Dick Cami was lounging by the pool at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach mid-October 1961 when he got the call from New York. Something about celebrities, socialites, and other A-listers crowding into the off-Broadway dive that his father-in-law and his boys owned on West 45th Street.
The teen dance club didn’t have a phone. The boys were smart enough not to have one because that way it couldn’t be tapped. When Dick called back, he had to dial a pay phone that rang in the Knickerbocker Hotel lobby, which was right outside the club’s back door. He was not surprised to hear a flirtatious woman’s voice come on the line. The Knickerbocker these days rented as many rooms by the hour as they did to the luckless out-of-towners, the unemployed, and those only a week away from living on the streets.
“Hi, honey,” Cami said. “Do me a favor and stick your head in the door behind you, the one to the Peppermint Lounge, and ask for Louie or Sam.”
The girl hesitated. “There’s a big guy blocking the door.”
“Tell him to come to the phone—please.”
A moment later, the gruff voice of the Terrible Turk came on the line.
“Who is it?”
“Turk, it’s me, Dick.”
“Dickie, holy shit, you can’t believe what’s happening here.”
The Turk was a former professional wrestler with a shaved head and a body that looked like it’d been stamped out on a truck assembly line. In a tuxedo, he looked official, and officially dangerous.
“It’s fucking unbelievable, I tell you. They put me on the back door because we got so many people trying to sneak in through the fucking hotel lobby. You guys coming up or what?”
“Soon,” Dick said. “Get me Louie, will you?”
“Sure, hold on. He’s on the other side, giving an interview to a newspaper guy.”
Holy shit, Cami thought. Louie Lombardi giving an interview? About what? Breaking arms? Making book? Buying swag? Jesus, that’s all we need.
Finally, Louie’s voice came on the phone. “You guys don’t want to listen to me? I’m telling you, this joint’s exploding. You know who I was just looking at?”
“Greta Garbo. That broad that wants to be left alone.”
This was too much for Cami, who laughed and said, “Greta Garbo? She doesn’t go anywhere; it must be a look-alike.”
“Look-alike my ass,” Louie said. “This broad is Greta-fucking-Garbo, I’m telling you. And she’s here tonight. You guys are the only ones that ain’t here.”
Dick looked up to see his father-in-law coming into the beach cabana. Dressed immaculately in a black silk shirt, custom ivory trousers, alligator belt, and matching shoes, Johnny Biello created a barely noticeable ripple of excitement among the pool boys and sunbathers. They couldn’t know that he was a high-ranking mafioso, caporegime of the Genovese crime family, at one time considered the most likely heir to Frank Costello’s unofficial title of prime minister of the Mob. But they did know, by the way he carried himself, that he was somebody you stepped out of the way for.
“It’s Louie again, I think we better go up,” Cami said.
Johnny nodded. “Okay. Get the tickets,” he said.
After Dick and Johnny landed at LaGuardia and grabbed their bags, Dick hailed a cab. When he leaned forward to give directions, Johnny put his hand on his shoulder and cut him off.
“Take us to the Peppermint Lounge,” he said.
Dick shot him a look of disbelief. What airport cabbie was going to know the Peppermint?
“You kidding me?” the driver said. “We won’t get within blocks of that place.”
After deciding to take the cab into Manhattan and abandon it on the East Side, the two men made their way across 45th Street. Traffic was stopped dead between Fifth Avenue and Broadway. Long before they got to the Peppermint, they could see what looked like a street riot up ahead. Floodlights cut the night sky and the sounds of the noisy crowd bounced off the skyscrapers.
Cops had erected barricades and a small battalion of mounted police tried to steady their spooked horses while driving back an exuberant, barely controllable mob onto the sidewalk. At the entrance, a parade of limos dispensed women in gowns and men in tuxes.
The line waiting outside the candy-striped awning was a full sidewalk wide. It stretched all the way down to Broadway and beyond. The din of rock-and-roll music grew louder and became more distinct as the line approached the Peppermint’s entrance.
Johnny led the way to the front door, where they were met by Lenny Montana, a six-foot-six flesh monolith known as “the Bull” during his time as a professional wrestler. Years later, he would be better known as the murderous Luca Brasi, Marlon Brando’s bodyguard in The Godfather. Montana flashed a big grin and cracked open the door, leaving the waiting throngs buzzing with curiosity over the identities of the two men. Politicians? Movie moguls? High rollers?
Inside, the dim light made it hard to see. They made their way along the rope separating the long mahogany bar in the front. Three bartenders worked as fast as they could, shouting themselves hoarse and opening bottles of Chivas every few minutes. Customers were too thrilled to have made it inside to notice the acrid taste of the cheap booze Scatsy had substituted for the Chivas—a practice from his bootlegging days in the twenties, when he and his brother Johnny worked for the Dutch Schultz mob.
At the end of the rope was the back of the club, where Joey Dee and the Starliters were blasting “The Twist” from a raised bandstand. The dance floor, just eight by twenty feet, was packed with shuddering, shimmying bodies. Mirrored walls bounced their images to infinity, jammed together, asses to elbows, moving to deafening rock-and-roll music. No two dancers moved the same way, but all were doing a version of the Twist.
As Dick’s eyes adjusted, he could see that Louie was not imagining things. Sitting at the edge of the dance floor with several handsome young hangers-on was Ava Gardner, one of Hollywood’s leading screen queens. Gardner got up and nearly shook the bolts out of her chassis. Dick decided she’d had too much to drink. At the next table was Shirley MacLaine, one of the day’s best young actresses. MacLaine laid claim to the dance floor, shaking and twisting like a pro. Spotting her, Joey Dee jumped down from the bandstand and wriggled alongside her.
If the Peppermint burns down tonight, Dick thought, only half of New York society will go with it. The other half was still waiting on line outside.
Johnny had connections to numerous businesses. Some he had on the arm, which meant the owners paid him to keep anyone else from doing to them what he was doing to them. Some he owned, often registering a legitimate partner’s name on the license. Some he used as fronts, holding strategic meetings and conducting his illegal activities in the back rooms. The Peppermint Lounge he owned and used as a front. When the club became the most-asked-about New York City attraction at the Times Square information booth, the attention was neither expected nor welcomed. Drawing squads of cops, hordes of teens mixed with society types, and noted celebrities to this club or any of his business connections was never in his plans. Johnny Biello lived quietly, respectably, and always in the background.
The reason he had moved to Miami three years earlier, uprooting not only his family but also son-in-law Dick’s was to distance himself from day-to-day life in gangland New York. After Frank Costello was shot, Johnny knew things in the Mob would never be the same for him and he wanted to retire. He had a great business opportunity in Florida and, while not entirely legit yet, that was the dream.
At age fifty-five, he had survived a lifetime of Mob wars, FBI investigations, and criminal prosecutions. He wanted out, but extricating oneself from the highest levels of organized crime in the Five Families of New York was no simple matter. Having the entire Western world’s eye trained on the teenage rock-and-roll dance club he owned on 45th Street was not going to help. Johnny decided that it would be better to play it safe and stopped any illegal activities out of the Peppermint. But Johnny was no fool, either. Sensing an opportunity after witnessing firsthand the nightly madness that followed the club’s meteoric rise, he decided to return to Miami Beach and open a second, all-new and completely legitimate Peppermint Lounge as quickly as possible.
Copyright © 2012 by John Johnson, Jr., and Joel Selvin with Dick Cami