The child of South Philadelphia’s legendary crime boss, Jean Brun, speaks to her father’s mythic persona.
The closet door is open, revealing boxes, bags, and a neatly hung row of suits. Jean Bruno has brought me upstairs in her home on the 900 block of Snyder Avenue for a peek inside her father’s closet. “Don’t close the door,” she says, again and again. “I need to be the last one inside.”
The items the dead leave behind are often trivial artifacts of the lives they led, and Angelo Bruno’s are no different: dress pants, white dress shoes in a drawstring bag, boxes of ties, pens, papers, all as they were when he was murdered on March 21, 1980. The only things that speak to his 21-year run as the leader of the Philadelphia mob are stacks of court papers. But nothing here speaks to his mythic persona.
Angelo Bruno was “the gentle Don,” an old-school mobster who avoided murder and disdained the sale of drugs while presiding over the local syndicate’s last glory days. He forged close relationships with some of the country’s greatest entertainers and power brokers, yet always remained true to his South Philadelphia neighborhood. But like all men in his position, he preyed upon the weaknesses of others — whether they needed money at usurious rates or simply the thrill of placing their week’s wages on an Eagles game.
His real legacy, however, is perhaps most evident in the feverish manner in which his daughter Jean attempts to preserve anything he ever touched, like a nun still faithfully lighting candles in a church no one visits. The closet is only a part of the shrine she tends, preserving even his gas and electric bills in a desk in her bedroom. And there’s more. “There is a trunk of my father’s in the basement,” she confides, “that has never been opened because it’s covered by boxes and I haven’t had anybody to move them. You can open that, too.”
We are standing in what was her father’s bedroom, itself a kind of storage room crammed with old furniture. When I finish exploring what is left of Bruno’s well-tailored suits, I absentmindedly begin to close the closet door. “Wait! Wait!” Jean hollers, dancing her tired bones across the room and roughly pushing me aside.
“I know it seems silly, but it’s all I have left of him,” she says, wedging her nose between her father’s suits and inhaling deeply. “Sometimes I just come in here and stand inside the closet for a few minutes, where I can still smell him.”
There is little to learn from what’s left in Angelo Bruno’s closet. But there is a lesson about organized crime — and its consequences — in looking at what’s left of his daughter. Because Jean Bruno is the mob story we don’t see. Like many of us, she wants to romanticize her father, to take us back to a time when organized crime was about honor and loyalty and nights spent hovering over white tablecloths at the 500 Club with Frank Sinatra. But the truth is far uglier. Because the shotgun blast that killed her father didn’t just explode in Philadelphia’s organized-crime family. It exploded in her, too.
Jean Bruno is 66 and stoop-shouldered, her body weakened by neuropathy and low blood sugar. She looks like her mother, her face angular where her father’s was round, her eyes open and bright where his were dark and deep-set. Stray strands of her dyed-blond hair flail wildly around her head, like sparks of electricity flying from a conductor. Her makeup consists of red lipstick applied on her mouth and rubbed into her cheeks like rouge. Her smile is incomplete — “Like a jack-o’-lantern,” she says — from ongoing dental work.
These days, she mostly bides her time. She talks on the phone, schedules doctor and dentist appointments, watches television shows like Boston Legal and The Simpsons. But mainly Jean Bruno thinks — a lot — about the past. The home in which she now resides is the one where she did most of her growing up, and when she walks outside she is confronted with the very curb on which her father was murdered as he sat in the passenger seat of a parked car. He was killed by a shotgun blast to the back of the head. “I see it every time I leave the house,” Jean says, her voice breaking.
She is a mercurial mix of fun and depression. Hollering “You’re under arrest!” and pointing an accusatory finger at Cisco, her son’s tawny mutt, she laughs as the dog stands on its hind legs and throws both paws over its head in mock surrender. She named her own dog Nicky, so she could hold him in her loneliness and say, “Oh, Nicky, I love you, Nicky.”
Her life includes no major personal accomplishments. She graduated with a B.A. degree from Temple. She worked as a grammar-school teacher for two years. She married Ralph Puppo, a neighborhood kid and the first boy she ever dated. Together, Jean and her husband had four children, all named after her father: Marcangelo, Suangela, Jeanangela and Mariangela. Ralph owned a real estate business and moved his wife into a mansion in Radnor. But the home bled money, and after Ralph went into the hospital with pneumonia shortly before his death in 1991, Jean was forced to sell it and move back to the family rowhouse on Snyder Avenue.
Her daughters rarely speak to her, a fact she rushes past in conversation, her jaw tightening. Her son, Marcangelo, now 44, lives with her much of the time. He says he’s been unemployed since 1982. Much of what Jean has received after her father’s death, including the house and $1,666 a month, has gone to support him. “My father had big plans for Marc to run a casino,” she says.
In her youth, her future seemed brighter than ending up in a rowhome packed with ghosts. She had a deluxe Sweet 16 party at the Latin Casino. She met Frank Sinatra and Vic Damone. She met Joe DiMaggio at the old Brighton Hotel in Atlantic City. She had a father. “I would have loved him no matter what he did for a living,” she says. “He was such a wonderful man. I would have loved him if he were a janitor.”
Jean wants to write a book, and the story she wants to tell is that her father never wanted to be the head of organized crime in Philadelphia. He only took the position because he knew he could keep the violence to a minimum and drugs out of the city. He briefly retired from control of the family, taking the reins back when his former underlings started dealing narcotics. He did not, she says, ever commit murder.
That’s her story, anyway, which she tells sitting in the living room that was once her father’s. She keeps the room dark, the front windows covered in paper designed to look like stained glass. “I want to clear my father’s name,” she says, her normally weak voice shaking with defiance. “Maybe then I can move on.”
For Jean Bruno, the moment innocence turned to suspicion came on the day of her First Holy Communion, when she was seven years old. She was standing outside her house with her cousin Marie, who didn’t usually wear dresses. When young Jean commented on this, Marie took it as an insult. She pointed to a nearby police car. “Maybe,” she shot back, “they’re going to arrest your father.”
It was the first time Jean wondered what her father did for a living. So she went inside and asked her mother. “He’s a broker,” Sue Bruno replied airily.
“There was always a free-floating anxiety around the house,” Jean says today. “I always had the sense that something was wrong. I remember in our first home, on Broad Street, some of the windows were painted black. I thought it was normal, but later I realized it was because he was running numbers.”
The Florida trips seemed normal, too, and it was only in later years that she realized all of the sudden family vacations were connected to her father’s “business.” Angelo Bruno endeavored to keep the truth of his life a secret from his only daughter for as long as he could, taking her for drives and serenading her with songs like “Bluebird of Happiness” as she perched giddily in the passenger seat. Sometimes, when he arrived home late at night with fellow gang members, he’d wake her. “Jeannie,” he’d say, “do you want to come downstairs and eat with the boys?”
She’d sit on his lap as he fed her macaroni. Then she’d scramble upstairs to bed and lie awake listening to the men’s conversations waft through the narrow halls. I may not understand what they’re talking about now, she’d think to herself, but someday I will.
She came to realize his power. “Honey,” he said one night when he came home, “you’ll never guess who I just saw.”
“Who?” she asked.
“Frank Sinatra,” he said. “He showed up in the same bar I was in.”
“Oh, Daddy!” Jean responded. “Did you go up to him and say hello?”
“Because,” her father replied, “he came up and said hello to me.”
But growing up in a house filled with secrets, as Jean Bruno did, leaves a mark. For the children of career criminals, “There is an understandable wish to not let in the heinous details,” says Frederic Reamer, a professor at the Rhode Island College School of Social Work in Providence who has studied thousands of inmates and their families, including members of organized crime. “The challenge is in reconciling all of the inherent contradictions. ‘My father was so loving toward me, but what was he when he left the house?’”
According to Reamer, the parent’s dual life can often lead a child to seek out a lover with whom he or she can play out the same dynamic of secret-keeping. Jean Bruno did. Ralph Puppo, her husband, preferred sex with men, and died of complications from AIDS.
When I ask her about this, Jean visibly stiffens and tries to change the subject. But later, she will tell me Puppo waited a year to kiss her, and that he declined to have sex on their wedding night. “I was naive,” she says. “My parents were very protective.”
Jean Bruno keeps her many photo albums in a series of wooden cabinets. Worn and faded, they nevertheless preserve vivid, archival images of a man who held his grandchildren like treasure. It is this Angelo Bruno that Jean wants to remember. So she tends to side with her father’s most ardent admirers, who claim, for instance, that Bruno’s organized crime family either did not commit murder or was loathe to do so, employing assassination only as a last resort. “He was never convicted of a murder,” she says. “And he was the most investigated man in the United States.”
The idea that he rose above murderousness seems ridiculous: Author Celeste Morello, whose Before Bruno documents the Philly mob’s early days, pored through FBI files to pin him with at least four homicides before he even became boss. Morello says Bruno rose to the top post by 1959 largely because he’d spent years sending a share of his bookmaking and gambling profits directly to New York, making lifelong allies of the Gambino family in the process. And he was just as shrewd about murder.
Coming home every day for dinner and helping his daughter with her homework, he didn’t kill the way he was killed — in a public blood-letting. He made people disappear, murdering them out of sight and dumping their corpses in remote locations. “All that ‘gentle Don,’ ‘docile Don’ stuff really only came up because of who came after him,” says Inquirer reporter George Anastasia, who has covered organized crime in Philadelphia for almost two decades. “You hear that stuff around South Philadelphia: ‘When Bruno was here, this was the safest street in the city.’ I don’t think that’s true. I think people want to spin that because it plays into the whole Godfather mystique. But that was fiction. They were gangsters, thieves, crooks, bandits. Bruno was probably a lot smarter than most of these people. But he was what he was.”
Jean was there the day representatives of the Gambino family joined the Brunos for a late-’70s Easter dinner. They ate baked lamb, antipasti and macaroni on the family’s best china. They drank anisette after dinner. Then they started speaking Sicilian, of which Jean knew enough to understand words like “detective.” She left the room.
Years later, she realized she’d witnessed what law enforcement circles consider a historic summit — the day her father gave his permission to the Gambinos to sell drugs in his South Jersey territory. “This was the boss of bosses who was asking,” she says. “Some requests you can’t say no to.”
As it turned out, her father was probably dead from the moment the Gambinos came through his door. His assassination seemed likely if he refused them permission to sell drugs; the plot that killed him allegedly came from within his own crime family when he ceded such a profitable operation to New York. After his death, organized crime in Philadelphia was never the same. Joey Merlino stood Bruno’s old “Make money, not headlines” credo on its head, swaggering down Broad Street and turning himself into a kind of celebrity gangster as Angelo — and Jean — slowly faded from view.
On a chilly November morning, Jean Bruno turns up in her attorney’s office wearing a mischievous grin and a wildly colorful jacket screened with Andy Warhol prints of Marilyn Monroe. Today she means business — her lipstick rouge rubbed all the way into her cheeks, her blond hair whipped perfectly into a crest, like a dollop of butter. It seems almost strange to see her outside the walls of her Snyder Avenue home. But it is somehow fitting that today she’s shuffled out to a Center City high-rise only to deal with the past.
Jean’s brother Michael, her only sibling, died in 2000; her mother, Sue, died this past July, meaning the final dispensation of her father’s fortune is under way. But according to Jean, an independently managed trust fund that she says should total at least $1.2 million holds only $650K. Jean is due half of whatever money’s available; the other half goes to her brother’s heirs.
Then there is the matter of Marilyn Monroe.
One day, when Jean was around 18, she found her mother sitting in front of a mirror, trying on jewelry. The jewels, Sue told her, had once belonged to Monroe. They included sapphire and diamond bracelets, aquamarine rings and emerald earrings. Jean’s father, Sue said, got them from Joe DiMaggio; the retired baseball great and by then heartsick ex-husband of Monroe had a friendly relationship with Philadelphia’s godfather. If the story Jean tells is true, it seems DiMaggio sold the blond bombshell’s baubles to the mob boss under the agreement he could buy them back if he and Monroe remarried. “My mother told me that all the jewelry would be mine when she passed,” Jean says.
But just as the old order of the Philadelphia mob broke down with the passing of Angelo Bruno, so did the order of inheritance. The pain this causes Jean is apparent when she sits down gingerly at a conference table across from her small, balding, mild-mannered attorney, Frank Baldwin. According to Baldwin, since Sue Bruno made no specific documented provisions to award the jewelry to Jean, the jewels — or the proceeds from their sale — will be divided between Jean and her brother’s heirs, unless she fights for them.
“Of course she wanted me to have the jewelry, Fraaaank,” says Jean, dragging his name out like a six-year-old child in full whine. “I’m her daughter. It’s the Italian way!”
But evidently it was not her mother’s way. In this context, the colorful jacket is both a flag of mourning and a sagging metaphor: What Jean Bruno wants is not more money or even Marilyn Monroe’s jewelry, but what those things represent. What she wants, even now, is her father.
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 it 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.”