The story opens with a detailed recounting of Frankie's last hours before his shooting in the early hours of 14th May 1970 when a hand-written message on a piece of cardboard stuck at a door entrance lures him into the darkened alley next to the apartment building to which he is returning with his stunning young girlfriend; the daughter of a mafia chieftain.
Frankie is Jersey City-born; the grandson of a Neapolitan immigrant. The book briefly traces Frankie's lineage and the prevailing circumstances in which Italians such as the DePaulas lived in turn of the century America. Frankie's origins are solidly blue collar and he grew up within an environment which was shaped by the three decades long dictatorial tenure of the ultimate city boss: Frank Hague.
Young Frankie's precocious and charismatic personality combines with an inherent athleticism but accommodates a disposition for law breaking. For much of his teenage years and early adulthood, Frankie is constantly in and out of reform school eventually graduating to an adult penitentiary. Fascinatingly, it is during different stays in such institutions that Frankie meets and befriends Frankie Valli and Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter. He eventually gravitates to amateur boxing and in 1962, is crowned as the light heavyweight champion at the New York Golden Gloves Tournament.
Frankie quickly turns pro on Patty Amato's inducement that it would make better sense for him to earn money from his habit of beating people up. Frankie displays phenomenal punching power but his career is soon characterized by indifference because he doesn't like to train, prefers to hang out with the boys in local poolrooms and is a womanizer. He loves the feel of guns and enjoys shooting when training with Rubin Carter and is also a keen hunter. His darker traits are also on display. His brawls around Hudson County and New York make him a street fighter par excellence. He deepens his descent into criminality by collecting for the mob. So feared is Frankie that one target shits himself when he sees Frankie. Frankie lives on the edge and dabbles with hard drugs.
Again Frankie serves time in jail and is out of boxing because his license is suspended. This is reinstated in 1966 but his manager Amato dies in suspicious circumstances. A distraught Frankie pledges to give up boxing until he acquires Gary Garafola as his new manager. But Garafola, an ex-pug, is a front man for James Napoli, fondly known as 'Jimmy Nap', a caporégime for the Genovese crime family. Frankie's career was going nowhere with Amato but he now enters into a Faustian pact with his mob backers who now pave the way for his elevation from club fighter to headliner at New York's Madison Square Garden, the 'Mecca of Boxing.'
He has exciting, crowd pleasing bouts with hard punchers such as Charlie 'The Devil' Green, Rocky Rivero and 'Irish' Jimmy McDermott. The Garden powers cannot help but notice the way in which Frankie draws in the crowds and fills their coffers. He earns bouts against the legendary Dick Tiger and Bob Foster, the light heavyweight champion. His exciting duel with Tiger earns the accolade of Ring magazine's 'Fight of the Year' in 1968. Despite his loss, the mob and the Garden, seeking to squeeze more out of this cash cow, engineer a bout against the hard punching Foster. Frankie lasts for less than a round in a contest some immediately suspect to be a fix.
In the mean time the upgrade in fame and adulation goes to his head. He hobnobs with Frankie Valli and Joe Namath. Women, drugs, fancy threads and gambling become an even greater addiction. In fact Frankie blows all his earnings from the Dick Tiger bout -$35,000- in just a few days during an orgy of gambling at Las Vegas's Sands Hotel. His wife Mary Lou and his children are often neglected.
But Frankie's world soon begins crashing down around him. In May 1969, Frankie is arrested by federal agents on suspicion of being part of a gang which stole $80,000 worth of electrolytic copper. The feds tell him that he faces a 25 year stretch. His boxing license in New York is suspended. A few days later, the fight with Bob Foster is revealed to be the subject of an FBI investigation. Unbeknownst to Frankie, he's been caught on an FBI wiretap claiming that he'd "scored" during the Foster fight. He is invited to give testimony to several grand jury hearings and in December, Frankie, along with 'Jimmy Nap' and one John Calabro are indicted on perjury charges.
Despite his acquittal on two of the three charges at the end of the copper trial (the jury was hung on one), Frankie can get no respite. The perjury charges still hang around his neck. He's broke and the rumour around town is that Frankie's a snitch for the feds. He's leaving debts around town and his affair with an 18-year-old married woman, who happens to be the step-daughter of Martin 'Marty Motts' Casella, a close associate of 'Bobby' Manna, the head of the New Jersey faction of the Genovese, bring warnings for him to lay off. People are saying Frankie's "ruining her life" with dope.
He's playing a dangerous game. Manna, Casella and Napoli will be caught plotting to assassinate John Gotti in the 1980s. Both Manna and Casella will be put away for killing Irwin Schiff, a financier for the Genovese. The word from an informer is that Frankie is a stoolpigeon, although it's understood by people who know these things that a subpoena to a grand jury can equate to a death sentence.
The shooting leaves Frankie paralyzed from the neck down and he succumbs four months later after a period of neglectful treatment. He dies young but does not leave behind a good looking corpse –he weighs less than 70 pounds at the time of his demise. Gary Garafola and Ricky Phelan are tried for his murder but are acquitted when the mafia princess 'flip flops' in court.
In life, people feared Frankie. People adored Frankie. People hated Frankie. For some he was 'Robin Hood'; revenging his friends against the bullies of the world and settling their debts when he got a fight purse. To others he was a no-good-bum and vicious thug who got what was coming to him.
Frankie, they will tell you, had all the physical attributes any athlete could dream of having. He might have been another Rocky Marciano or a Graziano, but he didn't take his boxing seriously. Trouble was his constant companion and he was forever promising all his "side of the story." But as time went on his excuses began to wear thin. Those excuses which gave him a pass among his mates in Jersey City could not stand the test when it came to dealing with the mob. Partly innate and partly choice, Frankie lived the gangster life, but he paid the price.
The ultimate price.
Copyright (2007). Adeyinka Makinde.
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