The Year of the Bull
In the beginning, this was supposed to be Maury Levy’s story. Or, at least the idea of his doing a story on Frank Rizzo’s first year as mayor was kicked around the office for some time. Then it was dropped in my lap. That bothered me. It also bothered Maury Levy and just about everyone else connected with this magazine.
Herb Lipson, the publisher of Philadelphia Magazine, is a close personal friend of Frank Rizzo. Not to mention being a member of the Mayor’s Committee of Twelve — the Dirty Dozen, a group of business and civic leaders who are supposed to advise Frank Rizzo on how to improve Philadelphia’s economy.
Was this sudden change in editorial planning his idea?
Did he think it would be better for his relationship with the mayor if Jim Riggio did the story instead of Maury Levy, a guy with slightly longer hair and a more liberal viewpoint who probably would be more critical of Frank Rizzo?
No, Alan Halpern, our editor, said. If Maury Levy or anyone else wanted to be critical of Frank Rizzo, he could. And that’s exactly what happened in December when Maury Levy ripped Frank Rizzo up one side and down the other for brutally suppressing dissent.
No, Alan Halpern insisted. It was just that he felt I could really get inside Frank Rizzo to find out what makes him tick better than anyone else, because I’m the only Italian writer here and could therefore understand the ethnic values that shape Frank Rizzo’s thoughts; because I was born and raised in South Philadelphia, in Frank Rizzo’s own parish, and therefore could understand the forces that helped mold the man.
The story he wanted, Alan Halpern explained, should be a portrait of the real man, not a one-sided picture that paints Frank Rizzo as hero or villain. That was why he wanted me to do it. It made sense. In the beginning, I thought he was right. Until I started looking for Frank Rizzo.
Somehow you know he’s a cop. Even though he’s sitting behind the reception desk in the Mayor’s Office in City Hall, wearing a dark blue business suit with no telltale sign of a bulge under the coat, you know he’s a cop. And it’s not because his boss, the mayor, was, and basically still is, a cop. Jack Brems would have struck you the same way when he sat behind that desk for a civilian boss, Jim Tate.
You walk in the door of Room 215 and Jack Brems smiles a real smile. Softly and politely, he asks your name, who you’re there to see and whether or not you have an appointment. Then he picks up the receiver from the desk switchboard, dials a couple of numbers and tells someone you’re there.
Jack Brems is a big guy, well over six feet, lean and hard under his well pressed suit. He’s anything but menacing or overbearing. Still, you get the message that no one brushes past him without risking severe physical pain.
There’s nothing overt that tells you Jack Brems is a cop, but you know. He seems like the kind of cop you knew when you were a kid and the kind of cop you wish there were more of now that you’re not. You can almost see him in uniform, standing on a busy street corner, twirling his nightstick like a drum major’s baton instead of brandishing it like a lethal weapon designed to be thrust into a man’s solar plexus or brought down hard on his skull.
In a few moments, the door next to a plaque that gives credit to former movie magnate William Goldman for the lavishly refurbished offices opens and Tony Zecca appears. Tony Zecca’s been around the office for a long time, even longer than Jack Brems. He was Jim Tate’s press secretary after he quit his job as a reporter for UPI and Frank Rizzo picked up his option. Tony Zecca’s a likable guy, full of great anecdotes and insights, who won’t badmouth anybody.
After exchanging pleasantries while walking across an outer office area, Tony Zecca opens the door to Frank Rizzo’s private domain.
As soon as you step inside the massive, almost intimidating room, your head fills with images of a medieval hall, the regal yet austere court of a powerful monarch. High ceilings appear even higher because of the bare walls. Sparse furnishing makes the. open stretches look as awesome as the Grand Canyon. The large polished mahogany desk seems dwarfed in this room. A semi-circle of plush, expensive-looking chairs is arranged at least six feet from the edge of the desk, which makes everything look smaller yet.
Everything except Frank Rizzo, whose huge bulk dominates the desk, dominates the room, tipping it down toward him.
I can only remember one other man who ever came on like that. It was back in 1959 and J was sitting in one of the dressing rooms of my father’s gym in South Philadelphia, playing gin rummy with Mickey Diamond, one of the fight trainers. My back was to the door.
"Hey, you got any Vaseline?" came a voice from behind me. It sounded like a sonic boom. I turned and saw the biggest human being who ever filled a doorway. He was stripped to the waist and the massive muscles of his torso gleamed like polished ebony. The giant had been smearing Vaseline over his body to help him sweat harder during his workout. No wonder he ran out of the stuff, I said to myself. It would take a whole jar just to cover his arms!
Mickey Diamond gave him another jar of Vaseline and picked up his cards without blinking. "Who was that‘?" I asked when the giant was out of earshot.
"Some heavyweight that Blinky Palermo brought up from St. Louis," Mickey Diamond said.
Charles "Sonny" Liston stood only 6’1” and weighed no more than 220. Yet he always looked at least eight feet tall to me. Frank Rizzo looks nine feet tall.
I never really knew Frank Rizzo. ButIhad heard a lot about him, ever since I was a kid.
As kids in South Philly, we talked as much about Frank Rizzo as we did Rocky Marciano or Joe DiMaggio.
Frank Rizzo, so the legend goes, once raided a card game in the old neighborhood back in the days when he was a rising star in the department assigned to a police district in South Philly. There were mostly old men in the game and Frank Rizzo, the iron man with ice water in his veins, took them all in. Including his own uncle.
Another talk involved a guy they called Cosy Nelson. I think his real name was Costello, but that’s irrelevant, except that the guy was Italian. At any rate, Cosy Nelson was one of the toughest, meanest street fighters in South Philly and he was hero-worshipped by every young tough in the neighborhood. Frank Rizzo knew this. And he knew that if he was going to be the man in the neighborhood, he was going to have to chop down Cosy Nelson on his own turf. One night Frank Rizzo came to the hangout at 15th and Reed, they say, and invited Cosy Nelson out into the street, in front of everybody. Cosy Nelson, physically just as big as the ballsy cop, had to accept or lose face.
Frank Rizzo beat Cosy Nelson, beat him so bad Cosy lost an eye. From that day on, Frank Rizzo was the man. And Cosy Nelson was never the same. I heard he died a couple of years ago and the guys in the neighborhood are still saying it was from the beating Frank Rizzo gave him that night, years ago.
It’s easy to understand why people in South Philly can not believe the crap about Frank Rizzo always showing favoritism to his own kind. And that he only comes down hard on blacks and long-haired kids and sign-carriers.
Of course, there are a lot of ways you can interpret these stories. I interpreted them within the context of my own background with its distinct value system, and a positive image began to form. I could believe Frank Rizzo, For instance, when he said he was firm but fair, in terms of his definition of what’s firm, what’s fair.
However, continued exposure to other stories, interpreted within the framework of other backgrounds and values, began blurring the image.
There are a lot of people in this town, for example, who know that Frank Rizzo isn’t the Mister Clean he’s cracked up to be. Some skip the innuendos and actually say they know he was a crooked cop. No one has ever produced a single shred of evidence that Frank Rizzo ever took a nickel, but there are a lot of people who know he’s backed by Organized Crime. The Mafia.
But if you keep hearing the other stories long enough, you begin to believe them, too. Or at least you begin to admit they’re plausible. Subconsciously, I must have.
I discovered that I had a few years ago when John McMullan, then editor of the Inquirer and my boss, told another journalist that he had heard rumors that I couldn’t be trusted because I was too close to the Mafia. To say the least, I was very pissed off and I wrote the boss a very nasty memo letting him know exactly how I felt.
McMullan claimed he never actually said he believed those things about me were true, just that he heard it from someone and had asked the other writer his opinion because he was considering me for a very sensitive job and wanted to check me out thoroughly.
That gave me a little relief, but not much. I told McMullan that all he was doing in trying to get to the truth was spreading another ugly rumor. He agreed and apologized.
With that out of the way, McMullan, new to town, asked my opinion of some pretty important people in Philadelphia, namely Frank Rizzo. What did I think of him as police commissioner?
Basically, I told McMullan, from what I had heard and read, Frank Rizzo was one of the most competent police officials in the entire country. But, I injected, there were these lingering doubts.
I could have kicked myself in the ass as soon as the words spilled out my mouth. I had started out blasting McMullan for what I considered spreading unsubstantiated, malicious rumors about me, then went and did the very same thing to Frank Rizzo. Looking back, I may have just reinforced John McMullan’s own negative image of Frank Rizzo. With no facts.
John McMullan would later play a very substantial role in my relationship with Frank Rizzo, who, up until this time, I had only met briefly once or twice as a newsman.
And because of my experience with John McMullan, I knew I could never find the real Frank Rizzo in the cabinet files of a newspaper morgue. All I would find there was what other people wanted Frank Rizzo to be.
John McMullan, like a lot of media people, wanted Frank Rizzo to be a villain. Everyone who worked for the Inquirer knew it. We didn’t know if it was because McMullan sincerely believed that Rizzo was the personification of evil, or if it was because of a personal feud. Or whether it was simply because McMullan wanted to make a name for himself and the new Inquirer, just purchased by the Knight chain, by knocking off the most loved and most hated man in Philadelphia. All we really knew for sure was that the boss wanted Frank Rizzo’s skin.
One day at the end of November 1970, Bob Greenberg, the Inky’s city editor, called me into his office to personally give me a very special assignment. For about three days, Don McDonough, one of our City Hall reporters, and I had been working on the mysterious death of Murray Adler, the king of the traffic ticket constables. I figured it must be something very important if Greenberg was pulling me off the Adler story.
I thought Greenberg was joking when he told me he wanted me to drop everything to do a feature for the Sunday paper on the operation of the Philadelphia Police Department’s computer division. But he was dead serious. He said he wanted the feature to run as a sidebar to a main story on the annual FBI report on national crime statistics, which had just been released. Once again, Philadelphia had come out the safest of the top ten cities in the nation.
Go interview Inspector James Herron, head of the computer unit, Greenberg told me, and write a story detailing how Philadelphia’s crime statistics were gathered and processed by the local police for the FBI’s annual report.
I made an appointment to see Inspector Herron on Thursday, the last day of my work week.
Jim Herron is a big, square-faced Irishman with a smooth and confident manner that perhaps comes from being a college-educated cop and the youngest inspector in the history of the Philadelphia Police Department. A really likable guy, Jim Herron took about 20 minutes to explain the step-by-step process that transforms a purse-snatching into a number in the FBI’s annual crime report. After that, we drank coffee and shot the breeze for about a half-hour.
When I got back to the city room in the Inquirer-Daily News building at 400 North Broad Street, I asked Greenberg what he wanted in terms of a story. Traditionally, newspaper editors lay pretty clear guidelines to their reporters and rewrite men as to what angle to play and how much copy to give a story before they even sit down at their typewriters.
Greenberg just told me to write a story, whatever wayIsaw it. Not that this approach is totally unheard of, but I sensed something wasn’t right. He wasn’t telling me everything.
Had I been writing a technical article on how to process crime reports for a police manual, it would have been a breeze. But if I was to turn my notes into a readable newspaper story, I would have to know more about the main story this sidebar was going to hang onto.
Finally,Itold Greenberg there was no way I could write the story unless he filled me in on what it was going to be used for. He quickly ushered me back into his private office and closed the door.
"Promise you won’t breathe a word of this," Greenberg said, "until we get it in print."
With that, he handed me a piece of teletype paper he took from the drawer in his desk. I only caught a glimpse of its contents before Greenberg took it back, It was a story written by Bill Vance, Knight Newspapers’ Washington correspondent. From the opening paragraph, I could get the gist of the story. An FBI source was expressing doubt as to the validity of Philadelphia’s crime statistics. The implication was that the local cops were systematically doctoring the figures to keep the crime rate low in order to make Frank Rizzo look good, and thus help him to get elected mayor.
It was a dynamite story, if true. And I could understand all the secrecy. But what did this all have to do with my story on Jim Herron’s police computer unit?
Greenberg said that my information was going to be incorporated into the main article as the Police Department’s side of the story. "You wouldn’t want us to run a story without their side of it," Greenberg said.
I asked Greenberg how the hell could my information be considered the Police Department’s answer to these serious charges when I never asked them to comment on any charges? I didn’t even know there were any charges.
He explained that it had to be this way. To get the fullest impact out of this sensational story, the Inquirer was holding it for the Sunday editions, which have the biggest circulation of the week. And, of course, the Inquirer couldn’t take the chance of going directly to Rizzo and Herron to ask them outright to comment on the charges, say on Thursday or Friday, because then Frank Rizzo would call the Daily News and Bulletin and give them his side of the story before the Inquirer could run its scoop.
I asked Greenberg why I had not been told that I was being sent to Herron in the role of an assassin. Maybe I would have accepted the part. Maybe I wouldn’t. He said he couldn’t take the chance that I might leak the story.
I told Greenberg I wasn’t going to be part of the plot. He told me I was going to write my report and turn it in, or I was going to be fired. I went back to my desk to decide if I really needed a job that badly. Before I could make up my mind, the phone rang. It was Frank Rizzo. It startled me, but then again, it didn’t. Frank Rizzo knew everything that was going on when it involved his Police Department.
“I hear you were interviewing Inspector Herron this afternoon," he started. "Tell me, Jim, are you going to write a story that’s going to be good for us, or bad?”
“Commissioner, I was sent to get some information to do a little story on how you people compile your crime reports," I answered. "That’s all I can say."
"I think I understand, Jim," Frank Rizzo said softly, "I’ll call you at home tonight."
Ten minutes later, Bob Greenberg walked up to my desk. I was still in a semi-trance. "Well, you won’t have to do it now," he said. "The whole story’s been killed."
Greenberg said Frank Rizzo was talking to John McMullan on the phone that very instant and McMullan had already decided not to run the story at all. Now I was really confused.
Frank Rizzo called me at home later that evening. He said he wanted to thank me for what I had clone. Then he fed me a blow-by-blow description of everything that had taken place between Bob Greenberg and me that afternoon. Including something I had said about just wanting to go home and take a shower. How did he know? How could he know?
"Look, I got friends all over," Frank Rizzo said. "Even in your office. Two guys were on the phone telling me everything that went on. If I had more phones in my office, a few more might have gotten through to me."
Then he said that he and Jim Herron had known exactly why I wanted to know about crime reports when I called Herron for the interview. The only thing they didn’t know then, he admitted, was that I didn’t know why.
"You know, your boss, with all his college degrees, isn’t as smart as he thinks," Rizzo said about McMullan. "He’ll have to get up pretty early to put one over on this dumb cop."
It seems that the story that the Inquirer was saving until Sunday, just to get more mileage out of it, had appeared in two other Knight newspapers. the Detroit Free Press and the Miami Herald, on Tuesday, the day Bill Vance sent the story out on the Knight news wire. And it just so happens that one of the functions of Inspector Herron’s unit is to clip police and crime stories, particularly those relative to Philadelphia, from every major newspaper in the country.
By the time I was sitting down in Herron’s office that day, he and Frank Rizzo had not only read the story, but the commissioner had also called his contacts in the FBI to find out who was badmouthing him and the Philadelphia Police Department.
Frank Rizzo told me that the FBI official responsible claimed he was misquoted and quoted out of context. Rizzo said he told that to John McMullan and had challenged the Inquirer’s boss to call the FBI himself.
I don’t really know if that crime statistic story was accurate or not. I just know that it never made print in Philadelphia. At least not as a news story.
However, weeks later, a letter appeared in a Sunday column that John McMullan used to write before he was transferred back to Miami. It was from Norman Berson, the state representative from center city’s Eighth Ward and one of Frank Rizzo’s most searing critics. Basically, Berson wanted to know why he had read a damning story about Frank Rizzo and the Philadelphia Police Department in Knight newspapers in Detroit and Miami, yet it had never appeared in Knight’s newspaper here.
It was a good question.
In his usual style, McMullan pontificated about journalistic integrity and fair play. Finally, he said that the Inquirer had tried in vain for almost a week to get Rizzo and other police officials to comment on the charge. And in the end, rather than print a one-sided story, the decision was made to scrap the whole thing. That’s what John McMullan wrote in his column.
One interesting thing about the whole episode was the way Frank Rizzo saw things and interpreted what had happened. That night when he called me at home, he thanked me a couple of times for what I had done. I told him it wasn’t necessary because. I had really blown up because my own boss hadn’t trusted me enough to let me in on the secret and give me the option of deciding for myself whether or not I wanted to play their game. I was ticked off because someone had put me on a spot without letting me know it. It had nothing to do with my feelings about Rizzo.
Yet, for whatever reasons, Rizzo has on subsequent occasions made me out to be a martyr. He told people that I had risked my newspaper job to treat him fairly.
Then, months later, when I did leave my job at the Inquirer, Frank Rizzo took the blame on himself and said he’d get me another job. I don’t know if he ever really believed me when I explained that he was only a small part of my troubles with the new management of the Inquirer.
Now, I know that other people have been assassinated in the press. But this particular episode stands out in my mind because all I seem to read and hear these days is how Frank Rizzo gets nothing but favorable press in Philadelphia, because he either cons, bribes, blackmails or snuffs out reporters, editors and publishers before they get a chance to whack him. That’s part of the Rizzo image, not only here in town, but across the country. Maybe it’s because a lot of basically decent journalists want it to be that way, to fit their own preconception of Frank Rizzo. I just happened to see the other side of the coin, first-hand.
Rizzo’s relationship with the news people in town is the basis for most of the gossip in Room 212, the City Hall press room. It’s the biggest concern of editors who are scared to death of having their reporters charmed out of their objectivity or having them shanghaied off to plush administration jobs. And it has pretty much split the press corps. The extreme feelings about Frank Rizzo were always there. But when in early 1971 he officially announced that
he was running for mayor, it became open hostility between the pro- and anti-Rizzo factions in the media. If a reporter turns in a favorable Rizzo story, he’s accused of being a stooge or on Rizzo’s payroll. If a reporter burns Rizzo, he’s a goddamned pinko or an unscrupulous hotshot out to make a name for himself at Rizzo’s expense.
Recently Rizzo and the Press was the subject of a nationally televised panel discussion. For the most part, the debate featured Inquirer reporter Greg Walter, a former investigative reporter and writer for Philadelphia Magazine and the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin who has been martyred as the Don Quixote of the typewriter set, charging up against the Rizzo windmill. Walter claims that Rizzo has already cost him two nice jobs and is trying to knock him out of the third by planting rumors that he has a medical history of being mentally unstable.
In 1966, Greg Walter did a cover story in Philadelphia Magazine on Frank Rizzo, the police commissioner, that I have always considered a perfect example of balanced, objective reporting. He said everything there was to say about Frank Rizzo, good and bad, yet made no moral judgments of his own.
Then, somewhere along the line, Greg Walter began perceiving a singular image of Frank Rizzo, a satanic image. And the whole direction of the writer’s life seemed to change. His sole mission in life seemed to be to destroy Frank Rizzo before he got the chance to become mayor. In the summer of 1971, he started on the story that never was.
After working on the Rizzo exposé for two months, Greg Walter turned in the manuscript past deadline. Alan Halpern read it. Herb Lipson read it. And so did most of the staff, which, I should point out, was basically anti-Rizzo. A decision was reached, backed by a general consensus of the staff, that the story, built around innuendo and unsubstantiated charges, couldn’t run it as it stood.
It was agreed that Walter could author an anti-Rizzo piece for that issue if it was written as personal opinion. But it never came off. After a couple of weeks passed, Waiter suddenly quit and took his notes and his tapes and his story to the Bulletin, which didn’t use it either.
While the magazine didn’t run the Rizzo article, it did run a seemingly uncomplimentary story on Thacher Longstreth, Rizzo’s opponent in the mayoralty race. That story had been on the drawing board for some time since it had been years since the magazine had printed an article about Longstreth. But, in retrospect, running the Longstreth story might have been a mistake. It gave the Rizzo critics plenty of ammunition to fire at Philadelphia Magazine.
Thacher Longstreth began charging that Herb Lipson had killed the story just to protect his friend, Frank Rizzo.
In a sense, it’s a waste of effort to rehash the whole affair. People are going to believe what they want to believe. Period. This is something that maybe Greg Walter never realized. That no matter what he wrote, he couldn’t kill Frank Rizzo. People are swayed by what we egotrippers write only if they don’t really care much about the subject in the first place. If that subject happens to be as emotionally charged as Frank Rizzo, they’ll believe only what fits their own preconceptions and just disregard the rest as hogwash.
Greg Walter was trying to do the impossible. Destroy the indestructible. Shatter an image. It was like trying to kick away a shadow.
For almost a year, Walter worked at the Bulletin on an expose of an undercover West Chester policeman involved in the slaying of a young man, a story that won him the Philadelphia Press Association award. Meanwhile he was continuing to work on Frank Rizzo and his Police Department. For months, Walter worked with two investigators for the Pennsylvania Crime Commission, State Attorney General J. Shane Creamer’s mini version of the FBI.
At the time, the Crime Commission was making a lot of headlines but few inroads investigating police corruption in Frank Rizzo’s city. It was no secret that Creamer and his boss, Milton Shapp, despised Rizzo as much as Walter and would have loved nothing better than to embarrass the mayor right out of office and political power.
Working with Walter on the police corruption exposé were Christopher DeCree and Al Risdorfer, two State Crime Commission agents. The pair, former Philadelphia vice cops with little love for their ex-boss, had worked with Walter before, on the aborted exposé on Frank Rizzo.
In a way, this police corruption probe was sort of a reunion of the entire team that had worked on the story that never was. Two center city bar girls who fed Walter "information" for his earlier investigation were part of the lineup, and ultimately blew the whole scheme apart.
The two girls got caught when, directed by the Crime Commission agents, they tried to bribe a Northeast vice cop to allow them to open a house of prostitution in his district. The cop did a very ungallant thing. He reported the bribe attempt to his superiors and the girls were hauled into custody.
As it turned out, Walter had recorded a number of telephone conversations between himself, the girls, the Crime Commission agents and several Philadelphia policemen. To his regret, he had given several of the tapes to one of the bar girls, who gave it to a bar owner who turned it over to the police who asked the district attorney to arrest Greg Walter, and in May 1972 Greg Walter was arrested for a violation of the State wiretap law by DA Arlen Specter.
And, of course, everyone knew that Frank Rizzo was the culprit who had had Greg Walter arrested on a chicken-shit charge just to pay him back and get him off his back forever.
No one, particularly the press, believed Specter when he insisted that he had arrested Walter on his own without any concern for Frank Rizzo’s personal interest. It was a clear-cut case of Rizzo squashing an enemy.
Specter’s closest aides swear that he had Walter arrested because he was genuinely outraged by the methods used by Walter and the Crime Commission to entrap and set up cops. And they even concede that he was motivated to some degree by his own political ambitions.
It is no secret that Specter wants to face Milton Shapp for the governorship in 1974 and that he felt the State investigation of police corruption in Philadelphia was a political ploy on the part of Shapp and Creamer to crush him as well as Frank Rizzo as potential gubernatorial rivals.
So, while Specter was motivated by his own interests, Frank Rizzo was made out to be the principal villain. And Rizzo didn’t do much to help make his not-guilty pleas sound likely as he constantly chuckled that Greg Walter got just what he deserved.
When Walter was convicted (he is appealing), it seemed that whole ugly affair was over. Walter quietly left the Bulletin and moved his typewriter across town to the Inquirer and hooked up with reporter Kent Pollack who, with the help of DeCree and Risdorfer, had run a series of articles on police corruption the year before.
Then, in mid-January, the Inquirer ran a story about Medical Examiner Dr. Marvin E. Aronson subpoenaing Walter’s medical records from the University of Pennsylvania Hospital back in February 1972. The story also revealed that an anonymous letter had just been sent to Kizzo, Specter and the Inquirer management claiming that Walter had a background of emotional instability and was unfit to be a reporter. The whole thing smacked of being the ugliest smear against Walter yet.
Dr. Aronson gave the unlikely story that he had pulled Walter’s medical records because he had received an anonymous phone tip that the body of an unidentified man found by the police was Walter.
And, once again, the finger of guilt was pointed at Frank Rizzo. He was at it again, trying every dirty trick in the book to get Greg Walter. Everybody knew that was the case.
Few people knew, or cared. however, that Walter had been feverishly trying to obtain Frank Rizzo’s confidential medical history from his Navy records while he was preparing the story that never was. The old double standard.
Nor have many even considered the possibility that someone else may have ordered Walter’s medical records pulled. Walter makes lots of enemies. Recently he’s been dropping the word around town that he’s going to do a job on another Philadelphia public official, almost as well known and powerful as Frank Rizzo. In preparing this new expose, Walter somehow obtained the file on the guy’s divorce, and it contained some pretty embarrassing personal information. Then he went out and began showing the juiciest parts of the master’s hearing to anyone who cares to know about the latest dirt. It just happens that the guy knows what’s been going on and he just happens to be a friend of Dr. Aronson.
Nevertheless, the anti-Rizzo crowd knew Frank Rizzo was guilty of looking into Walter’s medical records, reinforcing their fears that he was a fascist bent on destroying a free press and stamping out dissent with a storm trooper’s boot. The pro-Rizzo bunch didn’t care much if he was because those bleeding-heart liberals had to be taught a lesson before they screwed up the whole country.
A lot of people in this town are sympathetic to Walter’s plight. The funny thing is, though, that no one shed any tears over what happened to Gene Harris and S. Robert Jacobs, two Bulletin reporters who appeared on the TV panel discussion with Walter. Both said they weren’t going to be pressured, even by their home office, into being prejudicially critical of the mayor just because it was so much in vogue among the liberals in their profession. The next day, the Bulletin transferred both to the boondocks, Harris to Harrisburg and Jacobs to, God forbid, Trenton.
The point is, if a newsman claims he’s harassed and persecuted because he tried to blast Frank Rizzo, there’s a furor. But when other newsmen get shafted because they defend the guy, there’s hardly a word of protest uttered.
One of the first major squabbles in the love-hate relationship between Frank Rizzo, the new mayor, and the press came shortly after he took office early in 1972 and announced that he was putting a half-dozen newsmen on his staff. At last count, he has hired 17 media people and put them into some pretty responsible City jobs. And he’s still saying he’ll find a job for any reporter who wants one.
Of course, there are a lot of people who know that Frank Rizzo gave cushy jobs to those 16 as either repayment for past favors or as insurance that he will continue to enjoy favorable press.
In all honesty, I can’t really say whether or not Rizzo hired some of the 16 simply because they wrote nice things about him in the past. But I know it’s not true in every case.
You see, I have friends whom I trust and respect among those 16.
Lee Daniels is one of them, one of my closest personal friends in fact, and a perfect case in point.
The only time Lee Daniels, then a Daily News reporter, ever wrote anything of substance concerning Frank Rizzo and his political future came during the Democratic mayoralty primary fight in the spring of 1971. Daniels was assigned to cover Dave Cohen, the first and loudest of Rizzo’s rival candidates.
Cohen, a liberal Democratic city councilman, had always called Frank Rizzo nothing more than a brutal cop with a heavy nightstick. During the bloody campaign, he figured he had come up with the proof. He had footage of television newsreels showing Frank Rizzo using strong-arm tactics to quell a disturbance in front of the Pennsylvania State Administrative Office Building on Spring Garden Street back in 1967. Dave Cohen allowed reporter Daniels to be the only newspaper man to see his evidence.
Some have said that the story Lee Daniels wrote was perhaps the most unfavorable toward Rizzo during the entire campaign. Personally, Lee Daniels wasn’t overjoyed at that distinction since he liked Frank Rizzo and honestly felt he was the best candidate. But professionally, it was a story, a damned good one at that, and he called the shots accurately.
That summer, Lee Daniels, a young guy in his mid-thirties, had his second heart attack since he had joined the Daily News staff a few years before. They took him out of the office in a stretcher and he wound up in the intensive care unit of Hahnemann Hospital. One of his first visitors was Frank Rizzo.
"You better quit that goddamned job and come with me," Frank Rizzo told Daniels. "When I get elected, I’ll have plenty of spots for good men like you."
It seems that Rizzo knew Daniels was having a lot of problems with the Daily News management. Like its big sister, the Inquirer, the People Paper was in the process of purging itself of the remnants of the old Annenberg staff. In Daniels’ case, they continually put him on swing shifts.
But Daniels hung in at the Daily News for another year-and-a-half. For one thing, he had ten years of newspapering behind him and he couldn’t get it out of his blood. But most importantly, he didn’t want to uproot his family from their home in Audubon, N.J. That’s exactly what he’d have to do if he took Rizzo’s standing offer.
When the mayor found out that this was the main hang-up, he began looking for a legal way to get around it. Then he found one. The rules say that residency requirements can’t be applied to any City job that’s funded, even partially, with federal money. So Lee Daniels was named a public relations officer for the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
Frank Rizzo simply liked the guy and he felt he was getting a screwing. So he gave him a job, one his background makes him capable of handling.
By raiding their staffs, or hiring reporters on their blacklists, Frank Rizzo has not endeared himself to the editors and news directors in town. By hiring all these news people, Rizzo hasn’t insured favorable coverage. On the contrary, he’s encouraged the wrath of the press and he probably knew it would be that way before he started.
Yet no one seems to believe him when he says he honestly feels that news people are exactly the kind of people he wants on his team, the kind that are used to putting in long hours and dealing with just about any kind of situation that comes up. But it goes beyond that. Frank Rizzo really likes news people. Generally, they talk his language, the street vernacular, and he feels comfortable around them. But not always.
There have been a few times when it was hard to believe that Frank Rizzo wasn’t dead serious when he took on members of the press corps. The mayor is sensitive to criticism and he lets it get under his skin. At one of his press conferences, he actually challenged Steve Ross of WIP to step outside. Ross has a habit of hammering away with hard questions the mayor would prefer to sidestep.
Rizzo really came unglued after the arrest of scores of protesters during the Independence Hall ceremonies when President Nixon signed the revenue-sharing bill into law. Most of the reporters who converged on the mayor were angry and considered the arrests Rizzo’s doing and a clear example of his repression of dissent. The mayor insisted he had had no direct hand in the arrests, but praised the Police Department’s handling of the situation. Words became heated and finally, it looked like Rizzo was going to challenge the entire press corps, either one at a time or collectively, to hand-to-hand combat. He called them a bunch of McGovernites, the foulest name he could think of, not considering for a moment that at least one of his most severe badgerers had voted for his pal, Richard Nixon.
But these have been heat-of-the-moment outbursts and the next press conference would at least start out with an amiable flavor.
The Rizzo-Greg Walter affair had been a cause célebre for almost a year and then a similar, equally disturbing situation occurred. And the same bitter anti-Rizzo sentiment began fomenting.
When Taylor Grant, a liberal radio commentator who had been quite outspoken in his criticism of Frank Rizzo, was fired from WPEN last October, it was the mayor who took the rap for purging the airwaves of anyone who voiced a disagreement with his views. Frank Rizzo was the natural bogeyman since one of the last Taylor Grant broadcasts blasted Rizzo and his pal Richard Nixon for being callous and indifferent toward the dreadful loss of human life on the streets of North Philadelphia and in the rice paddies of Vietnam.
Actually, Taylor Grant wasn’t fired in the strictest sense of the word. It was just that the City-operated Gas Works dropped the sponsorship of the show that featured Grant and a conservative commentator whose similar fate hardly drew a mention during the furor that followed.
Even though Lennox Moak, the City finance director, took full responsibility for Grant’s canning, the critics insisted that he was merely following Rizzo’s dictates. That was somewhat strange since even Rizzo’s most ardent detractors have considered the venerable, straitlaced Moak to be above reproach. Yet during this highly emotional episode, his integrity was strongly questioned because everyone knew Frank Rizzo put out the contract on Taylor Grant.
"The press totally refused to get my side of the story out," claims Moak. "I have a history going back maybe 30 years of a strong — maybe it’s my Baptist background — a strong objection to the use of public funds for the purpose of trying to influence public opinion."
Moak is not only considered a financial genius but is also respected as an expert on municipal government, having played a major role in drafting the revised City Charter for former Mayor Joseph Clark in 1952.
Thirty years ago when he was working for the city of New Orleans, one thing that caused him major concern was the fact that Mayor Robert S. Mastrey got the City to subsidize a number of local institutions, including most of the churches in town. Lennox Moak had nothing against religion but he felt it somehow wasn’t right for a mayor to be using taxpayers’ money to be supporting churches, especially since he discovered that on the Sunday before every mayoralty election, priests and ministers all across New Orleans were urging their congregations to praise God and vote for Robert S. Mastrey.
He insists that the principle is exactly the same in the Taylor Grant case.
Four years ago, when Moak was head of the Pennsylvania Economy League, he became concerned because Taylor Grant’s show, then aired over WFLN, was being paid for with public funds.
Moak says that way back then he called Charles Simpson, then a big-wig with United Gas Improvement Company, the private management firm that ran the Gas Works for the City before Rizzo ousted them, and told them the whole idea was improper.
He says he mentioned it to Simpson a couple of times, then the Grant show disappeared from WFLN and he once again relaxed to the uninterrupted classical music on his favorite radio station.
It wasn’t until last October that Lennox Moak finally realized that Taylor Grant was still on the air, and still being sponsored by the Gas Works. He says he was driving home one afternoon, turning the dial of his car radio trying to find WFLN, when he heard one of Grant’s controversial broadcasts over WPEN. It couldn’t have been worse timing for Grant, who was blasting Rizzo and Nixon at the moment.
Lennox Moak could hardly contain himself until he reached a phone and could call the Gas Works to give it a piece of his Southern fundamentalist mind.
"I had the same reaction as when I called Charlie when I was outside of government," Moak says. "It was inappropriate then and it was made more so by what Grant was saying at this particular time, which was an attack on the mayor and President. This is no function of the city, to finance an attack or finance praise of either of them.”
With so many images of Frank Rizzo engraved in my mind, I knew I wasn’t going into this story with a clean slate, or even a reasonably clean one. In fact, there wasn’t much of the slate that wasn’t covered with scribbling, and a lot of it someone else’s scribbling.
I decided I needed an image, just one image that was consistent with Frank Rizzo.
Actually, that was my second choice. At first, I wanted to spend a week or so with him, every waking hour.
But Frank Rizzo killed that idea quick. "No way,” he said when I asked him. In fact, he asked me if I could just skip the whole story altogether. But, he added, if it was really necessary, he would set up an interview.
A couple of days later, I was having dinner with a cop friend of mine who has known Frank Rizzo for a lot of years. "He shot me down," was the way I explained that Frank Rizzo nixed the idea of my trailing him for a week, mostly behind those closed doors in City Hall.
"You should have told him that you were really in a spot and he was the only one who could get you out of it," the cop said. "Frank bends over backwards when you ask him for a favor. He really likes you better when you ask him for something. The guy just loves to do favors for anybody."
Favors? That was the image. The image. The Padrone.
The Padrone is a very special person to Italians. So special, in fact, that non-Italians cannot fully comprehend the true meaning of the word. Now, a Godfather, a la Mario Puzo, is inherently a Padrone. But a Padrone is not necessarily a Godfather. The Padrone is the most powerful and most respected man in any southern Italian village or hamlet. He is that stern yet benevolent father-figure who sees to it that his children are cared for. Wealth and power alone do not make a Padrone, for it is only when he bestows these things on all those who ask them of him that he earns respect and admiration.
It’s as simple as that.
Just about every poor Southern Italian immigrant who fled to this country yearned to become a Padrone, to some degree, in the new land. Sometimes that dream was even transferred to their sons.
I remember that my grandfather wanted to be a Padrone, although I never heard him say it. That’s why he never would sell his father’s first house in America.
It was a small row home around 17th and Ellsworth Streets in South Philly, a neighborhood that had been heavily Italian before I was born but turned almost all black when I was a little kid. As the neighborhood turned, the value of the house sank. Yet the old man wouldn’t sell it. Instead he rented it to an elderly black woman I can only recall as Mrs. Jones.
Actually, a real estate agency handled the property. But, once a month, Mrs. Jones would come to my grandfather’s new house to pay the rent. The old man would always be sitting in his chair by the front window, reading the Italian newspaper. He would tell Mrs. Jones to sit in the chair across from him and ask her if she would like some coffee or wine or whatever. She would always say, "No, thank you." Then, in halting English, he would ask how things had been with her for the month. Sometimes she would complain that her back was paining her but that was to be expected with the years. He would nod and tell her about his back. And before the little ceremony was over, she would usually tell him that the window sash in the front bedroom was rotting or the roof over the kitchen was leaking. My grandfather would turn to his daughter and, in a mixture of broken English and Italian, say: "Ida, call the carpenter. Tell him to go to the house and fix Mrs. Jones window."
With that, he would sit back and smile, feeling good. And Mrs. Jones would stand up, smile and say good-bye, feeling good.
Everyone else in the family wouldn’t feel so good. We would tell the old man to sell the damned house because the little bit of rent he collected could hardly cover the taxes, let alone the upkeep on the old place. He would get very angry and say that he would never sell because that was the first house his family owned in America.
But that wasn’t the real reason. I knew. It was Mrs. Jones coming to him once a month and looking to him to fix her rotting window sash and his being able to do it for her. That house allowed him to play the Padrone.
Frank Rizzo plays that role, just like my grandfather used to, and he loves it.
The newspapers and news clips have been full of it for more than a year. A young black veteran walks up to Frank Rizzo and says he needs a job. Frank Rizzo turns to an aide and says, "Give this man a job." Frank Rizzo is getting his weekly haircut and a woman in the barber shop with her little son starts telling him about the terrible potholes in her street. Frank Rizzo tells one of his bodyguards to jot down her address. He assures the woman that a City streets crew will be there the next day. The next day, the crew is there.
Day in and day out, people, little people are trying to get in to see the mayor about their problems because they read in the papers or see on television that Mayor Rizzo solves problems for little people. He doesn’t tell them to go see someone else. He solves them. The press made Frank Rizzo the Padrone. And of course, he helped plenty.
But there’s a catch to playing Padrone. Pretty soon, people begin to believe that only the Padrone can solve their problems. In a village that’s not too bad. But in a city of two million, even if everyone only had one small problem each, there’re not enough hours in any man’s lifetime to make a dent in the caseload.
And some people actually believe that the Padrone can solve any problem.
A detective I know swears it’s the truth when he says an old lady stopped the mayor as he was leaving his office one day and implored him to cure her cancer. Cancer. The detective swears he was there and witnessed it all.
I was having lunch one day with Alan Halpern and Lenora Berson and I tossed out my Padrone idea, just to get a reaction. Especially from Lenora Berson, since she hates Frank Rizzo. There’s no softer way of putting it. And, from what she’s told me, Frank Rizzo must hate her. She said she once approached Frank Rizzo at a party, while she was working on a story about him for the New York Times Magazine, and that she swore he would have punched her out if no one was watching. Lenora Berson is the wife of Norman Berson, the very liberal Democrat state representative from center city. She’s also an accomplished free-lance writer and a very liberal anti-Rizzo critic.
Lenora Berson said she could buy the Padrone image.
"I’ll tell you something," she said at lunch that day. "I really believe that if I went to him, hat in hand, and asked him to help me with a serious personal problem, he would do it. Even for me. He loves that role."
Then, of course, she had to give the negative side of the picture. Frank Rizzo doesn’t react the same way, by a long shot, when a mass of people confront him with a demand. A personal favor he gives eagerly as if it were his God-given duty. A group demand sends him straight up the wall.
Ex-Knight Newspapers city editor Harry Belinger, now the city representative and director of commerce and a longtime Rizzo friend, would later tell me pretty much the same thing, except that he would read nothing wrong into Rizzo’s refusal to concede to group pressure. Understandably so. Lenora Berson, on one hand, believes very strongly in the citizens’ right to protest and petition. And Belinger, on the other hand, isn’t so hot on the great unwashed mass with its placards and slogans. He figures that giving in to this kind of demand is tantamount to advocating anarchy.
Okay, so Frank Rizzo refuses to bow to pressure from groups, any groups. That became evident when a couple dozen irate mothers stormed the Mayor’s Office during the first teachers’ strike last year and demanded that Frank Rizzo do something to reopen the schools. Frank Rizzo, in no uncertain terms, told those ladies, in front of the television cameras, that the day was over in Philadelphia when government gave in to the demands of protesters. "Frank Rizzo does not listen to demands," he said.
What was most interesting about that particular confrontation, aside from the fact that Frank Rizzo just carne out and said he wasn’t going to listen, was that those angry ladies were white and they came from a section of the city that went for Frank Rizzo in the election. In one breath, he reinforced one image and shattered another.
Why won’t Frank Rizzo listen to demands, even legitimate ones like opening the schools so that kids can start learning again and their working mothers start earning again? I thought back to my first interview with Frank Rizzo a couple of years ago while I was working on a story about life in South Philadelphia’s Little Italy. Frank Rizzo did a lot of talking about his father Ralph.
It was so very simple. Frank Rizzo made it quite obvious then that he loved his father intensely. Yet at the same time, he feared and respected him. How well I could understand that. His father loved him, protecting him, taking care of his needs, being there whenever he had a problem and asked for his help. Somehow I just couldn’t imagine Frank Rizzo demanding that his father buy him a new bike.
And no one makes demands of a Padrone.
I was still holding on to my Padrone idea as the theme for my story. A few days later, I was talking with Lenora Berson in my office and she carried it a bit further.
"I think people who voted for Frank Rizzo saw him as their spokesman, their leader," she started. "He said things they wanted said. I don’t think they expected him to solve any problems at all. I don’t think they thought he could really solve the crime problem. After all, he hadn’t done it as police commissioner. He gave to the white working class who live in this city the feeling that somebody strong was in who represented their interests and would speak out for them. And that, I guess, is a great accomplishment. Tate didn’t represent that to anyone. Dilworth and Clark did. But they were for the other half."
For more than an hour, Lenora Berson talked about Frank Rizzo. Every time she mentioned something that she labeled a plus, it wasn’t merely a statement, but rather a reluctant concession. The riots didn’t reoccur and Rizzo didn’t put up barbed wire. He’s more accessible to the business community than Jim Tate. Cops on horses are nice, from an aesthetic point of view. He brought into his administration at least one very talented man, Lennox Moak, the financial whiz.
Then she gave him credit for the little positive things like paving the streets in center city and improving the trash collection schedule. "And I don’t think they’re so little," she added, "because they make the city livable. If you do enough little things, maybe they add up to big things. I don’t know."
For a while there, I thought Lenora Berson might just talk herself into a pro-Rizzo corner. Then she talked her way right out of it, as though she knew what I was thinking.
"I think the only formula he had for political success was pitting one segment of the society against the other," she said, "and that is so bad that no matter what he does, I won’t like him. He didn’t cause the problems, but … "
That one line stuck in my mind. No matter what he does, I won’t like him. I realized that’s probably true of a lot of people in this town. No matter what he does, they’ll interpret it from their point of view. Or at least they’ll interpret his motivations to suit their preconceptions.
The Housing Authority is a perfect example.
Last September, Frank Rizzo peruaded Gil Stein to take over the Philadelphia Housing Authority, an autonomous agency that has to go down as the most inefficient, mismanaged organization since the Italian Army invaded Ethiopia.
Stein is basically an arrogant, abrasive egotist who has just enough professionalism and balls to get a job done, even one as tough as straightening out the Housing Authority. The less-than-popular Stein had won his spurs as a troubleshooter in the District Attorney’s Office under Arlen Specter and in the City Controller’s Office under Alex Hemphill and Tom Gola. Frank Rizzo knew his man’s credentials, and gave him the green light to raise some hell.
In a couple of months, Stein shuffled his staff, stifled the Tenants’ Advisory Board, and began collecting more back rent than was ever taken in the history of public housing in Philadelphia. And he caused as much controversy, even blatantly emotional ranting, for Frank Rizzo as he did for himself.
The liberals screamed that Frank Rizzo was retaliating against the blacks for not voting for him. The blacks charged that Frank Rizzo was getting even with them for being black. And the Archie Bunkers shouted: "Way to go, Frankie. Show them niggers!"
Most people, caught up in the hysteria, lost sight of the fact that the Housing Authority was one big bureaucratic mess that served the interests of no one, including the tenants, except a few people who wound up with plush jobs or fat contracts.
It was becoming clear that Frank Rizzo has a problem, an identity problem, you might say. The trouble is that he’s an optical illusion, a distorted reflection.
He’s the messiah of the white working class in this city, a big chunk of Philadelphia’s population that has never had a messiah. He’s a combination John Wayne and Oral Roberts to these people he likes to call the little guys in the row houses. He’s a bigger-than-life hero in a white hat and somehow, by his mere presence, he’s going to miraculously cure Philadelphia of the illnesses that have been sapping away its vitality for the past 20 years.
On the other hand, he’s a ruthless dictator, hell bent on putting all blacks, liberals and dissenters in chains. He’s a combination George Wallace and Adolph Hitler to those people who think the chains have already been fitted for their ankles. And he hasn’t solved a problem yet.
Is it possible that one man could be so many things?
Ira Einhorn gave me a clue. Philadelphia’s has-been hippie and spokesman for the alienated kids stopped being a celebrity when the street culture became passé and unchic. But I still like him. I even listen to what he has to say.
We were walking from my office one afternoon over to Artemis for French onion soup when Ira hit me with a mild shocker. He said he voted for Frank Rizzo. I told him I didn’t believe him.
No, he insisted. He voted for Frank Rizzo because he honestly felt he was the better man.
"We’re all looking for a father figure in these troubled days, my friend," Ira said as we walked along Walnut street. "Even me. Look, man, I’m worried about getting mugged or ripped off just like everybody else. We all want someone strong to protect us, to kick our ass when we’re bad, pat us on the head when we’re good and give us everything we need."
I figured Ira was really putting me on.
"No, the trouble with this city, this country, isn’t the Frank Rizzos,” he went on. "It’s everybody. Look, there’s so much undefined anxiety and paranoia around and people just project their negative feelings onto an image. And Frank Rizzo just happens to be the biggest image around."
If Frank Rizzo has a reality problem, he’s as much to blame for misconceptions as anyone else because he’s done much to help create the distorted images of himself.
Tony Zecca was complaining that few people see the real Frank Rizzo and he was blaming the local press. Tony Zecca, an ex-wire service reporter, the former press secretary for Mayor Tate and now deputy to the mayor under Frank Rizzo, was insisting that the public sees only what the press wants it to see. The reporters and TV cameras grab the juicy, emotion-ladened statements, Tony Zecca was saying, and blow them out of proportion.
That’s very true. But Frank Rizzo does make those statements. He knows that they are exactly what the newsmen want to hear. And what the public expects to hear. He says the kind of things that will maintain his image, or images, and then gets angry because the blaring headlines obliterate the really substantive things he had to say.
Take the Lipchitz Statue Caper.
Frank Rizzo said there was no way he was going to allow the Philadelphia Art Commission to purchase a modernistic statue created by internationally famous sculptor Jacques Lipchitz to grace the barren stretch of concrete in front of the Municipal Services Building. He didn’t want the statue because a city in a financial mess like Philadelphia simply can’t afford to kick over more than $280,000 for any piece of art. On top of that, he found evidence that the Art Com" mission bent its regulatory guidelines a bit just to justify spending $100,000 more than their original ceiling. And a local architect was getting a fat fee for it all. Those were the real reasons. But Frank Rizzo blew it when he called Lipchitz’s statue an abortion that looked like some workman dropped a load of plaster. That became the headline. That became the story on page one. Rizzo turned out to be his own worst enemy again. Too many people lost sight of the outrageous price tag, the city’s fiscal dilemma and the slick maneuvering. An abortion that looked like a workman dropped a load of plaster. All the artsy folks in town screamed that the uncultured clod who somehow was elected mayor couldn’t tell a masterpiece from a meatball.
If only Frank Rizzo didn’t try so hard to be Frank Rizzo. But then he wouldn’t be Frank Rizzo.