Monte di Monti Man or Myth?
Secrets behind the “underground” legend.
Editor’s note: This interview conducted in 1976 contains much contradictory information pertaining to the life of Monte di Monti. Fact checking it is an impossible task as much of his life is shrouded in mystery and several of the principals mentioned in the article are deceased including “East Side Al”. Also please note that the racist terminology, homophobic references, offensive language, and politically incorrect attitude of Al’s expressed in this interview has been unedited. It’s exactly as he said it in 1976. East Side Al’s viewpoints and perspectives are products of his era and we wish for this controversial interview to represent them accurately. We present it to you in its original raw form as it was first published in the April 1977 issue of Cavalier magazine.
Succinctly put, di Monti is one of the major legendary “underground” figures in the mid-to-late twentieth century American and European arts and show biz scenes. Unlike, for example, Neal Cassidy (whose trail blazed brightly in the literary Beat scenes of both American coasts), di Monti traveled freely between the music, literary, and entertainment worlds. Why he is not better known is a tribute to his willingness and inclination to stay out of the limelight and remain in the shadows. While speculation has arisen about his problems with authorities on two continents there is no evidence that he ever was arrested or served time for any crime. On the contrary, this article reveals that he is a military veteran who served his country proudly in Europe and Asia. His connections and friendships within the criminal world, along with his now mythically torrid romance with the legendary exotic burlesque dancer Lavonne St. John have all served through the decades to project an image that is and that surrounds Mr. di Monti as an enigma.
Tracing the details of di Monti’s journey through the American underground arts and underworld landscape of the 1950s to present is at best difficult. Unfortunately many of his close friends from these years have passed away either through illness or foul play. Because of his tendency to keep a low profile, there is little public record of where he lived and when. In fact, at present there are no known photographs of diMonti. What we do know for certain is that he was born in Brooklyn, New York and lived for a time in the 1950s and ’60s in California. After that it gets more complicated and he seems to have traveled more extensively with stops in London, Palm Springs, and Florida where he now apparently lives.
Around 1975 he disappeared from the east coast and unfortunately all direct contact with him was lost. Since that time there have been numerous rumors that he’s been spotted around many of his old stomping grounds including New York, Los Angeles, London, and back again most recently, in Florida. There has also been a persistent rumor — though never confirmed — that he is dead.
Utilizing our acquaintance with some of di Monti’s surviving relatives, through hard work we were able to track down his longtime friend and cohort “East Side Al” (he has requested that his real name be withheld). Al was kind enough to answer a few of our questions about di Monti and his life on a brisk autumnal evening at his home in upstate Monticello, New York. While we still remain out of contact with the subject, this interview offers a revealing glimpse into Monte di Monti — man or myth.
Many thanks to Al for taking the time to speak with us. We are always seeking new and up-to-date information about the whereabouts and well-being of our friend Monte di Monti.
How far back to you go with Monte, Al? When and where did you meet him?
I first met Monte when I was 10. He came into the numbers hole at the rear of Dominick’s Barbershop where I delivered numbers slips. He placed a large amount of cash on a number and gave me $20 to play a number that he gave me. The next day we collected our winnings. Rumor had it that Monte and his boys rigged the number. He looked at me and said, “You look like a nice kid, Al, do you wanna work for me? You shouldn’t be getting 75 cent haircuts — you can get $10 if you work for me.” I was excited to be a member of his inner circle even in a minor role such as polishing his cue sticks or collecting money from the side bets when he’d visit a local pool hall to play the local favorite. He’d always win, of course and he paid me from his winnings — usually about $100–200. That was a lot of money in those days, especially for a snot-nosed kid.
Did you have any professional relations with him or did you just run with di Monti and his crew?
Other than polishing his cue sticks and getting him coffee or running errands all I did was hang out with him and the boys, although I begged him to let me drive for him when I was old enough to get my license. He was like a Dad to me; he didn’t want me to get into any trouble.
Who were some other friends that you two ran with back in the day? Did you two know any of the Beats?
We knew Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac on a “Hi How Are Ya?” basis. Some of our friends were friends of Murder Inc. from Brownsville such as Davey Boy Kay, Chinky Bob Stern, Moose Berkowitz and Vicious Vito Barone from Ocean Hill and of course from our colored friends like ‘Large’ Leroy Jefferson, who was a master of the garotte.
Did you know Herbert Huncke?
Monte didn’t associate with dope fiends.
Did you two ever make the bohemian Greenwich Village scene?
We’d go to the Village to check out Monk at the Half Note from time to time. Monte took $500 off Monk at McGirr’s one night.
What’s the very latest on his whereabouts and is he in trouble with the law either here in the States and/or abroad?
Monte had been setting up an agricultural importation business with a Turkish partner in London. When Special Branch requested that he appear for questioning, he slipped out of the country on a fishing trawler and landed in Calais from where he chartered a private aircraft which took him to Cyprus and from there to Florida.
What about him becoming a father recently?
He became a father for the second time at the age of 86. His wife Tanya, some fifty years his junior presented him with a baby girl in July.
We heard he’s now settled in Boca? What’s he up to currently?
Monte now roams the periphery of the Fort Lauderdale social scene attending the odd yacht party with his Greek shipping magnate friend Stavros Iacavellos.
Can you tell us about di Monti’s first child?
Monte and his longtime companion, the late Lavonne St. John, were the parents of Rocco di Monti, age twenty-six. Rocco blamed Monte for his mother’s death, which was under suspicious circumstances, sometimes alleged to be suicide as a result of the police and putting her under constant stress due to the police and harassing her for information regarding Monte. It is speculated that she took her own life rather than give up the love of her life.
That seems so tragic. When and where did she die exactly? Wasn’t she a close friend of Montgomery Clift (or was it Tab Hunter)?
She was found dead in 1975 of an apparent overdose of a prescription medication. Ms. St. John was a close friend and mentor to John Saxon.
We also have her connected romantically in the 1960s with actor John Vivyan (CBS television’s ‘Mr. Lucky’).
They had a brief tryst, but Ms. St. John sent him packing with the remark, “You’re just a second-rate Cary Grant wannabe.”
I’ve always been amazed and inspired that Monte, with his streetwise background (pool hustler, numbers man), was able to run with a crowd of such sophisticated artists and movie stars on both coasts. What do you think that crowd saw in Monte and what attracted them to him?
They saw a very attractive, well-dressed man with an outgoing and sparkling personality, which to them made him larger than life. Of course, they were drawn to the menace that his background exuded and it gave most of them a perverse thrill to be in his company.
Were they fully aware of his underworld connections or did he keep that hidden from them?
Yes. He always said that he had nothing to hide and actually reveled in the fact that the Hollywood crowd was attracted to this aspect of him. They couldn’t take a good pounding or a beating, those softie faggots. They’d piss themselves if they ever had a rod pointed at them.
There are so many stories about Monte that the truth and the myth have become intertwined. What’s the story about di Monti teaching Jackie Gleason how to shoot pool for the film The Hustler? We know that di Monti was a pool hustler himself at one time.
Monte actually taught the late, great Paul Newman the intricacies of the game. Gleason had been an accomplished player ever since his youth in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Was pool hustling Monte’s primary source of income through the years?
Monte hustled pool as always but he became increasingly involved in hijacking, specializing in fish and cigarettes.
When did he give that up?
After a close call in Philadelphia when the police were waiting for him and his crew because of an informant who was subsequently shot to death while eating a cheesesteak, Monte declared himself free of any illicit activity.
Can you give us some background on his music career?
Monte started out as a blues harp player/vocalist with local blues bands in Los Angeles and San Francisco. He played with Junior Wells at Pepper’s Lounge on the South Side of Chicago, where he caught the attention of the Chess brothers, who desired to record him with other blues giants. Monte declined as he felt he could make more money hustling pool. The Count Basie song “M Squad” was named for Monte, not for the TV show.
Love that Basie tune “M Squad”. I used to have that soundtrack LP somewhere. What brought him to Vegas in the 60s?
Always the financial swashbuckler, Monte moved to Vegas at the crest of the pocket billiards craze in the early 60s. He had intended to open a nationwide chain called Monte’s Masse Emporium. Monte allegedly shot and killed mob enforcer Sal Passalaqua during an attempted shakedown. The mob launched an intense manhunt, but Monte has eluded them to this day.
Where in Brooklyn did di Monti grow up?
Monte grew up in Ocean Hill, Brownsville, where he learned to play pool at Midnight Rose’s Pool Hall on Strauss Street and Ivonia Ave. At the age of twelve he beat a Merchant Marine coal stoker unconscious after accusing him of moving the cue ball with his hand.
Was he always prone to violence like that? I always imagined him to be the refined ‘sporting man’ gentlemen type… it sounds like he had one hell of a temper?
Monte was a hot-tempered kid but managed to get himself under control while in Thailand when he developed an opium addiction.
Can you give us a timeline and elaborate a bit on when he was in Southeast Asia? He traveled so much…I wasn’t even aware that he had spent any time in Asia!
The dates are a bit hazy but he was based in a small village outside Bangkok and was engaged in the opium trade. But when he saw the abject misery in others’ faces due to addiction, he swore off the shit and sobered up.
Was this before or after he served in Korea?
This was after, when he sensed a lucrative opportunity regarding war surplus material.
How did he get off opium?
Monte cold turkeyed it.
Was Lavonne St. John the love of di Monti’s life? Can you tell us a little about her past? We had an old issue of Modern Man from the late ’50s lying around that featured an eye-popping pictorial of her in her natural state. We understand their relationship was very passionate yet volatile. Can you shed some light on that please?
Yes she was the love of his life. Lavonne thought of herself as an artist and hated to be called a stripper. She began her career at Johnny Stompanato’s Follies de Femmes in North Beach, San Francisco. Following in the great tradition of Tempest Storm and Candy Barr, Lavonne developed an aspect of her act that made her very popular. She was able to twirl the tassel on the front of her G string with such velocity that it was hypnotic. Lavonne met Monte when he vanished from Fort Knox, Kentucky, where Monte had been stationed as a military policeman. Lavonne took him in and sheltered him from the authorities. The relationship lasted some forty years and neither strayed, although there was a degree of volatility because of their strong personalities. But all disputes were resolved through extremely passionate lovemaking, sometimes in public places.
I find their relationship fascinating Al… the sparks that must have flown between those two. We know that while she lived in California Lavonne worked as an exotic dancer for the West Coast El Rey Burlesk club circuit, often sharing the stage with fellow legendary burlesque performers Tempest Storm, Dixie Evans, Lily St. Cyr, and Candy Barr. Where on the West Coast did she and di Monti live during their time out there?
They stayed at her house in Studio City before she made the big money and lived a quiet suburban life. He staying at home or at the track playing the horses and hustling pool as she worked the clubs.
Did those two mix with any of the “show biz” types out there? I recall seeing an old photo of the two of them decked out to the nines in an old issue of Confidential (sure wish I had it now, but that was years ago) taken at some event at Hollywood’s Brown Derby from about ‘59…some sort of party thrown by Sal Mineo or someone like that.
Very rarely. Lavonne had a brief fling with Debra Paget and they would entice Monte into a threesome. Monte made a few Hollywood connections through Deb — John Agar, Pedro Armendáriz, and Gilbert Roland, who was hot to play Monte in a projected biopic. Monte always tried to avoid Mineo and called him “a whimpering salivating faggot who would try to suck dick for personal gain…”
Was Lavonne still working as a dancer in the ’70s?
Lavonne worked irregularly because of her connection with Monte — the strip joint operators were afraid of the local police or the Feds coming into their joints and upsetting the patrons. However, Lavonne occasionally gigged at the Swank Swan in downtown Des Moines.
Did she ever work in adult films?
She did appear in a classic porn film where she serviced six men at once and had a few torrid scenes with the French Canadian young up-and-comer Ghislaine Sorbet.
If the tension of living with di Monti so stressed out Lavonne (perhaps ultimately causing her death), why did she continue to stay with him for the next thirty years or so after they left California?
Because she loved him with a burning passion or as she described it, “hotter that 1,000 suns.” “He made me wet, just thinking of him, even at this late age.”
When and why did they leave California?
They left in the early 70s because of too much heat from the police and the Feds.
Where did they go then?
They took off for a small town in Illinois — Rantoul — which is 140 miles equidistant from St. Louis and Chicago. Monte hustled the yokels until no one wanted to play with him anymore.
You mentioned earlier that di Monti served in the military. I believe him to be too old to have fought in ‘Nam. Was he in Korea or did he just do his stretch here in the states?
Monte served in the Army at the very end of WWII as an MP with the occupation forces. He is solely responsible for introducing pockety to Germany and taught the young future Chancellor, Willy Brandt, a few trick shots. Monte received the Silver Star for gallantry in action during the retreat from the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
Anything else about di Monti that we should know about?
All rumors about Monte being gay are untrue.
Then there is no substance to the rumors about his affair with actor John Vivyan? I wonder where that one got started.
Sal Mineo started the rumor after Monte spurned his advances at a miniature golf course in Reseda.