Over the course of the past 50 years, we have seen an enormous amount of romanticism and glorification of the Mafia. From classic films such as The Godfathers I and II, Goodfellas, to TV shows like The Sopranos – the mythology continues to spellbind. Even Frank Sinatra, who possessed a voice of amazing depth and beauty, was not immune. Nobody can tell me that his (alleged) ties to the Mob did not add something of a dark allure to his mystique.
Between the fictional eras of Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano there was a larger than life, and all too real man named John Gotti. I remember a time when Gotti was treated as a more glamorous figure than any movie star. In the mid-’80s he appeared on the cover of Time magazine in a five-thousand dollar suit, on his way to court. The caption? “The Teflon Don.”
For me, a book with a title like Sinatra, Gotti, And Me (The Rise And Fall Of Jilly’s Nightclub) was irresistible. My expectations were not very high — I mean honestly, how many times can you tell the same story and make it interesting? But the memoirs of Tony Delvecchio turned out to be far more intriguing than anything I dared hope for.
In fact, compared to the “snitch tells all” genre of books authored by the likes of Henry Hill and Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, Tony Delvecchio’s story is a breath of fresh air. Although it is never explicitly stated, Artie Bucco (owner of Anthony Soprano’s favorite restaurant) is unquestionably modeled after Tony Delvecchio. It seems that co-author Rich Herschlag spent a lot of time with Delvecchio before his passing, because the reminiscences ring very authentic.
Delvecchio grew up in Newark, New Jersey and hoodlum life was just part of the culture. It seems it would have been very easy for him to go that route, but he instead wanted to own his own place. Delvecchio found a spot way out in the Jersey boonies, and “earned his bones,” there, so to speak. Through a fortuitous turn of events, Tony found himself with an offer be part owner of the revived and legendary Jilly’s nightclub in Manhattan in the mid-’70s.
Namesake Jilly Rizzo was a lifelong friend of Frank Sinatra’s, and even though Jilly was there more as a link to the heritage of the old saloon days, he was still a part of it. As was Frank. Many a night with Frank Sinatra, his entourage, and the rest of the bar in awe of simply being able to drink in the same room as The Chairman Of The Board is described.
It was the late ’70s, and the type of mobbed-up, dangerously glamorous appeal Jilly’s held was intoxicating. Young John Gotti was a frequent customer, as were other “less brightly lit” celebrities. The story Delvecchio tells of Joey Heatherton trying to get noticed by anyone in 1980 is hilarious.
Sinatra, Gotti And Me is more than a simple memoir of a particular place and time, though. There is an interesting story occurring both inside and outside of the nightclub that adds a bit of weight to the proceedings, even if one does not recognize it at first. A great deal of changes were just around the corner, which seem obvious now — but were anything at the time.
What I enjoyed about Sinatra, Gotti, And Me is how Delvecchio’s remembrances of the events puts one right there. With all of the players now deceased, Herschlag could have embellished or excised certain events, and who would be the wiser? For all I know, he may have. But it really does not seem that way. There are no tabloid-ready revelations, or any sensationalism at all for that matter.
What comes across is a very compelling story, peopled by some truly charismatic characters, all just out for a night on the town at their favorite bar. Don’t get me wrong — there are quite a few moments of completely insane behavior — and just a whole lot of fun times had by all. What rings through the most though is the authenticity of a man’s life with two competing forces. One is the undeniable pleasure and drive to make his saloon one of the hottest in NYC.
The other is the profound sadness that his world is divided in two. Between Jilly’s, and the beautiful suburban home he as a family man wants in the strongest way. Those two extremes rip at the very core of Tony Delvecchio, as he is increasingly forced to choose to put his attention either in the business, or into being there to raise his children and nurture his family. In some ways it is the very definition of blue-collar life. One works hard to be able to provide for his family, yet in doing so he is unable to actually spend time with the family.
Sinatra, Gotti And Me surprised me more than a little, because it showed me just how uniformly those twin motivations affect every man. Despite the powerful attractions of money, fame and sex, a man has only himself to answer to in the morning. The book has a great deal more to say than what is hinted at by the title.
This is a book about being offered what seems to be the world, only to discover that there is another world that has to be let go. I like the way the book ends, with Jilly’s being closed. But there should be a second edition, or even just a couple follow-up chapters to tell us what happened afterwards. There were indictments, charges, time served, and other legal proceedings for many.
Sinatra, Gotti, And Me is a snapshot of life over a few years, and nothing more. Yet you read it and wonder. These friends were living a big life, and were certainly aware of it. Could they have known just how short it was destined to be?
On the surface, they wouldn’t have cared. Through his interviews with Rich Herschlag, Tony Delvecchio makes it clear that he cared though. By implication one gets the impression that Frank and John did as well. It is a rare time indeed when we are given an honest accounting of a famous life — as told by someone with no axe to grind.
Sinatra, Gotti, And Me puts you in the clubhouse with these boys — and it is a pretty wild place to visit.