The wild inside story of "The Dog": How one failed bank robber shaped LGBT history

I knew John Wojtowicz, the troubled, complicated star of a new documentary. And here's why I'll never forget him

Published August 6, 2014 5:30PM (EDT)

Still of John Wojtowicz from "The Dog"       (Drafthouse Films)
Still of John Wojtowicz from "The Dog" (Drafthouse Films)

"Do you think the Mafia was involved in the robbery?" filmmaker Allison Berg asks. "I don't think so. But there are so many accounts of what happened."

The account most everyone knows of what John Wojtowicz did on April 23, 1972, is "Dog Day Afternoon," Sidney Lumet's 1975 drama about how a pair of inept would-be robbers turned a failed heist of a Brooklyn branch of the Chase Manhattan bank into an exercise in free-form "street theater."  So "The Dog," the new documentary Berg co-directed with Frank Keraudren, will be of great interest to those familiar with Lumet's Al Pacino-starring classic -- and even greater interest to those who knew John Wojtowicz, as I did. And the Mafia was involved -- though not in the way anyone might imagine. It was the Wojtowicz way.

A fast-talking, self-promoting quintessential New York "character," of the sort Damon Runyon might have invented had he been gay, "Littlejohn Basso," as he was known to myself and other members of the Gay Activists Alliance, was always around at our weekly meetings and social events, but seldom participated in our political demonstrations, or "Zaps."  He was lively, amusing, but in no way trustworthy. Moreover he scarcely seemed "political" at all. One of the few "zaps" he joined was a protest in favor of the issuance of marriage licenses to gay couples. This was 1971, and same-sex marriage, on the LGBT front-burner today, was a minor novelty back then. Many in GAA (especially perpetual firebrand Arthur Evans) didn't want anything to do with it.

But "Littlejohn" certainly did. He wanted to marry his transgender sweetheart Ernest Aron (aka Liz Eden), and did so in a symbolic but in no way legal ceremony recorded on one of the earliest video cameras, which GAA had acquired. That footage is featured in "The Dog." Also on view are select shots the TV cameras caught that fateful day when, instead of the massive haul Littlejohn hoped for, he and his pal Sal took $32,000 in cash and $150 in traveler's checks before attempting to escape via a hostage standoff. Littlejohn tried to negotiate with the police to get a flight to some foreign country or other in exchange for the bank employees they were holding at bay. It ended with his arrest and Sal's death at the hands of the cops. "The Dog" deals with all of this, but, rather than simply review familiar territory, highlights Wojtowicz personally, exploring his life in and out of prison (he had another lover whose gender he also wanted to change in order to marry -- in the slammer), right up to his death in 2006. And because of this, questions about the whys and wherefores of the would-be robbery have arisen once again.

"We know there was a very good chance he owed money to those people, and we know he could have gotten the weapons from someone in the underworld," says Berg, who worked with Keraudren for over eight years on the film. According to the FBI report, he got those guns from Mike Umbers -- a Gambino associate who ran a club, a bar and a bookstore in the West Village. Littlejohn learned about the bank from a Chase Manhattan executive he'd met in a gay bar. Knocking over the bank and presenting the booty to the Gambinos would go a long way toward squaring his debts and making his name. His name, however, was made through his failure and the reflected glory of Lumet's film. The chief source of information for Berg and Keraudren was Littlejohn, who, being highly resistant to what's normally known as "The Truth," was a motormouth extraordinaire who lets loose one self-aggrandizing aria after another with an intensity that puts Little Edie Beale to shame.

"He was very good at telling himself and everybody else that it was this grand romantic gesture, " says Keraudren. "The FBI investigated the story to a degree that blew my mind ...They would have loved to nail Mike Umbers and people like that, but they didn't. We didn't put much of it into the film because none of it can be proven. It felt like going down a dead end." Dead because not only Littlejohn, but so many of the people he was involved with, are no longer alive.

Umbers' key West Village operation was Christopher's End, a nightclub whose go-go boys were available for rent with Umbers getting a hefty cut of their payments. Umbers had also been involved with the Stonewall Inn, which, after the famous uprising of 1969, was shuttered. "Stonewall" -- the event, not the bar -- gave birth to the modern LGBT rights movement. Its overthrow also reconfigured gay life as it had been known. Fighting back meant that bar patrons weren't going to put up with a situation in which clandestine clubs paid the police off under the table to stay in operation. When the money didn't come on time or wasn't considered sufficient, the clubs were raided -- its patrons being the only ones who truly suffered. When the Gay Activists Alliance purchased its "Firehouse" headquarters on Wooster Street, one of the first things we did was hold dances every Saturday night. There was no liquor (just soft drinks) and no state-of-the-art sound system, but for a few dollars' admission, gays and lesbians could cavort and commingle with a freedom no Mafia-run club ever offered. Littlejohn would frequently show up at the dances to tell everyone he could that the "real action" was at Christopher's End -- Mike Umbers' club. In other words, Littlejohn was playing both sides of a very shaky fence. "Stonewall" had brought an end to the Mafia's rule of gay bars, and with it the police harassment that was part and parcel of payoffs to the police. Frontmen like Umbers worked to continue the Mafia's gay exploitation in a now legal form. And Littlejohn was his promoter -- the Harry Lime of gay liberation, as it were.

Thanks to the authorities' continued interest in Umbers' underworld activities, the end of Christopher's End came quickly. But then so did the Firehouse dances, as swank clubs like the Loft, Flamingo, Le Jardin, Les Mouches and the Saint were established. Studio 54 brought the era to an end in that it was a place interested in keeping anyone who wasn't a celeb from coming in. Perhaps not coincidentally, its "protector" was one of the Mob's favorite lawyers -- Roy Cohn. But even he wasn't able to fend off the IRS, which shuttered the place for tax evasion.

That, of course, is quite a different story from the one covered in "The Dog," which is (not counting "Dog Day") the third film to be made about Littlejohn. First came "The Third Memory" (2000), a short film in which he reenacts the robbery ("It's really a performance piece," Berg explains), and then the Australian-made "Based On a True Story" (2005), in which director Walter Stokman combines a study of Lumet's film with an attempted one of Littlejohn  -- who "appears" chiefly in phone calls where he asks for money for further cooperation.

"They were shooting on 16mm and had Peter Greenaway as a producer, and they had backing. I think the fact that we were local and would be there to hang out with him and his mother helped John choose us over them," Berg explains.

"He would talk all day long, " says Keraudren. "We thought we'd get this done in a year. The first interview that covers the first half of the movie we got in one day. But John was a very strange guy. He was used to telling the same story over and over. He had a shtick. We had to get past that."

"Plus," notes Berg, "he wasn't fighting a cause for all gay people. He was fighting for what he wanted as an individual. The FBI investigated the robbery to a degree that blew my mind. They would have loved to have nailed Mike Umbers and people like that, but they didn't. We didn't put much of it into the film because none of it can be proven. It felt like going down a dead end. Bobby's account shows that Bobby and Sal didn't know what was up. They were driving around aimlessly. That doesn't make any sense."

But then when did anything about Littlejohn make sense? He was married to a woman named Carmen with whom he had fathered a son before "coming out" (he brought the kid with him to GAA meetings). And after starting what he thought would be a new gay life, he continued to maintain contact with his only legal wife. As his transgender amour Liz Eden notes in the film, Littlejohn owed "them" money, i.e., the Gambino family. He knew they had wanted to hit that Chase Manhattan branch because there was going to be a large transfer of money that day. But he arrived too late for it. More important, he never let Sal Naturale in on what was going on. According to the FBI, John and Sal had met a month prior to the robbery at the gay bar Danny's , and Naturale moved into Wojtowicz's apartment at 250 West 10th Street. In other words, their relationship was quite different from the one depicted in "Dog Day," where John Cazale (a brilliant actor who didn't at all resemble the slender, boyish Sal) plays a Sal who insists that he's straight. But that's scarcely the only alteration Lumet's otherwise beyond brilliant film makes. It fails to include a number of other important people in the saga.  Chief among them is journalist-gay activist and GAA  member Arthur Bell, who wrote a memorable account of the botched robbery in the Village Voice, "Littlejohn and the Mob: Saga of a Heist," in which he reports calling the bank during the robbery only to have the phone answered, to his great surprise, by Littlejohn.

"John was pleasant, spunky, a little crazy, and up front about his high sex drive," Bell recalled. "Once, during a Firehouse dance, he balled with a guy on a mattress in the basement. The next day, the mattress was removed, and there was talk about removing Littlejohn from membership. In June 1971, he requested that the members allow him to use the Firehouse for his wedding to someone who wasn't Ernie." But what really rankled Bell and the rest of GAA was Littlejohn's support of Mike Umbers -- even to the extent of representing himself as GAA at a protest he made of the police crackdown on the club owner. Bell's column dealing with the Mafia connections brought bomb threats to the Village Voice offices -- going to show just how much fire LittleJohn was playing with.

"The Dog" doesn't deal with this. But that's not to say it skimps on the full Littlejohn story. "We think John's attitude has a lot to do with his older brother Tony, who had been institutionalized as a kid, and who we see taking care of John at the end," Keraudren explains. "That was a big impact on the family. Whatever his reason for the bank robbery, a big part was his relationship with Liz, which was falling apart. Maybe he was trying to save it by doing some crazy thing like this. When the time came a few months later he did give Liz money for the surgery. It's not all black and white."

"As the years went on John was bringing us more and more into his life," says Berg. "In the time we knew John he introduced us to this young guy who was a hustler who had AIDS. He was a street kid that John had an affair with and we spent a year basically watching that kid die. Right after that John got ill and we spent the next year in hospitals with John, and then his mother. When he got sick -- rectal cancer -- he went downhill very quickly. He passed away in 2006. After that was when we did the interviews with everybody else and pulling in archival footage. Like Randy's footage of Liz. She passed away in the late '80s." Randy was (and happily still is) Randolph Wicker, a member of the Mattachine Society pre-Stonewall. Already antipathetic to Littlejohn, GAA had no interest in lending him any assistance in the wake of the robbery. Wicker, who came to know John, his mother and "Liz Eden," felt that the authorities were going to put him away for good because he was gay. He was sentenced to 20 years, but served the better part of it in a "halfway house" hotel run by the police in New York.

"Had we done the film in a year or two as we initially thought we would, we wouldn't have gotten to know John the way we did," Keraudren notes. "We were there when he died. If you were to say, 'I was John's friend,' it's not the same definition of friendship as you would have with the average person. He had his own logic. It's not like we played him. He was full of conflicts. He was religious. He really cared about marriage, which was why he was marrying people all the time."

"He never stopped talking until you had to just cut him off," says Berg. "We didn't want to censor him or make him too likable. He drove us crazy."

Honey, he drove us all crazy.

By David Ehrenstein

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Dog Day Afternoon Film Lgbt Movies The Dog