Good morning. It’s Friday. We’ll remember an often-forgotten labor organizer who helped inspire the movie “On the Waterfront.” We’ll also meet a playwright and former advertising executive who helps rabbis with their Rosh Hashana sermons.
Credit…Andres Kudacki for The New York Times
“The idea was a very simple one,” Joseph Sciorra said. “To give the man the respect that he deserves.”
The man Sciorra was talking about was Pietro (Pete) Panto, a hero to rank-and-file dockworkers in the 1930s as a labor organizer on Brooklyn’s “waterfront jungle” — to use a phrase from Malcolm Johnson, the New York Sun reporter whose stories led to “On the Waterfront.”
And the idea? For the last couple of years Sciorra, the director for academic and cultural programs at the Calandra Italian American Institute at Queens College, has campaigned for a tombstone for Panto — and the respect it would finally confer on someone killed on orders from the mobsters he had defied, who controlled the city’s docks.
With a ceremony in a Long Island cemetery on Sept. 26, Sciorra’s campaign will be complete. Referring to Panto, Sciorra said it would be “a closing of his life” and a moment of recognition for those who contributed to a GoFundMe campaign that raised the money for the tombstone, about $7,500. Sciorra said the donors ranged from “people sending in $20 and people sending in $500, many not Italian Americans” like Panto, “but people who said things like, ‘My grandfather was Swedish, he worked on the docks in Brooklyn, this is for him.’”
Panto’s disappearance in 1939 left other longshoremen to worry that they, too, would end up dead if they grumbled too loudly about the corruption that permeated their working lives. His body was not found until 18 months later. No one was arrested for the murder.
Sciorra discovered a couple of years ago when he went to St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale, N.Y., on Long Island, that Panto had been buried in an unmarked grave. In Section 9, Row F, No. 224, he found no tombstone, only dry grass and dead leaves.
Sciorra decided a tombstone was needed and soon found himself going back and forth with cemetery officials and monument masons about the design. He said he was told “You can’t have quotation marks on a tombstone,” so the first line read simply Pietro Pete Panto, not, as Sciorra originally planned, Pietro “Pete” Panto.
Another requirement was that the name of the owner of the plot appear on the tombstone — Scotto, for Pasquale Scotto, the undertaker who arranged the burial and held a wake for Panto, perhaps because Panto’s family was too afraid to plan one themselves. He said that Scotto’s daughter, who is in her 90s and still holds the deed to the gravesite, had given her assent.
Sciorra said the pandemic delayed the process of carving the headstone. The monument maker was backlogged, he said.
Panto had been born in Brooklyn but was sent to Sicily after his mother died giving birth to another child when he was 2 years old. He returned to Brooklyn in his 20s and found work on the docks. It was a world where, in the words of an assistant district attorney quoted by the historian Nathan Ward in 2019, everyone “from candy store proprietor to ship line operator” was ensnared and had “to pay tribute to the mob.”
Panto became a hiring foreman but soon bucked the system, delivering what Ward described as “increasingly bold speeches demanding greater union democracy — regular shop meetings,” along with an end to the arbitrary and often corrupt shape-up system, which put a premium on favoritism and payoffs.
His activism did not go over well with union’s mob-infiltrated hierarchy, which included Albert Anastasia, the head of the criminal gang known as Murder Inc. Emil Camarda, a union vice president, let Panto know that Anastasia was less than pleased about the trouble Pinto was stirring up. Pinto was offered $10,000 to quiet down. He said no.
Then, one Friday, Panto went home to get ready for a date with his fiancée. Ward wrote that Panto got a mysterious telephone call and told his fiancée’s brother that “he would be meeting ‘two tough mugs’ or some ‘men I don’t like’ for an hour or so that night.” Panto said they should go to the police if he had not been heard from by 10 a.m. the next day.
There was an inevitability to what followed: Panto was picked up by a dark sedan with Camarda inside and didn’t show up by the next morning. “Police fear Pete is wearing a cement suit at the bottom of the East River,” the gossip columnist Walter Winchell soon wrote. Ward added: “Each sodden corpse that bumped to the surface of the rivers around New York was hauled out and checked against photographs of the smiling young hero of the docks.”
But later a government informant said that the car had taken Panto to New Jersey for a “meeting” with Anastasia. Panto’s body was found on a chicken farm in Lyndhurst, N.J.
The inscription on the tombstone describes Panto as a “labor activist” and “our martyr in the fray.”
“He’s got a certain kind of recognition,” Sciorra said. “There are people still writing about him. Some labor historians are familiar with his story, but in the popular imagination, he’s somebody who’s been erased to some degree.”
Expect sunny skies with temps in the low 70s. In the evening, temps drop to the low 60s.
In effect until Saturday (Rosh Hashana).
The latest New York news
Law and Order
Fluke charge: Prosecutors are accusing a Long Island fisherman of overfishing by 200,000 pounds of fluke.
Controversial professor: Stephen Kershnar, who teaches philosophy, is suing for the right to return to SUNY at Fredonia. The university defends its ban as necessary for safety.
Work permits: Gov. Kathy Hochul said that New York State was considering ways to issue work permits to asylum seekers in a bid to circumvent the long wait at the federal level.
Price increase: The Museum of Modern Art has joined an increasingly crowded list of arts organizations that have raised the price of an adult ticket to $30 from $25, an increase of 20 percent.
Stolen art: New York investigators seized three artworks from three out-of-state museums that they said had been stolen from a Jewish art collector killed during the Holocaust and rightly belonged to the Nazi victim’s heirs.
Helping rabbis find their voice
For Michele Lowe, the weeks before Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are crunch time.
She is a former advertising executive who once made commercials for consumer products like Miracle Whip and later wrote a Broadway play. Now she coaches religious leaders on how to write sermons.
Our reporter Sarah Maslin Nir says she is the rabbi whisperer. Lowe has become something like a college-essay coach for the rabbinate. She is editing 33 sermons for Rosh Hashana, which begins at sundown on Friday, and Yom Kippur.
“My job is to help these rabbis find their voice,” Lowe said.
For Rabbi Mara Nathan of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, that meant finding something that would add a contemporary sparkle to a sermon about ancient themes. That meant finding Barbie.
“On the High Holidays, suddenly you have 1,000 people listening instead of 150,” said Rabbi Nathan, who plans to blend lessons from the “Barbie” movie with those of Rabbi Hillel, the Babylonian theologian born in 110 B.C.E., into a sermon about embracing imperfection.
She spends the months leading up to the holidays in Zoom sessions and on shared Google docs, encouraging her clients to dig deeper for personal meaning or to give their phrasing some punch. She charges $400 for each one-hour coach session. The fee includes her prep work: reading and editing the rabbis’ sermons.
Some of Lowe’s clients keep quiet about consulting her. At first, Dara Frimmer, a rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, was reluctant to share that she had sought help on a sermon.
“There is a fear that rabbis have to be wholly original and brilliant and poised and always have the right words,” Rabbi Frimmer said. But she came to realize that turning to community in a time of need was a profoundly Jewish ideal. “With great pride I wrote at the bottom: ‘Thank you to Michele Lowe.’”
The stranger in the middle seat
he was six-foot-four with broad shoulders
wedged between me and the large woman at the window
I am six feet, overweight, and he was already nodding off
“You gonna sleep?” he mumbled, and I said,
“This will work”— he raised the arm rest
“I’ll be the big spoon”
we passed out
— S.R. Smith
Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.
Glad we could get together here. See you Monday. — J.B.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.
Hannah Fidelman and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].