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22 August 2020

Liz Eden and Dog Day Afternoon: Part I - Two Weddings and a Bank Robbery


Trigger warning. This 3-part article contains quotations from John Wojtowicz, the major protagonist. The quotations contain frequent misgenderings, and in the latter 2 parts traditional English swear words.  Caveat Lector.

I wrote a short account on this topic 12 years ago, August 2008.   More information became available in the intervening years, so here is the revised version.

228 West 10th St today
Liz Eden (1945 – 1986), “Jewish, English, German, and a Leo” as Wojtowicz put it, was raised with the name Ernest Aron in Ozone Park, Queens, New York. She was at the Stonewall riots. In 1971 she was in transition and living in a rooming house, 228 West 10th Street at Hudson in Greenwich Village in Manhattan – the building was only a short walk from what had been the Stonewall Inn.  Another resident was  Holly Woodlawn.

John Wojtowicz (1945 – 2006), a New Yorker of Polish and Italian descent, had met a cis woman, Carmen Bifulco, in early 1966 - both working in a Chase Manhattan bank, they went on the same employee ski trip in Massachusetts.  They were quickly engaged, but he was drafted.  He had his first gay experience while in base camp. He was also deeply affected when he was one of only a few survivors of a rocket attack on his base in Vietnam. On his return home in 1967, John and Carmen married and had two children. However in 1969, he walked out on her “the day a man walked on the moon.” The couple had been at a baseball game and “Johnny” left early. When she arrived home with their 8-month-old girl, the apartment had been cleared out. Even the baby’s crib and stroller were gone. A $10 bill was on the table. Cab fare, she said, to get to her mother’s house.

John became a regular on the gay scene, and especially at the Firehouse, the headquarters of the Gay Activists Alliance( GAA) from May 1971. He used his mother’s maiden name and was known as Littlejohn Basso.
“I was a member of the entertainment committee, so I would meet and greet new gay people coming into the scene. I could have sex with them quicker than anybody else, because they were just coming out.”
Mike Umbers was the landlord of StarHouse, and owner of the nightclub, Christopher’s End. With fellow associate Ed Murphy, also in the Gambino crime family, Umbers ran a prostitution ring pimping underage boys to wealthy pedophiles. Wojtowicz/Basso became Umbers' source for what was happening in GAA. He also went to GAA dances and told customers that there was more action at Christopher’s End.

The gay journalist, Arthur Bell, wrote of Wojtowicz/Basso:
"pleasant, spunky, a little crazy, and up front about his high sex drive. Once, during a Firehouse dance, he balled with a guy on a mattress in the basement.” 
Randy Wicker, activist and journalist said that many GAA members regarded him as a “crazy, obnoxious, unlikable bisexual”. Even before meeting Liz, he had asked if he could be married at the Firehouse. This prompted a debate as to whether marriage is good for gay liberation.

On 29 June 1971, two days after the Second Christopher Street Liberation Day, the Italian-American Civil Rights League which argued that the Mafia did not exist (and was run by Godfather Joe Colombo) held its second annual public rally at Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. Colombo was being filmed by an African-American, Jerome Johnson, who then pulled out a gun and shot Colombo – leaving him paralyzed. Johnson was immediately shot dead by someone who quickly disappeared despite a heavy police presence. Johnson had been employed by Mike Umbers to make pornographic films, and Johnson’s last known address was 180 Christopher Street, upstairs above the Christopher’s End bar.

In July 1971 Umbers confronted Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) in that they had not paid three months' rent for a rundown property that he owned. He threatened violence, but settled for eviction. Christopher’s End was raided Thursday the 15th, and again on Sunday the 18th. Arthur Bell wrote about Umbers’ influence in straight and gay pimping and in the gay bar scene in The Village Voice, 22 July, and shortly afterwards GAA organized a protest campaign outside Christopher’s End. Wojtowicz/Basso had become out of favor at GAA as it became known that he was associated with Umbers – and he even turned up at the demonstration holding a sign supporting Umbers.

Wojtowicz/Basso was one of the GAA activists whose protests were included in the credits sequence for the 1971 blaxploitation film Shaft. He was also in the zap of the office of the city clerk towards the goal of issuing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. John Wojtowicz met Liz Eden at the Feast of San Gennaro (19 September 1971), a few days later.

Liz and John
When the question of John marrying Liz came up, GAA, thinking of Liz as a man, decided that ‘drag’ and fake Catholicism would constitute a freak show. John and Liz approached the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) but they would not permit what they considered to be “drag”. The ceremony was held in Liz’s rooms at 228 West 10th St in a Catholic ceremony on 4th December 1971 – by an ordained priest, newly back from Rome whom Liz met through a friend. He was  later defrocked. Randy Wicker was there, as was John’s mother Theresa, and Liz’s father. Drag Magazine covered the event; and, a novelty at the time, it was recorded on a video camera – one of the first available – for the GAA library. The wedding was even featured on the Walter Cronkite CBS evening television news. The bridesmaids were gay men, and lesbians were in tuxedoes. Arthur Bell estimated that the wedding had cost $2,000. It was marred only by John referring to Liz as ‘Ernest’ and ‘he’.

By April they were living apart. Liz wanted to go for completion surgery, but neither of them had the money.

Whether for the wedding or otherwise, Wojtowicz apparently owed money to the Gambino crime family, probably directly to Umbers.

The New York Times (Aug 26, 1971) later reported: “five men, including Wojtowicz, began planning the robbery last April, but that two of the men later bowed out. Wojtowicz was pressed to carry out the robbery by the underworld figure, who owns Greenwich Village bars and is involved in pornography… Wojtowicz owed the gangster money”.

As John later wrote of Liz:
“I was unable to obtain the funds for his birthday on 8/19/72 and so, on Sunday, 8/29, he attempted suicide while I was out of the house. He died a clinical death in the hospital but was revived. While I went to get his clothes, he was declared mentally sick and sent to the Psychiatric Ward of Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, NY. I went to see him and I tried to obtain his release on 8/21, but was told he would not be released and would stay there for a long time until he was cured.” (Wojtowicz, 1977) 
On another occasion John said:
“But [Ernie] kept trying to kill himself. So then I finally said to him, “Alright, I’ll try and get the money for your birthday,” which was August 19th, which is the same as [Bill] Clinton’s. So I did something to get the ten thousand he needed to get the sex change. And what happened is, the person that was supposed to deliver the money for his birthday party took off with the money. So then the next morning he took an overdose. … they had him in the prison psychiatric ward. He said he didn’t want to be there. I talked to the doctors, and they said, “He’s gonna be here for years, because he wants to chop his dick off, and he’s whacked out.” (Lisa Photos interview with Wojtowicz, 2003: 52-3.)
Wojtowicz recruited associates that he knew from gay bars to help rob a bank: Bobby Westenberg and Salvatore Naturale. He had met Sal, who had been in and out of institutions since age 11, at Danny’s, a bar at 140 7th Ave, and moved him into his apartment. The night before in a hotel room Wojtowicz very pushily had sex with Bobby. Sal wanted to do so also but was rejected. The next day, August 22, 1972, they went to see an early showing of The Godfather in a Times Square cinema. They then set off to rob a bank. At the first one a gun was dropped and went off, and they fled. At the second they ran into one of their mothers’ best friends, and they fled. At a third they crashed into another car and they fled.

They then attempted to rob a Chase Manhattan Bank branch at 450 Ave P, in Flatbush, Brooklyn, just before closing. Westenberg ran off at the last minute when he saw a police car nearby. Wojtowicz and Naturale held the bank employees hostage. The bank branch had less money than they hoped for, but they did get $38,000 cash and $175,000 travelers’ checks.

The bank manager was able to indicate to another branch by giving a wrong answer to a question on
the crowd across the street
the phone that something was wrong.  The police were called. The media arrived.

Wojtowicz gave his reason as paying for his lover’s sex change, and admitted being homosexual. A gay and lesbian contingent from Manhattan arrived shortly afterwards to cheer him .

The cops had Liz brought to the scene. Supposedly she knew nothing about the heist, although Wojtowicz had talked to her about it. She later told Arthur Bell that she had taken the pills hoping to stop him from doing the robbery. There was talk of exchanging her for a hostage, but that never happened.

While Wojtowicz did most of the talking and was obviously the lead robber, the police were actually more concerned about Naturale who, although he was only 18, had a criminal record.

Arthur Bell, the Village Voice journalist, phoned the bank and Wojtowicz answered. The story that he told Bell was that he had spoken to a Chase-Manhattan executive in Danny’s, the same bar where he met Sal. The executive had given a date when the Flatbush branch would receive a shipment of over $200,000 in cash that could be easily taken. Bell understood that Wojtowicz had shared his plans with Mike Umbers who supplied guns in exchange for 50% of the take. The problem was that the delivery had been at 11am and the robbers did not arrive until closing time.

Carmen had taken the children to Rockaway Beach for the day. She had heard something on the radio about “an admitted homosexual” robbing a bank, but paid it no mind. Back home a neighbour called to say that her husband was robbing a bank. She watched the situation on television a while. Then took a tranquilizer and went to bed.

The standoff lasted 14 hours and was continuously played on local television – where it even pre-emptied coverage of Richard Nixon’s acceptance speech at the Republican national convention.

After negotiations, at 4 am the next day, a bus took Wojtowicz and Naturale, together with seven hostages and an FBI driver to Kennedy Airport. Wojtowicz and Sal thought that they were about to get a flight to Europe. Then when a code phrase was uttered, the driver turned and shot Naturale, the supposedly more dangerous robber – he died soon after. Wojtowicz was taken into custody.

------ says: Wojtowicz (Polish) is a patronymic from the personal name Wojciech (or Voytek), which in turn is from wójt ‘village headman’ (see Wojcik).

EN.Wikipedia(Wojtowicz) says “from Volhynia (plural form: Wojtowiczowie) was a part of the nobility of Poland (the family's roots were probably in the Lithuanian-Ruthenian nobility). The village of Wojtowice of Ostróg County in Volhynia is the origin of this house.” While it lists prominent members of the family, it does not include John.

228 or 250 West 10th Street? Most accounts say 250, but the address on the wedding invitation as printed in Drag Magazine says 228. It may be that John lived at 250 and Liz at 228, but I could not find a clear statement to that effect.

If, in fact, Wojtowicz had been informed by a bank executive, and had been planning for months to rob a specific bank, why then was it only the fourth bank that they attempted to rob on that day?

Further information about Salvatore Naturale:  He was also known to the police as Donald Matterson, and had been arrested under that name for possession of narcotics and burglary tools five months before the Dog Day Robbery.  His intention was to use the proceeds to finance his two sisters’ removal from foster care and removal from their alcoholic mother.

Wojtowicz, in his interview with Photos claimed (p48): “it’s the first gay, public drag wedding in American history”.  Okay, ‘drag’ is the wrong word, and Wojtowicz is no historian, but let us mention:

Drag marriages: 

1886 Charles and Anna Ryan, Grand Rapids Michigan.
1935 Jean Acker and Vernon Long at the Cabin Inn, Chicago
1950 Jackie Starr and Bill Scott, Seattle

Trans women marriages: 

1912 Frances Thompson and Frank Carrick, Indiana
1955 Tamara Rees and James Courtland, Los Angeles
1959 Charlotte McLeod and Ralph Heidal, Miami
1969 Dawn Langley Hall and John-Paul Simmons, Charleston, South Carolina

Some of the US gay histories that mention GAA and the Firehouse, but have not a word about either John Wojtowicz or Liz Eden:

·        Martin Duberman. Stonewall, 1993
·        Charles Kaiser.  The Gay Metropolis, 1997
·        David Carter. Stonewall, 2004
·        Lillian Faderman.  The Gay Revolution, 2015

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