The Gangster Whisperer
New Orleans-born Matthew Randazzo has thrice served as a personal ghostwriter to criminal gangsters. Call him the gangster whisperer.
Or, these days, call him an environmental lobbyist — the occupation he fell into after the third gangster in his book trilogy dramatically derailed his literary career. Randazzo’s experiences extracting the truth from gangsters has made him especially well-suited for this career finessing egomaniacal politicians.
The gangster whisperer is the fifth Matthew Randazzo in his Sicilian Catholic Cajun family. Matthew the First and his wife rolled with the now-extinct French Quarter mafia. Randazzo has researched his namesake and found that, “His wife was arrested for bootlegging. And he seemed to be the most prominent Sicilian in that part of the state, winning election after election for the Italian fraternal organizations and such. It’s hard to pin down the hierarchy of gangsters at the turn of the 20th century — it’s hard to even call him a gangster or criminal, since he was never arrested and charged with anything.” But Matthew the First did die in the same 1917 mafia war in which many other Randazzo family members were wounded. “That’s the beginning of my family history,” Randazzo said. “So, even as a young kid, I was always fascinated, because I carried the name of that guy.”
Matthew did not, however, set out to collude with criminals himself.
As Randazzo filled our conversation with twice the facts your average person might try and fit in, it became easy to believe he could talk his way into anything. I believed him that, at 18, he’d flipped through a publisher’s guide for a phone number, then proceeded in that one phonecall to convince a publisher in New York to put out his as-yet-unwritten first book. Though he didn’t yet posses the writing chops to actually pen a good book, the ease of it all gave him even more confidence; he was meant to do this. With that in mind, he kept alert, looking for the perfect subject to document.
After Hurricane Katrina, Randazzo felt on a mission. “I felt a real sense of wanting to memorialize my hometown,” he said, “because it wasn’t going to be the same place I grew up in.” As soon as the floodwaters receded, he began searching through the wreckage for a subject that would do justice to the wounded city of his birth.
“So when I met Frenchy,” he says, “it was just obvious.”
Randazzo first met up with the former French Quarter pimp, Frenchy Brouillette in a flooded-out office building in Metairie. On this soggy hellscape, Frenchy blended in well. “He was this elderly man, still powerfully built, ponytail, eyes watery like he’d been shitfaced for six decades — which happened to be the case,” Randazzo remembered. Frenchy claimed to have been the rare Cajun in the French Quarter Italian mafia, and the wingman of the original New Orleans “Godfather,” Carlos Marcello. “In this thick Cajun accent, he made all these extravagant claims about his connections, and how he’d made tens of millions of dollars and partied it all away. He seemed like a true French Quarter bullshit artist.” But in his meticulous research, Randazzo uncovered no bullshit. “I found record of him being surveilled with Carlos Marcello,” he said, still sounding surprised 13 years later. “Lee Harvey Oswald had really been Frenchy’s associate, and Oswald’s attorney had been his roommate, and his cousin really was Edwin Edwards, the four-time governor of Louisiana.”
Not unlike Randazzo, Frenchy was charming and eloquent in that particular New Orleans way. New Orleans natives are quick to give you TMI up front, so getting them to open up isn’t the problem. Getting the truth is sometimes trickier. “Frenchy could be hard to interview, mostly depending on how long he’d been out the night before,” Randazzo said. “Sometimes he would meld stories that I would have to disentangle. He’d be drinking cocktails and would start a story, then remember another story, which would soon bring up this other great story…”
During this same time, a mutual friend who knew of Randazzo’s literary ambitions introduced him to former gangster-turned-FBI-whistleblower, Kenny “Kenji,” Gallo, who wanted his own book written. Still working on Frenchy’s book, Randazzo had no clips to share, and relied only his verbal acumen. “I didn’t even have to read his stuff,” says Kenji, who’d already interviewed several other published authors for the job. To a gangster, there are more important things than experience. “I just talked to Matthew, and I trusted him.”
For most of the 1990s, Breakshot was Kenji’s FBI codename. It later became the title of his co-written autobiography. Randazzo found that Kenji needed as little coaxing as Frenchy. The gangster had already written quite a bit about himself on a blog that he kept specifically to troll other gangsters. “The FBI made me take the blog down,” Kenji said. “Matthew would just take stuff off my blogs and change it and add things.” In stark contrast to Frenchy, Kenji was a slick, young, MMA fighter in his prime, with a photographic memory. “I’d check out Kenji’s facts and they would be correct, right down to the color of the blinds in the room 20 years ago,” says the author.
Randazzo never wanted to write even one crime book, much less become known as the gangster guy. “But I encountered these two subjects whose stories were so preposterous, I just had to do it,” said Randazzo.
In the case of both books, the subjects turned out to be easier to pin down than the peripheral characters. “To corroborate Frenchy’s story, I also had to open up a bunch of his associates: other crusty old New Orleans gangsters who had done crimes and gotten away with it. I had to get dirty cops to open up, and dirty politicians.” For Breakshot, Randazzo flew to the West Coast to meet with Kenji’s Colombian contacts, his fellow traffickers, the law enforcement Kenji worked with undercover — everyone from outlaw bikers to hit men.
Though merely working beside cold-blooded killers might call one’s capacity for empathy into question, Randazzo stops short of calling either of his subjects sociopaths. The book Mr. New Orleans depicts Frenchy as the world’s kindest pimp, and Randazzo said, “He was morally haunted. He had a more developed guilt complex than most people I know. Frenchy was a teenage runaway who was adopted by the mob, and they were always good to him. They made him a very powerful, well-known guy. So he never really overanalyzed their ethics. But he wasn’t like them.”
“Sociopath? No, I was just there for money,” replied Kenji when I asked him directly. “I didn’t use drugs, didn’t drink, didn’t party. I was just [in the mob] to make money.” Asked if he feared for his life after Randazzo made him such a high-profile snitch, Kenji laughed, “They all bought the book, they all read it. Some guys in the mob were really mad and wrote bad reviews on Amazon. Others called me and asked, ‘Why didn’t you put more of me in it?’”
Between writing these gangster books, Randazzo published the popular pro-wrestling expose, Ring of Hell. That journey into the squared circle introduced him to many bad characters, but did not prepare him for former Chicago jewel thief, art forger, and all-around con man, Johnny Fratto.
In 2009, Neil Strauss, author of pick-up artist bible, The Game, ran his own imprint at Harper Collins with author Anthony Bozza, and wanted to publish some type of biography of Fratto’s life. “Neil was trying to put Johnny with other ghostwriters,” remembered Johnny Fratto Jr. via phone from Los Angeles. Kenji though, pushed Randazzo on Fratto. “My dad really took to Matt,” says Johnny Jr. “Sure, Matt knew a lot about the mob and my dad appreciated his knowledge, but more than that, he was someone my dad felt he could control. He told me, ‘He’s young and hungry and believes anything I say…’”
The writing process went smoothly, but when the galleys of Fratto’s biography arrived, the gangster couldn’t resist the impulse to sabotage it all. “He had been excited to finish the book, but when one little thing didn’t go his way,” Johnny Jr. sighed, as if he’d endured this often himself. “He didn’t like the cover art, then he didn’t like how one little thing was written, then he didn’t like one whole chapter… My dad, being the divide-and-conqueror that he was… He pitted Neil Strauss against Matt. He pitted the editor against both of them. He contacted the publisher and told them he’d sue Harper Collins if they released the book…all so the book would be sabotaged. But my dad objectified everybody,” concludes Johnny Jr. “He did crazy things to people that are titans of industry even, because he thought everybody was beneath him. This is the kind of guy who would call my girlfriend and tell her crazy things about me to get her to break up with me — and that’s not even the worst of it. And he did that same kind of shit to Matt.”
Defeated by Fratto’s endless headgames, Randazzo finally gave up and signed away his rights to the book.
Having wasted years on the project, and in desperate need of money, Randazzo conceded to a new path. He agreed to help a friend in Washington win a congressional race. He then worked similar magic for another candidate the next year. “Within a year, I was named Democrat of the Year by the Washington State Democrats,” said Randazzo, who currently fights alongside Washington’s Native American tribes, lobbying an effort to radically shape the state’s environmental policies. “I now make six figures a year, without having to attend law school,” he said, “and all because Johnny destroyed my publishing career.”
On his deathbed in 2015, as Johnny Fratto Sr. faded away from cancer, he let his son convince him to finally allow the book’s publication. “His dad gave him the go-ahead and we bought the rights back from Harper Collins,” said Randazzo, “and that’s how we finally got the book out after all these years.” In October 2017, the Isaac Olivia Company released Now that I’m Dead, Here’s the Real Dirt: the Posthumous Memoirs of Johnny Fratto.
Kenji Gallo now runs the Christian motivational blog, BetterLivedLives.com, while Randazzo currently works on a TV adaptation of Mr. New Orleans alongside Lee Shipman, creator of AMC’s “The Son,” and the Netflix show “Hemlock Grove.” Five years after the release of Mr. New Orleans, Frenchy was stabbed to death in his home. “The book made him a local curiosity,” Randazzo said. “Tourists and people used to call asking me to get Frenchy to go drinking with them. And the notoriety ended up attracting someone who later admitted to stabbing Frenchy in the back three times.”
If Randazzo were to write another book, he said, “I’d like to write one about how being a mafia historian has allowed me to be successful in politics. As a professional negotiator for major public policy, everything I do now comes down to my ability to talk to people, establish rapport, define leverage, identify body language and try to position myself for the best possible deal. Same with writing [those gangster biographies]; when you’re dealing with eccentric personalities, people with tendencies toward power plays and sadism and violence and reckless gambling with lives, then it’s not the same sort of negotiation process.
“You’re often playing on their desire to be known, and to be heard, and to be understood,” Randazzo sounded guilty admitting, almost as if he detected dark undertones in his own methods. “It’s just not any kind of normal relationship.”