My Uncle, the hitman

Something of an organized crime buff myself, I was familiar with parts of Kayo Konigsberg's story but needed Blood Relation to fill in the pieces.

blood book 88 298 (photo credit: )
blood book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Blood Relation By Eric Konigsberg Harper Collins 280 pp., $25.95 Eric Konigsberg, a nice Jewish boy raised in Omaha, Nebraska, first learned his family had a very black sheep when someone asked him if he was related to Harold "Kayo" Konigsberg, a notorious gangster from Bayonne, New Jersey. Although the teenage Konigsberg had never heard the name, he knew his family had its roots in that town. Later in life he learned that the infamous "Kayo" was indeed his great-uncle "Heshy," but his family remained tight-lipped about the relative serving a life sentence for murder in a New York prison. In 1997, after Konigsberg had published several articles in The New Yorker and elsewhere, it was Kayo who contacted him by phone suggesting they work together on a book. Intrigued, the writer visited his great-uncle at the Auburn Correctional Facility, and found him a compelling character: "He was as bumbling as he was shrewd. He had a sense of humor, or, at least, a sense of absurdity, where nobody else would have. For someone who committed such clinically antisocial acts, he could be warm and even needy. For somebody who had to know that his actions were shameful, he could be shamelessly, amusingly self-righteous. He was scary and he was disarming." This was the genesis of Blood Relation, which is in part a biography in broad strokes of Kayo's career, an account of the author's developing relationship with his great-uncle and an attempt by the author to make sense of the story behind this very scary skeleton in his familial closest. Those first two threads of this book make for fascinating reading - but that last one proved a little more problematic for this reader. Something of an organized crime buff myself, I was familiar with parts of Kayo Konigsberg's story but needed Blood Relation to fill in the pieces. A hulking, violence-prone adolescent raised in a blue collar Jewish family headed by a father who dabbled in Prohibition-era bootlegging, Kayo began working as a teen as a right-hand goon to Newark crime boss Abner "Longy" Zwillman. By the late 1950s, when the once-strong Jewish presence in organized crime had dwindled dramatically, Kayo kept "making his bones" as one of the top loansharks and hitmen for La Cosa Nostra. The book paints a vivid portrait of his criminal career, especially a contract killing he carried out for New Jersey Teamsters boss Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzeno - later the chief suspect in the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa - on a rival labor leader. It was that crime which enabled the FBI in 1963 to put Kayo behind bars, where he remains to this day. The most compelling sections of Blood Relations are those in which Konigsberg recounts his jailhouse visits to Kayo. In scenes that read like a cross between Silence of the Lambs and The Sopranos, the great-uncle cajoles, harangues, humors and finally threatens his relative with bodily harm if Konigsberg doesn't write up his story in his preferred manner. "I asked if there was anything I could do to make him more amenable to the fact that my story was about to be published," the younger Konigsberg writes, "and he went back to listing all the ways he was going to kill me: by strangling me with the bootlaces, by shoving a soda bottle up my ass and lighting a firecracker in it. He said my grandmother could visit me at my grave and the thought of that would give him pleasure for the rest of his life." Konigsberg never quite figures out what drew his great-uncle to a life of such extreme crime, other than what appears to be a genetic disposition to mayhem. The author does come away from the experience with renewed respect for family, especially his grandparents, who firmly resisted Kayo's attempts to draw them into his shady world: "My grandfather, who in keeping his head down and doing what his wife expected of him, was nothing more than average and nothing less than heroic. I explored Harold's life story because I wanted to hold the truth in my hands. But perhaps my grandfather already had." Perhaps he did, because Konigsberg's efforts at discerning a larger truth are where the book falls short. In the search for revelations, the author talks with the law officials who tangled with Kayo, a fellow mobster who carried out a double killing with him, and even surviving family members of several of his great-uncle's victims, but these produce little deep insight into the nature of crime, punishment and guilt. The book's most intriguing thread has to do his great-uncle's Jewishness. Konigsberg notes that Kayo's criminal career took off at a time when few others among his co-religionists were choosing to carry on the gangland traditions of Bugsy Siegel and Lepke Buchalter, and that his exploits made him an underworld folk hero to some New Jersey Jews. Barney Frank, the gay Massachusetts congressman who grew up in Bayonne, tells the author, "We loved the fact that he was one of us. I mean, here's a guy who had - who wasn't an accountant like Meyer Lansky... most of the Jewish kids I knew were sort of worshipful of Kayo. We used to follow him in the papers." In a weird twist, Kayo - who had married an Italian-American and had two daughters with her before being convicted - emerges at least superficially as the most proudly Jewish member of the largely assimilated Konigsberg clan. He insists on getting kosher food in prison, expresses concern that one of his grandsons get a bar-mitzva and declares, "I'm gonna save my seed. I'm gonna find an Orthodox girl and pay her to have my son. Do you know you, me, your father and your brother are the only ones left in my father's [side of the family] named Konigsberg? We're the last of the Kohens [kohanim]." Although that's fascinating stuff, the author oddly lets that statement pass without remarking on it. Indeed, nowhere in the book does he discuss what his own Jewishness, or that of his great-uncle, means (or doesn't) to him. That's too bad, because if he had, Blood Relation could have been a classic family memoir, or a truly deep meditation on the meaning of blood-ties and ethnic identification under the most extreme of circumstances. As it is, this is still a fairly compelling and entertaining read. But Harold "Kayo" Konigsberg is such an incredible character, I suspect it will take another author, who perhaps doesn't share his last name, to truly do justice to this most unjust Jewish gangster.