November 17, 2005
The Hit Man Who Came to Dinner
"Blood Relation" by Eric Konigsberg (HarperCollins, $25.95).
Harold "Kayo" Konigsberg has been behind bars since 1963. He has served time in more than 15 prisons and is next up for parole in 2006, when he'll be 78. No one expects this Jewish hit man from New Jersey, who freelanced for various Mafia families and is responsible for more than 20 murders, to be a free man again.
Growing up in Nebraska, Eric Konigsberg never heard about his famous great-uncle. His parents never told him about the convict in the family, nor was Harold mentioned during visits to Eric's grandparents in Bayonne, N.J. Eric first heard Harold's name in 1985, while attending an Eastern boarding school. A groundskeeper at the school, a former New York City cop who had been on the mob beat, asked whether the name Kayo Konigsberg meant anything to him and explained who he was. The young Konigsberg tried bragging to his schoolmates but it didn't get him very far, so he soon forgot his relation. Ten years later, while Eric was working on a magazine story, a former detective asked if he was related to "the famous Konigsberg."
It was then that he got his father to admit, "That's my Uncle Heshy."
In 1997, Eric Konigsberg found a message on his voicemail from an unnamed person who promised a "very interesting conversation" when he called back. Harold, calling from the Auburn Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in upstate New York, had seen his great-nephew's name in a magazine and realized there was a journalist in the family. When the two spoke a few nights later, the uncle invited the nephew to visit.
"Blood Relation" is Eric Konigsberg's account of his uncle's life, gleaned from 10 visits to the Auburn facility over three years, interviews with family members as well as the families of Harold's victims. It also includes the author's examination of extensive court testimony and FBI records. More than a biography in crime, this powerful book is a nuanced view of Harold in the context of his family, and the author's own reflections on coming to know and attempting to understand his uncle.
The book is a much-expanded version of a 2001 article that Eric wrote for The New Yorker, with additional information about Harold's many criminal exploits and the Konigsberg family history. Some have said that Eric's experience is a writer's dream: to discover that you have an uncle who's a Mafia hit man, willing to talk.
In an interview at a café downtown near the Writers Room, where the 36-year-old journalist works, Konigsberg explains that when he first met his uncle, he called him Uncle Heshy, but that felt too affectionate and intimate. He then called him Uncle Harold but that also seemed too familial, so he switched to Harold, which is how he refers to him in the book.
The name Kayo came from a stint as a semipro boxer; it was derived from K.O., for knockout. Harold's father, an Eastern European immigrant, found success in the construction business, selling a bit of bootleg slivovitz on the side. The author's grandfather, Leo, who went on to run a large wholesale food business in Bayonne, was Harold's older brother; Leo was known to be so scrupulous about his reputation that he wouldn't accept a cup of coffee from any of his restaurant clients.
One of Harold's sisters told the author that her brother was a gangster from the age of 5 on. He was "an illiterate amid a family of studious children, a malevolently wild creature in a house full of Sabbath keepers."
When one sister won the valedictorian award at Bayonne High School, Harold stole her medal and hocked it at a pawnshop. By the time he was 23, Harold was arrested 20 times, mostly for robberies and assaults.
"He ascended the organized-crime ladder swiftly, and largely by dint of his violent reputation," Eric writes.
Born a generation after Meyer Lansky, Kayo was active as a bookmaker, loan shark, thief and hired killer in the '40s, '50s and '60s. Overweight and bullish in strength, even in old age, he was never one of those finely tailored dons who cared about flashy clothing and well-made shoes. He has always been more interested in power than money. What he really enjoys is knowing that he put something over on people, especially those who have some authority.
In prison, he takes kosher food, although he has a great fondness for shrimp. He seems interested in family connections, always asking his nephew about relatives and keeping track of the generations. He's devoted to his two daughters and said that when he gets out of prison, he wants to assure that his grandson has a bar mitzvah. When he was about to marry his late wife, an Italian woman, he sent an emissary to his brother Leo and his wife to see if they were comfortable with his marrying a Catholic. As Eric reports, they could only laugh.
"Every week, we're reading about this arrest, that arrest, and we should have a problem him marrying outside of the faith," the author's grandmother said.
When the author began to ask family members about Harold, the majority tried to shush his inquiries. For years, most have distanced themselves from their relative. Some said they didn't realize that he was in prison for murder, while others said they had forgotten about him. They had a sense of shame about their violent relative, and decidedly went on with their own lives, finding no place for Harold.
Ultimately, some cooperated with the author, but others were angry that he was again bringing negative attention to the family name. After Eric stayed in his grandmother's Bayonne home for a few days, doing research and making phone calls about Harold, she asked him to check in to a hotel.
Eric's reporting on his uncle's crimes is a portrait of brutality. But as the journalist sees when they first meet, Harold also has a charming and seductive side. He taught himself to read as an adult and went on to learn the intricacies of the legal system, representing himself in court. Some journalists and others who knew him -- Kayo inspired two fictional pieces, one by Sidney Zion and one by Peter Maas -- described him with fascination and warmth, "as if he were some kind of pet monster," Eric writes.
"I began the whole thing feeling curious about him," Eric explains, "finding him quite intriguing, looking for opportunities to see him as a more sympathetic person. As I spent time around him, learning more about what he did, that changed. I felt no sympathy as time went on." He adds, "It's impossible now to feel sympathy."
As he writes, "The funny thing about blood is, you can't control how you feel about your relatives. Even after I had seen what Harold had done to others, I was unable to hate him quite as deeply as I wanted to, or even as much as I felt I should. And yet I was a lot less capable of wishing him any possibility of redemption than I'd have been if given the chance to forgive a stranger for the same sins. The thing about blood is that you can't undo what fundamentally connects you to somebody else."
The reader, too, wants to see an uplifting side of Harold, to see him as some sort of good bad guy. But this guy is truly bad.
Eric defuses the notion of Jews taking pride in having a tough guy in the tribe. "I don't think that Jews are timid or weak," he said. "If one thinks that way, I don't think that a violent and mendacious criminal, a psychopathic killer, is an antidote to that. He's not someone to take pride in."
The author said that his uncle sometimes expressed remorse, but then in the next sentence would blame his circumstances, saying that what he did was honorable.
"There were times when he cried, saying he took responsibility for what he did," Eric Konigsberg said, and then asks, "Who's to say if he did? There's so much that's contradictory."
In researching, Eric tracked down as many of the families of Harold's victims as he could, visiting them in their homes and corresponding with them. Through them, he saw the ripple effects of his uncle's trail of murder. Sometimes he felt like a goodwill ambassador on behalf of his family, bearing witness to the lives other families lost.
On his last visit with his uncle in 2001 --before the article came out in The New Yorker -- Harold threatened to kill him if he published a word about him. Konigsberg, who lives on the Upper East Side with his wife and young son, hasn't heard from his uncle since then and has no interest in seeing him again. He now understands the defensive tack taken by his relatives.
"I felt so intimidated by him. I like that he knows I'm intent on exposing as much as I could about him."
Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for the Jewish Week.