Murder In Birdland (a proposal)

Birdland canopy w T-bird carAn old homicide detective once told him — as they stood looking at a body in the street — that the motives for all murders, and even all wars, come down to three things:

sex, fear and money.”

: : : : :

During the first rumblings of the turbulent Sixties, self-possessed but naive Diane McKittredge –college student by day, would-be journalist, singer and Beat poet by night– embarks on a wild journey from the back alleys of Greenwich Village to the heights of Broadway stages and trendy nightclubs. From hobnobbing with the nation’s intelligentsia and top entertainers in Upper West Side penthouses, to staving off unwanted advances by a Mafia capo in a Little Italy “social club”, Diane learns fast… much faster than she’s learning in any NYU classoom.

Meanwhile Diane’s new boyfriend Bill Pugliese is trying to “make the scene” on tenor sax. When his boss–Birdland nightclub impresario and Roulette Records mogul Morris Levy–loses his brother in a 1959 gangland slaying at the club, Diane and Bill are key witnesses. Soon they are also forced to make hard choices about each other, their careers, and what they value most. While NYC police detective Frank Donnelly and his FBI cohorts search for Birdland manager Irving Levy’s killer, Bill worries about getting caught in the crossfire of Mob warfare.


Three “forbidden love affairs” lie at the heart of the novel:

  • level-headed middle-class coed Diane and broke, Brooklyn-born jazz hopeful Bill…
  • their wealthy friend Arnold Levin and West Side Story dancer Jose de Vega…
  • the unlikely love triangle of Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, and Wood’s one-time real-life lover, Birdland co-owner (and Mafia “front”) Morris Levy.

MURDER IN BIRDLAND is part crime fiction, part historical dramedy about musicians, comedians, writers, dirty business and maniac mafiosi in the early Sixties. It percolates with the bigger-than-life problems of young adult identity, addiction, political wrangling and “making it big” in the Big Apple. These hip but broke twenty-something friends Twist the night away at the Mafia’s newly-booming Peppermint Lounge, the former gay bar where The Twist was born. As Bill and Diane struggle to make sense of their futures, they’re also caught in-between in the inevitable clashes between glitz and gore, love and ambition, art and commerce, politics and principles.
Murder In Birdland is also about America’s great hope — plus its eventual disillusionment and loss of innocence — from the dawn of the Kennedy years through his devastating assassination. By being in the wrong place at the right time, Diane, Bill and their friends are inadvertently caught up in the biggest criminal and political crises of their era. From Diane’s hometown of Boston, to Bill’s former stomping grounds in Brooklyn (and a small-time criminal past he can’t quite extract himself from), these ordinary kids end up in extraordinary circumstances.

Against that backdrop, Diane and Bill sing and play the latest rockabilly, folk and jazz music for the original hippies of Greenwich Village. Under the watchful eyes of the infamous Five Families of New York crime, and alongside the leading comedians, actors and musicians in the nation, they “wail” all night and study all day. Diane waits tables as she gamely fights racism and sexism from tiny coffeehouse stages, and eventually in the music business and academia. Meanwhile Bill works an angle to smuggle contraband out of newly-communist Cuba, or at least someday land onstage at Birdland and the Copacabana. And their two best friends, Amy Shavitz and Cappy Ribeiro, develop a tempestuous relationship with enough heat and adolescent angst to derail everything and everyone. As accidental heroes in the early culture wars, these Twist Kids play small but pivotal roles, trying to change a society where they don’t quite fit. They also unwittingly play roles in the government’s contradictory, self-defeating and often absurd battles against organized crime, communism, free speech and the growing civil rights and anti-war movements.


Diane is even pursued romantically by the recently-wed Ted Kennedy, who is working on John’s presidential campaign. He is not yet even a Senator himself, though his ambitions and vulnerabilities are already apparent to any who would look past the slick veneer. This dalliance with Ted provides Diane a small glimpse into the tenuous but powerful “royal court” of Ted’s brothers, an administration which she eventually sees as deeply flawed, even as it is promoted like some shiny, media-savvy city on a hill.

Diane and Bill, Amy and Cappy, Amy’s closeted gay brother Arnie and a Broadway dancer: young lovers and aspiring activists all, trying to carve out their niche. They are mentored and manipulated by double-dealers and straight shooters from the music business, the literary and theater worlds, the criminal underworld, and even in big-time movies.

Murder In Birdland is the story of young, hopeful artists scrambling for significance as the sleepy Fifties give way to the explosive Sixties. But by extension, it is also about dreamers and schemers in every era, in their struggle to gain an edge –and find love– hopefully without selling their souls.
In scenes packed with celebrity cameos– both fact-based and audaciously fanciful–Diane and Bill rub shoulders with the likes of musician/activist Harry Belafonte and his close friends Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando. Not to mention Dennis Hopper, Natalie Wood, Alan Arkin and the many Actor’s Studio “contenders” in Brando’s wake. These young bohemians all “tune in” to the fading swan songs of jazz giants such as Lester Young and Billie Holiday, even as they try to emulate greats like Miles Davis, Peggy Lee, and Bill’s sometime teacher, blind pianist/composer Lennie Tristano. Diane is also befriended by newly emerging folk icons like Joan Baez, Dave van Ronk, Richie Havens and Buffy St. Marie, as their melodious protest music wafts through the window of her college dorm room from nearby Washington Square. Meanwhile, with West Side Story continuing its historic first run on Broadway, Arnie begins a love affair with one of the show’s leading Sharks, Jose de Vega. Through them, we begin to hear formerly squelched queer voices in America reach a crescendo, as composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and later film director Robert Wise re-invent the Great American Musical (and more quietly, the perception of homosexuality).

Rock and roll legends Ronnie Hawkins, The Band’s Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson, and Tommy James all make hilarious appearances at Morris Levy’s Roulette Records studio. Even playwright Tennessee Williams coaches Diane about going for broke as a writer, most likely in the growing field of television. Additionally, for a peek behind the Hollywood curtain, these Twist Kids cross paths with actresses Ava Gardner (the jazz fanatic ex that Sinatra still carried a torch for), Natalie Wood (Morris Levy’s unlikely paramour), Joanne Woodward, and Diahann Carroll (the wife of Birdland founding partner Monte Kay). Finally, rounding out their list of heroes, competitors, colleagues, and critics are the likes of rock and roll deejay Alan Freed, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, comedians Lenny Bruce and Del Close, and the enigmatic cipher of the era, Bob Dylan.

In smoky scenes set to the tunes of West Side Story, The Sound of Music and other enduring Broadway hits of the era–plus early rock and roll, and jazz classics like Miles Davis’ just-released Kind of Blue–these well-known stars and well-known crooks canoodle, croon and cook on bandstands, in bars, and in bedrooms. All the while the younger generation looks on, desperately trying to learn their elders’ off-kilter but endlessly entertaining rhythms and deadly dance steps.

As infamous gangland figures like Crazy Joe Gallo look over Bill and Diane’s shoulders– and as music greats like singer/actress Pearl Bailey and tragic teenage doo-wop legend Frankie Lymon are pulled into Morris Levy’s underworld orbit–the novel’s spotlight shines brightly and spills over onto the lives of our less famous background players. Not surprisingly, some are ground up like gravel and used to pave the road to others’ stardom. Thus Murder In Birdland also reveals the seedier side of an emerging American Showbiz Dream–even as publicists, artistic competitors, drug dealers, murderers and politicians tried their best to bury the awful truth.
Will Sergeant Donnelly catch Irving Levy’s killer before Morris and his not-so-secret underworld associates dish out an even bloodier form of justice? Will hopefuls Diane and Bill, or Arnie (a businessman and aspiring painter) and Jose the dancer/actor, achieve success and respect in their chosen fields? Will love prevail, …and for whom?
Finally, as youthful idealism clashes with cold cynicism, we wonder, as Roulette Records’ top teen singer (and tragic heroin addict) Frankie Lymon famously sang…

 “Why do fools fall in love?”

…… For a different, earlier look at where I started, a sort of archival “origin story” for Murder in Birdland, check out my original blog entry from 2011, where I set my intention to get this baby done: Getting Lost In the Late Fifties .

Birdland+4AM+NY+1960 - zombie sax player photo

“Birdland 4 a.m., New York City, 1960” – photo by William Claxton

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