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"I HEARD YOU PAINT HOUSES" Frank "The Irishman" Sheeran and the Inside Story of the Mafia, the Teamsters, and the Last Ride of Jimmy Hoffa
By Charles Brandt
Steerforth Press Copyright © 2004 Charles Brandt
All right reserved.
Chapter One "They Wouldn't Dare"
I asked my boss, Russell "McGee" Bufalino, to let me call Jimmy at his cottage by the lake. I was on a peace mission. All I was trying to do at that particular time was keep this thing from happening to Jimmy.
I reached out for Jimmy on Sunday afternoon, July 27, 1975. Jimmy was gone by Wednesday, July 30. Sadly, as we say, gone to Australia - down under. I will miss my friend until the day I join him.
I was at my own apartment in Philly using my own phone when I made the long-distance call to Jimmy's cottage at Lake Orion near Detroit. If I had been in on the thing on Sunday I would have used a pay phone, not my own phone. You don't survive as long as I did by making calls about important matters from your own phone. I wasn't made with a finger. My father used the real thing to get my mother pregnant.
While I was in my kitchen standing by my rotary wall phone getting ready to dial the number I knew by heart, I gave some consideration to just how I was going to approach Jimmy. I learned during my years of union negotiations that it always was best to review things in your mind first before you opened your mouth. And besides that, this call was not going to be an easy one.
When he got out of jail on a presidential pardon by Nixon in 1971, and he began fighting to reclaim the presidency of the Teamsters, Jimmy became very hard to talk to. Sometimes you see that with guys when they first get out. Jimmy became reckless with his tongue - on the radio, in the papers, on television. Every time he opened his mouth he said something about how he was going to expose the mob and get the mob out of the union. He even said he was going to keep the mob from using the pension fund. I can't imagine certain people liked hearing that their golden goose would be killed if he got back in. All this coming from Jimmy was hypocritical to say the least, considering Jimmy was the one who brought the so-called mob into the union and the pension fund in the first place. Jimmy brought me into the union through Russell. With very good reason I was concerned for my friend more than a little bit.
I started getting concerned about nine months before this telephone call that Russell was letting me make. Jimmy had flown out to Philly to be the featured speaker at Frank Sheeran Appreciation Night at the Latin Casino. There were 3,000 of my good friends and family, including the mayor, the district attorney, guys I fought in the war with, the singer Jerry Vale and the Golddigger Dancers with legs that didn't quit, and certain other guests the FBI would call La Cosa Nostra. Jimmy presented me with a gold watch encircled with diamonds. Jimmy looked at the guests on the dais and said, "I never realized you were that strong." That was a special comment because Jimmy Hoffa was one of the two greatest men I ever met.
Before they brought the dinner of prime rib, and when we were getting our pictures taken, some little nobody that Jimmy was in jail with asked Jimmy for ten grand for a business venture. Jimmy reached in his pocket and gave him $2,500. That was Jimmy - a soft touch.
Naturally, Russell Bufalino was there. He was the other one of the two greatest men that I ever met. Jerry Vale sang Russ's favorite song, "Spanish Eyes," for him. Russell was boss of the Bufalino family of upstate Pennsylvania, and large parts of New York, New Jersey, and Florida. Being headquartered outside New York City, Russell wasn't in the inner circle of New York's five families, but all the families came to him for advice on everything. If there was any important matter that needed taking care of, they gave the job to Russell. He was respected throughout the country. When Albert Anastasia got shot in the barber's chair in New York, they made Russell the acting head of that family until they could straighten everything out. There's no way to get more respect than Russell got. He was very strong. The public never heard of him, but the families and the feds knew how strong he was.
Russell presented me with a gold ring that he had made up special for just three people - himself, his underboss, and me. It had a big three-dollar gold piece on top surrounded by diamonds. Russ was big in the jewelry-fencing and cat-burglar world. He was a silent partner in a number of jewelry stores on Jeweler's Row in New York City.
The gold watch Jimmy gave me is still on my wrist, and the gold ring Russell gave me is still on my finger here at the assisted-living home. On my other hand I've got a ring with each of my daughters' birthstones.
Jimmy and Russell were very much alike. They were solid muscle from head to toe. They were both short, even for those days. Russ was about 5'8". Jimmy was down around 5'5". In those days I used to be 6'4", and I had to bend down to them for private talks. They were very smart from head to toe. They had mental toughness and physical toughness. But in one important way they were different. Russ was very low-key and quiet, soft-spoken even when he got mad. Jimmy exploded every day just to keep his temper in shape, and he loved publicity.
The night before my testimonial dinner, Russ and I had a sit-down with Jimmy. We sat at a table at Broadway Eddie's, and Russell Bufalino told Jimmy Hoffa flat-out he should stop running for union president. He told him certain people were very happy with Frank Fitzsimmons, who replaced Jimmy when he went to jail. Nobody at the table said so, but we all knew these certain people were very happy with the big and easy loans they could get out of the Teamsters Pension Fund under the weak-minded Fitz. They got loans under Jimmy when he was in, and Jimmy got his points under the table, but the loans were always on Jimmy's terms. Fitz bent over for these certain people. All Fitz cared about was drinking and golfing. I don't have to tell you how much juice comes out of a billion-dollar pension fund.
Russell said, "What are you running for? You don't need the money."
Jimmy said, "It's not about the money. I'm not letting Fitz have the union."
After the sit-down, when I was getting ready to take Jimmy back to the Warwick Hotel, Russ took me aside and said: "Talk to your friend. Tell him what it is." In our way of speaking, even though it doesn't sound like much, that was as good as a death threat.
At the Warwick Hotel I told Jimmy if he didn't change his mind about taking back the union he had better keep some bodies around him for protection.
"I'm not going that route or they'll go after my family."
"Still in all, you don't want to be out on the street by yourself."
"Nobody scares Hoffa. I'm going after Fitz, and I'm going to win this election."
"You know what this means," I said. "Russ himself told me to tell you what it is."
"They wouldn't dare," Jimmy Hoffa growled, his eyes glaring at mine.
All Jimmy did the rest of the night and at breakfast the next morning was talk a lot of distorted talk. Looking back it could have been nervous talk, but I never knew Jimmy to show fear. Although one of the items on the agenda that Russell had spoken to Jimmy about at the table at Broadway Eddie's the night before my testimonial dinner was more than enough to make the bravest man show fear.
And there I was in my kitchen in Philadelphia nine months after Frank Sheeran Appreciation Night with the phone in my hand and Jimmy on the other end of the line at his cottage in Lake Orion, and me hoping this time Jimmy would reconsider taking back the union while he still had the time.
"My friend and I are driving out for the wedding," I said.
"I figured you and your friend would attend the wedding," Jimmy said.
Jimmy knew "my friend" was Russell and that you didn't use his name over the phone. The wedding was Bill Bufalino's daughter's wedding in Detroit. Bill was no relation to Russell, but Russell gave him permission to say they were cousins. It helped Bill's career. He was the Teamsters lawyer in Detroit.
Bill Bufalino had a mansion in Grosse Pointe that had a waterfall in the basement. There was a little bridge you walked over that separated one side of the basement from the other. The men had their own side so they could talk. The women stayed on their side of the waterfall. Evidently, these were not women who paid attention to the words when they heard Helen Reddy sing her popular song of the day, "I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar."
"I guess you're not going to the wedding," I said.
"Jo doesn't want people staring," he said. Jimmy didn't have to explain. There was talk about an FBI wiretap that was coming out. Certain parties were on the tape talking about extramarital relations his wife, Josephine, allegedly had years ago with Tony Cimini, a soldier in the Detroit outfit.
"Ah, nobody believed that bull, Jimmy. I figured you wouldn't go because of this other thing."
"Fuck them. They think they can scare Hoffa."
"There's widespread concern that things are getting out of hand."
"I got ways to protect myself. I got records put away."
"Please, Jimmy, even my friend is concerned."
"How's your friend doing?" Jimmy laughed. "I'm glad he got that problem handled last week."
Jimmy was referring to an extortion trial Russ had just beat in Buffalo. "Our friend's doing real good," I said. "He's the one gave me the go-ahead to call you."
These respected men were both my friends, and they were both good friends to each other. Russell introduced me to Jimmy in the first place back in the fifties. At the time I had three daughters to support.
I had lost my job driving a meat truck for Food Fair, when they caught me trying to be a partner in their business. I was stealing sides of beef and chickens and selling them to restaurants. So I started taking day jobs out of the Teamsters union hall, driving trucks for companies when their regular driver was out sick or something. I also taught ballroom dancing, and on Friday and Saturday nights I was a bouncer at the Nixon Ballroom, a black nightclub.
On the side I handled certain matters for Russ, never for money, but as a show of respect. I wasn't a hitman for hire. Some cowboy. You ran a little errand. You did a favor. You got a little favor back if you ever needed it.
I had seen On The Waterfront in the movies, and I thought I was at least as bad as that Marlon Brando. I said to Russ that I wanted to get into union work. We were at a bar in South Philly. He had arranged for a call from Jimmy Hoffa in Detroit and put me on the line with him. The first words Jimmy ever spoke to me were, "I heard you paint houses." The paint is the blood that supposedly gets on the wall or the floor when you shoot somebody. I told Jimmy, "I do my own carpentry work, too." That refers to making coffins and means you get rid of the bodies yourself.
After that conversation Jimmy put me to work for the International, making more money than I had made on all those other jobs put together, including the stealing. I got extra money for expenses. On the side I handled certain matters for Jimmy the way I did for Russell.
* * *
"So, he gave you the go-ahead to call. You should call more often." Jimmy was going to act nonchalant about it. He was going to make me get to the reason Russell granted me permission to call him. "You used to call all the time."
"That's the whole thing I'm trying to say. If I called you, then what am I supposed to do? I got to tell the old man - what? That you're still not listening to him. He's not used to people not listening to him."
"The old man will live forever."
"No doubt, he'll dance on our graves," I said. "The old man is very careful what he eats. He does the cooking. He won't let me fry eggs and sausage because one time I tried to use butter instead of olive oil."
"Butter? I wouldn't let you fry eggs and sausage either."
"And you know, Jimmy, the old man is very careful how much he eats. He always says you got to share the pie. You eat the whole pie you get the bellyache."
"I got nothing but respect for your friend," Jimmy said. "I would never hurt him. There are certain elements Hoffa will get for fucking me out of the union, but Hoffa will never hurt your friend."
"I know that, Jimmy, and he respects you. Coming up from nothing, the way you did. All the good things you've done for the rank and file. He's for the underdog, too. You know that."
"You tell him for me. I want to make sure he never forgets. I've got nothing but respect for McGee." Only a handful of people referred to Russell as McGee. His real name was Rosario, but everybody called him Russell. Those who knew him better called him Russ. Those who knew him best called him McGee.
"Like I say, Jimmy, the respect is mutual."
"They say it's going to be a big wedding," Jimmy said. "Italians are coming from all over the country."
"Yeah. That's good for us. Jimmy, I had a talk with our friend about trying to work this thing out. The timing is good. Everybody being there for the wedding. He was being very encouraging about the matter."
"Did the old man suggest working this out or did you?" Jimmy asked quickly.
"I put the subject on the agenda, but our friend was very receptive."
"What'd he say about this?"
"Our friend was very receptive. He said let's sit down with Jimmy at the lake after the wedding. Work this thing out."
"He's good people. That's what McGee is. Come out to the lake, huh?" Jimmy's tone of voice sounded as if he were on the verge of showing his famous temper but maybe in a good way. "Hoffa always wanted to work this fucking thing out, from day one." More and more these days Jimmy was calling himself Hoffa.
"This is a perfect time to work it out with all the concerned parties in town for the wedding and all," I said. "Settle the thing."
"From day one Hoffa wanted to work this fucking thing out," he hollered just in case everybody in Lake Orion didn't hear him the first time.
"Jimmy, I know you know this matter's got to be settled," I said. "It can't go on like this. I know you're doing a lot of puffing about exposing this and exposing that. I know you're not serious. Jimmy Hoffa's no rat and he never will be a rat, but there is concern. People don't know how you puff."
"The hell Hoffa's not serious. Wait till Hoffa gets back in and gets his hands on the union records, we'll see if I'm puffing."
From growing up around my old man and from union work, I think I know how to read the tone of people's voices. Jimmy sounded like he was on the verge of showing his famous temper back the other way again. Like I was losing him by bringing up the puffing. Jimmy was a born union negotiator, and here he was coming from strength, talking about exposing records again.
"Look at that matter last month, Jimmy. That gentleman in Chicago.
Excerpted from "I HEARD YOU PAINT HOUSES" by Charles Brandt Copyright © 2004 by Charles Brandt. Excerpted by permission.
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