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 loath 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 bloodletting . 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.