On the Run – Sean Flynn, Gregg Hill and Gina Hill

hillI have always wondered what happened to the family of former Lucchese family assoaciate Henry Hill (1943-2012) following their entry into the Witness Protection Program.  Hill had been expelled from the program due to multiple arrests, including one in 1987 for narcotics trafficking.  In the years that followed, he became somewhat of a celebrity, appearing on shows and giving interviews about his life in the mafia. His ex-wife Karen, has remained out of the public light, living her days peacefully under the cloak of anonymity.  Their children Gregg and Gina have families of their own but do their best to also remain out the public light.  Their father’s life was portrayed on screen by Martin Scorcese, whose film Goodfellas, is considered by some to the best film about the Italian-American Mafia ever made. Ray Liotta gave a great performance as Hill and what I found while watching the movie, is that for all his faults, Hill still comes in the film as a likable person. I had heard that the real Henry Hill was not as nice as portrayed on screen and the real story was far worse than what we see on film.  Neither the film or Nicholas Pileggi’s book Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, shed light on the relationship between Hill and his children so we are not given any hints as to what things were like at home.  There is one scene in Goodfellas where Henry and Karen have a blowup fight and as Henry storms out, the camera zooms in on one of their daughters to capture her reaction.  However, there is much that was not said.  That is where this book by Gregg and Gina Hill comes into play.  Written with Sean Flynn, the siblings tell their story of life with a mobster father and the realities of being in witness protection.

Hill’s arrest in 1980 by Nassau County narcotics officers officially marked the end of his  life in the Lucchese family.  As the reality of the charges settled in and the threat of murder by his former associates became strikingly clear, Hill made the decision to cooperate with federal prosecutors, forever changing the lives of his wife and children.  We would expect to hear that the family was close knit and fully prepared for their new life together. But in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  I feel compelled to warn readers that this book does not have a typical happy ending.  And what we learn about the Hill household both before and after Hill’s arrest in 1980 through the words of his children, is both eye-opening and mind-boggling. Karen Hill did not participate in the writing of this book but of course, she is in the story.   And whether she will one day write her own memoir remains to be seen but if she has not done so by now, I doubt that she ever will.

Those of us familiar with other books by former mobsters and their family members know that the life is nowhere near as glamorous as movies portray.  It is a dysfunctional and dangerous life that shatters lives.  The Hill children ae frank about the off the wall experiences they had as the children of a man who was “always looking to score”.  Hill’s addiction to drugs is portrayed accruately in the film but what his children describe here in the book puts things in a whole new light.  And at some points I shuddered as I read Gina’s words about the parties held at their home.  This part of the book was actually the most difficult to read and I felt an inner rage as what was a severe case of negligence.  Their parents were caught up in the life and not even the words of their grandmother whom Gina calls “Gram”, were enough to get Hill to change. And Gregg’s description of their last day in New York before disappearing is truly hearbreaking.  His his father had become increasingly bizarre and embarrassing and Hill’s inablity to live a normal life combined with his demons, created sharp divisions between parent and siblings.  Gregg sums up his frustrations with his father in this simple yet pointed statement:

“What I really wanted was a father. Or maybe I wanted my mother to leave him, to stop visiting him in prison so we could move on with our lives. It was his mistake, his fuckup, that created all these problems, that made her work so hard, that made us rely on food stamps to eat, that got the electricity shut off because there wasn’t enough money to pay the bill. I didn’t know how to say that then, but I knew having a normal father would have been better than any present.” – Gregg Hill

The book picks up speed and intensity as they enter the Witness  Protection Program under the care of the United States Government.  They soon find themselves in a cycle of settling into a new place and then being uprooted unexpectedly.  Omaha, Nebraska is the first stop, before moving on to Kentucky and eventually Redmond, Washington.  But no matter where they went, Henry could not let go of his gangster past.  Gregg and Gina have an endless supply of anecdotes about their father’s actions which put the family in danger on more than one occasion.   In fact, Hill became so out of the control, that the the U.S. Government was forced to make a decision that Gregg only learned about years later while reading the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (“FBI”) file on his father.  The family’s life in Washington State simply spirals out of control as Henry embarks on a path of destruction that finally resulted Gregg and Gina making life changing decisions.  Alcohol, drugs, gambling and infidelity surrounded enry and he was unwilling and maybe unable to face them once and for all.  Throughout all Karen remained loyal and supportive but even she too reached her breaking point, divorcing Hill in the late 1980s.  Following a very scary physical altercation with her father, Gina reflects on all that happens and remarks:

“I don’t know why I didn’t leave after that. I guess it was because I didn’t want to abandon my mom. I didn’t understand then the role she’d played in everything, how if it hadn’t been for her tolerating my father, always taking him back and believing his apologies, none of it ever would have happened. Maybe we never would have had to run from New York. Maybe we would have had a chance, a good chance, at the life I’d always wanted.” – Gina Hill 

If you liked the film Goodfellas and want to know more about the family of Henry Hill, you cannot go wrong here.  And although Uncle Jimmy (James Burke), Uncle Paulie, Tommy (Tommy DeSimone) and Stacks (Pernell “Stacks” Edwards) are mentioned in the book, it is only in a memory by one of the Hill children, Gregg more often than Gina.  I am sure the book was painful to write and dredged up dark memories of life with an alcoholic and abusive father who could not leg go of “the life’.  It is a sobering account of the real effects that a life of crime has on those we love.


Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family – Nicholas Pileggi

20200413_171348Recently, I was browsing Netflix and saw that Martin Scorcese’s classic film Goodfellas had been added to their collection.  The film was released in 1990 and nearly thirty years later, it still captivates audiences while remaining part of American pop culture. Surprisingly, I have come viewers of the film who were unaware that the film based based on a true story and was adapted for the silver screen from this best-selling book by author Nicholas Pileggi. Aptly titled Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, the book chronicles the life of Lucchese Family associate Henry Hill (1943-2012). Several years ago I read the book to satsify my curiousity about the real life characters that are in the film. A few days ago while watching a short documentary about the real-life story, I realized that there were some things I could not quite recall and realized that I needed to take another look at the story behind the film.

The movie does follow the book quite closely, although some events were rewritten for the big screen.   As a kid, Hill adopted as a fatherly figure, the Mafia figure Paul vario (1914-1988). In the film, he is played by actor Paul Servino, and his last name is changed to Cicero. Further, the film mentions very little about Vario’s brothers Lenny,  Tommy and Salvatore, who were all involved both legal and illegal ventures.   The author explains their presence and dominance in my old neighborhood of East New York, Brooklyn.  Hill quickly learns the tricks of the trade and Mafia code, and in the process becomes a full fledged gangster to the dismay of his parents Henry, Sr. and Carmela HIll.  But as  he explains in the book,  his father could never understand what he was apart of and how it made him feel as if he belonged. I could not help but wonder if Hill would have taken a different path if the relationship he had with his father had been different.

The differences between the book and movie diverge greatly when it comes to the characters in the story.   Some of the names were changed by filmmakers but the core group of  Karen Hill, Jimmy Burke (1931-1996) (last name changed to Conway in the film),  Thomas “Tommy” DeSimone (1950-1979) (last named change to DeVito in the film) and the crew at Robert’s lounge are all here, with each playing a different role in the story.   However, Hill is the main focus and his story is told spot on in the film. I personally think Liotta nailed the role perfectly with the only exception that the real-life Hill was a far heavier drinker and more reckless.

In the film, only the biggest schemes that took place are shown, most likely due to time constraints.  Hill goes into more detail here about how he learned to score and bring in money for the family through dozens of smaller schemes that range from credit car fraud to cigarette hijacking.  Many of the schemes are low-level but Hill made a name for himself with the Air France robbery in 1967 and later Lufthansa heist in 1978.  The latter placed the Lucchese family on a level of infamy from which is has never returned.  And on a side note,  the money and jewelry taken from the heist were never recovered.  Exactly what Burke did with money and jewelry remains a mystery.  And because all of the major players involved are now deceased, whatever information could have been gleaned is most likely lost for good.

There is one aspect of the book that might confuse some readers.  In the story, Henry and wife Karen have two daughters and the same is portrayed in the film. However in real life, the couple had a son Gregg and daughter Gina.  Hill later had a third child Justin with Kelly Alor, but that took place long after the film had been released and this book had been published.  The most reasonable explanation that I can think of is that at the time the movie was released, Hill’s family was still in the Federal Witness Protection Program and keeping their identities secret was of utmost concern as the Mafia still had an open contract on Hill’s life.

As I read through the book, I felt that Hill’s story was even more dysfunctional than we see in the film.   Between the stormy relationship with his wife, threat of death on the streets and large amounts of narcotics and alcohol, Hill was a walking timebomb.  When he is arrested for the last time, he makes a comment in the book that sums up the exhaustion that comes with a life that moves at the speed of light.  Karen Hill also narrates in the book, giving her side of the story about the life she shared with Hill. But unlike her former husband, she has stayed out of the public sight since entering the witness protection program and her current location is unknown publicly. In the film, she is played actress Lorraine Bracco. He words support Hill’s story and also should remove all doubt as to the surreal existence their life became. Those who have never lived “the life’ as they call it, will find their words had to understand and accept.  But this was their life in the mob and all that came with it.

I may watch Goodfellas again in the near future, to see what I may have missed in prior viewings.  And I will probably watch many more times in the future as my nostaglia for history related films kicks in.   And when I do, I will keep the real story in mind as I watch Henry and Karen’s life on screen.  Good read.

ISBN-10: 0671723227
ISBN-13: 978-0671723224