Kempton's Close Encounters with Mafia Bosses

One morning in the spring or fall of 1988 or '89 (or '90 or '91) while walking to (or from) my office on the Upper West Side, I happened to turn around and see an old man looking at me.

Kempton dined with Frank Costello
A great reporter.

He seemed completely oblivious to his surroundings, so totally lost in thought, it was as if he wasn't really there. He was wearing a three-piece suit and was smoking a pipe and was astride a bicycle.

I realized two things: 1) he was Murray Kempton, then a columnist for New York Newsday (sadly, now defunct) and that 2) he wasn't looking at me; I happened to be standing in his line of sight. He was probably mentally composing his next New York Newsday column.

Murray Kempton (1917-1997) was "a rarity among newspaper columnists, a self-effacing humanist bemused at his own leftist politics and filled with compassion for the downtrodden and notorious alike."

Kempton was so distinctly a product of New York that David Remnick described him in a profile as "surely among the greatest of all... newspapermen, and yet he is for the most part a secret west of the Hudson River."

I recently read the profile again in the collection titled The Devil Problem: And Other True Stories, and was surprised at how much of it was about the Mafia, one of Kempton's favorite topics. There are some pretty good anecdotes some of you probably never heard.

Kempton, en route.

"In the course of business, Kempton has had breakfast with Frank Costello, lunch with Richard Nixon, tea with Huey Newton, and dinner with Nancy Reagan. .... He will compare Anthony (Fat Tony) Salerno to a Roman emperor, Richard Nixon to Sir William Yonge, and the former Bronx borough president Stanley Simon to Dreyfus and hope for the best. In addition to his columns, he has written hundreds of essays in a range of magazines. For House & Garden, he described his life and his apartment in a New York SRO... and for The New York Review of Books he has written on the Newark federal prosecutor’s collected wiretaps of Simone Rizzo DeCavalcante. ... On his seventy-fifth birthday... he received as gifts an American flag that had flown over the Capitol from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the senior senator from New York, and an enormous bouquet of flowers from the wife of Carmine (the Snake) Persico...."

Kempton was the sort of newspaperman who helped others on the job whenever he could.

He helped a very young Nicholas Pileggi at the start of his career. Pileggi, best known for Wiseguy, the book on which the film Goodfellas is based, had accepted a reporting position at the Associated Press. He met Kempton his first day on the job, January 6, 1956. The occasion was a meeting of the Teamsters Union held at the Roosevelt Auditorium on Union Square.

Pileggi recalled the day:

"Jimmy Hoffa had won control of the Midwest, and now he wanted to get his surrogate, a guy named John O’Rourke, elected in New York. Well, I was at a loss. This was really intricate, complicated stuff, full of political maneuvering. I had no idea what I was doing. And there was Murray Kempton, looking exactly like who he was—a great journalist taking notes, working. I’ll never forget what he looked like. He was wearing a reversible tan-and-tweed raincoat with the tweed side out. I hadn’t seen too many of those in Brooklyn. And he had this amazing red hair that just launched out of his head, like Elsa Lanchester’s hair in The Bride of Frankenstein. It turned out he was unbelievably friendly and generous. I went up to him and introduced myself, and he started to fill me in on what was going on.

"Then he took aside a tall, bald guy, and the two of them were obviously talking about how I didn’t know anything and how they had to help me out. So then the tall, bald guy comes up to me, takes a piece of paper out of his pocket, and says, ‘Here, just read this over the phone to your editor.’ And that’s what I did. It turned out that he was Abe Raskin, the great labor reporter for the Times. The next day, I walked into the office and my editor said, ‘You did okay. You had everything the Times had.'"

Pondering Kempton's Mafia coverage, Pileggi noted:

"Murray was the first writer I ever read to say that mobsters didn’t control the world, that they were mostly just truck drivers without jobs. He would hear about, say, Angelo Innuendo, of the great artichoke empire, who lived at such-and-such an address. Well, instead of swallowing the myth Murray would check out where the guy really lived, and, of course, it would turn out to be a ten-thousand-dollar house somewhere in Queens. The guy was a nobody. Not a prince—a nobody. And Murray got to know these guys because he’d see them in court. Someone would get arrested, and their brothers and cousins would all come to the trial. Murray would get to know them, and they would read what he wrote, maybe agree, maybe disagree, but they got to know him all the same. A few years later, inevitably, it was those guys who were on trial, and now Kempton had a personal relationship going. He knew who was who. He enjoyed a fluidity of movement in a world that had been closed to everyone else.”

"Why don't you mind your business, you son of  a bitch?"

Kempton first met John Gotti and lawyer Bruce Cutler outside a courtroom in 1991.

“Duke was playing Kansas for the NCAA basketball title, and John decided to bet Cutler on the game,” Kempton told Remnick.

“Gotti took Duke. No points, no odds. He just took Duke, and Cutler agreed. I turned around and said, ‘Mr. Gotti, perhaps you ought to give odds, considering Duke is a heavy favorite.’

Gotti said, ‘Why don’t you mind your business, you son of a bitch?’ That was our introduction.”

But as the trial dragged on, Gotti and Cutler saw Kempton as somehow apart from the rest of the press. As Cutler later remarked:

“John Gotti respects Murray because he has always been fair about John Gotti. The man has a sense of history.”

Kempton had, it is true, dined with Frank Costello when Gotti was just a boy. And so when Gotti was found not guilty one of his friends invited Kempton to a secret sanctum of Little Italy, the Ravenite Social Club, on Mulberry Street.

“This place of such mythology looked like a rec room in Queens,” Kempton told me. “John was there, looking very fine, drinking sambuca, very pleased with himself, feeling immortal, the poor son of a bitch.”

Persico said, ‘Get out of the game!’ and Galante did....

Asked which mobster he liked the most, Kempton said:

"I have tremendous admiration for Carmine Persico. There’s just a dignity about him....

"But I love him because of his wiretaps. They are just wonderful. I remember one in which his cousin Freddie DeChristopher—a bit of a sleazebag, really—testified to one of Persico’s conversations. They had been talking about Carmine Galante, a man universally hated by his colleagues. They had all been playing cards, and Galante had been riding someone at the table, an Irishman. Galante just kept it up with all manner of obscene anti-Irish comments. Finally, Persico said, ‘Get out of the game!’ and Galante did, slinking off for home. The next day, Galante came back to the card game, begging, ‘Please! I’m sorry! I’ll never do it again!’ It was wonderful. Persico said about Galante, ‘He’s not such a bad guy. He was just brung up wrong.’ ”

Over the years, Kempton’s arch affections for made men have confused his readers, causing them to believe that he was championing the cause of random murder when in fact he was trying to write about character against a comic background. The governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, once called Sydney Schanberg, a columnist at Newsday, and asked, in a voice truly distressed, “How do I get Murray Kempton to love me?” “Governor,” Schanberg said, “why don’t you try getting indicted?”


  1. Great stuff Ed, would be very interested to hear more of Kempton's views on Carmine Persico.
    Allie Shades

    1. I'll definitely see what I can find, surprisingly fat Tony cultivated some journos, especially jimmy Breslin, telling him where to buy his clothes..


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