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Henry Hill and mobster romance

June 14, 2012 |  7:18 am

Henry-hillThe Italian gangster in literature can at times be as romantic as the silhouette of a lone detective on a foggy London street or a sickly pale poet scribbling love verses in an attic room.

There’s plenty of violence and savagery to the mob life, but it’s often hidden, at least initially. That’s what readers learned from the late Henry Hill, who died Tuesday in Los Angeles. He described his first impressions of mobsters to Nicholas Pileggi in the book “Wiseguy,” reissued last year on the 25th anniversary of its publication. The strangers that Hill first spotted in his Brooklyn neighborhood back in the mid-1950s didn’t exude menace or fear. No, they looked so elegant to him — and their fashion sense struck him like a work of art.

“He saw glittering rings and jewel-studded belt buckles and thick gold wristbands holding wafer-thin platinum watches,” Pileggi writes in the early pages.

“They flashed wads of twenty-dollar bills as round as softballs and they sported diamond pinky rings the size of walnuts,” Pileggi goes on. “The sight of all that wealth, and power, and girth was intoxicating.”

Hill couldn’t understand the public’s fascination with his or any mob life, but why not? Maybe it was the swagger and the romance, or a combination of the two, that fascinate many people. It also doesn't hurt to have a writer like Pileggi in your corner, telling your story. Pileggi "has a gift for writing talk, and lately, it seems, career criminals just can't stop talking," Dave Hickey said in The Times in 1995, writing about another Pileggi tour de force, "Casino."

Maybe the romantic view of the mobster persists -- no matter what the reality is -- for the same reasons that first impressed Hill: that being a mobster seemed to guarantee a fat-cat’s version of the American Dream. For so many people struggling to live in a bad economy today, it's no wonder a story like Hill's still resonates.


Real-life 'GoodFella' Henry Hill dies at 69

Caldecott Medal Winner Leo Dillon dies at 79

Science fiction pioneer Ray Bradbury, 91, dies

-- Nick Owchar

Photo: Henry Hill in 2005. Credit: Nati Harnik / Associated Press