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Boss Kelly

Kelly as a Marine in Vietnam.  

The detective is back in the bunker. He hands Kelly his iced cappuccino and his change.

“I should wear shirts with pockets,” Kelly says. “These kind of European cuts, they have no pockets … I like pockets.”

“Boss, I just wanted to give you this bank robbery out in the 7-5 Precinct,” the detective says. “We have a male Hispanic in his thirties. Apparently he walked in with a note, stated he had a firearm, didn’t display the firearm, fled on foot with an undetermined amount of money. No dye packs were given.”

Kelly sips his iced cappuccino from the straw.

“All righty, can we move?” Kelly asks. “If it’s okay with you guys?”

“Yes, sir,” the detective says.

“Yes, sir,” the driver says.

Kelly was never a doughnut-dunking kind of cop. When he first joined the department, in 1963, Kelly had a degree from Manhattan College. With a diploma, he felt ostracized.

“They had no kids like this around the department,” Kelly told me earlier. “So, some strange looks.”

Kelly’s father sold milk and worked in the shipyards before landing a desk job at the IRS. His mother checked clothes in the dressing room at Macy’s. The youngest of four boys, Kelly was an aggressive child. He was not in a gang per se. He was in “a crew,” he says. I ask him what that entailed.

“Fights,” he says. “Hitting people with a stickball bat, getting yanked. A classic West Side Story case: Irish and Italian gangs versus the Puerto Rican gangs.”

Helping his mother out at Macy’s, Kelly read about the NYPD cadet program, which he thought could finance his law-school tuition.

“Kelly has made it believable that he is all that is standing between the citizens of New York and destruction.”

“It wasn’t like I was ‘Hey, I always wanted to be a cop,’ ” Kelly says.

One concern was his height. In the early sixties, the NYPD had a height requirement of five eight. He looks to be right on the edge. Before his medical exam, one source who worked with Kelly for years claims, the police commissioner spent several nights sleeping on a plywood board to straighten his back and increase his height. He was then driven to the exam in a station wagon, lying flat in the back.

“A mythological thing,” Kelly says. “I think it’s kind of an old wives’ tale. It didn’t happen to me, but it may have happened [to other cops].”

Early on, Kelly put the NYPD on hold, enrolled in the Marines, and shipped out to Vietnam. His older brothers were Marines, and Kelly was pining for a way to prove himself. If he hadn’t married his high-school sweetheart, Veronica, and had his sons, Jim, a computer analyst, and Greg, now a news anchor who hosts his father on Fox 5, Kelly would have considered a career in the military. In the reserves, he rose to the rank of colonel.

“I liked the military life,” Kelly says. “They teach you self-sufficiency early on. I always say that I learned most of what I know about leadership in the Marine Corps. Certain basic principles stay with you—sometimes consciously, mostly unconsciously.”

One principle is that authority should look like authority. Hence Kelly’s meticulous attention to his clothes. His shirts are custom-made and laundered at Geneva, a shirtmaker. His tailor is Martin Greenfield, a Holocaust survivor who fits many big-name but not-so-big-bank-account pols for Savile Row–looking suits at Williamsburg prices.

“He does nice work,” Kelly says of Greenfield.

“He comes in for the smallest thing,” Greenfield says of Kelly. “He’s like all my clients, he likes to look good, and he likes when people tell him, ‘You look great.’ ”

After Kelly returned from Vietnam, he scored at the top of his class in the Police Academy. He patrolled the Upper West Side for only seven months before getting promoted. Some retired cops say Kelly’s swift ascent makes him a boss who doesn’t understand the street. “He’s not a cop,” says one retired chief, dismissively. “He’s on patrol for a blink of an eye and tells guys on patrol ten years how to do their jobs.” Says another, “He gives you all the ingredients to make shrimp scampi and says he wants sirloin steak.”

It was the combination of talent and ambition that sped Kelly’s rise in the force. He taught himself mnemonics, and now has a tremendous recall of information. “He could put an elephant to shame,” says one former underling. “It’s all in the suitcase upstairs.” Over the years, he would command precincts in Brooklyn and Queens, obtain a master’s degree from Harvard, and run the department’s Office of Management Analysis and Planning, which handled statistics in the pre-CompStat years. Then a two-star chief, Kelly was such a competent, intelligent force at headquarters that he was promoted over several superiors to the department’s No. 2 post: first deputy.