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 self-employed 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.”