Richie: A Father, His Son, and the Ultimate American Tragedy

Richie: A Father, His Son, and the Ultimate American Tragedy

by Thomas Thompson

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Overview

Richie: A Father, His Son, and the Ultimate American Tragedy by Thomas Thompson

The “powerful and moving” true story of a Long Island family torn apart by drugs, violence, and the unbridgeable divide between generations (Kirkus Reviews).

George Diener, World War II veteran and traveling salesman, and his wife, Carol, had old-fashioned values and ordinary aspirations: a home, a family, the pleasure of watching their two sons grow up. But in February 1972, an unthinkable tragedy occurred in the basement of their Nassau County residence, shattering their hopes and dreams forever.
 
George and Carol doted on their shy eldest son, Richie. But at fifteen, the boy fell into a devastating downward spiral. He started smoking marijuana, shoplifting, and hanging out with drug dealers, and was soon arrested for assault and expelled from school. By the time his parents sought psychiatric counseling for their son, Richie was addicted to barbiturates and given to violent outbursts and threats. The boy George and Carol knew was long gone. Then, one winter evening, Richie came at his father with a steak knife and a suicidal cry of “Shoot!”
 
Edgar Award–winning author Thomas Thompson delivers a “scary, harrowing” account of a turbulent era in American history when the gulf between young and old, bohemian and conservative, felt wider and more dangerous than ever before (The New York Times Book Review). A tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, the devastating account of George and Carol Diener’s nightmare was adapted into The Death of Richie, a television movie starring Ben Gazzara, Eileen Brennan, and Robby Benson as Richie.
 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504043298
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 12/13/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 282
Sales rank: 213,042
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Thomas Thompson (1933–1982) was a bestselling author and one of the finest investigative journalists of his era. Born in Forth Worth, Texas, he graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and began his career at the Houston Press. He joined Life as an editor and staff writer in 1961 and covered many major news stories for the magazine, including the assassination of John F. Kennedy. As Paris bureau chief, Thompson reported on the Six-Day War and was held captive by the Egyptian government along with other Western journalists. His first two books—Hearts (1971), about the rivalry between two famous Houston cardiovascular surgeons, and Richie (1973), the account of a Long Island father who killed his drug-addicted son—established Thompson’s reputation as an originator, along with Truman Capote, of the “nonfiction novel.” In 1976, Thompson published Blood and Money, an investigation into the deaths of Texas socialite Joan Robinson Hill and her husband, John Hill. It sold four million copies in fourteen languages and won the Edgar Award and the Texas Institute of Letters prize for best nonfiction book. To research Serpentine (1979), an account of convicted international serial killer Charles Sobhraj, Thompson flew around the world three times and spent two years in Asia. His other books include Lost! (1975), a true story of shipwreck and survival, and the novel Celebrity (1982), a six-month national bestseller. Among numerous other honors, Thompson received the National Headliner Award for investigative reporting and the Sigma Delta Chi medallion for distinguished magazine writing.
 

Read an Excerpt

Richie


By Thomas Thompson

OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA

Copyright © 1973 Thomas Thompson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-4329-8


CHAPTER 1

Forty-three years before the snow fell to end the day at the Long Island cemetery, George Diener was born, in Brooklyn, in a nation about to slip into the Depression. He was a beautiful baby, with fair hair from the German ancestors on his father's side, and the spirit and good humor of the Irish from his mother. There is an early photograph, taken when George was three or four, showing him in a neatly laundered sunsuit, sitting on an outcropped rock in the middle of a swift stream in upstate New York. His face is a canvas of wonder and happiness, yet possessed of a curious mask of privacy, of introspection alien to a boy that young. It seemed to say, leave me alone.

On the day that photograph was taken, his mother had to cry out several times, "George! Get out of there! You'd sit on that rock all day long if I'd let you!" George tested her discipline a few more minutes, watching the small trout flash by, feeling the icy water splash his legs, before he reluctantly waded out, got into the borrowed car, and endured the long drive back to Brooklyn.

There were few such outings in George's young life because his was a city family struggling to pay rent and keep food on the table. His territory had definite limits. Its borders were the Catholic Church and the towering nuns who both fascinated and frightened him; his sister, older by three years, who said everything she did was right and everything he did was wrong; and the crowded apartment in the back of the malt and hops store that his father owned on Seneca Avenue. For one dollar the elder Diener would sell a small can of malt and usually throw in free hops for the customer to make five gallons of legal home-brewed beer during Prohibition.

Early in George's life, his father lost the store and, like millions of other Americans, embarked on a desperate search for any work at all. For a time he conducted a trolley car, then he repaired Model T Fords, finally he found work with security — an important word, that one, the father hammered home to his son — as a mail clerk with Texaco. George's world expanded. With German parsimony and management, the Dieners arranged to buy a two-family house for $8,500 on Autumn Avenue in the melting- pot Cypress Hills section of Brooklyn. The street was tree-lined, the neighbors — a dentist, a fireman, a shoe salesman, a dress cutter — sat on their front porches at night and gossiped across to one another, children ran everywhere with freedom. "And the children are clean!" rejoiced Mrs. Diener. "Look how nice everybody keeps their children."

A black wrought-iron fence marked the fourteen-foot-wide Diener homestead, with black-enameled twin gargoyles carved at the front gate. Here George took to climbing and sitting. But, like his rock in the stream, like the trees he would climb in nearby Forest Park, it was more a place to observe without commitment, more a place to see than be seen.

Years later, George would say, "The one thing about my growing up in Brooklyn was how ordinary it was. It must have been hard eating chopped meat five nights a week, but when you're in the middle of a Depression and so is everybody else, then you don't know any better. I had a father who worked hard, and, even though I cannot remember him ever taking me in his arms and saying, 'I love you, son,' I guess I was secure in his love. And I had a mother who never seemed to get the mortgage quite clear. Just when she was near the final payment, she would have to renew. She never made any money off the other apartment, because there was always some needy relative turning up, and Mama would move us up and down from one apartment to the other to make room. Sometimes they would bring the dead aunts and uncles to our house and lay them out in the parlor next to my bedroom, but that didn't bother me. This was what was done, this I accepted. I didn't question my parents' authority. I took what was dished out to me."

Despite his acceptance of the rules, there were early signs that George would not necessarily play the game. "He's an unusual child," said his mother one night as she and her husband washed dishes. "He always comes and confesses when he breaks a neighbor's window playing ball, when he's done something bad ... yet when I go to school to pick him up, he hides and sees me coming and ducks out the back door to run home by himself!"

Moreover, Mrs. Diener worried that her son seemed to find more enduring relationships with his animals than with the friends he seldom made. Is it natural, she would ask, for a boy to spend hours playing with frogs in the bathtub, or a dog he pulls around by the tail, or a white rat that scampers all over the house? The day the dog ate the white rat, George wept for hours. But these pinpricks of worry would be put aside when the little boy would deliberately do something to make her laugh, when he pointed happily at her ample stomach dancing from the joke, when he cried, "Mama's belly shakes like jelly!"

The Church of his mother dominated George's young years. The family album has a photograph of his confirmation — white suit, red carnation at the lapel, carefully oiled and combed hair, his face a mixture of relief and uneasiness. Shortly thereafter he served his first mass as an altar boy. The instructions were specific: to break in, he would work the side altar, not the main one. On the less important side altar, bells were not used. All went well until George went to change the book. He somehow stumbled into the bells, kicking them down the marble steps. With panic on his face, George heard the clatter echoing for what seemed like eternity. He looked in fear at Father Campbell, who was trying to keep back a laugh.

Whether this event persuaded George he could claim attention by unorthodox behavior, or whether it was simply time for an adolescent boy to break out, the changes now came quickly. Reports came from school that the Diener boy was turning into a prankster. He squirted some youngsters in the hall with a fire extinguisher, and when one of the nuns caught him and told him to follow her to the mother superior's office, he stepped on the sister's hem going down the stairs and almost choked her.

He suddenly found a pack of boys to run with, becoming their premier daredevil. "I wasn't the ringleader," George would tell his own son in later years, "but I was always the one to do dangerous things that would impress the other kids. Nobody could ever dare me to do anything that I wouldn't at least try. I'd take anybody up on anything."

George was first in his crowd to ride on top of the elevated train. On the streetcar, he dazzled his companions by daring to pull the emergency handle, and as the train lurched to a stop with lights blacked out, George slipped laughing into the night. His most astonishing feat was leaping onto the outside platform of the last subway car, crouching and hiding, abruptly appearing with his face pressed hideously at the window to startle passengers inside as the train roared through subterranean Brooklyn.

Though only five feet seven and hardly more than lightweight size, George became known as a scrapper who would sail into any fight. The street was his. He so pounded one young adversary that the boy's grades dropped and the mother complained to school authorities that George had damaged her son's brain. One of the nuns investigated and announced, to George's relief, that the boy's work had begun to deteriorate long before his fight with George. What had happened to the quiet child who hid on rocks and tree branches? "Teen-age years for some people are happy," George told his wife years later, "and for others they are sheer hell. For me, they were traumatic. I was so shy and insecure deep inside. Insecure about everything. Everything! I was quite aware of the fact that I wasn't as smart as other people — I hated school, I wasn't as good-looking, I couldn't dance as well, I couldn't get the best-looking girl to go out with me. I had to do something to make people notice me, and I damn well did it."

When he was sixteen, George had a friend named Monaghan who disappeared from the public high school that they now attended. The dean of men, a severe disciplinarian, called George to the office. "Where's Monaghan?" asked the dean.

"I don't know," answered George.

"Yes you do. You're his best friend. Where did he run away to?"

"I didn't know he had run away." It was true. This was the first news George had had of his friend's absence.

The dean questioned George sharply for several more minutes, dismissing him with an angry wave of his hand.

Later that day, the loudspeaker from the principal's office ordered George Diener to come to a certain room immediately. Obeying, George found himself in a girls' steno class taught by the dean of men. The bewildered and embarrassed student was told to stand against the blackboard while the dean circled him with a pointer. "This is a liar," announced the dean. "I want you all to see and know one." Some of the girls giggled. George turned red and began to squirm. "This is Mr. Diener, whose friend, Mr. Monaghan, has skipped," said the dean in the voice of a prosecuting attorney. "Mr. Diener thinks he can cover for his friend, but we will find out the truth. I assure you we will learn the truth."

George could take it no longer. He burst from the class and out of the school building. On the way home, he made a decision that had been coming for months. He would quit school. It was 1944, and the heroic war he saw on the screens of Loew's Theater was infinitely more desirable than being humiliated in front of a girls' stenography class, or being forced to read aloud in class when one stumbled over most of the words. He was not sure his parents would sign the document necessary for him to gain entry to a branch of the service, but no matter. If necessary, he would lie. Others he knew had done it. For almost three years now, Autumn Avenue had been at war. Gold-fringed stars hung in front windows, military uniforms transformed neighborhood boys into automatic heroes when they strolled down the block. George had little or no intellectual grasp of what the war was about. But he reasoned it was a good war against a bad enemy. He knew there were rewards for heroics, badges of acceptance and acclaim. If he could win friends by risking death dangling outside a speeding subway train, surely there would be more mature gains in bombing Japan or wading ashore at Guadalcanal.

George told his parents, saying only that he had decided to quit school and try to get into the service (he did not tell his parents of the Monaghan incident until he was past forty years old). There was no family uproar; both parents took the news quietly. The way had been paved for George by other boys in the neighborhood who had dropped out and enlisted before him. Mr. Diener, in fact, shook his sixteen-year-old son's hand solemnly and said, "We've never been butt-in parents. We've let our children lead their own lives and develop their own thoughts. You do what you have to do."

Several months passed before George could get into the merchant marines, for he had decided he wanted to sail and the navy was too difficult for entry at that time. He took odd jobs waiting for his papers to be approved. First he was a handyman at a nearby cemetery. He found the work depressing and switched to a tool company, assembling screwdrivers.

Beside him on the bench was a short, muscular black. The man would work furiously for an hour, then fall asleep right where he sat. One afternoon while pounding handles onto blades, the black flared at George and an argument erupted. Quickly the other workmen cleared away from the two. There had been minor fights between blacks and whites in the factory — one in which both sides squared off with ice picks — but this promised to be a duel between two noted scrappers. Both men seized ball peen hammers in their right hands and circled one another. George watched his opponent closely, waiting for him to swing the weapon. Then he noticed his eyes. The black man's eyes suddenly seemed to die, lose focus, and roll wildly in their sockets. He trembled, his body jerking in quick spasms. Finally he sat down at his workbench and dropped the hammer to the floor. The fight was over before it began.

In the washroom after work, one of George's friends observed, "You're lucky. I wouldn't take him on again."

"Why?" asked George. "He gave up."

"He's a dope addict. Don't you know what the symptoms are? That's why he keeps falling asleep at his bench."

"I don't guess I've ever seen one before," said George. "Is that the way they act?"

When the merchant marines accepted George in late 1944, he was sixteen years old, with twenty dollars to his name and ten grades of education. He had no church, no girl, few close friends. The relationship with his parents was not a totally warm one, for they were not demonstrative people; but then neither was George. Going to sea in a noble war seemed the best thing he could possibly do with his life.

But there would be no deeds of valor, no medals. George was ordered aboard an army transport and he worked as a waiter in the crew's mess. He never saw the war, never heard a bomb fall, never carried a rifle. Two years later, in disappointment he transferred to the army. "My idea of the military had always been the infantry — the Queen of Battle," George recalled years later. "But the peacetime infantry in 1946 was the worst place in the world a fellow would ever want to be. They had tens of thousands of men to keep busy and nothing to do. I was stationed in Japan and every day our orders would be 'Police This Area,' and off a thousand of us would go with bags and picks, and there wasn't a single piece of paper to be found anywhere on the whole damn post."

When his army commitment was done, George returned to the merchant marine and served another three and one-half years, a total of seven since he left Brooklyn as a teen-ager. The years abroad lodged a few indelible moments in George's memory — the morning sun on the cliffs of Dover, Eskimos in Greenland holding out huge wriggling lobsters and bartering for cigarettes — but mainly his tour of the seas of the world was his initiation in the fraternity of manliness. He would regret the missed opportunities.

"We were tied up in Naples for fifteen days," he reminisced. "I didn't see Capri. I didn't see Pompeii. I did see the American bar and the local equivalent of Sophia Loren. I thought at the time I had to be one of the boys, that was the most important thing in the world. I remember we were once in Germany, in Bremerhaven, and a couple of young fellows from the ship rented horses and spent their leave riding all over the countryside visiting castles and monuments. I sneered at them: what a pair of creeps! I went off arm in arm with the boys to the bars and bright lights. But standing there with the beer in my hand, I kept thinking to myself, 'I'd really rather be with those guys on their horses.' Of course I didn't say it out loud. How often I've cussed myself for not going with them. I only had one chance in life to see a castle ... and I blew it."

Home on leave in 1948, George brought gifts to his parents, ate with relish the welcoming feast, and excused himself to walk about the old neighborhood in uniform. A block or so away, he noticed a slender red-haired girl talking to a familiar street figure, a cripple named Murphy who sat outside the delicatessen and sunned himself, keeping track of all the comings and goings on the block. When the girl moved on, George greeted Murphy and asked her name.

Later that day, Murphy introduced George to the girl. Her name was Carol Ring. She was fifteen and lived four doors down from the Dieners. By nightfall George had decided that he would marry her.

CHAPTER 2

When Carol Ring was five years old, she was a chubby, impish child with dazzling red curls that tumbled to her shoulders. One day she fell ill with a cold, which hung on for weeks. Her mother telephoned a doctor, insisting that he come in person to the apartment house in a lowerclass section of Queens, New York, where they lived. The doctor made a cursory examination and ordered Carol out of bed.

"Make her get up," he said. "A kid gets well by running around."

A few days later, Carol's heart began to pound with loud, frightening beats. The younger cousin who was playing with her cried out in amusement, "Listen to Carol's heart!"


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Richie by Thomas Thompson. Copyright © 1973 Thomas Thompson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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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Richie: A Father, His Son, and the Ultimate American Tragedy 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
PegGlover More than 1 year ago
Richie is a poignant true story about how a young man’s drug addiction not only stole his life but his family’s as well. George Diener loved his son, Richie, his firstborn more than life itself. But by the time Richie was sixteen he had changed so much, that George hardly recognized him as the boy he raised. Drugs had turned his son into an angry, lying thief. George and Carol had tried everything they knew to help their son, but Richie wasn’t ready to stop using drugs. He loved getting high; in fact, Richie’s entire existence revolved around obtaining his next fix. Although this true story takes place during the 1970’s, in West Islip, LI, NY, it could be happening anywhere, today. This book clearly demonstrates for the reader, the progression of drug addiction and the devastating effects it has on the user as well as the family. George and Carol Diener agonized in pain as they watched, helplessly, their son destroy his life. I was engrossed in this well-written book from the first page. Alcohol and drug abuse touches just about every family or extended family in some way. This true emotional novel is not only heartbreaking; it’s compelling and educational as well. The author does a superb job in telling the Diener’s story. Highly recommended. My sincere thanks to the publisher, and NetGalley, for my advanced review copy. I loved it.
PegGlover More than 1 year ago
Richie is a poignant true story about how a young man’s drug addiction not only stole his life but his family’s as well. George Diener loved his son, Richie, his firstborn more than life itself. But by the time Richie was sixteen he had changed so much, that George hardly recognized him as the boy he raised. Drugs had turned his son into an angry, lying thief. George and Carol had tried everything they knew to help their son, but Richie wasn’t ready to stop using drugs. He loved getting high; in fact, Richie’s entire existence revolved around obtaining his next fix. Although this true story takes place during the 1970’s, in West Islip, LI, NY, it could be happening anywhere, today. This book clearly demonstrates for the reader, the progression of drug addiction and the devastating effects it has on the user as well as the family. George and Carol Diener agonized in pain as they watched, helplessly, their son destroy his life. I was engrossed in this well-written book from the first page. Alcohol and drug abuse touches just about every family or extended family in some way. This true emotional novel is not only heartbreaking; it’s compelling and educational as well. The author does a superb job in telling the Diener’s story. Highly recommended. My sincere thanks to the publisher, and NetGalley, for my advanced review copy. I loved it.
PegGlover More than 1 year ago
Richie is a poignant true story about how a young man’s drug addiction not only stole his life but his family’s as well. George Diener loved his son, Richie, his firstborn more than life itself. But by the time Richie was sixteen he had changed so much, that George hardly recognized him as the boy he raised. Drugs had turned his son into an angry, lying thief. George and Carol had tried everything they knew to help their son, but Richie wasn’t ready to stop using drugs. He loved getting high; in fact, Richie’s entire existence revolved around obtaining his next fix. Although this true story takes place during the 1970’s, in West Islip, LI, NY, it could be happening anywhere, today. This book clearly demonstrates for the reader, the progression of drug addiction and the devastating effects it has on the user as well as the family. George and Carol Diener agonized in pain as they watched, helplessly, their son destroy his life. I was engrossed in this well-written book from the first page. Alcohol and drug abuse touches just about every family or extended family in some way. This true emotional novel is not only heartbreaking; it’s compelling and educational as well. The author does a superb job in telling the Diener’s story. Highly recommended. My sincere thanks to the publisher, and NetGalley, for my advanced review copy. I loved it.