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The Bowery’s Santa – Podcast #78

So, Joseph Bonavita was not the type of person that one would think would make the national news year after year.

Early on Christmas morning of 1946, the 39-year-old former featherweight boxer closed his Brooklyn tavern – which was located at 423 3rd Avenue – he closed it for the day and did the same exact thing that he had done for the previous four Christmases.  No, he didn’t go to church or head home to his family.

Instead, he drove straight to the Bowery in Manhattan, which back then was New York City’s Skid Row.   He hopped out of his car at around 5 AM and stopped a half-dozen men that were clearly down on their luck.  After wishing the group a Merry Christmas, Joe placed several crisp new $1 bills into their hands, which really was quite a bit of moolah back then.  Shocked by this sudden generosity, each of the men refused to accept the money, suspecting that the bills were counterfeit.

But Joe wasn’t about to take no for an answer.  He had the six men accompany him to the nearby Elizabeth Street police station where he explained to Lieutenant John Byron what he was trying to do.  The officer examined the bills and Joe’s identification papers and assured the men that everything was on the up-and-up.

But he was not done handing out his money.  With about $1500 stuffed in his pockets – that would be around $17,500 today – Joe was determined to give it all away to those that were less fortunate than him.

To make sure everything went smoothly for the rest of the day, a detective named Joseph Kronacher was assigned to accompany this modern-day Santa Claus as he made his rounds.

You would think that all of that money would have been gone within minutes, but it was harder to give away than one would think.

First, the two men went to a homeless shelter at 18 Bleeker Street, where Joe handed each man $2.00 and a warm Christmas greeting.

Then it was off to the various missions, lodging houses, and other dives to hand out the gifts ranging between one and five dollars to buy food, meals, and, yes, booze.

“I celebrated with my wife Emma, yesterday, and gave presents to the children in my neighborhood.  Today I’m taking care of the boys on the Bowery.”

By 9 AM his wad of cash had diminished to about $400 and Joe seemed to have run out of places to visit.  So, Joe and Detective Joe made a stop at police headquarters on Centre Street and who did they find there?  A bunch of reporters.  Let’s face it, you can’t hand out wads of cash without the press taking notice.  But, in this case, the reporters proved to be quite helpful in suggesting additional places that he could visit.

By noon Joe had about $100 remaining and decided to call it quits.  This was the fifth Christmas that Joe had come to the Bowery to hand out money to those that were less fortunate than him and he was satisfied with what had just occurred.  He said, “Of course, I have never done it before on such a scale.”   News of Joe’s good deed spread quickly and by the next day, his story was told in newspapers all across the country.

Joe Bonavita handing out money in the Bowery.
Joe Bonavita handing out money in the Bowery. The image appeared on page 3 of the December 26, 1946 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Joe Bonavita wasn’t done yet.  He announced a couple of days later that he was headed back to the Bowery on New Year’s Eve to hand out another $1,000 in cash.  He was accompanied by Officer John Burdick, but things didn’t go as smoothly this time around.

A group of reporters followed Joe into a restaurant at 107 Bowery where he intended to give away some of his cash.  A large crowd gathered outside the restaurant and started yelling for him to come out, which he did.  The whole thing became unmanageable and Joe was forced back into the restaurant for safety.  Joe became overly emotional, so the police brought an end to his gift-giving and took him to the local police station.  A doctor was called in and the next thing you know Joe is at Bellevue hospital undergoing a psychiatric evaluation.

Years later, Joe would recall: “The first thing they did at Bellevue was take all of my stuff off me.  They threw my assets in a cigar box and threw me under a shower.  Then they put me in one of those white coats.  The next thing I know, some doctor is asking me what day it is and who’s president.”

So was he going off his rocker?  Not at all.  The doctors at Bellevue declared him to be totally sane and released him in the early afternoon.  Joe commented to a reporter, “Just because a fellow feels sad and wants to give money away, police think he’s insane.  It is discouraging.”

Discouraging possibly, but there was Joe back in the Bowery for the Christmas of 1947 with $700 in cash to give away.  Other than the patrolman assigned to accompany him, this time the police did not interfere with his charitable gift-giving.  At one point he entered a local bar and purchased a round of drinks for an estimated fifty men, but he refused the drink that was offered to him on the house, claiming that he had promised his wife that he would not consume any alcohol.  Hundreds of men gathered outside the bar, so Joe snuck out through the side door and took off in his sleigh – I mean car.

And in 1948 he was right back at it.  Once again, he created a mob scene as he spent four hours handing out $700 in cash to the Bowery’s most desperate.  Joe was then told that the Police Anchor Club had prepared ten baskets of food and toys for families back in his home borough of Brooklyn, which were to be distributed by reporters assigned to the Bergen Street station.  Joe asked to accompany the reporters as they went to hand out the baskets and he generously gave each family $5.00.  He was so moved by what he witnessed that he said, “I’ll never go back to the Bowery again.  These are the people that really need it.”

As they say, never say never.  After the annual press coverage of his generosity basically stopped, he still returned to the Bowery year after year, handing out thousands upon thousands more dollars.

In November of 1949, Joe was handed a summons for possession of two chance books that were found behind the bar in his tavern.  Enter and you could have won a portable radio, which back in the pre-transistor days had to have been fairly large.  Ordered to appear before the Brooklyn Gamblers Court, Joe insisted that the books didn’t belong to him.  He had set up a gym – the Bonavita Athletic Club – in his backyard in 1945 to help fight juvenile delinquency.  He claimed that the youngsters were using the raffle books to raise money to purchase new equipment.

Then the surprising news hit the papers on November 27, 1952 that Joe would probably not be able to make it to the Bowery that year.  He had lost sight in his right eye and was to undergo cataract surgery.  So, he decided to do something very different this time.  Joe posted a sign on the window of his tavern that promised candy to any neighborhood child that stopped by on Thanksgiving eve.  And he did just that – he gave away more than 250 bags of sweets.

Joe may have missed Christmas that year, but, against doctor’s orders he headed down to the Bowery and handed out $600 on New Year’s Eve.  This proved to be a big mistake because his eye started to hemorrhage and sadly had to be removed.

In 1953, the press reported that he not only handed out money from 10 AM to 2 PM, but that he also gave away 35 overcoats, seven suits, four pairs of shoes, and twelve hats.  As they say, cash is king, and this sudden shift in strategy failed bigtime.  The men simply pawned the clothing for cash.

Year after year, now blind in one eye, Joe continued in his role as the Bowery’s Santa Claus.  But one had to question where he was getting all of this money from?  Was the tavern business that profitable?

The answer was revealed in March of 1959 when Bonavita, 51 at the time, was charged with tax evasion.  Joe faced up to twenty years in prison and $40,000 in fines.  He owed the government $23,552 on an unreported income of $77,958 for the tax years 1952 to 1955.  Adjusted for inflation, that would be around $670,000 today.

So was it from gambling?  Not really.  Well, sort of.  He had earned all of his extra money in the stock market.  “I invest in oils, railroads, coppers, aluminum, automobiles, and, of course, glamour stocks.”  Joe claimed that he didn’t report his profits because he was afraid that his wife would find out that he was playing the market.

Joe plead guilty to the charge and paid all of the tax money that he owed before appearing before the court on March 27th for sentencing.  Based on all of his charitable work, the judge placed Joe on six-month probation and fined him $2,000.  Joe’s lawyer asked that his client be given a few days to collect the funds, at which point Joe pulled a roll of bills out of his pocket and paid the fine right there on the spot.

1965 would mark his biggest giveaway ever – $10,000 at various locations around Manhattan.  Joe asked a reporter, “We had a good time, right?” To which the reporter replied “Joe, we had a ball.”

The following year, 1966, marked the last time that the national press reported on his annual tradition.  This time he gave away $700 that he quietly distributed to people that he called “friends”; “down-and-outers that used to be up.”

Bonavita – which I am told means “good life” in Italian – passed away in 1971.  And what a good life it was.

Useless?  Useful?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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