The Great Gusto of Jimmy Binns


IT’S HARD TO KNOW which Jimmy Binns story to start with, because Jimmy Binns is nothing if not a cultivator of vivid stories. Some rise or fall on his profanity, and some on his comic timing, and honestly, some Jimmy Binns stories are fun simply because they involve somebody getting his ass kicked by a 66-year-old man, which Jimmy Binns is. But at root, these stories all share the same punch line: the contrast between the man Jimmy Binns is — i.e., the pinstripe-wearing, wealthy old Philadelphia lawyer who is chummy with U.S. senators and has paintings of fox hunts on his walls and is a fixture in international boxing circles and says he was charging $500 an hour in the 1980s for his legal services and who today charges “a lot more than that, buddy” — and the man Jimmy Binns becomes in his stories, which is an ass-kicking tough guy tougher than anyone from Rocky V, in which he “portrayed himself,” like it says on his business card, “as Rocky Balboa’s lawyer.” Rocky’s lawyer: a Daily Double of iconic Philadelphia types. Not just the Philadelphia-lawyer type, and not just the Rocky type, but Rocky’s lawyer. In fact, if you were to sculpt a statue of the Ultimate Iconic Philadelphia Male, a man who wasn’t just a tough guy or a Main Liner but was both at the same time, a man who could curse like a drunk Eagles fan and throw left hooks like he trained with Frazier and also kick back with the power elite at the Racquet Club at the end of the day, you couldn’t do better than to sculpt Jimmy Binns. And he’d be more than happy to pose for you.

Since I’m a writer, Binns didn’t pose. He told me stories, some from years ago and some he created for my benefit on the fly, and in all of these stories Binns came across as so Philly he couldn’t possibly be for real. For instance, here’s Jimmy Binns, the old man, leaning back in his chair at the Italian bistro Radicchio, next to a framed caricature of himself on the wall, telling me about his 1992 divorce (“I’m single now”) and then jabbing his thumb at a girl in a pink top at the next table and adding, “But maybe not for long.” Binns’s voice isn’t self-consciously leering or ironic or anything; the girl’s 28, tops, and Binns is smiling through his perfect white teeth. He’s trying to make it sound credible — at least as credible as the left hook he says he delivered, a few years ago, to a sauced Two Streeter who was (Binns says) making threatening gestures up on Market Street. After the Two Streeter dropped to the pavement, the story goes, Binns told the guy’s friends, “When he wakes up, tell him an old man did it.”

Another story: Here’s Binns giving me a tour of his immaculate four-story house in South Philly. He’s showing me his certificate of admittance to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court. And the U.S. flag given to him by his friend Congressman Bob Brady. And his congratulatory letter from ex-governor Bob Casey re: the dedication of the James J. Binns Fitness Center at La Salle University, where he served on the board. The place is like a museum of his own power and connectedness and Philadelphia-lawyerly fabulousness. And then Binns picks up the heavy coffee-table book of Tony Ward, the famous photographer who shot him for this very story, and, as I flip through the book’s arty female nudes, says: “Oh, you haven’t seen anything yet. There’s one picture there of a woman with a high heel up her asshole and her finger up her snatch.”

And there it is again. His defining characteristic: the self-conscious high/low, street/elite straddling that gives him a special kind of power. Congressman Bob Brady says of Binns, “If I needed some kind of help on a charitable issue, I would call him,” because Binns is “a gem for the city” who is “accepted on every circle and every level.” Binns isn’t the attorney in the back room with Art Makadon and David Cohen, banging out deals. He’s the guy with the fattest and weirdest BlackBerry contact list: congresspeople, crooks, beautiful women who speak exotic languages, barbers, deejays, famous writers and lawyers and boxing promoters, rabbis, Don King. He’s the guy who can get a good chunk of those people to come together to, say, hand out free turkeys to the poor. He’s the guy described by federal appeals judge Edward Becker as “a very able lawyer” and also “quite … stylish.” He’s the guy who is referred to by his client Shamsud-din Ali, the reputed ex-Black Mafia figure-turned-imam whom Binns defended against racketeering charges in 2005, as “Rafiq Ali,” meaning “honored and trusted friend of Ali,” while across the aisle, Philadelphia PD Chief Inspector James Tiano can tell me, in all seriousness, that if Binns had a religion, he’d join, because “I’m a Binns-ey-ite.”

Where does a guy like that come from? The straight answer is that he comes from the part of the Northeast now known as Mayfair, and then Mount Airy. The truer, more abstract answer is the one given by Tom Welsh, former assistant squash pro at the Racquet Club. “Jimmy’s a character straight out of a pulp-fiction novel,” says Welsh. “He’s certainly a man among men. You would think he grew up in the ’hood somewhere, as opposed to his true background.”

Which may be the best Jimmy Binns story of all: the story of how Jimmy Binns made himself a pulp-fiction character and a man among men in a city that doesn’t look kindly upon self-invention; the story of how Jimmy Binns created Jimmy Binns.

AND, HONESTLY, he told me that story, too. It wasn’t some mystery I had to laboriously unearth. When I started hanging out with Binns back in August 2004, everything seemed to happen at once, in an overwhelming continuous Binnsian moment that engaged all the senses and the peripheral vision, so that for a while I walked around in Binns-space like those shoppers you see at Costco, the first-
timers, dazed at the profusion of high shelves, not sure where to look. Sometimes his clothes alone could do it, like the time he showed up for dinner wearing a sea-green checked shirt and a matching green blazer and a green leather belt, his skin pinkish, his Irish nose convex, his jutting pugnacious chin as jutty as ever, his perfectly white hair slicked back, the juxtaposition of white and green making him look like a giant breath mint. Sometimes it was the whole scene he created, the big picture. That month, Binns took me to a fight in Essington, at the Lagoon, whose ring was surrounded by palm fronds — and Binns just sat ringside in spats and a diamond-studded Rolex, silent as God, the apparent fulcrum of all these mad characters: some promoter who’d flown in from South Africa, and some loud, mustachioed guy Binns called “the biggest sausage man in South Jersey,” and Shamsud-din Ali in a dark suit, and Binns’s 27-year-old son James Jr., heavier than Dad but with the same hawk haircut and yen for self-promotion. (Jr., who owns two nightclubs in New York City, told me he plans to launch a line of sweatsuits that say BINNS, COMING SOON on the front.) Binns called me the next day and said, “So, do you feel any different now, after your first fight? You know, it’s kinda like losing your cherry.”

It was great material. It was like stumbling onto the set of a movie already in progress, and Binns was the star but also the director, exercising control over the lighting, soundtrack, ambience, setting, dialogue. Which, as I spent more time with him, started to seem a little odd — the degree of his control. Every story and image felt punched up with color and noise, prepped for celluloid. I once overheard him ask a waitress at the Palm to replace its wall caricature of Jimmy Binns with a different caricature, one that hangs on the wall of Radicchio, because the Palm caricature was “too realistic” — “It looks too much like me.” Binns likes the Radicchio caricature because it was drawn by his friend, artist LeRoy Neiman, and because Neiman portrays him dashingly, in a red tie and his trademark pinstriped suit, looking down his Toulouse-Lautrec nose with radiant pity. The caricature is reproduced on the front of his business card in glossy color. The back of the card is just as attentive to image as the front, reading, in part, “Criminal and Civil Trial lawyer … decisions over Muhammad Ali … Don King, Mike Tyson, and the E.E.O.C. … Former Pennsylvania Boxing Commissioner … Represents boxing promoters and casinos throughout the world … Portrayed himself opposite Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire & Burt Young as Rocky Balboa’s lawyer in Rocky V.”

His narcissism — and that’s really the only word for a guy who puts an illustration of himself on his business card — was so over-the-top and unapologetic as to be kind of charming; and anyway, it wasn’t narcissism for narcissism’s sake. It was in the service of a great passion for a certain kind of story he grew up with as a kid, the source of which he showed me once, in his office in Blue Bell. From his bookshelf there, he plucked his red-covered, yellow-paged copy of A Treasury of Damon Runyon. I knew exactly what it was, because he’d told me. The Treasury was the blueprint of Jimmy Binns; it was the mold that made him.

The Treasury is the source material for the musical Guys and Dolls. In Runyon’s short stories, set in the Broadway of 1920s and ’30s New York and populated by characters such as Nicely-Nicely Jones and Dream Street Rose, money is “potatoes” and jail is “the sneezer.” Of particular interest here is the Runyon character named Tobias Tweeney. Tobias lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He has a doll, but the doll isn’t that into him because Tobias is rather meek, and the doll “wishes to know why I cannot be a big gunman … maybe looking picturesque and romantic,” like James Cagney and other movie stars. So Tobias travels to New York City in search of big gunmen. “By the way,” Tobias asks a stranger, “do you know any desperate characters of the underworld?”

Minus the doll subplot, Jimmy Binns is Tobias Tweeney. That’s how he connected with boxing — and the gritty side of Philly — for the first time. Binns was no blue-collar rowhouse kid. He was a banker’s kid, 135 pounds and scrawny, reading his Treasury in a banker’s house in Mount Airy. His talent wasn’t fistic, but comedic. “He could sing like Jimmy Durante when he was three,” says his sister, Emily Binns, a former nun and retired professor of theology at Villanova. “He was always an actor.” While studying at La Salle, Binns met a fellow student whose uncle managed fighters at a gym on Passyunk Avenue. Binns set up a meeting with the uncle — Franny Venuti (great name!) — and told him, “I would like to learn to box, Mr. Venuti.”

The big, life-changing moment: I would like to learn to box, Mr. Venuti. Who knows why he said it? Binns says it wasn’t youthful rebellion — not against school (he was magna cum laude at La Salle), and not against his family either, unless it was an anti-rebellion, an attempt to dirty up a home situation that his sister Emily describes as “almost too good to be true”: mom a homemaker, dad the neighborhood air-raid warden, kids in Catholic school. Just like the TV show American Dreams, Emily says. Binns’s father wore three-piece suits every day, and made sure Jimmy and Jimmy’s older brother Joe were always “neat as a pin,” in Emily’s words, sometimes dressing the boys in matching outfits that said “Joe” and “Jim” on the front — in one family photo, an adolescent Jimmy and Joe stand side by side in identical gray suits, bow ties and Cagney-style hats, with Joe looking stiff and rigid while Jimmy, his weight shifted rightward in an insouciant semi-slouch that billows the suit, looks like he was born in it. Binns’s father, though an exceedingly neat man, was far from a flamboyant one. His hobby was fishing. And when he eventually found out Binns was serious about boxing, he appealed to the then-boxing commissioner, who was his friend, to write a letter to his son encouraging him to quit. “It was yes sir, no sir, buh buh buh,” says Binns, who adds that he had a “more distant relationship” with his father than the one he has with his own son, “although it was a loving one.” In any case, Binns had to satisfy his curiosity. He snuck out of the house and took the trolley down from Mount Airy to get to Venuti’s gym, where he “discovered a whole different culture of people.” He went back, first on Saturdays and then every day, in search of desperate characters from the underworld who would have “mortified” his parents had they known.

Today, Binns describes the experience as “almost magical” — how he “was adopted all of a sudden by all these people that were very Runyonesque characters,” and in whose world Jimmy Binns was, in essence, born again.

Just like in the De Niro movie A Bronx Tale, he says.

AND YET, as iconically Philly as he comes across, Binns has several un-Philly qualities. He carries a man-purse, for instance. Worse, he sometimes carries wet-naps in his man-purse. Once, cruising in South Philly, he pointed out the place where he gets his weekly manicure, then cued up a Mariah Carey CD and sang along to “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” A germophobe, Binns uses a tissue to push elevator buttons. He is a little too obsessive-compulsive for Philly, and maybe a little too solitary — because for every night at his favorite restaurant, the Saloon, there’s a night when he stays in and watches A Bronx Tale, then Goodfellas, then A Bronx Tale again on his DirecTV. He’s close to his kids, but James Jr. lives in New York, and his daughter, Amy, 33, is married. “It’s a lonely life,” says Bobby Goodman, Don King’s right-hand man. “I don’t think he has a lot of close friends.”

Goodman, perhaps Binns’s best friend, is making a distinction here between “close friends” and “good friends,” because Binns has a million of the latter. They’re the ones he calls, first thing in the morning, full of vigor and energy, because there’s “no time like the present.” Binns isn’t happy unless he’s working on some complicated project; it’s certainly how he likes his trials. The courtroom sketches on the walls of his home are from his 1981 defense of ex-Congressman Ray Lederer in his Abscam trial and his defense, also in 1981, of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in its citywide strike action — both of them big, controversial public cases that spun out reams of press. Since it’s hard to match those octane levels on a regular basis, Binns tends to get bored easily, in law and in life. For five years in the ’90s, he spent his summers in south Florida. Bobby Goodman tells the story: “He got a fuckin’ lime-green Jaguar or some shit. Convertible. And he got bored with it. He put in Italian marble, took it all out. I called him, he said, ‘Eh, I’ll move to Margate.’”

Binns didn’t like Florida because, one, there was nothing happening there, he says, and two, it was too freewheeling, story-wise; its people didn’t have the proper scorn for “arrivistes.” He told me once that “in Philadelphia, just like in boxing, everybody knows all about you. You can’t reinvent yourself like in South Beach or New York or something like that. You can’t just appear on the scene and create some bullshit story about yourself.”

Okay — but this is what Binns did. Not to say that his story is a bullshit story. Binns turned out to be a good boxer, though he gave it up for the pinstriped suit. He committed too fully, too instantaneously, too early on, for his story to be bullshit. He’s been living it so long and so fastidiously that he has become, to his friends, the embodiment of anti-bullshit (“no BS with Jimmy,” says Congressman Bob Brady), a guy who’s not out for himself, who doesn’t want fame or attention despite the fact that Binns carries Daily News clips about himself around in his bag. Which doesn’t mean he’s not sincere, but it ought to stir some cognitive dissonance in his Binns-ey-ites, because there’s dissonance in Binns himself; there’s tension between the man of action and his inner actor. And there are moments when he can’t immediately resolve that tension, moments that happen to be easiest to see when they involve boxing matters as opposed to Philadelphia matters, because boxing matters are more consistently nasty. And these Jimmy Binns stories aren’t as elegant as the others. Binns, for a long time, wasn’t just some Runyonesque ringside peacock but was the lawyer and American representative of the World Boxing Association (WBA), which Binns calls “my most notorious client.” It’s one of the four sanctioning organizations that run boxing internationally. Binns was “the man” in the WBA, according to Craig Hamilton, who used to manage heavyweight Michael Grant. And as “the man,” Binns was in a position to allegedly tell Craig Hamilton, in response to Hamilton asking how he could get his fighter ranked, “Hire me as your lawyer.” This is according to Hamilton, as reported by boxing writer Thomas Hauser. Hauser adds that “to me, the morality of doing work on many of these cases involving the world sanctioning organizations is similar to representing organized crime figures.”

The Binns solution here — the way he reconciles his power with his storytelling — is to puff himself up to larger than life and use each scuffle as a launching pad for another Jimmy Binns story. So, to take as an example this one scuffle (and there are many others), this one allegation, which Binns says is “bullshit”: It’s a chance for Binns to giggle about how he busted their balls on the phone with Hauser — “Craig’s a dork. Tell him that” — and how Hamilton’s a “flake” and Hauser, though he has testified before Congress on boxing corruption and has been honored for career achievement by his peers, is “meaningless,” a person “on the outside” of boxing who will “never be on the inside.” The important thing to note here is that anyone who doesn’t like Binns is by definition somebody “I couldn’t give less of a shit about,” and somebody, anyway, who could be readily defused with a phone call or two to certain of his good friends around the world (“You have no idea the number of connections I have”), because, really, a Binns critic? “What are they gonna do to me? What’s anybody gonna do to me? Nothin’.”

It’s a classic Philly response — when you’re hit, hit back harder — and, in its classicness, entertaining, and more than entertaining. Reassuring. It’s a story we don’t seem to get tired of hearing. Binns, because he’s not the tough guy who made good but the good guy who made tough, can not only be quoted in Philadelphia magazine saying “snatch” without getting his Racquet Club privileges revoked, but can become even more welcome at such hallowed institutions and can in fact instantiate his tough-guy sphere inside them, as he did, last fall, in the federal district courtroom of the Honorable Bruce W. Kauffman.

Binns took the Shamsud-din Ali case pro bono. It was irresistibly front-and-center, contentious and press-heavy. And though he made the trial, in many ways, the ultimate Jimmy Binns production — parading his and Ali’s friends as character witnesses before the jury; conducting smash-mouth cross-examinations of government agents in which he pronounced “agent” as if it were synonymous with “child molester”; using his wardrobe as a running tension-reliever between the attorneys and the judge (who disclosed at the trial’s start that he is a friend of Binns, as is this magazine’s chairman, D. Herbert Lipson, with whom Binns shares a tailor); staying up for five days straight prior to closing arguments, listening to tapes of every word of every day of the eight-week trial — there were also stretches of the trial that Binns couldn’t imbue with romance, that were just wiretapped phone calls played out loud: sad, banal stories about people stealing money that should have been going to the education of school kids.

And Binns lost the case. Ali was convicted on 22 counts and sentenced to more than seven years in jail. (Binns is appealing to the Third Circuit.) The day of the verdict, Binns said, “I thought that I could pull it out. But, I was wrong. So, what can I do? The tapes were sometimes insurmountable. … As they say in the movies, this is the life we chose. Don’t you remember that line in The Godfather? ‘This is the life we have chosen.’ It’s a great line.”

LAST FALL, I joined Binns in his purple Jaguar XJ8 (license: “JJB”) to run some errands. The whole day, apropos of nothing, Binns kept looking out the window and making airy, poetic statements about the passing of time, i.e., “The change of seasons goes so fast.” When I asked why he wore a gold bracelet that says JIMMY BINNS, he said, “In case I forget. You can never tell. I’m getting old.” When I asked about his wealth, he gritted his teeth and said, “I don’t discuss that.” Then he smiled. “It’s meaningless, let’s put it that way. None of us are getting out alive.”

I thought back to the day at the Shamsud-din Ali trial when Binns appeared in court wearing bandages on his face; doctors, it turned out, had removed a few skin cancers. Despite Binns’s blitheness — “I’ve had hundreds of ’em,” he told me — he may have been worried about his health. But his urgency, I think, had a more powerful source. It was an old and common story, and not really a Jimmy Binns story at all: the need to leave a mark, a legacy. Sometimes Binns would call me with the names and numbers of three or four more of his good friends he wanted me to call — that is, in addition to the 94 names on the spreadsheet he’d already sent me — and then, as soon as we hung up, Binns would call back with another name he’d just remembered. “Ya gotta,” he’d say, “ya gotta.” The appeal was strongest when it came to books and authors. He wanted me to meet, or at least talk to, Budd Schulberg, the 91-year-old author of The Harder They Fall (“It would be like me meeting Clarence Darrow”), and sometimes he’d press into my hands a book by one of our shared writer-heroes, like the time, in late 2005, when I showed up at Binns’s house so he could take me to his boxing gym, and Binns gripped a paperback of A.J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science and said, “This guy Liebling, this is my next recommendation to you. His stuff is so un-bee-leeve-able it’s un-bee-leeve-able.” Binns drove to the gym, which was off Front Street, and introduced me to the gym’s manager, the leathery Pete Papaleo, a.k.a. “Petey Pop.” Petey Pop gave me a tour while Binns worked his left on the heavy bag, then the speed bag. On our way out, Binns ran to his Jag and fished out a copy of a Daily News clip regarding his role in the forthcoming Rocky VI. “You gotta post that, that’s current fuckin’ news,” he said to Petey Pop, and made a self-deprecating joke about Petey Pop being good to put up with him. Then, back in the Jag, Binns said, “Wasn’t Petey Pop a great guy? Now, he’s the kind of guy A.J. Liebling would write about.”

It had hit me before this moment, but now it hit me again, hit me hard.

He wanted me to be his Liebling, his Schulberg, his Runyon. He needed me to be.

Binns had gone to all this trouble directing the movie of himself, and now all his ideal cameramen were dead, or on their way out, and the new crop didn’t understand the tone and pacing of Binns’s movie; they didn’t know Runyon, they didn’t get Schulberg. They were young guys like me, and they had to be adopted, just like Binns was adopted as a scrawny college kid, which explained the intensity of reporting on Jimmy Binns:

“I just thought it would be good for you to meet some of these people, because they’re so special, and they’ll never be back. …”

This was a terrible responsibility — to pen a valediction for a 1931 character in 2005 — and ultimately an impossible one. I could read Liebling and Schulberg and Runyon, and I could spend time in Binns’s recreation of 1931, with his profanity and his comic timing and his sea-green blazers, but at the end of the day I had to drive back to circa-2005 Philadelphia, to the unfilmic, unliterary Philadelphia, which was a place where I could have all my sentiment for tough guys and tough-guy stories bled out of me just by reading the paper.

So I can’t tell my final Jimmy Binns story through a Runyonesque lens. I have to tell it like this:

WE’RE IN THE JAG. Early afternoon, November. We’ve had lunch at Sunnybrook Golf Club and hung out at Binns’s law office in Blue Bell, and now we’re heading back into Center City. Binns wants to stop at the Racquet Club. A block away, he pulls into a parking garage, and as he’s steering the Jag into a spot, he gets a call on his cell. It’s a cop.

Binns is in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose his cases, and these days he’s more interested in charitable work, especially his work with cops. Together with the Daily News, the FOP, and the Cement Masons Union, Binns is trying to honor 272 Philadelphia cops killed in the line of duty with commemorative plaques at the site of each slaying. Binns placed the first plaque himself, in 2001, for Daniel Faulkner, who was shot by Mumia Abu-Jamal in 1981. Since then, the program has gathered steam, become a full-on mania. Binns and his partners are expanding the program backward in time, to include cops who were killed in the 1800s, and also outward, to new cities. (If it isn’t already clear that Binns is a Johnny Appleseed of disclosure statements, here’s yet another: Philadelphia magazine sponsored a plaque.)

And now this cop’s on the phone. He’s the head of the police union in Atlantic City, and he has bad news. Binns and the cops have planned a plaque-dedication ceremony there, and they’ve invited the outgoing mayor of Atlantic City, Lorenzo T. Langford, to give a speech. But the mayor is refusing.

Binns grins through gritted teeth and starts cursing into the phone, something along the lines of fuck him, we’re going to lay that fucking Mayor Langford out — anyway, it’s such vivid stuff that I fumble for my tape recorder and press RECORD, concerned I won’t catch his diatribe.

My device makes an audible little “beep.”

“Alllllright,” says Binns. “Just leave it with me.” And he begins all over again: “We will lay that fucking Mayor Langford out like he’s never been laid out in his life. … ”

I don’t know what I was worried about.

“Fuck him. And I’m gonna say fuck him on television. AND in the press. AND on radio. Buh buh buh buh listen to me. I am used to dealin’ with fuckin’ COCKROACHES. … You’ll see. You’ll be proud of your boy. … He may fuck with you guys with your contract and this and that. He can NOT fuck with Jimmy Binns. And I will REAM his ASS.”

Binns hangs up and makes an occluded “huh” sound, the laugh of a mischievous 14-year-old. “Fuckin’ mayor down there,” he says. “Can you believe this?” He gets out of the Jag and starts walking toward the garage’s elevator, still chattering about Mayor Langford, pumping on all cylinders because he’s found the next best thing to an actual living, breathing Runyon. He’s found the cops. If there’s any group of people as sentimental about tough-guy stories as Binns, it’s cops.

And even if the cops don’t keep telling Jimmy Binns stories when he’s gone, he’s still set, legacy-wise, thanks to the plaques. Every person and business sponsoring a plaque for a fallen cop gets a “sponsor plaque,” and Binns encourages them to display those plaques in front of their homes and offices, just like Binns has. Walk up South Darien Street, and you’ll see it: the bronze square honoring Daniel Faulkner and thanking James J. Binns. People talk about “cementing a legacy” or “making a concrete mark,” but the personal network Binns spent a lifetime building is now constellated across the city, embedded in the very streets; his legacy is actually laid down in concrete.

But back to Mayor Langford …

“I’ll be like a patron saint to those cops,” says Binns, here in the parking garage. “I will go down there with such great gusto to lay him the fuck out.”

I laugh at the fabulousness of the line. After all this time, he can still surprise me. It’s a perfect title for his memoirs, or a biopic starring, say, Gabriel Byrne.

Such Great Gusto: The Life and Times of Jimmy Binns.

“No!” says Binns, his face straining in mock protest, counterbalancing my laughter, “and this is a normal day for me! This is a quiet one!”

For a moment, Jimmy Binns is at a loss for words.

“I mean,” he says, finally, “you could not make it up. You could not make it. The FUCK. UP.”

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