Brow Beat

Did Jimmy Hoffa Really Love Ice Cream As Much As The Irishman Would Have Us Believe?

Illustration of Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa thinking about an ice cream sundae.
Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa sure likes ice cream.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Netflix and pamela_d_mcadams/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

This post contains spoilers for The Irishman.

The Irishman is primarily the story of a man named Frank Sheeran, his relationship with the mob, and the circumstances that led him to kill his former friend and labor leader Jimmy Hoffa. But intentionally or not, the movie is also about a love affair: the one between Hoffa and ice cream sundaes.

Fiery, foul-mouthed Hoffa, played by Al Pacino, is rarely without a spoon in his hand in The Irishman. Early on, he bonds with Sheeran’s daughter Peggy over a couple of sundaes. Later, he eats more ice cream in prison, as prepared for him by another inmate, because even in the hole this man gets what he wants. (He praises it as “a work of art” as it’s served to him.) After he’s released, Hoffa appears in another scene too engrossed in his favorite dessert to pay much attention to Sheeran’s warnings that the mob is unhappy with his behavior. That’s three times that Pacino’s character eats ice cream in the 3½-hour film, nearly one serving per hour.

A Slate cover story published earlier this year raised serious questions about the veracity of I Heard You Paint Houses, the book The Irishman is based on. But that report focused on some of the more unsavory subjects in Charles Brandt’s book, i.e., the murders Sheeran claimed to have carried out. The movie now raises a less fatal but equally thorny question: Did Jimmy Hoffa actually love ice cream as much as The Irishman would have us believe?

Despite its dubious trustworthiness as a source, the obvious first place to look for information on Hoffa’s dessert preferences was I Heard You Paint Houses. Ice cream indeed rates several mentions in the book. Here, it comes up in a passage about Hoffa’s time in prison, during which Sheeran supposedly visited him:

For $3 you could join the inmates for lunch. Wednesday lunch was spaghetti and meatballs. Jimmy loved spaghetti and meatballs. I would give Jimmy my meatballs for a treat. Jimmy loved ice cream, too.

This does not immediately read as fishy. After all, who doesn’t like ice cream? Forty-one percent of Americans claim it as their favorite dessert, according to a 2015 Yahoo Insights poll. And Sheeran was apparently primed to notice other people’s affinity for the frozen treat: Elsewhere in the book, he makes a somewhat less plausible claim: that he would go to the local ice cream parlor each night to pick the stuff up for his mother, who “ate a quart of ice cream every day.” But a casual mention like the one above doesn’t really tell us the extent of Hoffa’s ice cream obsession. He “loved” it, but did he love it so much that he needed to be shown eating it three times in a movie about his grisly death?

Searches for “ice cream” in two additional book-length Hoffa biographies—Jimmy Hoffa: The Controversial Life and Disappearance of the Godfather of the Teamsters and The Hoffa Wars: The Rise and Fall of Jimmy Hoffa—failed to yield any relevant results. If Hoffa was truly as enamored with ice cream as The Irishman suggests, you’d think that biographers would’ve mentioned it, especially since the detail dovetails with another key aspect of Hoffa’s life: that he was a teetotaler, something the movie demonstrates by having lackeys smuggle alcohol into a meeting by soaking a watermelon in vodka.

Unlike his possible affinity for sundaes, Hoffa’s abstinence is well-established in the historical record. A 1994 column in the St. Petersburg Times reports that Frank Ragano, a former mob lawyer who wrote a tell-all book, told the crowd at a bookstore signing, “Jimmy Hoffa was the cleanest man who ever lived. He never had a drink of liquor in his life. He never had coffee in his life. He didn’t smoke cigarettes. He didn’t womanize.” It goes on to add, “[Ragano] recalls a Saturday night in Chicago when Hoffa brought a group of high-living men to a soda shop for chocolate ice cream.”

Ice cream warrants a mention in other articles about Hoffa as well. (Incidentally, so do cupcakes—apparently in 2006, when authorities were searching for Hoffa’s body in Michigan, a local bakery started serving special “Jimmy Hoffa cupcakes” topped with chocolate made to look like dirt with a zombie hand sticking out of them.) In 1991, Hoffa’s daughter, Barbara Crancer, told the Chicago Tribune of her father, “He’d always take us to the movies, anything we wanted to see. We’d pack a bunch of kids in the car, friends and cousins, and Mom would stay home. We’d stop and get ice cream on the way back, at the Jim Dandy Dairy—it was a tradition.”

Both the Tribune and Times pieces indicate that Hoffa was in the habit of regularly taking both his family and his business associates out for ice cream, so it seems safe to reach the following verdict: He liked ice cream quite a bit. The bigger mystery, of course, is what became of Hoffa—the man disappeared in 1975 and his body was never found. In 2015, Chuck Goudie, a reporter who covered organized crime, wrote a column in which he notes that the Michigan restaurant where Hoffa was last seen was right across the parking lot from an ice cream shop called Sanders. There’s no evidence that ice cream had anything to do with Hoffa’s disappearance, but then again, there’s little evidence that Sheeran killed him either; by that logic, ice cream could have had everything to do with it. Was there a sprinkle-motivated feud, a grudge inspired by hot fudge? For now, it remains a cold case.