Interview with Jerome Tuccille, author of Gallery of Fools, a peek into the secret world of mobster art thieves


The edition coming out in November is updated from the original book (released in 2008).  What new content should we expect this time around?

It's been revised and it has some new information that I learned after the original book was published.  I did a bunch of radio shows when the book came out and there was a co-guest on the Joey Reynolds show.  He was the FBI agent who arrested my cousin and was full of information that I wasn't privy to when I wrote the original book.

You unwittingly became an accessory after the fact to this crime, but you managed to stay under the FBI's radar and avoid the media attention that followed the bust.  Did that change after your book came out?

Not really.  The FBI agent, Tom McShane, told me that the statute of limitations ends after five years.  It's just amazing.  Someone steals hundreds of millions of dollars worth of valuables, and then five years later, he's home free if they haven't caught him.  He told me that five years and one day after my cousin got rid of the paintings, he could've walked into FBI Headquarters and said, "I did it!" and there wouldn't have been a thing they could do.

As far as the media attention goes, the book has been optioned for a movie.  I heard from a studio and a producer in Hollywood who have a screenplay and they're currently trying to get funding.  I think it'd make an entertaining movie and I'd love to see it come to fruition, but there are no guarantees yet.

You are pretty frank and unforgiving with a lot of your descriptions of your family members.  How have they reacted to the book?

Well, my father is dead now, so he doesn't enter into the picture, but my cousin is still alive.  He's 85 now, and my understanding is that he's okay with it.  A lot of mob types enjoy reading about themselves.  It glamorizes what they do to some extent, I suppose.

You have a private viewing of some of the most influential Impressionist works in the world alone in the woods with your wife.  What was that like?

Well, part of the motivation of doing that was to find out if they were indeed paintings that were hidden behind that wall.  It could've been anything.  We went to the most private spot we could think of in a reservoir north of White Plains to look at them, and my God.  We were staring at masterpieces.

You avoid getting too gushy about the paintings themselves.  In fact, you seem pretty irritated by your father's attachment to the Renoir. But come on ... did you have a favorite?

There was a painting by Pissaro, a haunting country scene in France [L'Hermitage a Pontoise - pictured below].  I've always wondered what happened to it.  My wife and I were up at a gallery in New York and saw a massive version of the painting that we had, because artists at that time would often do many iterations of one piece of work.  This one took up the whole wall and it was really something to stand in front of that version of what used to be in the trunk of my car.


As much as you emphasize the anxiety caused by all the crime and danger you were dragged into against your will, there must have been a degree of exhilaration in meeting mobsters for lobster dinners, having to hide a gun in your waistline, and making visits to a secret hide out in a barn.

(Laughs) Well yeah, absolutely.  There's a passage in the book where I mention talking to a friend of mine who is a lawyer to figure out what my legal stance was and he says to me that I'm supposed to write my books, not live them.  When I think back on it, it was like living a dream.  There I was, basically in a middle-class existence trying to get books published and I get sucked into this.  To go down into my father's cellar and discover the paintings, put them in my car, and suddenly be responsible for them ... And I had to tell my cousin, who is family, but is also a mobster.  It was just as horrifying as it was exhilarating

When you think back on the whole ordeal now, what stands out to you the most?

Having to face my cousin head on, I think.  As you mentioned, I did have to go down to meet him with a pistol in my belt, because I didn't know what he was going to do.  As far as he was concerned, I was just some straight-laced, middle-class family man, not connected to the mob in any way, and he was.  I wanted to make sure I was protected.  It was definitely a tense moment, but I got through it.  I also had a few other situations, which are mentioned in the book, where I'm dealing with these [underworld-type] tenants that my father rented to, which also got pretty nerve-racking.  The violence of the situation really stands out.

I was such an odd man out in my family.  There was never a book in the house and my father was a cab driver from the Bronx who had no respect for college or my writing.  It was like we came from different planets.

So, do you feel like getting caught up in this mess won your father's respect?  It almost seemed like the two of you finally started to understand one another there toward the end.

I do think than he respected me more for that than he did for the books I wrote (laughs).  The man aspired to be a hoodlum.  He got involved with that because he favored my cousin.  He understood him more than he did me.  I was the son he didn't know how to deal with.  It wasn't the kind of thing I wanted to be respected for, but there it was, and after we came through it, he did have a grudging respect for me toward the end.  We all resent our parents sometimes, but then you think that maybe they did the best they could with the equipment they had to work with.

Watch out for the new edition of Gallery of Fools in bookstores this fall.

Family is a complicated thing. Just ask best-selling biographer and former candidate for the governorship of New York, Jerry Tuccille. 

In the early '70s, Tuccille was called home to his father's hospital bed in New York, away from his hard-won average, middle-class life.

With Salvatore Tuccille seemingly on the verge of death, there was no option but to smack his only son right between the eyes with the Big Family Secret - eight priceless paintings stashed behind a false wall in the cellar of the family home.

The paintings were the product of the 1969 Stephan Hahn Gallery art heist. Impressionist works by the likes of Matisse, Renoir, Cassatt, and Monet shoved behind a plaster facade in the Bronx for safe keeping. They had been apprehended by Tuccille's cousin, an oily operator with mob ties and a way with the ladies, known to the family as Georgie.

Unable to contain his curiosity, Jerry and his wife tear down the faux wall and retrieve the works to see for themselves that Salvatore's story is true. Unfortunately, once the wall is gone, the Tuccilles are now the proud owners of eight red-hot pieces of art and all the crime-infused responsibility that comes with them. Like any average American couple, the only place they have to hide the merchandise is in the station wagon and the only means of protection they have access to is Salvatore's antique pistol from World War II.

Gallery of Fools is one of those memoirs that would be laughed off of fiction shelves for its outlandishness. A deliciously dysfunctional cream puff of a read, the book flies through all the mafia intrigue, FBI tails, and meddlesome aunts you can handle.

To make matters even more hilariously complicated, Salvatore Tuccille pulls through his illness and has to be shipped off to Florida to hide from the law, an illegal porn shop takes over the basement where the paintings were originally hidden, and, believe it or not, Tuccille is unexpectedly tapped as the Libertarian candidate for governor.

It's a quick read, perfect for the beach or a rainy night in. I spoke with Jerry about the new edition hitting shelves in November, what it was like to come face to face with the paintings, and how his family eventually came out on the other side. After the break, Tuccille opens up about the experience and the toll it took on his life:

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