As a brawling cop, Frank Lazarro Rizzo’s ponderous fists and blunt tactics won him the nickname, “The Cisco Kid.” Later, as the law-and-order mayor of Philadelphia, his tough talk won the loyalty of blue-collar voters, and he was widely regarded as a likely candidate for Pennsylvania governor. But last week a special grand jury was investigating the funds contributed by local businessmen to refurbish the mayor’s office, his primary election expenses were being audited—and perhaps most embarrassing, citizens were wondering how the $40,000 a year mayor could afford a $410,000 house in the city’s elegant Chestnut Hill.
Rizzo, 54, is up for reelection in November. And while no one is writing him off—”he could win in Philly,” one observer believes, “if he danced in the window of Wanamaker’s in a pink tutu”—for the first time in his 32-year public career Frank Rizzo appears to be in trouble.
Soon after Rizzo took office in 1972, he showed a talent for improving his lot. He ordered a $130,000 renovation of the mayor’s office (including mahogany paneling and a marble bathroom), which was paid for by donations from local businessmen. He also decided he needed a more impressive residence, and work was begun on a $300,000 house overlooking Fairmount Park. But innuendoes from political rivals—during the campaign the mayor had declared a net worth of $86,950—forced Rizzo to abandon the project. Instead he bought a $90,000 place in Chestnut Hill in late 1973.
Never one to leave well enough alone, Rizzo soon ordered a complete overhaul of the 11-room house. The interior cost an estimated $270,000. The outside refinements featured a $400 handcrafted brass doorknob, sod for the yard ($8,000), 17 brass carriage lanterns ($200 each) and new stonework ($30,000). The giddy grand total, as reported by the Philadelphia Daily News, was $410,000. Moreover, it turned out that Rizzo had failed to get proper building and inspection permits (the Rizzo-appointed commissioner explaining: “It is very hard to keep track of these one-family dwellings”) and had underpaid the property taxes. Rizzo’s snap retort to all inquiries: “I don’t comment on fiction.” Learning that the exposé was about to be published, Rizzo leaked a story that he had made a $26,000 killing in the stock market.
Although Rizzo now lives on snob hill, his roots are in down-at-the-heels South Philly. A high school dropout, he grew up as the son of a cop who tootled a clarinet in a policemen and firemen’s band. Rizzo followed his father onto the force in 1943 and worked his way up to sergeant, captain, inspector and, in 1967, police commissioner. Stories about Rizzo the hot-tempered cop abound. He was charged with beating up some sailors who had been collared for disorderly conduct. On another occasion he sneered at a judge who had reprimanded him: “You’re the boss in here, but we’re the boss on the street.”
He was reported to be friendly with the mobsters and strippers (including Blaze Starr) who worked the dives along X-rated Locust Street. But when he campaigned for mayor in 1971, Democrat Rizzo, a Richard Nixon fan, ran on a strident law and order, anti-pornography platform. He labeled his opponents “bleeding hearts, dangerous radicals, pinkos and faggots.” One opponent now calls Rizzo a “smalltime Mussolini.”
An immaculate man, the mayor favors conservative suits, black shoes shined to a mirror polish and white shirts, which he may change three times a day. He used to fish and hunt, but no longer does—even his enemies concede that he lives his job day and night.
At the remodeled Rizzo home, which he shares with his wife Carmella, son Franny, 32, and daughter Joanna, 25, police now stand heavy guard, shooing away the curious who gather under the $200 carriage lanterns. Once legendary for his rapport with newsmen, Rizzo has recently become secretive about his public appearances. The mayor, who once boasted that he hadn’t eaten dinner with his wife in a year, seems to have acquired a renewed interest in home.