The Godfather’s Daughter

As the child of South Philadelphia’s legendary crime boss, Jean Bruno was afforded all the luxuries of a mob princess: fancy clothes, lavish ­parties, ritzy vacations — until the day Angelo Bruno had his head blown off.

When Jean got word her father had been shot, she and Ralph jumped in the car in Radnor and drove back to Snyder Avenue. Throngs of people already lined the street. Angelo Bruno still sat upright, his mouth gaping open and impossibly wide, as if the two people inside him — the loving father and the calculating gangster — had forced their way out at the moment of death. A chant slowly built from the crowd: “Take him away! Take him away!”

Jean ran inside the house, grabbed a sheet, and went back outside. She handed the sheet to a policeman to drape over her father. But they didn’t cover him — at least not right away — so she went back inside, and stared out the living room window. “I kept looking at him,” she says, her voice cracking as she cries. “Because as awful as it was, I figured I wouldn’t be seeing him much longer.”

She later wrote about that night, a passage she reads aloud to me in the moments before we descend into the basement to inspect her father’s trunk. “The implications of the scene before me, even I, who had been cushioned by a world of lies, could not deny. Daddy was dead, murdered. You usually don’t get shot by keeping your hands folded in Sunday school. Everyone acted surprised … so stunned because they had thrived in their fantasy of his invincibility. Along with the press and the government, they had frightfully made him larger than life.”

It is the first glimpse I’ve had of the anger Jean may hold toward her own family, perhaps even toward Angelo Bruno, for making her complicit in the lies that sustained his life. It is also the first time I’ve sensed in her a division between the intelligent, educated woman confronting the myth of her father and her childlike desire to propagate it.

As we clamber down the cellar stairs, her mood shifts, and she seems happy in the anticipation of cracking open the trunk. First, she sifts through the contents of the boxes atop it, lingering over a picture of a tree painted by her daughter Suangela.

“See,” she says, “the small roots above the ground symbolize her desire to leave me. Long, deep roots would have symbolized a desire to stay with her family.”

She blinks at the picture — the meaning of it for her as clear as if Sue had called to tell her — and visibly slumps a little lower. By now, the trunk is uncovered. But what we find inside is just as meaningless as what remains in the closet upstairs: piles of button-down shirts and books, including an early history of the mob called Mafia, U.S.A. and The F.B.I. Nobody Knows, which intriguingly contains a small Gospel of St. John tucked inside its pages.

It’s tempting to pull some meaning from the juxtaposition, to marvel at whatever piety may have existed in the heart of a man who lived his entire adult life as a criminal. And we could link him in our hearts and minds to the beautiful fiction of The Godfather. But as I stand in the dim basement light with one hand holding up the lid of Angelo Bruno’s trunk, it is his daughter who finally opens up. “Do you really believe your father was never involved in a murder?” I ask.

Jean Bruno leans in close, her red lips just inches from my ear. “You must understand. I know he wasn’t a saint,” she whispers. “But he was to me.”