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All or Nothing at All

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books and culture

All or Nothing at All

Russell Shorto explores his family roots, the small-town mafia, and a unique period in postwar America. April 14, 2021
Arts and Culture

Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob, by Russell Shorto (W. W. Norton & Company, 272 pp., $26.95)

“You got good genes.” That’s what an old, self-described “con man” tells Russell Shorto in a nursing home. Shorto’s familial roots and all their intricacies are the subject of his new book, Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob. A distinguished writer of narrative history, including works on Amsterdam and Manhattan, Shorto returns to his Pennsylvania hometown for his latest exploration. The central character is his namesake grandfather, “Russ,” who was once second-in-command in Johnstown’s mob. With the help of his father—and the reminiscences of an aging, local rat pack—Shorto investigates the life of Russ, an elusive and corrosive figure. The result is a riveting and at times moving account of Shorto’s family, Johnstown, and life in postwar America.

Nestled in Cambria County’s Conemaugh Valley, Johnstown is forever associated with a cataclysmic event in 1889, when a burst dam killed thousands. The Johnstown flood, America’s worst natural disaster at that point, was the subject of David McCullough’s first book. But like other small Pennsylvania cities, Johnstown has a lot more to it than one story. Smalltime is about many things, but it stands out as a tribute to this once-vibrant city—with a cast of colorful characters, among them Shorto’s grandfather and Frank Filia, a second cousin. “Growing up in a town like that gave you perspective,” Shorto writes about Filia’s youth in Johnstown. “The whole chain of being, from the bums on the sidewalk to the mayor puffing on a cigar in his office window, was right in front of you.”

Shorto traces Johnstown’s lively past and his family’s place in this miniature metropolis. During the Civil War, Johnstown was America’s top steel producer. By the early twentieth century, thanks to the coal and iron industries, Cambria was composed of “tiny fiefdoms in the wilderness” that attracted immigrant labor, including Shorto’s Sicilian great-grandfather. As he notes, Pennsylvania became the “second most popular destination for Sicilian emigres, behind New York.” They settled in small cities, such as the anthracite coal region’s Pittston, or, in the case of Shorto’s family, Johnstown.

In Russ’s youth, Shorto writes, “Italian men of a certain stripe, in cities large and small, formed the groups that would evolve into the American mafia.” In the Prohibition years, speakeasies proliferated in small cities like Johnstown, where alcohol demand attracted organized crime and created “the chance of a lifetime.” Western Pennsylvania was considered “the wettest spot in the United States.” In Johnstown, Italian bootleggers learned “to work the system.” As Shorto puts it: “You make connections. You bribe. You use guile. And if need be, you knock heads.” Russ was exposed to this culture, which proved resilient as Prohibition ended and gangsters turned to gambling as their next illegal venture. At that point, a local “black hander” taught young Russ the craft of cards and dice. He was learning to become Johnstown’s consummate cheat.

Enter Joseph “Little Joe” Regino, trained in the underworld of South Philadelphia, who married Russ’s sister and returned to Johnstown. During the Great Depression, as Shorto explores, crime syndicate leaders like Regino ushered in “a new, quieter, more businesslike era” for the mafia. Regino, alongside Russ, “schemed to provide a comprehensive service package for the town.” Together, in this thriving steel town, they established a lucrative mob franchise, fueled by gambling, that lasted over a decade.

Johnstown was one of many Pennsylvania cities where “Little Joes” operated under-the-table fiefdoms. In addition to bootlegging, the mob had succeeded in infiltrating the state’s coal and garment industries, along with its labor unions. Organized crime became a local economic and cultural force. In John O’Hara’s 1934 masterpiece, Appointment in Samarra, a bootlegging character was modeled after a real-life gangster in Pottsville, the writer’s hometown. As O’Hara himself once noted, referring to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “I showed Scott how to really write about gangsters . . . Scott didn’t know chalk from cheese about real hoods.” Meantime, in Hazleton, Albert Anastasia—the infamous boss of Murder, Inc.—operated a city dress company. And in Pittston, Russell Bufalino presided over northeastern Pennsylvania’s crime family for decades. Bufalino, who died in 1994, was later portrayed by Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese’s 2019 film, The Irishman.

But as Smalltime vividly illustrates, the mob’s activities seemed especially pronounced in Johnstown, where Shorto’s grandfather and Little Joe ran City Cigar, a pool hall just steps from City Hall. As Shorto reminds us, “Pool halls were as common as Laundromats in mid-twentieth-century America.” But City Cigar was special. After World War II—following the local steel industry’s booming second act—Russ created the G.I. Bank, a gambling operation that selected winners based on the New York Stock Exchange’s closing numbers. “By many estimates,” Shorto finds, “more than half the town played the G.I. Bank at its height.” In those years, City Cigar was also a hangout for local guys, including city workers and attorneys and kids like Charlie Buchinsky—later known as Charles Bronson.

In a strange way, Russ and Little Joe viewed themselves as almost Rotarians, rather than racketeers, who provided “a public utility.” As Shorto puts it, “everyone over a certain age I talked with in Johnstown saw the G.I. Bank as a kind of service, one that offered an attractive product and that was reliable.” The syndicate infiltrated city businesses, paid off politicians, and became “as much a part of residents’ lives as the post office was.” Through Russ’s prowess, Shorto finds, Johnstown’s mob operation “generated what one knowledgeable person estimated at $40 million over the fifteen years since the war’s end (about $370 million today), a portion of which was sent off weekly to ‘the boys’ in Pittsburgh.”

But this small-scale mob had an expiration date. In 1960, not long after a mysterious local murder, City Cigar closed. As Shorto documents, “the overt connection of the city’s quaint smalltime gambling culture to the mob, the real Italian mafia,” among other forces, made it seem as if “the town was waking up from a long dream of innocence into dark reality.” In Washington, Attorney General Robert Kennedy launched a crusade against the mafia. In subsequent decades, smalltime mobsters were the subject of state-appointed investigative commissions and newspaper reports. And the mafia became a popular plotline in films and documentaries. Meantime, small Pennsylvania cities like Johnstown experienced unrelenting economic decline. After reading Smalltime, one can’t help but conclude that Johnstown’s rule-bending days—and the corruption nurtured by so-called civic leaders—played a significant role in the collapse of the city and similar Rust Belt locales.

Shorto’s grandfather is the book’s ubiquitous figure. Through research and interviews conducted everywhere from nursing homes to the local Panera, Shorto pieces together the life of this bewildering character. The verdict is inescapable: Smalltime shows that Russ was the holy trinity of a reprobate—a drunk, a philanderer, and a cheat whose family and friends suffered from the emotional toll. The book becomes a raw exploration of complex and grueling family dynamics.

In writing Smalltime, Shorto has performed a service, not only for his fellow Johnstown natives who now have this local masterpiece to cherish, but also for any reader who wishes to understand life in postwar America, when Frank Sinatra provided the soundtrack and the G.I. Bill was reshaping small cities—a time of which fewer and fewer Americans have living memory. Memorable and poignant, Smalltime is a reminder of the power of oral history.

Photo: Cory McKee/iStock

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