JOHNSTOWN, Pa. (AP) –
A few years ago, Johnstown jazz musician Frank Filia asked his second cousin, Russell Shorto, an internationally known author, “What do we do with the story?”
Shorto immediately knew what “the story” was.
His grandfather and namesake Russell “Russ” Shorto had been a central figure in the Johnstown crowd during the city’s heyday in the 20th century. His writer’s mind began to develop ideas as they spoke, but at that moment he told Filia he was not interested.
However, the seed had been planted.
And ultimately, the brief encounter provided the inspiration for Shorto’s most recent book – “Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob” – due to be published by WW Norton on February 2nd. Shorto, during countless hours of research, conversation, writing and traveling, explored his family’s connection to the Mafia in Johnstown and finally created a story that consists partly of memoirs and partly of narrative history books.
“(Frank) the bubble burst,” said Shorto, a Johnstown native who now lives in Cumberland, Maryland. “I realized that all the people who had reasons to keep quiet about it are all gone.
“That’s just history. There were enough old people who had the insight that I should do it now, and if I don’t do it now it will be gone. It was thanks to Frank that I really looked into it. “
Filia, who knew Shorto’s grandfather, called the book “a beautiful job he does”.
“And it’s something that really, really needs to be said on his part,” said Filia. “It’s a story about Johnstown in the 1950s and the fascination with Johnstown when it was booming. When I was a kid – when I was 16 – I worked in a pool room and was making a hundred (dollars) a week. It was 1951, think about it. … Hustlers everywhere, number writers. Fascinating, so fascinating. “
City cigar, wolf corner
On a cold winter afternoon last week, Shorto was standing near a building on Main Street that once housed City Cigar.
The shop, which is just a few meters from the town hall, was once full of colorful bookmakers and pool shooters during World War II.
“That was like their base of operations,” said Shorto. “They had the offices upstairs. People brought the GI bank (a local game of chance), the numbers and all that, they brought things up there. They made regular rounds, but that’s where they stopped. Anyone, any old folks would be talking about Wolves’ Corner. … This corner here, Main and Market (across from Main Street across from City Hall) … was called Wolves’ Corner. The boys would hang out there. You wouldn’t give a shit about broads. If someone came to pick you up or whatever, you would be there. “
Russ Shorto was a major figure at City Cigar and across Johnstown after growing up in a time when native Italians were treated as “subhuman” and unable to work at the mills or maintain bank accounts like his grandson explained.
“This was this generation that had this kind of suffering and this kind of experience,” said Shorto. “Then my grandfather was born and raised in it and will grow up in the 1920s (during) Prohibition.
“And that’s how his father was murdered at that time. His mother raised nine children and she has a statue in her house in Conemaugh Borough and she makes moonlight for a local guy from the neighborhood before the mob. And my grandfather sells it out of cola bottles, that’s the story they’d tell. “
From moonlight to gambling
Russ Shorto switched to gambling after Prohibition ended.
He eventually helped set up an organization – in a town run by author Russell Shorto’s great-uncle Joseph “Little Joe” Regino – that is estimated to raise $ 40 million in the 15 years after the end of World War II .
“I grew up thinking of him as that really dark, scary character that he was in some ways,” said his grandson. “But from that perspective, was it like he had a choice? He was excluded from everything and he grew up with it. It complicates the picture in interesting ways in terms of where you are from. “
But every time his son Tony Shorto, Russell Shorto’s father tried to get involved in business life, tensions arose.
“There was a complicated relationship between him and my grandfather, which I believe stems from my father wanting to be in business and his father would not want to be for his own protection, you’d say, but he wasn’t a very articulate man “Said Shorto. “So if he caught him at City Cigar he would do the shit out of him. They haven’t spoken for most of their lives. “
Even so, Tony Shorto helped write his son’s book about her family.
“I wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t want to do that to me,” said Shorto.
Shorto said most of the family members were okay with his project.
“My grandfather was a bad guy in many ways,” said Shorto, “and maybe since then the people in my family have kind of bent back to try to be good citizens.”
A murder, then crackdown
February 6, 1960 – or perhaps just after midnight through February 7 – was the last time Joseph “Pippy” diFalco, a local bookmaker, was seen alive.
He was stabbed with an ice pick, and his remains were later found in Conemaugh Dam Reservoir. The murder remains unsolved by the police and the judicial system, even though Shorto interviews a person face-to-face on “Smalltime” whom he asks with all his might, “Did you kill him?”
The murder became one of the main themes of the book.
“It occurred to me, ‘OK, I have a murder in the middle of the story so that should be part of it,” said Shorto. “In a way, this murder, which has never been solved, is the beginning of the end of the operation. “
DiFalco’s murder did not occur long before President John Kennedy and Attorney General Robert Kennedy began crackdown on organized crime in 1961.
“Suddenly, later this year, particularly in Johnstown, the Mayor of Johnstown was communicating with the Attorney General in Washington,” said Shorto. “The streets are flooded with cops and FBI people. This activity, which until then was outdoors, was taking place outdoors, suddenly people were closed, people were locked up. “
“Great story … memories”
Shorto, who received a Dutch knighthood in the Order of Orange-Nassau to strengthen ties between the Netherlands and the United States, has written six other books, but Smalltime was the first to deal with modern history and a subject dealt with that directly affected his personal life.
Shorto said the new book offered a glimpse into the past Johnstown when “people felt they were part of something that mattered, they were part of history” as the mills made steel that built the nation and helped create a bustling, prosperous city.
Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather, said in a blurb on Smalltime that the book “paints a compelling portrait of a time when Italian Americans were not allowed to live in certain parts of the city, or feel too high political firmament to rise “. ”
Coppola continued: “This memory of the life of his grandfather and his great-uncle – of slot machines and pinball machines, seals, pointed dice and places like the Melodee Lounge and City Cigar – combines a great story with beautiful, lasting memories: long conversations about spaghetti sauce and aunts who kissed you on the lips: That’s how we Italians were. “
And personally, the experience made Shorto “a promoter of the idea of writing your family history because it gives you that kind of 3D version of yourself, because you have this much broader idea of your past.”
“(There’s) maybe a little more because I was named after my grandfather that helps,” he said. “In my case, it’s just a variation on American immigration history. But the Italian immigration history is of course a matter of its own. “