In 1957, Jimmy Hoffa was acquitted of charges of bribing a government official, largely due to the efforts of criminal lawyer Edward Bennett Williams. After the trial, Hoffa left the courtroom without a word of thanks. When Williams complained of Hoffa’s ingratitude to Frank Costello, another client, the Mafia don replied: “I told you Hoffa was no gentleman.”
A tough guy among tough guys, Jimmy Hoffa was America’s blue-collar samurai warrior. He took on all comers: big business tycoons, strikebreakers, Jack and Bobby Kennedy, mobsters from back East.
With a head shaped like a bullet, arms like Cadillac bumpers, eyes like cold steel, Hoffa built the Teamsters into the nation’s largest labor union the same way Al Davis’ Oakland Raiders won championships--by any means necessary.
Like most of his Teamster brethren, Hoffa lived outside the law. Teamster elections were rigged. Union funds disappeared. Goons pummeled union dissidents into submission.
Hoffa made no secret of his long-standing friendships with mobsters like Moe Dalitz, a key figure in Detroit’s Purple Gang. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund loaned hundreds of millions of dollars to various Las Vegas hotels, with much of the money going to casinos controlled by Dalitz.
When Hoffa sought to take control of New York City’s 30,000 taxi drivers, he allied himself with Johnny Dio, a convicted labor extortionist. His trusted special assignment expert was Barney Baker, a former underworld enforcer. Two of Hoffa’s loyal Teamster business agents were Herman and Frank Kierdorf. Their previous area of expertise: armed robbery.
After years of battles with government adversaries, most notably arch-enemy Robert F. Kennedy, Hoffa went to prison in 1967 for mail fraud and jury tampering. (He hated the Kennedys so much that when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Hoffa refused to lower the flag at Teamster headquarters, saying, “I hope the worms eat his eyes out.”)
Five years later he obtained an early release after agreeing to step down as Teamsters president, a title he continued to hold while in jail. On July 30, 1975, while waging a legal fight to regain his office, he left home to meet Anthony (Tony Pro) Provenzano and Anthony (Tony Jack) Giacalone, two organized crime figures who had fallen out with Hoffa.
When the duo didn’t show up at the Machus Red Fox restaurant, Hoffa called his wife to say the men were running late. Shortly thereafter, he disappeared. His body has never been found.
Dead but not forgotten. Red Fox waitresses say pranksters still phone the restaurant, asking them to page Jimmy Hoffa.
What made Hoffa a legend was his tough-guy swagger, his shrewd negotiating skills and his fierce loyalty to the Teamster rank ‘n’ file. Hoffa took a barely existent union, run by local fiefdoms, and transformed it into America’s most powerful labor organization.
No matter what they thought of his mob chums, Hoffa’s men were impressed by the groundbreaking contracts he won for them. They also respected his frugal lifestyle--Hoffa had a modest Detroit home, he didn’t smoke or drink and was faithful to his wife. When he died, he was driving a late-model Pontiac.
The media adored him, proclaiming him a beloved blue-collar battler. When Steven Brill started work on his much-admired 1978 history, “The Teamsters,” he found stacks of newspaper clips heralding Hoffa.
“That was the myth, that he was this tough, can-do, can’t be bought guy,” says Brill, who now runs American Lawyer magazine and Court TV. “It reminds me of the way the press treated Ross Perot in the first month of his campaign.
“It’s just not real. Hoffa was an owned-and-operated subsidiary of organized crime. The Teamsters weren’t tied to organized crime. They were organized crime. And when Hoffa started to act independently, the mob simply killed him.
“If this movie makes Jimmy Hoffa into a hero, it would be a joke. Hoffa is a hero in the same sort of way John Gotti is a hero--it’s totally manufactured.”
Yet Hoffa remains a hero to many old-line Teamsters, especially Bobby Holmes Sr., a retired union official who first met Hoffa when they were teen-agers, working in a produce warehouse. Now 80, Holmes ran Teamster Local 377 in Detroit for nearly 30 years.
“I was on the picket line with Jimmy when he first met his wife, Josephine,” Holmes recalls. “When we picketed in the 1930s, Detroit wasn’t a union town. They’d hire strikebreakers to go after us. But nobody scared Jimmy. If they wanted a fistfight, they’d get one. He didn’t back down to anyone.”
Holmes acknowledges that Hoffa did business with the mob, but he insists the union was never under mob control.
“Sure there were associations with questionable people. Mobsters did business with everyone--the linen-supply business, the soft-drink industry, even politicians. You couldn’t avoid them. But our investments paid off.”
“Hoffa,” Arthur Sloane’s recent biography on the Teamster leader, supports this contention. He writes: “The unsavory character of so many of its loan recipients notwithstanding, the Teamster pension fund’s assets virtually doubled in Hoffa’s last four pre-prison years and there were relatively few loan defaults.”
Steven Brill doesn’t see it that way. “That’s the Teamster myth again,” he says. “When I was writing my book every story I read had the same phrase--that Hoffa made this ‘Faustian bargain’ with the mob to help his union.
“A Faustian bargain implies a case of good versus evil. With Hoffa and the mob, it was purely evil versus evil. The Teamsters pension fund was nearly bankrupt by the time he was killed. He negotiated terrible contracts. He didn’t fight for his workers. Mostly, he screwed them.”
Brill even has a beef with the movie’s casting. Before the film started, Brill says he received a phone call from Armand Assante. The actor was researching the part of Sal D’Allesandro, a character based on Teamster hood Tony Provenzano. The two men never got together, but Brill found the casting choice puzzling.
“Armand Assante’s a great-looking guy, right?” Brill says. “He doesn’t look anything like Tony Pro. I mean, if Tony looks like anyone, it’s Lawrence Welk. And not just when he was old. Tony looked like Lawrence Welk for a long time.”