This memoir tells of the author’s journey from polio-stricken child in postwar New York’s Little Italy to owner of Las Vegas’s hottest club in the late 1980s, where success was ensured by connections to Hollywood, politics, the mob, and “just plain brass balls”. The opening scenes, which shift between the sympathetic story of Gianni Russo’s youth and a fatal battle with a henchman of Pablo Escobar’s, are unconvincing as memoir; they read as attempts to establish his life with normal emotional logic, supplying excitement and glamour and tempering them with backstory and contrast. Once you get past all that, and the true motive is revealed – Russo doesn’t want to be a human with a history, but a character in a tale – this book becomes a strutty, messy, grimy, glitzy ride, and the reader begins to have a fabulous time.
Russo’s life is disorganised, and can take the reader by surprise: “In case you’re wondering, we were told that the Pope was on board with the fiscal shenanigans.” “With all the strength I could muster, I rammed the spear at an upward angle into the pedophile’s left chest area.” “And then it hit me. I was shampooing Marilyn Monroe!”
But what consistency is lost in recounting an intense life is recovered in the author’s narration, which is full of a strange self-knowledge. In many celebrity memoirs, the large moment of change – for Russo, this is winning the part of Carlo Rizzi in The Godfather – is the moment at which ordinary life meets the hand of fate. For Russo, it happens not by chance, but through fame-hungry campaigning, which he admits with pride. He has little to prove in this story, except that Marilyn Monroe was murdered by the Kennedys, because she “wanted them exposed for the disingenuous, poor excuses for human beings that they were”. The Kennedys join James Caan and John Gotti as Russo’s perpetual bugbears, while Liza Minnelli, Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra appear as fun-loving allies.
In the final third, which looks past the 1980s, the structure grows unconvincing once more, taking the familiar shape of rags to riches to rags again, when the story of Russo’s life has plainly been extraordinary. But you could spend a day in worse company than this unusual figure, with his values and metaphors dredged up from wealthy, amoral, untrustworthy corners of the 20th century.
Simon & Schuster, 304pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 6, 2019 as "Gianni Russo, Hollywood Godfather".
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