The late Thomas Boyle was a Pennsylvania kid who spent part of his childhood in Brooklyn. (That makes him an Honorary Brooklyn Boy in my opinion.) He graduated from Cornell, earned his doctorate at NYU and taught at Brooklyn College for many years. Some book review sites confuse him with the more famous T.C. Boyle the author of many brilliant novels including The Road to Wellville – set in a 19th century health-spa and Drop City – set in an Alaskan hippie commune.
Our Thomas Boyle’s last book (published in 1990 in the midst of his crime trilogy) was Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead – a study of Victorian crime fiction. It sounds like the Sherlock Holmes mystery Conan Doyle forgot to write! I’ve added it to my “must read” list.
Any fan of gumshoe fiction will enjoy Boyle’s modern yet faithful reworking of the much-loved archetypes and plot devices of that often hackneyed genre.
Anyone who knows the geography of Brooklyn will get an extra kick out of Boyle’s locales. His hard-boiled tales follow Detective Frank DeSales as he chases bad guys down hidden alleys in Red Hook, across garbage strewn vacant lots in Williamsburgh and even onto the hallowed ground of Green-Wood Cemetery.
If you like Lawrence Block’s ex-cop now “private dick” Matt Scudder, you’ll feel right at home with Thomas Boyle’s active duty detective Frank DeSales. They are brothers from another mother.
I can’t find any movies or TV shows based on this trilogy which is a shame and surprising. For decades now, “All things Brooklyn” have been all the rage. Go know!
It was the summer of 1960 and my family was walking past Coney Island’s World in Wax Musee when the barker shouted out, “See the rapist Caryl Chessman in the gas chamber!”
“What’s a rapist?” I innocently asked my mother.
“Uh… ummm… a man who forces himself on a woman,” she flustered.
“Oh,” I replied with no idea of what she meant.
Soon after that we shared another awkward moment of sex education. It happened one night while I was watching TV. She and her friends were in the next room chain smoking and “gassing” when someone on TV mentioned “impotence.”
“Hey, Ma, what’s impotence?” I shouted into the room full of Catholic housewives.
Long frozen silence from the stunned women.
“Unable to perform like a man,” my mother eventually shouted in answer.
“Oh,” I shouted in return and (again) with no idea what she meant.
The World In Wax Musee was owned by one of Coney Island’s great characters, Lillie Santangelo. Caryl Chessman wasn’t the only predatory sex fiend rendered in wax in Lillie’s macabre collection. John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. were in there, too; along with “full moon” killers, “vampire” killers, “bathtub” killers, “screwdriver” killers and Richard Speck the sub-human filth who tortured, raped and murdered eight student nurses in Chicago. Speck escaped Chessman’s fate but unfortunately enjoyed his life in prison. He even had a half-assed sex change and acquired a set of phoney tits. These helped him attract and suck every swinging Black dick he could get his lips around.
Chessman and Speck both had scores of bleeding-heart intellectuals, rootless cosmopolitans and Hollywood champagne-socialists pleading their cases and screaming for their release. But, to no avail. Both of these pieces of utter shit died behind bars. Hehehe.
Meanwhile, back at the Wax Musee, Lillie also had an entire exhibit dedicated to Lina Medina, the world’s youngest mother, a Peruvian girl who gave birth at the age of five. The jury is still out on which of her loving male relatives raped the child.
Fast forward to 1981
I was directing an off-Broadway play and told my designer that I’d like our stage set to look and feel like the World in Wax Musee because it was the most frightening space I’d ever been in. The brutal artlessness of the exhibits made it so. Its dioramas-of-death captured a bottom-feeder, off-hand brand of sex-violence that even the film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer could not match.
It was the very cheapness of the materials and mannequins used that gave the murder scenes their terrible power. The ill-fitting clothes and ill-posed limbs evoked nothing of reality. Yet, it was this very absence of life, movement or any hint of reality that made the mannequins seem ready to burst into murderous life. It was the gouts of ketchup-like blood splattered on the walls and linoleum; the flickering fluorescent lights and the chicken wire that separated the viewer from the crime scenes that chilled to the bone.
There was something especially unsettling about a cheap dummy sticking a screwdriver into another cheap dummy’s neck or hiding under a female dummy’s bed. It was beyond the stuff of nightmares.
Lillie also had a Hall of Fame where you really needed a score card to tell the players apart. I suspect Lillie had only one Caucasian head mould and one Negro head mould coz Elvis looked like Harry Truman looked like John Glenn looked like Popeye. And, Muhammad Ali looked like Jackie Robinson looked like Louis Armstrong looked like Buckwheat.
Anyway… my designer visited the Musee and later cursed me for scarring her for life. While there, she spoke with Lillie who mentioned that she needed a new recorded announcement to draw a crowd but didn’t know any actors who could make one. Her budget was $10. My designer told Lillie about me and that’s how I got to spend an afternoon wandering around the World in Wax Musee (by my lonesome) gathering ideas and composing my spiel. (I have never looked over my shoulder so many times in my life!) P.S. I did the gig for free.
Lillie let me sit in her office to write my script. I noticed that she had a large ashtray on her desk filled with artificial eyes, ears and fingers that had been plucked or melted off. (I confess that I stole one of the fingers. I like to think it came from the hand of Red Foxx but it might have belonged to Hickman the Fox who kidnapped, murdered and dismembered a child in 1927.)
Lillie didn’t play my recording for long because she shut the Musee’s doors soon after my visit. (Jeez, I didn’t think I was that bad!) But, I wasn’t surprised when she cIosed. I had been there on a summer weekend and I’d had the Musee to myself for hours. Lillie had even tried throwing a few phrases of Spanish and Ebonics into her pitch in an attempt to draw in Coney’s new demographic but, alas, it was not to be. The writing was on the Musee wall.
In 1986, Lillie’s entire collection was sold at auction for a tidy sum – there has always been a lucrative market for circus and side show collectibles. And, her Musee was second in size and importance only to Madame Tussaud’s in London! Along with the dioramas-of-death, 100 wax heads found in Lillie’s attic were also sold. The auction catalogue listed heads of Babe Ruth and Frank Sinatra. But, how could they tell? Those heads could easily have been Leopold and Loeb or Abbott and Costello.
Thanks for visiting my blog. It is a sampler of my murder-memoir Boy Outa Brooklyn. The best way to enjoy it is to start at the first post and read chronologically. I hope you’ll find it both hilarious and horrifying.
I will also be posting about the best books, movies and songs about Brooklyn. And, sharing my practical and off-beat travel tips. If you enjoy my blog, please follow me. Hover your mouse in the lower right corner of the screen and a pop-up box will appear. Enter your email address and you’ll never miss one of my posts. Your address will not be sold or shared and you won’t be pestered with any sales cons.
During and just after World War Two, Brooklyn became America’s surrogate home town. In the war movies, every tank and submarine crew included a much-loved, wise-crackin’, skirt chasin’ guy from Flatbush. The comic Phil Foster carried this tradition into outer space as the most unlikely astronaut in history. In the 1955 low-budge flick Conquest of Space, “Flatbush Phil” stares out the space ship porthole as it circles the Earth and shouts, “Hey, deres Brooklyn. How ‘re da Dodgers doin’?”
I think Brooklyn’s much loved and easily imitated Brooklynese accent helped make the borough a shared joke that bonded military units and the folks back home. Do you remember when anytime someone announced on a radio or TV program that they were from Brooklyn the audience would break into instant laughter and applause? I’m not sure anyone even knew why they did that. But, it might have been down to a shared folk memory. After all, this was a time when 1-in-4 Americans could trace their family back to Brooklyn! (Probably 3-in-4 wanted to chase them back there!)
Meanwhile, the tunesmiths of Tin Pan Alley, always on the lookout for a hit, mined the instant folksiness, humor and sentimentality of Brooklyn. Whipping out their “June – Moon” rhyming dictionary they produced delightful ditties like Give Me The Moon Over Brooklyn by Matthews & Shand. (Believe it or not, Guy Lombardo did a very catchy version of it.) And, Same Moon Shines In Brooklyn by Felsen & Peters.
Another sweet, nostalgic tune is In Brooklyn by John Benson Brooks and Stanley Adams. Benson Brooks later composed the brilliant jazz-blues piece Alabama Concerto. Adams wrote lyrics for Hoagy Carmichael and Visitor Herbert. All the songs mentioned were written in the midst or the shadow of WW2.
The centre of pop music songwriting in New York moved uptown from Tin Pan Alley on W. 28th st. to midtown’s Brill Building. But, so many of the composers and lyricists who worked there were from Brooklyn that it should have been called the Brooklyn Building. Just read the list below and you’ll see that the “Sound of Brooklyn” became the “Sound of America.”
Neil Diamond, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Hal David, Howard Greenfield, Neil Sedaka, Mort Shuman, Doc Pomus, Barry Mann.
As long as we’re on the subject of female torsos… we rented our Bowery loft to a yoga instructor who was transitioning to yogi, i.e. a female to male transsexual. (Mind you, this was 1976, so the current “I was born in the wrong body” dementia-mania is nothing new.) “Jack” was fresh from having her breasts sliced from her female torso and was wrapped in more bandages than Tutankhamen. This creature was so cranked on pot, painkillers and testosterone that she floated several feet off the ground, vibrating in midair like a hummingbird. (You know the scene in the horror movie when the actor transforms via time-lapse photography from man to monster? Imagine a stop frame of that process mid-way. That was what “Jack” looked like – suspended between male and female, between past and present, between serenity and suicide. Unsettled and unsettling.) “Jack” was so uncomfortable around men, I was sure she would evaporate whenever I got near her. I, of course, delighted in torturing this psychosexual misfit by getting “up close and personal” as often as possible.
Then there was Harold Gary – real name Harold Garfinkel. Art Garfunkel was his nephew so it should have been Simon and Garfinkel. Harold was an excellent character-actor who first appeared on Broadway in the 1920s. (Remember the wealthy heroin dealer in The French Connection who looked like a Jewish orangutan? That was Harold.) We shared a dressing room and since we were both sports-fans, we became fast friends. And, since I was a theater buff, I was a perfect audience for his showbiz war stories. Harold claimed to have fucked every woman in show business and to have told every man in show business to go fuck himself.
I’d be doing my pre-show warm-ups while Harold reclined pasha-like on the union- mandated cot and cast his pearls-of-wisdom my way –
“Stop with the stretching already. The best warm-up for a show is a good bowel movement just before curtain.
“So, I gave Jayne Mansfield a dozen chicks for Easter, all different colors – red, blue, purple – but she rolled over on top of them while she was sleeping and killed ’em all. She was too upset to fuck so I took her bowling instead.
“Mae West’s sister used to give blowjobs in the basement of the Brill Building.
“So, I’m sitting in the steam room with little Larry Hart. Ya know – Rodgers & Hart? He was almost a midget. Who comes in but Joe Louis and I’m tellin’ ya his prick reaches down to his knees. And, Larry Hart sez to him – ‘Joe, that thing’s bigger than I am. Aren’t you afraid it’ll turn on ya?’
“Joe Louis told me that Sonja Henie was the best pussy he ever had next to Fanny Brice.
“So, I walks up to Mike Todd an’ I sez to him – Mike, that’s the kind of guy I am and if you don’t like it step outside.
“1929, I was in the original Diamond Lil with Clark Gable. No one knew who he was. I take him down to Coney Island one day – we swim, we box, we play handball, we ride bikes, we play basketball, we play tennis. On the way home on the subway he sez to me, ‘Harold,’ he sez, ‘I feel like I’ve spent a month in the country.’ I sez to him – Clark, I do this ev’y day.
“’Nother time, I’m down Coney and I’m swimmin’ way out. I was very ath-a-letic, see. A guy swims up and sez, ‘You mind if I swim along with ya?’ I sez, Fine. When we get back to the beach he sticks out his mitt and sez, ‘I’m Roy Cohn.’ I sez – Why didn’t you tell me out there, I woulda drowned ya, ya bastard.
“Ya know my brother Sid Gary was the tenor on the Bing Crosby radio show.
“You ever hear of Harry Greb the boxer with one glass eye. Forget about these faggot boxers today. Harry Greb…
“I ever tell you about the time I fucked Helen Twelvetrees?”
I was too young to watch the strip-show at The Barracuda Lounge but sometimes I happened to be standing just outside the entrance at show time. From there, I heard the saxophone blare of Night Train and caught glimpses of bleach-blonde bouffant hair and sequined gowns. And, I spied spike hi-heels at the end of long, sinewy legs. Boy, was my face red when I discovered that all of that belonged to the Jewel Box transvestite revue. Guys in Drag! Very popular at The Barracuda. And, my unbigoted Granny mended the G-strings of all the strippers – male and female. Also popular were the Italian boy-singers who beat “Volare” to death. Less popular were the earnest folk-singers hoping that protest songs would make a comeback.
Surprisingly some top-name comics used the Barracuda to polish material for The Ed Sullivan Show. One night, I managed to loiter in a back hallway and see an unknown comic named Rodney Dangerfield read his jokes off a stained napkin. He was hilarious. I then saw him mercilessly heckle a then-unknown but now-very-famous comic. They almost duked it out right there. It was a vivid introduction to the vicious world of stand-up.
By far the most popular act to play the Barracuda was a comedy-harmonica ensemble that featured a midget. They had starred on TV and in Vegas but like protest-singers, comedy-harmonica ensembles that featured midgets had become passé. Showbiz is cruel that way.
It is 3 AM on a rainy night and I’m walking down the deserted, darker stretch of 42nd between 6th and 7th avenues. The wet pavement reflects the neon lights from the two porn stores still open. As I approach one of these, I see a man exiting while clutching to his chest a paper bag filled with photos of female flesh. I immediately detect something odd about his gate. It isn’t the usual overly-casual yet dartingly-furtive walk of men as they enter and exit dirty bookstores and movies. No. This man’s body seems permanently shaped into a posture of “shying away” as if he is flinching before a punch is thrown.
As I get closer to him, I see that he is wearing a plastic medical mask in a pitifully unsuccessful attempt to conceal that he has no face. The mask is the color of Pepto Bismol to suggest flesh tone with features crudely painted on. The lips are much too large and much too red. The eyebrows are even worse. I follow him at a distance and note the practiced, heartbreaking way he avoids the gaze of passing strangers and finds shadows and darkened doorways by which to pick his way down the street and home.
We are a blue-collar Scout troop without a full uniform between us – more Bowery Boys than Baden Powell. We don’t buy our gear at the official Boy Scout store which is strictly for fagateers but at the Army surplus stores on Canal Street. Who cares if our canteens leak and our hatchets shatter? They are what General Patton’s soldiers used and that’s all that matters.
Only once is our tough-guy veneer pierced. It is when we encounter a disfigured boy who pitches his tent right next to ours at a Boy Scout Jamboree. The merit badge sash he wears across his torso contains more badges than our troop has won in its entire history. He is also an Eagle Scout and a member of the Order of The Arrow. This is like being a Green Beret and a Navy Seal. He is tall and well built. But, atop his perfectly formed body sits the most deformed head and face I have ever seen. His skull is squashed, elongated and lopsided. His features are randomly stuck onto the front of it like the plastic ears, mouth and nose of a Mr. Potato Head – a Mr. Potato Head who has been dropped from a great height. He has one misshapen ear on top of his skull and another down near his chin so that his glasses hang on his face in a vertical rather than horizontal line. His eyes, nose, and mouth are not much more than holes. Imagine the face of Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame drawn by Picasso then put through a wood chipper.