Feature writing


My dad, the Mafia hit man

The Times

April 18, 2011


When she was a child Jennifer Mascia thought of her mother Eleanor as being the stern disciplinarian, while her father John left chocolate bars under her pillow. If she had a nightmare, her father rescued her from the bogeyman. Her veneration of him was so total that she told her mother that she “liked Daddy better”. Her mother’s face, she remembers, crumpled.

Mascia would uncover a far greater hurt later. In her book Never Tell Our Business To Strangers, the 33-year-old New York Times journalist recalls her discovery that her father had been jailed for killing a man. He was also a drug dealer and a drug addict. Then her mother told her that he had killed another man, in fact, at least five others, for the Mafia. The family had spent the first five years of her life on the run, their surnames changed, and her mother told her not to tell anyone about her life. “There is a moment for all children when they see their parents as people who had lives before having them,” she says. “Mine was to the nth degree: my Dad the killer.”

The glamour, power and violence of the Mob has long exerted a hold over the popular imagination, from The Godfather to The Sopranos. Alongside Mascia’s book, a new reality show started in the US on Sunday: Mob Wives follows a collection of glamorous grandes dames of crime families including Karen Gravano, daughter of Sammy “The Bull” Gravano; Drita D’avanzo, wife of the alleged Bonanno soldier Lee D’avanzo; Renee Graziano, whose father is in federal prison in North Carolina, and Carla Facciolo, whose husband is doing time for stock fraud. John Travolta has announced he is to star as John Gotti, the infamous American mobster who became boss of the Gambino crime family, in the movie Gotti: Three Generations.

Mascia may be pretty, with darting eyes and the lustrous dark hair of Mob wives in the reality series, but her life as the child of a mobster was far from glamorous. She recalls how she discovered that before she was born her father had served a 12-year prison sentence; in 1963, aged 26, he had been jailed for murdering a heroin-addicted informant known as Joe Fish, who was about to grass on his drug-dealing gang to the police. On his release, her father ran a carpet cleaning company and, it seemed, was trying to go straight. In fact, as Mascia’s mother later told her, John had killed again: a man named Thomas Palermo, who he stuffed in the trunk of a car at JFK airport in New York in January 1977.

The family went on the run that year after John was arrested for cocaine possession in Miami, violating the terms of his original parole stating that he had to remain in New York. Mascia’s mother Eleanor bailed him out before the authorities discovered this and the family (Mascia was four months old) decamped to Houston, “where they dealt in bulk with marijuana and cocaine and stayed in the style to which my mother had become accustomed”.

Mascia remembers moving to Southern California in 1980. Her parents fought a lot and she and her mother squabbled like “antagonistic sisters”. In May 1983 the FBI tracked the family down. Her father was extradited to New York and released from jail more than a year later. Then, as his wife’s niece was dating a drug dealer from a Medellín cartel, he too became a dealer. Eleanor Mascia — who sounds as loyalty-hardened and steely as the women of Mob Wives — brokered employment terms, saying “My husband can help you, he knows all about cocaine”. Later he became an addict and attended rehab.

Her father wanted to be an electrician, says Mascia, “but some stupid teacher told him that he couldn’t because he wasn’t good at maths”. Mascia’s mother, meanwhile, grew up in the wealthy Manhattan Beach. She was “reading Dostoevsky for fun” at age 12 and later became a teacher. She was to meet John Mascia when she visited the jail intending to write a book about prison reform. (Later young Jennifer was told by her parents that “friends” had introduced them.)

Her father’s absences from the home were never fully explained to her. When she was 17 her mother said that her father had been incarcerated for petty crimes, such as stealing cars. “I asked her why she had stayed with him. She said, ‘Because he was your father’, as if that explained everything. He was charismatic and handsome like a movie star. So even if he disappointed you, you gave him another chance.”

That complicity made her mother at least an accessory, says Mascia. “She taught in a school where she saw students die of overdoses and then in her forties she married a man who was a dealer to those kids she was trying to save.” He told her “everything from the very beginning”, Mascia discovered.

As Mascia grew older, she saw a darker side to her father. She remembers him “summoning rage in a heartbeat. He did cocaine to drink longer. If I misbehaved his eyes popped and neck tensed. He would dole out rage, but also forgiveness. How else do you terrorise somebody?” Mascia recalls many painful moments: when the police came to take him away in 1983; his secret affair, or night of passion, with Rita, his wife’s sister. In July 1999, John was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, and in June 2000 Mascia discovered, via the internet, the real reason that he had been imprisoned in 1963. “I was horrified but not surprised. Part of me felt vindicated. When I saw he had committed murder, I knew my curiosity was justified.”

But Mascia didn’t tackle him: the principle of omertà — the code of silence that reigns among crime families — had seeped into her. “My mother had a heart attack and he drove me to the hospital,” Mascia recalls. “He told me that she was really 43, not 38 as I thought. I said, ‘Don’t worry, she told me your secrets too’. I meant him going to jail, but he knew that there was much more. I couldn’t ask him. I was still under my mother’s ‘Don’t tell’ spell.” Her father died in May 2001. In 2005 her mother was also diagnosed with lung cancer. A year later she died of a heart attack, after telling Mascia about the killing of Palermo and the others. In 2006, employed at The New York Times, Mascia used the paper’s research tools to discover the whole truth. “I’d always feared that he’d committed other horrible acts. I was forced to look at my mother in a new light. What I’d thought was devotion between a husband and wife was really an unhealthy co-dependence. Even though my dad was a good father and loved my mother deeply, she deserved more than to parent him. The thing that saved them from being totally reprehensible was that we were family, a unit.” She still loves her father, “and because I can’t question him about this, it’s like there are two John Mascias: the one from my childhood I remember fondly and the one constructed of criminal records, interviews and newspaper clippings. Those two John Mascias will never meet.”

What would Jennifer ask her father now? “How many people did he really kill? Did he have nightmares about it, like my mother said? Did he only sleep with my aunt once?” And her mother? “Why stay with him? What did he really tell her about the other murders? How could she not have guessed about my father’s affair with Rita?” Mascia laughs: just like her mother she once was addicted to rescuing people and had a series of partners who were older, damaged or violent. “It wouldn’t take Freud to work out why,” she says. “I nearly married my father.”

She says she wants to “to build a family with the stability I didn’t have”, and since last September has been in a settled relationship with Adam Wiesner, a production manager for commercials, TV and film. “Adam’s only trauma has been his parents’ divorce. It’s refreshing,” she says.

How would her parents have felt about the book? “I would have been grounded for the rest of my life. My mother would have felt my father’s name was being tainted.”

Mascia is determined to live a more fulfilled life than her mother. She recently met the wife of someone who knew Thomas Palermo, the man her father killed in 1977. “She told me that to my father people like Palermo were intruders, threatening his mobster ‘family’,” Mascia says. After her book was published in the US, two of Palermo’s grandchildren contacted her for details of their grandfather’s murder. “I didn’t know what to tell them, or whether to talk to them,” Mascia says. “I was worried that they’d take their anger out on me.” She may have to get used to such intrusions: more painful surprises from her family’s past may yet emerge.