PROVIDENCE — Father’s Day.
That’s the first thing I think of when I remember Buddy Cianci. Not hope restored, Providence transformed, rivers moved, political battles fought, city officials indicted, or fireplace logs swung.
Buddy was on a first-name basis with Providence, and so everyone had a Buddy story. Mine begins the night before Father’s Day, 2002.
The jury had been out several days in Cianci’s racketeering trial, and that Saturday night the mayor was grand marshal in Providence’s gay pride parade. I went down to have a look.
I was writing a biography of Cianci, which had caused no shortage of tension between us in the preceding months. He had threatened me with lawsuits, frozen me out, heckled me at press conferences and, in one memorable moment in a city park beneath the statue of Providence’s founder, Roger Williams, told me to “go play in the traffic.”
But stealing a page from Buddy’s playbook, I kept showing up. On the night of the gay pride parade, Buddy was riding in the back of a convertible driven by a drag queen named BB. He saw me standing by the road and bellowed for me to get in the car. I was stunned. Was this Machiavelli: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer? I got in and rode through the rest of the parade with him.
The crowd adored him. A man told Cianci he was lighting a candle for him. Two drag queens raced up to have their photos taken with the mayor. “Racketeering schmacketeering,” said one. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to Providence.”
Afterward, Buddy told me, “Hey, I haven’t lived my life on the straight and narrow, so who am I to question them?”
Past midnight, we wound up sharing drinks in a gay nightclub with flashing strobe lights and near-naked men gyrating wildly on a stage decorated with balloons.
“How many laws do you think are being broken in here tonight?” he said with a laugh. “I had lunch in the Old Canteen today. Little old Italian ladies. Can you imagine them in here?”
“It’s life in the Renaissance City,” his photographer joked.
“More like ancient Rome,” quipped Buddy.
Later, Buddy put his mouth to my ear, to be heard over the din, and apologized for his recent behavior.
“You’re a good [expletive]. I’m sorry I’ve been such a [expletive], but I’ve been under a lot of pressure. I hope for the sake of your children that you make a million dollars on the book.”
Later, he seemed sad as he gave me a lift back to my car in his limousine. He mentioned his own daughter, with whom he had enjoyed an up-and-down relationship, and who would tragically die years later. As we parted, he realized what day it was.
“Happy Father’s Day,” he said.
I learned a lot about American politics through Buddy. I came to know his political brilliance, his insecurity, his wit, his vindictiveness, his charisma, his Jekyll and Hyde ups and downs. But most of all, I learned of his complicated love for Providence. That love could be fickle, preening, narcissistic. For better or worse, it lasted through his many incarnations: child performer on a local radio show, mob prosecutor, anticorruption candidate, boy mayor, speaker at two Republican national conventions, maestro of the Providence Renaissance, overseer of two corrupt administrations, federal prison inmate, sharp-tongued radio talk-show host, good Buddy, bad Buddy. It endured through campaign shenanigans, blizzards, garbage strikes, parades, ribbon-cuttings, and grand-jury subpoenas.
He was, one former adversary and ally told me, “a survivor in a wicked world.”
After Buddy sold his house on Power Street, where he had beaten up his estranged wife’s suspected lover with a lit cigarette and tried clubbing him with a fireplace log, he moved into the presidential suite at the Biltmore Hotel. The Jazz Age hotel sat next to City Hall, where Buddy had famously taken the oath for the first time in 1975 while workers wheeled the grand piano out of the bankrupt Biltmore, which later would reopen in a revitalized city. I used to pester him to show me his new digs.
Finally, one day, after several refusals, he said, “You invite me over to your house for dinner, and then I’ll invite you to mine.”
When I told my wife, she was horrified. But he would have come. And he would have been charming. I remember being a young reporter at The Providence Journal, and Buddy showing up at a co-worker’s backyard barbecue. He didn’t just make an appearance; he stayed for hours, holding court late into the night around the fire pit.
The last time I saw Buddy was in August 2014, during a reception at the gilded Providence Performing Arts Center, which he had helped spare from the wrecking ball.
“I hear you’re running for mayor,” I greeted him.
We talked campaign strategy, and I watched him work the room, the Tony Bennett of politics. He greeted an elderly couple, shook the man’s hand, then turned to the wife and said, “And this must be your daughter.”
Buddy would win, he told me, because of all the Providence voters whose Little League games he had attended when they were young, and he was mayor. It seemed like he’d always been mayor and, if this campaign played out, always would be. A friend of Buddy’s had told him about a 19th Century Providence mayor who had died in office, and whose body laid in state at City Hall.
I think that possibility was in Buddy’s mind, unspoken, when he made his last unsuccessful hurrah. He had been diagnosed with cancer earlier in 2014, and after he lost the election — the first loss of his career — I heard he was in the hospital, not doing so well.
When he returned to the radio, his voice sounded hoarse. But his vigor gradually seemed to return. When he fainted last November, during the City Hall unveiling of his portrait (“It’s not the first time I’ve been framed,” he joked), I thought this was it. He was, poetically, going to die in the building his spirit still inhabits.
But an hour after being taken from City Hall in an ambulance, Cianci was at the celebratory dinner, talking up the firefighters who had taken care of him and who, he liked needling City Hall, weren’t being treated fairly by the current mayor.
Recently, Cianci revealed his engagement to an attractive, blonde 30-something model to whom he had proposed on Christmas Day. He would have been 75 this April.
On Tuesday, Cianci was talking on the phone with someone I know. As they were getting off the phone, the man congratulated Buddy on his upcoming nuptials.
“I could marry her,” he said, “or adopt her.”
Same old Buddy.
Then came the stunning news Thursday morning that Cianci was dead. I discovered that he’d been taken to Miriam Hospital on Wednesday night, around the same time I was driving by the hospital, giving my son a ride home.
Not far away, the legendary horror writer H.P. Lovecraft is buried at the Swan Point Cemetery. The inscription on his tombstone seems a fitting epitaph for Buddy.
I AM PROVIDENCE.
Buddy Cianci coverage from the Globe archives
Mike Stanton is the author of “The Prince of Providence,” an authorized biography of Buddy Cianci, and now a professor at the University of Connecticut.