Blood Relation

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Growing up in a household that seemed "as generic as midwestern Jews get," author Eric Konigsberg never imagined there was anything remotely mysterious about his family. When he was sent back East for boarding school, however, he learned from an ex-cop groundskeeper that indeed there was: his great-uncle Harold "Kayo" Konigsberg had been a legendary Mafia enforcer, suspected by the F.B.I. of upwards of twenty murders.

What Eric Konigsberg had uncovered was a shameful family ...

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Growing up in a household that seemed "as generic as midwestern Jews get," author Eric Konigsberg never imagined there was anything remotely mysterious about his family. When he was sent back East for boarding school, however, he learned from an ex-cop groundskeeper that indeed there was: his great-uncle Harold "Kayo" Konigsberg had been a legendary Mafia enforcer, suspected by the F.B.I. of upwards of twenty murders.

What Eric Konigsberg had uncovered was a shameful family secret. While his grandfather was a true-life Horatio Alger story -- a son of immigrants who'd become a respected merchant -- the family had long since written off his black-sheep younger brother as all but dead. In fact, "Uncle Heshy" was cooling his heels in prison. Over his family's protests, Konigsberg embarked on a series of visits that inspired the acclaimed New Yorker piece that laid the groundwork for this book.

In Blood Relation, Eric Konigsberg unspools the lurid rise and protracted flight from justice of the notorious criminal in his family, spoken of by prosecutors and associates in superlatives: "smartest hit man," "king of the loan sharks." Over six years, the author uncovered confidential records of J. Edgar Hoover's struggle to bring Kayo to justice and tracked down Kayo's collaborators and the descendants and loved ones of his victims.

In this intriguing and deeply affecting portrait, Konigsberg reveals Kayo as a fascinating, paradoxical character: both brutal and seductive, a cold-blooded killer and larger-than-life con artist who taught himself to read as an adult and served as his own lawyer in two major trials -- to riotous effect. Functioning by turns as his pursuer, jailhousescribe, and sole link to the rest of the Konigsbergs, the author investigates Kayo's impact on his family and others who crossed his path, brilliantly interweaving the themes of Jewish identity, family dynamics, justice, and postwar American history.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Harold "Heshy" Konigsberg is the proverbial skeleton in the family closet. For grandnephew Eric Konigsberg, the skeleton emerged when Heshy contacted him from prison, where he had spent more than 40 years, hoping that the "writer in the family" might fictionalize his crime-ridden life. Over the next three years, Eric educated himself about his great-uncle's violent history by poring over FBI files and visiting the murderous freelance gangster in jail. Though Heshy was "nasty, brutish, and short-tempered," not to mention a self-acknowledged multiple murderer, mild-mannered New Yorker writer Eric found him fascinating, even oddly appealing. After reading Blood Relation, you will too.
Jonathan Mahler
An absorbing and marvelously told, if a bit overreaching, book…The author's graceful, perfectly pitched prose is marred only by occasional journalistic tics.
— The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
Journalist Konigsberg embarks on a lengthy odyssey when he discovers, by chance, a dark secret that has haunted his respectable Midwestern Jewish family: his great-uncle has spent most of the past four decades in jail for a series of brutal crimes. Great-uncle Heshy "Kayo" Konigsberg eventually calls the author from prison (he wants to fictionalize his life) and sets in motion a series of bizarre visits during which the criminal attempts to manipulate the younger man's sympathies. Despite the author's clear-eyed awareness of his relative's misdeeds, which include vicious gangland murders that will remind many of the career of Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, he has a hard time staying away from the prison. Though "nasty, brutish, and short-tempered," Kayo is also oddly "ingratiating." But while Konigsberg succeeds at introducing touches of humor and deftly brings his family members to life, too much remains cryptic-particularly what led Kayo to his career path-to make the narrative fully satisfying. The author's determination to continue his quest becomes even more puzzling when Kayo's reaction to his planned piece for the New Yorker leads him to fear for his life. Nonetheless, this debut, with its atypical perspective on organized crime, will intrigue many readers. Agent, Sloan Harris. (Oct.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Konigsberg, whose work originated as a piece in The New Yorker, grew up in a prosperous Midwestern Jewish family thinking that there was nothing mysterious in his background. Then, while away at boarding school, he learned the family's secret: great-uncle Harold "Kayo" Konigsberg was a Mafia enforcer, now in prison, and probably responsible for nearly 20 murders. Through visits to his "Uncle Heshy" and interviews with law enforcement officials, lawyers, judges and family members, Konigsberg presents his uncle's story. Harold Konigsberg grew up a bad kid, became involved with the Mafia at age 13, was arrested 20 times by age 23, and in 1950 was sentenced to 14 years for robbery. After his release in 1958, he took up loan sharking and other illegal activities; he was finally convicted of murder in 1977 and sentenced to life in prison. The Konigsberg family had at first covered up his criminal activity by claiming that he worked for the U.S. government and later never spoke about him at all. His great-nephew has produced a picture of the classic gangster, an excellent study not only of crime but of family and Jewish identity. Recommended for public and academic libraries.-Stephen L. Hupp, West Virginia Univ. Lib., Parkersburg Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Disconcerting profile by journalist Konigsberg of his father's Uncle Heshy, a murderous freelance gangster. Harold Konigsberg (Heshy was his Yiddish name) was a hit man of the first tier and a loan shark of last resort, writes his grand-nephew. He's also a queer piece of work who prompts the author's appalled fascination. In this skillful narrative, Harold first emerges as the archetypal black sheep: an illiterate in a family of students, a malevolent creature in a house of Sabbath-keepers, a force as destabilizing as an earthquake to his relatives. He became involved in petty crimes at an early age, then graduated. Fortunately, for public safety, he proved talkative when arrested in 1963 and has been parked in jail for the past 42 years. Konigsberg knew his uncle's reputation, yet its full import only sank in when he read the FBI files in which Harold spilled his secrets, including the nasty details of 20 hits. Making ten prison visits over a three-year period, the author tried to gain some understanding of this way-wayward family member. Harold, still a rude force, welcomed Konigsberg and talked to him about the whys and wherefores of his acts. "The curse of my business is you got to do business with a lot of scumbag cocksuckers," declared this philosopher thug who, true to form, threatened to kill Konigsberg if he dared publish material about him. ("I'll go right through your eye and rip your brain out of your fucking head.") Just where does his uncle fit in current theories about psychopathy? As a forensic psychologist put it, "We may be looking at a genotype for the bad seed." The kind of man who makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up-and readers get to enjoy the creepythrills without actually having to meet him face-to-face.
William Finnegan
A deeply weird, terrific story ... scrupulously reported and wonderfully told, with wiseguys as vivid as any in Elmore Leonard.
Walter Kirn
Terrifying, moral, and funny... affirms our faith in the power of the best nonfiction to move and delight us.
Geoffrey Wolff
Written so well, with such care and emotional precision.
Edward Conlon
“A portrait of evil that is never banal, Blood Relation plays out like Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt” in reverse.
Katherine Boo
Konigsberg’s inspired reporting cracks a window on the bedlam of post-war organized crime ... vivid, haunting, funny, magnificently original.
One of the 20 best books coming out this fall.
One of the 20 best books coming out this fall.
New York Times Book Review
“Absorbing and marvelously told [in] graceful, perfectly pitched prose . . . a mesmerizing expedition.”
A chronicle of criminal behavior ... but also a moving story of coming to terms with one’s roots.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060099046
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/4/2005
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.06 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

Eric Konigsberg grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and he lives in New York City with his wife and son. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Tin House.

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Read an Excerpt

Blood Relation

By Eric Konigsberg

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Eric Konigsberg
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060099054

Chapter One

Be Worthy of Your Heritage

This is how my family made its money. In May 1955, my grandfather Leo Konigsberg left the wholesale food business his uncle had started and struck out on his own, taking with him one delivery route, one driver, and two trucks. He added an afternoon route and drove it himself, dropping in on high-volume grocery stores and restaurants to see if anyone was running low and needed something on the spot. That was what Leo liked most about being a butter-and-egg man, getting out and seeing customers.

At first, Leo ran the business out of his home, in Bayonne, New Jersey. He made do that summer by storing nonperishables--pickles, mayonnaise, and shortening--in his garage. Perishables he had delivered to his house, and in the evenings he stored them on his trucks with blocks of ice, or ran them over to Jersey City, where he rented two walk-in coolers. In time, Leo was able to pay his father rent on a garage that he could convert into a warehouse and an office. As he frequently reminded his children, the only free thing he ever accepted from his relatives was parking space in the driveway.

He built a successful outfit, and if you drove through Hudson County in the sixties or seventies, you probably saw the red trucks with theircream-colored cursive lettering: "Leo L. Konigsberg Foods. Bringing Fresh Hotel Bar Butter to the Stores." Leo was a big distributor for Hotel Bar, and in exchange for the mobile advertising the company had painted his trucks. He customized three of them with the names of his wife and daughters, which were stenciled above the grille: "Frieda," "Shelley," and "Barrie."

Leo's day began at four-thirty in the morning and usually went until ten at night, when he climbed the linoleum staircase to his family's second-floor apartment, sat down to a steak my grandmother had broiled for him, and fell asleep at the kitchen table. He made his first delivery by 7 A.M., then had eggs and bacon (he wasn't kosher outside the house) at one of the diners on his route. It was just a few blocks from one stop to the next, and he could make as many as four in an hour, thirty or forty a day. At its peak, his business had more than a hundred customers.

My grandfather was tall and, from the time of his marriage, in 1938, heavyset. On most workdays, he wore a sweatshirt over a short-sleeved dress shirt, and gray chinos with pockets he had reinforced at the tailor's because he always carried a lot of cash to make change. He was sweet mannered, but too preoccupied with the task of supporting a wife and children for anybody to describe him as happy. He was suspicious by nature. He wouldn't let employees load cargo unless he was watching. He smoked El Producto cigars because they were short enough that he could finish one in the time it took his men to fill up a truck.

Leo was fanatical about his reputation. For years, the sales reps from Kraft continued to thank him for the time he 'd saved them $30,000 by alerting them to a misplaced decimal point on his bill. He once reprimanded an employee for not applying the bulk discount to a small independent grocer's order for a single ham. He figured that if a merchant was buying only one ham at a time he could use a break. "Tell him it was our mistake," he told his salesman, and sent him back with a refund. Another time, passing through customs on the way home from a family vacation in Canada, he declared a one-dollar doll he 'd bought for one of his daughters.

One night in 1958, Leo returned from his delivery route and was met in his office by three men; two of them had stockings over their heads and one shoved a crowbar into his ribs. They made him open his safe, which had more than two thousand dollars inside, then bound his arms and legs with heavy rope. The police who arrived on the scene afterward gave Leo a hard time, "as though he was the one who'd done something wrong," my grandmother recalls. Leo had never once stayed home from work, but he spent the next day in bed, sick to his stomach. What upset him most was the headline in the Bayonne Times: konigsberg's brother victim of safe robbery."

Leo was and would forever be known as the brother of a criminal. Although the United States Department of Justice struggled to ascertain a precise count, internal memos allege that Leo's baby brother, Harold (Kayo) Konigsberg, committed at least ten homicides in the service of organized crime, and perhaps as many as twenty. Others who knew Harold, including two of his lawyers, put the total even higher.

Although as a Jew Harold was ineligible to be made by the Mafia, his independent-contractor status gave him latitude and autonomy. Unlike a typical hit man, who answers to a hierarchy of bosses, Harold was freelance, and would work for whatever family hired him--even simultaneously for more than one if he felt like it.

People who came into contact with Harold--prosecutors, detectives, defense lawyers, underworld associates--reach for superlatives: "toughest Jew" (this, a full generation after the Jews had got out of the business or, at least, like Meyer Lansky, limited their activities to the white-collar end) and "smartest hit man." The Justice Department considered him the king of all loan sharks. Conducting business out of a half dozen offices in Manhattan and New Jersey, he claimed to have a million dollars on the street at any given time. Although he'd quit school at sixteen, at which point he still hadn't completed eighth grade, he claimed to have taught himself to read as an adult, and he served as his own lawyer in two major trials.


Excerpted from Blood Relation by Eric Konigsberg Copyright © 2006 by Eric Konigsberg. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 11, 2014

    Incredible book about a fascinating man.

    Incredible book about a fascinating man.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2008

    Emotional KO

    Author Konigsberg recounts his experiences in meeting his family's secret black sheep, Uncle Harold 'KO' Konigsberg, a notorious psychopathic Mafia hitman jailed for life. Konigsberg deftly weaves the stories told by KO's victims families into that of his own family as 'victim' of KO's murderous acts. True crime meets family drama, excellently done.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 15, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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