One of America’s greatest writers has died. He was a three time National Book Award winner and Nobel Laureate. Obit here.
When I heard the news that Buddy Cianci — serial felon, wearer of atrocious toupees, revered and reviled former mayor of Providence, R.I. — had died on Jan. 28 at the age of 74, my first thought was not about death. It was about my birth as a writer. In May of 1976, a free Providence weekly called Fresh Fruit published my interview with Cianci, then the city’s brash young Republican mayor. Forty years later, I still own a crumbling clip of that interview. Maybe that’s not surprising since that clip is the first piece of writing I ever published, the first time I saw my byline in print. It’s my birth certificate. Writers tend to cherish such things.
When I interviewed him, Cianci had been in office for 16 months and I was one month away from my college graduation. More to the point, I was on a caffeine- and amphetamine-fueled binge to finish writing the final chapters of a history of the city of Providence, an independent-study project I’d been working on for two years because I’d become intoxicated by the city’s crazy quilt of ethnic neighborhoods, its fluorescent Mob presence, its post-industrial ruins, its wobbly triple-deckers and Greek Revival gems, its scuzzy waterfront, the milky fogs that spilled in off Narragansett Bay, the overall sense that this was a once-mighty shipping and manufacturing center the best times of which were long past. The place felt forgotten. The Wall Street Journal dismissed Providence as “a smudge beside the fast lane to Cape Cod.” That’s precisely what I loved about the place: it was the un-Boston, with little of the conventional New England charm. And it was a prolific incubator of criminals. Jimmy Breslin might have had Buddy Cianci in mind when he said, “Providence is where the best thieves come from.” What better way to end my elegiac history of this faded old city than by interviewing its optimistic, forward-looking young mayor?
For as far back as anyone could remember, politics in Providence had been controlled by a Democratic machine that ran on the grease of patronage — payoffs, kickbacks, bribes, no-show jobs, rigged contracts and other niceties. Cianci, a political novice, had come out of nowhere to stun the Democratic incumbent, a booze-marinated Irish ward heeler named Joe Doorley. Well, not quite nowhere. Cianci, the city’s first Italian-American mayor, had come up through the attorney general’s anti-corruption task force, where he made a specialty of going after Mob families. Providence was a target-rich environment in those days. After a murder conviction in 1970, Raymond Loreda Salvatore Patriarca, Sr., head of the New England Mob, had relocated his headquarters from Providence’s heavily Italian Federal Hill neighborhood to his cell in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. Business remained brisk.
When I called the mayor’s office to request an interview, Cianci, to my surprise, readily agreed to sit down with a nobody college boy writing for a weekly throwaway. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Then and for the rest of his days, Cianci was a publicity hog, a one-liner machine, a shameless promoter of his city and himself. In the introduction to the Fresh Fruit interview, I adopted the ostentatious first-person plural (hey, I was 23 years old and still operating under the influence of The New Yorker):
On a chilly Tuesday afternoon we were ushered into the mayor’s office in City Hall, a plush inner sanctum with a thick red rug on the floor, with blonde woodwork on the walls and chandeliers suspended from the distant ceilings. Through spotless tall windows we could see the scrum of buses, pedestrians and cars on Kennedy Plaza — an inaudible world that seemed miles away. Buddy Cianci was seated at his spacious desk poring over the Evening Bulletin. He was wearing only two of his suit’s three pieces: the jacket was draped over a coat rack in the corner. He looked puffy, as though the vest was uncomfortably snug. In a hoarse voice he complained about a touch of laryngitis. He motioned us toward gaudy chairs and, sipping ginger ale, launched into an unprompted monologue…
Re-reading those words 40 years after they were written, I’m dismayed that I failed to mention Cianci’s most defining physical trait: a toupee so shamelessly synthetic and pelt-like that even he referred to it as “the squirrel.” The most memorable — and prescient — thing Cianci said during that rambling interview came when we got onto the subject of the Democratic machine he had defeated: “You know, Lord Acton once said it — and I always like to repeat my friend Lord Acton: ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’”
In due time Cianci’s power would become far more absolute than Joe Doorley’s had ever been. A few months after he granted me an audience in City Hall, Cianci gave an electrifying speech at the Republican national convention. Overnight he became a GOP darling, proof that the party was still relevant in the cities of the Northeast, and there was talk of Cianci as a vice presidential candidate, maybe in a cabinet post, or a senate seat. His potential seemed boundless.
Using his charm, energy, and ruthless political skills, Cianci won re-election as mayor in 1978 and again in 1982. I’d left Providence shortly after my college graduation, but I always kept an ear cocked for news about the city, which usually amounted to news about Cianci — or the latest perp walk by one of his minions. As Cianci’s power grew, the FBI’s interest in corruption inside City Hall grew along with it. During Cianci’s first tenure as mayor, 22 city workers were convicted on corruption charges. But the FBI couldn’t lay a glove on Buddy Cianci. Only Buddy Cianci could do that.
In 1983 Cianci got himself involved in a little dustup that would have shocked even world-wise Lord Acton. One night the mayor summoned a wealthy contractor named Raymond DeLeo to his home and, as a city cop and two other men looked on, Cianci accused DeLeo of having an affair with his estranged wife. Cianci then proceeded to spend three hours assaulting DeLeo with a versatile arsenal that included fists, feet, saliva, an ashtray, a lit cigarette and a fireplace log. It was like a game of Clue for Sociopaths: the Mayor did it in the Living Room with the Lit Cigarette and the Fireplace Log.
Cianci pleaded no contest to the assault and kidnapping charges and resigned as mayor. He received a five-year suspended sentence and spent the time hosting a popular radio talk show, keeping his name in the air, waiting for his chance. Eligible to run again in 1990, he was re-elected by 317 votes.
Only in Providence, I thought, when I heard the news about Cianci’s astonishing comeback. The attitude of voters seemed to be Hey, DeLeo was screwing the guy’s wife. He had it coming. Besides, Buddy was a great mayor.
Now Cianci’s power became absolutely absolute. The mayor clearly loved his city, and his city loved him back. He produced a pasta sauce, Mayor’s Own Marinara Sauce, and donated the proceeds to a scholarship fund. He was everywhere, attending Little League games, banquets, business openings. It was said he would attend the opening of an envelope. He became a wise-cracking regular on the “Imus in the Morning” radio show. There was no denying that he was doing a spectacular job of rebuilding the city’s downtown and burnishing its faded image, but he was also turning City Hall into what one judge would call “a criminal enterprise,” a place where envelopes of cash changed hands as people paid bribes to buy city jobs, contracts, reduced tax bills, or city land. Cianci made Joe Doorley and his Democratic lords look like a bunch of schoolboys.
Unfortunately, the FBI was still on the case. In 2001 Cianci was indicted by a federal grand jury on racketeering, conspiracy, extortion, witness tampering and mail fraud in the FBI’s so-called Plunder Dome investigation. In June of 2002 Cianci was found guilty on one count of racketeering and acquitted of 11 other corruption charges. While he was awaiting sentencing that summer, I got it into my head that his rollercoaster career would make an interesting magazine article, maybe even a book. So I took an exploratory trip back to Providence, where I witnessed the weekly WaterFire spectacle downtown — bonfires on the river set to New Age music — and I was astonished to see that in the past quarter-century downtown had been transformed, almost miraculously, from a ghost town into a vibrant hub of activity. I read newspaper microfilm in the downtown library and roamed the city, compiling a tidy little stack of Cianci’s achievements and misdemeanors, plus a sense that beyond the shiny new downtown, the city hadn’t changed all that much. The industrial ruins were still there, the triple-deckers still wobbled, the public schools were worse than ever. The city struck me as a miniature version of Baltimore: a shiny veneer doing its best to conceal a lot of rot.
In September, Cianci was sentenced to five years in prison. At the sentencing, U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres said, “I’m struck by the parallels between this case and the classic story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There appear to be two very different Buddy Ciancis.” In 2003 a Providence Journal reporter named Mike Stanton published a richly reported book on Cianci, The Prince of Providence, which became a bestseller. My own book project died aborning.
After serving his five years at the federal prison in Fort Dix, N.J., Cianci emerged immaculately bald, shorn of the squirrel. “I took my medicine,” he told The New York Times. “I took it like a man.” Then he went back on the radio airwaves, wrote an autobiography called Politics and Pasta, and got busy plotting yet another comeback.
For all the many things he did in life, both good and bad, it’s hard not see Buddy Cianci as a gifted politician who missed a shot at greatness. His seemingly boundless early potential never led to much. For all the loyalty he inspired in the citizens of Providence, his peculiar style — the squirrel, the marinara sauce, the one-liners, the stubborn whiff of corruption — did not travel well beyond the city limits. He ran for governor of Rhode Island in 1980 and was beaten badly by the incumbent Democrat, J. Joseph Garrahy. Cianci considered a run for U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s seat in 2010, but decided against it. Then in 2014, after a bout with cancer, Cianci made one last run for his old job at City Hall.
It turned out that even the voters of Providence do not possess a bottomless reservoir of forbearance. In the 2014 mayoral election, Cianci lost to Jorge Elorza, the current mayor, who ordered the flags at City Hall flown at half-staff when the word spread of Cianci’s death.
Mike Stanton, the former Providence Journal reporter who wrote the book on Cianci, said the man “embodied the best and worst of American politics.” True, as far as it goes, but I can’t help thinking that American politics is a little bit poorer — and drabber — without the fluorescent presence of people like Buddy Cianci, a skillful politician, a man who loved his city, a Jekyll & Hyde figure who forgot the lessons Lord Acton had tried to teach him. We used to have vivid, inspiring, maddening politicians like Huey Long and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson and Coleman Young and Buddy Cianci. Nowadays, what passes for colorful is that bad dye job called Donald Trump.
The obituarist who came closest to the truth about Buddy Cianci was Dan Barry. Writing in The New York Times, Barry called Cianci “a walking coulda-been.” Perfect. Absolutely perfect.
Image Credit: LPW.
Yesterday, I was watching the headlines as I often do, and I was shocked to see the obituary for Bebe Moore Campbell, author of Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, 72 Hour Hold, and many other books, come across the wires. She died, at 56, from complications of brain cancer. Campbell was a well-known writer, but that is not how I came to know her. For a year, when I lived in Los Angeles, she was my landlord.I first met her as the stern Mrs. Gordon – her full name was Elizabeth Bebe Moore Campbell Gordon – when she showed my friend Derek and I a hillside apartment in Silverlake. This upscale nook of the neighborhood was beyond our means – I was working at a bookstore and Derek was helping out on indie film sets – but her price turned out to be just barely in our budget. In the end, it was worth it for the fantastic westward facing view that on the rare smog-free day provided a glimpse of the ocean and for the walk down the hill to Spaceland, a venue where we saw many of our favorite bands.Campbell’s daughter lived upstairs – it was a bilevel duplex – and this arrangement gave us a glimpse into Campbell’s life. It is odd, in these situations, how well you can come to know people without knowing them as friends, or even acquaintances. It wouldn’t be fair to get into all the details here, but we came to learn, in the odd communication beyond mailing in our monthly rent and in the overheard voices that cannot be avoided when one shares a building with someone else, of the challenges in Campbell’s life.After a year, I got engaged to Mrs. Millions and moved out. Derek stayed on through two more roommates before leaving Los Angeles. I’ve never read Campbell’s books, but the obits in the New York Times, Washington Post, and from the AP describe their importance and her place as “a best-selling novelist known for her empathetic treatment of the difficult, intertwined and occasionally surprising relationship between the races.” I’ll remember her as my landlord Mrs. Gordon, but for more, Tayari Jones remembers her as Bebe Moore Campbell, the writer.Update: Richard Prince pens a more substantial obituary of Campbell.Related: Campbell wasn’t my only literary landlord.
Michael Crichton died Wednesday after a bout with cancer. Crichton looms large in my history of reading. While other writers introduced me to the potential of literary fiction, it was Crichton who really stoked my love of reading between the age of 12 and 15. I remember reading Sphere in the high school library during free periods as a freshman, and staying up late not wanting to put down The Andromeda Strain, Congo, and of course Jurassic Park, which was passed around my ninth grade class with the feverish excitement that one doesn’t normally associate with 14 year olds and books.The arrival of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie that summer only heightened the Jurassic Park mania. This was back when CGI special effects, now so mundane, had the ability to astonish, and I can remember sitting in a theater that was buzzing with anticipation waiting for the movie to start, and I was scarcely able to believe that the book could be brought to life. The movie lived up to the hype, and it opened the door to the stream of CGI-driven blockbusters that continue to this day.But the movie was only special in that it made real what had already jumped off the pages of Crichton’s books. Crichton’s contribution might be measured in book sales and box office receipts, but there is perhaps more value in his contribution to the collective imagination of a generation of young readers.
One of the curses of fame in the age of mechanical reproduction is the way it renders the strange ubiquitous, the sublime habitual. There is the first time you hear “Born to Run,” and there is the umpteenth, and by the time you get to the guy drunkenly karaokeing it at 2 a.m. in Koreatown (rock on, Dave!) it’s kind of hard to remember the first time, when it still felt holy. I guess that’s called growing up, but still…
Notwithstanding his philosophical apprehensions about fame and adulthood, American style, J.D. Salinger could not quite escape this fate. It is difficult to remember, given his prominence on high school syllabi, that he was once ardently debated by college professors. It is hard to appreciate fully, now that Catcher in the Rye is a line in “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” the recklessness of Holden Caulfield’s address to the reader. After Life of Pi and The Mezzanine and Oblivion, the profound strangeness of Franny Glass’ religious epiphany and of Zooey’s endless bath and of Buddy’s recursive later mode start to seem ordinary. And it is hard to disentangle the heart-stopping endings of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” or “For Esmé, With Love and Squalor” from the clichés they would become. Esmé, recall, used to be an unusual name. So, come to think of it, did Zooey.
It is likely that Salinger, who like some keen but troubled falcon increasingly homed in on quarries too large for language – holiness, perfect truth – would have seen the domestication of his fiction as a defeat. I’d like to propose, however, on the occasion of his death at age 91, that it was a victory. It afforded him the leverage to shift, as few others have, the center of American literature. His candid introspection would liberate subsequent generations of storytellers (for better and sometimes for worse) to tackle without fear the personal, the intimate, and even the juvenile. Goodybe to the manly r-r-reticence of Hemingway. So long, even, to the social.
That, in a reduced form, is the what of Salinger’s career. Harder to talk about is the how. With each book, he drew closer to the vanishing point where candor and artifice, earnestness and irony, “literally” and literally, become indistinguishable from each other. After his last published stories, “Seymour: An Introduction” and “Hapworth 16, 1924,” (made available to subscribers in the New Yorker archive) he vanished beyond it. No one seemed able to agree on what to make of them, or of the silence that followed. Was he serious?
It is possible that further work will be unearthed posthumously. And I suppose, if we’re going to get to see The Pale King and Three Days Before the Shooting, we might as well see what Salinger left behind, in some similarly respectful edition. But the best place to start revisiting the Salinger canon – a body of work as perfect as any American has produced – may be those two final stories, those five a.m., all-stars-out productions. Their strangeness reminds us of just what distances this writer was willing to travel in pursuit of his truths.
It may also remind us afresh of how far, in the earlier works, he got. Though it has been talked about as the greatest vanishing act in the history of American letters, Jerome David Salinger’s career also turns out to be one of the major triumphs. He had something to say, he said it – beautifully – and when he couldn’t say it anymore, he stopped. Charming? Yes. Adolescent? Sometimes. But boy, reader, was he serious.