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From the Vault of Art Shay: Mob Hits

By Staff in News on Apr 20, 2011 4:00PM

My wonderful archivist Erica reminds me that the new John Gotti movie is almost here and they haven't bought any of the Mafia pictures I've made in 55 years of chasing them for 50 stories through 12 states. (Not to mention my constant state of fear.) She pulled up a Life ad I shot of my only Jewish Mafia capo - Harry Davidoff of New York, who wrestled unresisting me to the ground in front of his Long Island mansion. While I was falling I pulled out my tiny hidden Leica and planned to make one shot as I got up and he continued to rant at me.

So here it is as Life used it in an ad, breaching the anonymity I used to enjoy. Threatening phone calls, real and fake - "I know where your kids go to school. Deerfield, right?" - started coming in and Life offered round the clock protection, which I declined. I answered each threat with the same cold phrase. "You hurt anyone in my family motherfucka, I'll track you and your family down and machine gun you to death. And have a nice picture of you delivered to your funeral. No charge."

It rubs off on you.

The nice thing about this adventure was Life paid me $400 and expenses to go to New York for the assignment, then $3,000 for also using the picture in full page ads across the country. I threw the money talk in for my friend and collector Sandro, the great advertising photographer who, I hear, sometimes scores $200,000 and uses 16 assistants for a dangerous ad picture.

So there I was deep in a New Jersey swamp with a 600mm lens, staking out Sam "The Plumber" Cavalcante for Life. Sam and his army of 200 would be the partial model for the Corleone family and Marlon Brando's Vito Corleone, and would also be the model for Tony Di Meo, brought to life in "The Sopranos" around these same dank New Jersey swamps that actor James Gandolfini fleshed out. Riffing with, among other things, guns and a shrink's couch. What other things?

Uh... waste management, gambling, trucking, prostitution, wire fraud, fencing, extortion, pier theft, money laundering, drug running, for starters. In real life and eventually for your cinematic and TV pleasure.

The FBI had tipped us about Sam's "Kenilworth Air Conditioning Company" which they suspected was the financial fountainhead and linchpin of Salvatore's (Sam) Cavalcante's secret empire.

If you can't wait until this time every Wednesday to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Nelson Algren's Chicago, is also available at Amazon.