It’s not hard to see the motive of this dark-haired woman, this middle-aged free spirit who’s known by the name “Benny.” Why, it’s money, of course, the root of all evil and the great temptation that landed her father and two brothers in prison nearly 20 years ago.
Borrowing on the never-take-no-for-an-answer nature of her father, Benny’s motive is expressed in a lawsuit filed in a Milwaukee County civil court. To wit: She is suing her two brothers and sister for a share of the family fortune – a fortune, by the way, that never has been substantiated.
The lawsuit is far from civil. Benny’s audacity has sliced deep into the main artery of a blood feud. And although a fight over family money is an age-old (and usually private) story, this case has been pushed tantalizingly into the public realm by the decades of headlines that have indelibly marked the family name – Balistrieri.
As Benny glibly admits, “It’s a Martin Scorcese wet dream.”
Benedetta Balistrieri is the second of four children born to Frank and Antonina Balistrieri. Both parents were from proud Sicilian families. “Frankie Bal” was the reputed mafia boss of southeastern Wisconsin. He served a seven-year “penal experience,” as Tony Soprano might say, after being convicted of extortion and racketeering in 1984. Frank died in 1993, 15 months after he was sprung from prison.
Benny’s mother was born into the Alioto family. Antonina, or Nina, was the daughter of John Alioto, the don of Milwaukee’s La Cosa Nostra in the 1950s, who, so goes the story, handed down the golden sash to his daughter’s husband, Frankie. Nina died in September 1997.
Neither Nina nor Frank left a will. And therein lies the rub.
The surviving sons, Joseph and John, and the youngest daughter, Catherine, have been East Siders all their lives
(except for their college days and a three-year stint in federal prison for the brothers, found guilty of attempted extortion). Benny, however, moved to California in 1982 after marrying Johnny Contardo, a satin-voiced singer in the retro ’50s band Sha Na Na. It was her second marriage, and in the minds of many, that’s when she disowned her family and went Hollywood.
Uh-uh, she says. Once a Balistrieri, always a Balistrieri.
“I got married twice and never changed my name,” says Benny, now 55. “I’ve always been a Balistrieri, yet I was in a different world. I wanted to be in a different world. Even though I loved my dad, I didn’t always agree with him.”
Today, brother Joe, 61, lives atop Milwaukee’s Lafayette Hill on the eighth floor of the Shorecrest Hotel. A former lawyer, he is part owner of the hotel and at least one other property, a commercial building at Cambridge and North avenues.
John Balistrieri, 53, also co-owns the hotel and lives on the eighth floor with his wife and their 12-year-old son, Frankie. John serves as president of an annual charity golf tournament in Lake Geneva. In 1996, he was denied a request to reinstate his law license.
The youngest sibling, Catherine Busateri, 51, lives on the East Side with her husband, a professional musician. She works at M&I Bank and recently was elected to the board of the Italian Community Center.
With both parents gone, Benny claims she’s entitled to one-fourth of any remaining family assets. Topping her list are the proceeds from last year’s sale of the family home and furnishings on North Shepard Avenue, profits from the sale of her grandparents’ home in Fox Point (once owned by John) and earnings from the Shore-crest Hotel, which at one time housed Snug’s Restaurant, the notorious hangout of Frank Balistrieri and his, ah, business associates.
“When my parents were alive, I considered all the property to be theirs,” says Benny. “When my dad and mom died, then it became ours. My parents had four children, not three.”
Fuggetaboudit, say her siblings. Benny dumped the family 20 years ago, they say, and thus is undeserving of any family riches (if there were any in the first place, which they’re not admitting). While neither Joe, John nor Catherine cared to be interviewed for this article, they make it clear through court motions and affidavits (and just one small temper tantrum thrown by brother Joe over the phone) that Benny is an ill-mannered opportunist.
Or, as Joe explained more bluntly to me in a very abbreviated conversation: “Benedetta is a complete lunatic and a liar.”
At press time, a Milwaukee County judge was considering a motion by Benny’s siblings to put an end to her lawsuit. But she will not go quietly. Regardless of the legal outcome, Benny says, she’s determined to pursue other avenues, though she’s not entirely sure what they are.
Obviously, she can push a few buttons. Indeed, she already has: Late in 2000, she hired Milwaukee lawyer Fred Van Hecke. Last fall, Van Hecke was subpoenaed by the Balistrieri siblings and ordered to give a deposition at, of all places, the Shorecrest Hotel. Van Hecke arrived at the hotel, somewhat apprehensive, and was seated in a dining room in the back, he recalls. As the Balistrieris’ lawyer began prepping Van Hecke, John Balistrieri entered the room.
“Good morning,” offered Van Hecke.
“Don’t give me that gentlemanly bullshit,” returned John. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re a pernicious prick. I oughta take you out to the parking lot and slap you around.” (Not the swiftest move by a man who had once tried to win back his law license.)
Van Hecke, who holds a sixth-degree black belt in tae kwon do, let the comment pass.
The court documents are somewhat more refined. The motion to dismiss Benny’s lawsuit calls it a “frivolous and scurrilous action.” According to an affi-davit signed by Joe Balistrieri, Benny “has willingly and willfully refused to communicate with or have commerce with” him.
Benny says she’s had a life of her own to live, thank you very much. In any event, it was her siblings who abandoned her, she argues. In fact, it was brother Joe, to be most precise, who cut off ties, going so far as to forbid their mother from telephoning Benny and barring her from the family home and hotel when she returned to Milwaukee. On one occasion, says Benny, Joe hired a 250-pound thug to rough her up when she last tried to enter the Shorecrest.
“It really is all about my older brother,” says Benny, who enjoys referring to brother Joe as “Caligula” now and then. “My younger brother and sister just do what my older brother tells them to do.… It’s a control thing, it’s all that power. Some of my friends think it’s because I got a life and I didn’t get involved with the family business. I became someone he couldn’t control.”
In 1984, after a long undercover FBI investigation, Frank Balistrieri and sons went to federal prison, convicted for their involvement in an illegal vending machine racket in Milwaukee. Frank was convicted again the following year in Kansas City with other Midwest mafia bosses for skimming hundreds of thousands of dollars from the counting rooms of three Las Vegas casinos they secretly owned.
It was Frank’s second prison term. In 1971, he was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to two years at a federal penitentiary in Minnesota. Just before he was sent up the river, son Joseph purchased the Shorecrest Hotel with a down payment of $25,000. Joe also assumed the mortgage on the family home to stop foreclosure. The sale price was $47,500.
(Also named as a mortgage holder was Frank Ranney, leader at the time of the Milwaukee Teamsters. Ranney helped secure a pension fund loan of $62.7 million for the hidden purchase of the Las Vegas casinos.)
According to Joe’s affidavit, he has owned and maintained the family properties for more than three decades. “Frank P. Balistrieri has never at any time had any interest in said aforementioned properties of any nature whatsoever, nor did he provide or contribute any funds for their purchases.”
Benny isn’t buying it. In her legal complaint, she alleges that her father “secreted his assets… during his lifetime for fear of revelation to law enforcement and tax authorities of the extent and nature of his holdings.” In other words, he sold the properties to Joe to hide the money he made as a mobster. In fact, she adds, Frank’s conviction for tax evasion was a strong indication that he was hiding his assets very early on.
“These people know what side their mostaccioli is buttered on,” she tells me, and I find myself nodding, not exactly sure what she means but getting the picture.
Benny worked for a while in the office of the Shorecrest Hotel and as Joe’s secretary when his father set him up in a law practice. It was her father who paid for Joe’s rent and custom-made office furniture, she says. It was her father who paid for the family cars, then titled them in Joe’s name. And it was her father who paid the mortgages on the family home and the hotel, propping up brother Joe, and later, brother John, with his misbegotten cash.
The Shorecrest, she says in an affidavit, was purchased with money from the sale of a building on Water Street (again, titled in Joe’s name). Proceeds from that property also went toward the purchase of five residential properties on Lake Drive, including a house where Benny and her sister Catherine lived for 12 years.
The tattered yet fashionable art deco Shorecrest on Prospect Avenue was assessed at $2.9 million in 2001. Last year, Joe sold the family home, a tile-roofed residence one block from Kenwood Boulevard, for $406,000 following an estate sale that deteriorated into a media joke. (You might remember the Journal Sentinel’s description of the “blood-red carpeting” on a spiral staircase and suggestions of horse heads hidden under bed sheets.)
Today, Benny is separated from her rock-’n’-roll husband. She lives alone in a small apartment on Beachwood Drive, a palm-lined street that dead-ends perfectly beneath the famous oversize letters that spell “HOLLYWOOD,” a beacon of promise hovering over the city. Her home is decorated with delicate Italian knickknacks. Dozens of CDs (opera to Motown to heavy metal) are stacked in the living room, a sign of her years in the music business. (She tells a great story about how she helped Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood ditch Mick Jagger at the Milwaukee airport in 1974.) Against a wall is a piano covered by legal documents, and in the closet is a yellow foam cheesehead – tacky testimony, she says, that you can take the girl out of Wisconsin, but you can’t take Wisconsin out of the girl.
Benny sits on her sofa and speaks unabashedly about her life, her intentions and her relationship with her father. Since she was a teenager, the family name has been more of a curse than a blessing, she says. “It never worked in my favor, and that’s okay, I can handle that. But I’ve never cashed in on it.… I’ve spent my life being the unknown daughter. I’ve spent a long time protecting my privacy. So this” – my tape recorder taking in every word – “is like taking my clothes off and walking bare-assed down Wisconsin Avenue.”
But a woman’s gotta do what she’s gotta do. She says she’s got the proof – her father’s own words, stating that he’d always meant his money to be shared among his offspring.
And that’s where things get interesting.
I sit across from Benny in her L.A. living room and balance a stack of letters on my knee, personal letters (deliciously personal, to a reporter) written by Frank Balistrieri to his daughter. Now, if I were writing this story as a movie script or a book about the mob, I’d probably sink to some melodramatic account of how Benny came to decide to stake a claim on the family money – on the very date, no less, of her father’s birth:
May 27, 1999. Sundown in Los Angeles and the smog-thick sky lights up like a neon marquee. Benedetta Balistrieri walks into her bedroom, a tall glass of vodka her only companion. She stands before her dresser and, hesitating for a moment, for the thousandth time, for the last time, she pulls open a drawer. Inside, dozens of letters, creased and yellowed, are strewn about like so many forgotten memories, letters from her father, the mafia don, written from his prison cell long ago. She takes a swallow of vodka and digs out one of the letters. “Dear Benny,” it begins. “I am distressed and greatly disturbed by the situation you are presently in.…” It had been years since she read her father’s words and they hit her like a cold slap to the jaw.…
Okay, enough already with the theatrics, I know, I know. But her decision to finally take action was no small moment. That evening three years ago, on her father’s birthday, Benny wrote a letter to her friend Kevin O’Neil, a Milwaukee lawyer (now deceased) whom she had known since she was 13: “Kevin, I need your help and would like you to begin this proceeding immediately.” Along with her correspondence, she sent her father’s letters.
In one letter, dated August 27, 1984, Balistrieri told his daughter he was troubled by “Joe’s conduct and attitude toward you” but promised that matters will be “rectified.” “He is taking advantage of my absence.… To reflect and give thought to the mistake of placing trust and confidence, and the consequences suffered by this, is unbearable and devastating, especially when forced to recognize and accept wrong judgment was made in the choice of a son for this trust.”
I’m no lawyer, but if it can be proved that Frankie Bal indeed wrote those words, it seems Joe’s got some serious explaining to do, capeesh? And the combustible stuff doesn’t stop there. In a letter dated October 3, 1987, Frank referred to his son’s “reprehensible actions,” adding: “My main concern is… that he is going to sell and run. This would deprive what rightfully and actually belongs to you, your sister and mother.… It makes me sick to think about it and pains me to write about it, but you must know I will do everything legally possible to protect your interest.”
To hear Benny tell it, it took a lot of soul-searching – and, yes, a good amount of vodka – to decide to air her family’s dirty laundry. But it is her opinion that Balistrieri vs. Balistrieri is an act of survival, a move that never would have been necessary if the old man were still around.
“I have to prepare for my future,” she says. “I just want what belongs to me.”
Luck – and, alas, youth – have gone south on Benny Balistrieri. As revealed in her wedding pictures (now stored in a cardboard box), she was a real looker – doe-wide eyes, high cheek bones, long black hair. Her hair is still jet black and falls way past her waist, uncut now since the ’60s. But the years are catching up with her. Her Italian frame is beginning to bear a slight resemblance to the shape of many of my own Sicilian relatives, who grew shorter and wider (and more cantankerous, I might add) as they aged.
Benny’s health has fallen, too. In April 2000, she says, her blood-sugar level skyrocketed to a life-threatening 600 and she was admitted to an intensive-care unit. The diagnosis: borderline diabetes (inherited from her mother’s side of the family). A year later, she was hospitalized again, this time with cardiac arrhythmia (from her father’s side). Weeks later, she was once again wheeled into the ICU with another diabetic attack. Each illness clipped weeks out of her schedule and cost her income. She rang up more than $10,000 in hospital bills as well, she says.
She got back on her feet last August and began interviewing for jobs. Then September 11 hit and the jobs went away. After relying on friends for help, she finally found full-time work in February, editing patient reports in a psychiatric clinic (a fitting occupation, considering all of the personalities she’s known).
She’s heard through the grapevine that her brothers have been spreading nasty rumors of how she’s stooped to cleaning the houses of movie stars to pay the rent.
Not on your life, says Benny.
“They would like to see me as an aging, pathetic, money-grubbing person who’s only doing this because she has somehow hit the skids,” she says. “But I have always worked, and I was flush for a lot of years. Yes, I’ve had some financial problems recently, but that’s because I’ve had health problems. I’m not looking to hit pay dirt. I’m not looking for a score. I have to take care of myself because I don’t have a family. My family consistently has not been there for me.”
Except for one – paterfamilias.
So she’s reaching out, reaching back in time through her father’s written words to help her get what he promised she was due.
As she goes public with the family secrets, Frank Balistrieri must be doing back flips in his grave.
Benedetta Balistrieri was born at Columbia Hospital in 1946 and christened with the name of her paternal grandmother. She had her mother’s Alioto eyes and her father’s mulish determination. As the first-born daughter, she also had her father’s unwavering devotion.
When Benedetta was 4 or 5, Frank Balistrieri – a pianist and top-notch trumpet player – brought home a recording by the Mills Brothers. At night, when he was taking care of business, Benny would stand on a stool in front of the hi-fi and play that record over and over, singing back the words:
You’re sugar, you’re spice,
You’re everything nice.
And you’re Daddy’s little girl.
“My dad told me he wrote that song for me,” remembers Benny.
Twenty-five years later, “Daddy’s Little Girl” was played at her wedding – by legendary bandleader Harry James.
Growing up with a mafia boss dad brought a certain degree of glamour and privilege to the lives of the Balistrieri kids. The Christmas holidays were huge events, with friends and family and wise guys flocking to their home. You can almost see it: A Joe Pesci look-alike standing in the doorway, fedora in hand, coming to pay his respects, while the godfather of the Milwaukee Outfit sipped eggnog and sang “Deck the Halls” with the kiddies.
The family lived in a comfortable home at Ogden and Humboldt avenues. Benny went to parochial school at St. Rita’s Catholic Church. Many of her classmates were children of Italian immigrants.
In 1960, the Balistrieris moved to an even bigger house on Shepard Avenue, two blocks from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Benny began high school at the all-girls Divine Savior Holy Angels.
It wasn’t unusual to see Frank Balistrieri’s name in the paper linked to some underworld activity. His name was as well known as Mayor Henry Maier’s. But Benny and her friends paint the Balistrieri household as just another big Italian Catholic family. Dinner at 6 sharp, homework each night, Communion every Sunday. Not exactly Norman Rockwell, with all the Cadillacs and Mercedes in the driveway, but pretty normal, by god.
“I can’t remember making a big deal out of it,” says Ann Catalane, Benny’s friend and one-time neighbor, thinking back to Frank Balistrieri’s reputation. Catalane and her sisters often played at Benny’s home. “The kids were just our pals. They had a stay-at-home mom, the father was the father. He was always nice to us. It was just a normal family.”
Benny admits she tends to bury her head in the sand when recalling her childhood. She says she knew since adolescence that her father was a notorious womanizer, yet she chooses to remember him more fondly as a kind and soft-spoken man, thin and short, always in a hand-tailored suit, always smelling of aftershave.
“I guess I saw my dad as just a businessman,” she says. “He owned nightclubs, he owned restaurants” – La Scala, Leonardo’s, Joey’s Place, the Brass Rail, the Centre Stage, the Ad Lib, the Downtowner, the Tradewinds, Gallagher’s – nearly all of the ownerships hidden, she says. And his clubs often booked big-name entertainment. Benny remembers sitting on a phone book at Gallagher’s as a little kid, listening to Vic Damone. As a teenager, she sweet-talked her father into letting her bring her high school friends to the Downtowner (a strip joint at the time) to see Bill Haley and the Comets.
“My dad also promoted fights. Rocky Marciano had dinner at our house. I didn’t know who he was because I was a kid. I just remember this man with enormous hands. But he was the sweetest guy in the world.
“People came into the house all the time. They were always very nice to me, they were always well dressed. Usually they would eat in one of the restaurants or clubs, but if it was somebody special, my dad would bring him home and my mom would cook a special meal.… So he was a businessman to me. He just did what other dads did, only he did it at night. I know that sounds crazy but.…”
In 1964, Benny went to Edgewood College of the Sacred Heart, an all-girls school in Madison. “You couldn’t leave campus wearing pants,” she says. But she contracted mono in her second semester and had to drop out. The following fall, she enrolled part time at Marquette University.
For as long as she can remember, Benny and her older brother Joe were on the outs, she says, beyond the point of sibling rivalry. Six years older than Benny, Joe developed polio and rheumatic fever as a child. So while Benny was daddy’s little girl, Joe was the apple of his mother’s eye.
“My mother was an interesting character,” smiles Benny, and it becomes clear she and Nina had their issues. “She was very much into that ‘the boys are more important than the girls’ sort of thing. The boys were the boys, right up until the day she died. Sometimes I think it was a self-inflicted posture. She kind of liked it up there on that cross.”
Despite Joe’s illnesses, he went on to become captain of the track team at the University of Notre Dame, running the 100-yard dash. He graduated from Notre Dame and enrolled in law school at UW-Madison. His brother John followed a similar path, earning a law degree from Valparaiso University, until both boys were employed osten-sibly as Frank’s attorneys.
Benny, meanwhile, never finished college. Instead, to her father’s chagrin, she went into the concert promotion business, running The Scene, a Downtown club. Soon she was bringing top-name rock stars to town: Jimi Hendrix to the Auditorium, Cream to The Scene, the Rolling Stones to County Stadium, Jethro Tull to the Performing Arts Center. She lived with younger sister Cathy in a huge house owned by her father on Lake Drive. Years later, just before she went off to L.A. and he went off to prison, Frank gave her a key to a room at the Shorecrest.
In 1976, Benny married Charles Gottlieb, a music promoter from Illinois. Their wedding reception at the Centre Stage seemed to go on for a week, Benny says, with a cake as tall as the flower girl, two Rolls Royces and 1,500 guests, most of them relatives (cousins eight times removed) and friends of her father, offering favors to her Marlon Brando-like dad.
Husband Charles ran a hip hair salon on Wisconsin Avenue called the Hair Company, while Benny continued to promote rock shows and manage bands. Once in awhile, she styled hair for stars who came to town, spiking the celebrated manes of David Bowie and Peter Frampton. With an exciting career and a famous last name of her own, she could live the high life of bon vivant while distancing herself from the darker side of her father. Occasionally, she strayed into a gray area. In 1979, the IRS seized assets of the Hair Company for nonpayment of federal withholding tax. And in another year, somebody shot up the front windows of the place, mistakenly, says Benny, delivering a message to an errant drug dealer who had incorrectly told his supplier he was part owner of the shop.
Benny learned the entertainment business from her father. “I used to do the payrolls with my dad on Sunday nights. He paid all the bartenders and waiters in cash. My job was to count out the change.… He also taught me how to open the safe when I was a kid. There was a safe at the house and the safes at the clubs, and the bartenders used to get a kick out of me. I was like, I don’t know, 7 or 8? And I had these little hands and I could open the safe.”
A cute story, sure. But the federal government had its own story of Frank Balistrieri, a demonstrably uncute account of how he did business.
In 1978, the FBI infiltrated the Milwaukee mafia, planting an undercover agent as the owner of a “dummy” vending machine company in order to expose the Balistrieri vending racket. Balistrieri dominated the market and shook down anyone new to the game. The FBI also wiretapped Balistrieri’s clubs. A hidden microphone at a back table in Snug’s provided the feds with enough evidence to put the Balistrieris behind bars.
It also provided a picture of the family’s wealth. In one conversation, recorded in February 1980, John Balistrieri (who has a bachelor’s degree in economics) is heard talking to his mother about the IRS: “Three years ago, we ran a bunch of strip clubs and none of ’em were successful. Today we are worth $15 million, and you don’t think that sticks in their throat?”
Sometimes the recordings were downright comical. A March 1980 wiretap captured a conversation between Frank, Joe and John as they tried to figure out how to explain $200,000 in cash the FBI had seized from a Shorecrest office safe. Frank suggested telling the authorities that the money was given to Catherine in wedding gifts.
Joe: “It’s our goddamn money. It was earned during the year 1979. I have not yet filed my 1979 tax returns.”
Frank: “No, no, no… wait, listen to me now, listen to me. We had a big, big wedding attended by 1,000 people.”
John: “Now wait a minute.”
Frank: “Part of it is Cathy’s.”
John: “Dad, Dad.”
Joe: “We’re involving people we don’t have to involve.”
John: “The most, the most you’re gonna be able to cover is $50,000.”
Frank: “How much?”
Frank: “Well, ain’t that something?”
In other wiretaps and evidence gathered by informants, Frank Balistrieri comes off as a ruthless gangster. In fact, the FBI believed he was responsible for ordering the murders of several underworld characters in Milwaukee and Las Vegas in the 1960s and ’70s. Government agents also believed he threatened to kill Sally Papia, owner of the popular and now-defunct Sally’s Steak House, who had her own ties to organized crime.
Mike DeMarco was the FBI’s case agent for the Balistrieri investigation and one of the agents who planted the wiretap at Snug’s. “He was the man,” DeMarco says of Frank Balistrieri. “Damned near the majority of the Italian-American community feared him” while privately condemning his business practices. “But they accepted him as part of the old country.”
It was the stuff of books and movies (notably, Casino and Donnie Brasco), depicting Balistrieri as a powerful mob boss involved in a cash-smuggling undertaking in Las Vegas. In the opening scene of Scorcese’s Casino, a casino boss played by Robert De Niro narrowly escapes death when his Cadillac Eldorado explodes in a fireball. According to Nicholas Pileggi, who co-wrote the screenplay based on his book Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, the FBI believed Frank Balistrieri was responsible for arranging the car bombing.
In fact, when Frank was arrested and charged, he was taken immediately into custody because he had threatened the lives of government agents, says DeMarco, now head of security for Summerfest.
So maybe I should be checking under the hood of my car for suspicious-looking devices? I don’t know. All of that is ancient history, of course. Frank Balistrieri was never charged with any of the murders, but he was finally put out of business way back in 1984 when he was sent off to Leavenworth.
“Some of those conversations did sound awfully bad,” agrees Benny. “But people say things in conversations, and you see a little bit of embellishing. People say things in anger… ‘I’m gonna kill you’ or ‘I’ll ring your neck.’ Allegations are allegations. Unless there’s anything to prove it differently, there’s no reason for me to believe anything.
“Look,” she adds, trying her level best to convince me. “I’m a big girl. I knew what my father did for a living, I knew he wasn’t an altar boy. But he was my father and I loved him. And I never considered him to be the kind of person they made him out to be.”
n 1982, with her father and brothers facing federal indictments, Benny married Johnny “The Kid” Contardo of the band Sha Na Na. Johnny was a heartthrob from Boston’s North End who could sing the pants off the ladies. Following a quickie divorce from Gottlieb in the Domin-ican Republic, Benny and Johnny had a quickie wedding in New York, then jetted off to Europe for their honeymoon. They settled in Los Angeles, where Johnny had property and Sha Na Na had a TV show. She left Milwaukee with her key to the Shorecrest Hotel.
Benny fit right in to the Hollywood scene. She rubbed elbows with the rich and famous, new faces she’d met in California (she worked on the staff of the “Dudley Moore Show” for some time), as well as some of the Milwaukee celebs she’d met years ago. (She cooked fettuccini for the Younts, the Molitors and the McClures on the day Milwaukee Brewer Robin Yount won the MVP in November ’82.) She worked for a while in films and TV, on music videos and commercials. She traveled with Sha Na Na to South Africa and South America. She vacationed in Tahoe and Hawaii. Life was good.
Meanwhile, back home, Frank was convicted of heading up an unlawful sports betting racket. In 1984, he was found guilty of extortion for “interfering with commerce through threats and violence” in the vending machine operation. And in 1985, he accepted a plea agreement for his role in the casino-skimming scheme.
Frank was sent to federal prison. His two sons soon followed for their role in the vending machine business. (They were acquitted in the casino-skimming trial.) But in 1986, less than a year after the prison door slammed shut, Joe and John broke the mafia’s legendary code of silence and publicly repudiated their father.
“We were dragged kicking and screaming into this mess,” John wrote in a letter to U.S. District Court Judge Terry Evans, pleading with him to reduce the prison sentences he had meted out to the brothers. “We didn’t know what Frank was up to and didn’t ask.”
In a 74-page letter, Joe, too, pleaded ignorance, saying he was an unwitting participant in Frank Balistrieri’s web of criminality. And besides, Joe wrote, he never liked the guy anyway.
“I have always known Frank to be an inveterate liar and a hopeless braggart,” he wrote in the letter, excerpted in Milwaukee Magazine in February 1987. Eloquent and brusque, he called his father “autocratic,” “a black hole,” “a collapsed star,” “Captain Queeg” and “a traitor” for refusing to take the witness stand to absolve his sons of culpability for his offenses.
And there was this: “Frank delights in portraying us to others in this image: a struggling father and his two valiant sons being consumed by the voracious python of the government.… It is my sworn duty to correct this picture.… For on my honor, if the three of us were to stand side by side, no angry god need send any serpent to devour us; the real snake stands in our midst.”
Sufficiently swayed, Judge Evans (who, incidentally, had known Joe Balistrieri since high school) knocked three years off the brothers’ eight-year terms. Joe and John were set free in 1989.
“Talk about biting the hand that feeds you,” says Benny, looking back at her brothers’ letters. “These guys chewed it off and hit him over the head with the bloody stump.” (As you’ve probably noticed, she is not one to mince words.)
Some speculated that Frank had advised Joe and John to rat him out so they could get out of prison and back into business. But his sons’ words stung like bullets. In a letter to Benny, Frank responded with frustration: “There is not much I can tell you from here other than whatever chance I had for a [sentence] reduction was shattered by the news accounts and especially the letters. It is a tremendous setback and undeserved.” Frank rebuked his sons for their plans to “incapacitate me to a point of ineffectiveness.…”
In July 1987, he denounced Joe and John again for their breach of trust, saying he was distressed at “the betrayals to put me here and the conspiracies revealed by the authors of the letters to keep me here.”
Says Benny: “Joe and John had all the control. They had all the income, everything was in their name. They weren’t going to help my dad get out of prison. They wanted him in prison.… They sold his Cadillac within 24 hours of him being taken to jail. It was like, ‘Dad’s gone, ba-da-bing, it’s ours.’ And from there it was all downhill.”
Over the years, before, after and during her brothers’ imprisonment, there was a series of actions – warnings by her brothers, says Benny – that kept her from returning home and erased her from the family portrait.
To wit: When her father was in prison, Joe and John ordered her mother to ban Benny from entering the Shorecrest Hotel, staying at the family home or riding in the family car, she says. “I know one thing for sure, it could not or would not have happened if I was around,” Frank said in a letter to Benny.
When Frank was transferred within the prison system, Benny’s mother refused to tell her where. “She wouldn’t tell me because Joe was saying cut off communications,” says Benny. To track down her father, she eventually phoned her grandmother.
When Johnny Contardo was booked to sing solo at Festa Italiana in 1987, Benny’s mother called and warned her not to return to Milwaukee. From prison, Joe had threatened to fire the staff at the Shorecrest if they let her in, says Benny. Eventually, Nina Balistrieri herself was let go as manager of the hotel – by her son, Joe.
The incidents did not escape Frank’s notice, even while he was incarcerated. “Undoubtedly you have heard your mother was ordered out of the hotel,” he wrote Benny. “While I can’t garner any sympathy for her, for she traded a husband and daughter for a despotic son, she certainly does not deserve this.…” In another letter, he told her: “[I am] looking forward to the time when I can apologize personally for your brothers.”
Frank Balistrieri was released from prison in 1991, serving seven years of his 13-year term. Shortly after, he traveled to L.A. for two weeks to see Benny, alone. It was the first time he had visited her in California. She cooked, they took in a few trendy restaurants, caught a glimpse of a few Hollywood stars. He even met with a literary agent about writing a book, says Benny.
And the father and daughter talked.
“He told me that if it was the last thing he was going to do, he was going to make this right with the family,” she says. “But there was no way my father knew how to do this, other than taking it all back cowboy style.”
She doubts there was room for reconciliation between Frank and his sons. “It was broken beyond repair,” says Benny. Frank’s contact was limited to occasional stops at the Shorecrest, she says, and the visits he enjoyed with his only grandchild, who bears his name.
On February 7, 1993, Frank Balistrieri died of a heart attack in Milwaukee. He was 74. The wake was by invitation only. Guards were posted at the door.
Benny flew home with her husband. As always, the vibes were weird.
“My sister was out smoking cigarettes,” she says. “My brothers were standing in the back of the room at the funeral. In the receiving line, whenever my brother made family introductions, he skipped right over me.”
It was her last time in Milwaukee. Five years later, her mother suffered a brain aneurysm and slipped into a coma at Columbia Hospital, Benny’s birthplace. She booked a flight home. But “I was contacted by an aunt, on Joe’s authority,” she claims in an affidavit, “who indicated that my orders were that I was not to go near our family home or hotel, was only to be at the hospital during certain hours and not when siblings were present, I was to have no voice in the treatment of my mother’s condition, I was to stay with an aunt and only at her residence and not eat in certain restaurants.”
So she remained in Los Angeles. To complicate matters, she had been diagnosed at UCLA Medical Center with two benign tumors on a kidney, she says. Friends in Milwaukee told her to think of her own health.
When her mother died, none of her siblings called, says Benny. She learned of her death from a cousin.
In a motion to dismiss her lawsuit, Joe Balistrieri cites his sister’s absence at the funeral as proof of her “willful estrangement” from the family. Moreover, he claims that he had been sole supporter of his mother since 1984 and that, upon the death of Frank Balistrieri, he and his mother, brother John and sister Catherine agreed that Joe would assume ownership of all of the possessions at the family home on Shepard Avenue.
Both parents died destitute, Joe adds, leaving him to pay all funeral expenses – as usual.
Benny sees it another way:
“This is not Joe’s money. Joe sees himself as royalty. He sees it as the Aliotos marrying the Balistrieris. He pretends to be the person who built the Shorecrest and all the properties.… I live in Hollywood. I see people recreating themselves every day. This man was a master at it. Which is the whole point of the lawsuit.…
“Joe and John, they’re like Milwaukee’s answer to the Menendez brothers,” she adds, working herself into a pretty good rant. “You want the women, you want the clothes, you want the power, you want the position? Well, there’s a price to pay. My dad knew eventually he was going to end up in prison. That’s why he put everything in their names, to protect the family assets. He knew that the lifestyle he chose had a price to it. You do your time and you understand it’s an occupational hazard. My brothers, on the other hand, wanted it all and didn’t think they had to pay the price. It’s the single reason I never got into the family business – I didn’t want the life. It would’ve been easy, but I knew that wasn’t for me. My brothers went in with a conscious decision to adopt this lifestyle.”
She draws out another letter, and from the grave, the mafia don seems to back his daughter’s claim: “Your brothers,” he wrote on September 30, 1989, “cannot now or ever justify any of their dishonorable actions and outrageous, disrespectable treatment of you.”
n her last visit home for her father’s funeral, Benny shared a limo to the cemetery with her mother. Along the way, Nina told her there were family burial plots reserved for Joseph, John and Catherine but not for her. After all, she had moved away from the family.
Today, a black granite monolith at Holy Cross Cemetery marks the final resting place for Frank and Antonina Balistrieri. The deed to the family plot has been transferred into Joe’s and John’s names. The cemetery has no record of a burial plot for Benny Balistrieri.
“Do you believe,” says Benny, “how hard I have to fight just to be stinkin’ buried?”
I guess I do.
In the end, maybe Joe and John are envious of their independent sister, resentful of how she was able to sidestep the snare that trapped them in their father’s criminal life. Maybe they believe they’re entitled to their father’s riches, having done penance for his sins.
In a conversation taped secretly by the FBI decades ago in the Shorecrest, Joe Balistrieri offered this insight to his brother: “You know, the sum and substance of it is now, brother John, that you and I are now… I mean, until this point, any hope of being legitimate is gonna be automatically erased. You might as well get that into your mind now. The time to make our move was in 1975, when we were absolutely clean.”
In another exchange, Joe added this: “I mean, we listened to him, we did it his way and we were absolutely corrupted. There’s no way in the world now that we’re ever gonna be legitimate. I hope you understand that.”
“I know that,” said John.
It seems hypocritical, yes, on Benny’s part to have run from the family name only to demand a piece of the action years later – property, profits, holdings, much of it, according to the government, founded on mob operations.
But after spending some time with the mafia princess – no, strike that, the rock-’n’-roll impresario, the Hollywood namedropper, the West Coast cheesehead, the unknown Balistrieri, Daddy’s little girl – I’m not convinced that her brothers have much of a case.
After listening to her talk about her father and reading his printed words, I’m inclined to believe that Joe and John should let bygones be bygones – and cut Benedetta a check for a hundred large. No, make that two hundred, $200,000 cash, the same amount stashed years ago in the Shorecrest safe. Why not settle this feud before it goes to court, where it’ll really get ugly under the glare of the TV cameras? Like I say, I’m no lawyer, and I’m no judge when it comes to issues of probate law and constructive trusts. But she does have a point.
Besides, Frankie would’ve wanted it that way.
“It is sad,” he lamented to his daughter many years ago, “for if it was you in my confidence instead of your brothers, I positively would not be in this nightmare.”
Kurt Chandler is a senior editor of Milwaukee Magazine.