Tony Delvecchio & Rich Herschlag,
Sinatra, Gotti & Me
(Archebooks, 2011)

It's odd how a person's life can appear one way to him and quite different to an observer. In this as-told-to autobiography, Tony Delvecchio, the manager of the famed Jilly's Nightclub in New York City, tells us proudly and repeatedly that he was never a made man. Yet all his life, his best friend and protector was John Gotti, who not only was a made man, but was the man who made the made men. Whenever a problem came up for Delvecchio, he made a call to Gotti and it went away. He also tells us he was independent, never dependent on the mob. Yet he ran two nightclubs that were almost totally dependent on mob patronage for their success. (In fairness, toward the end of the book, Delvecchio seems to become aware that he was never as free and independent as he thought he was.)

He tells us that he was a businessman, but what he was mostly was a thug. Here he is describing how he handled a problem at the club he ran before Jilly's:

The muscle-head threw the first shot and it just grazed me. ... I knew that I had him. I knew this kid didn't know how to fucking handle himself. He left his jaw wide open but I didn't want to knock him unconscious right away. Then he was going to be out cold, and it was going to be over. That wasn't going to send a message to this fucking town. What I wanted to do was literally put this kid in the fucking hospital.

Delvecchio goes on to describe how he did just that. He tells this story proudly, just as he does the one where Frank Sinatra asks him to handle a problem. Delvecchio beats the hell out of the problem, but when Sinatra tries to hand him $5,000 in payment, he was insulted; he did it as a service, not for a fee. Taking a fee would make him just an ordinary thug.

Delvecchio becomes a partner in Jilly's, a New York City club that seems to have succeeded largely because Sinatra hung out there. (Jilly was just a figurehead, kept on salary because of his name value and the fact that he was Sinatra's best friend.) Jilly's also became a great hangout for the various crime families, which was both an advantage and a disadvantage because they were free-spending but also very bad at paying their bills. Eventually, a debt load that couldn't be handled due to the mob's refusal to pay up closed the place.

Throughout, the book maintains interest because of the tension that comes from the difference between Delvecchio's self-concept and the way we, as a result of his stories, conceive of him. For example, he rescues a drugged-out bum from the streets and makes him Jilly's doorman, turning the man's life around, but then he makes him go out into those streets he came from and score coke for him. It's okay, though, because Delvecchio warns him not to fall back on his old ways.

With the closing of Jilly's, the book takes an odd turn. Delvecchio and his partners, Jilly Rizzo and Frank Sinatra among them, acquire a bunch of land in the Poconos where they intended to build a resort. The author describes their plans lovingly and enthusiastically, but then, in a postscript, Delvecchio's coauthor tells us that after the group borrowed $8 million to develop the place, the mob got involved and most of the money disappeared. "The feds asked Jilly to turn state's evidence against Tony [Delvecchio] and Tony to turn state's evidence against Jilly. Frank Sinatra was caught in the middle. But that, as they say, is another story."

Another story?

It's the perfect ending to the story we've been reading, but it's dismissed with that sentence. All that we as readers get after that is the dates of the deaths of the major players in the story. The first death, Sinatra's, came 14 years after he was caught in the middle. Delvecchio borrowed the money in 1984 and died in 2009. Obviously, then, the federal case had a resolution. Think how much stronger Sinatra, Gotti & Me would have been had that resolution been written.

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

14 May 2011

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