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Jerry Fiorello Won Plenty, Lost More

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New York columnist Mel Heimer met Brooklyn middleweight Jerry Fiorello about a week before Fiorello died, near the end of September, 1947. Fiorello was 29 years old.

They met in Ann Lano’s dance studio on Madison Avenue.

Heimer described Fiorello as being a physical impressive guy with “big shoulders” and “big hands.” He had “dark, curly hair and the flat nose of the fighter,” and was wearing a “New York pearl-gray fedora…green slacks and a tan sports jacket. No tie.”

Heimer mentioned that Fiorello had been doing pretty well in his boxing career until he came across Rocky Graziano, but that legend was the neighborhood mythologizing of Fiorello’s life, which had enough romantic drama to it without stretching the truth.

Fiorello was victorious in 17 of his first 20 paid fights, turning professional with only seven amateur bouts behind him after beating Arthur Mercante in the 1938 Golden Gloves.

But by the time he first fought Graziano at the Queensboro Arena in 1944, Fiorello had lost more fights than he had won, while Graziano – who had been a professional for only two years – was a couple years away from becoming a world champion. Graziano won an 8-round split decision.

Although beating some good fighters – Artie Levine, Vic Dellicurti, and Ernie Forte among them – Fiorello had trouble when the competition approached world-class level, and was becoming known as an opponent. An opponent who was loved by his neighborhood Red Hook fans, but not someone who was going to become champion himself.

Fiorello had limited power, with only 15 of his 62 victories coming by KO. But he had a granite chin and his fights were almost guaranteed to last the distance as long as he didn’t cut over his left eye. He always provided value, which is why he was such an attraction, always in demand, averaging 18 fights a year during a nine year career.

And he had courage to match his durability. An aggressive, pressuring crowd-pleaser who fought from a crouch, using what reporters referred to as a cross-armed shell form of defense, Fiorello lost a fight to Joe Reddick when he broke his hand in the fourth round and was limited to defensively making a game effort of it. Floored by a low blow in the 10th, Fiorello rose at the count of 9 to finish the fight.

It was obvious in his rematch with Graziano – a couple months before his death – that he would not be able to endure a full fight’s worth of Graziano’s punishment. But he would “groggily,” according to ringside reporters, hold onto the ropes to keep upright until the fight was stopped in the fifth round. When it came to boxing, there was no quit in Joey Fiorello.

In addition to this toughness, Fiorello was smolderingly handsome.

Born in New York but living in Italy as a youth, he had been a jockey throughout Europe and trained as an opera singer before his family returned to America in 1934, when Fiorello was sixteen. Unable to secure work in the theatre, Fiorello chose to box for a living.

Heiner noticed Fiorello’s magnetic presence: “You’d have thought Rex Harrison and Ronald Reagan had come in the door hand in hand, the way Ann fussed over Jerry.”

Fiorello “spoke in the rough language of the prize ring,” as he told a story. He “had a good sense of timing,” Heimer wrote, describing how easy it was to laugh with him. “You felt you liked him.”

Ms. Lano said Fiorello was her prize pupil, and they tangoed while Heimer watched. “They were extraordinary dancers,” Heimer wrote, and then Fiorello began to sing in Italian to the music. “He had a warm, rough voice, the way most Italians seem to have, and he went for the high notes and reached them easily, naturally.” Heimer thoroughly enjoyed himself: “Jerry was singing and Ann was dancing, and I was sitting there swinging my legs over a chair and loafing. It was a good day, you know?”

Heimer brought his column to an end by writing, “That afternoon was all I could think of, this morning, when I picked up the paper and saw the little item that began, ‘Jerry Fiorello…’.” Fiorello not only sang opera, he lived operatically as well, or at least died that way. What the newspaper accounts described was as dramatic as any tragedy performed in the theatre.

By 1947, Fiorello had been reduced to 8-round club fights – his fight with Graziano that summer was labeled as Graziano’s final tune-up before a rematch with Tony Zale – and his career, which The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described as not having been a great success “but always a colorful and game one,” was nearing its end.

Fiorello was on a ten fight losing streak, including three losses since being stopped by Graziano, one of which was to the new local favorite, Herbie Kronowitz.

This is when Fiorello’s wife, Ida, and their two children, returning at 8:30 PM on September 28 from a visit with relatives, smelled gas outside their apartment. The door was locked.

Mrs. Fiorello ran to her mother’s downstairs apartment, and her brothers Rudolph and Peter Ricca returned with her to break down the door. They found Fiorello lying unconscious on the kitchen floor, gas “pouring” from the jets on the range.

But Fiorello was not alone.

Lying next to him was Mimi Horowitz, 23, wife of Jack Horowitz, a nightclub singer known professionally as Terry Parker.

Neither Horowitz nor Fiorello had left a suicide note, but they had placed photographs of themselves on the stovetop.

Mrs. Horowitz was no stranger to Mrs. Fiorello, as Mrs. Horowitz had given birth to Fiorello’s child a year earlier. Both families were in stages of divorce, and the deceased couple had planned on marrying when legally able to do so, even though their relationship was extremely troubled.

The law was a major complication regarding the couple’s future, in matters entirely unrelated to divorce court. It was almost certainly a factor in their choice to commit suicide, as well.

While living together in Fiorello’s GI house in Valley Stream the summer of 1946 with their 3-month old baby, Fiorello returned home one evening to discover his “wife” was out, having left the baby unattended.

Fiorello was extremely angry with Horowitz when she returned at 2 AM, and he – in his own words – “put her to bed.”

The full meaning of that comment was clear to police because the reason they were speaking with Fiorello was that Horowitz had been found wandering on nearby Merrick Road with a fractured skull and “a blanket over her night clothes,…in a dazed condition…unable to tell what happened.”

Fiorello was charged with 2nd degree assault, and released on bail awaiting trial.

Mrs. Horowitz’s sister, Mrs. May Greenberg of the Bronx, said Fiorello had previously threatened Horowitz with a gun. A loaded pistol was found in the Valley Stream home, and Fiorello was further charged with illegal possession of a revolver.

Friends said Fiorello didn’t “actually own the gun,” and after initially lying about where he obtained it, Fiorello finally admitted to receiving it from an ex-GI who had brought it from overseas.

This was the same GI under whose name Fiorello had purchased the Valley Stream home because, not being a veteran, Fiorello would have been unable to purchase the property himself.

Fiorello rented out the Valley Stream house and lived intermittently with both his wife and his mother while Mrs. Horowitz recovered and he awaited trial.

But the two lovers had difficulty remaining apart, and with Fiorello’s increasing despondency over both the end of his boxing career and his near-certain prison time, he regularly spoke of suicide. Mrs. Horowitz chose to follow Fiorello to that end. Their child was placed for adoption.

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