One morning a few weeks ago, I was in a taxi in the heart of Rome. Twenty minutes later, I was transported back to the Five Points, New York, circa 1840. I was standing at the edge of a snowy street corner, watching Monk Eastman, a fearsome thug with straw-colored hair and a bloodied face, doing battle with a crowd of other thugs from the Plug Uglies and the Dead Rabbits, gangs that then ruled the streets of present-day Chinatown and Little Italy.
At the periphery of the battle stood a bunch of cameramen, production assistants, cinematographers, actors and, wearing a wide-brimmed rain hat and mud boots, Martin Scorsese. And it was all I could do not to rush over to him and kiss him 40 or 50 times. Because he had, just a few miles outside the heart of Rome, recreated old New York the way I'd always pictured it. Here in Cinecitta, the vast lot where Fellini once worked, Scorsese's wizardly set designer Ferretti had whipped up a highly convincing facsimile of the city as portrayed in Herbert Asbury's The Gangs of New York.
What always grabbed me most in the book were the stories of the female gangsters. Hellcat Maggie filed her teeth to points and wore brass fingernails. Sadie the Goat walked up to unsuspecting men on the street and headbutted them, startling them so her followers could rob them. Gallus Mag, a 6-foot Englishwoman who held court at a dank Water St. bar called the Hole in the Wall, had a propensity for biting the ears off folks who rubbed her the wrong way.
When I first heard that Scorsese, who optioned The Gangs of New York a long time ago, was finally making the movie, I was thrilled?he's the only filmmaker I could think of who would do the book justice. But I worried he might make my girl gangsters central characters. Because, after reading Gangs for the fifth time, I'd started writing a novel about Gallus Mag and Sadie the Goat. Maybe Scorsese's movie would render my book, which I've been slaving over for several years, an albatross. I tried currying favor with various individuals who might have glimpsed the script of Gangs, but I couldn't find anyone who knew much about it.
Then, by chance, I happened to be in Rome visiting my boyfriend, Mark, who knows Scorsese's A.D. and had been invited to visit the set. Mark, who moved to Rome because New York's magic had started to wane for him, wasn't that keen on seeing a reconstruction of the city as it used to be. Until I told him the story of Gallus Mag and Sadie the Goat. The latter having, by Asbury's account, somehow infuriated Gallus Mag, who bit Sadie's ear off and banished her from Manhattan. Sadie went off to lead the Charlton Street Boys, a gang of loser river pirates, whipping them into a tight organization that sailed the Hudson, pillaging farms and houses and even taking hostages?whom Sadie would make walk the plank. Eventually Sadie missed New York, though, and came begging Gallus' forgiveness. The Englishwoman was so moved by Sadie's sudden humility she not only forgave her but gave her back her ear?which Gallus had kept pickled in a jar.
Mark's interest was piqued.
We got out of the cab at the main entrance to Cinecitta and a bright-eyed young production assistant named David escorted us through an immense steel gate and onto the set. And suddenly I was on the streets Gallus Mag and Sadie had once walked. Shabby little two-story buildings leaning into each other like exhausted whores. Broken horse carts littering the muddy streets leading to Paradise Square, the heart of the Five Points, where a bloody battle scene was in progress. Dozens of men in bedraggled trousers were smashing one another with fake brickbats and bludgeons. Some, members of the Dead Rabbits, had rabbit pelts on their heads or hanging out the backs of their pants. The Plug Uglies wore funny, squat hats. All of them were smeared in dirt and fake blood.
"There's Liam Neeson getting killed," David pointed to the actor, who had fake blood dripping down his face. "He plays Amsterdam's father."
"Who's Amsterdam?" I asked.
"The hero of the story. A character we invented. Played by Leonardo DiCaprio."
"Oh," I said, relieved. I'd had disturbing visions of DiCaprio playing Monk Eastman, one of the "heroes" of the book. In real life, Eastman had a bullet-shaped head, cauliflower ears, sagging jowls and a short, scarred neck. David indicated the big straw-headed guy playing the notorious thug. The actor wasn't nearly as homely as the actual Monk, but he was no pretty-boy either.
"But where are his cats?" I asked David. "Monk Eastman was an animal freak. He had a pet shop, but he was so attached to his animals he'd never actually sell any of them. Supposedly, wherever he went he had a cat under each arm and a few trailing behind him. He'd be off organizing some sort of massive gang slaughter, but if anyone laid a finger on a cat or a bird, he'd completely lose it."
"Oh yeah?" David tilted his head. "What are you, some kind of historian?"
Joe Reidy, Mark's friend the A.D., temporarily freed from overseeing the battle scene, came to see how we were liking the set. "It's incredible," I enthused, "but are you using the girls? Gallus Mag and Sadie the Goat?"
"You should talk to Marty," Joe said.
A few minutes later we were being introduced to Scorsese. He had a warm and mildly wicked smile as I babbled about how beautifully they'd recreated things. I brought up my female gangsters.
"Yeah, well, we only used Hellcat Maggie," Scorsese told me.
"And she has her teeth sharpened to points?"
"Oh yeah. We borrowed a few traits from Gallus too?had Hellcat bite the ears off people."
"And keep them in a jar behind the bar?"
"Yes," he beamed. " You'll have to look carefully but yes, there's a shot of an ear in a pickle jar."
It had started raining by then and prop people were scurrying around, putting plastic tarps over the fake snow on the ground. Scorsese invited us to come inside one of the set's buildings, where he was taking an enforced break before shooting a scene involving two children who couldn't be forced to work in the rain.
"Excuse me, I have to nap," Scorsese said, seating himself in the director's chair that stood there in front of a bank of monitors. The small, gray-haired man then closed his eyes, buried his chin into the top of his sweater and proceeded to nap.
His eyes snapped back open three minutes later, when, without being told, he seemed to intuit that the rain had stopped and the action was starting again.
We watched on the monitors as the young Irish boy playing Leonardo DiCaprio as a child stands on a hilltop looking for his father, Liam Neeson, who has just been murdered. To give the kid something to react to, the dozens of extras playing Plug Uglies and Dead Rabbits were told to do battle, even though the cameras weren't on them. This they did with gusto, shouting and smashing each other with wild enthusiasm.
"They like their work," Scorsese said.
The kid wasn't doing as well. He was looking a little stiff on camera and not jumping into the frame exactly as he was supposed to. Scorsese sighed and walked outside, over to the kid. We saw the kid's acting coach cower as Scorsese tilted his head, waved his hands a little and tried to explain what he wanted. I took the opportunity to wander over to the bathroom. A dozen blood-plattered mannequins, inanimate extras for battle scenes, stood vigil just outside the toilet.
As I emerged, I ran into the actor playing Monk Eastman. He was brushing some mud off his costume and his face was still speckled with dried fake blood.
"Hey, you're Monk Eastman," I said.
The straw-headed guy smiled. "Yes I am, little lady. Who are you?"
I introduced myself and we shook hands, his smearing mine with fake blood. Then a makeup person whisked him off to freshen his facial wounds.
I made my way back to the set. The rain had started again. Scorsese retreated to his director's chair for another three-minute nap. David showed Mark and me the rest of the lot.
"This is stage five," David said as we approached an immense airplane hangar of a building. "Fellini's stage. We've turned it into the inside of the Old Brewery. I think it's locked, though." He led us to the back of the place, through a few secret doors and inside. I stopped and caught my breath. The Old Brewery looked exactly as I'd imagined it from reading Asbury's description: "...the house swarmed with thieves, murderers, pickpockets, beggars, harlots, and degenerates of every type...through the flimsy, clapboarded walls could be heard the crashing thud of brickbat or iron bar, the shrieks of the unhappy victims, the wailing of starving children, and the frenzied cries of men and women...writhing in the anguish of delirium tremens."
"Careful, it's not very solid," David warned as we climbed down to the lower level where they'd recreated a rat pit, a place where terriers and rats did battle.
David showed us out of the Old Brewery and over to the street they'd turned into Lower Broadway. Indicating the façade of Barnum's American Museum, I explained to Mark that Phineas Gage, another of my favorite historical figures, worked there. Gage had survived being brained by a steel tamping iron. Though at first he'd seemed none worse for the wear, by the time Barnum got hold of him and hired him to stand onstage at the museum, displaying his scars and the steel tamping iron that had shot through his head, Gage's personality had changed radically. Where he'd once been a competent, levelheaded guy, now he was a fickle, foul-mouthed drifter who only got along with animals?squirrels in particular.
"We got Barnum in the movie," David told us. "Just a little part, but we had to have him in there."
When we returned, Scorsese was back watching the monitors, contemplating the kid's facial expressions. "I'm sorry you weren't here to see Hellcat Maggie in action," he told me. "She was magnificent." He grinned.
"It's okay," I said. "I got to shake Monk Eastman's hand."