Writing With Goodfella Henry Hill

When I started writing workshops with prison inmates, I never expected to wind up as wiseguy Henry Hill's writing partner.
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When I started writing workshops with prison inmates, I never expected to wind up as wiseguy Henry Hill's writing partner.

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The warden at Tehachapi Prison asked that my writing class branch out. Could I do sessions on the medium security yard as well as the max yard? I agreed and soon we had a group of a dozen or so inmates in the class, not as dangerous nor quite as interesting as the murderers on Yard 4B, but an interesting enough collection of thieves, rapists, and strong-arm men. There was even an old Mafioso in the group, a man in his seventies who had been allied with Mickey Cohen. When I asked him how long he was in for, he shook head and said, “I’m never getting out.”

The class had been in existence two or three months and a new inmate showed up. He was in his sixties, small and glum-looking, with an aura about him of defeat. His name was Martin Lewis and when I jokingly said, “Jerry or Dean?” he looked at me with vague distaste: “I’ve never heard that one before,” he said.

I asked him, as I did with all new members, to tell the group what experience he had had with writing. Had he had any schooling, did he read extensively, what did he read, and how much writing had he actually done? In prison, I had discovered, there was an enormous gap in educational levels. Some had graduated high school or gotten their GED in prison. A number had barely gone above the third grade. Some had gone to college, even graduated.

And then there would be a rara avis, an inmate with an advanced degree. In my thirteen years of teaching in the prisons I had two men with a PhD and one man who kept bragging to me that he was a member of Mensa.

Marty Lewis said in a very soft, thickly accented New York voice, “I’ll tell you at the break.” I thought he had misunderstood me, that he was under the impression that I was asking about his crimes and perhaps he was a child molester and didn’t want to proclaim that in front of the other inmates.

When we took a break, he came up to me and began to talk, but his voice was so soft and his New York accent so thick, that I could barely understand him. I did make out, “Nick Pileggi”, and a cocktail lounge in Queens called The Suite. I knew from reading Pileggi’s book on Henry Hill, “Wiseguy”, which was made into the film “Goodfellas”, that Henry Hill had had a club in Queens called The Suite, so I said as a joke, “You must know Henry Hill.” I figured Marty Lewis was showing me that he had read Pileggi’s book.

He leaned very close to me and said in almost a whisper: “I am Henry Hill.”

I was stunned, amazed. Henry Hill here, on a prison yard! How could this have happened? How could the number one rat in the country, a man who for years was on the run, in the witness protection program, shuttled from city to city for his own protection… And now he was on my prison yard, in my writing group, surrounded by dozens of men, more, almost every man on the yard, who would whack him just for the hell of it, to burnish their reputations or collect the million dollars that the “goodfellas” had put on his head—it was absurd and stunning and it shook me up. “You’re on a prison yard. Anybody here would be delighted to kill you! How did this happen?”

“I’ll tell you about it,“ he said. First, he wanted me to know that only I and the warden were aware of his true identity. He had been drummed out of the witness protection program some time before for dealing drugs in the Seattle area. He still had a relationship with the FBI, but he was no longer in protective custody, which is how he ended up in Tehachapi prison. He had beaten his girlfriend, Kelly, almost to death. They had a small child together and had been living in Palmdale, fifty miles from Los Angeles. He was arrested and the FBI could not help him stay out of the joint.

I wondered why he had revealed himself to me. And why he had done it so easily. It didn’t take long for me to figure it out: he was being eaten up by his anonymity. He couldn’t stand the fact that he was lumped in with the losers of the criminal world, the small timers on the medium security yard.

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He said to me once, “You see these guys on the yard? I’ve made more in one week than all of them put together will ever make in their lifetimes.”

He came to class one evening deeply upset. Somehow Henry Hill’s name came up in a bull session on the yard and one of the inmates claimed to be an old friend of Henry’s. “You know Henry Hill?” Henry asked. “Yes.” “What’s he like?” “He’s a punk and an asshole.” Oh, did that eat away at Henry, did that burn him!

Another time, one of the men in the group wrote a story about a murder that he had been involved with in an area off Long Island Sound. The body was dumped in a section of marshland. After class, agitated, Henry said to me, “That’s where we used to dump our bodies.” He was annoyed that a small-timer was making claim to a stretch of territory that Henry felt belonged to him, that he owned. He couldn’t tell tales about it, write about it, or take credit for it.

Henry wrote little for the class, but he did bring in ideas and outlines for projects and he hooked up with an Israeli jewel thief and the two became a writing team. Henry was the idea man and the Israeli got the stuff down on paper. It was mainly cops and robbers, heist material, bad television as far as I could tell, but Henry and the Israeli took it very seriously.

The Israeli was always going on about how great the food was in the prison. He claimed to be an Orthodox Jew and the prison had to prepare his food separately for him. It was far superior to the regular prison fare. Henry said, “Well, I’m a Jew. I should get the same food.”

In “Wiseguy”, Pileggi told of how Henry’s first wife, who was Jewish, got him to convert to Judaism. They had divorced and Henry went back to the Catholic religion of his childhood. “Tell them you’re a Jew,” the Israeli advised.

Henry went to the lieutenant on the yard who discussed it with the captain and the captain turned him down. “You’re no Jew,” the captain said. Henry demanded to see the warden.

In the warden’s office, the warden, who knew who Henry was, took the whole thing as a joke. “What kind of Jew are you?” he asked. On his desk was a copy of “Wiseguy” which Henry had autographed for the warden. “Look at page such-and-such,” Henry said. And sure enough there in the book was Henry’s conversion and from that time on Henry received kosher meals, which he would eat with his Israeli buddy.

After a few weeks in the class, Henry asked if I would be interested in writing a sequel to “Wiseguy.’ He assured me that in “Wiseguy” he had only scratched the surface of his criminality.

I realized it could be a fascinating project, a commercially viable project, but what would Pileggi’s feel about it, having been Henry’s original Boswell? Henry was in constant contact with Pileggi who had married Hollywood screenwriter Nora Ephron and was spending his time between New York and Los Angeles. “Nick is busy writing movies,” Henry told me. “I’ll talk to him.”

He gave me Pileggi’s phone number and I called. Pileggi thought the idea of a sequel to “Wiseguy” was a good one and that I should write it with Henry. He gave me his blessing. He had no interest in doing a sequel. He was completely occupied writing movies.

Henry and I, of necessity, developed an unusual method of collaboration. The class was held in a trailer at the far end of the yard which was perhaps two football fields long, and Henry would wait for me at the entrance gate as I arrived for class. We would walk the long distance to the class and Henry would tell me all that had happened to him after the period dealt with in “Wiseguy”. During the break I would take notes and then at the end of the class we would do the same thing in reverse: Henry would walk with me from the trailer to the yard gate and I would get in my car and make further notes. After a couple of months of this, I had an enormous amount of material.

Six months or so into this schedule Henry paroled. He went to live in Santa Monica in a cramped room just off Wilshire Boulevard. We kept in contact and continued our work on the sequel to “Wiseguy.” It was then that I learned what Henry’s major problem was—he was an alcoholic. He couldn’t stay away from drink and once he got high on booze he would go to drugs and in a short period he was for all intents and purposes wiped out.

I found this out the first day he was out of prison. We met in Fromin’s, a deli on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica, not far from where Henry lived. We ordered sandwiches and Henry ordered a beer. I knew that alcohol had played a great part in his problems with the law—he had beaten Kelly in a drunken rage. When he ordered the beer, I told him he was being foolish. “One beer,” he said and I sensed from then on it would be downhill.

And it was.

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This is an excerpt from David Scott Milton's website, which can be found here.