Russell Shorto

Welcome to my website. Those familiar with my work know that I’m a writer of narrative history: the Dutch founding of New York, the history of Amsterdam, the American Revolution… My new book enters — for me — wholly uncharted territory. Like the man said, This time it’s personal. I’ve known since I was a kid that my grandfather, along with my great-uncle, ran the mob in my Pennsylvania hometown. But I also internalized the family’s vow of silence on the topic. Then one evening my mom’s cousin, Frankie Filia, taking a break between sets in the little geriatric jazz combo he was singing for (“Fly me to the moon…”), said to me,​“Russell, you’re a writer – what are you gonna do about the story?”

Smalltime is my answer to Frankie. Researching it took me into a netherworld of bookies and payoffs, of America in its mid-century brawn, and into the heart and soul of my family. Feel free to click the links, to see what others have had to say about it, to take the book for a spin, and by all means to order a copy.

And meanwhile… While I was researching the book I was asked to be writer-in-residence at Baruch College in New York, and I made the workshop into a Tell Your Family Story” course. It was an overwhelming experience. My students came flooding forth with an amazing array of family tales. And I got an idea: create an online course, in which I could show people how to research their own family history by bringing them along with me as I dug into my grandfather’s life and times. So if you’ve always had an inkling to delve into your backstory but weren’t sure how to begin, you might want to click this link.

Russell Shorto’s Smalltime draws a convincing portrait of a time when Italian Americans weren’t permitted to live in certain neighborhoods or rise too high in the political firmament. This remembrance of his grandfather’s and great-uncle’s lives — of slots and pinball machines, tip seals,’ skeeched dice,’ and places like the Melodee Lounge and City Cigar — mixes great history and lovely, lingering memories: Long conversations about spaghetti sauce and aunts who kissed you on the lips: those were the ways we were Italian.’”

Written with a keen ear for the darkly humorous inflections of Italian American speech, Shorto’s story of a small-town USA mobster, his grandfather, ought to change forever how we think about the mafia. La Cosa Nostra flourished not only in big cities but across the continent, wherever there were mines and factories, as much a part of the post – World War II industrial boom as smokestacks, union bosses, and big cars with fins. Smalltime is also a deeply personal and moving reflection on the bonds between Italian American grandfathers, fathers, and sons. Beautifully written, brilliantly researched, Smalltime establishes itself immediately as a classic of the Italian American experience.

— Robert A. Orsi, professor of religious studies and history, Northwestern University, and author of The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880 – 1950

Lively…a narrative full of sharp twists… Historian Shorto vividly portrays the lives of farm-team mobsters, among them his own ancestors.”

Kirkus, Starred Review

Smalltime is a big pleasure — an emotionally astute, deeply personal work of family and cultural history.”

— Tom Perrotta, author of The Leftovers and Mrs. Fletcher

A compelling memoir, one that reads with the forward momentum of a good novel. A splendid book in every way.”

— Jay Parini, author of Borges and Me

Russell Shorto is a magnificent writer and Smalltime is a delicious story. A world so vividly rendered, you will find it hard to leave.”

— Adriana Trigiani, author of Tony’s Wife

Part memoir, part narrative history rich in mesmerizing detail, at the heart of Smalltime is the abiding love the author clearly holds for his colorful and flawed Sicilian immigrant family, one that looks so very much like the American family. I could not put this book down, and you won’t be able to either.”

— Andre Dubus III

Russell Shorto, one of our most celebrated narrative historians, is expert at mining history for fascinating gems, but here it’s as if he breaks through into his own heart.”

— Francisco Goldman, author of Say Her Name

Shorto tells us the story of a small-town, smalltime mob, but, much more than that, the story of an American family over three generations. By turns tender, poignant, and unsparing.

— Kevin Baker, author of The Big Crowd

Shorto presents a fascinating institutional history of small-town organized crime and a moving family saga with equal amounts of detail and heart. Mob history lovers will especially enjoy this colorful account.”

Publishers Weekly

This immersive, poignant memoir reminds us all to question the stories and myths we’ve grown up with. These pages are both gritty and elegiac, tense and tender, embodying the contradictions at the heart of all families. A deeply satisfying read.”