Writer Russell Shorto chronicles his family's secret mob operation in 'Smalltime'
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross.
When we think of organized crime, we usually picture "The Godfather," "Goodfellas" and New York tabloid murder stories. Our guest, writer Russell Shorto, says there were also mob families in countless smaller cities across the United States where the picture was a little different. He knows, in part, because he grew up in Johnstown, Pa., and his grandfather was a mob boss there when Johnstown was a bustling post-war industrial city. Today we're going to listen to my interview with Shorto about his memoir centered on his grandfather's colorful life - managing a criminal enterprise, running around on his wife and creating family havoc which would stretch across more than one generation. The book, called "Smalltime: The Story Of My Family And The Mob," is now out in paperback. It's a well-researched and richly told story from Shorto's immigrant ancestors overcoming discrimination and grinding poverty to his own father making some tough choices about how he would fit into his father's life outside the law.
Shorto is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and the author of several books of narrative history, including a book about the origins of New York titled "The Island At The Center Of The World." I spoke to Russell Shorto last February, when "Smalltime" was released in hardback.
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DAVIES: Well, Russell Shorto, welcome to FRESH AIR.
RUSSELL SHORTO: Thank you, Dave. I'm happy to be with you.
DAVIES: You grew up in Johnstown, Pa., which today has a population just under 20,000 people. Tell us a little bit about the place.
SHORTO: It was a classic boomtown on the East Coast. It's now a Rust Belt town. It was booming with the steel mills, mostly. Bethlehem Steel was the - was still going pretty strong when I was growing up. At its height, the population was, I think, 66,000. And as you said, it's now, like, 19,000. So it's really - in following so many towns, it's a shadow of what it once was. But it's still a lovely place to - and I always say, it's a lovely place to be from.
DAVIES: (Laughter) Right. You mentioned an East Coast town. it's really in western Pennsylvania, closer to Pittsburgh than Philly, kind of amid some of the hills there. Now, when you were growing up, your father was not in organized crime like your grandfather. Before you embarked on this project, how much did you know about your grandfather's life and business?
SHORTO: You know, I knew that he was involved in that stuff. And I didn't know what it was. I wouldn't go so far as to say there was a veil of silence, an official thing on the topic. But we kind of knew. I was an obedient son. And I kind of knew about it, but also knew you didn't talk about it. So, you know, it was that kind of story. And it was - that veil was thick enough, I guess you'd say, that I - even though I write narrative history, it never occurred to me to sort of turn around and look at my own past as a potential subject.
DAVIES: You know, I'll tell you, I read a lot of books for this job, and this one was just such a pleasure. And it is a rich history - kind of under your nose all this time. What prompted you to finally look into it?
SHORTO: Well, in a nutshell, a guy named Frank (laughter) - all of the people in the family who stayed in town I think pretty much internalized this, we don't go there; we're not going to talk about that. But Frank Filia, who was - so it's my father's father who we're talking about, who was kind of this small-time mob guy. But Frank was my mother's cousin. And all the Italians in town, I think - or lot of them were connected in some way. And Frank had worked for my grandfather. He was a numbers runner. And he worked in a pool hall until he was around 20. And he was a musician. And then at that time, he left, went to Las Vegas and spent his whole career there. He plays stand - he still does - he plays standup bass, and he sings, you know, like, "Fly Me To The Moon" and all that.
He then had retired, and he came back home. This was a few years ago. And I was home visiting over Christmas. And somebody said, hey, you know, Frank's in town, and he's playing at a club. You want to go see? And I said, who's Frank? And he said, Frank Filia, your mother's cousin. So we all go down to this little club. And there was a break between sets. And we're all kind of standing around in a circle. And he looks across at me, and he kind of wags his finger, and he says, Russell, you know, you're - I've been wanting to talk to you. You're the writer. What are we going to do about the story? And I said, what story? And he said, your grandfather, the mob. And all the others - I could feel everyone else kind of cringing a little bit because, you know, they had this reflex - like, we don't go there.
But for him, these were golden memories. And I, as the sort of dutiful son, said at the time, well, yeah, I'm not going to - I don't - you know, I write about the distant past. I'm not going to go there. But, you know, he kind of pestered me a little bit. And it stayed in my mind. And eventually - I was living in Europe at the time. And eventually I said, Frank, you know what? I'm going to come home, and I'll spend a week just seeing - looking into this.
DAVIES: So your grandfather was the No. 2 guy in this organization which ran, you know, the mob in Johnstown, Pa. Give us a sense of what they did, where they hung out, how they made their money.
SHORTO: Yeah. They - he and his brother-in-law ran the operation together. And it was essentially gambling. This is the days before television, or before television was big. And everyone in town who I interviewed over a certain age knew all about them. They all participated. Everybody played the numbers. It was quite in the open. The center of their operation was a place called City Cigar on Main Street. It was two doors from City Hall. They had - in the front you walked in, and on the left was a little counter selling cigars and newspapers, and on the right was the lunch counter, where a guy named Nino Bongiovanni would make sandwiches for you. And there was a door behind that.
You walked through the door, and there was a long, narrow room with 10 pool tables and one billiards table and a counter. And the counter had a ticker-tape machine on it that spat out sports scores. And this was their home base. And from here, they operated another pool hall further down the street that was for the mill workers. It was kind of a blue-collar hangout. But here, this was for more of the elite. You know, the lawyers and the mayor would come by. And so this was the center of the operation.
And upstairs they had an office. And from there, that's where all the bookies would report and bring their earnings. They had - the center of their business was a numbers game that they called the GI bank. And everybody in town played it. And they had something like a hundred people in their employ - most of them just sort of on the side, but some full-time bookies. They also ran big-time card games for the bigwigs in town. And they sold something called tip seals, which were kind of like a lottery ticket. And that was an extremely popular game.
And they had pinball machines. And pinball was actually a form of gambling. And people - the way it worked was you would have a pinball machine in your bar or your lunch counter or cafe or whatever it was, or in the lobby of a hotel. And you would win so many free games. And then you'd go up to the bartender, and they would pay you for those free games and then reset the machine. So they had many different ways to entertain you and to take your money.
DAVIES: All right. So we've got all these gambling operations, numbers runners all over the town in kind of the - Johnstown and outlying towns. And they're all getting a take. It's right out in the open. Their headquarters is in the shadow of City Hall. They paid off - what? - politicians? I mean, you know, Johnstown had a police - the mayor and a police chief, and there was a county prosecutor. They all got a little cut?
SHORTO: Yeah. They paid people off. And, as I say, it was out in the open. And periodically, there was - they would have to raid for form's sake. And so they would give them a call and let them know, OK, we're going to send a guy down to raid. And so the idea was you would leave somebody behind. Everybody would clear out, and you'd take most of your slips - your betting slips. But you'd leave one guy behind, usually an older guy who - kind of down on his luck and didn't have anything to lose by going and hanging out in jail for a day or two. And he would be there to take the fall. And then they'd kind of reset and start again.
And one - a friend of my dad's told me this story that he was a young guy and they said, you know, hey, Bob, why don't - you want to make a little money? You take the fall. And he told me he was really indignant at this because he looked at himself as having a future and having promise. And he knew that the guy you picked to take the fall is a loser, basically.
SHORTO: So he was really indignant at this. And, in fact, he told me the story that he marched right out the back door, and the back door gave out onto another building where the draft office was. So he walked right in there and signed up for the Army. And he said, that's how I joined the Army.
DAVIES: Wow. Now, this mob operated in Johnstown, but it had connections, right? There was a guy in Pittsburgh that the leader of - the Johnstown boss had to report to - right? - and pay homage to, right?
SHORTO: Right. Johnstown paid off regularly to Pittsburgh, and then Pittsburgh paid off, apparently, regularly to New York. And they were all over the country in towns like - from Schenectady to Fresno, in places like Amarillo and Butte, Mont., and Anchorage, Alaska.
And there were connections, you know? They knew - certainly, they knew the people around them. My grandfather knew all the guys in, like, McKeesport and Altoona and Braddock and Pittsburgh and, you know, all the towns in western Pennsylvania. And to some extent, you were connected with some of the other guys. And people got promoted. The guy who, before this time, had been a boss in Pittsburgh got promoted to San Jose.
SHORTO: So, you know, you - you know, I - the parallels with corporations kept surprising me.
DAVIES: I wonder if you could describe what place this organization, this gambling enterprise that your grandfather and his partner, his brother-in-law, ran and kind of how it fit into the town.
SHORTO: Well, Frank Filia, my mother's cousin, who's the guy who prompted me to do this, described it for me when he was 16 years old, and he wanted so much to work for them. This was in 1952, I think. And they were the energy. They were the action. And so he marched into the Clinton Street poolroom, which was run by a guy who worked for Russ and Joe, and he asked for a job there. And he gave it to him. And that involved working in the poolroom, but also running numbers and a variety of other things.
And he described for me just walking down the street - he said it might have been the happiest day of his life. And he described walking down the street. And suddenly, he's aware of the town as an organism and how all the different pieces fit together. The guys who work in the steel mill, and here's where they shop, and here's - when they propose to their girlfriend, here's where they - their - buy the wedding ring. And here's where they eventually buy their gravestone (laughter) when - you know, when they're at the other end of life. So he sees this whole organism functioning together, and he's just walking down the street. And what he says to himself is, I'm in the mob.
DAVIES: You know, the picture you paint here is a pretty benign picture of this organization that basically is providing gambling, which everybody participates in willingly. You know, it's entertainment and, you know, nobody goes broke and under. Very few people do. What about the other things that rackets are known for, like, you know, protection rackets, where you come to businesses and say, pay us or something might happen to you, or getting into the unions and getting your fingers into their treasuries and pension funds and that kind of thing? Did that go on?
SHORTO: Well, there - you know, one of the differences, I think, between a small-town mob and, you know, New York or Chicago is that it was really focused on gambling. They did not - and people told me this over and over, and I guess I have to believe them - that they did not get into, for example, prostitution or drugs. And people told me - many people told me that, you know, your grandfather and Joe, his brother-in-law, had this rule. Drugs - that's dirty stuff. We don't mess with it. So I guess I have to believe them.
Regarding payoffs and things like that, they were very much involved in local politics. They engineered to get a DA into office who they liked. They were involved in unions. So that sort of thing was part of their world.
And the - and another thing that they would do is they used the pinball machines. Like, they'd put the pinball machines in a guy's bar. And then later, if the guy was falling on hard times, they'd come in and say, you know, do you want us to help you out? And they'd make a loan. And then if he couldn't pay back, eventually, they would take a piece of the business. So they kind of got their fingers into a lot of legitimate businesses in this way.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Russell Shorto. He is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine. His new memoir is "Smalltime: A Story Of My Family And The Mob." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with Russell Shorto, who's written several books of narrative history. His latest is a memoir focusing on his own grandfather, who was an organized crime boss in the industrial city of Johnstown, Pa., in the '40s, '50s and '60s. The book is called "Smalltime: A Story Of My Family And The Mob."
So your grandfather was the No. 2 guy in this organization that ran all kinds of gambling operations in Johnstown back in the day. They made - you know, there wasn't a lot of violence. I mean, a murder was a rare thing. There was one in 1960 of this bookie named Pippy diFalco. That's one of the stories in the book. But by and large, it was a gambling operation. It did make a lot of money, didn't it?
SHORTO: Sure did, yeah. A guy who was my grandfather's protege, who was a great source of information - and he said that they made about 2 million a year over about a 20-year period. So a huge amount of money in those days.
DAVIES: There's a photo in the book of your grandfather, Russell Shorto, who bears your name, and his wife, your grandmother, Mary. It's in the front of the book. They are dressed to the nines, and they're at a nightclub in Atlantic City. What kind of lifestyle did this afford your grandfather and, you know, his brother-in-law, the boss, Little Joe, who ran the organization?
SHORTO: Well, on the surface, it was plain. They had a no-Cadillacs rule. You couldn't be showy. They didn't wear tailored suits. But when you got out of town, that was a different story. And so when they were in Atlantic City, where they went - they spent much of the summer every year - with the whole family, they would bring a whole entourage of cars down to Atlantic City. And they rented a suite in the swankiest hotel, and they had waiters for everything. So, you know, they really lived it up. And they were often in Florida as well.
So they lived it up when they were out of town. And when we were - when - and everybody told me that when, you know, when you saw Russ, when you saw Joe, you just - you'd nod to them, and, you know, you'd have a little conversation, but, you know, there - everything was kind of - my grandfather was a very quiet guy. He mumbled a (laughter) lot. He was - some people said he was almost - they thought he was maybe pathologically shy. He was good at putting up that kind of front.
DAVIES: One of the details I love about the lifestyle is Russell's, your grandfather's wife, Mary, would get some nice clothes and a TV set and other goods, but sort of not in the way you typically get it - right? - by (laughter) going to buy them.
SHORTO: So, you know, I'm - we're talking about my grandfather as an organizer. But I think, you know - from what people tell me - his real flair was as a cheat. I mean, he was a brilliant cheat at cards, and he would arrange - he would organize big card games. And my dad said he remembered as a kid watching him, he would practice for a couple of hours beforehand at the dining room table - you know, dealing from the bottom of the deck and dealing the second card. So he would get into these big games with owners of the department stores and the jewelry store. And he would take them to the cleaners, and they - he would agree to take the winnings in merchandise.
And so he would just tell his wife, go down to the - go down to April's (ph), go down to Mark's (ph) furniture store and, you know, get whatever you want. And the manager would have to walk behind her and put everything - pile up all these dresses on his arm and that sort of thing. And they would - and my dad said they would - you know, things would arrive on the front porch, you know, boxes of chewing gum and things like that.
DAVIES: You know, it's a - lot of people point out that there was all this pressure to crack down on the rackets in Johnstown in the 1960s and that what they essentially were doing was, you know, a lottery game which is now legally run by the state of Pennsylvania. There's a state lottery as there are in many, many states. And what's really the difference? And I guess someone would say, well, the difference is that those are programs that are actually run by government and are - the proceeds go to help senior citizens, whereas, you know, this did throw off a whole lot of money for the mob bosses. I mean, I think you had an estimate of - in...
SHORTO: Forty million, yeah.
DAVIES: Yeah, 40 million in today's dollars would be something like 370 million, you know. And maybe they weren't murderers - or at least a lot of them. But, you know, they had muscle. People did carry guns. They worked people over. I mean, I don't know. Is there a tendency to romanticize this, you think?
SHORTO: Sure, there is. (Laughter) Yeah, I mean, and I think it's an understandable tendency among the people I interviewed who were maybe in their 70s or 80s and looking back at a time when they were 20 years old and involved in this. But there was a rough side to it, and it wasn't - the proceeds were not going to, you know, fund a senior citizens' home or something like that. So it was the mob.
DAVIES: You trace the story back to your ancestors in Sicily, where your grandfather's father - right? - your great-grandfather was born and emigrated to the United States in 1901. Tell us just a bit about his story.
SHORTO: Yeah. I really felt as I went into this that this is just the American immigrant story. So you got all these waves of Italians coming - Southern Italians coming at that era. And I went to the village in Sicily that my great-grandparents were from. And I actually found the house that my great-grandfather was born in. He emigrates first. He gets a job working in a coal mine in Punxsutawney, Pa. Then he sends for his girlfriend. She comes over. And she then eventually becomes my great-grandmother. They move. And he - at the time, his name is Antonino Sciotto - S-C-I-O-T-T-O.
And when they make the move from Punxsutawney to Johnstown, there's a name change. So they're no longer Antonino and Anna Maria. They become Tony and Mary Shorto. So you see them sort of Americanizing or trying to. But he's still working in the coal mines, and that generation remains immigrants. They mainly speak Italian or Sicilian. That's who they associate with. And it's really then their children who are truly Americans, but still in this kind of limited, discriminated-against way.
DAVIES: Russell Shorto is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine and the author of several books of narrative history. His memoir is "Smalltime: A Story Of My Family And The Mob." It's now out in paperback. We'll hear more of our conversation after this break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. We're listening to my interview with Russell Shorto, who's written several books of narrative history. His latest is a memoir focusing on his grandfather, who was an organized crime boss in the industrial city of Johnstown, Pa., in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. It's also about the struggles of his Sicilian ancestors as they immigrated to America at the beginning of the 20th century. His book, called "Smalltime: A Story Of My Family And The Mob," is now out in paperback.
You know, if people think of immigrants coming over and, you know, going through Ellis Island and then populating New York, a lot of them ended up in other places, including in these industrial areas in Pennsylvania. What kind of life did they have in the coal mines or the steel mills?
SHORTO: Yeah. The second - New York and Pennsylvania are No. 1 and No. 2 in the migration of Italians to America. And it was mostly not to the city because it was mostly coal mines that were bringing them. And they were on the outskirts. And they were in places like outside of Johnstown. And they lived first in mining towns, where you had to shop at the company store and your movements were restricted. And slowly, then, they moved into a neighborhood, you know, a very ethnic neighborhood of Johnstown. And they had a very rough life.
DAVIES: What kind of discrimination did they face as Italians?
SHORTO: Italians, you know, southern Italians - there was a distinction. Southern Italians, because they came in such waves, they were considered quasi-Black, so to speak. And people - the migration, this huge influx of southern Italians, is what largely brought about the return of the clan, the KKK, which had, of course, come about after the Civil War and then died out. But they - it came back with a vengeance to defend American values against especially Catholics, and especially these kind of dark-skinned, swarthy immigrants who were threatening the American way of life, which meant this Protestant way of life. So they experienced real hardship and real discrimination. For example, the steel mill was the big employer in Johnstown. Blacks and Italians couldn't work there, except in, you know, certain very low level, dangerous jobs, unless there was a strike. And then they were in as the scabs.
DAVIES: So your grandfather grows up really poor, one of nine children of this, you know, immigrant woman. When prohibition comes, your great-grandmother actually keeps a still in the basement. And your great-grandfather carries bottles of this stuff around in coke bottles full of the hooch. How did he get embarked upon this life of gambling and card sharking and all this?
SHORTO: His story really tracks the rise of the mob in the country. It grows out of prohibition. This was - you know, these were people discriminated against. They didn't have access to the mainstream. So they sort of created their own system. And when prohibition happened, here was an opportunity. There was demand everywhere for a product. And the legal - what had been the legal makers of it couldn't make it any more, so they began doing it. And it was neighborhood organizers. In this case, there was an old Italian guy in the neighborhood who seems to have organized families to operate stills. And kids would go out and sell it. And so he grew up with that. And after prohibition, the mob generally - and in the case of my grandfather, in particular - shifted to a different revenue stream. And that was gambling. And so he's - then we kind of see him. His first arrests that I - the records that I got were of him running card and dice games out of the trunk of a car. So he's now late teens, early 20s. And he's moved into that. And that's how he kind of moves into that operation.
DAVIES: So eventually, your grandfather and his brother-in-law put together this organization and expand gambling and have a big thing going in Johnstown by the end of the 1940s. When you embarked upon the research, you got your father to become a partner in this. I mean, there's this moment when you go to, I guess, the Cambria County courthouse and get this file of - the criminal file on your grandfather, which is just huge. Was it hard to get your father involved in this?
SHORTO: The hard thing was me, not him. He had - he was - it turned out he was willing. But I was reluctant initially, which is strange because he was my grandfather's eldest son. And I knew that he was - had been affected by my grandfather's career more than anyone. But I just had this block because I knew - you know, it's kind of a hard thing to get into in a radio interview, which is why you write a book. But, you know, there was all this history between my father and me. And I guess I knew somehow that it was related to his relationship with his father. And because of that, it was hard for me to go there. But once I did, I said, will you help me with this? He just said, yeah. And it then transformed the whole project because it was now the two of us undertaking - trying to find this figure, this murky figure, who was my grandfather, who was my namesake. So it became this, you know - this very - I started out thinking I was writing history. And it became something much more personal.
DAVIES: Yeah. I mean, you talk to all these guys who were young then and are now old and, you know, in nursing homes and the like. There was a story in your family about your father, who, as far as you knew, you know, did not get involved in this organized crime. And the story was that the rift between your father and his father, your grandfather, was because your dad didn't want to get into the rackets, and that that was the source of the estrangement. You got into this and found out a different story, didn't you?
SHORTO: Yeah. Somehow, I had grown up with this story that my grandfather, the forbidding figure, wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. And my father refused. And as a child, I think I saw this as, you know, he's - as valiant, you know? He's doing this for us. He's keeping his family protected. As I talk to more and more of the old guys, I would - I kind of repeated this. And they looked at me like, what are you talking about? And, you know, one of them said, are you kidding? Tony, my dad, wanted nothing more than to get into it.
So it turns out - finally, then, I confronted my dad with this. And he admitted it. And he said - and he admitted that, in fact, he had desperately wanted to get into it. And he would hang out at City Cigar, the center of the operation. And if his father caught him there, he would beat the crap out of him. And it - so you know, in this strange way, my grandfather, who was this, you know, dark figure in my childhood, ends up being kind of this hero who's trying to save his son from this life that he doesn't want him to have.
DAVIES: And then what you learn about your dad when he's young is pretty remarkable, right? I mean, wearing suits when he's in the eighth grade because he wants to be a big shot. I mean, tell us a little bit more about what he did.
SHORTO: My dad was - the personality difference is striking. My grandfather was this quiet, shy, mumbly figure. And my dad, I think from the get-go, was this bright, open, energetic guy. And that energy, I think, he just naturally put into toward that business. He wanted to be part of it. He would go hang out there. And he was trying to be a pool shark, and he was doing all that. But his father, in his inarticulate way, knew somehow this wasn't good for his son and didn't want him around. And so he would just, you know, beat him up. And that set, you know, what I kind of uncovered was this really sad inability to communicate between the two of them that went throughout their lives. It colored their relationship. And it really had to do with that.
I kind of think that if my grandfather had been able to say to him, look, I just want to protect you from this, that would have changed everything. But instead, it instilled this bitterness in my father toward his father. And my father then went on to become the small-town entrepreneur. You know, he had bars. And he ran a disco at one point. And he was involved in real estate. And it was only late in the process of working on the book that I realized he was trying to emulate his father. You know, he was trying to get him to look at him and respect him. And he was doing it on the up and up in a legitimate way. And his father had been doing the same thing, involved in all these different businesses, but at this kind of murkier level.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Russell Shorto. His new memoir is called "Smalltime: A Story Of My Family And The Mob." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with Russell Shorto, who's written several books of narrative history. His latest focuses on his grandfather, who was an organized crime boss in the industrial city of Johnstown, Pa., in the '40s, '50s and '60s. The book is called "Smalltime: A Story Of My Family And The Mob." So this organization that your grandfather and his brother-in-law ran in Johnstown had a great run in the '40s, '50s. Things changed in the '60s, and it kind of fell apart. Why?
SHORTO: Well, throughout the '50s, of course, there was this growing pressure in American society to - for the government to recognize that there was this organized crime syndicate that was all over the country. And until then, it's during their heyday, they were able to - my grandfather and his brother-in-law were able to operate quite in the open. And I think that Kennedy coming into the White House, Bobby Kennedy deciding he's cracking down on the mob, and then this inconvenient murder of a bookie in town, all those things happened at the same time. And that brings this new focus, suddenly all this pressure is being brought to bear. And there's a new mayor, and he's kind of a we've got to clean up this town kind of mayor. And that spelled the beginning of the end that murder. Suddenly, within a couple of months, City Cigar shut down for good. They continued their operation for a long time, but it was on a much lower level.
DAVIES: Well, talk just a little bit more about Johnstown, Pa. You know, I live in Philadelphia. And anybody who is in Pennsylvania, when you hear the term Johnstown, you typically think of an event in that city's history, which was a disaster, I mean, essentially on the scale of 9/11 back in 1889. You want to just tell us that story?
SHORTO: The Johnstown Flood. Of course, everybody in Johnstown grows up with the story of the flood. There were actually three floods. One in - the big one was 1889, and then there was one in 1936 and one in 1977, just, really, the day that I went off to go to college. The big one, David McCullough wrote the great book about, so that very much colored my impression of it. And it was this massive story of really the haves and the have-nots where they built this lake, this artificial lake on the top of the mountain, and the town is in the valley. And you had engineers warning that the structure wasn't going to hold, and they ignored it. And one day, the dam burst. And it was - the lake was built for, you know, the wealthy people in the area to sail around on their boats and have their cottages and so on.
And the dam burst, and 2,000 people in town were killed. And it was the - I guess, in a way, you'd say the town never recovered, although it was some decades later that the steel mills came into full force. But what it did, I think, is it set up this - a real kind of haves and have-nots, the blue collar and the white collar distinction in town. And that - you know, there was a strong union presence. And then there was the management of the steel companies. And it set up that kind of dynamic.
DAVIES: You know, you started writing this book about your grandfather and his work. You learned a lot about your family that you didn't know, certainly a lot about your father you didn't know. Did it change your perceptions of yourself at all?
SHORTO: Yeah, sure. Well, I'm now kind of a great believer in family history in general. And people, you know, doing - research your family and - but do it if you have the stomach for it because, generally speaking, you know certain stories about your family. Once you start researching them, you're going to find out that's - they're probably not true, or there's a veneer of truth there, but the reality is something quite different. It's really - when you're investigating your family history is part of growing up, basically. It's moving yourself to another level of maturity, which is why I think, you know, everyone ought to do it if they dare.
DAVIES: Yeah, you said if you have the stomach. What was hard for you to stomach?
SHORTO: The hard - mostly the very personal stuff, the relationship between my grandparents. I was very close with my grandmother. My grandfather, you know, I barely knew him. I had met him only a few times in my life. The pain he inflicted on her, the pain he inflicted on my father and how that then colored my father's whole life, which in turn colored my life - you know, these things, even though it's generations ago, it carries through. So it's kind of like - if you're willing to do it, it's kind of like doing therapy. But it's a wonderful experience. It's - but it's hard.
DAVIES: I don't know if this is too personal, but, you know, you learned how your grandfather hurt your grandmother and hurt your dad. And how did that affect you, do you think?
SHORTO: It affected my relationship with my father. And I - you know, my father became this really can-do kind of guy, and he was this razzmatazz salesman, and he just always had that energy. And I - and it somehow - it flies off from his dark father, and he's trying to just push himself away from all of that. And I realized in the process of doing the book that my own - my relationship with my father, I'd grown up kind of pushing that away, you know, his energy and his, you know, you-can-do-anything kind of thing. And I just thought it was too cheap.
And, you know, my dad worked with me very intensely on this book. And then he died just as we were - just as I was finishing it and - sorry. And I came to realize that, you know, it - rather than seeing his energy and his approach to life as somehow cheap or not earned, I realized that he was entitled to it (laughter). I mean, it's a strange thing to say, but I realized he - we all react to the way we were brought up to whatever our parents were, whether they were a mob boss or whatever they were. And we take that with us and move forward. And so he was entitled to approach life in the way he did. And it was only at the very end that I kind of had that realization and was able to see and appreciate my father for what he did and this - and what he had to overcome.
DAVIES: Yeah, he had overcome a lot. You had a moment early in the research where you were going to start working with your father. And he had a very serious medical episode. And you really thought he was going - you thought it was the end. And then he recovered, and you had this extended period at which you went on this voyage of discovery. Do you feel like you've - I don't know - got to both appreciate him in a different way and let him know before he died?
SHORTO: I hope so because I didn't let him know terribly overtly. I didn't say it in those words. But I think that by involving him and making this a father-son project, I think that we were both saying, let's understand each other and ourselves together (laughter), you know. As corny as that may seem, that's what the book ultimately became for me.
DAVIES: Well, Russell Shorto, thank you so much for speaking with us.
SHORTO: Thank you, Dave.
DAVIES: Russell Shorto is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine and the author of several books of narrative history. His book, "Smalltime: The Story Of My Family And The Mob," is now out in paperback.
We checked in with Shorto to see what's happened since we spoke last year. "Smalltime" was a hit in Johnstown, he said. And over the summer, the Johnstown Area Heritage Association offered a mob walk tour of downtown based on the book. The association director, Richard Burkert, told me the book reminds locals of the days when Johnstown was a thriving city with shopping, nightlife and people walking four abreast on downtown sidewalks. Frank Filia, the singer and bass player who got Shorto interested in the mob story, was still performing until recently, when he suffered a couple of health setbacks. Frank, we wish you well.
Coming up, John Powers reviews the new Amazon Prime series "Reacher" based on the thrillers from writer Lee Child. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL SONG, "LIVE TO TELL")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Writer Lee Child's thrillers about Jack Reacher, a former military cop who wanders the world having crime-busting adventures, have sold over 60 million copies. They've now been turned into a new television series, "Reacher," premiering on Amazon Prime Video this Friday. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, is a fan of the books and now the series. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.