The Gangster in the Blue Serge Suit
The rise and many falls of Johnny Dio
By Ben Feibleman
Pay no attention to the man in the photo. Pay no attention to the sneer that he wears, or the balled up fist as he shoves reporters out of the way, swearing through his cigarette. Pay attention to the suit. The French-cuffs and tie pin and pocket square — the uniform of the archetypical gangster, circa 1950s, and the curtain that hides the true nature of the man behind it.
Long before Tony Soprano and the track-suit-clad Jersey mafiosos became modern icons of organized crime, the gangster wore a suit. Especially if the gangster saw himself as a businessman and an entrepreneur — the kind of man who wore a suit to work.
Dio is not coming from work. It is 1956 and he has just left a Senate committee hearing into organized crime during which he took the Fifth Amendment 140 times. He even consulted with his lawyer before giving his full name, John DioGuardi. As he left the building, he drew a cigarette and attempted to light it as he pushed through the revolving doors. The photographers were outside, waiting for him. When the scrum bumped up against him he lost the composure he’d maintained through hours of testimony and shouted, “You sons of bitches, I got a family!”
Splashed across the front pages of papers across the country, the photo of Dio’s snarling face undermined the image his dark suit was meant to convey: here is a respectable man.
He had been exposed. But as what?
Before he was simply known as “Dio,” he was Giovanni DioGuardi, born in 1914 in New York City. He dropped out of high school at 15. Along with his uncle, who was connected to the Lucchese crime family, Dio managed to establish a trucking union by brute force. His goal was to gain leverage over the business owners in New York City’s Garment District, the city’s largest industry by total employment at the time. The garment industry was reliant on the smooth delivery of product, and there already existed a union of thousands of truck drivers.
Dio had no business clout to entice drivers to participate in his racket, so he relied on threats of violence. One victim described Dio’s methods in an account reported by the New York Times in 1933, in which Dio and his associates barged into the office of the trucking dispatcher, attacking him, telling him that he would be killed if his drivers did not join Dio’s organization, called the “Five Boroughs Trucking Association.” Numerous beatings were alleged, and while no murders at the time were attributed to Dio, drivers who refused to participate in the union would find themselves harassed with stink bombs in the cabs of their trucks and emery powder dumped in the engines, rendering them inoperable.
Gangland tactics like Dio’s were different than modern methods partly because of a weak drug trade and weak legal tools for prosecution, says Kevin McCarthy, a professor at John Jay School of Criminal Justice and former chief of the Organized Crime Strike Force Division at the U.S. attorney’s office in New Jersey. Mobsters were difficult to prosecute because witnesses were often afraid to testify. This changed as the successes of Special Prosecutor Thomas Dewey reached a tipping point and convinced timid witnesses that their testimony would be worth a conviction. It took four years to convict Dio on charges of coercion, conspiracy, and assault, but he pled guilty in 1937 and was sentenced to three years in Sing Sing. At the sentencing, the judge declared that Dio “suffered from a great vanity, which was quite unjustified.”
In the 1930s and 40s, pleading guilty to crimes like Dio’s would send you to “college” — a few years in prison that helped someone earn their underworld stripes, and then they could go back to work upon release. Like a graduate, Dio aspired for a management position. From here out, he would be the man in the suit.
“[The mafia] valued the guys they call ‘earners,’” McCarthy told me. “The guys that they knew could come up with schemes.” That was Dio, who saw others organizing unions and associations and added to it his own brand of thuggery.
After his release Dio moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania where he opened a dress manufacturing business. He sold it in 1950 before moving back to New York to open another dress company. If there was any doubt to Dio’s motivations in labor organizing, it was exemplified in what he did after he sold the Pennsylvania business for $12,000. One year later, Dio returned, demanding another $11,200 to use his influence to prevent the plant from unionizing, while at the same time scheming with corrupt union officials back in New York to take control of his own charter, the United Auto Workers-AFL Local 102.
Dio’s association with the unions brought heavy scrutiny from law enforcement which knew his reputation. This became a problem in his quest for union leadership. The parent organization accused Dio of stacking the management of local charters with unsavory characters with criminal histories, and sought a way to remove Dio and his ilk from the organization. Through the course of their investigations, they were even left baffled as to how Dio, who had never worked in the trade, acquired the charters to begin with. Union officials sought the procedural means to oust Dio, but like the challenges of Dio’s criminal prosecutions, the union investigations were unable to find victims willing to testify against him.
They finally succeeded in 1954 when Dio was successfully prosecuted for tax fraud due to income he had failed to report on the sale of his Pennsylvania dress business, and the bribes made to keep the plant non-union. With his 60-day jail sentence, the union leadership finally had something they could use to justify Dio’s ouster. In the end, the unions accused Dio’s local organizations of not even having members, deeming them “paper locals” due to their inflated or imaginary numbers. The Times reported that that the New York District Attorney’s office said Dio’s local existed for the sole purpose of forcing “extorsive action” against the public.
Yet even with Dio’s setbacks and brief jail sentence, he was still a stubborn problem for the authorities and the unions. One of the challenges to prosecuting individuals like Dio was uneven application of the law across the country as well as between city, state, and federal authorities, according to McCarthy. “It was a hodgepodge of enforcement,” he said. It took time for them to evolve and catch up with the criminals. In 1956, the U.S. Attorney’s office warned that New York was on the verge of a “gangster invasion.”
Much like the realignment of security agencies after the 9/11 attacks, city, state, and federal law enforcement started working on ways to share evidence and communicate more efficiently to effect more successful prosecutions of organized crime.
The timing was appropriate. After Dio’s release in 1954, he went right back to the labor racket he knew so well, and his methods grew even more brutal.
In April of 1956, the nationally syndicated labor columnist Victor Reisel was leaving a Manhattan radio studio. He had just finished a show during which he railed against corruption in the unions. A man, allegedly hired by Dio, approached Reisel and threw acid in his face, blinding him. But the attack backfired. The press, responding to an attack on one of their own, followed the story relentlessly. So did the FBI and the New York Police Department.
That August Dio was indicted for ordering the attack. The acid thrower was now dead of a gunshot wound to the head. The other alleged conspirators, who had fingered Dio, suddenly developed cases of amnesia. Though they ended up in prison, Dio walked. But he was hardly free.
The attack — and Dio’s attempts to further infiltrate the garment business, brought him to the attention of the Senate’s McClellan committee, which investigating organized crime. And it also raised the ire of one of the committee’s young, aggressive attorneys, Robert F. Kennedy.
They may have gotten nothing from him that day in Washington. But the photo captured him.
He was now a public face of organized crime. The handsome suit he wore could not hide his roots as a violent thug. The feds went after him again and a year later, in 1957, Dio was convicted of extortion and conspiracy. This earned him 15 years, and though his conviction was overturned on appeal seven months into his sentence, Dio was re-arrested in New York on charges of federal tax evasion and convicted.
He was paroled in 1963. But Johnny Dio knew no profession that was not criminal in nature. He was also slipping. He started a kosher meat company called Consumers Kosher Provision which supplied products in New York City. But being a businessman is hard work, and Dio wasn’t suited for it. As the company lost more and more business to a competitor, American Kosher Provisions, Dio and his associates filed for bankruptcy and he agreed to sell the company and its assets to American Kosher. Nevertheless, after an inventory had been done of all of the company’s property, Dio liquidated many of the assets, from meat to machinery, thinking he could strong-arm an answer to any questions about missing items.
The plan failed, and he was sentenced to five years in prison, which he started serving in 1970 at age 56. Dio was also charged with stock fraud for, among other things, beating the original owner until the stock was sold to him at far below its true value. Although Dio beat the charge and was released from prison, within the same hour he was freed he was rearrested for a separate charge of stock fraud.
The scheme wasn’t complicated: Take $300,000 in money from investors and pocket it. It was an easy case to prosecute. Like the successful-yet-overdue prosecution of Al Capone a generation before, the stolen funds were the only witness the authorities needed, and Dio was sentenced to a total of 19 years in prison.
After a lifetime of criminal work, Dio would spend his retirement behind bars. But it wasn’t a typical experience in prison. Dio and other mobsters caught certain breaks — higher quality food, better accommodations and prison work assignments. Corrupt people did well in corrupt systems. In fact, in the film Goodfellas, as Henry Hill narrates an elaborate prison dinner routine, Johnny Dio (played by the actor Frank Pellegrino) is shown in a bathrobe, smoking a cigar as he fries a steak. He asks his fellow gangster inmate how wants it cooked.
“Medium rare, huh? An aristocrat,” he says.
In a way, it all comes back to the suit. Why the song and dance to be seen as legitimate — other than avoiding prosecution — when gangsters like Dio worked so hard to earn just enough to be middle class?
No one was living in mansions. It was a life in constant worry about the authorities, and for what? FBI files from the time show that his racket was often just nickel-and-dime payments of a few hundred or a few thousand dollars.
Johnny Dio and his family lived in a modest home, nothing to brag about. Like so many gamblers, if he’d just quit while he was ahead, he might have gotten away with it. If he’d just purchased a legitimate business with his earnings in the 1950s, before the attack on Reisel, he could have certainly done all right.
Instead he died in federal custody in Pennsylvania, hundreds of miles from home. A gangster who tried so hard to appear legitimate, who wanted to play the role of the legit entrepreneur. A man who wears a suit to work.