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Twenty-five years after its initial publication, Nicholas Pileggi's Wiseguy remains one of the signal narratives about life in the Mafia. Adapted by Pileggi and director Martin Scorsese into the 1990 film GoodFellas, it follows the rise and fall of true-life Brooklyn gangster Henry Hill — "a little cog" in the Lucchese crime family who turned FBI informant after a drug arrest.
"He was sort of a soldier in Napoleon's army," Pileggi remembers. "And I said, 'You know, if you're going to do a book about Napoleon, it might be interesting to see that world from the point of view of the soldier.' "
The other key part of Hill's appeal as a subject, Pileggi explains, is that he was no dummy.
"He was extremely articulate, he was funny, and he was an easy interview," Pileggi tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "He remembered everything. The first money he made was on a number — he bet the number. He was a little kid, like 16 or 17. The number came in, and it was like 1,200 bucks. And I said, 'What'd you do with the money?' And he said, 'I put it down on a yellow Bonneville convertible.' I mean, this guy not only remembers what he did, he remembers the color of the car."
Hill might just have been spinning yarns, of course, but Pileggi had a pretty thorough fact-checker. Hill was in the federal witness protection program, and "everything he told me, he was basically telling the FBI. And if he lied — or the FBI or the U.S. attorney caught him in a lie — he was getting yanked out of the program. He was gone. He was gonna go back into prison, where about 1,400 mob guys were waiting to kill him."
In some ways, Hill was a kind of model employee. He was charismatic, even charming. He worked hard to get ahead.
"But he wanted to put all that energy into doing bad things," Pileggi shrugs. "He thought of [ordinary] people as suckers. His father was an electrician; he said: 'My father gets on a subway every day, and he goes back and forth, and he comes home with no money. I'd rather go out there and steal, and make as much money as I can, and live as good a life as I can.' "
And Hill did love to spend — but only when he had to.
"They'd just take a suitcase full of cash, jump on a plane, fly to Las Vegas," Pileggi says. "Sometimes they would take private planes and stiff the private charter service — I mean, everything had to be a scam and a ripoff — and they would go and lose all this money in Las Vegas. And then they'd fly back and have to go rob somebody else. That's the lifestyle."
Hill went from almost complete anonymity — he had multiple identities, but no legitimate Social Security number — to substantial fame after Pileggi told his story. It wasn't something he entirely enjoyed, says Pileggi, who remains in touch with the 63-year-old ex-gangster even today.
"He's ambivalent about it. He's proud of his book, but he knows he betrayed all of these people to whom he was closer than anything."
Hill didn't take well, either, to life in hiding.
"He was an addictive person to begin with," Pileggi says. "Once he went into the witness program, he wound up drinking more than he should; there was probably not a pill out there he didn't take." Drug busts and drunken-driving arrests followed.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, of course, he would be arrested under whatever alias they gave him," Pileggi says. "And then he would call the Marshals, and somehow they would get him out. So it gave him a kind of immunity. But it also meant there was nothing to hold him back."
Even when it came to close relationships, Hill didn't play by the rules. He called Pileggi once on the phone, with news: "I'm getting married."
"I said, 'Henry, you're already married,' Pileggi remembers. " 'You've got two kids.' He said 'No, no, I'm not marrying under my old name. Under my new name.'
"That, of course, was annulled," Pileggi says. "But that's who he is; that's the way these guys live. They move in a manic world, with no downtime."
The book, like the movie it inspired, belongs to a genre that some have accused of glorifying the Mafia life. And there's no question there were parts of Hill's life that seem attractive at first glance.
"The first half of the movie is this little kid falling in love with the lifestyle," Pileggi says. "And a lot of people like the beginning of the movie, because it's great fun. But then the criminality of that world kicks in, and you see the price you pay. There's not much to glorify."
Still, the author acknowledges, Hill himself probably misses his mob days.
"This is a kid with very little education, a whole bunch of money — he could go to the Copacabana, he could walk through the kitchen and get a table right there in front, with Tony Bennett singing to him," Pileggi says. "Now, I don't think of that as 'glorifying the lifestyle.' ... I'm just trying to articulate what it was about that lifestyle that then allowed him to do horrible things."
Things like beating people up. Like breaking a guy's arm by slamming a car door on it.
"For certain types — like Henry and the guys around him — that's what they were willing to do to have the money and the access and the power," Pileggi says.