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“Always Be a Man”
FROM HIS BIRTH at Cambridge City Hospital on December 13, 1940, John Vincent Martorano was an unlikely gangster. He had only one sibling, and he grew up in a stable middle-class household with both parents present. After the age of eleven he lived in the suburbs.
His father owned a profitable business and no one in the family ever lacked for money. In the somnabulent 1950s, young Johnny Martorano served as an altar boy and later went to both parochial and prep schools where his friends included, among others, a future congressman and a future CBS news reporter. Summers he and his brother Jimmy went to camp in the Berkshires. His parents owned a second home on the South Shore. At age sixteen, as soon as he got his driver’s license, his father bought him a blue 1949 Plymouth sedan.
And yet somehow, Johnny Martorano was always fascinated by the city. He was always drawn back to the mean streets of Boston, where his father ran a restaurant and after-hours club in what would soon become known as the Combat Zone.
Both his parents came from large immigrant families. His maternal grandparents were Irish, had met in England, and later immigrated to the United States, where they raised eleven children in the Somerville-Medford area, just north of Boston. His mother’s maiden name was Elizabeth Mary Hunt. Everyone called her Bess.
His father was born in Riesi, Sicily, the son of a cobbler, one of thirteen children, only five of whom survived beyond childhood. The Martoranos immigrated to the United States when Angelo Martorano was seven years old, around 1915. They lived in East Boston. His first name was soon Anglicized to “Andy,” and for the rest of his life he answered to either Angelo or Andy.
Johnny’s father was always a hard worker, and after graduating from high school, he became a cab driver. Soon he owned his own Boston medallion, then two. He supplemented his income by working as a small-time bookie, taking numbers and bets, mostly on horses. In 1939, he met his future wife, who was working for a dry cleaner in Somerville.
After their marriage, Mr. and Mrs. Martorano moved to Bess’s hometown of Somerville. They lived on the first floor of a rented two-decker off Ball Square, at 96 Pritchard Avenue. Johnny’s cousins lived on the second floor. Eleven months after Johnny’s birth, his only sibling, Jimmy, was born. Some of Johnny’s earliest memories were of visiting his paternal grandparents, who lived on Neptune Road in East Boston.
In Somerville, just after the end of World War II, Johnny began school at St. Clement’s. He was young, five years old, when he started the first grade, and the nuns decided to hold him back. From then on, he and his brother Jimmy would go through school together in the same grade.
I was Sister Patricia’s pet—the teacher’s pet. I used to wait every morning to carry her bag from the rectory to the school. But I got into trouble, too. I remember one day, I must have been eight or nine. My father had a big black four-door Dodge outside the house; he always had a big bankroll. Anyway, he was sleeping one morning, and I went downstairs. I put on his hat and took one of his cigars. Then I grabbed his bankroll and I went out onto the street and started giving money away. I looked like one of the Little Rascals. Finally my mother got a telephone call from one of the neighbors and she ran out of the house chasing me, trying to get the money back.
Abie Sarkis, major Boston bookie and longtime business partner of Andy Martorano.
Andy Martorano was doing well in the postwar economy. He bought another medallion, and put his brothers, Danny and Louie, to work as drivers, until Louie got a job selling cars. By then, though, Andy had gone into the restaurant business, with Abie Sarkis, a big-time Boston bookmaker who became Andy’s lifelong friend. Their place was on the second floor above the Intermission Lounge at 699 Washington Street in the middle of what would someday be the Combat Zone, although in those days the city’s red-light district was still a few blocks north, on Tremont Street. It was known as Scollay Square.
Abie and Andy called their restaurant Luigi’s, and it did well from the start. But it did better when they opened up what they called the “backroom,” an after-hours club. They could charge more for a drink after last call, and they didn’t need to keep the kitchen open. The only overhead was the weekly payoff to the cops in District 4. But in the mid-1950s, Abie Sarkis had a bad run in the numbers. He was deeply in debt, and to raise money, he sold out his half of Luigi’s to Andy Martorano.
Now owning Luigi’s outright, Andy Martorano soon had even more disposable income. He had a friend in Revere, Joe DeAngelis, who was trying to set himself up as a shylock on Shirley Avenue. In those days no one but the wealthy had credit cards, and for the workingman the only line of credit came from the loan shark on the corner. By the 1960s, Joe Dee had $100,000 of Andy’s money out on the street, at a point or two (1 or 2 percent) a week. It was a good solid return on investment, and like municipal bonds, it was tax-free.
Soon, Andy and Bess Martorano decided that Milton, just south of the city, would be a better place to raise the boys than rough-and-tumble Somerville. Their first house was at 79 California Avenue. Later, Andy bought a vacant lot around the corner and built a new house, on 64 Lockland Street.
After he got married, my father quit as a bookie, but he still loved to gamble. And Andy liked baseball better than the track; in the summer he was always at the ballgames. This was back before the Braves moved to Milwaukee in ’53, so there was a game in Boston almost every day, either at Fenway or at Braves Field, which is now Nickerson Field at BU.
My father used to take me with him to a lot of the games. One time I remember Sam Jethroe, the first black player on the Braves, was playing center field, and he misjudged a fly ball and it hit him on the head.
We used to sit with this group of guys, usually way up in the right-field grandstand, or sometimes in the bleachers—always off by themselves. They knew all the ushers, so they got in for free. There was plenty of room, and plenty of empty seats. Back then, the Red Sox didn’t draw like they do now, and the Braves drew nobody. That’s why they finally had to move.
My father and his friends didn’t care if nobody was there. They were there to gamble. There were maybe fifty to a hundred of them, depending on the game, who the Sox or the Braves were playing. Mostly Italians in the group, but other people, too. The common denominator was betting. That’s what these guys did. Some of them had businesses, like my father. There was another guy who owned a baby carriage company. I guess there were some wiseguys there, too. They’d gamble on every pitch, was it going to be a ball, or a strike? They’d bet on whether the batter was going to get a hit, strike out, ground out, or fly out. Anything, just action. Ted Williams comes up, maybe the odds were 20-1 or 30-1 that he’d hit a home run, depending on how good the pitcher was. Longer odds if the batter wasn’t that good a hitter, or if the pitcher was better. Everybody kept a pad of paper and a pen on their laps so they could keep track of the bets, because they’d be making so many of them over the course of nine innings. At the end of the game, everybody would settle up.
That’s how I learned to gamble, from my father. He taught me how to gamble and how to drink.
Johnny and Jimmy were now enrolled in St. Agatha’s parochial school in Milton. They were in the same class as a young Quincy boy named Billy Delahunt, a lefty. Johnny was a good all-around athlete, but his best sport was football. One day on the playground he ran over Mother Superior, and she chased him down the street with her cane. Another time he kicked a football through a window in the school.
Johnny was a popular kid, a natural leader. Years later, Billy Delahunt, by then a congressman, was bragging at a party that he had never lost an election—as state rep, district attorney, or congressman. Someone else at the party, another St. Agatha’s alumnus, corrected Delahunt—he had lost at least one election, for the presidency of the seventh-grade class at St. Agatha’s. To Johnny Martorano.
There was a priest there, a young guy, Father Riley. A great athlete. He called me Rocky. One day I went to him, I was in the seventh or eighth grade, and I asked him, Father, can you teach me how to throw and kick a football like you do? And he said, I’ll make a deal with you, Rocky, if you become an altar boy, I’ll coach you. It was a deal. I think I served Mass maybe once—somewhere there’s a photo of me and Billy Delahunt, in our robes, and in the middle is Cardinal Cushing.
Johnny graduated from the eighth grade at St. Agatha’s, but he was becoming harder and harder for his parents to handle. Andy decided to ship him off to what was then an all-boys Catholic prep school in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, Mount St. Charles Academy. Jimmy stayed behind in Milton and enrolled in the public junior high school.
As a freshman, Johnny became the starting fullback on the Mount St. Charles football team. His teammates called him “the Milkman.”
“That was because he always delivered,” his teammate Ed Bradley would explain a half century later.
It was funny how Ed Bradley and I became friends. He was black, I was white, he was on scholarship, I was from a middle-class family paying full tuition. I had a father, he didn’t. I know he thought about it a lot later, and so did I: How did he end up what he became, starting with nothing, while I became … well, what I became.
He was a quiet guy, I was a quiet guy. One day after practice, we were walking back to the locker room, and he said to me, “You know, Johnny, you’re white and I’m black, but one thing we got in common is the same teeth.” See, he had a space between his two upper front middle teeth, just like me. We laughed, and that’s when our friendship started to develop. I called him Big Ed—that’s all I ever knew him as. When he came looking for me at the prison all those years later, at first I had no idea who “Ed Bradley” was. But I remembered Big Ed, just like he remembered “the Milkman.”
I’ve run into a few guys from the old team since I got out. One guy, John McLaughlin, we called him “Clem,” I saw him and he reminded me how there was another kid from Boston, a little guy named Johnny August. Johnny’s dead now, but Clem told me how one time he was picking on Johnny August, and I grabbed Clem and told him to lay off Johnny August.
I’d forgotten all about it, but he was bullying the kid, and I had to stop it. That’s just the way I am, always have been. That’s what I was always taught. All my childhood, I was around people who instilled in me the same values. Be loyal to your family and your friends. My father wanted the best for me; he didn’t care whether I became a doctor, a lawyer, or if I made a lot of money. He would say, “Always be a man.” Take care of the people around you. There’s an old Sicilian expression that Andy used—Sangu du mio sangu. It means “Blood of my blood.”
And that’s what I always tried to do—protect the “blood of my blood,” not just my families and my brother, but also my friends. I always tried to make my father proud and live up to his expectations.
It’s the same lesson I got from Father Riley, and later on from my coaches at Milton High. I learned from Big Ed, too. He taught me that blacks were no different than anybody else. If you’re on my team, I’m with you all the way. Later on, that’s how I felt about the gang. It was just another team, and we were all on the same team. Although of course I found out later that we weren’t—on the same team, that is.
Another thing I always believed, even back then. If a friend asks you to do something, you try your best to do it for them, as long as it’s the right thing to do and they deserve help. I always lived by that code. That’s a lot of the explanation for what happened later. I was doing what people asked me to do, to help them out. You can say to me, you killed a lot of people, and you’re right, I did. But I always had my reasons. I didn’t kill for the hell of it, like the other guys. I was always helping somebody out, or I thought I was. When somebody gets hit, it always helps somebody else.
You know, I’m still on good terms with all the different people from the various periods of my life, even my kids’ mothers. I don’t have any enemies, never did. My problem was that I had a lot of friends who had enemies.
Johnny didn’t last long at Mount St. Charles. One weekend he hitchhiked back to Milton, and called up one of the neighborhood girls. They arranged to meet at the old Strand Theater in Quincy. During the course of the date, it occurred to Johnny that Milton and Boston were a lot more fun than an all-male Catholic prep school in Rhode Island. He never went back. The next Monday, he joined his brother Jimmy at Cunningham Junior High School.
I always liked guns. My father had some around, because he carried a lot of cash, from the restaurant. I think the first one I shot was a .22, at an amusement park in Nantasket Beach in Hull.
Johnny, Andy, and Jimmy Martorano in the early 1960s.
When I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, somewhere in there, my brother and I would go to camp every summer in the Berkshires. I’m pretty sure that’s when I bought my first gun, a .22 rifle, to take to camp.
He was still a wild and crazy kid. By the time he was fourteen, he was occasionally stealing his mother’s car, a Ford, to go out joyriding. One afternoon Johnny made the mistake of taking off in the car before his father left for Luigi’s. Andy saw him and jumped in his own Pontiac, a coupe, and began chasing Johnny through Milton, honking his horn. Johnny figured he could lose him down by the quarry. So he took a left, onto what he quickly realized was a dead-end street. It was a lesson for the future—always know your getaway route.
My father was closing in on me, so I slowed the car down to the point where I could jump out. The problem was, the Ford was still in gear, so it kept going, and slammed into a house. I took off running for the quarry, on some little path through the woods. I can hear Andy behind me, screaming, “I’m gonna kill you.” He’s running after me, and he’s so mad he takes off his belt, and he’s trying to wave it around. The only problem is, once the belt’s off, there’s nothing to keep his pants up, and they fall down, and then so does he. Boy, was he pissed at me that day.
In 1956, Johnny got his first driver’s license, and he quickly decided that he wanted to check out the family’s new summer “cottage” in Scituate. One winter day, Johnny had a date, and they decided to enjoy a little privacy down at the beach house. But when they got there, they quickly realized there was no heat. That wasn’t a problem for Johnny. He found an ax, chopped up the living room furniture, threw it into the fireplace, and started a blaze.
Things didn’t work out with that girl, at least not then, but more than a decade later, they would have a memorable date in Boston.
Soon Johnny started going out with a “nice” girl from North Quincy, Nancy O’Neill, whose uncle would someday become a Boston city councilor—the colorful Albert “Dapper” O’Neil. (Different branches of the family spelled their surnames differently.)
At Milton High, Johnny was a three-sport letterman—football, basketball, and baseball. But he struggled academically. The word was unknown at the time, but thirty years later, Johnny would discover his problem—he was dyslexic. Reading was more than a chore for him, it was torture. There was no “special education,” and there was no tutoring for good athletes. Football coach Tom Brennan would simply go to Johnny’s teachers and ask them to cut his star two-way player some slack. Andy couldn’t understand what the problem was. Jimmy, eleven months younger, had no such academic problems, and was almost as good an athlete as Johnny. He was going to Boston College.
As for Johnny, he began going into Boston with his father. Andy got him a job as an usher at the Center Theater, across Washington Street from Luigi’s. Then he arranged for Johnny to work as a shoeshine boy at the stand downtairs from Luigi’s.
I started at the bottom, and was supposed to work my way up. That was the way my father wanted it. It was like the Greeks with their kids in the restaurants—you start out as a dishwasher, then a busboy, you learn every job going up the ladder, so later you can fill in anywhere you’re needed.
But I didn’t like working. I liked having fun. I’d rather hang out at the poolroom on Washington Street, just watch the people playing, taking action. I learned all the different games—eight ball, billiards, pocket pool. I bought a short-brimmed hat, I smoked cigars, and started hanging out with black guys. We’d go down into the subway at Essex Street and drink fortified wine—Silver Satin. No cork in Silver Satin, just a screw top.
There was an ex-boxer, Pineapple Stevens, and Johnny Mendez, another black guy. He was all scarred up, razor cuts. You didn’t see guys like that in Milton.
One day, me and another guy from Milton went up to Scollay Square and got tattoos. This was before they outlawed tattoos in Massachusetts. Now they’re legal again. On my right arm I got Nancy’s name and on my left arm, a cross and underneath it the initials IHS. That was a Catholic thing—In hoc signo, you know the cross Constantine the Great was supposed to have seen in the sky before he won the big battle and converted to Christianity. In hoc signo—“In this sign you will conquer.” It was a message from God. I went back to Milton High and told people “IHS” stood for “I hate school.”
In the fall of 1958, both Jimmy and Johnny Martorano made the Quincy Patriot Ledger’s South Shore All-Scholastic Football Team. Johnny was the only all-star to repeat for a second year. In addition to fullback, he played linebacker on defense for Milton High.
“To top things off,” the reporter wrote, “the 5'9", 180-lb. blockbuster is a top-flight punter, and more than once during his school career got off booming punts that carried over 70 yards.”
The story continued, “John plans to attend college next year, but has no preference yet as to which one, since he has received several applications from the local colleges and universities who are very eager to have him play for their school.”
The two schools that seemed most interested in him as a football prospect were Vanderbilt and Tennessee. Johnny doubted he could survive academically at either place, but that wasn’t the kind of thing he could admit to a reporter, especially when he knew that Andy would be reading the story, and that Bess would be cutting it out and pasting it into the boys’ scrapbook.
Then the writer mentioned Jimmy’s plans to attend Boston College, adding, “No doubt the Heights would be landing a prize catch if they could get their hooks into Jim, and John as well.”
Something would soon have its hooks into Johnny Martorano, but it wouldn’t be Boston College.
Copyright © 2011 by Frandel LLC