Gravesend, Brooklyn, August 22, 1972. Around 3 p.m. on a quiet afternoon, at the peak of the midday heat, three men armed with shotguns walked into a Chase Manhattan Bank on Avenue P. The armed robbery that transpired over the next 14 hours would go on to become the stuff of New York City legend — and inspire the Sidney Lumet–directed Dog Day Afternoon, one of the great films of the ’70s and one of Al Pacino’s most iconic roles.
But before becoming known as one of the infamous bank robbers that day, John Wojtowicz’s story began as most New York City stories do: humbly. The son of a Polish father and an Italian-American mother, Wojtowicz grew up in Brooklyn before serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Upon returning to New York from Vietnam in 1967, Wojtowicz married a young woman from Brooklyn, Carmen Bifulco. They had two children before separating in 1969, which is when his story starts to become interesting.
At the turn of the ’70s, Wojtowicz began spending time in the gay bars of Greenwich Village, in spots such as Danny’s, the Stonewall Inn, and all the classic gay haunts along Christopher Street. This was New York before AIDS, a time when the city’s gay community first began to flourish. During this period, he met and fell in love with the woman who would change the course of his life: Elizabeth Eden. The two met at the San Gennaro Festival in 1971, and a fast and furious romance ensued, with the pair holding a wedding ceremony within months.
A year later, Wojtowicz would rob the Chase Manhattan Bank in Gravesend. Clearly, all was not as it seemed. Because of the critical and commercial success of Dog Day Afternoon on its release in 1975, the world saw Wojtowicz’s bank robbery as a delicious scandal. Fourteen hours! Armed with shotguns! Taking hostages! But what was his motivation? How did he go from Vietnam vet to bank robber in just a few short years?
In an interview conducted while in prison some five and a half years after his arrest, Wojtowicz revealed that the bank robbery was motivated by his love for Eden. She, a transgender woman, needed funds for a gender confirmation surgery, and he, hopelessly in love, would do anything to get the cash for her.
Watching the interview footage today, it’s problematic by many standards — Wojtowicz misgenders Eden’s pronouns, calls her by her pre-transition birth name, and says that after a failed suicide attempt she was “put in the nuthouse.” This is a salt of the earth guy from Brooklyn in the ’70s, in the earliest days of the gay liberation movement. Getting pronouns right wasn’t even part of the collective consciousness at that point.
But if you listen to Wojtowicz, it’s clear that the bank robbery was motivated by the purest, most tragic of emotions: love. “I loved him, and he kept trying to kill himself because he wasn’t happy being a man,” says Wojtowicz. “I tried to get him the money for his birthday on the 19th and I didn’t have the money, so the next day he took an overdose and he died a clinical death, then they put him in the nuthouse on Monday. I saw him in the nuthouse on Monday, and then Tuesday I went to rob the bank.”
The interviewer asks Wojtowicz about what it is about Eden that he finds so compelling, and he admits that Carmen, his first (and at the time, still legal) wife, would always ask him that question. “I say, I don’t know, because if I knew why I loved him then maybe I could stop loving him,” says Wojtowicz. “It’s just him.”
So, by the time Wojtowicz entered the Chase Manhattan Bank in Gravesend on August 22, guns blazing, he was ready to risk it all for the woman he loved. But in a Shakespearean twist of fate, he soon discovered that the armored truck that picked up the branch’s cash each day had arrived earlier, and there was only a scant $38,000 on hand — a mere fraction of the windfall with which he had hoped to make off that day.
Now, with seven bank employees held hostage and the building surrounded by police, Wojtowicz was running out of options. He submitted a list of demands to the police, one of which was that his beloved Eden would be released from Kings County Hospital and brought into the bank in exchange for one of the hostages. The police brought Eden from the hospital, but did not allow her close enough to kiss Wojtowicz. His grand romantic plot was slipping through his fingers like a cigarette on Christopher Street. Wojtowicz ended up being arrested and serving five years in prison before slipping into obscurity. He eventually moved back into his mother’s home, ended up on welfare, and passed away from cancer in 2006 at the age of 60.
In a way, Wojtowicz is something of a tragic hero. He fought valiantly, although illegally, in the name of love, yet never got his happy ending. And despite all the buzz generated by Dog Day Afternoon, which went on to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, Wojtowicz would be slowly written out of history. But just as we can revisit his use of pronouns to refer to his transgender lover, and just as we can also think critically about the use of terms like “nuthouse,” we can also recast his 1972 bank robbery in a new light as well: that of gay liberation. At a time when LGBTQ people lived on the fringes of New York society, just three years after the infamous Stonewall riots when the police raided a West Village gay bar, Wojtowicz performed a radical act in the name of queer love. Looking back, he was, in a way, ahead of his time.
“I consider myself a romantic,” said Wojtowicz in The Dog, a 2014 documentary directed by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren that examined his life before, during, and after the robbery. “If I had a dream and in that dream I saw everything that happened, would I still go out and do it? You’re damn right I’d still go out and do it.”