My friend, Gaet
It was the fall of 1961, and through a football coach I was covering in Chester, Pa., I connected with an Army Reserve unit. It was just in time. I was one of those six-monthers on active duty in the late ’50s, and I had an eight-year Reserve obligation, which I had largely ignored for a year. But this was a perfect setup, a civil affairs company that was headed by a state senator, loaded with professional types. I figured I was a natural for the company public information guy, but the slot was already taken by Lt. Gaeton Fonzi.
Fonzi seemed like a quiet guy, and I was told he had some kind of journalism background. He worked for a business magazine. I had never heard of it but that changed a month or so later when I saw a reprint of something he had written. If memory serves me right, the lead was “Chester is a city which doesn’t give a damn.” That article not only got my attention; it changed my life. Over the next several years the obscure magazine Fonzi worked for morphed into Philadelphia Magazine, which rocked that city month after month and in effect invented the city- magazine concept, which is now all over the country. Fonzi wrote most of the powerful articles that made that happen.
Among his scores was an exposé on a crooked reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer who used his reputation as the publisher’s hatchet man to shake down numerous businesses, including the city’s largest bank. That article made Time Magazine and many papers, including The New York Times. He followed that up with articles that became a book about the publisher, Walter Annenberg – the most powerful man in Philadelphia. Shortly thereafter, Annenberg sold the Inquirer to Knight Newspapers. Many think Fonzi embarrassed him to the point that he left town.
And it was in Philadelphia that Fonzi first wrote about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The local angle was Arlen Specter, then an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, later a longtime U.S. senator. Specter was the man who came up with the “single bullet theory,” which was the only way the Warren Commission could conclude that Lee Harvey Oswald alone murdered a president. Fonzi was amazed that Specter could not explain his own theory, and how the physical evidence so blatantly contradicted the lone assassin conclusion. His work was one of the first challenges to the Warren Commission. Important people in Philadelphia read it. More on that a bit later.
Impressed by the magazine’s extraordinary growth, I signed on in 1965. Five years later, when it was obvious regional magazines were catching on everywhere, Fonzi and I formed a company to buy Gold Coast in Fort Lauderdale. He moved down in 1972. After serving as editor of Miami Magazine, which we sold, Fonzi was contacted by Sen. Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania. Schweiker was reopening an investigation into JFK’s death. He remembered Fonzi’s Philadelphia Magazine work and contacted him to work in South Florida, checking into CIA connections with anti-Castro elements. Schweiker suspected Lee Harvey Oswald was an intelligence operative. Fonzi all but proved it, discovering through a Miami Cuban that a high-ranking CIA man had been seen with Oswald in Dallas before the assassination. This information came despite efforts by known CIA people – Watergate burglar Frank Sturgis was one of them – to waste his time and the government’s money on wild goose chases.
That CIA discovery got Fonzi an extended job in Washington, five years in all, which ended with a House subcommittee report that the murder of JFK was a conspiracy, but left the conspirators vague. Fonzi, who wrote much of that report, did not think it was vague, but wasn’t permitted to say so. He was convinced that if the CIA did not murder Kennedy, it went to great lengths to cover up the true nature of the crime. He wrote in effect a dissenting opinion, which first appeared in this magazine, and 14 years later became a book, The Last Investigation. It has been cited by virtually every serious researcher ever since, and the work is one of the main reasons that most people today do not believe a lone nut killed a president.
In Florida, Fonzi continued to contribute to his legacy as a remarkable investigative reporter and exceptional stylist. He wrote a three-part series on the Ivy-League-developer-turned-drug-runner, Ken Burnstine, who was killed in a mysterious plane crash while scheduled to testify against numerous South Florida people in a federal case. He had turned informant after being arrested. It had been reported that Burnstine had faked his death; Fonzi proved otherwise, but also suggested he may have been murdered to keep him quiet.
Then there was the case of three South Florida people who disappeared after having financial contact with a notorious con man. The con man was supposed to be in jail, but Fonzi learned through Fort Lauderdale police sources that the con man was being used in a sting operation by the FBI in Chicago. Fonzi broke the story in Miami Magazine and then took it to Chicago, and later New York. It involved payoffs to big-time politicians for contracts to collect parking tickets. The borough president of Queens committed suicide. Columnist Jimmy Breslin called it one of the biggest scandals in his long career in the Big Apple.
Any one of these stories would make a memorable career for most magazine writers. Gaeton Fonzi wrote all these and many more, some was funny and his serious stuff was serious. His last works were two articles he contributed to a book I am soon to publish on the history of the city/regional magazines. He managed to do this work while suffering from Parkinson’s disease, which finally took him on Thursday. There are a dozen writers featured in the book. All are good. He was the best.