In the picture, she is six years old, wearing a ruffled bathing suit, an inner tube wrapped around her waist, her tiny toes firmly planted on a diving board. She is poised to jump. The photo was taken in Florida. The family often traveled there when Jean was a child. She would come home from school and her parents would announce a sudden, surprise vacation. When they arrived in Miami, her father would tell her the family’s new last name. Something Italian, like “Conti.” She didn’t ask any questions. She was just a child. To her, this was normal life.
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.