sears Kenmore?”
“Nah,” the husband says. “Puerto Rican.”
That’s where my firsthand knowledge about my dad’s side of the family ends. My mother didn’t like most of the Italians. She thought they were annoying and overbearing, and they said she was a drunk who thought she was better than they were. She comes from what they used to call WASPS, white Anglo-Saxon protestants, people from Ohio and other quiet Midwestern states where the men worked in offices and came home to cocktails and the women served casseroles and kept their drinking problems to themselves. My mother judged the Italians harshly, flinching every time one of my relatives started yelling and waving their arms around to make their point. But whenever she’d had too much scotch, she’d do the same thing. She’d get loud and point at people at the dinner table and manipulate the conversation until, watching her, I felt embarrassed and small and stupid. Now that I’m an adult, when people start talking politics after dinner, I reflexively get up and start clearing the table, inching backwards out of the room.
My grandparents visited our house in South Florida for the last time in 1980. My mother never came down the stairs to speak to them. In upstate New Jersey that same year, Hugh Addonizio died of heart failure.
Hugh seemed to be friends with everybody – Irish, Jewish, black – in a time when the city was divided into wards along ethnic lines. Hugh lived in the Central Ward, an Irish neighborhood. Remember too that he was a decorated WWII vet and a Congressman for thirteen years. Guys like that usually have lots of friends.
Young African-Americans worked to help him get elected mayor in 1962, and he promised to reward them with positions in his administration. And while he did give some blacks jobs at City Hall and in the police department, most of them quickly came to feel he didn’t really support them, that he’d only made the appointments for show. People started saying he didn’t know a thing about leading a city.
They were basically right. Hugh wanted to be governor of New Jersey, and he told blacks who wanted to move up in the world to do it on the down low. He told the newspaper that the black community didn’t seem satisfied with growing their position steadily and slowly – “they want the whole ball game,” he said.
Hugh hit the black community with a continuous series of slights and insults while calling himself their friend. He poured millions of dollars into the city’s business districts and let the black-dominated housing projects fall into ruin, apparently neglecting even to replace light bulbs in outdoor common areas so people could feel safe at night. He gave a few blacks places in the police department, but they had to answer to racist Police Chief Dominic Spina. Soon members of Newark’s Congress on Racial Equality were picketing outside Hugh’s house.
Newark in the ‘60s was a poor urban center. By then most of the city’s white residents, including the mayor, had already fled to the suburbs. The black population had grown from 70,000 in the 1950s to 220,000 by 1967. The all-white Addonizio administration shuttled blacks back and forth, often two or three times a year, between substandard housing projects. They also locked them out of the best jobs and blamed their widespread unemployment on a lack of initiative.
Then federal agents tapped Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo’s phone (DeCarlo handled loan sharking for the Genovese family and had ties to Frank Sinatra). One night the agents listened in while Gyp DeCarlo and Angelo “Little Pussy” Russo talked about that pit in the backyard where Richie the Boot burned up all the bodies – the one Life magazine called a crematorium. This was about the same time that Tony Boy, Richie’s son, made up a phony construction company to take kickbacks from all of the Newark construction contracts and funnel the cash back to the mayor’s office.
A couple of other key things happened, too. When a white school board member wanted to retire and a college-educated black man stepped up for his post, Hugh instead appointed an uneducated Irish crony. When the black community protested, Hugh relented – not by appointing the black guy, but just by convincing the white guy not to retire after all.
Then he persuaded the New Jersey School of Medicine and Dentistry to build a new campus on 150 acres of land right in the middle of the Central Ward. Pushed and shoved was more like it. The people in charge of building the school didn’t want it in the middle of Newark, forcing the blacks who lived there out of their homes again. Hugh and members of his administration called it “slum clearance.” The black community called it “Negro removal.”
By the summer of 1967, things were unbearably tense. The night of July 12, Newark police arrested black cab driver John Smith for swerving around a double-parked police car at the corner of 7th Street and 15th Avenue. They brought him down to the 4th precinct and beat him up so severely that they later had to sneak him out the back and take him to the hospital. People started to think the police must have killed him inside the station.
At 11:30 that same night, with no official word on Smith from the cops, a group of people gathered out in front of the precinct and started throwing Molotov cocktails at the windows. They started looting in earnest about an hour later, shattering the plate-glass windows of both black- and white-owned businesses, whose inhabitants scuttled to safety in the basements. At 1 a.m., somebody set a police car on fire.
Hugh held a press conference the next day. He called the looting “an isolated incident.” Then the city erupted and people started killing each other. It took three more days of rioting to startle Hugh into action: he called in the National Guard. The Guard was made up of a bunch of young clueless men with machine guns and no clear directive except to stop the looting. By the time it was all over, twenty-six people were dead and Newark had sustained ten million dollars in property damage. Hugh had watched the house he’d been born in, on Bergen Street in the Central Ward, burn down. And when the blue-ribbon state panel commissioned to investigate the riots came back with their report, they pointed right at the Addonizio administration for creating the “pervasive feeling of corruption,” the feeling that “everything at city hall [was] for sale.”
Back when I’d first found out about Hugh, following the breadcrumb trail of the real-life mafia members who lead to the inspiration for the likes of Tony Soprano, he’d given me a great story to talk about with friends. I’d always led just about the quietest of lives growing up in the South Florida suburbs, and I liked the cachet of mobbed-up family members.
Then I found the Life magazine article about the Boiardos’ backyard, and I did some reading on the Camorra, my Neapolitan ancestors’ version of the mafia. Camorra members advance through the network’s ranks mainly through political patronage, and in terms of violence they make the Sicilians look like the mob equivalent of cute Internet cats.
It didn’t come fully into focus until later: Through his disdain and downright corruption, and then by throwing up his hands during the riots, calling in the National Guard and letting them go wild not just on the rioters, but basically any black they found in the street, my distant cousin was close to singlehandedly responsible for the deaths of those twenty-six people.
One of them was a small boy who was gunned down. One was a mother who caught a bullet as she raced to the window to pull her two year-old out of harm’s way. Another was James Rutledge, who was looking around inside an already-looted bar on Bergen Street with a friend of his. The friend hid behind the bar while the National Guard shot James thirty-nine times. Still another was a mother who leaned out her ten-story window to close it against the gunfire. Guardsmen shot her dead, then claimed later they’d thought she was a sniper.
It’s cool when some mafia guy with a funny accent and a big gun goes to his mother’s for a plate of pasta after whacking somebody on a TV show, but realizing I was related to somebody so connected to all this blood stopped me cold. I’d start telling someone the story and end right in the middle, not sure how to finish. Did Hugh hate anyone who wasn’t a privileged, white Italian? Is that what drove him to look for powerful positions? Or was he just acting out his part in the social order?
My idea with all this research had been that I’d eventually write about my family. But months went by and I had no words to paper – just increasingly awful stories I told at dinner parties, and more questions. I couldn’t figure out how Hugh went so quickly from having young blacks campaign for him during the first years of his administration to having some of those same people looting all the stores downtown. How did he go from being respected in every corner of Newark to a racist thought responsible for the riots?
And what about corruption, that word I used to have such fun using because it made me feel like I was on a cop show, until I realized what it means? Was he corrupt from birth or did it happen along the way – and was that before or after the Silver Star? How did this father of six feel about knowing his friends threatened to kill Paul Rigo’s daughter if Rigo opened his mouth? I want to know why he was crying as they led him out of the courtroom after the sentencing. I want to know whom he was crying for.
It’s clear to me now that my distant cousin and his friends scared even the mobsters they worked with. How does someone go from having that bit of Italian pride, that feeling of being just a little better than everybody else, to not caring whether or not they get killed? And what does it say about me that I got so puffed up telling those stories for so long?
I thought for a while about getting a history degree. Then I’d have an excuse for spending all day reading about the Camorra and the Civil Rights movement, the Italians coming over on ships from Naples and signing in at Ellis Island and decades later, the mass movement of blacks from the South to lay claim on cities like Newark, so that they could all go at each other in the ‘60s. I could get to the bottom of whether my distant cousin was puppet master of the blacks or puppet of the mafia, and I’d figure out just how culpable he actually was for the riots of 1967, for the deaths of all those people. I could either restore his name or officially blame him – but I could certainly spout off about him at the dinner table and know what the hell I was talking about.
I never tried to get to know my family members until after they were all dead. Everything I know about them I know from wiretaps, newspaper accounts, and HBO and Life magazine. My own family history is like a big house I’ve never been invited into, high up on a hill with a long driveway of gold-flecked marble, and a big, dark yard in the back. It’s locked up tight with a really loud party going on inside, and people are yelling.