When Arlyne Brickman, a witness for the prosecution at a Mafia racketeering trial in 1986, was asked during cross-examination what she had been doing in 1981, she replied, "I was a housewife." At this response, the courtroom filled with laughter. If Brickman was a housewife, then Donna Reed had better find a new occupation.
Brickman, as this luridly engrossing true-life account makes abundantly clear, at times in numbing detail, was a mob girl. She spent nearly 40 years hanging out with mobsters, having sex with them, aiding and abetting their business deals and scams, and, finally, turning on them by working as an informer--she preferred the title "cooperating individual"--for the government.
What we have here is the female counterpart of the pseudonymous Henry Hill, the star of "Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family," Nick Pileggi's 1985 classic upon which Martin Scorsese's movie "GoodFellas" was based. As did Pileggi, Carpenter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning crime writer, succeeds in providing through Brickman an insider's view of mob life that is by turns comic and chilling.
From earliest adolescence, Arlyne Brickman wanted to be on the arm of a wiseguy. She wanted to sleep with them, get presents and dough from them, and, if possible, join them in making easy money. All of that came to pass. But the flip side to her mob-girl career included being gang-raped by a trio of wiseguys, routinely getting beaten up by the ones she considered her lovers, and having her life threatened.
"That was how it was hanging out with wiseguys," writes Carpenter. "One moment you feared for your life; the next you were rolling in cash and compliments. The danger, to Arlyne's way of thinking, was not a drawback but one of the attractions of the life. She loved the rush."
Brickman was born on New York's Lower East Side in 1933. Her father, Irving Weiss, was a nattily dressed, well-connected Jewish racketeer whose official job was owning a car dealership in Harlem. He sold Cadillacs and Rolls-Royces to a wealthy clientele whose ranks included many of the city's most prominent mobsters.
Although Weiss and his wife Billie, a one-time chorus girl, expected Arlyne and her younger sister to become respectable wives and mothers, Arlyne had other ideas. The teen-age Brickman found her life's model when she spotted a newspaper picture of Virginia Hill, Bugsy Siegal's girlfriend. "In my eyes, here was a broad that really made good," Brickman would later say, pointing out that Hill had clothes, money, press attention and, most important, had been accepted as one of the boys by her gangster pals.
Brickman lost her virginity at age 12 and, within a few years, was regularly seducing and having affairs with her father's Jewish gangster cronies. She soon extended her carnal embraces to include Italian hoods, who became her preferred beaux. As Carpenter writes: "In the wisdom of her mature years, (Arlyne) would conclude that Jewish racketeers had more class than the Italian wiseguys. They certainly dressed better and they weren't always trying to kill one another off. But (it) was the Italians with their pretty-boy looks and passionate vendettas who attracted Arlyne. When a wiseguy was dangerous, he was truly dangerous."
Arlyne liked her men dangerous.
There were dangerous men aplenty in Brickman's life, especially during the early frenzied years when her conquests included both crime boss Joe Colombo and boxer Rocky Graziano. Along the way, she married a furrier by the name of Brickman and had a daughter, but she quickly divorced and went back to her mob-girl ways. She hooked up with a small-time operator pseudonymously identified here as Tommy Lucca. It was through Lucca, with whom Brickman had a long on-again, off-again relationship, that she became involved in a numbers-running business and, eventually, drug-dealing. And it was because of a fight with Lucca that she turned to the feds and became an informant.
For Brickman, her 10 years of undercover work provided the same high as drugs, alcohol or sex. "There was a tension that would build before a surveillance, culminating in a tremendous climax of relief and self-esteem made all the sweeter by the camaraderie she enjoyed with the agents afterward," writes Carpenter.
Today, Brickman lives in an undisclosed location, with only her lapdog for company. Her daughter, to whom she was a disgracefully neglectful mother, became a heroin addict (sometimes buying her drugs from Tommy Lucca); she died of AIDS in 1988.
Moral retribution? This book's got it in spades. One of the welcome elements that Carpenter brings to Brickman's exciting but repellent tale is that, without laying it on too thick, she provides a necessary measure of moral censure to Brickman's mob-girl adventures, something that the amoral Brickman herself seems incapable of doing.