We Levys are many things. Animated, energetic, colorful, vocal, tall, the list goes on and on. But one thing we are definitely not… is Irish. Nope, not one bit. Can’t even fake it.
Which means that when St. Patty’s Day comes, we just knock back a few whiskeys and tag along for the ride. The Irish community, from poor starving immigrants of the 1840’s to the proud citizens of today, represents an intrinsic element in our city’s history. The Irish were the first massive wave of foreigners to land on our city’s shores. They suffered sneers, jeers and rocks thrown at them from America’s first anti-immigrant cabals.
After more than a generation of this discrimination, NYC’s Irish community made a foothold in the political classes and the police force from which they never strayed, making it clear that New York was their home and they would never abdicate their pride nor place; setting a wondrous example in a city that has welcomed wave after wave of newcomer ever since.
And then… there were the Irish New Yorkers who didn’t do their people proud. The ones who never rose with the tide. The ones who watched John Fitzgerald Kennedy take the oath of office as our first Irish American president in-between rounds of beating, shooting, stabbing, and threatening their way through life. They were the most ruthless Irish Gang the city had ever seen: The Westies.
This was the Hell’s Kitchen gang that made The Mafia look like a Boy Scout Troop.
The first Irish gang boss of Hell’s Kitchen was Owney “The Killer” Madden. A man as skilled at murder as he was at charming the ladies. He got sent off to prison for killing a romantic rival and missed out on the opening years of prohibition, He came out of jail behind the bootlegging curve and never quite caught up.
Starting in the 1960’s Hell’s Kitchen was run by gentleman gangster Mickey Spillane (no relation to the pulp novelist of the same name,) who ran the gambling and loansharking rackets as well as the Longshoreman Union. Well dressed and sophisticated, Spillane wasn’t above the occasional kidnap-and-ransom scam, otherwise known as a “snatch-job.”
Spillane’s biggest mistake was in 1963 when he pulled a snatch-job on an innocent, law-abiding accountant named John Coonan, whose 17-year-old son Jimmy never forgot it. Jimmy Coonan ended up as Spillane’s biggest rival for control of “The Kitchen” and through Coonan’s Mafia connections, Spillane met his end on the wrong end of a gun in 1977.
Coonan ended up well-connected to the Mafia Families of New York and in turn, started to dress and act like an Italian Mafioso (an “Al Cologne” as some of his associates called them.) This didn’t sit well with some of his subordinates in the Hell’s Kitchen Irish syndicate. Eventually things soured with Coonan’s bodyguard and underboss Mickey Featherstone and after Featherstone was framed for murder, he turned rat and told the Feds everything they needed to know to put Coonan and the rest of the Westies away for life.
That was in 1988. Now, in 2012: Coonan is still behind bars, Featherstone is living under an assumed name in Witness Protection and “The Kitchen?” It’s filled with fancy bars and restaurants and overpriced condos like everywhere else in this damn city!
By Wise-Guy Gideon Levy