The terrible plight of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates reminds me of the best newspaper crime story I ever read.
January, 1973, I had just moved to Metro news at the Times. The editors sent me out to deepest Brooklyn, where jewels had been stolen from the altar of an ornate church.
I wrote a wordy lead about the caretaker of the church muttering “Che coraggio” – what gall, in Italian. And I did quote a store owner in the neighborhood, noting the influential persons who supported the church, as saying: “No fence is going to touch this stuff.”
But the reporter from the Daily News wrote a classic.
I cannot locate the exact words by Frank Faso that day, but his story began something like this:
“Some nervy crooks stole the crown jewels from the altar of St. Rosalia Regina Pacis in Brooklyn the other day.
“If they are lucky, the police will catch them.”
Oh, yeah. How New York. How tabloid. How wonderful. (This was when two great tabloids, New York Newsday and the Daily News, were covering the city with zeal and skill.) I was chastened and respectful.
The jewels were recovered 24 hours later.
* * *
This tale of criminality reminds me of our current administration, in that Manafort and Gates, now making front-page headlines for their stunning variety of indictments, seem to have owed a good deal of money to some other rather unpleasant people – Russians, Russians with a memory, Russians with poisoned umbrellas and lethal cups of tea.
Paul Manafort. Is there anything on public record of him ever being or doing anything respectable, before he became an American shill for thuggish Ukrainians and Russians? What did he ever do to put him in the middle of a presidential campaign in a country whose income taxes he had apparently ducked?
Who is this guy? He seems to have had money problems, with bad people looking for him, to try to recover millions and millions of dollars. And Gates was a hapless Robin to Manafort’s compulsive Batman.
In this, they resemble a couple of pigeons with a gambling jones who bet too much on the third race at Aqueduct or 23 on the roulette table.
Suckers. Suckers on the lam. They tried to get it back by aligning themselves with two real-estate hustlers from Noo Yawk and Noo Joisey.
If this were a never-released season of “The Sopranos,” we would have new characters, Paulie Peanuts and Rusty Gates, trying to make it all right for themselves by serving in the family of Donnie Combs and his son-in-law Squeaky.
But remember in “The Sopranos” -- I have not watched any series since -- how there were always investigators listening on tapped wires, or cooped in a windowless van, or waiting to scoop up a member of the clan for a friendly chat?
Paulie Peanuts and Rusty Gates seem to have fallen into the right hands. Now they just have to watch out for lethal umbrellas or laced tea in their next abodes.
But wait, there seem to be a few more episodes in the series:
What about the money-laundering and real-estate nightmares of Donnie Combs and his son-in-law Squeaky? These guys seem to have Russian troubles and Chinese troubles, respectively.
To paraphrase the great Frank Faso of the old New York Daily News:
If they are lucky, Robert S. Mueller will get them.
I’m glad I stood next to James Gandolfini for five minutes after a Nets’ game a few years ago, to ascertain for myself that he was not Tony Soprano, not really. He had the wariness, the watchfulness, of an artist, not a gangster.
Gandolfini and his cast mates and the great David Chase made me commit to that show. I had not watched any series since M*A*S*H ended, but I planned my Sunday evenings around the Sopranos. (Driving through Hazard, Ky., a decade ago, asking motel managers if the rooms had HBO.)
I do a riff on why Tony is my role model – I’m sure my wife is quite sick of it. He is modern man. He loves his wife, loves his kids, has a large family and takes his work seriously. (I then launch into the part of the riff about a hot psychiatrist and a hot car saleswoman and an intriguing one-legged Russian home aide -- who dumps him!)
By the weirdest of Chasian ironies, Svetlana was a point of reference in The New York Times on the same day Gandolfini’s photo was on the front page for the worst possible reason. A letter to the editor about electronic surveillance and liberty quoted Svetlana as an admirer of America.
Tony made me worry about his health. Glimpses of him in those déclassé sleeveless undershirts or in bed or at the pool made me worry that he was having too many meals with too many associates – all that cheese, all that pasta, all that meat, all those desserts. Basta gia, enough already.
Were there too many rehearsals around those tables? Did Artie send over too many antipasti? All I knew was that I couldn’t take my eyes off any of them, the people or the plates. David Chase and his associates found a universe full of amazing characters who moved from real life to the screen for that one role.
Robert Altman did the same thing, envisioning Jim Bouton, the pitcher, as a fugitive who needs to be whacked; finding musicians I had met in the bars and corridors of Music City and putting them in his movie Nashville, and casting Virginia Madsen as a stunning red-headed angel of death, and getting Lindsay Lohan to perform what I fear will be the high point of her acting career in Prairie Home Companion.
Chase and his people did the same thing with musicians and civilians – put them in a series with Tony Soprano. He exposed Tony’s demons early – witnessing his father cutting off a finger of a deli operator who has not paid his debts. Tony’s childhood anxieties have lasted, linking the finger and the spicy ham, capicola, pronounced gabagool in the Neapolitan dialect. In the series, when Gandolfini referred to his terrors, he would say, “You know, you know, the gabagool.” After that, there really is no point watching anything else, ever.
I sometimes saw James Gandolfini playing Tony Soprano and I imagined a season ending in which Tony would gather up his family and go to Boca Raton and enter a witness protection program. I saw the potential for a limited form of remorse, the chance of living another life. That was my hope for my role model.
The last we saw of Tony Soprano, he was in a restaurant with his wife and son, about to have a meal. Then the screen faded black. Everybody has an interpretation. Mine is: Tony ordered spaghetti puttanesca and a couple of cannoli and lived a long and peaceful life, somehow. I wished nothing less for James Gandolfini. Addio, maestro.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.