By the time he was a teenager, Stuey was on his way to becoming a legend in New York's gambling world -- "a bona fide legend" was how he himself once put it.) "Everyone wanted to be with Stuey," Price says. People 20 or 30 years older -- and 100 pounds heavier -- hung around him. Few, though, were as close as Victor Romano.
Stuey, a Jewish teen from the Lower East Side, and Romano, a 60-year-old soldier in the Genovese crime family, were at first glance an odd pairing. Yet fatherless Stuey would come to think of Romano as a father figure. And Romano, who'd spent half his adult life in prison, would tell people: Stuey's like a son to me.
Stuey and Romano met -- or met again, as it would turn out -- when Stuey, 18, wandered into Romano's Jovialite Social Club at 306 East 72nd Street, a second-floor walk-up with bare floors, white walls, bright lights, and two guards at the door. The two must have recognized each other. After all, Romano, an old friend of Stuey's father, had attended Stuey's bar mitzvah. Before long, Stuey was driving to Romano's Queens apartment at midnight to pick him up. They'd stay at the Jovialite until nine the next morning, when they'd head to breakfast. "This kid is going to be a millionaire," Romano would shout to waitresses, embarrassing Stuey, "but he needs a date."
The Jovialite attracted a rough crowd: bookies, jewelry thieves, stickup men. There was Big Anthony DiMeglio (a Lucchese-family connection), John "Jackie Nose" D'Amico (now said to run the Gambino family), and Romano's nephew Phil Tartaglia, who went by "Phillie Brush" because, since he was 20, he'd been bald. Soon, all the tough guys were gathered near leprechaunlike Stuey, who arrogantly insisted that any bettors wager against him. He -- and Romano -- would cover all bets. "This kid was like somebody from another planet," said one New York gambler. "He was so little and noisy, and he'd pick on those guys because he was smarter than all of them." The Bronx Express looked like a tattered pensioner with white hair, half of which stood up, and $20,000 in his pockets. The Bronx, as he was called, was one of the better gin-rummy players in New York. He gave Stuey a try. "I'll get that kid," the Bronx would mutter after each defeat. Leo the Jap tried, but had no shot and soon quit. People flew in from Canada and Las Vegas to have a go. Some said Stuey was naturally "fearless," by which they meant he bet large amounts. But, for Stuey, money never seemed the issue. "When the cards are dealt," he once said, "I just want to destroy people."
On Sundays, Stuey stopped by Queens in the afternoon. Then the fidgety teenager and Romano, a bald five-pack-a-day smoker, huddled with a deck of cards. Like Stuey, Romano was a gifted card player. He knew all the games and in prison had even taken up bridge, publishing a series of articles in Bridge World. (They were signed V. Romano, Attica, NY.) He, too, had an extraordinary memory -- while incarcerated, he'd learned Webster's dictionary by heart. (Later, he'd mingle with respectable folk at bridge clubs and, while there, define any word, a trick for which he usually earned $50.) Every Sunday, Romano reviewed the week's gin hands with Stuey -- dealing them out from memory. Then, their session over, they'd eat with the family, Romano presiding, as was his habit, in his boxer shorts.
Soon, Romano's fatherly interest took in areas beyond cards. When he heard Stuey had snorted cocaine at another club, he threatened the club owner. Also, he started planning for Stuey's future. For a Mafia soldier, Romano had instincts that were decidedly middle-class. Stuey had met Madeline Wheeler, the attractive half-Italian daughter of a Queens postal worker and bookie. She served Stuey tea at a club in the West Seventies; he tipped her $10. They went to dinner; she recalled that impatient Stuey would call ahead to have his order readied. At 20, Stuey moved out of his mother's apartment and into Madeline's. Now Romano urged Stuey to marry Madeline, to have kids, and to treat gin rummy as a profession, something to do every day -- and also to dress nicer. Stuey should be a respectable "citizen-gambler" -- that was Romano's concept. And he should do all this in the best place possible for someone with his talent: Las Vegas.