I wrote an investigative report on the Mafia. When it was screened for the officers of CBS News I was told to get out of town at once, even before broadcast. What we didn’t know was that the Mafia was investigating us. The mob’s expert was the elevator operator at 115 west 45th, a building whose space had been rented for my unit.
An Essay on the Mafia was broadcast just before the release of The Godfather starring Marlon Brando. The film had been shooting on the streets of New York and The Italian American Civil Rights League had put pressure on Paramount Films to delete some words and scenes. They staged a rally at Columbus Circle protesting the defaming of the Italian community to a large crowd. One Joe Colombo who was shot the morning of the rally had organized the gathering.
All local TV stations covered the event. We had access to ten hours of crowd footage. Through police connections we had access to the mug shots and records of a number of spectators. We showed them, close up, and in some cases dissolved to their official mug shots as photographed by the NYPD or the FBI. For example, close to the speaker’s platform we found:
- Peter “The Snake” Candarini had twenty two arrests and eight convictions.
- Frank “Hots” de Sapio had twenty-two arrests for burglary, assault and robbery.
- Tony “The Gawk” Augello was arrested by the FBI one week later. They found two loaded thirty-eights in his car.
- Dominick “Big Dom” de Angelis, a gambler, was found dead on a Brooklyn corner with five hundred dollars in his pocket.
- And twelve more, either in close up or zoomed into close-up. The New York Police identified at least one hundred faces in the crowd with criminal records.
During the four months of editing I kept the sequence under wraps. The editor, John Dullaghan, would lock the editing room door each night. His assistant was Ali Riaz, a bright Pakistani-American.
Our two on-camera Italian journalists were Nick Pileggi, who would later write a number of movies about the mob; and Luigi Barzini, a member of the Italian Parliament’s Permanent Committee on the Mafia. The broadcast was an attempt to stop the stereotyping of the Italian Americans as Mafiosi. Indeed, the original title of the broadcast was The Italian Americans. I wanted to keep the investigation into the American Mafia as a minor theme until the last moment.
The Italian-American story has been told, written and published at length by historians and sociologists, but in the popular mind it has been overshadowed by the drama of the Mafioso. The major theme of the broadcast was that the publicity around the Mafia is a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon’s traditional suspicion of the dark eyed Mediterranean.
Pileggi explained that the Mafia numbered at most 5,000, and the American Italian community numbered between ten and twenty million. Barzini noted that a small part of every immigrant group has made its way from the working class to the middle class by way of crime. The British, the Swedes, the Germans, the Irish, and the Jews all had an early criminal element. The Italians took over during Prohibition.
After the rally at Columbus Circle, we filmed The Italian American Civil Rights League marching and picketing the FBI’s New York headquarters. But they were not really militant. Instead of protest songs they sang and marched to Arrividerci Roma.
As a concession, the FBI stopped using the words Mafia and Cosa Nostra in its press releases. Even if the agency didn’t change its suspicions.
The working title of the broadcast, The Italian Americans, did not allay the suspicions of the Civil Rights league. They asked for an audience with CBS News and met with a vice-president to whom I reported. David Fuchs did not want to disturb our investigation. He said nothing to me. We continued editing.
Ali Riaz, the assistant editor, told me that he knew some of the wise guys we were researching. He hung out with them. Mulberry Street was a neutral zone, and Riaz lived nearby. Ali promised that he would say nothing, but he warned me there might be some pressure put on the broadcast. He also had connections with some policemen. As in Chicago, where Nelson Algren had pointed out to me, the New York police and minor criminals were woven into a crazy plaid.
115 West 45th had one elevator with a noisy sliding steel gate. Our offices required a key to open the lock just beyond the elevator gate. The elevator operator on the second shift was very big and very surly. He was not a CBS employee.
John Dullaghan came to me and said someone had entered his editing room the previous night. He was almost certain he had double-locked the editing room door and the door to the elevator. We were alarmed.
Two days later, John found an arm of his editing machine on the floor. It had been deliberately placed in the line of sight. Nothing had been touched.
At the time, Ali had access to the police files. A few days later he gave me a document. It was a mug shot of the elevator operator. The assistant editor asked me not to ask him any questions. He had obtained the police record of the elevator operator who had been a locksmith arrested for safecracking. He lost his license and went to prison for a short stay. After his release, he joined a union—a subsidiary of a construction union tied to the Mafia.
Now we knew who had been breaking into the fifth floor editing room. The problem was there wasn’t anything we could do about it. He stole nothing. He used his locksmith skills to open two doors, dismount a piece of equipment, and then leave, stealing nothing. One day, knowing that my door was open and two of my staff were in sight, I told him I had something to show him—his mug shot. I told him if he didn’t stop it, I would post it in the lobby for everybody to see before they got into his cage.
There were no further illegal entries.
From then on; however, I was uncomfortable riding to the fifth floor. He may have been showing off his discarded locksmith skills or he may have been showing the mob’s displeasure.
I went to the CBS Labor Relations officer to see if he could talk to the local union, but since nothing had been stolen, nothing could be done.
Richard Salant heard of the forced entries. Shortly afterwards he saw a final cut of the broadcast. The story of the elevator operator and the close-ups of the criminals bothered him. He thought I might be in trouble.
“Get out of town,” he said.
“Luigi thinks he can arrange a tour of the Vatican,” I replied.
“Just get out of town.”
Tuulikki and I spent a week in Rome waiting for An Essay on the Mafia to air.
In the early morning after the broadcast, I called my office. I was told Riaz had something important to tell me.
“I was with some of the wise guys last night,” he said. “Two of the men who we shot in close up.”
“Were they mad?”
“Absolutely not. They cheered. They were on TV. And the rest of the guys in the bar applauded them. Matter of fact, three others we might have shown were sore that we didn’t take their pictures.”
Not quite the end of the story. Luigi didn’t get permission to tour the Vatican. A year or two later, the assistant editor was arrested. Someone tipped off the police that Riaz had used CBS phones to lay off bets, relaying wagers from the bettors to the bookies. He went to prison for a short time.
When he got out, I asked him who turned him in.
“That elevator operator! He’s not a made man, but his union reports to the wise guys.”
Joseph Colombo, in suit, marches in anti-FBI demonstration, writersofwrongs.com