Vito Marcantonio Gets Da Biziniss

I have stood by the fundamental principles which I have always advocated. I have not trimmed. I have not retreated. I do not apologize, and I am not compromising.”

— Socialist New York City Congressman Vito Marcantonio
(Dec. 12, 1902-Aug. 9, 1954)

I say these words, but who hears me? … Do I know what I say? … I can’t tell anymore. … I’m haunted by the reality that a man was killed because he opposed me. Is that my sin? Will that bring my downfall?… I’m dizzy … weak. … Will I die with this on my soul?”

“Vito. We have to talk. Now!”

“Talk? I don’t know how this is talk. It’s a command,” Carlo. “I know what you want.”

“Vito, please. For my sake, and my family. Meet with this guy. Granted, he’s a member of a certain Italian-American subculture, but he only wants his son in West Point. That’s all. The kid goes to Mount Saint Michael’s Academy in the Bronx, and is an honor student and athlete.”

“But, Carlo, he’s from the Bronx. Not East Harlem!”

“That’s the point, don’t you see? I’m from the Bronx, and he knows I support you because my restaurant is in your district, and the appointments in his Bronx district are all taken. You come. You meet. You give him what he wants. And, we all go away happy. And, alive! There’s a lot of tough paisons in the Bronx. You don’t want to mess with this one.”

I leave this meeting. Like I don’t have enough to worry about. Italians, Jews, Puerto Ricans, Negroes, Irish and Germans. They call each other wops, kikes, spicks, jigs, micks and krauts, and I have to make them into one. To stick together for our common good. And, now this inappropriate, no, illegal, West Point business.

The phone at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia political club in East Harlem rings. It’s Mayor LaGuardia, for Vito, who runs the place: “Vito, how are you and our Gibboni? All going well, I hope.?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, not really. You lost the Republicans to this silk stocking guy with the big name: Frederick Van Pelt Bryan. Maybe we make you a Van Pelt? You do better with such a name. Ha, ha.”

“We can win without the Republicans.”

“Maybe. But, you see today’s Mirror?”

“That bad?”

“Get this: ‘The chief pro-Communist of the House has skinned through the primary by the scum of his political teeth.’ ”

“So, what else is new?”

“You’re kind of calm, considering that all the papers are against you, including the Daily News, Governor Dewey, Dubinsky and the Garment Workers.”

“I’m a son of East Harlem. I can speak to my 18th Congressional District constituents in their own tongues, English, Italian, Spanish and Yiddish. And, Mayor, always remember: It is the duty of government to provide for those who through no fault of their own have been unable to provide for themselves.”

“Yes, I remember.”

“That was my speech at Dewitt Clinton. When, you took me out of high school, and set me on the road I’m now traveling. Anymore questions?”

“No! That’s my boy!”

It was the night that I walk a few blocks to the restaurant, Basilicata. It’s named for the region to the deep south of Italy, where my parents were born. Carlo takes me to a table in the back, and I meet my new “constituent,” Mingo Indelicato, and his son, Scott (Scott? Gimme a break). Mingo is huge, the kid huger, if that’s a word. Both with wall-to-wall smiles. The kid is a top student at The Mount. Bright, athletic. And, I have to get him into West Point. “OK,” I say. “But, you don’t have an address in my district.” Mingo says, “Don’t worry. I got that covered. I’m gonna use the address of Carlo’s restaurant.” Then, this that troubled me: “And, also, don’t worry. I’ll be watching you, to see that you’re safe and OK, and if there’s anything I can do to help your campaign?” He didn’t want me to lose my congressional seat, or die, before I could get the kid into the Point!

The public focus in 1946 went to the general election in the 18th Congressional District, where what the Mirror called the “miserable pip-squeak who pipes the tunes from Moscow” faced Bryan. Time magazine said the “little padrone” … boss of this verminous, crime-ridden slum” — was seeing his grasp threatened. But, Vito ignored the print media and went on radio. His broadcasts mainly stood on his record, support by LaGuardia, two housing projects he helped build, fight for a more liberal G.I. Bill, civil rights and price controls.

The 18th District gave Vito a plurality of 6,500 out of 78,000 votes cast, for the defeat of Bryan. Presenting the American Labor Party, and a fusion of other parties, a victory over the GOP in a strong GOP year.

Vito served his East Harlem constituents, listened to them and acted. Such as when a delegation of residents enters the LaGuardia social club. Vito is seated up front, ready to greet and help constituents of his district, 5th Avenue to the East River and 98th Street to the Harlem River. The group, comprising mainly Italians, Puerto Ricans and blacks, is led by an Italian woman, Florie Di Piona, who has a high school diploma, and is a swim teacher in the city public schools.

“Vito,” says Florie, with a big smile, “this river, the East River, is our river. Vito, it’s our home, but the Americones want to take it. Can you imagine, Vito, luxury apartments on the banks of our river. This is where we learned to swim. In these waters I found my future as a swim teacher. I was called the only ‘broad’ who could swim the river to Brooklyn. Be that as it may, broad, or whatever, luxury apartments are not welcome here, and neither are the wealthy who would own them. These people, these Americones, they use tomato soup for spaghetti sauce. Can you imagine? Tomato soup!”

Then, shaking her right forefinger right to left: “No! I say no!”

Within days, Vito rallied his forces, his “Gibboni,” and suggested a site for public housing along the river: “We do not want in our community penthouses and Silk Hats alongside tenements of people on relief budgets. We do not want Dead Ends. The East River is our River. We were born on its banks. We learned to swim in that river. We have lived and suffered alongside this river. We have had to smell it on the hot summer days. Now that the river has been cleaned, and now that the land along side it is available, we want that river for ourselves.”

Vito got his way. The federal government announced plans for a major housing project in East Harlem, the East River Housing Projects, with rents in line with Vito’s suggestion, $5 a month. The first opened in the late 1940s.

Then, the killing. A Republican district captain, Joseph Scottoriggio, was beaten to death on his way to the polls. Case never solved, but an opening against Vito. Dewey and Bryan said the killing was done by left-wing thugs in the 18th District. News stories sought to show a connection between Vito and hoodlums, and that he be punished. A crime reporter said the killing was likely an “accident,” when the “muscle men” failed to follow orders “to just give it to him once over lightly.”

Life magazine ran a story with pictures showing Vito “with bold, cynical eyes,” and several well-known gangsters of the time such as Joey Rao, Trigger Mike Coppola and Frank Costello. It said that the killing exposed Vito’s crime-ridden district, but the attacks on Vito also produced the Citizens’ Investigating Committee to ensure Fair Political Reporting. Its leader, William Jay Schieffelin observed: “To my mind there is no precedent in recent years for the deliberate venal propaganda campaign conducted by various newspapers against Congressman Vito Marcantonio during the past several months.”

I got this, now. A stone in my shoe. I’m not only a Communist, but a racketeer. How do you succeed in politics in the 18th District without including everybody, including the Mafia. Could it be Mingo? Did he in some cockamamie way see Scottoriggio as a problem for me, and take him out? … Democrats, Republicans and others think I don’t see their attacks coming, but I know they’re ganging up on me because of the Communist thing; political parties, the Catholic Church people and the government. …But, I keep thinking my deal with Mingo brought this on. My sin. I’m carrying a Crucifix and a Rosary around with me now. Why? Am I trying to get straight with the big fella upstairs?

Democrats, Republicans and Liberals did, indeed, gang up on Vito to make Democrat James Donovan their 18th District candidate. Donovan also tried to tack onto Vito the attempted assassination of President Truman because the attackers were Puerto Rican, a primary Marcantonio constituency. Vito lost 50,391 to 35,835 in this 1950s race.

Vito, the New York University law graduate, continued as a champion of unpopular causes. Counsel to Marxist W.E.B. Dubois and the Communist-dominated Peace Information Center. Also, Hollywood stars fighting the House un-American Activities Committee, and seeking clemency for the would-be Truman assassins. Then, in 1954, he reentered politics with the creation of the Good Neighbor Party. The Daily News, alarmed, sought “fast action on Marc,” and a plan to close the political ranks against him. He thought about running for governor, but settled on his old congressional seat.

I know it will be the same old forces of reaction against me. And, the Scottoriggio killing will be blamed on me. And, the church, and Cardinal Spellman against me. And, the newspapers against me. But, I know how to fight. To prevail in this contest. What I don’t know is how to get up these subway steps. I’m so weak, dizzy.

On Aug, 9, 1954, Vito died of a heart attack at age 51. Francis Cardinal Spellman, a strong anti-communist, overruled local Catholic clergy, and Vito wasn’t granted burial in a Catholic cemetery. He was interred in Woodlawn Cemetery, a nonsectarian site in the Bronx, not far from the grave of his patron, LaGuardia. Vito’s gravestone said, “Defender of the People.”

Thousands in East Harlem said farewell to Vito, and he was eulogized by many.

* Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker publication: “He lived Matthew {of the Bible}. And did the work of mercy. … Crowds came to him, and he always listened. He always tried to help.”

* Puerto Rican leader Gilberto Gerene Valentin: “Without Vito we are politically orphans.”

* Black leader, W.E.B. Dubois said Vito was one of the clearest thinkers in Congress … “a politician in the finest sense of the mutilated word.”

*At Vito’s services, a black man raised up his son to the casket and said, “I want you to say goodbye to the best friend the Negro people ever had.”

*Power broker Robert Moses and his wife, Mary, said Vito was “one of the kindest people we had ever met, and while his philosophy was quite beyond us, we will still miss him very much.”

* Then there was TV star Ed Sullivan, an East Harlem product: “Marcantonio’s squandered life should spell out to other Communist fronters … that when you hitch your wagon to a star be certain it isn’t the Red Star of the Kremlin.”

*And, Mingo: “Too bad I didn’t know Vito was gonna check out so soon. I would a told him to tell Scottoriggio I was just trying ta send a message. Nothin’ personal. Just business. Like my father would say, ‘Da biziniss.’“

Mingo, at an Arthur Avenue, Bronx, cafe, takes another sip of his espresso, with a twist of lemon:

“Yeah. Da biziniss.”

Charles R. Vermilyea Jr. is a retired Hartford Courant news copy editor. B.A. English/history, University of Connecticut (1967). Army veteran, 2/10 Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers (Korea, 1962/63). Read other articles by Charles.