I ask Corona why he used the block-by-block approach. For outsiders it can get tedious. “Walking the neighborhood, as we are doing now,” he tells me, “stimulated my memory. Probably 90 percent of the book is based on my memories of interacting with just about all the families who lived there while I was growing up. I did some extra research, like talking to former residents. But most of them are dead. For dates and things like that, I checked the cemeteries.”
Corona’s grandmother lived on California Street, which shows on today’s maps as only a small finger in the Midtown area. But in the old days, the street was a dirt road that was owned by the railroad and ran right next to the tracks heading downtown. The trolley now traverses the same route, and there is a narrow, paved alley in place of California Street. From the spot Corona shows me where his grandmother lived, one could almost have reached out and shaken hands with train conductors passing by.
We walk uphill from there, and Corona’s “positive approach” to Little Italy’s history hits rough waters as we arrive at Columbia and Hawthorn Streets. For, from that corner, he points out the apartment building where mobster Frank “the Bomp” Bompensiero lived his early life on Columbia. Without naming the culprit, Corona says that in 1934 his father, who owned a tuna boat, once captured a thug coming aboard clandestinely in the middle of the night. He was “a Sicilian from the same town [Porticello] as my parents in Italy,” writes Corona. “When my father pressed charges, the young man’s mother came to our house to plead for her son’s freedom. My parents respected the older lady, who was well liked in Little Italy. She had a lovely family, and all of her children, except one, became respectable citizens. My father did not press charges, with the understanding that the son stay off his boat and create no harm to any of the other fishermen and their families. My father insisted that there be no gang activities or pressure placed on the fishermen.…
“The agreement prevailed over decades. That person had previously been involved in a robbery of a theater in San Diego. He later became a member of organized crime but stayed out of Little Italy and the fishing industry. In his later years , he was shot by the mob.…” As we continue walking, Corona tells me that the incident on his father’s boat was the only crime he’d ever heard of growing up in Little Italy. “And the young man got the message,” he says. “He knew the Italians would kill him if he kept coming back and trying to extort them for protection.”
The coy approach to Bompensiero, whose life as a Mafia hit man has been detailed in the book A Bad, Bad Boy by Judith Moore, does not sit well with everyone. Retired Air Force Colonel Joseph Bonpensiero, the Bomp’s nephew (the different spelling of their last names was due to an error on the hoodlum’s 1905 birth certificate from a Milwaukee hospital) has posted a comment about Corona’s book on Amazon.com. After praising the book’s discussion of “the neighborhood, the customs, the people” and noting that “I was born and grew up there as well,” Bonpensiero charges Corona with taking “the easy way out…[in] not wanting to cast aspersions.… Peter Corona was considerate to give the criminal a pass. However, a leopard can’t change his spots. Frank Bompensiero was a hardened criminal and, yes, became a member of organized crime. Unfortunately, he killed…people and didn’t spend enough time in prison.… The hood was, unfortunately, my uncle.… Frank Bompensiero, 1905–1977, was a loser, no matter what Judith Moore or his daughter Mary Ann say in A Bad, Bad Boy.… Peter Corona goes on to say that ‘during our youth, we did not hear of the word Mafia in Little Italy.’ I definitely concur with him and can say emphatically [that] in the Bonpensiero family, for obvious reasons, ‘Mafia’ was the worst of any four letter words, even the F or N word. I don’t wonder why. And every time he was in jail, the word was, ‘Uncle Frank is in college.’”
I reached Bonpensiero, who is 72, by phone at his home in Montgomery, Texas, and asked him about his disagreements with Corona’s book and Moore’s portraits of the Bomp. “You can go any number of ways in a history of Little Italy,” he told me. “Corona did a good job for what his objective was, but it’s not the whole story, which includes both the good and the bad.” To expand the perspective, Bonpensiero has already written Chocolate Moon, a book he calls a “coming-of-age nonfiction novel” that he expects to be published soon.
Bonpensiero is now writing a second novel about his uncle with the tentative title of The Nephew. Recently, he sent me two chapters in draft form. In one, the Bomp is drunk on Scotch at the Del Mar Racetrack and is angry at losing his bets. In this state, he spews out a string of racist vulgarities at singer Lena Horne, who is sitting in front of him. “I was there that day,” said Bonpensiero, “and Lena Horne was celebrating the bets she had won. She looked stunning in the sunshine. But Frank went after her. And that was totally in character for Frank.”
But Judith Moore’s book makes the Bomp out as respectful of women, almost idealizing them, especially the ones in his life. Her descriptions of Frank’s relationship with his first wife Thelma Sanfilippo come off as highly romanticized. She depicts him as invariably well dressed and charming. She also says that Frank rarely drank, except for an occasional beer, which was not true, according to Bonpensiero. The problem, he told me, is that for the portrait of the Bomp, Moore relied too heavily on the criminal’s daughter. “Mary Ann, who was my cousin, had no idea what was going on outside of her home. She led a secluded and protected life. And she was a spoiled brat.”