Thug Life

The Shocking Secret History of Harold Giuliani, the Mayor’s Ex-Convict Dad

The following is an excerpt from Rudy! An Investigative Biography of Rudolph Giuliani, which will be available in New York stores on July 11. It is printed by permission of the publisher, Basic Books.

•Harold Giuliani and Helen D'Avanzo met at a party in 1929 or 1930. The roaring '20s had tapered to a whisper, the Great Depression had recently cast its vast and wretched shadow, and Prohibition had long ago confined much of the American social scene to speakeasies. It was not an auspicious time for romance, and Harold and Helen's dating life was typically austere: picnics in the park, moonlight strolls, home-based dances and get-togethers. Occasionally, they would splurge on a movie at Times Square—tickets were only 35 cents, if you bought them before 5:30 p.m.

At 5'11", with a solid frame and big-knuckled hands, Harold was a thickset ruffian who squinted at the world through cumbersome, Coke-bottle-thick glasses. He had been trained as a part-time plumber's assistant but had remained financially dependent on his parents into early adulthood. Much of his childhood had been spent on the streets of East Harlem, staving off boredom with stickball and other games. At age 15, he dropped out of high school and was soon arrested for burglary and sentenced to probation in New York City Children's Court. Emboldened by regular beatings from his father, he took up boxing and, through a demonstration of sheer feral aggression, persuaded a local trainer to condition him for a pro career. But because of poor vision, Harold was kept out of the ring. Instead, he took his pugilistic prowess to the streets, engaging in countless scuffles. Blinking behind his half-inch-thick lenses, he would fling a flurry of punches, landing them anywhere and everywhere, mercilessly hammering his opponent into submission. The vision problem only compounded his volcanic temper, mixed in with it, to create a sort of unalloyed, inexorable ferocity. Taunting Harold with a typical teenage gibe like "four eyes" would guarantee an immediate pummeling.

Illustration by Tim Gabor

Shy and proper, Helen was the perfect antidote to Harold. She was an excellent student who skipped two grades and graduated from high school at the age of 16. A dark-featured southern Italian, she would often bleach her hair blond for social occasions and loved dancing the Charleston.

Throughout their seven-year courtship, Harold was a persistent suitor and Helen a hesitant target. Most of her five brothers, at first, turned up their noses at her inelegant beau, regarding him as a poor match for their little sister. Helen harbored doubts of her own, she later admitted, particularly when it came to Harold's "terrible temper." She recalled one incident early in their courtship. "It was about six months after we met and we were walking up 123rd Street," she said. "He had his arm around me and when a car passed by, somebody in it yelled, 'Ain't love grand!' The car stopped for a light and Harold ran to the corner, pulled the guy out of the car, and boom! I yelled, 'Harold, what are you doing, you savage?' "

But it was not just Helen's honor he was protecting. If Harold overheard a man on the street utter what he perceived to be a disparaging remark about a woman, "Harold would smack the guy," Helen said. These incidents became so common that Harold would affectionately sign all his love letters with the sobriquet "your savage."

At least four years after they began dating, Harold truly earned his nickname. In the spring of 1934, just a week after his 26th birthday, jobless and restless, he resorted to desperate measures.

On April 5, the "savage" was arraigned on armed robbery and assault charges in the Magistrate's Court for the City of New York and ordered held on $5000 bail. Before Magistrate Alfred Lindau, Harold Giuliani lied about his age and address, claiming he was 24 and lived on East 84th Street. He also lied about his occupation, saying that he was an electrician. When asked to identify himself, he told the court that his name was Joseph Starrett.

On that day, Harold Giuliani (a/k/a Joseph Starrett) pleaded not guilty.

On April 12, in the case of People v. Harold Giuliani indicted as Joseph Starrett, Giuliani was charged with four felonies: robbery in the first degree, assault in the first degree, grand larceny in the second degree, and criminally receiving stolen property.

The crime occurred on April 2, 1934, at 12:05 p.m. in the unlit first-floor corridor of a 10-family residential building at 130 East 96th Street in Manhattan. Shortly before noon, Harold Giuliani and an accomplice positioned themselves in shadowy recesses near the stairwell. Within 10 or 15 minutes Harold Hall, a milkman for Borden's Farms, entered the building to make routine payment collections. As he began to make his way up the stairs, Giuliani emerged from the shadows and, according to the indictment, pressed the muzzle of a pistol against Hall's stomach. "You know what it is," he reportedly said. He forced the man into a nook behind the stairwell, where his counterpart was waiting. The other man plunged his hand into Hall's pants pocket and fished out $128.82 in cash.

As Giuliani's accomplice frantically stuffed the money into his own pockets, either he or Giuliani—or both—commanded Hall to "pull down your pants."

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