TAMPA — Susan Rivera, whose stories about her late husband, Johnny “Scarface” Rivera, added depth to the history of the city’s bolita era of the mid-1900s, died Sept. 28 from complications of ovarian cancer. She was 66.
Rivera’s husband was associated with Tampa’s illegal gambling scene from the 1930s through the 1980s. Infamous figures he was linked to over the years included underworld leaders Charlie Wall and Santo Trafficante.
Rivera was his third and final wife, 40 years his junior. Although she was not married to him during his formative years in the numbers racket, he did pass along colorful stories to her, which she later retold to historians.
“I think she fell into that role,” said her daughter, Celia Zagula. “Because she was so much younger than my father and his friends, when everyone else passed away she was the last one around to spread their history.”
Among those with whom Rivera spoke about her husband in recent years was Scott Deitche, author of “Cigar City Mafia” and “The Silent Don.”
According to Deitche, “Scarface” Johnny worked as Wall’s bodyguard and later facilitated bribes to public officials for the city’s Sicilian Mafia.
“This was not news. It was pretty well documented. But his wife then added humanity to Johnny ‘Scarface’ and those he was associated with,” Deitche said. “She let people know what they were like as people. And some of the stories she shared about other aspects of that time were fantastic tidbits of information.”
She added a compassionate side to her husband’s life story through her accounts of him driving the streets of Tampa in search of friends who had too much to drink and were stumbling about the city, or of him crying years later when recalling friends murdered in gangland slayings.
She also was the first to educate Tampa on how her husband received the scar on his right cheek. It was long thought to be a result of an organized crime altercation. But Rivera gave a different version, of a child playing stickball in the street when a drunken stranger slashed his face with a broken beer bottle.
Of historic significance was a story she told that introduced the term “keyhole man” to the public. The keyhole man would sit outside the door of an illegal game of chance during the 1930s and ’40s, and if he saw law enforcement approaching, he would stick a wooden match into the keyhole as a signal to the watchman inside.
Her favorite tale was of the time her husband admitted to knowing who was behind the unsolved murder of Charlie Wall. Her husband was in his last days at the time. While Rivera was running errands, he called her mother to his bed so he could finally tell his best-kept secret. But, by the time Rivera returned, her mother had forgotten the name, and her husband refused to say it a second time.
Despite the gangland stories, Rivera’s daughter Zagula described her mother as a woman who belied the image of an underworld wife, an avid fisherman and gardener who worked at Tampa General Hospital for 46 years.
Seven months after she retired, Rivera was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She fought the disease for the next 21 months, until her death, Zagula said.
Along with Zagula, Rivera is survived by her mother Hilma (Langford) Harrison; granddaughter Karolina; and two sisters, Lucy Jordan and Nancy Wyatt. Services will be private.