Mobster Joey Gallo was born April 7, 1929, in Brooklyn, New York. The man commonly known as Crazy Joey also had a softer side. He liked to write poetry and became known for befriending pop stars and poets. But his self promotion did not sit well with New York's mafia leaders, and he was gunned down in mid-bite at his favorite New York restaurant on April 7, 1972.
Joseph Gallo was born on April 7, 1929 in Brooklyn, New York. One of three sons, Gallo grew up in a world shaped by crime. His father was a bootlegger during the Prohibition era, and he encouraged his boys—Larry, Joey and Albert, who went by the name of Kid Blast—to be "hoodlums and killers" and "remove all competition in their illegal enterprises."
Joey was small—he only grew to be 5 feet 6 inches—and had blonde hair that initially earned him the nickname "Joey the Blonde." From an early age, Gallo had a show business sense about him and his chosen profession. He saw himself as a Jimmy Cagney or George Raft, both stylish leading men of a number of early Hollywood gangster movies.
"I could have worked my way up to head soda jerk at Whelan's Drugstore," Joey said later in life, "but what kind of life is that for a guy like me?"
Joey had a ruthless streak, albeit one that was a bit schizophrenic. That was the diagnosis of the young hoodlum during his stay at Kings County Hospital in 1950. Within a decade, however, Joey was a mid-sized Brooklyn vending machine racketeer and the head of a gang he called the "Mod Squad," which included such members as Vinnie the Sicilian and Sammy the Syrian.
Gallo was enough of a player that, in 1958, he was called to Washington to testify before Robert Kennedy and the Senate Crime Committee. Gallo, undaunted by the setting, quipped, "Nice carpet you got here," upon walking into Kennedy's office. "Good for a crap game."
By early 1961 Joey and his brothers had assembled a successful jukebox racketeering operation. It had originally been under the auspices of the Profaci (later the Colombo) mob family. But then the Gallos broke away, and when they did, they did so with a brazen disregard for territory already staked out by more established syndicates. The Profacis declared war on Joey and his crew, beginning most notably with Larry Gallo's death. For months the two factions fought a bloody battle that only concluded when Joey was sentenced in late '61 on extortion charges.
At that point, however, Gallo was a regular front-page feature in New York newspapers. Reporters fell in love with the story of this rag-tag bunch of mobsters trying to move in on the bigger, more established syndicates.
Gallo's prison time amounted to ten years, during which he worked hard to establish alliances with African-American and Italian gangsters. He was careful to nurture his name recognition, too. From his prison cell, Gallo went public with his fight against the Klu Klux Klan influence he saw inside the prison system.
Gallo's story became the subject of the Jimmy Breslin book The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, which was later turned into a 1971 film. Even Bob Dylan came to admire the sharp tongued gangster, and even wrote a song in his honor, simply titled "Joey."
"I never considered him a gangster," said Dylan. "I always thought of him as some kind of hero in some kind of way. An underdog fighting against the elements."
Upon his release from prison in 1971, Gallo did little to squelch his own celebrity. He palled around with actors, most notably the late Jerry Orbach, who played Gallo in the movie version of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.
"Joey compressed time with us because he knew in the back of his head that he might not have much time, that he could go at any minute," said Orbach. "Consequently, a minute spent talking to Joey was like an hour spent with someone else. There was no 'How's the weather?' or small talk. He was somebody who had to catch a train and get it all in now."
But not everyone was enamored with Gallo's famous status. On April 7, 1972, Gallo was gunned down by a team of shooters while he was eating dinner with his new wife and bodyguard at a restaurant in Little Italy.
His death, not surprisingly, was front-page news. And his celebrity status never waned. In the stories it was pointed out that Gallo had been slated to appear with writer Gore Vidal, Abbie Hoffman and film director Otto Preminger for a discussion of the topic, "How They Cover Me."
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