Movie – In 1972 John Wojtowicz held up a branch of the Chase Manhattan bank in Brooklyn in order, he said, to get money to pay for his wife Eddie’s sex change operation. Through the course of the day he argued with the police, ordered a pizza and tipped several thousand dollars for it, drew so much attention that local news switched from Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign to cover the story, and eventually got what he wanted – almost $250,000 and Eddie on a plane to Denmark. Unfortunately you’d have to pay actual money to stream Dog Day Afternoon, the Oscar-winning Al Pacino movie about this iconic moment in gay history, but you can watch The Dog, the documentary about the real John Wojtowicz, on Hoopla.
As documentaries do, The Dog takes this unconventional but ultimately optimistic Robin Hood love story and complicates it. John only rarely refers to Liz Eden (neé Eddie) as “she,” which is increasingly uncomfortable the better we get to know her, and Liz describes how John threatened to kill her when she left him. John himself admits to being a controlling, alpha-male chauvinist. And yet you can see how he had a string of wives, legal and common-law, male and female. He’s charismatic and compelling, even at his most pathetic: out of prison, living with his mother, his only source of income posing for photos wearing a shirt that reads “I Robbed This Bank.” He adores his mother and dotes on his disabled younger brother. You don’t want to like the guy, but you almost can’t help it.
This is a great documentary about a fascinating person – not a good person by any means, but a fascinating one – who somehow managed to upstage the entire New York City gay community in being flashy and outrageous.
[Content warnings for frank and explicit discussions of sexuality, period-typical slurs and transphobia, and plenty of working-class-Brooklyn-typical foul language]
Book – It’s hard to find a good true crime book about murderous women. There’s a way in which female killers are often treated less seriously than male killers, as though their femininity makes them somehow cute or trivial even though they’ve killed people. From the title, I was expecting Lady Killers to be something like that. I was pleasantly surprised when what I got instead was a chronicle of the way the contemporary media, and then history, treats women murderers. There are some big names in here (Countess Bathory, obviously; the Bloody Benders) but also a few I’d never heard of, and some I only knew a little about. They aren’t just stories from America and the UK, either – we’ve got murderers here from Egypt, Hungary, Russia, and Ireland. In each story, Telfer picks apart the ways these women are dehumanized (many of them were described as animalistic) or their crimes minimized by making them sexy (bathing in the blood of virgins!) or purely mercenary (killing one husband for the insurance money is one thing, but five?). And then, once they’ve been executed or died in prison, we forget all about them. Aileen Wurnos is far from the first female serial killer, but that was exactly what she was called in the press. In the end, Telfer’s thesis is simple: women are people, and sometimes people are horrible. Fans of Harold Schechter and Skip Hollandsworth should enjoy this very much.
Book – Lizzie lives alone with her invalid sister Emma in Maplecroft, a big old house in Fall River, Massachusetts. Everybody knows what she did. (You know what she did.) But what they don’t know is the reason why, the thing that keeps Lizzie up at nights, the thing that her sister writes to a scholar at Arkham University about, the thing that they don’t know about because Lizzie has been protecting them: There are monsters coming up out of the sea. And there is, so far as she can tell, very little that can stop them.
Fortunately, Lizzie is still very good with an axe.
This is a tremendous mashup of the real-life Lizzie Borden and the Lovecraftian mythos, and Priest doesn’t stint on either the historical flourishes (from Emma’s illness to the precarious social position that puts the two spinster sisters in) or the horror (lots of creepy-crawlies, monstrous fish-people, and the slow corruption of intellectuals studying things that Man Was Not Meant To Know). While this novel has its scares, it’s also got an action-movie quality about it. Or maybe it’s just so darn fun to imagine Lizzie Borden sinking her infamous axe into a Lovecraftian fish-monster. You have to admit, that’s a great image, and it happens plenty in this book.
Maplecroft has a sequel, Chapelwood, about a Lovecraftian cult in the rural Deep South. Or, if you prefer modern horror, try Priest’s new standalone horror novel, The Family Plot, about a salvage crew that runs afoul of an old ghost.
Book – There’s a building in Brownsville, Texas, one of the poorest cities in the country, where something terrible happened. A lot of terrible things happen in Brownsville — right on the Mexican border, it’s a center for drug trafficking as well as immigration, both legal and not, and the usual urban crimes born of poverty and desperation — but this was bad enough that the whole building lies under its shadow.
This isn’t the usual kind of true crime book, and if you try to read it that way you’re going to be disappointed. The facts were never really in doubt. In the spring of 2003, John Allen Rubio, with the assistance of his common-law wife, horribly murdered his three children. The oldest girl was only three years old. Less than a day later, they both confessed to the police; Rubio believed the children were possessed. Or maybe, he admitted when questioned, it was the spray paint he’d been huffing.
But Tillman isn’t telling that story as much as she’s telling the story of the community in which that crime occurred. What did the neighbors think of John and Angela, both before and after the murders? What was it like, to be them, to live in their world? And if John truly, sincerely believed that the children were possessed when he killed them, does that make him not guilty by reason of insanity? What if he had schizophrenia? What if he had brain damage from long-term drug use, or a low IQ from his mother’s long-term drug use? If the state of Texas executes him for his crime, what does that say about us, and the world we live in? And can the community ever come to terms with what happened? Tillman doesn’t offer answers to these questions, but she asks them with care, and I think they’re important ones.
Book – The Lufthansa Heist reveals the details of one the biggest heists in history. It tells the story of how a group of thieves stole over $6 million from the Lufthansa air hanger vault at Kennedy Airport without anyone ever being charged for the crime until 2013. Henry Hill a known criminal who associated with New York Mafia figures tells the story of how it all happened. Most readers will remember him as the character Ray Liotta portrayed in the movie Goodfellas. In fact the heist is a major part of the movie and eventually leads to the downfall of Hill.
In the book Hill gives the reader a more in depth look into how the heist happened and its aftermath. There schemes included college basketball point shaving, drug trafficking, assault, robberies, and murders galore. The story is fast paced and will keep readers intrigued even though most will know the outcome, assuming they have seen Goodfellas. This book will give you what the movie mulled over for lack of time.
Listening to the audiobook made things a little difficult however. The narrator has a heavy New York accent which made it difficult to keep up. This is because the story is being told from various perspectives. Even with the difficulty keeping the characters straight, due to the heavy accent, I enjoyed the book immensely. He does a good job at keeping a fast pace as I feel one would have if they were reading the book. The book is for anyone who enjoys true crime, mafia stories, and are fans of Goodfellas and mob movies.
Book – In the mid-1980s, dozens of childcare providers were tried, and some convicted and imprisoned, for sexual abuse of children on an unprecedented scale. While in some cases abuse really occurred, the charges were massively inflated, the product of accusations made by children who had been through hours and hours of aggressive interrogation and “therapy” designed to help them recover memories they had suppressed. Into the 90s, adult women were coming forward with allegations of abuse, often connected to Satanic cults, that they had not known about before the memories had been “recovered” in therapy. And by the year 2000, almost all of the charges and convictions resulting from these kinds of allegations had been dropped or rescinded.
Beck does more describing the situation than explaining it in his book, covering the groundbreaking McMartin trial (one of the longest and most expensive in American history) in great detail, but also drawing connections with other, similar cases going on around the country. Beck puts the whole thing down to a growing cultural discomfort with the disintegration of the nuclear family and the development of new therapeutic techniques that turned out to be more damaging than helpful.
The McMartin case broke six months before I was born, but I remember reading about it as a teenager in connection with the West Memphis Three, a group of teenagers who were convicted as part of the “Satanic panic” and only released in 2011. I’ve always been amazed – and a little scared – at how huge the whole thing got before anyone was willing to step up and say, This is ridiculous, this cannot possibly be real. The destruction of one accused family is chronicled in Andrew Jaerecki’s documentary Capturing the Friedmans, which Beck mentions in the book.
Book – Why is there something so irresistible about a really skillful crime? Maybe we should be rooting against the antiheroes of Ocean’s Eleven, The Italian Job, or Catch Me If You Can, but if you love any of those films, or if you’ve ever found yourself binge-watching episodes of Leverage on a Friday night, I bet you don’t spend those viewing hours riveted by the tenacious law enforcement officials on our criminals’ tails (sorry, Tom Hanks). If you find any of the above titles as fascinating as I do, no matter the moral failings of their protagonists, your next read should be The Man in the Rockefeller Suit–which is every but as thrilling but with the added bonus, incredibly, of being true.
Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter was an ordinary young man from a small town in Germany, but his ambitions were exponentially bigger than that. He came to America as a student, ingratiated himself among the rich and powerful, and changed his identity several times before settling on the ultimate last name: Rockefeller. Under the new persona of Clark Rockefeller, he lied and schemed his way into a marriage with an ambitious businesswoman, memberships in elite clubs and an art forgery con, among other things, living the high life and then some. It took over thirty years and the kidnapping of his own daughter before his secrets finally caught up with him (including a murder case which remains tantalizingly unresolved).
In short, The Man in the Rockefeller Suit is a fast-paced and exhilarating example of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction that will appeal even to the non-fiction skeptic. The audiobook is also excellent.