Wednesday 30 March 2011

A REAL JERSEY BOY: Review of JERSEY BOY: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula by Marty Mulcahey

The ascent of MTV’s “reality” show “Jersey Shore” has given rise to a nation cracking jokes at Jersey’s expense. If such verbal jabs were thrown in the presence of ill-fated Jersey City brawler Frankie DePaula, the response would have been sudden, violent, and strangely compelling.

Everything Frankie DePaula did had a certain flare to it and is the reason a book can be devoted to a "club fighter" whom most feel never earned his world title shot. Much of DePaula’s story is given away in the book title, Jersey Boy: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula.

Great characters make a book special, so it is alright to give some plot points away. Hall of Fame promoter J. Russell Peltz gave the tome his endorsement. “The author tells it like it was; that DePaula was an above-average club fighter who drew people and had the right connections. Anyone who was around boxing in those days or has any knowledge of what the sport was like in the 1960s and early 1970s should read this book. It’s worth every penny.”

The book revolves around Frankie DePaula but is also a chronicle of the area and era that shaped the man. A person who thought himself fiercely independent, unaware that he was easily led in directions others wanted. Boxing is the obvious co-star but the book hits on many other facets of DePaula and Jersey City’s history. Vices of every sort are central to DePaula’s story. An $80,000 heist of electrolytic copper, in which DePaula was a leading figure involved.

His affair with the married daughter of a high-ranking member of the Genovese crime family. Late night parties and drug use. The mob’s assumption that DePaula became an informant for the FBI (who took pictures of the people that attended DePaula’s wake), which ultimately led to his shooting and death.

The suspected murder of DePaula’s first boxing manager Pat Amato, mysteriously electrocuted in 1967, who was replaced by mob-connected bar owner Gary Garafola. The author also tells of persistent but unsubstantiated rumors that DePaula’s 1969 title fight with Bob Foster was fixed.

The 268 pages reveal DePaula as a flawed but charismatic figure. Yet DePaula attracted stars much greater than himself into a circle of acquaintances. Frank Sinatra was ringside for DePaula’s biggest fights and famous crooner Frankie Valli and Super Bowl winning quarterback Joe Namath were good friends. Not bad for a simple street fighter, who raised equal amounts of fear in the ring and money as a mob collector outside of it.

An introductory passage on the book’s jacket captures the essence of DePaula. "Although prone to being brutish, Frankie could also be big of heart. And while his many sins rendered him as heartless, he was capable of feats of kindness. Tough but ultimately weak-minded; Frankie’s tale is a cautionary one: a sobering rendition of one man’s capacity for self-destruction." A final sentence is particularly apropos; "Frankie was a man whose character flaws would lead him to an early grave."

Comparisons to Ring Lardner’s fictional short story Champion abound, with DePaula living the role of antihero “Midge” Kelly.

I was particularly impressed with how a Nigerian-born author Adeyinka Makinde, a barrister (lawyer) and University professor residing in swanky London, was able to convey such a vivid portrait of the gritty Westside of Jersey City.

Makinde succinctly captured the era and circumstances that produced the city’s inhabitants. In that way, Makinde resembles best-selling fiction writer Martin Cruz Smith, who writes seamlessly of life in Moscow (Gorky Park), despite having only visited the metropolis on a few occasions.

As importantly, Makinde is no stranger to boxing (writing the biography of countryman Dick Tiger, with scores of other boxing features to his credit), explaining the machinations of the sport in the 1960’s. Makinde understood DePaula was shaped by his environment. "There was something about Jersey City, the place that he grew up in. I noted the social and political conditions of Jersey City, the influence of the Mafia in the society and I just felt that this was a guy with a lot of talent, a lot of charisma and somehow, something went wrong."

The genesis of the book was DePaula’s son contacting the author (after reading a Makinde article on the Tiger - DePaula bout) to write a book about his father. Makinde initially put him off by producing a magazine article on DePaula instead. As he researched the subject more thoroughly, Makinde became invested in DePaula and the circumstances surrounding his demise.

Makinde fell victim to DePaula’s charisma 40 years after his death, devoting three years of research to what others saw as a footnote in boxing history. The author says of his complex subject.

"A book on Frankie DePaula gives him a kind of a substance that was denied him. Even for all the bad things and the ugly things that might come up in the book, there’s a lot of good. DePaula was a very polarizing person. You can’t do a whitewash. At the same time, you can’t do a hatchet job. It was a situation where you have to give the good, the bad, and the plain ugly. I felt this was a guy who the American Dream went wrong for."

Because of a background in law, Makinde brought the trial of DePaula’s accused killers to life in the pages of the book and did a fine job casting the crimes and the FBI’s role in proper context. The book is meticulously researched with the aid of freedom of information requests for FBI files, newspaper archives, legal records, and face-to-face interviews.

"I thought that the Frankie DePaula story posed a mystery. There were many reasons as to why he was shot. I thought that there was an analogy here with the John F. Kennedy assassination. In the sense that Frankie DePaula was shot for any of probably four or five reasons, and all of those four or five reasons were probably correct."
Some may quibble that Makinde begins the book with the slaying of DePaula. I argue that DePaula’s demise is an appropriate opening, since it was the starting point of his legacy. Makinde saw DePaula as a man silenced twice over. "He was somebody that kids were interested in finding out about. But everybody said, ’Shhh-shhh.’ Don’t talk about that.’ I think this is the completion of a circle that he is being remembered now."

Frankie DePaula was not the most talented boxer but he had a vital ability in the days when promoters could not rely on TV deals or site fees. DePaula put people in the seats, drawing an appreciative audience with his brand of ring mayhem. An Italian-American with natural skills and the kind of power that cannot be taught. That showed when DePaula stopped every opponent on his way to a New York Golden Gloves amateur title.

The few times DePaula bothered to train it was, ironically enough, at the Bayonne Police Athletic League. DePaula came up the hard way, where boxing was safer than walking the streets. Local lore about his confrontations ranged from the corner of Duncan Avenue to Madison Square Garden, and places in-between like Rahway State Prison. Makinde is forthright about DePaula’s place in boxing. "The Mafia looked at how popular he was and said, ’We’ve got to get our teeth in that.’ Frankie’s career was controlled by the Mafia and they probably pushed him too far."

Other lively characters are illuminated, mobsters James “Jimmy Nap” Napoli, Bobby Manna, Martin Casella, Mario Lococo, and members of the Hudson County Genovese family. 40 years after the fact, people involved in the murder and other illegal acts still reside in and around Jersey City. Makinde was well aware. “One has to be cautious; it’s no big joke. People would have seen people disappear literally; people would have seen people maimed and killed for talking out of turn.”

Two men were charged with DePaula’s murder (Gary Garafola and Ricky Phelan), and it’s widely accepted that the mob carried out the hit, an assertion Makinde supports. "It was definitely the mob that was behind it. The people in power those days were the Mafia; they were like the fourth branch of government."

Sprinkled throughout are famous boxing figures that worked the periphery of the game like Al Braverman, Al Certo (a great trainer/manager who felt DePaula was more talented than Rocky Graziano), and Ron Lipton. I thought DePaula’s marriage to wife Mary Lou and a son Frank Jr. could have been given more attention but otherwise find pivotal figures are given proper exposure.

For boxing fans, DePaula’s title shot will hold particular interest. Even more so for assertions by the author that the bout, in his opinion, was fixed. "I think there are good grounds to think that it might have been [fixed]. Although Bob Foster was a very dominant champion and was favored to beat Frankie DePaula, I think that if you listen to the tapes, the transcripts the FBI released, you can see that something funny was being plotted."

Makinde found anecdotal evidence as well. "People did notice that as the fight came closer, Frankie was not the ebullient, enthusiastic guy. He was now a bit quieter. Now, I ask the question in the book, ‘Why was that?’"

However, like other aspects of the book, Makinde allows contrary points of view. "I give both sides. I give a lot of weight to what people like Al Certo, Tommy Gallagher, and Ron Lipton were saying. They felt that it was a genuine victory."

DePaula’s life came to a tragic end at age 31, enticed to a dark alley by a note from his manager and shot. As always, DePaula fought, not dying in the alley as intended. Instead, DePaula was paralyzed by the bullets and slowly withered away for four months in a charity ward of the Jersey City Medical Center.

It is at this stage that Makinde delivers a shocking twist to the tale, contradicting the story of DePaula’s death that has been told for decades. A conclusion I will not reveal, since it is an inflammatory but utterly believable revelation which has to be read in context.

Ultimately, Makinde does pass judgment on the surroundings and acts of DePaula. However, you never once hear the author’s voice countermanding the positive endorsements of DePaula’s friends, family, and associates who spoke fondly of the good man they saw.

This is a book worthy of a Hollywood encore.

Marty Mulcahey (2010)

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