Karen Friedman Hill And The Story That ‘Goodfellas’ Didn’t Tell

Published February 24, 2024
Updated March 28, 2024

From drugs to violence to betrayal, the real-life story of Karen Friedman Hill and her mobster husband Henry Hill was much darker than what "Goodfellas" depicted.

Karen Friedman Hill

On the Run: A Mafia ChildhoodKaren Friedman Hill and Henry Hill on their wedding day, an event later dramatized in the 1990 film Goodfellas.

In 1965, after Karen Friedman and Henry Hill — the notorious New York gangster whose life story was made famous by the book Wiseguy and subsequent film adaptation Goodfellas — had been dating for a few months, a neighbor of hers named Ted tried to force himself on her. She slapped him and he relented, angrily pushing her out of his car and driving away. Then she called Henry.

In a scene depicted with brutal accuracy in Goodfellas, Henry swiftly took revenge. Henry and Karen Hill’s daughter Gina later described her mother’s account of the aftermath of the Ted incident in the memoir On the Run: A Mafia Childhood:

“My mom called my dad and he picked her up and drove her home, but instead of going into the house with her, he went across the street. He saw Ted in the driveway, grabbed him by the hair, pulled a gun out of his pocket, and pistol-whipped him. Pistol-whipped him! Then my dad came trotting back across the street, all sweaty and red, and gave my mom the gun and told her to hide it. Most girls would have been terrified, but my mom said she thought it was sexy.”

Perhaps this was the turning point for a soon-to-be gangster’s wife who started out as a nice girl from Long Island but would eventually find herself knee-deep in the criminal underworld herself.

This is the real story of Karen Friedman Hill that Goodfellas didn’t tell.

Lorraine Bracco As Karen Hill In Goodfellas

Warner Bros.Lorraine Bracco as Karen Hill in Goodfellas.

How Karen Friedman Met Henry Hill

Born in 1946, Karen Friedman came from a Jewish family living in the Five Towns area of Long Island. Little has been made public about her young life up until the point when she met Henry Hill.

It was 1965 and she was working as a dental hygienist when she met Hill on a double date as depicted in Goodfellas. But unlike in the movie, Karen’s friend was seeing a gangster associate of Henry’s named Paul Vario Jr., the son of local crime boss Paul Vario, and not Tommy DeSimone, the inspiration for Joe Pesci’s character in the film.

Nevertheless, Henry Hill and Karen Friedman had their date and, true to the film, things didn’t go smoothly. They didn’t initially connect but did make plans for a second date — for which Henry stood her up. However, they started clicking and, following a number of lavish dates after the initial fiascos, the two became a couple.

Henry Hill

Wikimedia CommonsHenry Hill dreamed of becoming a gangster from a young age.

The pair eloped to North Carolina (where marriage requirements were less strict) in 1965 after having dated for just four months. Soon after, the couple held a Jewish wedding service in New York after Henry Hill converted to Judaism at the request of Karen Friedman’s parents (he later claimed that he never actually converted and only lied about doing so).

Karen Hill Falls Into Her Husband’s Criminal Ways

At the beginning of the marriage, Karen Friedman Hill was largely clueless about her husband’s illegal Mafia dealings with the Lucchese crime family. Based on lies he’d told her, she thought he was a bricklayer and low-level union official. The ostensibly normal couple then started building a normal life and had two children, Gregg and Gina, soon after marrying.

Karen eventually got wise to her husband’s criminal activities, but rather quickly managed to overcome any reservations she may have initially had. In fact, she confessed to Gina that the glitz and glamour of the gangster lifestyle were what attracted her to Henry. As Gina wrote in the On the Run: A Mafia Childhood, “One day she’s a dental assistant from a middle-class family on Long Island, and the next she’s sipping from a bottle of champagne that Sammy Davis Jr. sent to Dad’s table at the Copa.”

Wiseguy author Nicholas Pileggi spoke similarly of Karen Friedman Hill’s attraction to Henry:

“She tried to explain it to me. She said, ‘He could go places. He had money. He was an action guy. There I was, going out with little schmendricks. They were going to be accountants. If we were lucky, we’d go to Chinese food in the mall. With Henry, I would go to the Copa. And I would have a ringside table. And people always looked and me and thought, ‘Who is she?'”

Henry And Karen Hill In Goodfellas

Warner Bros.The courtship of Henry and Karen Hill as depicted in Goodfellas.

Karen Hill indeed accepted the perks of her husband’s dangerous lifestyle and relished the “brand-new Buick Riveras” in the driveway and the “closets bursting with new clothes.”

Meanwhile, she started using large amounts of the cocaine that Henry was both using and selling. According to Gregg and Gina, Henry and Karen Hill would have people over to their house for wild, cocaine-fueled parties during which partiers would have sex in plain sight, use Gina’s Miss Piggy mirror to do cocaine, and sometimes even offer the kids a snort.

But soon, Karen Friedman Hill’s party started to come to an end.

Things Begin To Unravel Dramatically For Henry And Karen Hill

Things took a turn for the worse when Henry was sentenced to ten years in prison for extortion in 1974, leaving Karen Friedman Hill to fend for herself with no help from Henry’s gangster associates. She later recalled, “I’ve read about how these guys take care of each other when they’re in jail, but I’ve never seen it in life. If they don’t have to help you, they won’t.”

What’s more, Karen quickly came to realize that there were even worse things than being ignored by her husband’s underworld associates. While Henry was in jail, Tommy DeSimone reportedly beat up and attempted to rape Karen, according to Henry’s memoir Gangsters and Goodfellas. Henry gave few details about the allegation and states that he didn’t find out about it until long after the fact.

Karen Friedman Hill And Family

MirrorKaren Friedman Hill, Henry Hill, and their children. Date unspecified.

Meanwhile, however, Karen Friedman Hill was actually having an affair with Paul Vario while Henry was in prison. And Vario did not take kindly to DeSimone’s attempted rape. This, along with several other unauthorized murders carried out by DeSimone as well as fallout from the Lufthansa heist, caused Vario to have him killed in 1979.

The following year, authorities busted Henry for drug trafficking. Karen’s own role in this operation remains debatable, but as the film depicts, she did indeed help Henry hide drugs from the police at the very least.

Regardless, in order to save his own skin, Henry then agreed to testify against his former associates and leave the life of organized crime behind.

Karen Friedman Hill’s Life On The Run To This Day

In order to protect Henry and Karen Hill as well as their children from the vengeance of the Mafia, the government placed all of them in the Witness Protection Program. The entire family received new identities and were shipped off to Omaha, Neb. As Gregg later recalled, “our lives as we’d known them officially ended. Gregg and Gina Hill had ceased to exist…We were sent far away, someplace we’d never been or even imagined…to start over with nothing but fake names and everything to hide.”

Karen Hill's Children Gregg And Gina

On the Run: A Mafia ChildhoodGregg and Gina Hill as Children

The move to Omaha was the beginning of a life on the run for Karen Friedman Hill. Due to the fact that either Henry’s old associates were close to tracking him down or that Henry had committed some sort of criminal act, authorities relocated the family several times throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, at which point they were finally expelled from the program thanks to Henry’s criminal indiscretions.

Karen Friedman Hill and Henry Hill separated in 1989 but weren’t officially divorced until 2002. In the meantime, both made separate lives for themselves outside of the Witness Protection Program and never did suffer retribution for Henry’s testimony.

Henry, who’d bounced around across the U.S. and ultimately landed in southern California, died of complications related to heart disease at the age of 69 in 2012. All the while, Karen has been living under an assumed name and the details of her current life are not public.

Just like her late ex-husband, Karen Friedman Hill must now live out her days in exile from the people, places, and lifestyle she once found so glamorous.

After reading about Karen Friedman Hill, discover the true stories of other real-life Goodfellas like Billy Batts and Jimmy Burke.

Gina Dimuro
A graduate of New York University, Gina Dimuro is a New York-based writer and translator.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.