Fanelli Café, at the corner of Prince and Mercer Streets, in SoHo, is said to be the second-oldest continuously operating drinking establishment in New York City. The original building, erected in 1847, housed a grocery store where customers could drink liquor and beer and perhaps gain access to the bordello in back. After a new building went up, in 1853, the ground floor was described as a saloon. Michael Fanelli bought the place in 1922 and operated it as a speakeasy during Prohibition; his name remained on the neon marquee even after his family sold it, thirty years ago, to a Romanian named Hans Noe, who passed it on to his son, Sasha. In recent decades, Fanelli’s, as it is usually called, has been a tin-ceiling beer-and-burger stalwart in a neighborhood whose oft-lamented transformation from factory district to art hub to Euro-mall is perhaps best epitomized by the Prada store across the street. The Prada sales staff often drink at Fanelli’s after work.
In 1990, Hans Noe hired Bob Bozic, a former heavyweight boxer and bookmaker, to tend bar. Bozic chattered too much and antagonized some of the other employees, but his numbers, as measured by the cash register, were strong, so Noe kept him around. Twenty-two years later, he’s still there.
On a recent afternoon, a young woman came in with a few paperbacks, sat down at the end of the bar, and ordered a veggie burger and a glass of water. She had long dark hair and dark eyebrows and a half smile. She began reading one of the paperbacks. Bozic went over and peered at the back of it. “The Pearl,” John Steinbeck.
“Where you from?” he asked her.
“Up the street.”
“ ‘Up the street.’ I mean originally.”
“Queens. But originally I’m Greek.”
“Greece! I knew you had to be from somewhere, since you still read. Where from, Thessaloniki?”
“Corfu. Are you from somewhere?”
“I’m Serbian,” Bozic said.
He asked what she did, and she said she was a bankruptcy attorney. “So you’re a lawyer,” he said. “O.K. What did your dad do?”
“He had a Greek diner. His name is Spiro.”
“Spiro! How many daughters does he have?”
“Three kids—two daughters.”
“Spiro must really love his daughters,” Bozic said. “I met Irene Papas once. It was one of the great experiences of my life. Bring your dad here and we’ll moon together over Irene Papas.”
Bozic has spent a great deal of his life telling the story of his life. He never tells it start to finish. He drops in on various episodes, like a man watering his plants. The chronology is slippery. To have a sense of the whole, you have to have passed a lot of time in his company, as a friend, a lover, and /or a patron. To know Bozic is to rehear his stories. A few years ago, he admitted to his ex-wife that he feared he might be a little self-absorbed, and she replied, “It’s more like you’re self-fascinated.” A boxing columnist wrote of him in 1969, “He seemed delighted to get what he said written down.”
Bozic isn’t the first boxer or barkeep to talk a lot; everyone’s got a story, pal. But his, hopping from Belgrade to Afghanistan, from memories of a vagrant stretch on the streets of Toronto to a bout against Larry Holmes at Madison Square Garden and a possible claim on a Serbian spa and a coal mine in Kosovo, tests the confines of the form. He tells his tales without bravado or bombast. He often punctuates them with a shrug, as if they were nothing to him.
Bozic, who is sixty-one, is a stocky six feet two, with bearish arms and shoulders and the belly of a man who likes a beer at lunch. He shaves clean what hair there’d still be over his ears; he’s got a melon. His features manage to seem both doughy and sharp—with his arched eyebrows and his piercing eyes, he looks a little like Lenin after a back-alley beating. He speaks in the sinusy muffle of an old prizefighter and has a bulldog laugh, all grunts and snorts. He often taps your arm or shoulder when he’s telling a story, to make sure you’re listening. He tears up easily, thinking about all that he has been through and the people who have put up with him.
Bozic delights in surprising people. He almost wants to be mistaken for a lunk, so that he can prove otherwise. He courts underestimation and the opportunities it furnishes for theatrical correction. It’s like a desire for vengeance—Charles Bronson wandering mug alley with a loaded gun. Bozic never graduated from high school, but in his teens he became an avid reader—fiction, poetry, history, foreign policy. He works just four shifts a week—Thursday through Sunday—which leaves him dozens of hours for books and periodicals. He lives in the Windsor Terrace section of Brooklyn, on the second floor of a walkup, and reads in a leather easy chair in his bedroom. He keeps old issues of Foreign Affairs, The New York Review of Books, and National Geographic in chronological order. The day I visited, the books on deck were “Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong,” by Marc Hauser, and “Justice for Hedgehogs,” by Ronald Dworkin. His thirst for knowledge nearly matches his hunger to show it off. He has an acute memory and is ever poised to demonstrate his familiarity with Dickens and Dickinson, his proficiency in Mandarin, and his enthusiasm for opera and ballet. He has stockpiled the kind of geographical arcana that can ingratiate a man with strangers.
Twenty-two years of this, at Fanelli’s, has turned him into a destination bartender. The bar is brightly lit, and he paces behind it like a man onstage. Now and then, he shushes the bar and asks whether patrons, in exchange for a free drink, can name the seven dwarfs, the nine Supreme Court Justices, or the leader of Hezbollah. A perennial poser is “Who was Pip’s girlfriend in ‘Great Expectations’?,” which can get an entire bar muttering about Miss Havisham. He talks about his exes a lot, and when he starts in about the one he refers to as Stella (she said, upon meeting him, “Wow, a real-life Stanley Kowalski”) you may wonder to what extent he thinks he’s Pip.
For some people, all this is a reason to stop in often. For others, it’s a reason to stay away. He’s not necessarily very good at mixing drinks; he won’t make, as he says, “anything that takes labor.” He has a tendency to harass certain patrons if they don’t say “please” or if they ask him, “What’s your best tequila?” When the noise gets to him, he lowers his trousers, to quiet the room. (He does not wear women’s undergarments, in spite of what his Wikipedia entry says; that was added by a friend last year, as a joke.) Bozic occasionally makes women cry. (And when he does he tells them to go to his favorite bookstore in the Village and pick up a paperback, his treat—“Red Cavalry and Other Stories,” by Isaac Babel, or “The Bridge on the Drina,” by Ivo Andric.) But he runs a good saloon. If there’s trouble, he defuses it, without having to ball up his fists. He cuts off the drunks, keeps spare umbrellas on hand for sudden squalls, shuffles customers around to make space for someone’s mom, and, like any barman with a following, dispenses a lot of free drinks.
On the wall across from the bar, there’s a framed photograph of a black boxer slugging a white boxer, his silvery trunks pulled up high. The black guy is Larry Holmes, and the white guy is Bozic. The year is 1973. The picture is a kind of portal. People at the bar ask about it, and Bozic tells them what it feels like to fight a boxer like Holmes—“It’s like getting hit by baseball bats while running through a thunderstorm”—or he takes them even further back.
Bozic, at sixteen, living hand-to-mouth on the streets of Toronto. He had dropped out of high school and run away from home. Home, in that stretch of a peripatetic childhood, was an older cousin’s small farm outside Toronto. Bozic was rough and full of fury, and his cousin and her husband thought about committing him to a psychiatric hospital for teen-agers. Before they could do that, he split, spending his nights sleeping in laundromats or parked cars, and his days bumping around the Cabbagetown neighborhood, shoplifting baloney and checking pay phones for change.
One day, a month or so later, he was sitting on a curb eating an apple and a bag of chips when a middle-aged man walked up and said, “You look hungry.” The man gestured for Bozic to follow him. They wound up at a Greek place called Ciro’s. He got Bozic a seat at the counter and said, “Kid, have anything you want.” Bozic ordered a roast-beef sandwich, a milkshake, and two slices of blueberry pie. The man told him, “I’m here every day between eleven and twelve-thirty. Come as often as you like.”
“And so what happens is,” Bozic told me, “every day I went there, because it was a place to eat. Every day for six weeks, I ate the same thing. Why? Because if he’s not squawking I’m not squawking. That was my meal for the day.”
The man was Bertie Mignacco, a local heavy who ran a bookmaking operation out of the back of Ciro’s, and owned a boxing gym called the Lansdowne Athletic Club, in the city’s run-down West End. One day, he took Bozic there. At the front of the gym, training in the ring, were the boxers, among them the Canadian heavyweight champion George Chuvalo, who earlier that year had gone the distance in a championship bout with Muhammad Ali. At the back of the gym, half a dozen gangsters sat around a table playing cards. They had names like Oochie, Dukey, Squeaker, the Weeper, and Carfare (so called because his father once sold a tourist a parked Toronto streetcar). Bozic started hanging around. Dick Beddoes, the sports columnist for the Globe & Mail, described Mignacco as a one-man rehabilitation society “for ex-cons needing a stake, a caretaker of roustabout kids.” But he had his limits. “I’m not raising a kid,” Mignacco told Bozic. “Get a job or go back to school. Find a family to live with. And every day you gotta come to this gym.”
A family took him in, and he started doing errands for Mignacco and his crew, mainly as a courier, running cash from here to there. “Here,” Dukey might say, handing him a stack beneath the table. “Take two thousand bucks to the Hat.” Sometimes they slipped a few extra twenties into the stack, to test him; he always returned the extra money, and they’d let him keep it. Over time, he became a collector of gambling debts. He favored a gentle approach, finesse over fisticuffs—at least, this is how he remembers it. Sometimes he went to the racetrack on Mignacco’s behalf; he was “Bertie’s kid.” Everywhere he went, he got things gratis: free haircuts, free meals, free clothes.
Bozic also started training at the Lansdowne, under the tutelage of a retired welterweight named Bev Carter. After a few months, Bev and Bertie put him in the ring to spar with a twenty-three-year-old, and Bozic, after absorbing a barrage, started hitting back. The gangsters, without looking up from their game, took note: the kid will fight. They scheduled him on the undercards of some of their Monday-night smokers. Mignacco told him, “Every few months, you get in the ring and you gotta knock the guy out.” Bozic did, and began to make a name for himself. “Bertie said to me that if I hadn’t got into boxing I would’ve killed someone within a year. I was ready to snap.”
One night when he was seventeen, he was at a smoker, scheduled to fight a nobody early. The main event featured a giant named Paul Pappas, a protégé of Chuvalo’s, whose opponent had got stuck in a snowstorm. The Lansdowne was full of restless spectators, and the promoter was in a panic. “Bob will fight Paul,” Mignacco said with a shrug. Bob wasn’t sure. Pappas outweighed him by seventy pounds. Bev Carter, alone with Bozic in the dressing room, said nothing, and just kept shaking his head.
For most of the first round, Pappas pounded Bozic post to post. Bozic was cut over one eye, and bleeding, and he could sense, in the silence of the crowd, a kind of embarrassment, which he started to feel himself, as though he were letting his family down. After the first round, as he sat in his corner, dazed and bloodied, he caught sight of Mignacco, sitting off to the side of the crowd, eating peanuts and tossing the shells to the floor. Mignacco was still there after the second round, shells piling up around his feet—a ringside Madame Defarge. The referee came over and said that he was going to stop the fight. Bozic pleaded with him. “I just want to hit him once,” he said.
Out in the ring in the third round, Bozic saw Pappas’s face float unguarded into range. Bozic swung. A right. Pappas lurched over backward and bounced off the canvas. The crowd let out a roar. Pappas got up, and Bozic began to beat him around and, in the fourth, hounded him until he had Pappas through the ropes, sprawled on the apron. A crowd of spectators stormed the ring and lifted Bozic up in triumph.
Years later, after he’d won the Canadian national amateur heavyweight championship and fought in dozens of professional bouts, the Pappas bout was the fight he remembered best. Garbagemen and Hells Angels would stop him on the street in Toronto to let him know that they’d been there. Bozic likes to end the story by repeating what Mignacco told him after the fight: “Now we know who you are.”
Occasionally, Bozic calls himself Branko, to lay claim to his patrimony. He’ll say that “Branko” is Serbian for “Bob,” but it translates, roughly, as “glorious defender,” so it suits him in a way that Robert (“bright fame”) may not. “Bozic” is Serbian for “Christmas.”
Bozic’s father, who was born in 1886, was a Serbian engineer named Dobrivoje Bozic, who studied in Germany with Rudolf Diesel and Albert Einstein, and knew Nikola Tesla. In the nineteen-twenties, as an employee of the Department of Traffic, he invented and secured a patent on an air-brake system for freight and passenger trains, which enabled locomotives to travel at higher speeds. The Bozic brake, over time, was adopted, or copied, by many, if not most, of the railways of Europe, and Dobrivoje Bozic, who’d sold his design to Skoda Works, the Czech industrial conglomerate and arms manufacturer, became a prominent and wealthy man. He and his wife, Radmila Plecevic, the daughter of a school friend, travelled all over Europe. He had an Italian yacht, which he kept at a yacht club in Dubrovnik, and owned a pair of rental-apartment complexes in Belgrade, as well as a resort town and spa, a timber farm near Pec, and a coal mine in Kosovo. In 1939, he moved into a palatial villa on what is now called Krunska Street, the Fifth Avenue of Belgrade, where he and Radmila and their two children, a son named Dragan and a daughter, Vesna, lived in style, with a cook, a driver, a nanny, and a maid.
After the Second World War broke out, German officers took over the house, the Bozics living uneasily among them. (This, anyway, is what Bozic says his mother told him. Dragan Bozic, who was a boy at the time and is a former steel executive living in Pennsylvania, says his father built a set of double walls and hid inside them whenever the Germans, hoping to conscript him in their effort to develop rockets, came looking for him.) In 1943, Vesna, aged five, died from complications of appendicitis. Family lore has it that she couldn’t get the medicine she needed, because the Germans had hoarded it for themselves. Her father, by all accounts, was devastated.
When the war was over, and Tito and the partisans came to power, Bozic tried to leave the country, now Yugoslavia. He was arrested, and accused of coöperating with the Germans and assisting in the design of the V-2 rocket. He managed to get out of prison—with help, according to one Serbian historian, from the Russians—and, fearing that he’d be executed, he escaped one night in a small outboard skiff, with his wife and son. The engine died, and they jury-rigged sails out of oars and bedsheets and let the wind carry them to Italy. They went from Bari to Rome, and then lived in Monte Carlo, before leaving Europe for Windsor, Ontario, where there was a burgeoning Serbian community. Bozic corresponded with the Pentagon in an attempt to get the Americans interested in a design he had for a jet engine. The family had brought little with them, and everything they left behind in Yugoslavia had been confiscated by the Communists.
In 1950, Radmila gave birth to a boy, who was named Robert. Within days, Dobrivoje, by then sixty-four years old, left the family, for reasons that remain unclear. Some of his surviving relatives speculate that he blamed his wife for Vesna’s death, and the marriage had disintegrated. Or that he’d wanted a daughter. Radmila, alone and broke, working as a cook in the hotel where she and Dragan lived in a single room, gave the infant up to a foster family.
Bob Bozic was reared by Jack and Grace Leopold, in Windsor. Jack Leopold had been badly wounded at Dieppe, and they lived off his disability payments. Every Sunday, Bob’s mother came by and took him out for dinner or a movie. Sometimes she tried to hold him, but Bozic just thought of her as a strange lady who couldn’t really speak English. When he was five or so, she took him to a family gathering, and an elderly man with a mustache befriended him and taught him how to tie his shoes and count to ten in Serbian. He found out later that the man was his father. He never saw him again. In 1959, Dobrivoje Bozic moved back to Yugoslavia, and he lived there until his death, in 1967.
When Bob Bozic was nine, his mother took him to live with her and her elder son in Kingston, Ontario, where she’d got a job as a chef at a resort. Around the house, she and Dragan, called Denny, spoke Serbian, which Bob couldn’t understand. He was miserable. He remembers shooting fireworks at her, indoors. “Here was a lady accustomed to having a maid and a chef and a driver and a nanny, and now she had to work in a kitchen thirteen hours a day,” Bozic told me. “She had a hard time adjusting. She lived and acted as though she was Elizabeth Taylor.”
When he was fourteen, he ran away and spent a couple of days on the streets of Toronto. Eventually, he was taken in by his mother’s sister Ljuba, who lived in a suburb of Toronto, and then by Ljuba’s daughter, his cousin Miriam. Ljuba’s husband, Michael, a Serbian Jew who had been captured by the Nazis while serving as an officer with Tito’s partisans, had survived the death camps and, after the war, emigrated, with Ljuba, to Israel and, soon afterward, Canada. Uncle Mike was Bozic’s most enduring mentor. “You wouldn’t believe what can happen,” Mike warned him. “You wouldn’t believe what people can do.”
Bozic at sixty-one, shadowboxing in front of a floor-to-ceiling mirror at the Church Street Boxing Gym, in lower Manhattan, on a recent weekday morning. He jabbed at his reflection, exhaling sharply, like an air brake. He had me hold the heavy bag for a while as he pounded it. I pressed my head into the bag, to absorb the blows. “This is when you feel who you are,” he said.
By the time Bozic won the Canadian national amateur heavyweight championship, in 1969, he had an amateur record of 23–1. When he turned pro, his first prizefight earned him sixty-five dollars and a column in the Globe & Mail: “He is bright and he has a Grade 12 education and one hopes he knows the brain is a queer organ. It is not improved by the fight racket.” Nor is one’s array of friends and associates. As Bozic’s earning power increased, Mignacco forfeited the management of his career to bigger hoodlums. At one point, Bozic was handled by associates of Johnny Papalia, a Mafia capo in Hamilton, Ontario, and then, when Bozic moved to New York, by Jimmy Napoli, a Genovese kingpin, who’d been indicted in 1969 for fixing boxing bouts.
For a time, Bozic was a protégé and sparring partner of Chuvalo’s, as Chuvalo fought the biggest heavyweights. Of the nine times Bozic had his nose broken in the ring, he reckons five were at the hand of Chuvalo. He looked a lot like Chuvalo, and was briefly touted as his possible successor. Bozic made his Madison Square Garden début in 1970 (he fought there five times), on the night Chuvalo was battered brutally by George Foreman, as his wife yelled from ringside, “Stop it! Oh, please stop it!” Bozic told a columnist in Toronto, “Everything is great about fighting but the fighting.”
In 1973, Bozic had just one loss to his name, and was selected to be the next hurdle in the rise to prominence of Larry Holmes. Holmes was a sparring partner of Muhammad Ali’s, but in a few years he became world champion. He and Bozic fought at Madison Square Garden. No one gave Bozic much of a chance; at the weigh-in, he overheard Duke Stefano, the matchmaker, assure Don King, the promoter, that Bozic wouldn’t give Holmes any trouble. Holmes was already known for his jab. Bozic, at the outset, thought he’d test it: “You know how a batter takes the first pitch? Well, I took the first punch. Eight seconds in. It broke my nose. I thought, This is another level. This is gonna be quite an evening.” Two rounds later, a right knocked out several of Bozic’s teeth. Holmes beat him badly, but Bozic stayed upright and went the distance: “There is something almost cleansing about getting a whooping in front of a big crowd and yet not giving in. Just give in to your master, walk right into that buzz saw.”
His third loss, a technical knockout four years later, was his last fight. (Bozic says that he threw it, to get out from under odious management and to insure that he would never be asked to fight again.) According to BoxRec, a boxing Web site, his career record was fourteen wins, three losses, with seven knockouts. He never earned a purse of more than three thousand dollars. “He was a toe-to-toe guy, know what I mean?” Chuvalo told me. “A tough kid, a hardnose kid, not a stick-and-move kind of guy. He could’ve been something in the fight game if he’d devoted himself a bit more. He got caught up with the guys who ran the gym, with all those rounders.”
The morning after he lost to Holmes, Bozic took a cab to Kennedy Airport, looked at the roster of departing flights, and bought a ticket to Madrid. He wound up on the island of Ibiza, where he spent three months eating, reading, and living with a Spanish woman twice his age. For the next several years, he returned to North America every few months to train for a fight, fought, and then retreated to some exotic corner of the world.
“One senior and one undead.”
In 1976, he was living on the Greek island of Ios with a Swedish writer who suggested that he go to Turkey and meet an acquaintance of hers, who might be able to offer him work. In Istanbul, he followed her vague directions to a wooden doorway across from a coffee shop and presented a note, written by the Swede, to the man who answered. He instructed Bozic to return in two days, at dawn. When Bozic arrived, he was ushered into a back alley, where half a dozen trucks were lined up. A man threw him a set of keys. Bozic, as far as he could tell, was the only Westerner among the drivers. He and the others drove east for three days, straight through the nights, to Tehran. They left behind a few trucks and then continued on to Afghanistan. While Bozic and some of the others were resting in an Afghan village, a boy ran up and said, “You have to go! Others have been arrested.” Bozic slipped out of town hidden in the back of a donkey cart and made his way across the border to Iran.
One of the pleasures of Bozic is the way his stories often strain credibility but then check out. His Tintin interlude, however, is a hard one to corroborate. He told me, as he has told others over the years, that the trucks were loaded with sewing machines and auto parts. When I asked what he was really up to, he flashed an impish grin and said, “There were corollary things,” but waved away any talk of opium, arms, or pallets of cash. (He also spent time in Nicaragua, delivering medical supplies to the Sandinistas.) Still, he believes that whatever it was he was up to, in these nettlesome neighborhoods, in those nettlesome times, may have helped minimize the consequences of a later misadventure in New York.
One day, I asked Bozic if he’d ever got in trouble with the law. He laughed and told me a story about hitchhiking from Toronto to the Jersey Shore, in 1967, and getting arrested in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, for trying to break into a newspaper box. Later, though, he admitted, “I robbed banks.” A moment later, he said that he’d robbed a bank, or at least he’d been caught robbing only one bank.
One afternoon in March, 1980, he walked into a branch of Manufacturers Hanover on Madison Avenue and announced to a sales officer that unseen men had guns aimed at the bank’s tellers. He opened his coat to show that he wasn’t armed, but he also said, “You don’t want to know what I’ve got.” He asked for sixty thousand dollars. He had the sales officer and the manager take him downstairs to the vault. He had brought along something to compensate them for their time and mental anguish. Into the sales officer’s shirt pocket he tucked a pair of tickets to see a revival, at the Palace Theatre, of “Oklahoma!” The police arrived, and once they’d determined that his only weapon was theatre tickets they arrested him without a struggle. At the trial, the judge expressed some bemusement over his choice of arms. Pleading guilty to a reduced charge—attempted robbery in the third degree—Bozic explained that he’d been depressed and broke; he told friends that he was despondent over having to go to the opera alone. Whatever the case, he received a curiously lenient sentence of probation. (“I was terrified,” the sales officer, now retired and living in Brooklyn, told me. “Is he out of jail?”)
Bozic’s lawyer suggested he get a job, to please the judge. He hired on as a bouncer at Snafu, a rock club popular with transvestites. One day, at Snafu, he answered the phone and found himself in conversation with a woman looking for a place to throw a benefit party for a group called U.S. Out of Central America. Bozic, typically, harangued her about her knowledge of Nicaragua, and before long they found themselves on a date at the White Horse Tavern. Her name was Alex McNear. She was a well-to-do Wasp from Chicago. That night, he told her his life story, including the bit about the bank, and for some reason she began to fall in love with him.
Bozic tends to keep in touch with his old girlfriends. (“Do I have a choice?” one of them told me.) He drops their names in conversation as though their quirks and charms were universally known. They tend to be Wasps (“Bob is fascinated and appalled by Wasps,” McNear told me) with sharp tongues and broad minds. “Their strategy was to separate themselves from their families by going out with me,” Bozic said.
Bozic and McNear, to the dismay of her family, were married in 1987. The marriage lasted seven years. In 1991, they had a daughter, whom they named Vesna, after the sister Bozic never knew, and who, in no time, became his guiding obsession and the impetus for some measure of stability.
After the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, in 2000, Serbia—ravaged by war and infested with corruption—began trying to integrate itself with the rest of Europe. In order to be considered for membership in the European Union, Serbia would have to adopt a law, in line with the rest of Europe, for the restitution of property seized by the Communists at the end of the Second World War. The E.U. would not consider Serbia’s application unless it found a way to resolve the thousands of potential claims to property that had been confiscated by the state when Tito and the partisans came to power.
In 2007, Bozic and his brother, Denny, filed a claim to their father’s old property. As far as they know, no one has stepped forward to dispute it. The jewel, though perhaps not in monetary terms, is the villa on Krunska Street. After the war, the state gave the house to the municipal government. For a time, it served as the Canadian Embassy and later as the Iraqi Embassy. In the late nineties, it became the headquarters of the nascent Democratic Party, which led the coalition that, in 2000, finally defeated Milosevic and still runs the government. In a sense, the Bozic villa is the seat of power in Belgrade.
In 2003, Bob Bozic took Vesna with him to Serbia, to see some relatives, who, when he visited earlier, had been shocked to learn that he even existed. One day, he and Vesna dropped in at the villa. With a cousin translating, they presented their passports and explained to the guards in the vestibule their reasons for wanting to see the house. Within minutes, an aide greeted them and ushered them inside for a tour. “They knew who we were, and they knew we were in Belgrade, that was pretty clear,” Bozic told me. There was a lot of carved-wood panelling and a huge curving double staircase. The house had four stories—including a subterranean floor that until recently housed a gourmet restaurant—and, Bozic estimates, twenty rooms. As Bozic and his daughter wandered about, they saw that workers were preparing the library for a press conference, and so they hung around, Bozic jokingly scolding the workers for dragging tables and chairs along the wood floor. “Watch out! That’s my floor!” After a moment, as Bozic recalls, President Boris Tadic appeared, and Bozic stepped forward to introduce himself.
“I hear this is your house,” Tadic said to him. “You don’t speak Serbian. That’s a shame.”
They posed together for some photographs, and Bozic kidded Tadic: “When we get the house, anytime you need a place to crash . . .”
In September, the restitution law, years in the making, passed the Serbian parliament. The law says, broadly, that people who owned property in Serbia before 1945—and who didn’t fight on the side of the Fascists—have a right to that property, if they can establish that it belonged to them, or to their direct ancestors. Some claimants may wind up with full ownership. If the property is an essential government building or hospital, claimants will receive cash and Serbian bonds, denominated in euros, equal to the market value of the property. No payout on a single property will exceed five hundred thousand euros.
“The idea is not to re-create millionaires, seventy years later,” Bozidar Djelic, the former deputy prime minister for European integration, told me. “It is to repair injustice.”
Djelic had no view of or statement on the specifics of the Bozics’ claim. “If inheritors have legal claim, the property will be given back, even if my party is there,” he said. A party’s headquarters is not considered an essential government building. He knows the house well. “It is dear to all Democrats. It is where the uprising against Milosevic was organized.”
Bozic likes to fantasize about what he might do with the proceeds from selling the house. He has joked with his ex-wife that he’d collect all the people who feature in his stories, and they’d all go to Skadarlija, Belgrade’s bohemian quarter. “And everybody gets a bag of money, the amount according to how much aggravation I’ve caused them,” he said. He also talks about setting up a foundation to enable Serbian students to study abroad. Most of all, he’d like to leave something to his daughter, Vesna. He has never really owned anything.
The day after the restitution law passed the Serbian parliament, Bozic received a phone message from someone who had talked to a lawyer in Belgrade. Bozic listened and smiled, then played the message for me. The caller wasn’t sure about the specifics, but there was cause for optimism. Still, he said, “you’d better not quit your day job.”
For a touch of old Europe, Bozic likes to take Vesna to high tea in the Pembroke Room, at the Lowell Hotel, on East Sixty-third Street. I met them there one afternoon. Vesna, who is twenty, is slim and fine-featured, with a dark complexion and an air of self-possession that is manifested best, perhaps, in the way she betrays no embarrassment at her father’s persistent hijacking of strangers. She had on a shooting sweater with leather patches on both elbows and one shoulder. Bozic, dressed in khakis and a striped dress shirt, solicited memories from the waiter of his previous visit. He tried to get Vesna, who grew up with her mother and stepfather, a psychiatrist, on the east end of Long Island, to tell stories about her mother’s family. “Daddy, I don’t tell stories well,” she said. “You tell them.”
Vesna said she was taking a writing class at the New School. Her most recent assignment was to write a short memoir, and she was worried that she had no story to tell. Many of her classmates were immigrants, decades older, who had endured horrors in faraway places. “And I’m just a girl who grew up in the Hamptons,” she said.
Weeks later, I saw Bozic and asked him what Vesna had wound up writing about. He said she’d described their trip to Serbia together, eight years earlier. Vesna sent me a copy. She had recounted a visit they made with Bozic’s cousin to the Belgrade railway museum, where there was an exhibit of materials devoted to Dobrivoje Bozic. The curator and guide had done extensive research on him, but, like many of the Bozic relatives in Belgrade, she had never heard of a son named Bob, or Branko. “I felt a shudder when the tour guide said there was no mention of my father’s existence,” Vesna wrote in her essay. “My father was not in the papers or the exhibit, and my cousin began to cry.”
Her essay continued, “So, the story goes that my aunt, Vesna, was the angel of the family. With dark ringlets and white dresses sliding down the banister. In an explosion one day a large bookcase fell over and crushed her. . . . My grandfather was so distraught he told my grandmother if she couldn’t produce another daughter to replace Vesna he would leave her. Once they moved to Canada she had my father, a sickly baby boy. My grandmother put my father up for adoption, and my grandfather rinsed his hands of the family and neglected to acknowledge my father’s birth. . . . Since that trip my father has been trying to get back my grandfather’s mansion that was stolen many years ago by the ruling party of Serbia. He has said that it is so he can leave me a legacy, but I wonder if it is so he can walk through the halls with the ghosts of his parents that never truly opened the doors to him before death.” Vesna had decided not to show her essay to her father, for fear of upsetting him. She also isn’t sure where she heard about the bookcase. ♦