The Seguines let the house fall into disrepair before selling it to Burke. He restored it over several years, then had it registered as a federal landmark. Original seventeenth-century Bernini oil paintings hang on his walls, while Marie Antoinette's gilded dog sits on the floor.
"I did a lot of houses out here," he says of his decorating years, when he worked with wealthy women who lived on the hills, before he retired in 1984. "I did all the houses out here. There were no designers." That includes the famed interior designer Mario Buatta, who grew up on Staten Island. "He left and went up to the city," Burke explains. "And I stayed here."
Today Burke runs an equestrian center he has founded on his estate, but once in a while he still consults for LaPolla on design work. He also helped LaPolla find and decorate his own house, a three-story pre-Civil War Italianate villa in West Brighton overlooking the Kill Van Kull, the waterway that separates Staten Island from Bayonne, New Jersey. The house was originally owned by a nineteenth-century sea captain and industrialist, and part of the land on which it sits had previously been a Native American burial ground. LaPolla found that out when several Lenape Indians knocked on the door one day wanting to perform a ceremony on the property to rid it of evil spirits. He gladly obliged.
Perhaps Staten Island's most controversial bit of notoriety is its reputation among many as a Mafia enclave. Even if that renown is in part due to the usual stereotyping of Italian-Americans, the truth is, the seven hills of Staten Island have been home to some well-known as well as some lesser-known Mafia families over the years. Certainly Francis Ford Coppola was keen to that when he shot the wedding scene from The Godfather on the grounds of a home on Todt Hill, and Martin Scorsese knew that when he shot several scenes from GoodFellas in Staten Island strip malls.
On Staten Island, you will get a heated debate about whether the mob in New York City is finished, and whether there are still a lot of families on the island that are "connected." But in a way, that's all beside the point. The Mafia, like the British aristocracy, still commands respect, and whether Mafia families have been deposed or not, on Staten Island they are forever royalty.
People regularly chart the comings and goings of pretty, fortysomething Connie Castellano. She is the daughter of the late Gambino-family crime boss Paul Castellano, who lived on Todt Hill with his family until he was shot to death in front of a Manhattan steakhouse in 1985 -- a murder engineered by John Gotti, who then assumed power. Connie Castellano got married. She got divorced. She moved to Florida. And everyone gossiped about it as much as about Princess Diana.
Though it may not be politically correct, Italian-Americans often even enjoy the Mafia mystique. When I was a kid in the early seventies, my parents and assorted members of our extended family would sometimes go into Manhattan to Maxim's, a restaurant on Madison Avenue and 61st Street, "owned by Pierre Cardin," as my father had explained it to me. We had to get all dressed up: For the men, that meant shiny black, blue, or gray suits and even shinier shoes; for the women, it meant glitzy dresses, lots of gold jewelry, and the requisite makeup. We congregated on a sidewalk first and then walked in all at once, a massive glittering mob, punctuated here and there by big, bright platinum hair. The Upper East Side crowd in the restaurant was a bit stunned, and some people would sooner or later clear out, as we were also quite loud.
But some of us reveled in it: I remember one of my cousins joking, "Every time we enter the room, it's like -- shazam! You can just hear everyone sayin', 'Oh, here comes the Mafia!' " And then she laughed. We were of course not "the Mafia," and we'd be offended if anyone seriously suggested that. Still, there was a certain guilty pleasure at being mistaken as such in a social setting where you might not otherwise be accepted. It certainly commanded respect -- even if that respect was induced by fear.
The Mafia mythology provided us with a lot of fun. On Christmas Eve, my uncles, brothers, and cousins would go down the basement and have some laughs playing out scenes from The Godfather, including all the gory murder scenes. We even videotaped it and would show it later to all 35 guests who were over for the gargantuan traditional fish dinner and would hoot and holler. (Other families began making their own tapes, competing with us.)
Everyone on Staten Island has a Mafia story. One gay man on Staten Island recently told me in a very matter-of-fact way that his ex-boyfriend's mother had once taken a contract out on him. Such stories -- and they are abundant -- are a dark but irresistible part of Staten Island's folklore. The Advance's Maureen Seaberg, who finds the Mafia connection to Staten Island "unfortunate" and says she is often "outraged" by the tendency for some to romanticize the Mafia, nonetheless can't keep from telling her own story.
"I was a little girl and I was living in Sunnyside," she begins, her voice slightly trembling with the suspense of a child telling a horror story. "And I had a little girlfriend who lived up the street from me, and I hadn't seen her for a while and so I finally asked my parents, 'Where is she?' And they told me her father had died, that she wouldn't be around. But then I found out from the kids at school that he was found chopped up in pieces in the garbage pail. I was not more than 5 at the time." She pauses and sighs, then laughs nervously. "That's such a Staten Island story."