W. Joseph Campbell

‘Kill the Irishman': Glamorizing ’70s Cleveland underworld?

In Cinematic treatments, Media myths, Newspapers on March 2, 2011 at 7:14 am

A lawyer friend in Cleveland told me yesterday that a movie called Kill the Irishman is soon to be released. It’s about a dapper Cleveland mobster named Danny Greene who was  slain in a car-bombing in 1977.

I was quite surprised that the life and death Greene, a swaggering smalltime crime figure in a gritty rustbelt city, would win Hollywood’s attention after all these years. And with such comparative star power, no less: Kill the Irishman features roles by Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer, Paul Sorvino, and Vincent D’Onofrio.

Ray Stevenson plays Greene.

As cinema is wont to do, Kill the Irishman may end up glamorizing and mythologizing Greene and the violent Cleveland underworld of the second half of the 1970s. Publicity material for the movie suggests as much, referring as it does to “Greene’s heroic rise from a tough Cleveland neighborhood to become an enforcer in the local mob.”

I was in Cleveland then, a young reporter for the city’s morning newspaper, the Plain Dealer. The mob scene was murky, chaotic, and hardly glamorous; its figures were scarcely “heroic.”

It did churn up some flamboyant characters, though, including Greene and another rackets figure, Alex (Shondor) Birns, who was killed in a car bombing the night before Easter in March 1975.

I wrote the story about Birns’ bombing death — and Jim Flanagan, the newspaper’s inestimable night city editor, rewrote the lead to say:

“Alex (Shondor) Birns, Cleveland numbers racketeer, was blown to bits at 8 last night seconds after he entered his car parked behind a West Side bar.

“Police, who made the identification, said Birns was hurled through the roof of a 1975 light blue Lincoln Continental Mark IV. The upper torso was found beside the opened front passenger door.”

Blown to bits. Do newspapers still write crime stories that way?

Everyone believed Greene to have been behind Shondor Birns’ death, but no one could finger him.

And a lot of people suspected that it was a matter of time before Greene was killed, too. He flirted with both sides of the law after all. For a time at least, Greene was an informant for the FBI.

Part of Greene’s appeal rested on a catlike ability to dodge attempts on his life.

About six weeks after Birns was blown to bits, Greene survived the bombing of his house on Waterloo Road in Cleveland.

I wrote that story, too, along with a police beat reporter named Mairy Jayn Woge, who commuted to work in Cleveland from somewhere near Pittsburgh.

The article opened this way:

“Cleveland gangland figure Daniel J. (Danny) Greene yesterday survived the second bombing attempt on his life in seven years.

‘Greene, 45, was at his home … when a bomb was thrown through a downstairs window at 3:50 a.m. The explosion destroyed the building that Greene also used as an office to run an industrial consulting firm.”

I remember relishing that line, “Cleveland gangland figure.”

His luck and elusiveness notwithstanding, Greene began to seem more eccentric than significant. He was, as I came to understand it, less important than his reputation. He may have been elbowing his way into the gambling rackets, but Greene really wasn’t such a leading figure in the Cleveland underworld.

He was colorful, though.

Plain Dealer articles described Greene as revealing no fear after escaping the attempt on his life in 1975.

“After that bombing,” one article recalled, “Greene used to sit on a bench in front of his office in a trailer, conducting business and unafraid of being shot down.”

He was killed in October 1977, the victim of what the Plain Dealer called a “trojan horse” bombing. An explosive device packed into a car parked next to Greene’s Lincoln Continental was detonated remotely, killing Greene immediately.

Greene had just completed a visit to the dentist.

I was one of nine Plain Dealer staffers who worked on that story, which carried the headline, “Car bomb kills Danny Greene.” Flanagan, the night city editor, also was credited as having contributed to the report.

Flanagan, a hefty man of Irish descent who wore suspenders and had a heart of gold, was a veteran of Cleveland’s once-lusty newspaper scene. He worked for the afternoon Cleveland News before it folded, and afterward joined the Plain Dealer.

He was steeped in a detail-rich, tabloidesque writing style. And he took time to mentor young reporters, if they were willing. I still have copies of some of my stories that Flanagan rewrote, to which he usually attached detailed notes of explanation.

“Don’t waste space on the obvious,” one note began.

“Remember the old English lesson, avoid adjectives; move the sentence by verbs,” said another.

“Simplify, simplify, simplify,” Flanagan wrote in another note, adding, “Again, I stress using simple, declarative sentences and make your attribution down in the story.”

I suspect Flanagan wrote the sidebar to the story about Greene’s violent death. Either he or Bob Daniels, a gifted rewriteman who called just about everyone “coach.”

The sidebar began this way:

“Daniel John Patrick Greene had the quiet courtesy of an Irish butler but his shillelagh-bold eyes were those of a muscleman. …

“His manner was reserved and polite and he showed compassion for friends.

“But bombs burst around him so frequently and bullets were fired at him so often that his mere appearance in a saloon caused an uneasy atmosphere and a gradual emptying of the bar.”

Vivid writing, delightfully over the top. And it’s just the kind of stuff that Hollywood seems to love.

WJC

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