The Chicago Syndicate: Frank Costello
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Showing posts with label Frank Costello. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Frank Costello. Show all posts

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Last Sit-Down

The Last Sit-Down is a limited edition mixed media canvas painting that is a stunning work of art romanticizing the Italian-American mafia's most glorious years in history. Thirteen of La Cosa Nostra's most notorious members transcend the different eras in which they lived and together feast in a setting fit for a Don. From left to right, Joe Bonanno, Sal Maranzano, Vito Genovese, Joe Masseria, Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano, Al Capone, John Gotti, Paul Castellano, Joseph Colombo, Carlo Gambino, Albert Anastasia, and Gaetano Lucchese await your arrival to "The Last Sit-Down".

The Last Sit Down

Friday, March 07, 2008

Mob Mentality at the Movies

The nearly concurrent DVD releases of Alberto Lattuada's "Mafioso - Criterion Collection, and Marco Turco's "Excellent Cadavers," from First Run, make for a discerningly complementary treatment of the Sicilian Mafia as an indestructible force of evil. Americans have adopted mobsters as cultural house pets — as urban outlaws, dapper rogues, or House of Atreus incendiaries, depending on one's metaphorical preference. These two films — a dark comedy from 1962 featuring a perfectly judged performance by Alberto Sordi and a documentary from 2005 — go beyond catchphrases and soap opera to capture the chilling reality of an institution that appears to be as secure as the church, even though for a long time it was hardly acknowledged at all.

Mafia movies, like mafia prosecutions, were redefined in the 1950s by two commissions. First, the 1951 televised Kefauver Committee hearings concluded that organized crime existed, despite suspiciously stubborn denials by the FBI. The stars of the proceedings were Frank Costello's hands. The mob boss had somehow convinced the committee and the broadcaster not to show his face. A better symbol for the manipulations of an invisible puppeteer could not have been invented.

The cinematic response was instantaneous, as a slew of films appeared about the secret empire. Unlike the crime films of the 1930s, which focused on individuals, these films looked at a larger enterprise: "The Enforcer," "The Big Heat," "On the Waterfront (Special Edition)," "The Big Combo," "The Miami Story," "The Phenix City Story," "The Brothers Rico," "Chicago Confidential," "New York Confidential," "The Garment Center," and dozens more. They often avoided ethnicity, steered clear of the word "mafia," and usually ended with Mr. Big taking a fall. "I'm glad what I done to you," Terry Malloy chided Johnny Friendly in "On the Waterfront" — all it took was a stand-up guy. Even so, J. Edgar Hoover persisted in characterizing the mob as a chimera, unlike the bank robbers he had dispatched in the happier days of the Depression. Even Hoover had to moonwalk, however, after the mob bosses convened their own 1957 commission in Apalachin. Local police intruded, sending made men scurrying into the nearby woods. Denial was no longer an option, though it was the Treasury Department's Bureau of Narcotics, not the FBI, which soon compiled the first bestiary of connected men, published only last year as "Mafia."

This time the cinematic response was more violent and morally baroque, animated by realism that the Production Code could not entirely repeal. Richard Widmark (in 1947's "Kiss of Death") and Eli Wallach (in 1958's "The Lineup") played psychopaths who push wheelchair-bound seniors to their deaths. In the first film, the victim is a harmless woman, and the death of the predator restores social order; in the second, the victim is a kingpin, and the death of the hit man who pushes him over the railing of a skating rink resolves nothing. Richard Wilson's "Pay or Die" (1960) tells the true story of the fearless Italian-American cop who visited Sicily in 1909 seeking information to expose the secret society. He was promptly assassinated: end of story.

The Italian film industry, which had ignored the Mafia to this point, now began to acknowledge its barbarity, if somewhat obliquely. In the late 1950s, Francesco Rosi began his career by exploring the rituals of organized crime in "La Sfida" (shot in Naples for fear of offending Sicilians) and the bumbling "I Magliari" (starring Sordi). He found a voice of his own in "Salvatore Giuliano" (1962), using documentary meticulousness to trace the rise of a mob chieftain in the postwar years as the Allies cemented a Mafia-government coalition — a theme briefly explored in "Excellent Cadavers."

That same year, Sicily's underground was further breached in two comedies set in the present: Pietro Germi's flat-out hilarious "Divorce Italian Style," in which the rule of the dons is a given and pandemic bloodlust is played out in a burlesque of marital honor; and Lattuada's "Mafioso," in which the comic elements are, at first, disarmingly unclear. If "The Godfather" is a bloody epic that leaves residual recollections of star-powered romance, nostalgia, and wit, "Mafioso" is a comedy of manners that leaves the chill of unappeased horror. It drolly meanders for half its running time, a beautifully played character study without urgent direction. The viewer is encouraged to feel superior to the na├»ve Nino, until Nino and viewer alike are placed in the dark — a plane's cargo hold, en route to New York to commit a crime for which neither he nor we are quite prepared.

Lattuada makes clear from the beginning that Mafia tentacles reach well into the north. Nino has lived in Milan for eight years as an efficiency expert in a factory. He now chooses to take a long-delayed vacation, bringing his wife and children to meet his family in his native Sicily. His boss gives him a package to be hand-delivered to Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio), which turns out to be an American-made golden heart that will adorn the church's Madonna and also contains coded instructions for a death warrant.

Nino is a fish out of water (except in the zone afforded by his family and by vanity), never more so than when shipped to New York, oily and overdressed — though he briefly feels at home as he looks up at the astonishing skyscrapers and sees a poster for a Sophia Loren film. The favor Don Vincenzo demands of him is filmed as a dream, a few hours on the other side of the looking glass. Nino and we know virtually nothing of his target, but the deed is compromising all around. "Mafioso" is built like a snare, supported by the sumptuous photography of Armando Nannuzzi and a wonderfully mottled score by Piero Piccioni, who mixes idioms and underscores ill omens with electrical rumbling.

"Excellent Cadavers" is not for the faint of heart or the cheery of disposition. It argues that the Mafia, which, during a two-year period in the early 1980s, left 300 slaughtered bodies on the streets of Palermo, could be eradicated. It almost was, according to Mr. Turco, when two magistrates, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, combined to launch the maxi-trial that placed more than 400 Mafia suspects before a judge and, despite interference by the Italian government, ultimately won convictions. The reprisals were swift. In 1992, Falcone and Borsellino were murdered, months apart, in explosions that observers likened to nuclear blasts. Silvio Berlusconi's government then undid much of what had been accomplished, even dismantling the witness protection program. Today the mafia is said to extort tributes from 80% of Sicilian businesses, to say nothing of its role in the international heroin trade.

Much of the archival footage in "Excellent Cadavers" is astonishing, including dozens of photographs by Letizia Battaglia, who appears on camera at 70 and recalls the almost daily calls to various murder sites. Her pictures of bodies surrounded by grieving widows and curious onlookers are horrific; in one, a severed head is set upon a car seat. So much of the film is admirable that its missteps are especially regrettable. Mr. Turco's film is based on a book by Alexander Stille, who is inexplicably on camera throughout, lugging a shoulder bag, occasionally pretending to read or write. He also serves as narrator and lacks authority in the role. He doesn't even explain the title, which is mob slang for the bodies of political officials.
Critics' Choice Video
Yet the film tells a complicated story, involving a great many names (First Run ought to have provided a dramatis personae); it is coherent and dramatically sound. Falcone and Borsellino emerge as genuine heroes. Asked if he is afraid, Falcone, who looks disconcertingly like Alberto Sordi, says, "Living with one's fear, without being conditioned by it, that's courage. Otherwise, it's not courage but recklessness." "Excellent Cadavers" is one of the saddest films I've ever seen.

Thanks to Gary Giddins. Mr. Giddins is the author of "Natural Selection: Gary Giddins on Comedy, Film, Music, and Books."

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Rogues' Hall of Fame

Johnny Roselli was the mob's ambassador-without-portfolio, corrupting the film industry's unions in Hollywood and becoming the go-to guy in Las Vegas and Miami. After testifying before a Senate committee and emerging as a player in the mob's long-rumored involvement in JFK's assassination, his body washed up off Miami.Patriotic Skyscraper1

Meyer Lansky
was the mob's gambling czar and set up casinos in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Hot Springs, Ark., New Orleans, Las Vegas, Florida and Cuba. Refused citizenship in Israel, he retired to Miami. Immortalized by actor Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth in "The Godfather II."

Vito Genovese sought to dethrone Lucky Luciano as capo di tutti capi; conspired to assassinate mob rival Frank Costello, leading to the ill-fated mob conference in Apalachin, N.Y., that put the Mafia under the eye of investigators. Died in federal prison after mob cohorts reportedly set him up on a heroin rap.

Paul Castellano, Gambino's heir, ran meat and poultry businesses and lived sumptuously in a Todt Hill, S.I., mansion known as "The White House." Dapper Don John Gotti supposedly orchestrated his Dec. 16, 1985, assassination outside a Manhattan steakhouse.

Frank Costello was a Tammany Hall fixer and diplomat whose gravel-voiced persona supposedly was the inspiration for Marlon Brando's Don Corleone in "The Godfather." Lived on Park Avenue and in Sands Point, L.I.; retired after Vito Genovese's failed assassination bid in May 1957.

Carmine Galante, a feared hit man and dope dealer, assumed the reins of the Bonanno crime family in the '70s; was gunned down at an Italian restaurant in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where his bullet-riddled body lay crumpled on the ground, a cigar still hanging from his mouth.

Mickey Cohen, head of Los Angeles gambling rackets, maintained a host of powerful friends, including Frank Sinatra - who once appealed to him to get mobster Johnny Stompanato to stop dating Ava Gardner. Depicted by Harvey Keitel in the 1991 film "Bugsy" and by Paul Guilfoyle in 1997's "L.A. Confidential."

Carlo Gambino infiltrated the garment industry while heading the country's largest and most powerful mob family, yet managed to avoid the limelight - and the scrutiny of cops - by living quietly at 2230 Ocean Parkway in Gravesend, Brooklyn. Died of a heart attack in 1976.

James Ralph "Bottles" Capone was the lesser-known and benignly named brother of the Windy City's uber-gangster, Al "Scarface" Capone. Lived with a sister at Martha Lake, near Mercer, Wis., and was said to have had numerous arrests - but no felony convictions. He reputedly owned a vending machine business in western Chicago.

Charles "Lucky" Luciano, considered a visionary in mob history, helped engineer the five-family crime structure in New York City. Given 30 years for running brothels, he served only a decade behind bars, with the proviso that he be deported to Italy.

Thanks to Phillip Messing

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Brothershood Mob Squad

Friends of ours: Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, Joseph Valachi, John Gotti, Lucchese Crime Family, Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso, Gambino Crime Family
Friends of mine: Soprano Crime Family, Louis Eppolito, Stephen Caracappa

The phenomenon of Mafia nostalgia is so ingrained in the American consciousness, one might think Frank Costello and Albert Anastasia were among the founding fathers. In fact, our fascination with modern Italian-American organized crime dates only to the early 1960s, when the traitor Joseph Valachi first laid bare its internal structures and codes. Interest in the Mafia has proved far more enduring than the syndicates themselves, which have never recovered from the jailing of John Gotti and so many other godfathers in the 1980s and early 1990s. All we have left are Tony Soprano, the best work of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, and our memories. Ah, the bad old days.

The Mafia has been very good for Hollywood producers and newspaper reporters, which explains the media circus that surrounded the trial earlier this year of New York’s two infamous “Mafia cops,” Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, who today remain in jail even though a judge has vacated their convictions. The now-retired detectives, dragged from their gaudy Las Vegas old-age homes to face the tabloid pack, were shown to have funneled sensitive intelligence and actually carried out murders for the crazed Luchese family godfather Anthony (Gaspipe) Casso back in the 1980s. The whole episode felt plucked from another era, as if these were the last two American turncoats to be prosecuted for cold war espionage.

Any number of books and movie projects are said to be in the works, and the first, “The Brotherhoods: The True Story of Two Cops Who Murdered for the Mafia,” by Guy Lawson, a veteran crime reporter, and William Oldham, a former New York Police Department detective who helped break the case, has now arrived. The good news, at least for Mafia aficionados, is that Lawson and Oldham have this material down cold. They seemingly had access to every Police Department document, every recorded conversation and every exhibit employed to convict Eppolito and Caracappa.

The bad news is that it’s all here: every dull dinner between the two detectives and an F.B.I. informant, page after page describing a screenplay Eppolito once wrote, apparently every case Oldham ever worked. “The Brotherhoods” is a perfectly fine book that could have been much, much better had the authors only known when to clam up. One suspects that within this overstuffed, ultradense 511-page anvil is a lean, nimble 275-page claw hammer yearning to swing free, a sequel to breezy underworld page-turners like Howard Blum’s “Gangland.” It’s not just that Lawson and Oldham throw in the kitchen sink. Like Gambino soldiers gleefully raiding a Canarsie warehouse, they haul out a refrigerator, 18 microwave ovens, 82 dinette sets, 994 Viking ranges and, still feeling a tad light, the entire inventory of the New Jersey Turnpike Ikea.

Part of the problem is that “The Brotherhoods” is not one book but two. The first is a straightforward if exhaustive narrative of the case, presumably written by Lawson. After putting down the galleys for the 15th time, unable to thrash my way through thickets of paragraphs so dense I began looking for hobbits, I took a hard look at his prose. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. His sentences are spare, his adverbs scarce, his name-pronoun exchanges are good, his transitions are functional if unspectacular. The trouble is Lawson’s use of detail. There’s a world of difference between “telling” detail and telling every detail. At one point I had to stop and shake my head when I realized he was actually explaining the brand name of a chair Oldham uses during a prison conference.

The second book really slows things down. This is Oldham’s lengthy interjections into Lawson’s prose, which come in paragraph after paragraph of quotation, sometimes five and six at a time. While Oldham’s views can be informative and entertaining, the effect is akin to a director’s commentary on a DVD film. Oldham strives to provide context, but too often serves up platitudes. To cite just one example of dozens: “In major organized criminal investigations there is not an obviously straightforward cause and effect. Conspiracies occur in parallel universes and timelines. What is the chronology of the crimes that are investigated? What happened? When did it happen? Where did it happen? Why did it happen?” This might be catnip for cops, but ahem, sir, could you please stop talking during the movie?

For those willing to wade through it, “The Brotherhoods” has its rewards. The authors do a stellar job of portraying the Police Department as a dysfunctional bureaucracy, making us see how Caracappa, who worked in the elite Major Case Squad alongside Oldham, was a much bigger fish than Eppolito, a blowhard toiling in deepest Brooklyn. They are adept at conjuring organized crime’s inbred world of social clubs and row houses; every cop in the book seems to have a cousin Joey “in the life,” and vice versa. Rarely have Mafiosi seemed like such losers as they do here, obese men in track suits debating whom to kill once they finish their ziti. Gaspipe Casso comes off as a cut above his knuckle-dragging peers, but his story was told just as well — and faster — in Selwyn Raab’s “Five Families.”

Of the two cops, the pathetic, porcine Eppolito — whose cinematic ambitions peaked with a goombah cameo in Scorsese’s “Goodfellas ” — is the most vividly drawn, this due to his mind-bogglingly wrongheaded memoir, “Mafia Cop,” in which he boasted of his Mafia lineage, which included his father, Ralph Eppolito, known as Fat the Gangster, and an uncle, Jimmy the Clam. Caracappa remains a cipher throughout, a wary, watchful figure with the look, and apparently the personality, of an undertaker on downers. Both could have used additional reporting to flesh out their careers and back stories; there aren’t many clues in the text as to what a pro like Caracappa would see in a mook like Eppolito. But Lawson, presumably viewing Oldham as the Ken Jennings of criminalia, falls prey to the common trap of letting only the caged canary sing. Isn’t there anyone else who knew these two detectives?

The book also suffers from several factors out of the authors’ control. For one thing, they cannot tell the full story of what Eppolito and Caracappa actually did, because the two detectives have never publicly discussed, much less admitted, their crimes. So what we get is a narrative engine built around Oldham’s investigation. This is interesting if unremarkable material, in part because his probe was a whodunit only in its infancy. After Casso, in an abortive attempt to reduce a life sentence for murder, told prosecutors about Eppolito and Caracappa in 1994, the next 10 years of story line are purely an exercise in proving what the unreliable Casso claimed.

In the end, for all Oldham’s dogged work, the case is broken when Casso’s conduit to the cops, the aging fence Burton Kaplan, finally cuts a deal of his own after nine years in prison. The authors do their best to wring drama from Oldham’s jailhouse tango with Kaplan, but Kaplan is bland beyond belief. The narrative payoff, the eureka moment the authors spend 300 pages building up to, comes “after dozens of calls and six weeks of talking,” of which little is said. “I think we got a deal,” Kaplan’s attorney tells Oldham. Memo to: Ahab. From: Whale. I think we got a deal.

Thanks to Bryan Burrough

Monday, November 20, 2006

Castellammare del Golfo Exports Mobsters to New York?

From the turquoise Mediterranean lapping its shore to the winding streets where old men soak up the sun on rickety chairs, a tourist would never know this one small town has produced many of New York's most notorious gangsters. Then again, the narrow-eyed suspicion with which outsiders are greeted might be a tipoff.

So it is fitting that New York's latest mob boss has roots in the same western Sicilian town that has exported some of the city's toughest mobsters for generations. His name is Salvatore (Sal the Ironworker) Montagna, 35, the reputed acting head of the Bonanno crime family.

Like the legendary Joseph Bonanno, model for "The Godfather," Montagna was born in Castellammare del Golfo. His family immigrated first to Canada (he has cousins who run a gelato business there) and then to New York.

It was last week that the Daily News exclusively reported that law enforcement authorities determined the Bonanno family, its ranks decimated by prosecutions, has turned to the youthful Montagna to take the leadership reins.

A hardscrabble fishing village clinging to a mountain rising steeply out of the sea 40 miles west of Palermo, Castellammare has been a stronghold of the Mafia for centuries, its men known for their pride, clannishness and violence when crossed.

Now a town of 20,000, its name - translated as the Castle at the Sea - comes from a ruined but still forbidding Saracen fortress near the small marina. The marble mausoleums clustered in the town cemetery bear many family names that became famous in New York: Bonanno, Profaci and Galante chief among them.

Questions about the Montagna family are greeted with some hostility. There is one Montagna listed in town, but no one answered the phone and asking around in his neighborhood wasn't fruitful. "I know him, but he's dead," said one of the old men lounging over coffee at a cafe. "Sorry."

During Mussolini's brutal crackdown on the Mafia in the 1920s, scores of Castellammarese fled to America, many settling in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

The immigrants' ties to the land, each other and the Old World codes of honor gave rise to powerful, insular gangs that cornered the market on bootlegging, gambling and then-lucrative ice deliveries. Men from the town also went to Buffalo and Chicago, where they started their own mobs.

In the 1930s, New York was rocked by the Castellammarese War, which pitted immigrant mobsters from the town - led by Bonanno, Joseph Profaci and then-boss Salvatore Maranzano - against factions from Calabria and Naples, including Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Vito Genovese and Frank Costello. The bloody war ended when Maranzano set up an organizational structure for La Cosa Nostra and divided New York City into five families.

At 26, Bonanno was nearly a decade younger than Montagna when he came to head his own family. Then, as now, immigrants from Castellammare were prized soldiers.

BonannoA Man of Honor: The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno, in his autobiography, "A Man of Honor: The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno," wrote of their discipline and the importance of ancient family ties. He told a family legend about his Uncle Peppe ordering a younger man to strip off his shirt and take an undeserved lashing with a whip. "It's one thing to say you're never going to talk against your friends, but it's quite another not to talk when someone is beating you. I wanted to see how well you took a beating," Bonanno recalled his uncle saying.

His affection for his birthplace was evident: He spoke of playing in the fortress as a child, the taste of fresh mullet caught in the gulf nearby and the smell of lemons on the wind. When he died in 2002 at the age of 97 in Arizona, his funeral cards bore the image of Santa Maria del Soccorso, the patron saint of Castellammare del Golfo.

Another Castellammarese, Joseph Barbara, hosted the notorious Appalachian Mafia Conference of 1957, which was raided by the cops and began the mob's long slow decline.

In the past decade, Italian authorities have made a great effort to crack down on gangsters, and Castellammare is now thriving, with new six-story blocks of condos going up on the outskirts of town and fewer poor laborers leaving in search of a better life. But the port city is still a major center of Mafia activity in western Sicily.

The crew filming "Ocean's 12" in nearby Scopello in 2004 were caught up in it when 23 people - including a local police commander - were busted after a year-long probe of a sprawling Castellammarese extortion racket that included surveillance of the film set. Producer Jerry Weintraub later hotly denied widespread Italian news reports that the film crew was being shaken down with threats of arson on the set and that film's stars - George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones - might have been in danger.

The national daily newspaper Corriere della Sera said the local Mafia is known for targeting moviemakers and has a lock on the hiring of extras.

While the ancient codes still hold sway, the gangsters are keeping up with the times and enforcement has gone high-tech. When producers of a recent feature wouldn't cooperate, thugs broke into the production offices and erased the moviemakers' hard drive's to make their point.

There have been other signs of modernity. Two of the highest ranking Mafiosi arrested in a big 2004 Castellammare bust were women - the wives of the town's top Mafia chieftains. Italian authorities said it would have been unheard of even a few years ago for women to get involved in protection rackets, but bragged that their prosecutions have been so successful that most of the men are now behind bars.

In New York, parallel crackdowns on the mob have put half the Bonanno family soldiers behind bars. So once again, the family has looked to the tough men and closed mouths of Castellammare del Golfo's crooked streets.

Thanks to Helen Kennedy

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Few heads at Chin Funeral

Friends of ours: Vincent "Chin" Gigante, John Gotti, Mario Gigante, Genovese Crime Family, Frank Costello

Pallbearers carry a coffin with the body of former Mafia boss Vincent (Chin) Gigante out of St. Anthony of Padua Church in the Village after a simple service attended by few mobsters. There were no garish floral arrangements yesterday and only a few shiny limos with refrigerator-size guys. Hardly a capo showed up. Mostly, the funeral of the legendary Mafia boss Vincent (Chin) Gigante was a quiet reminder of an Old World Greenwich Village that is disappearing day by day.

Gigante, after all, was an underworld dinosaur, an old-time gangster who dodged prison for decades by shuffling unshaven about the Village in a bathrobe, muttering that Jesus was his lawyer. His final tribute reflected the fallen state of the Mafia, with hardly any mobsters seen paying their final respects at the St. Anthony of Padua Church on Sullivan St.

It was a modest affair, nothing like the 2002 funeral for mob boss John Gotti, when 19 open-air cars packed with flowers paraded about Queens.

The attendees mainly were family and friends, including Gigante's brother, Mario, a reputed captain in the Genovese family, Gigante's wife, Olympia, and several of his children.

The service was held a few blocks down Sullivan St. from the tiny apartment where Gigante lived for years with his mother. It was presided over by another of his brothers, the Rev. Louis Gigante.

Rev. Gigante, who stood by his sibling even after Vincent had admitted the crazy act was just that, did his best to preserve the image of his brother as a man misunderstood. "The world had a different view of him through the media," he declared. "But we, his family, his friends, the people of Greenwich Village, me, his brothers, his mother and father, we all knew him as a gentle man, a man of God."

To a church three-quarters full, the priest presented the powerful gangster as a lonely throwback wedded to his rapidly changing neighborhood. "Vincent never traveled," the priest said. "He was always on Sullivan St., walking and helping others, neglecting himself."

No mention was made of Gigante's status as Godfather of the most powerful crime family in America. No one recalled that Gigante once parted the hair of mobster Frank Costello with a bullet, shouting, "This one's for you, Frank!"

Instead there was the story of a 77-year-old man dying alone in a prison somewhere in the Midwest, neglected. As the priest saw it, the government that pursued his brother for decades finally did him in. "In the eight years Vincent was in prison, I visited him 19 times. There wasn't a day he didn't suffer," said Rev. Gigante. "He did his time like a man. He was going to come home. He was dying to come home. But he couldn't. They allowed him to die."

Then the white-gloved pallbearers did their job, carrying the coffin piled high with red and white poinsettias down the aisle and into the pre-Christmas chill.

In the end, Vincent (Chin) Gigante emerged from his childhood church, carried out into a Village the old mob boss would have barely recognized.

Thanks to Greg Smith

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Remembering the PJ Don

Friends of ours: Vincent "Chin" Gigante, Genovese Crime Family, John Gotti, Paul Castellano, Gambino Crime Family. Thomas Eboli, Vito Genovese, Frank Costello, Phillip Lombardo, Mario Gigante

Vincent "Chin" Gigante, boss of the Genovese crime family, who was noted for walking the streets of the Village near his Sullivan St. social club dressed in pajamas and bathrobe and mumbling to himself, died in a federal prison hospital in Missouri on Dec. 19 at the age of 77. He was serving a 12-year sentence for racketeering, conspiring to kill the late John Gotti for Gotti's role in the unsanctioned killing of the Gambino crime boss Paul Castellano, and for obstructing justice by pretending - successfully for three decades - to be mad in order to avoid criminal prosecution. Gigante died of an apparent heart attack at 5:15 a.m. in the same Springfield, Mo., federal prison medical center where Gotti and other underworld bosses died.

He was a promising light-heavyweight boxer whose ring career in the 1940s was managed by Thomas Eboli, a reputed mobster. Impressed by Gigante's 21 boxing wins, the mob boss Vito Genovese took him under his wing. A doorman at The Majestic apartments on Central Park West identified Gigante as the shooter in the 1957 attempted assassination of the crime lord Frank Costello, whom Genovese was trying to supplant. Costello survived the shooting but refused to identify Gigante and the charges were dropped.

Gigante rose in the Genovese family and in 1985 became the boss, succeeding Philip Lombardo, according to a Daily News article. But Chin began his bizarre and deceptive behavior as early as 1969 when he was first hospitalized for psychiatric examination. He finally gave up the mad act in 2003 after federal investigators found prison witnesses who heard Gigante speaking very sanely on the telephone, according to a Daily News article

Gigante got his nickname because his mother called him Vincenzo (pronounced Vinchenzo). Born March 29, 1928, he was the third of five brothers. His mother moved into the Mitchell-Lama co-op at 505 LaGuardia Pl., and Gigante - who always had an apartment of his own in the South Village - frequently visited there until she died a few years ago.

City Councilmember Alan Gerson, who grew up in 505 LaGuardia Pl. and still lives there, said it was known that Gigante often came by the apartment of his mother, who spoke little English and was affectionately regarded in the building. "He spent quite a bit of time visiting his mother, both visiting and overnight," Gerson said. "He was a frequent, regular visitor, until he went out of town, so to speak."

Neighbors reportedly knew the building was sometimes under surveillance by federal agents and that Gigante brought associates there for meetings. The apartment is now home to a surviving brother, Reverend Louis Gigante, a retired priest, former Bronx councilmember and director of a Bronx nonprofit housing organization.

An older brother, Mario, 80, reputed to be an elder in the Genovese crime family, also survives. Vincent Gigante leaves five children that he had with his wife, Olympia, and three more children he had with another woman, Olympia Esposito.

Thanks to Albert Amateau

Sunday, September 18, 2005

A City of Saints and Sancho Panza #NewOrleans

Tennessee williams and William Faulkner loved it because it tolerated every kind of eccentricity. So did Lillian Hellman, who grew up on Prytania Street, and Walker Percy, who lived across Lake Pontchartrain, and William Burroughs, who lived under the Huey Long Bridge in a house that Jack Kerouac wrote about in “On the Road.”

New Orleans isn’t a city. It’s a Petrarchan sonnet. There’s no other place on the planet like it. I think it was sawed loose from South America and blown by trade winds across the Caribbean until it affixed itself to the southern rim of the United States.

Its first denizens were convicts and whores, followed by slaves, mystics, pirates and environmental idealists such as James Audubon and chivalric soldiers such as John Bell Hood. The architecture of the Garden District and the Vieux Carre had no peer in the Western world. Every antithetical element in the New and Old Worlds somehow found a home in New Orleans. For a writer, the city was a gift from God. Jackson Square was a re-creation of the medieval era in the best sense. Between the facade of St. Louis Cathedral and the Cafe du Monde across Decatur, string and brass bands played for coins flipped into a hat, bizarre people rode unicycles without apparent destination, jugglers tossed wooden balls, and sidewalk artists under a canopy of live oaks and palm fronds sketched portraits for tourists.

In the early morning, the air smelled of night-blooming flowers, ponded water in the courtyards, spearmint growing in the lee of a shady wall, the salt breeze blowing out of the south. The balconies above the iron colonnades groaned with the weight of potted plants and dripped with bougainvillea that turned blood red by December. For pocket change you could catch the streetcar at Canal and St. Charles and ride uptown to the Carrollton District through the most beautiful neighborhood in America. But loving New Orleans, like loving the state where my family has lived since 1836, is like falling in love with the great whore of Babylon. It’s not coincidence that the American incarnation of the mafia, or Black Hand, had its inception in New Orleans and announced its presence in 1891 by murdering the police commissioner. Keeping the tradition alive, U.S. Sen. Huey P. Long gave the state of Louisiana to Frank Costello and the Mob. The slot and racehorse machines came from Chicago; the credit line that bought them came from my family’s hometown, New Iberia. In my lifetime, one of the most despised politicians in the state was an attorney general who tried to shut down the cathouses and gambling joints in the southern parishes. In Louisiana we love the idealism of Don Quixote, but we have always made room for his libertine, hedonistic sidekick, Sancho Panza. But New Orleans is a tragedy, and not simply because of a hurricane. In the early 1980s, crack cocaine hit the city like a hydrogen bomb. Simultaneously, the Reagan administration cut federal aid to New Orleans by half. The consequence was disaster. The murder rate soared, matching Washington’s. White flight into Jefferson Parish was on a level with the Exodus from Egypt. New Orleans cops not only committed robberies and investigated their own crimes, they actually committed murders -- in one instance the execution by a female officer of the witnesses to her crime.

David Duke managed to put a black face on criminality and was almost elected governor of the state.

Within New Orleans’ city limits, the population is 70% black. These are mainly hard-working, blue-collar people who have endured every form of adversity over many generations. But another element is there too, one that is heavily armed and morally insane. These are people who will rob the victim, then arbitrarily kill him out of sheer meanness.

A combination of environmental aberrations had made the city a longtime target for a natural catastrophe. The levee system shotguns the silt from the Mississippi deep into the Gulf, preventing it from flowing westward so it can rebuild the coastline. Oil companies have cut 10,000 miles of canals through freshwater marsh, killing the root systems that hold the wetlands intact. Each year a landmass the size of Manhattan Island is eroded away by the tidal influences of the Gulf. As a consequence, New Orleans sits not unlike a saucer floating in a flooded sink.

All the meteorologists predicted Katrina would hit New Orleans head-on, at category 5 wind speeds of 175 mph. No knowledgeable person had any doubt about the consequences. New Orleans would have been nothing but a smudge in the storm’s aftermath, the levees reduced to serpentine traces in the silt. Instead, the storm shifted toward the northeast, and dropped in velocity by 35 mph, reducing itself to a category 4 storm by landfall.

Two days after the city was flooded, the president stated, on television, “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.” The disingenuousness of the statement, or its disconnection from reality, is, to my mind, beyond comprehension.

I was on a seismograph drill barge during Hurricane Audrey in 1957 and, as a news reporter, I covered Hurricane Hilda when it hit Louisiana in 1964. But nothing I ever experienced compares with the suffering of the people in Orleans and St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes and southern Mississippi during recent weeks. That the elderly and the infirm could drown in retirement homes and hospitals in the U.S. has forced us into an introspection that I hope will lead people from dismay to anger.

For the rest of my life, however, I want to remember not only the faces of Katrina’s victims but the images of the Coast Guard rescuers hanging from cables under helicopters; firefighters and cops who threaded boats through the darkness while being shot at; the medical personnel who used hand ventilators to keep their patients alive for six days; the soldiers and ministers and ordinary people who gave up all thought of themselves in service to their fellow human beings. In their anonymity, they glow with the aura of Byzantine saints.

New Orleans is an emblematic city. Its story is an ongoing one. Its culture will not change. But if we don’t help New Orleans to rebuild, we’ll not only lose a national treasure, we’ll lose a big part of ourselves.


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