Paula Gianella says her brother betrayed her -- and the courts let him

On Dec. 30, 1994, Paul Gianella was tending bar, telling friends how healthy his doctor said he was, when the pain knifed into his chest. He arrived at Deaconess Hospital in full cardiac arrest and died shortly thereafter.

He'd left everything to his son, Frank Gianella, and his daughter, Paula Gianella, to be divided evenly between them. Very simple, very straightforward. Except that in Italian tradition, he'd made his firstborn son the executor. And, for a tangle of historical reasons, that made his daughter nervous.

As the machine of probate court ground into gear, spewing forth descriptions of the property to be divided, Paula's brain started racing. What had happened to the $200 in her dad's pockets (listed on the emergency-room forms), and the checks in the cash register, and the business bank account? Had anybody found the cash her dad used to squirrel away in old pieces of pipe in his tool room? How could Frank value the household possessions at zero when their dad had been such a packrat? Where, in the appraisal, was all the tavern's liquor?

Frank and Paula's dad, Paul Gianella (right), and his dad, Frank Gianella. Pictures of them are scarce; they spent more time photographing each new patron for the tavern scrapbook.
Frank Nazzoli
Frank and Paula's dad, Paul Gianella (right), and his dad, Frank Gianella. Pictures of them are scarce; they spent more time photographing each new patron for the tavern scrapbook.

Turned out Frank's name had been on the business account since his dad's knee surgery, so he'd simply taken that money. Perfectly legal. As for cash from Paul's pockets or his elbow pipes, it was unprovable -- and hardly enough to get the court roiled. But the liquor, that still existed. Paula told appraiser Norma Berry to go back and demand entrance to the storerooms Frank hadn't shown her.

What she saw there on her second visit, April 14, caused her to adjust her appraisal from $62 to $3,253. Later, asked in deposition why he hadn't opened those doors, Frank said it was a sentimental thing: "I was not very pleased with Miss Berry attaching dollar amounts to everything that I just held personal."

Next Paula asked about the Dachau pictures that used to hang in the tavern (their dad, a medical corpsman, was one of the camp's liberators) and the car insurance (Frank added himself and his wife to the policy without mentioning that his dad was dead, which meant the estate paid the bills). With each tiny omission or infraction, Paula waited eagerly for the court to scold her brother, punish him, remove him as executor. It never happened. She grew shrill, and found herself sanctioned for wasting the court's time. Dogged, she kept gathering evidence. But by the time she did have accusations more serious than whiskey-stealing, it was too late to get the court's attention.

Papa Prost's on Pattison Avenue was one of the oldest taverns licensed in St. Louis, passed down through the Gianella family from Paula and Frank's great- grandfather, who bought it in the early 1900s, to their grandfather Frank Gianella and then their father, Paul Gianella. The tavern's name was a cheerful immigrant joke: The grandfather once worked for a German tavern owner who used to say "Prost!" as "Cheers!"; everybody thought it was his name.

Papa Prost's wasn't a typical tavern; it was more like a second home for families living on the Hill. The Gianellas sold ice cream in back -- and during Prohibition they simply moved the cones up front and sold the whiskey in the back. On holidays, they served everybody a free dinner: rabbit stew on Valentine's Day, roast beef with all the trimmings on New Year's Eve. It was the kind of place people went to confide they'd fallen in love, or to play bocce in the backyard.

Frank's wife, Rose, gave birth to Paul, who turned out to be a gifted musician with a first-rate brain. He went to St. Louis University planning on medical school, but his parents needed him to take over the tavern instead. A loyal son, he complied -- and wound up even more popular than his dad. Musicians stayed late into the night playing jazz, with Gianella leading the way on his Yamaha organ (and ending with his signature song, "Mack the Knife.")

"He was our orchestra leader after World War II," recalls Gabe Biondolillo, a trumpet player who's now a priest at Our Lady of the Snows. "Paul was very gentle, always trying to accommodate each musician's style. He was a joy to be with. Took me out for lobster when I got ordained."

What about Paul's marriage, which eventually ended in divorce? "Oh, it was rocky," sighs Biondolillo, and instantly regrets the comment. But however rough the Gianellas' home life, the tavern stayed full of family spirit. Hoping to take it over himself, Frank (who declined to be interviewed for this story) quit his job with the Missouri Insurance Exchange and offered to buy both house and tavern for $84,000. Paula's refusal must have seemed pure spite. But she says all he offered was a promissory note, and her lawyer advised her not to accept. So Frank, as executor (or, to use the court's new language, personal representative) was charged with selling the property and splitting the proceeds.

When January 1996 rolled around and the property still hadn't been sold, Paula asked the court to compel the sale. Frank had waved aside the court's suggestion of a real-estate agent and placed ads himself, spending $159 with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But when Paula checked the actual ads, she found terse two-line announcements of open houses over the holidays. "Open Sun. Dec. 24, 10-2, 4969 Reber Place" was the entire text of one, "Open Mon. Dec. 25, 10-2, 5249 Pattison" the other. She says when she called the classified department, the woman remembered the guy who bought those ads, because she'd warned him no one would come on Christmas, but he'd insisted.

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