Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Deaths of Peter Panto

Since January 1941, when his body was dug up in a lime pit in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, the Brooklyn longshore leader Peter Panto has died many times in books and movies. Months after he was found dead, he rose again in a violent Broadway drama written by two former crime reporters. ‘Brooklyn USA’ took on the whole waterfront rackets problem, insofar as a stage play can ever pose much of a nuisance to criminals. For 57 performances it portrayed the excruciating ice-picking death of a Panto-like labor crusader named Nick Santo and featured characters with recognizably scummy antecedents in Murder Inc. –the organization widely assumed to have killed Panto. The single survivor of all the story’s prosecutions and deaths was a stand-in for Murder Inc.’s Albert Anastasia, a mob boss called simply ‘Albert’. “The murder of Santo in a wretched barber-shop late at night is about the most harrowing episode in the theatre for years,” wrote the Times’s Brooks Atkinson. “Nothing could distinguish racketeering from the popular game of murder and mystery better than this one sketch of demoniac violence.” Anastasia may not have been arrested in the death of Panto, but audiences were assured of ‘Albert’s’ guilt night after night.

The Panto killing reverberated through all later political movements along the docks. The longshore leader Pete Mazzie, a political successor who’d helped dig up his friend Panto with his own hands in early 1941, held his own in the goonish climate that immediately followed, briefly establishing a union hiring hall, for which he was kicked out of the corrupt International Longshoremen’s Association but continued to represent his dockers while working nights for the subway. When Mazzie organized the first formal meetings of Camarda-run locals in almost thirty years, Camarda men, their hats cocked like Hollywood goons, badly beat up the roomful of invited news photographers, union men, and Mazzie himself despite the presence of four hapless cops. The thugs neglected to destroy the film inside the cameras, however, and recovered pictures of the evening later ran in New York newspapers, including one of Mazzie, his head bloodily bandaged, pointing out the man who signaled the attack.

"Friday"(3/28/41). Compliments of Bill Mello

Panto’s story also drives Benjamin Appel’s pulp novel The Raw Edge (1958), where Panto appears as Pete Pironi, a Brooklyn docker who pushes back against the racketeers, in fatal defiance of the waterfront code. Some real names appear in the novel, but, Appel notes, “To stress their fictional aspect, I have deliberately used fictional pier numbers.”

Instead of the racketeer Squint Sheridan, there’s Squint Donahue, a gunman who’s moved up as a waterfront mobster on the West Side: “It was a hidden waterfront down in this part of lower Manhattan. Behind an endless wall of corrugated iron, olive green and grey, were the piers and the ships. Out of that iron wall the trucks honked, into that iron wall at the eight o’clock whistle the longshore work-gangs marched, like companies of soldiers, with their iron hooks.”

Over in dark, leafy Brooklyn there’s the coming clash between ‘Joe the Boss’ Dinetti and Pete Pironi, a troublemaking “wop money couldn’t buy.” The controlling Camarda family are instead called the Rosatis, and a version of the fateful meeting between the real Pete Panto and Emil Camarda is dramatized. For anyone who has walked around gentrified Brooklyn today, Pironi’s working-class neighborhood of the late thirties is an old-world departure: “He hurried home to Warren Street, dark between the night-gleaming windows. Faceless phantoms, kids in sneakers, ran in the gutter. On the stoops he saw the soft, whitish, chattering shapes of women, the men sitting separate from the female clucking, the excited ones arguing about Il Duce as they had argued the night before, the quiet ones peacefully smoking their black twisted cigars.”

In its stories and dialogue the book rides along on the testimony given before the New York Crime Commission, as did a shorter crime work by Appel, Dock Walloper, which follows the career of a West Side docker very much like Mike Johnson’s witness from the Bowers’ mob who testified in the Sun, “Joe”.

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