Vincent Patrick, chronicler of hustlers and mobsters, dies at 88
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Vincent Patrick, chronicler of hustlers and mobsters, dies at 88
The novelist and screenwriter Vincent Patrick in an undated handout photo. Patrick, who set pins at a bowling alley, peddled Bibles door to door and helped start a mechanical engineering firm before finding critical success with his first novel, “The Pope of Greenwich Village,” at 44, died on Oct. 6, 2023 at his home in Manhattan. He was 88. (Myron Miller via The New York Times)

by Alex Williams

NEW YORK, NY.- Vincent Patrick, an author and screenwriter who set pins at a bowling alley, peddled Bibles door to door and helped start a mechanical engineering firm before finding, at age 44, critical success with his first novel, “The Pope of Greenwich Village,” died Oct. 6 at his home in New York. He was 88.

The cause was complications of Lewy body dementia, his son Richard said.

The son of a pool-hall owner and numbers runner, Patrick was raised in a milieu sprinkled with the grifters, hustlers and mobsters who would eventually become characters in his novels, which also included “Family Business” (1985) and “Smoke Screen” (1999).

In manner and accent, Patrick seemed like a character he might have dreamed up himself. A 1999 profile in the Los Angeles Times noted that “his voice has that subterranean rumble of an accent, a sound that good character actors try to emulate when playing retired cops or tough but fair patriarchs.”

“The Pope of Greenwich Village,” published in 1979, told the story of Charlie, a down-on-his-luck night manager of a Manhattan saloon, whose cousin Paulie sucks him and a locksmith friend into a perilous plot to crack a safe filled with what turns out to be mob money.

“The connective thread is the sad state of their lives, their disenchantment and the curse of being dreamers,” Joe Flaherty wrote in a review in The New York Times. The novel, he added, “mines territory rarely encountered in fiction and, in the vernacular of his tough, street-wise characters, delivers a sweetheart of a book.”

“Family Business,” the tale of three generations of hustlers from an ethnically mixed New York family, also explored the psychological allure of the big score. Jessie McMullen, the con-artist grandfather; Vito, his son, who is in the wholesale meat business; and Adam, his MIT-educated grandson find themselves drawn into a risky caper to swipe a plant cell from a California laboratory and sell it to a rival genetic engineering company.

“Mr. Patrick could have drawn these characters with broad strokes, concentrating on the heist, and still have come up with a decent thriller,” Arthur Krystal wrote in the Times. “Instead he chose to provide them with interesting lives and, in the cases of Vito and Adam, with the intelligence and self-doubts of men uncomfortable with their moral upbringing.”

Patrick was quoted by the Times: “There’s a colorfulness about their value systems that makes them attractive to a writer,” he said, “a willingness to take risks and an ability to meet life sort of head-on and wrestle with it and not retreat into a very secure position.”

Some critics were less kind to the feature film versions of both books, which Patrick adapted. “The Pope of Greenwich Village” (1984), starring Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts, was “less a story than a display of acting mannerisms,” critic Vincent Canby wrote in the Times.

Reviewing “Family Business” (1989), directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman and Matthew Broderick, Canby found a paucity of wit. He also found the idea that three actors so physically dissimilar could be blood relatives to be a stretch.

Still, Patrick understood the compromises required to make it in Hollywood, his son Richard said in a phone interview. His father, he said, convinced producer Scott Rudin that he would not treat his novels as sacrosanct works of literature, telling him, “I have no compunction at all about cannibalizing my own work in order to bring it to the big screen.’”

Vincent Francis Patrick was born Jan. 19, 1935, in the Bronx, the middle of three children of Vincent and Angela (Hunt) Patrick. His mother was a legal secretary. Growing up, he dreamed of being a writer, and he churned out short stories during his teens.

School, however, was another matter. He chafed at the strict discipline at the Roman Catholic schools he attended, and he dropped out of Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx after his junior year. In order to make ends meet, he set pins at a Bronx bowling alley before taking a job selling Bibles door to door in Bronx apartment buildings.

As he recounted in a 1999 performance at the storytelling series staged by The Moth, he abandoned the job after watching his sales partner persuade a housewife to raid her 7-year-old daughter’s piggy bank for the $7 down payment on a fancy leather-embossed Bible. “I didn’t know yet who I was,” he told the audience. “But I knew who I was not.”

In 1954, he married Carole Unger, and the couple had two sons. With a family to support, Patrick earned his high school diploma and put himself through New York University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He and a partner then started a successful firm that designed, among other things, an assembly line for caskets.

By his mid-30s, however, the call of a literary career had become too loud to ignore, so he left engineering to take another stab at writing professionally. “I wasn’t really happy, and I knew if I didn’t begin to write something, it wasn’t going to be written,” he told People magazine in 1979.

Patrick hammered out a draft of his first book while working as a bartender at an Italian restaurant near Gramercy Park in Manhattan, where his son said he drew inspiration by rubbing elbows with the underworld types from Little Italy who would hang out there.

Although he was initially drawn to screenwriting as a means to adapt his own work, Richard Patrick said, it soon became a successful side career. Among other projects, he contributed to the script for “The Devil’s Own” (1997), starring Harrison Ford as a police officer and Brad Pitt as an Irish Republican Army member hiding out in Staten Island, and wrote the two-part television movie “To Serve and Protect” (1999).

He was also hired to write early treatments for “Beverly Hills Cop” and “The Godfather III,” although both projects ended up in other hands.

In addition to his son Richard, Patrick is survived by his wife; another son, Glen; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

Hollywood, Patrick once said, was both a fabled land of opportunity and a trap. “Once you start,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “it’s hard to get out.” Discussing his third novel, “Smoke Screen,” a thriller involving international terrorism and a deadly virus, he admitted that his screenwriting work had slowed his literary output.

“Yeah, this is my third novel in 20 years,” he said. “But I think when you look at it, from the point of sheer craft, I’ve gotten better. And that’s because, Hollywood or not, I write every day. It’s different writing, but it all boils down to plot and characters.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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