French Connection Detective Sonny Grosso is now Holding Court in the Great Restaurant in the Sky
Sonny Grosso loved people.
And, everybody loved The French Connection detective Sonny Grosso.
He was the epitome of a people’s person. Maybe it was because he lost his dear father, Benny, at an early age, which drew him closer to not only his blood family in New York and New Jersey, but also to his extended family in the law enforcement world and later the entertainment world, when he became an award-winning TV/Movie producer.
Sonny loved getting people together.
Grosso recalled loud, loving family dinners at their fifth story apartment on 115th Street in Harlem or at his grandfather’s place for Sunday dinner: “I hear a piece of opera and it takes me back to my grandfather’s home for Sunday dinner, and keeping dead quiet, while he listened enthralled by the opera on the radio, eating his big dish of macaroni and drinking his wine with the bottle draped over his shoulder.”
For him, after work, he loved nothing better than to hold court with friends and fellow workers. For over 20 years, he’d hold these weekly dinners at places like Carlo and Adelina’s Place and the Wet Paint Café in Toronto when he was filming there. And, at famous New York eateries Puglia and Manducatis, and also at Rao’s — “New York’s Most Exclusive Restaurant,” as Vanity Fair once called it because you have to be invited by one of Rao’s regulars to get into this cozy establishment with only a handful of tables.
In excerpts from his upcoming and posthumous memoir, Hollywood to Harlem, My Real-to-Reel Life by French Connection Detective Sonny Grosso, he remembered special encounters at these like “family” get-togethers:
“While we were still filming Contract on Cherry Street starring Frank Sinatra in Manhattan, one evening he got me to go to Puglia’s restaurant in Little Italy, and I walk into a surprise party for me — everyone was there, the whole crew and all, and no one was working. And then Frank sang Happy Birthday to me. It was a command performance. So, me being me, I pulled out a buck for a tip. And, him being him, he took it. I loved that guy!”
“Another time, we called Frank on the phone from Rao’s restaurant. I was in Rao’s with Chrissy, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. Chrissy’s favorite song was ‘Go Away Little Girl’ and Steve sang that to her in the restaurant and she was fainting all over herself. Then Steve says to me, ‘When was the last time you saw the old man?’ I replied, “You know, I haven’t seen him for awhile.’ He says, ‘You want to talk to him? Because I think it would do him some good as he’s not feeling so great.’ Steve asked Chrissy for her cellphone. Steve calls Frank’s wife Barbara and asks her, ‘Where’s the vampire?’ He called him the vampire because he was usually up all night. He got him on the phone, said hello then turned Chrissy’s phone over to me. I said hello to Frank and it was very special to me because I got a chance to maybe cheer him up a little. But it was also very special for Chrissy, and now, she had him talking on her own phone. After that, Chrissy couldn’t wait a minute to call her father and her whole family that ‘We called Sinatra on my phone!’ She wanted to have her phone bronzed after that. And, to see the smile on her face was something else. You know, there was nobody like Sinatra and there will be nobody ever like him again. He fulfilled everybody’s fantasy. Girls wanted to be near him, guys wanted to be him. What a guy!”
Then, Grosso had a once-in-a-lifetime, four-hour plus dinner conversation at Manducati’s restaurant in Queens with his hero. Set up as a special birthday gift by his pal, Dr. Rock Positano and Grosso’s casting director Christina Krauss, Grosso explained:
“DiMaggio and I had an unforgettable conversation. And, just so you know, there were three subjects you didn’t talk about with Joe: Marilyn, Frank Sinatra and JFK. If you did, he’d say he was going to the bathroom and then he wouldn’t come back! So we spoke about everything else and about me wanting to produce his movie biography. When Joe left after dinner, I said to him, ‘Joe, I’ve waited my whole life for this. So how about a little hug and kiss?’ He shrugged his shoulders as if to say, ‘Well, if you have to.’ So joking I said, ‘On the lips?’ He replied, ‘Hey, c’mon, take it easy!’ We laughed, I hugged him and then Joe said, ‘Me and my lawyer are writing a book and I told him that if anybody films this book it’s going to be Sonny Grosso.’ Joe left and I’m floating on air. I rushed back in and told my friends he’s writing a book and he wants me to produce his movie.”
As a token of remembrance for that unforgettable evening, Grosso had the chair the legend had sat on engraved with his “#5” and with the names “Sonny Grosso and Joe DiMaggio.” Grosso added:
“When I sent Joe a photo of the chair, he wrote back thanking me but then asked, ‘Hey, Sonny, who says you get top billing?’ Not long after, the Yankee Clipper took ill and passed away. But that famous chair still floats around Manducatis today and the story behind it helps me keep Joe DiMaggio’s memory alive.”
In the memoir, Grosso tells his Jack Nicholson story from the chapter — “The Night That Jack Nicholson Came to Rao’s in Harlem to Eat Macaroni with Me” — suggesting Jack’s visit sent Rao’s influential clientele into a tizzy:
“I told Jack about my mother’s Saturday ‘shopping’ trips in the neighborhood. She’d go out for two hours from eleven to one with a little apron on because she used to touch everything under the sun. When she came back, she knew who was pregnant, who was getting divorced, who went to jail, who was dating who, who had a fight. She had the scoop on everything because all the women would tell her exactly what’s what. Saturday was really for getting the news, for getting all the gossip to tell my father about. She was like a throwback Entertainment Weekly or TMZ correspondent, getting all the juicy stories! Jack laughed his head off and told me he could relate because we had things in common. He grew up in Asbury Park in New Jersey where my mother was raised. As a kid, he was also a big Yankees fan and a bleacher bum like me, watching with eyes wide open as our heroes like Joe DiMaggio performed their magic.”
Grosso says Nicholson graciously accommodated all photo requests inside Rao’s and the delighted customers gave him a standing ovation when he left. But Grosso, who’d never seen a reaction like that, said it speaks volumes about Nicholson and also about the lasting aura of the once magical neighborhood of Italian Harlem.
Sonny Grosso passed away in his sleep with family in Manhattan, on January 22, and the praise and testimonials are flowing in from around the world.
And, Chrissy, who was with him for over 40 years and at his end, says: “In the morning, he was resting peacefully, and I read him a chapter from his memoir — “The Mistake that Made My Career” — and while he couldn’t speak, he squeezed my hand. He knew, he knew. And, watching him at peace, I thought of the heartfelt Celine Dion song (written by Diane Warren): ‘Because You Loved Me’ was the theme song from the 1996 film Up Close and Personal, starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer. And, the lyrics go: ‘You were my strength when I was weak/You were my voice when I couldn’t speak/You were my eyes when I couldn’t see/You saw the best there was in me/Lifted me up when I couldn’t reach/You gave me faith ’cause you believed/I’m everything I am/Because you loved me.’ God bless our Sonny.”
Sonny “1209” Grosso is now sharing stories in the Great Restaurant in the Sky with his parents, family and friends like Frank Sinatra, NYPD partner Eddie Egan, Rao’s Frank Pellegrino, his boyhood hero Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, and so many others. Can you imagine the stories they’re telling?!