Why you should care
Because agents of change, even if they’re crazy bad guys, still deserve recognition.
The great excesses of the 1960s were a boon to the American Mafia, which made its business catering to our interests in excess. The Mafia also exerted unseen influence through politics: Sam Giancana claimed he stole votes to help John F. Kennedy win the presidency, and the CIA conspired with two mobsters to assassinate Fidel Castro. Meanwhile, the FBI and Attorney General Robert Kennedy were cracking down on organized crime, including investigating possible Mob ties to Teamster Jimmy Hoffa. But while the Mafia was influencing the ’60s, the social changes of the decade were also changing the Mob.
And so Crazy Joey Gallo swaggered in, bridging the worlds of crime and swinging counterculture.
Gallo became a fixture at all the tonier New York society parties, a hit when he wasn’t making hits.
Gallo was born in 1929 in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn and was raised for a life of crime by his father, Umberto, a Prohibition-era bootlegger. By the time Gallo was 20, he had become a full-fledged gangster and was rising through the ranks of one of New York’s top crime families. Diminutive and diagnosed as schizophrenic, hence his nom de Mob, Gallo was a volatile and merciless enforcer behind dozens of street shootouts, barbershop hits and assassination attempts.
In 1971 a character loosely based on Gallo appeared in a comic movie about the Mob, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Though Gallo got a message to the actor who played his character, telling him that he sucked, the movie was popular, and Gallo became a fixture at all the tonier New York society parties. Quoting Jean-Paul Sartre and other philosophers he picked up from copious reading in prison, Gallo was a hit when he wasn’t making hits.
But all parties must end. Gallo had attempted to integrate the notoriously insular and racist Mob with African-Americans and Puerto Ricans he had met in jail, attempts that largely failed. He was also credited with starting one of the most violent Mob wars of all time. As a result, in 1972 the 43-year old Gallo was shot five times in the chest at Little Italy’s Umberto’s Clam House, while having a birthday dinner with his family.
The aftermath? For the Mob, it was business as usual – industry experts estimate the Mafia’s ill-gotten global gains at more than $100 billion a year. For Gallo, his legacy includes a Bob Dylan song called “Joey.” And he has a place in the pantheon of bad guys who burn brightly and then burn out.