I called Danny Constance in 1999, but he didn’t want to talk to me. “Do you want to talk about the 80s, Danny?” I asked, and there was a long pause. He was thinking about it. “No,” he finally said in this gravelly voice, “I don’t think I do.” He was polite, but firm. I never met the man..
There were all kinds of tantalizing references in federal records to the man that ran Beardsleys, the French restaurant on Main Street that become the symbol of Northampton in the eighties. A FBI tape recording that disappeared. Subpoenas that never got served. And a great deal of Heritage commercial paper on his restaurant and other joint ventures. It was intriguing that the area’s leading bank was financing someone who was a kingpin in the Valley’s numbers racket, someone who had links to organized crime, someone who was eventually arrested for money laundering and sentenced to federal prison.
Danny was a big tough cop in Holyoke in the seventies. His uncle was the police chief, and one night Danny got into a terrific brawl with someone important enough so that uncle had to fire him. So he came up here to Northampton to start a new life, working with Marco Marinello, a Holyoke golf course owner who owned the Hotel Northampton. He ran the old Wiggins Tavern, and rented rooms to Billy Nagle and the Honor Court. In those days the Wiggins was a dark hole-in-the wall and the Hotel Northampton stood empty and decrepit and unheated. A long series of owners had come and gone. Marinello’s grounds crews carted off many of its valuable antiques to places unknown. Ceilings were falling, and there had been extensive water damage from flooding.
In 1980 the young energetic president of the Northampton Institute of Savings( NIS), Dick Covell turned his energy toward reviving the hotel. He wanted to sell it to someone who would fix the building up and return it to its glory days. He put together a kitty from other banks and community leaders and approached Marinello. Marinello ignored Covell until Covell talked to the mayor and he was hit with a condemnation threat from the building inspector. He finally said he would sell the hotel to Covell’s new corporation. Neither Billy Nagle or Danny Constance would move out. Many months of negotiations finally produced an agreement. Constance was paid $295,000 from the proceeds of the sale to get out of the way. It was easy money, and he disappeared for a long time to various dens of inequity. He was a gambler, and according to one of his friends, not a very good one.
On February 1, 1983 Danny bought 138-140 Main Street, an elegant old building. Once a funky little restaurant on Button Alley, it was moved it across the street and the building was extensively remodeled. It had the effete elegance of the Aubrey Beardsley prints, paintings by Northampton artist Barry Moser; it had the French cuisine, and a small party room on the second floor. It was oak paneled, discretely dark; it was the place to meet for drinks and do deals, legal and otherwise. The restaurant was an overnight success. The new Danny Constance was the consummate host that welcomed celebrities, politicians and local politicians to drink and luxuriate in the elegant surroundings and sample his French cuisine. On the top floor was the penthouse he used to entertain his influential friends. He had two boats in the sound and a Jeep Wagoneer with a back seat full of unpaid parking tickets.
NIS became Heritage Bank, and when the bank hit the jackpot their bankers were good to him, and he and his people in Springfield, I think, were good to the bank. Dick Covell and his head of commercial lending Mike Smith gave him an ever-expanding series of commercial notes secured by the building at 138-140 Main Street. First the loans were secured by the building, then he signed over his accounts receivable and liquor license; paper and more paper. The first mortgage to Danny Constance was on February 1, 1983, for $170,000. A year later his indebtedness was $194,000, three years later it was $540,000, on July 12, 1988 it hit $630,000, and if you count a big 1.1 million Heritage mortgage on a properties he owned in Holyoke with a John Anthony Russo, his obligations to the bank were almost $2 million. Danny boasted that he used to take Mike Smith and Richard Covell out sailing in the sound on his boat. He loved to hang out on the street with the deal-makers of the time like Mike Sissman, Paul Britt, and Don Todrin. He would charter light planes down at LaFleur, pay cash, and fly off to Nantucket on a whim. But Danny didn’t like to pay his withholding and other taxes. Money was getting siphoned out of Beardsleys, and soon the restaurant was wearing all kinds of liens. The bank foreclosed on him in 1991, and on February 2, 1992, the restaurant served its last brunch and shut its doors. A year later Danny was still living up in the penthouse. Kevin Eastman of Ninja Turtles fame bought his building and started remodeling it to be the Words and Pictures Museum that would feature all the greats in comic book art. Look up at the building today and enjoy the gargoyles installed during this period. The hammers were at work downstairs the day that Danny Constance’s luck ran out.
He was speeding on Route 5 in Holyoke, and his white 1990 Jeep Wagoneer was stopped by a state cop. His license was suspended; a tow truck was called. Trooper Alben did his job, which was to be observant. He notices all these slips in the passenger seat. Some of them indicated “Pays” ; there were many coded numbers. He calls the stop in and trooper Brian Kennedy, who was attached to the Northampton barracks and was working organized crime recognized the name, and knew what the slips were all about.
They had stopped what they call a “banker,” the man in charge of a regional gaming operation. A secret indictment had already been issued for Danny on March 7, 1993. The State Police had been investigating the small fry in this operation since 1991, and found Danny’s code number in seized paperwork. An informant told the police that Danny was running a large scale gaming operation out of Beardsleys. That afternoon, the State Police got a warrant for a search of 140 Main Street. Danny arranges for the Wagoneer to be towed, and the tow truck drops it in back of the Hotel Northampton.
That evening Danny gets a call from a sympathetic sounding trooper who tells him that his car has been vandalized, and he better get down to the parking lot right away and lock it up. Up the narrow hallway go a delegation of troopers to his apartment door up over the restaurant, and when he come running out the door the police are there to meet him, and they tell him to relax. His car is ok, but they have this search warrant here. Local police were not present. The FBI was involved. No story on the bust was carried by the Gazette.
The arrest of Danny Constance eventually resulteds in the conviction of eight defendants and the seizure of gambling records from 118 Sylvan Street in Springfield and 1030 Dwight Street Holyoke. One of the people who offered evidence against Danny was his brother, Michael. Danny was convicted of setting up an illegal lottery which had 4 or more people on its payroll. He did not object to being jailed and waived bond on May 5,1994. In 1995 he would plead guilty to the one count of money laundering. He was sentenced to federal jail in Florida for 33 months, and came out a broken man. When he came back to Northampton he was on probation and working as a dishwasher at Mullinos Trattoria, owned by Felix Tranghese, convicted in 1987 along with the Scibelli brothers for controlling illegal gambling. When they sold the building in 1998, he moved to Springfield and ran a hot dog cart outside the Mardi Gras strip club.
“Bo” Page, who owned Delaneys down in Holyoke and a half a dozen other ventures knew Danny, who had worked for him a long time ago. It was 2002; his hotel and restaurant had been sold to a group of dubious guys from California who ran everything into the ground, and he had to come back from retirement and work for the bank to straighten out the finances, and now on the eve of the auction where he had hoped to buy his operation back, something happened. Two days before the bank auction of the Delaney House, who should show up at his office but Danny Constance. Danny had been big before, but now he had put on a lot of weight; Page hadn’t seen him for years. He comes in and says he has a message from Peter Picknelly. Peter is president of Peter Pan Bus Lines, and for a long time more or less ran Springfield from his aerie atop of Monarch Place.
“Look” says Danny, “ Peter knows that this is your place; that you’ve put your whole heart and soul in it. He wants you to know that he respects you and what you’ve done here. Now he’s going to put in a serious bid for your place at the auction, but he won’t show up if you give me the word that you want the place. Just give me the word,” he said, “And Peter won’t show up. The road will be clear.”
“Well,” said Page, “I thought about his proposition for about thirty seconds. If I start saying yes to people like Danny and their deals, I’m going to be seeing him all the time. I knew it was time to retire and go to Florida and stay there.”
Two days later Peter Picknelly bought the Delaney House at the auction for 6.45 million. Page went to Florida and retired, probably for good.
Danny Constance died in August of 2006 in Springfield. His obit in the Gazette was a paean to the eighties and the elegance of Beardsleys and what a great host he was and how sad it was to have him die alone and forgotten. Feel-good stuff, for the most part, the usual stuff you get from the Gazette. No sense that Danny might have been a thug and an ex-con. In fact, even in 2006, his legal entanglements were talked about, but no one would offer details. I called police chief Russ Sienkowitz and never got a call back; I called a couple other police I knew and no one could or would tell me anything. Finally a friend who was a writer ferreted out the details from one of his old probation officers.
Finally I had enough to go to Springfield and chase after his story. First it was the clerks office at city hall where I got his last address, then was the city assessors office for the condo breakdown in the building, then was the court-house where I got the archive accession numbers, the last stop was the Mardi-Gras Gentleman’s Club down in Springfield, a club straight out of the Sopranos.
Right near the tracks, bricked-in windows, a run-down neighborhood full of people clinging to life and sanity by their bare hands. Inside the place it was as dark as pitch; here and there are invisible people sporting magnetically blue T-shirts, socks and teeth, dress-shirts and ties. There are black lights somewhere in the ceiling. Gradually I make out customers sitting with their elbows resting on a raised dance floor. There were shapes out there in the night, panthers and tigresses stretching their long beautiful legs and winding themselves delicately around the drinkers, who were doing things I don’t want to see. Captive souls. I asked one of these invisible people how much the beers were, he said three-fifty or five, he forgot. I idly wondered how these people made any money at those prices with all this overhead. In the distance girls in bikinis went up and down the winding staircase, bathed in the light from tiny spots. I eventually found the bartender, who also looked very good. I found a twenty dollar bill in my wallet, and she went off with it, and came back with a bottle of Budweiser and five singles. I looked at the five lonely singles. I was not a happy man. Fifteen bucks for a beer? She and I talked and she was perfectly calm and I was perfectly calm and she went and checked and said that the ten I had given her was all by itself on the top of the cash drawer where she put it. There was nothing to do but ask for the manager.
The manager was also young and beautiful, but was wearing more clothes than the bartender. She was calm, she defended the bartender’s virtue; she went and checked and came back with her faith unchallenged. I stayed put. One of the girls walked by with her John, heading into the back room, where table dancing was done to order. “So all right,” the manager finally said, “I will get you ten dollars.” I asked about Danny.
“Danny? Poor Danny is dead” said the dark-haired manageress, “Poor guy.” Suddenly we are buddies again,
“Where did he live?”
“Right across the street,” she said, pointing toward the rear door.
You run a hot dog cart outside a strip club; you live across the street. Out in the parking lot the seasoned thoughtful guy who would park your BMW for you knew nothing about Danny’s time in the hot dog cart. He looked me up and down and committed me to memory. When as I was walking away he relented. “Danny lived up there,” he said, pointing at the building across the street. Sixth floor, corner apartment, quite a view. Now he remembers Danny.
I looked up where he was pointing and there was an American flag in the window. The first floor of the building was vacant and there was a pawn shop next door full of guys waiting to see what the owner would give them for a radio-CD player with snipped off wires dangling. Not a great neighborhood.
The door to the lobby was open; there was a wall with buzzers, but no names. Above the buzzers was a placard. This was the McIntosh building. I had a file on the McIntosh building; it was one of the five major Heritage developments that had Mike Smith as the silent partner. It was mentioned prominently in the Heritage Bank first notice of loss to their underwriters. Mike Smith’s best friend, Tim Sicard, owned one of these condominiums for awhile. I wondered who owned the condo Danny was found in by the cleaning lady five days after he died. I know he didn’t own it; there was no real estate of record under his name in the Registry of Deeds. I decided against poking around in the building and ringing buzzers and getting people torqued up. Was he in 6A or 6F; was the owner CCC realty, and who was behind CCC realty? I put the paperwork away.
All that was really relevant to me, at this point, was that this was another Heritage package deal, like the Hub Club and Flat Street. When I looked at that long list of mysterious enterprises that had bought big blocks of stock in Heritage Bank in the early days, there were all these places that did not exist six years later. XYZ and CCC and ABC Securities in New Haven. Mike Smith and Dick Covell investments in mob-type schemes killed the bank. The McIntosh building was a Heritage scheme; not an upscale development up on the hill, but a condo conversion across the street from the Mardi-Gras, a dark place where drugs as well as sex could be exchanged for cash, and across the street was a place where Danny Constance could live when the old gambler and money-launderer probably had nowhere else to go. Outside the Mardi-Gras the “Happy Endings” hot dog cart was still there, and still shuttered.