Chapter 8: Escape from Rome
Angila was frightened beyond my comprehension. Before meeting me, she had never left the island of Sicily. Breaking the Mafia’s code of secrecy, I explained the entire story to her; she deserved that much. Of course, I omitted the part about witnessing a murder and helping to dispose of the body parts.
As a result of my impulsive act, we were now wanted by the most powerful Mafia families in America and Italy. Realizing the danger that I had placed her in, I encouraged her to leave me. “Return to your family in Sicily,” I told her, but she would not leave me. She was a loyal wife.
The Mob knew all too well what I looked like, but Angila could move about the city without fear of being recognized, so she left our room from time to time to make arrangements to implement our escape plan. She exchanged some of our British money for Italian lira and Swiss francs and purchased new clothes for our disguises. Angila returned to the room after one such errand and presented a flyer that was being posted around the city. It was a picture of Lucky Luciano, with instructions to contact authorities if seen. This was evidence that the Fascist government was cooperating with the Mob in order to find me.
We changed our appearance as well as we could. We were holed up in our hotel room for two weeks, which gave me time to grow a beard. I also shaved my head completely bald, and Angila became a blonde. As an extra precaution, she purchased a pair of spectacles for me to wear.
We were now ready to make a move. Out on the street for the first time in two weeks, I stopped to take in the air. First on our agenda was to find a pay phone to make some calls. We had been afraid to do so until we were ready to relocate. Angila called her mother and explained to her that she would not hear from her for a while, but not to worry. My first call was to Carlos.
Carlos explained that Vito Genovese had convinced Mussolini to allow his drug-laden ships bound for America to use Italian ports, in return for his arranging a deal whereby the New York Mafia would sell stolen arms to the fascist for pennies on the dollar. “The deal fell apart when Ben showed up representing the American Mafia. No one figured that Mussolini would involve his Nazi ally, Hitler in the deal. Hitler’s top Nazis, Goering and Goebbels were sent to attend the meeting on behalf of Germany and they refused to do business with Ben because he was a Jew. Vito was already in the port of Naples with the first shipment of drugs, waiting for Ben to arrive with the cash. Vito also refused to do business with anyone other than Italians; that’s why you were there, so that he would think that he was doing business with Lucky”
“Why couldn’t Costello have met with Vito?” I asked.
“If Frank had shown up, Vito would have likely killed him, because with him dead, Vito would be in line to take over the Luciano family. Lucky knows that he can still run things from jail if Frank is acting boss, but Vito isn’t loyal and would push Lucky to the side. The only person that Vito would not have made a move against, was Lucky himself, but when you took off with the money, Ben had no choice but to explain to Vito that Lucky was in jail and you were his double. Vito vowed to return to New York and take over the Luciano family; it could mean all-out war. Either way, it’s going to be really bad for you, Little Brother—have you talked to your mother?” Carlos explained.
When I answered that I had not, Carlos gave me some advice. “Johnny, you need to turn yourself in to the family.”
“I can’t do that, Carlos. You know that I would be a dead man.”
“Cado, we go way back. You need to turn yourself in, or call your mother and tell her goodbye.”
It took a moment for me to absorb his dire warning.
“I know that you are scared and I cannot protect you, but I can make it quick and easy for you, if you agree to turn yourself in to me,” Carlos went on.
I hadn’t considered that the Mob might take retribution out against my mother; this changed everything. Angila had been watching me and could tell that something was worrisome. “Carlos, can you assure me that nothing will happen to Mama or Angila if I turn myself into you?”
“That I can guarantee, provided you return with all of the money that you stole.”
There was no other choice. I had to turn myself in to Carlos. He agreed to meet me at the airport in New York.
My next call was to my mother. “Mama, I’ve made a fatal mistake.”
She listened to my story, but when I finished she told me, “Johnny do not turn yourself in. I will be safe.” She then told me that she had some information that guaranteed her safety from the Mafia. “When you visited me last, you asked me if I knew that we were related to Salvatore Lucania—you call him Lucky or Charlie. I did not tell you the truth.” She explained that my father had had an affair with her sister, and as a result, “You and Charlie share a father. Years later, when my sister’s husband found out, he killed your father, and I fled to America with you.”
This explained the uncanny resemblance between Lucky and me; but she did not tell me what information that she had on the Mob that kept her safe.
“These people will kill you—even your best friend, Carlos, cannot protect you. Take the money and run away to Switzerland and never return. I will be safe. I promise. Go quickly, and never look back.” Those were the last words that I ever heard my mother speak.
The driver stopped the taxi curbside at the airport. In Italian, I told him to wait. “Don’t drive away until I say so and keep the car running.” He accepted my generous tip and agreed to do as I said. I instructed Angila to wait in the taxi while I went to the counter to buy our airline tickets.
The airport was teeming with security guards dressed in military garb. The young lady behind the counter held out her hand and with a polite smile asked for my passport. An eerie feeling that something was about to go wrong came over me, so I asked her to pardon me. “I must have left it in my case,” I said.
Instead of returning directly to the taxi, I decided to survey the area. Two large men standing together near the men’s bathroom, cigarettes in hand, caught my attention. They were wearing expensive suits and shoes but had the faces of brutes. Moving closer to get a better view, I could see that one had a shoulder-strapped gun underneath his jacket. It was likely the other had one also. The one with a gun had an ugly scar just below his left eye that stretched across his nose. This made me think of my own scar—the one that I woke up with after being slipped a mickey by Frank Costello. My two-week beard hid the scar from direct view, but since no hair grew on the scar itself, a side view was dangerous. Instinctively, I reached my hand to my face and stroked my short beard so as to hide the scar. Scarface noticed me noticing him. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a flyer—the one with Lucky’s picture, no doubt. My heart began to pound as I walked away, trying not to call any more attention to myself. There was a large plate of glass that allowed me to see a reflection of the men following me. I stepped up the pace a bit, trying not to appear to be running away.
The men were only ten to fifteen steps away by the time I had my hand on the taxi’s door handle. One of them shouted “Halt!”
I thought that was odd. I had expected them to be Italian, but they were obviously German. I ignored the command and ordered the taxi driver to speed away.
Through the rear window I could see the two men getting into another taxi, obviously to follow us. I tossed a wad of money to the driver, I couldn’t tell you how much, and instructed him to lose them no matter what it took. The driver pressed the accelerator and we zoomed through the streets of Rome, with the other taxi in hot pursuit. Our driver had impressive motoring skills, and it paid off because once we were clear of the airport, one or both of the men began shooting a gun in our direction. Angila let out a scream and our driver cursed. “Get down!” I shouted to Angila, and then I tossed another wad of cash to the driver.
The driver called our attention to some “trouble ahead.” We were rapidly approaching traffic that had come to a halt. I could see behind us that there were only two cars separating us from the pursuing taxi. Seeing that we were stopped by traffic, the two gunmen jumped out of the taxi and began running toward us, guns drawn. My first instinct was to run, but the driver shouted for us to hang on, and he turned the wheel sharply and drove the taxi onto the sidewalk, sideswiping a street vendor’s cart and forcing pedestrians to scramble. The gunmen continued to pursue us on foot, running at full sprint and firing off shots, seemingly unconcerned about all of the innocent people that could have been injured or killed by stray bullets. Our driver knew this area well and quickly turned down a side street. The approaching cars dodged us as we were going the wrong way on this one-way street, but once we made a few more turns and were at a safe distance from the gunmen the driver began to inquire about our circumstances.
He assured us that the amount of money that I had thrown his way bought his loyalty and silence. He introduced himself: “I am Paolo. Let me help you,” he said. “I have a friend in Milano who can give you new identities with proper papers, and help you escape into Switzerland. But we have to get you to Milano, and I cannot take you. Not to worry, I have a relative in Livorno. I can have him meet us somewhere between here and there and he will take you to Milano.”
Paolo drove us to a small town near San Vincenzo where Angila and I had vacationed just a few weeks earlier. There was a scruffy young lad, no more than eighteen years of age, standing next to an old, run-down, flatbed delivery truck. The lad’s name was Nicola. We thanked Paolo and said goodbye, before Angila and I crowded into the truck’s cab with Nicola in the driver’s seat. It was a long, rough ride to Milano.
Once there, Nicola led the way into a pizzeria, where we met Roberto. We felt it wise for everyone to keep to a first-name-only basis. After making the introductions, Nicola accepted my payment and departed. I explained to Roberto that we needed new passports so that we could pass through the border and enter into Switzerland. Roberto quoted a price, which included a room for the night. He would work all night long, but he would have what we needed by morning.
Is this when you obtained new identities?
Yes. Roberto was very talented. I was now Cicero Friddi and Angila was Maria Bartoma Friddi. We had no trouble purchasing our tickets for or boarding the train to Switzerland. Crossing the border into Switzerland was uneventful as well. We made our way to Zurich and after a good night’s rest in the luxurious hotel we deposited our fortune into a Swiss bank account in our new names. It had been a huge burden, carrying around a couple of million British pounds and knowing that almost everyone that we encountered would take our lives for that amount of money.
We spent the remainder of 1938 enjoying the splendors of Switzerland, but Angila began to grow restless. On Christmas day, she told me that she wanted to celebrate the coming of the New Year in Paris. I spent the next several days thinking about whether or not it would be safe to travel to Paris. In the end, I agreed.
Paris was beautiful that time of the year, but best of all, we felt free and safe walking the streets. We could be anyone we wanted to be there. Angila loved the city so much she made me promise that we would never leave; we agreed to open up a legitimate business and make Paris our home. Angila explained that she had always wanted to own a perfume and gift shop. This seemed like a good idea to me. We were rich and could do whatever we wanted, and if this is what she wanted, so be it.
We spent the next month searching for a place to live and a place for her store. With the help of a real estate agent, we found the perfect investment. An entire apartment building with retail stores on the first floor, located on rue Saint Lazare. There was one unoccupied retail space for the perfume and gift shop, with a nice apartment above that suited us well. Plus, it was a good investment. La Boutique de Maria opened for business in March.
Maria hired Carol Hollingsworth, a middle-aged divorcée, to manage La Boutique. Carol was British, but had been living with her husband in America. She made the move to France to start a new life following a bitter divorce from the millionaire oilman, who was determined to make her miserable if she remained in Texas.
The store was surprisingly successful, in large part due to Carol’s management skills. The best decision that Carol made was to hire a twenty-four-year-old French women by the name of Collette Fountaine. Collette did not speak a word of English, but knew exactly what the young ladies of Paris wanted to purchase. Thankfully, Carol spoke both English and French.
We were settled into our apartment on the second and third floor above La Boutique de Maria. I’ve never been happier, before or since. We were now known as Cicero and Maria Friddi from New York, by way of Sicily. We began to make friends among other Italian and American immigrants—but our neighbors were to change our lives forever.
As the months rolled by, Maria became more and more involved with tending to the store’s business, giving me time to pursue my interests. Top on my list was to do some remolding of our townhouse. Still paranoid that it was a matter of time before the Mafia would locate us, I designed and built a secret door and stairs that led to a hidden basement, which provided a means of escaping to the back alley. The project was complete by September.
The big news of the month was that Hitler’s German forces invaded Poland. The subject of war and Hitler’s ambitions became an all-too-frequent topic of conversation at dinner parties and other gatherings. Maria and I were not interested in politics and paid very little attention to world events. We were relieved to be in a part of the world not dominated by the Mafia, and were trying to enjoy life without a care in the world, for once.
My secret door was accessed through a pantry in the kitchen. The back wall, lined with shelves, could be opened by removing a peg, if you knew where to look for it. This gave access to stairs to the basement, which doubled as a wine cellar. I also began collecting guns, for no apparent reason other than I enjoyed buying guns. I kept the guns in the wine cellar. The wine cellar was also home to the safe, where I kept a substantial sum of cash at all times.
One Saturday afternoon, I arrived home in a new automobile that I had purchased as a surprise for Maria. The front door to the apartment was unlocked, but I did not see Maria in the living room or bedrooms. Once in the kitchen, I saw that the pantry door was open and so was the secret door at the rear of the pantry. From the top of the stairs I could make out Maria’s voice coming from below: “I hope that you don’t mind that I show our friends our wine cellar, dear.” The two ladies with Maria were our neighbors, and since I owned the entire building they were also our tenants.
Katie was an Englishwoman who had married and divorced a Frenchman. Her friend, Ella, was an American who had recently lost a brother and a husband to untimely deaths. Soon after the second death, Ella accepted Katie’s invitation to live with her in Paris.
Maria felt as though she had a lot in common with these ladies—they were all well-to-do immigrants. We became very good friends, having dinner together almost every evening. When we weren’t taking turns hosting dinner, we would enjoy one of the many fine Parisian restaurants. We didn’t have a care in the world.
Paris is one of the greatest cities on Earth. France was prosperous and was as big and strong as Germany, so despite the constant warnings and news reports of an aggressive Nazi war machine on the move, the dangers still seemed to be “over there.”
That would come to an abrupt end on June 13, 1940.