By Paul Lieberman
The recent “What Happened to Jimmy Hoffa?” panel discussion at The Mob Museum set off memories of my own fleeting participation in that case during my fledgling days in a colorful hotbed of the Mob, a place that knew well the risks of being a wiseguy in that subculture … a verbal wiseguy, to be exact.
At the time of Hoffa’s disappearance – and presumed murder – in July 1975, I was working for the Bergen Record in New Jersey, where I covered the town (officially a “borough”) of Lodi, long home of a notorious Sin Strip featuring a string of bootleg casinos within an easy ride of Manhattan. It also was home to the likes of “Lodi Pete” LaPlaca, who had risen up the ranks of the Genovese crime family while serving as driver (as locals proudly told me) for the underboss Willie Moretti, one role model for a character the world now knows well. Moretti, who lived in the adjoining ’burb of Hasbrouck Heights, was the Mob’s early protector of a young Jersey-born singer, Frank Sinatra, who dutifully crooned at his daughter’s wedding, the inspiration for the opening scene of the film that later changed perceptions of organized crime in America. And yes, Moretti was rumored to have persuaded a bandleader (with the help of a gun) to tear up Sinatra’s contract, though that tidbit never came up when he was called to testify before the Kefauver Committee in 1950.
People growing up in the post-Godfather era have no idea how little America knew about the Mob back then, in large part because the code of silence, omerta, remained seriously in force. The irony was that some of the most prominent Mob figures always relished the spotlight, especially its opportunities to display their cleverness, Al Capone at the top of that list. When he once tried to sneak into Los Angeles, only to be rousted at a downtown hotel, he was typically ready with a quip for the cops, “I thought that you folks liked tourists.” The retort was a perfect representation of how the cleverness was supposed to be exercised — in a winking denial of the realities of the life.
So it was at Senator Estes Kefauver’s hearings, at which the truly wise wiseguys categorically took the Fifth, while others couldn’t resist dabbling into a rhetorical test of wits. New York’s Frank Costello was among those, offering a memorable retort when asked what positive contribution he’d made as an American citizen. “I paid my tax,” Costello declared. At another hearing, the quips never ended when a central character in my book Gangster Squad took the stand. Los Angeles’ Mickey Cohen was a pure showboat, almost as much a performance artist as a bona fide gangster. As I’ve often said, he’d have his own reality TV show today, no question.
But back to New Jersey’s Willie Moretti, a serious fellow if there ever was one – there was nothing wannabe about Willie. Even he couldn’t resist demonstrating his ability at repartee. Sure, he knew to say “No, I never have,” when asked if he’d heard of the Mafia. His tone turned, though, when questioned on whether he belonged to a political club (“I don’t belong to any — I’m bipartisan”) and on what he did with his claimed $80,000-a-year earnings from real estate investing and a business supplying linens to restaurants (“or else”).
Moretti: “I spent it. I spent it, sir.”
Senator Wiley: “Put it into an investment, stocks, bonds?”
Mr. Moretti:“No, no, I did not. I bought a horse.”
Alas, Willie could not offer details about those finances because his ledgers had disappeared, an interchange that drew laughter at several points.
Mr. Moretti: “As I have said, I have lost my records and I can’t answer anything truthfully.”
Senator Wiley: “Now, as a matter of fact, did they just conveniently get lost?”
Mr. Moretti: “No, I wouldn’t say that, sir.”
Senator Wiley: “Well, what would you say?”
Mr. Moretti: “I have nothing to hide, sir. There is nothing for me to conceal. Why should I conceal anything from your people?”
All this may seem like a detour from the Hoffa disappearance, but the issue of silence vs. loquaciousness extends through Mob history … and its rubouts. Moretti’s testimony came more than a decade before Joe Valachi would blab the real inner secrets of the Mob, not fluff, to other government investigators, It was almost a quarter-century before Jimmy Fratianno would do the same regarding the outfit on the West Coast. Before the likes of those turncoats, any talk had little to do with the truth. But when Moretti was gunned down in 1951 while lunching at a Jersey restaurant, the common wisdom was that his old-school colleagues viewed his seemingly banal verbal proclivities as no laughing matter, especially amid rumors that he was in mental decline due to syphilis. Life magazine, in a big spread on his funeral, described Moretti as a “flip lip” and speculated that the cause of his demise started with “1) Too much talking.”
It was one hell of a funeral, though, drawing thousands of spectators to view the procession of eleven flower-laden hearses to a cemetery just outside Lodi. Years later, some of my contacts there recalled being in that throng as children, tales they related over long dinners down in Manhattan’s Little Italy.
Perhaps that’s why an editor tapped me on the shoulder after the Hoffa disappearance, when rumors spread that the former Teamsters boss had been buried in a metal drum somewhere in the New Jersey Meadowlands. A chief suspect was a local union functionary, Salvatore Briguglio. My assignment was to knock on his door and ask, in effect, if he’d done it. Okay then.
Of course, I didn’t expect Briguglio to answer. That was not like asking about the purchase of a racehorse, you know? It’s a long time ago, but I’m pretty sure I hoped I wouldn’t even find him home. I pulled up to the address I’d been given and found an unexceptional suburban Jersey home, not nearly the equal of Tony Soprano’s TV pad but with one imposing feature – a thick wooden door. Moments after I nervously rang the bell, it opened and there was “Sally Bugs” in the flesh. A trim man neatly dressed in a cardigan sweater, he was remarkably polite when I identified myself. But we barely made it past “Hello, how are you?” pleasantries. All my trip there got was a “Sorry, can’t help you.”
Like I said, I wasn’t surprised. What was surprising, shocking even now, was that the guy did talk a year later – to one of the museum’s Hoffa panelists, in fact. I’m sure Dan Moldea told of how he reached Briguglio through calls to the union headquarters of his boss in the Mob, Tony Provenzano. To be sure, Sal’s main reason for talking then was to complain about government harassment. But once you get someone started, the conversation has a way of wandering.
Two years later, in 1978, Sal too was dead, gunned down on a Little Italy sidewalk. He was facing murder charges then, unrelated to the Hoffa case, but law enforcement was sure to use that to pressure him to open up about the country’s biggest missing persons case. So the common wisdom about the cause of his demise was the same as with Willie Moretti years earlier: There was too much of a risk he’d talk.
Now whiz ahead to today’s crazy times, when seemingly everyone and his uncle aspires to be a “flip lip,” offering up nifty confessionals about who killed Hoffa or Bugsy Siegel or President Kennedy, for that matter, or even claiming to be the one who done it. Hey, none of that is entirely new – guys claimed to be the legendary train-robber Jesse James ages after his death – but the phenomenon has exploded with the explosion of mass (and minor) media. Someone will put a microphone in front of a flapping/flipping lip if what comes out sounds sexy, even if it’s a fantasy.
During my memorable Lodi days, the stories shared over late dinners were not fiction. It was a great place to be introduced to Mob lore. When The Godfather hit movie theaters, the most popular Italian restaurant in town created a “Godfather Room” with a large, round conference table. A prominent local businessman proudly boasted that he was “the true Godfather of Corleone,” and he was – he supported an orphanage in the real Sicilian town. His Lodi business? It made caskets. Yes, that was quite a place.
The fictional Tony Soprano did not live there, but you could make the case that he worked there. His strip club the Bada Bing? The joint shown in the TV saga was an actual girlie house on Route 17 in Lodi.
Paul Lieberman is the author of Gangster Squad and was an executive producer of the Warner Bros. film of the same name. He will speak at the museum on Tuesday, July 14.