Monday, December 05, 2005

It was a glorious time . . .

I can't get enough of this thing of ours. I just finished reading "Five Families," by NY Times reporter Selwyn Raab, an excellent account of the rise and fall of the American Mafia. Raab briefly chronicles the founding of the Cosa Nostra in New Orleans, then moves to the rise of organized crime in NYC up through the Castellamarlese Wars of the late 1920s & early 1930s. The Mob as we know it began in 1931 when Lucky Luciano established five different New York families, imposed a hierarchical structure on the families, and created a commission to mediate intrafamily disputes. Raab writes extensively about the rise and fall of each family--Gambino, Genovese, Lucchese, Bonanno, and Colombo.

Raab also provides a parallel narrative of the efforts of the FBI, the Justice Dep't, and the State of NY regarding each gang. The Senate passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) in 1970, but it was only at the end of the 1970s that anybody in the FBI or Justice Dep't gave a hoot about using the law to go after the Mafia. J. Edgar Hoover and his cronies were more interested in churning up numbers, and lengthy RICO investigations didn't appeal to them at all. Law professor Robert Blakey, who oversaw the writing of RICO when he was a Senate staffer, is portrayed as a lone prophet, walking the land in search of a prosecutor who would use the law against LCN. Rudolph Giuliani won the first Mob RICO prosecution in 1985, and the Government since then has used RICO to decimate all five of the NY families. The prospect of serving lengthy RICO sentences has led to a flood of wiseguys flipping on higher-ups and even flipping on lower-downs.

Some of the mobsters portrayed in the book are/were exceptionally gifted at their craft (union corruption, theft, gambling, murder), at running large organizations, and at evading arrest. Gambino Boss John Gotti comes off as a clownish thug who stupidly embraced the spotlight, when light is the last thing a serious mobster wants to have shined on his activities. Much more effective than Gotti was Bonanno Boss Joe Massino, who quietly built a Mafia colossus from the remnants of a family the FBI thought it had effectively destroyed in the early/mid 1980s. Massino reorganized his family in the late 80s/early 90s and took steps to minimize opportunities for surveillance, thus flying under the radar screen of law enforcement. Massino was finally put away in 2004, and he became the first mob boss to flip and cooperate with the Government, evidently in order so his wife could keep the house and some money to live on. And what cynic could not be amused by the story of Vincent Gigante, the "oddfather," who pretended to be insane for 30 years, much of which was spent effectively running the Genovese crime family? Gigante wandered the streets of Lower Manhattan in pajamas and a bathrobe, and even peed in the street on occasion. Gigante had some prominent psychiatrists fooled, and even some FBI people believed his ruse. Gigante was convicted in 1997, and he finally admitted in 2003 that he had been play-acting all along. The smartest of the Mob leaders in the 20th Century--Luciano, Frank Costello, Carlo Gambino, Ducks Corallo, Massino, and Gigante--probably could have made it in any walk of life with the right education and right connections. Fortunately, there were smart prosecutors and FBI agents to bring down their criminal empires.

The Cosa Nostra may only be a shell of what it once was, but it will survive in some form or other. For anybody interested in the Mob and the Government's efforts to destroy it, this is the book to read. Speaking of organized crime, last night I stared reading "The Smartest Guys in the Room," all about the Enron scandal.


Ann said...

Wonderful post, and thanks for the book review. Given your line of work, you could probably write it off as a business expense!

Randy said...

I saw in the paper this morning that a big developer has purchased Churchill Farms on the Westbank, near Avondale, and is planning to build a massive subdivision there. Back in the day, Churchill Farms was Carlos Marcello's place, from whence he ran his criminal enterprise. More recently, the N.O. mob was run by a Slidellian. I don't know what happened with the mob after that guy and his crew went to prison back in the 90s.