Gallery of Fools
Click on image to enlarge.
by Jerome Tuccille
Description: The story told in this book is based on events that took place more than thirty years ago. The theft of eight priceless paintings took place as told; they were hidden in my father's cellar in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx for about two years until my wife and I removed them. My cousin and his partner were arrested for their roles in the crime. I have taken some fictional liberties in the reconstruction of dialogue that occurred back in the 1970s and in the invention of details that most likely happened during breaks in the main action of the story, which is why this book can be read as either a memoir or a novel. In June 2007, one of the paintings, Monet's "Nympheas," sold at auction in London for $36 million.
eBook Publisher: Whiskey Creek Press, 2010
eBookwise Release Date: December 2010
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [273 KB]
Reading time: 166-233 min.
4 Stars! "Old man Tuccille is at a point of death. Marie reveals a secret to her husband Jerry, how Tuccille has a fortune in old paintings secreted in a cellar. Jerry recovers the paintings, not sure what to do with them, not knowing how Tuccille got them or if they were stolen. His cousin Georgie is something of a racketeer. He and his partner initially stole the paintings and were planning to sell them to a collector, but the deal went sour when the FBI got wind of it. With Tuccille in hospital, Jerry does not want anything to do with the paintings and gives them to Georgie. The FBI have not given up the hunt and are still looking for them, and everyone is now in trouble.
Jerry decides to run a campaign to become Governor of New York. In the meantime, Tuccille and Georgie are scheming how to sell the paintings and avoid the FBI. In the meantime, Jerry is trying desperately to extricate himself from the whole mess.
The tangled family machinations have a serious and a humorous side, which makes the book very real. The story moves along fairly slowly, but for this type of novel, that is not a distraction. What makes it work is that the book is based on fact, which shows that truth can be stranger than fiction.
With Gallery of Fools the first thing the reader encounters is confident, smooth narrative and deft dialogue, and the reader knows he is the hands of a craftsman. Jerome Tuccille is a craftsman and his book is definitely worth reading." Readersfavorite.com
In May 1973, I was celebrating my birthday with my family in North Hollywood, California, which was called Studio City back then. I had arrived earlier in the day with my wife, Marie, and two children, Jerry and Christine, at the home of friends after a long drive down the coast from San Francisco. Our host and I had grown up together in a working-class battleground in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx, and we both considered ourselves blessed to have escaped from its stultifying embrace. Danny had gone west to pursue his dream of becoming an actor and a screenwriter, and I already had two books published with a third one due out later that year. We were proud of our accomplishments, being two sons of the Bronx. My father was a first-generation American, and Danny's father was born in Ireland. Neither of them had any education to speak of.
We were sitting around after dinner, enjoying a final glass of wine before retiring, when the phone rang. Danny picked it up and turned immediately toward me.
"It's for you. I think it's your sister."
"It has to be. She's the only one who knows I'm here."
My sister, Carol, sounded frantic on the other end of the line. "You've got to come home right away," she said. "Something terrible has happened to Dad."
"He's in the hospital. He's been hemorrhaging something awful. He's lost a lot of blood. I don't think he can last that long."
"Oh, my God! What happened?"
"I think it's his intestines. I can't handle this all by myself. I need you to get here as soon as you can."
"Where is he?"
"He's in Saint Agnes in White Plains, in intensive care. I don't know what I'll do if something happens to him." She started to weep loudly, a piercing plea from three thousand miles away.
"Take it easy. I'll get there as soon as possible. I'll see if there's a flight back tonight."
"What is it?" Marie asked after I hung up the phone.
"It's my father. He's in the hospital. Carol doesn't think he can last long. We have to call the airline and see how soon we can get back to New York."
Carol greeted me at the door to Salvatore's room when I arrived the following afternoon. She hadn't slept all night, and she looked unusually haggard and stressed. She hugged me tightly and kissed me on the cheek.
"I just got in," I said.
"Where's Marie and the kids?"
"I dropped them off at the apartment. They haven't slept, and the kids are wiped out."
Salvatore appeared to be on the point of death when I entered the room. A vigorous sixty-two years old, with thin, silvery hair and a blocky body, he seemed to be the picture of health the last time I saw him, a couple of weeks before. Now he was thin and shrunken, his face hollow with dark half-moons under his eyes. Plastic tubes ran into his arms and legs. A breathing pump was connected to a hole in his throat. His older sister, Molly, immense inside a black house dress that looked like an enormous bat's wing covering her body, sobbed hysterically at the foot of Salvatore's bed. Beside her stood her older son, Georgie, who was twelve years older than I despite his juvenile nickname.
"My baby brother!" Molly howled. "He was so good. The best! The best of all of us! Why you, Salvatore? Why not me?"
"He's got enough hard-ons left to last another twenty years," said Georgie. "Right, Jerry?" My cousin looked at me, shaking his head from side to side. "Who's gonna use them all up if you die on us now, Unc? Jerry? He don't need your hard-ons. He's young. He can lend you and me some."
"He was the best!" Molly screamed, freezing the room with an Antarctic chill. Her use of the past tense regarding my father was premature and unsettling.
"He's too tough to die, Ma," said Georgie. "Old bastards like him don't die so easy. They got to stick knives and shoot bullets in people like us to make us die. Right, Jerry?"
Georgie once told me about his theory that all men came into the world with a fixed number of hard-ons, somewhere around seven thousand of them, and they would not die a natural death until all of their hard-ons were used up. So, his theory went, if men squandered their hard-ons recklessly in their youth, they were susceptible to an early death. Georgie's prescription for a long life was to hold back from ejaculating when getting laid and save his hard-ons for another day.
"Salvatore!" Molly unearthed a penetrating shriek. She looked as through she might topple over onto her comatose brother, burying him beneath about two hundred and sixty pounds of heaving flesh. Georgie grabbed her arm before she fell, and I ran around behind her to support her on the other side. Together, Georgie and I lowered her into a chair next to the wall. Up close, my aunt gave off a pungent smell of unwashed flesh and soiled clothing that was strong enough to make me catch my breath. She smelled like antiquity itself, like all the un-bathed legions of humanity rolled together in the body of one enormous woman.
"Take it easy, Ma," said Georgie. "Uncle Sal's gonna be okay. He can't croak yet. Who's gonna take care of all the young stuff if he croaks? Tell him, Jerry."
Salvatore lay there without moving a muscle. His eyes were closed, and the only movement was in his chest where the breathing apparatus pumped oxygen in and out of his lungs. A nurse entered the room and felt his forehead, read the gauges on the tubes that ran into his body, checked the level of liquid in the plastic bag that held his intravenous nutrients, then turned around and asked us all to step outside. She was a pretty blonde who fit snugly into her white uniform, and for one bizarre moment, I thought Georgie was going to pat her on the ass before we all left the room.
"Thank God they left," Carol said as Georgie and Molly disappeared into the elevator. "All that yelling and screaming as though Dad was dead already! And Georgie's so crude. I'm so glad you're here now."
"How're you holding up?"
"I feel terrible. All this has been very hard on me."
There was no question that Salvatore's death would be a lot harder on Carol than it would be on me. She had been abused both physically and psychologically by our mother, and her father had been her anchor all her life. I, on the other hand, had never been close to Salvatore. The truth was I had hated him since grammar school when he repeatedly called me a "little puke" after I failed to defend myself properly when the neighborhood bully pushed me around. No, our mother's death a few years earlier had been something of a relief for both me and Carol, and Salvatore's demise would not cause me much emotional pain either, even while it might traumatize my sister.
"These last few days have been unbelievable," said Carol. "I thought I was having a nervous breakdown. Thank God you're here now."
I loaded up on Chinese food at a restaurant on Mamaroneck Avenue and brought Carol back with me to our apartment on Windsor Terrace. Marie had not been able to get much sleep on the cross-country plane ride, and she appeared tired and anxious when Carol and I got there.
"The kids are sleeping," she said. "They're both exhausted. How's your father doing?"
"Not well," I said. "He looks terrible."
"It'll be a miracle if he makes it," said Carol, who was a registered nurse. "It's his intestines. If he's strong enough, they're going to operate on him tomorrow to see exactly what's going on in there."
Neither Carol nor Marie had much of an appetite. Carol pushed the food around on her plate indifferently, alternating between sobbing silently and crying out loud. She lit one cigarette after another, stubbing one out in the ashtray when it was halfway smoked and absent-mindedly lighting another. Everyone smoked just about everywhere back then. Marie had given it up a year or so earlier, and my preference ran to an occasional cigar rather than cigarettes.
"I don't know what I'll do if we lose him," Carol said. "We can't let him die."
"I'm sure the doctors are doing everything they can," I said, at a loss for something helpful to say to her.
"He's so stubborn," she said. "He's had blood in his stool for weeks, but do you think he would do anything about it? I tried to get him to a doctor two weeks ago."
"Doctors cost money," I said. "You know what he thinks of them. 'Bloodsuckers,' 'thieves,' he calls them. He wouldn't spend a nickel on them if he didn't have to."
Marie started clearing the dirty dishes from the table, and Carol and I got up to help her. When the dishes were washed and stacked in the kitchen, the three of us returned to the dining area with another bottle of wine.
"There's something I've got to tell you," Carol suddenly blurted out. "Dad swore me to secrecy, but I can't keep it to myself any longer. I can't deal with it alone."
"What is it?"
My sister proceeded to unburden herself of a story that she had kept bottled up inside her for the past two years. Marie and I sat in stunned silence as the words poured from her mouth. The story she told was beyond incredible; the impact of her words defied credibility. I didn't realize it immediately, but I was about to embark on a course of action that would turn our lives into an Elmore Leonard crime novel for the next three years--although I was too closely involved back then to see the dark humor in it until many years later.
"Right now, in Dad's cellar in the Bronx, there's about...oh, I don't know how many millions of dollars worth of paintings hidden away. Let me tell you what happened before you say anything, all right?"
Marie and I nodded in agreement.
"After I split up with Mike the second time, I moved back in with Dad, remember? One night, about ten o'clock, he got a phone call, and he was very secretive about it, whispering in his bedroom where he thought I couldn't hear him. An hour later, Georgie showed up, and the two of them started acting very strange, like something urgent was about to happen. They told me to go back to bed and not to worry; they had to do some work in the cellar...something about the boiler being broken. It sounded logical enough. Georgie's pretty handy, and Dad was having trouble with the heating system that winter. But it just didn't sit right with me. I could sense that something was going on they weren't telling me about."
Carol paused while Marie and I fidgeted in our chairs. No one broke the silence. Then Carol continued, "Well, I couldn't sleep all the time they were down there. The banging that went on was unbelievable. It didn't sound like they were working on any boiler to me. It was more like hammering and sawing wood. One o'clock, two o'clock in the morning. It went on half the night. I had to get up early for work in the morning, but I was wide awake, wondering what was going on. Finally, about four o'clock, Dad came back upstairs covered with sawdust and plaster, I guess it was. It looked like chalk dust. I jumped out of bed, and I could see his face drop when he saw I was still awake. 'I think we got it fixed now,' he said, and I told him he was full of shit about the goddamned boiler. I wanted to know what the hell was really going on.
"He wouldn't tell me right away, but finally, he gave in. I think he was a little proud of himself actually, like a kid who just did something wicked and wanted somebody else to know about it. He asked me not to tell anybody, not even you. It was very serious, he said, and he might go to jail if anyone found out. Georgie had called him up to tell him he had a fortune in stolen paintings he had to hide someplace right away. He asked Dad if it would be okay to hide them in his cellar. So Dad--he'd do anything for Georgie--told him to come on over, it would be all right."
"This is absolutely astounding," I said. "Are you sure it's true? I can't believe this."
"What kind of paintings are you talking about?" asked Marie.
"Masterpieces," Carol said. "Monet, Matisse, Marc Chagall...seven or eight of them, I think. I can't remember all their names."
"But how did Georgie get them?" I asked.
"That part I'm not sure about. All I know is they're still in Dad's cellar, and now Dad could die anytime. That's why I'm telling you. I can't keep this to myself anymore. It's too much for me to handle alone. Georgie doesn't know that I know about them. He doesn't know anybody knows where they are, except Dad."
"What part of the cellar are they in?" asked Marie.
"They built a wall that night behind the boiler. There's a recess in the basement wall, and they put the paintings in there and built a new wall in front of them with sheetrock and boards to hide them."
"And nobody's seen them since?"
"Not as far as I know. The wall's still there. Nobody's touched it. The paintings must still be behind it."
"Where did Georgie get them?" I asked again. "Did he steal them himself?"
"I don't know all the details. Somehow, he got hold of them and tried to sell them, and the FBI found out about it. That's why he needed Dad...or someone...to hide them for him."
The enormity of what Carol had just revealed began to sink in deeper and deeper. It was the most incredible story I had ever heard, and I couldn't quite believe that what Carol had told us was true.
"You should have told me before," I said.
"Dad swore me to secrecy. I was afraid. Besides, I had other things on my mind at the time. I was raising two kids by myself without any help from their fathers, working double shifts in ICU. My life was like a runaway train. I just put the paintings out of my mind."
"Did you tell him to get rid of them before the FBI found out and put him in jail?"
"He told me everything would work out fine," said Carol, "and I shouldn't worry about it. Besides, I didn't want to make any waves. Georgie's our cousin and all, but he's a racketeer and I'm afraid of him. You know how those people are when anyone gets in their way. I don't know what he's capable of doing."
"This is insane," said Marie. "We can't just leave them there. We've got to do something about it."
"I have to talk to Georgie," I said. "I have no choice. I can't leave them sitting there in my father's cellar."
It was getting late. My head was aching, and there seemed like no good way to resolve the dilemma. A million thoughts coursed through my mind simultaneously. Would it really be as simple as calling up my cousin and telling him to get his paintings out of my father's cellar immediately? Would there be any repercussions? Would my knowledge of what he had done put me in danger? Did I have a legal obligation to call the authorities and report what I had just learned? What was my father's legal exposure? What was mine, Carol's, and Marie's now that we knew about the crime? What condition would the paintings be in after all this time in a damp basement? Didn't I have a moral obligation to make sure they didn't suffer any further damage? I looked at Marie and found her staring speechlessly back at me. We both turned and looked at Carol who looked back and forth at the two of us. The three of us sat there for an interminable moment without speaking a word.
A simple solution seemed highly unlikely at best.