Goodfella Henry Hill and Me, Part 2

The second part of my experiences as Goodfella Henry Hill's prison writing partner.
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The second part of my experiences as Goodfella Henry Hill's prison writing partner.

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Henry had paroled from CCI Tehachapi and was living in a rented room on 12th Street in Santa Monica. He had immediately started back drinking. We would get together three or four times a week. He would usually make dinner, Italian food, of course—he was particularly proud of his tomato sauce: it was excellent. He would add some sausage or meatballs and it was pasta as delicious as I had ever had. We would have wine and beer with the meal and though I would caution Henry about his drinking he paid me no mind and was generally drunk by the time the evening was over.

The building was dark, drab, grim, the room narrow and gloomy. The bed was a mattress on the floor.  There were a few pieces of ancient, drab furniture.  The windows to the apartment looked out on the walls of neighboring apartment buildings. Henry had paroled in July and there was almost no breeze. He did not have an air conditioner or fan.

I was gathering a great deal of material. I would tape our get-togethers and the stuff was beginning to pile up. I was searching for a coherent line, a structure for the material. “Wiseguy” had told the tale of Henry’s gangster involvements and his eventual decision to turn rat and his life on the run and that was a tale that had form and purpose.

His later years did not have the same clarity. He was a man spinning away, directionless, losing it. He was in and out of prison, drunk most of the time, constantly struggling with his demons. It was tough trying to discover a coherent narrative.

Nevertheless I worked at fashioning some kind of interesting and energetic tale. Henry still had a ton of fascinating stories. It was finding an overall shape that was difficult.

There was immediate interest both from my agent and Pillegi’s agent and it looked as though we were going to set something up.  And then Henry began to really whirl out of control.

One evening in early August, when things were still fairly manageable, I met at his place, as we usually did and, though he had prepared dinner, something had come up to alter the plan.  The O.J. Simpson trial was on and we would be having dinner and a movie with members of O.J.’s defense team! The fiction was that Henry and I were just two mildly interesting chaps who were tagging along, brought there by  a friend of Henry’s who had been a former television news producer. He knew who Henry really was, but introduced him to the O.J. team as Marty Lewis. I could tell they knew that Marty Lewis was a fabrication: they would be spending an evening with Goodfella Henry Hill.

We met at a Cuban restaurant in the Hollywood area. The people on O.J.’s team were Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, and Bob Blaiser, all defense lawyers. There was a fourth man, large, beefy,  with very fair skin, Dr. John Gerdes who was a DNA expert witness for O.J.

We had a great Cuban meal. I had garlic chicken, Henry a pork dish. The lawyers, particularly Neufeld and Blaiser, treated Henry with deference, maintaining the fiction that he was “Marty Lewis”. At some point I tried to test the lawyers on O.J.’s guilt. I told of a running joke in my prison writing class—we always left one chair vacant and we called it “The O.J. Simpson Chair of Literature.”  They laughed, but offered nothing about O.J. I did notice a twinkle in Bob Blaiser’s eye, a small wink, and I took it as a gesture to me that, indeed, everyone knows O.J. is guilty.

After dinner we were all  to see a movie playing in the area, “Waterworld”, but when we got to the theater it was sold out. O.J.’s team had bought their tickets earlier and they took in the movie, while Henry and I returned to his cramped apartment. I mentioned that I felt that the O.J. people knew who Henry really was. He wasn’t worried: he told me he had a sixth sense about people; he had had sixth sense about me and that’s why he confided in me.

I was aware that this anonymity stuff was was digging away at him. After all these years it had become a kind of hell—he was a celebrity, yet he couldn’t enjoy his status; if forced forever to hide his identity, he’d rather be dead.

He spoke that night about how important his kid was to him. He was four or five at this time, living with a foster family in Lancaster.  Henry was fighting to gain custody. He was continually turned down. “David, he’s everything to me,” he told me. “I remember before I went into the joint, he would walk around in my shoes and say, ‘Daddy’s shoes, Daddy’s shoes…’” Julian would visit him up at CCI Tehachapi once a month or so and Henry would call him almost every night. He talked of this with difficulty, his voice hoarse with emotion.

He went on about his relationship to Paul Vario and Jimmy Burke. He used to call Vario, “Pops.” “I could go to him in the middle of the night. He’d be passed out from drinking and I’d shake him and say, ‘C’mon, Pops, get up Pops.’ He respected me more than his own sons.”

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Henry pressed on me how he was a “real gangster”, went on about all the people he had seen killed. “I saw thirty people or more killed right in front of me. And some people I saved. I never knowingly killed anyone myself. There were people that I had beaten with a baseball bat or lug wrench, but as far as I know, none of them died.”

I asked how, witnessing all this killing, he wasn’t forced to do any of it himself. “I don’t know, Dave. They liked me. I’m lucky I’m alive.”

He was rambling and mumbling, gulping from a bottle of Duggan’s Dew cheap scotch: “I’m a scumbag. I’m the lowest scumbag that ever lived. First, I was a rat and I never did come to terms with that. I’ve never really lived that down. And then all the things I saw and was part of. I tried to save some people and sometimes I did, but I did a lot of ugly scumbag things.”

He told me of his childhood, that he never learned how to read in school! “I just couldn’t get it. It wouldn’t penetrate. My sisters, I have four of them, all older than me, they would stand behind me and beat me trying to force me to read. I just couldn’t figure it out. That’s why I used to hang around the corner. I quit school because I couldn’t stand the humiliation. And then I started making so much money. My father used to call me a bum, but I was making as much money as he was just hanging out at the cabstand.” He said he didn’t learn how to read until he was in his twenties, in the service.

At some point he ran out of steam. He lay back on his ratty couch and closed his eyes. His breathing deepened. He began to snore. I left.

We had dinner one night with Henry’s brother and a friend of Henry’s, Donald Brown, a dope smuggler, who according to Henry at one time had over four hundred million dollars, which he had somehow managed to piss away.

Coincidentally, the night before meeting Brown, I had seen a television news story about O.J. Simpson in which Brown was mentioned. The program discussed how, during the trial, O.J. had become a money machine, both for himself and hustlers cashing in on his notoriety. It mentioned a dope smuggler extraordinaire named Donald Brown who had purchased the rights from O.J.  to use his picture and autograph on a phone calling card. The card also featured O.J telling how to leave him a personal message. According to the report, Brown paid O.J. four hundred thousand dollars for the rights.  A DEA agent came on to say that Brown had one of the largest and most sophisticated smuggling operations in the world, one that brought in a quarter of a million dollars a day. They showed Donald Brown, a paunchy, middle-aged, thuggish-looking guy.

When I met him the next day he was less intimidating.  Brown was a large guy with reddish-brown hair and laughing eyes. He had a pleasant quality, a mellifluous voice, and a penchant for big words, which he consistently misused. Henry’s brother Joey was also large, Italian-looking. Henry’s mother was Sicilian, his father Irish. Henry resembled his father’s side of the family, Joey, the mother’s. Joey seemed bright, but New York gangster-tough. He and Donnie Brown had been in the dope business together. Joey had done time up at Folsom. He had become a born-again Christian and went to church every Sunday.

We ate at an outdoor Italian restaurant on the Santa Monica Mall. It wasn’t until we were well into dinner that I noticed that Henry, Donnie Brown, and Henry’s brother, all sat with their backs to wall of the restaurant. I was the only fool facing the wall.  I would never see anybody approaching us with wicked intent.

While cocaine was Donnie’s drug of choice, he did not sell it. His business was in hashish and he controlled much of the market, travelling all over the orient, Afghanistan, Turkey, Lebanon.

He spoke ruefully of the money he had lost, most of it up his nose. He said that at one time he had had a wardrobe that cost in excess of two hundred thousand dollars. “And look at me now. Look what I’m wearing.” He was wearing a cheap sport shirt and a pair of khaki trousers. He said that he was a dinosaur, that they were all dinosaurs, lounging at a table in Santa Monica, mourning the old days.

There was something harsh and uncomfortable about the get-together. Henry was generally relaxed and pleasant with me, Goodfella Henry, but with his brother and Donnie Brown he now seemed a different person, business-like, tough. You could sense that these were three men who couldn’t be trifled with. There was an aura of ruthlessness about them.  It was as though I wasn’t there. They constantly clocked the crowds on the mall; they didn’t look at each other and certainly they didn’t look at me.

They spoke in a kind of terse code, business talk of which I understood almost nothing. Shipments of this, shipments of that. Palm Springs was mentioned a lot.

I wondered about Donnie Brown: What was he doing here? Was he on the lam, hiding out, perhaps informing for the government as Henry had done? I never did find out how this kingpin, dope dealer was out of prison, living in obscurity in a Santa Monica, rent-controlled apartment.

As the summer wore on, Henry grew more and more depressed. His son, Julian, his kid with Kelly, was in foster care and Henry was having a difficult time seeing him. Kelly, who he was supposed to stay away from Henry, had come to visit him and they had had drinks and began to argue. He told me that she had become a stone heroin addict because of the boyfriend she was now with, a Chicano ex-con, “with so many tattoos you can’t see an inch of clean skin…”

She had come to his apartment and he fell asleep and she stole everything she could carry away, money, radio, wristwatch. He was depressed and embarrassed and bitter. He said when he first met her she was a lovely girl. Now she’d gone down the tubes. I didn’t mention that Henry had helped on her downward spiral.

Henry was broke. From time to time Nick Pileggi would bail him out and Henry, old hustler that he was, kept devising schemes for scores. Donnie Brown had fifty thousand O.J. Simpson phone cards in his apartment and Henry took to selling them on the streets of Santa Monica. One problem: no one wanted them and Henry began to just give them away.

I continued to try to set up a deal for our book, but, while we had interest and excitement, eventually it would fall through. One editor raved about the material, the story, the writing, but he found Henry, in his words, “a disgusting character, wholly without sympathy or the prospect of redemption.”

We did make a deal with Oregon Public Television for a documentary and we saw some money, but ultimately the film was never made. (Henry would go back into prison and they couldn’t have access to him, but that happened some time later.)

Henry’s drinking and drug use increased. He was rarely sober.  He would tell me how lost he felt. His apartment was like a prison. He couldn’t stand it. He couldn’t stand all the programs he had to attend, parenting programs, AA, spousal abuse programs. He was doing them all, he told me, because of his son. He had been advised that it would help when he went into court to try to gain custody of Julian.

He would call me at all hours of the day and night. He’d wander the streets of Santa Monica and Venice, drunk, trying out small scams, trying to make a few bucks with Donnie Brown’s O.J. telephone cards. “Who are you with?” I asked very early one morning when he had roused me on the phone. “Who am I always with? Marty and Henry, Henry and Marty.” I tried to find out if he was in trouble, if there was a problem.  He mumbled something, then there was silence, and when he spoke his voice was soft and hoarse. “I’m a misfit. I always was. When I was a kid I just didn’t fit in anywhere. I wasn’t a good athlete. I ran a little track, but I didn’t stay in school long enough to have any kind of athletic career. I was just a misfit. And I’m still like that.”  There was another pause. “Money is nothing,” he finally said. “No matter what you have it doesn’t give you anything. I don’t need money, just a Von’s Card so I get some groceries, some pork for tonight, a nice salad. That’s it.”

One night he called to talk about his parents. He loved his mother, he told me, very, very much. And he loved his father, even though his father would get drunk and beat him. His father was a hard-working man, an electrician who used to drink half a bottle of Bushmills whiskey before he went to work, and the other half after work. Henry would watch him weave his way up the street, heading for the subway, and, then weave his way back home at the end of the day. And yet he worked very hard and Henry stressed that he was a good electrician.

He was always pointing out the hangers-on at the corner, the hustlers, the small-time gangsters. “Look at those bums!” Henry’s father would tell him. And they were what Henry wanted to be and what he eventually became. “When I was twelve years old I was making more money than my old man. He warned that I would be a mess, end up in prison. When he was dying they brought me out of Lewisburg to a hospital on Long Island. I bought a pint of Bushmills and a pint of Jameson and I sat with him and we drank. And I told him how he was right. I should have listened to him. And I asked his forgiveness. And he forgave me. Then he went to sleep and died right after that.”

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Henry moved to Palmdale where he had lived before coming to prison in Tehachapi. When I would drive to Los Angles from Tehachapi where I lived I would pass through Palmdale and often Henry would ride into Los Angeles with me. I would have my tape recorder on and we would continue to work on the book, the sequel to “Wiseguy”.

Henry became more and more desperate, more lost, more bum-like. He lived in a rundown area of Palmdale next to a Motel 6.  One day, when I went to pick him up, Kelly was there. I had never met her. She was forty or so, tall, wasted, scabs on her face, wrinkled, a lost street junky. She must have been attractive at one time, but dope and Henry and whatever else had been going on in her life had taken its toll. Henry introduced us. She was shy, uncomfortable.

He asked to borrow money to pay for their motel room. I gave him a hundred dollars and drove him to Los Angeles.

On this trip he began to talk about Bill Arico, a hit man who had worked with Henry. Arico had done a job in a famous international case: the killing in Milan of a lawyer involved with Michele Sindona, an Italian financier who handled monies for the Vatican and was known as “God’s Banker.” Henry told me he had provided the guns for the hit.

He said that Arico was a loner, essentially a bank robber, and that the two of them had met in Lewisburg Prison where Arico was the major dope dealer on the yard. Arico’s wife lived on Long Island, Valley Stream, not far from where Henry’s wife lived, and the two become friends when they would drive out to prison to visit their husbands.

After Henry and Arico got out of the joint they hooked up and began to work scores together. One of the robberies they engineered was the stick-up of Este Lauder. Este Lauder’s furrier, a woman, had a boyfriend who had some connection to Arico or Bobby Germane, another of Henry’s cronies. He helped set up the robbery which netted a million dollars or more in jewels.

Next Henry, Arico, Germaine, and the boyfriend of the furrier set up another score to steal ten million dollars in gold and jewels from the diamond center on Manhattan’s Forty-Seventh Street. Arico, Germaine, and the boyfriend of the furrier, came to the jewelry center early in the morning to grab the mark. Henry waited nearby in a car. Arico and the other guy went up the elevator. Germaine was downstairs with the suitcases to hold the loot.

An off-duty detective just happened to spot Arico in the Broadway area and decided to follow him. He sensed something bad was going down, called for back-up, and Arico and the boyfriend of the furrier were nailed. Bobby Germaine got away, as did Henry.

Arico was in the Federal prison, the Metropolitan Correctional Center, in downtown Manhattan, awaiting trial.  Henry provided jeweler’s wire to Arico’s wife who managed to get it to Arico when they visited; Henry believed she kept it in her mouth and passed it to him when they kissed. Arico sawed his way out of the place and escaped.

He was on the run and in contact with Henry. Arico decided to kill the furrier’s boyfriend because he thought that he had set them up for the fall in the 47th Street robbery. The furrier’s boyfriend, who hadn’t been prosecuted, was in a restaurant and was supposed to call Henry from a pay phone outside. Arico was waiting and shot at him with a machine pistol; he shot the guy’s hand off, but missed killing him.

By this time things were closing down on Henry and he began to cooperate with the authorities and tipped them off as to where Arico was hiding. Arico was re-arrested and was awaiting trial when he again almost succeeded in escaping. He and another inmate went down a rope of tied-together bed sheets. Arico made it to the ground, but the rope broke and the second guy plunged forty feet down and landed on Arico, killing him.

For two years Henry and I saw each other with some regularity, broken up only when Henry went back to prison. He was in and out over this period of time. He also lived for a while in a rehab center, Impact House, in Pasadena, but was eventually thrown out for, what else? Doing drugs.

I mentioned earlier that we had made a deal with Oregon Public Television for a documentary on Henry. They wanted to interview him. Unfortunately, Henry was back in the joint, Lerdo, I believe, and the prison authorities would not permit him to be interviewed and the film was never made.

Eventually, Henry moved back up to the Seattle Washington area where he had lived while in the witness protection program. He had found another woman, they broke up, then another. From time to time he would be arrested and he would always call me.

The last time I saw him was shortly before he moved up to Washington State. He was in the central jail in Los Angeles for violating his parole for the umpteenth time and he called me and asked me to come visit him. They brought him to the visiting cubicle and we were separated by a glass partition. His face was crumpled and sagging. He had no teeth. “Where’re your teeth, Henry?” I said. “Hey, Dave, I knew it was only you so I chose not to wear them.”

He talked about how much he missed having a woman. He’d had a woman with him all his adult life; he’d had older sisters as a child. He missed women, he said, in a romantic way. He told me he had been corresponding with a woman who was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole in a Northern California prison. She engineered the murder of her father when she was a teen-ager. She was now twenty-nine.  “Maybe I’ll marry her,” Henry said with an embarrassed laugh. “She’s beautiful and she’s very sweet.” They had written some, but Henry was embarrassed about his writing so she called him when she could.

He told me when he got of prison this time he would be leaving California. “If you eventually sell the book, be sure to let me know.” He pressed his hand to the glass partition, then kissed the glass.

I never saw him after that and abandoned work on the project.

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The first part of David Scott Milton's account of working with Henry Hill can be found here.