Tonight, AMC will air the first episode of The Making of the Mob: New York, an eight-part docu-drama from producer Stephen David. At the conclusion of the series, I’ll be back to discuss what David got right, what he got wrong, and most important of all, what he left out. But first, let’s meet the star of the series, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, and examine how a man who lived his life in relative obscurity came to personify organized crime in America.
Salvatore Lucania was born in November of 1897, in the Sicilian mining town of Lercara Friddi. He immigrated to America at age nine along with his mother and two siblings, joining his father Antonino and his older brother Bartolo in a tenement flat on East 13th Street, then a predominantly Jewish section of Manhattan’s teeming East Village. It wasn’t long before Salvatore, speaking virtually no English, decided that life on the streets held greater fascination – and greater promise – than whatever it was they were trying to teach him in public school.
It was during his teenage years as a dropout, dope dealer, and petty extortionist that Salvatore – who’d by then Americanized his Christian name to Charlie – fell in with a rag-tag crew of like-minded toughs who would remain his pals, and his business associates, for the rest of his working life. Francesco Castiglia, an older boy, was a mentor. Little Maier Suchowljansky and his younger friend Benny were acolytes. But it wasn’t until 1920, when the Volstead Act went into effect, that Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and Lucky Luciano put aside their small-time rackets to focus their attentions on the high-stakes business of bootlegging.
Passage of the 18th Amendment spawned a boisterous era of bathtub gin and midnight speedboats, of armed truck convoys and blazing turf battles. Speakeasies opened in every American town – including over a thousand in New York City alone – as the nation awoke from its post-war doldrums with a roar that echoed around the globe. Americans wanted their booze, and the vacuum created by Prohibition was quickly filled on the East Coast by big-money players like Arnold Rothstein in New York, Irving “Waxey Gordon” Wexler in Philadelphia, and yes, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson in Atlantic City.
Thanks to its roots in both the Italian and Jewish demimondes, Lucky’s so-called Broadway Mob, whose membership had grown to include the likes of Giuseppe “Joe Adonis” Doto and Vito Genovese, gained a toehold in New York’s burgeoning bootlegging scene, and Lucky himself soon fell under the protective wing of Sicilian mob kingpin Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria. But when a power struggle between Masseria and chief rival Salvatore Maranzano escalated into the bloody and protracted Castellammarese War of 1930-31 causing everyone’s business to suffer, a disaffected group of younger “Americanized” gangsters, both Italian and Jewish, turned to Lucky for leadership.
On April 15, 1931, as Joe the Boss and Charlie Lucky played cards at Nuova Villa Tammaro on Coney Island, four gunmen alleged to be Bugsy Siegel, Vito Genovese, Joe Adonis, and Albert Anastasia entered the restaurant with guns blazing. It was Lucky’s bloody betrayal of Giuseppe Masseria that ended the Castellammarese War and installed Salvatore Maranzano as the new and undisputed Boss of Bosses of the Italian underworld.
A former seminary student in his native Sicily, Maranzano had a lifelong fascination with Roman history that inspired him to reorganize his new empire along the lines of Caesar’s Roman legion – decini led by a capo, with each capodecina reporting to a sottocapo. There were to be five New York capo famiglia, headed respectively by Maranzano (today’s Bonanno crime family), Luciano (Genovese family), Tom Gagliano (Lucchese family), Joe Profaci (Colombo family), and Frank Scalise (Gambino family), with Maranzano acting as capo di tutti capi, the first among equals.
Although Maranzano’s organizational influence over the Italian underworld would prove enduring, his actual tenure as Boss of Bosses was short-lived. Lucky, upon hearing rumors of a Maranzano contract on his life, struck first on September 10, 1931 when four hit-men posing as revenue agents cornered Maranzano in his ninth-floor office in the New York Central Building. According to underworld legend, the four fleeing gunmen passed Irish torpedo Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll in the stairwell as Coll was enroute to receive his final instructions from Maranzano on the Luciano contract. Coll, upon learning of Maranzano’s murder, turned and followed his colleagues down to the street, gladly pocketing his $25,000 advance.
Chairman of the Board
Having engineered the murders of Masseria and Maranzano both, Lucky now stood to assume leadership of New York’s Five Families. Except that Lucky, who’d chafed under the imperious authority of the old “Mustache Petes,” had an even better idea. He proposed creating a national crime Commission – a governing board of top mobsters that would meet periodically to vote on matters of mutual interest and concern. It was this cooperative, democratic, and multi-ethnic model of governance that would cement the mob’s social and political influence and inspire historians to label Lucky Luciano “the man who organized crime in America.”
Still just in his mid-thirties, Lucky now lived like the successful executive that he was, presiding over the Commission from his suite at the Waldorf Towers or his box at the Saratoga Race Course. Even the end of Prohibition failed to cramp Lucky’s style, since he and his Broadway Mob had already diversified into gambling, drugs, policy, industrial racketeering, and dozens of other illicit ventures, all operating under the protection of New York’s fabled Tammany Hall political machine.
Despite his exalted status, Lucky strived to maintain a low public profile; letting gangsters like Al Capone and Dutch Schultz grab the headlines and attract the unwanted attention of law enforcement. Indeed, few below the upper echelons of cops and crooks would even have recognized the name, let alone the battle-scarred face, of the man who called himself Charlie Luciano.
While Lucky weathered both the stock market crash of 1929 and Repeal in 1933, the ensuing Great Depression wrought a sea-change in New York politics. At a time when racketeers were siphoning an estimated half-billion dollars annually from the already-crippled New York economy, corrupt and ineffective leaders like mayor Jimmy Walker and district attorney Thomas Crain became targets for good-government reformers like Samuel Seabury and Fiorello La Guardia.
In June of 1935, New York Governor Herbert Lehman finally responded to reformist pressures by calling an extraordinary term of the state’s Supreme Court to tackle the scourge of organized crime in New York. To preside over this special session, Democrat Lehman appointed a crusty Republican jurist named Philip J. McCook, and to act as its special prosecutor he appointed a politically-ambitious Republican lawyer who, as an assistant U.S. Attorney in 1933, had convicted bootlegger Waxey Gordon of income tax fraud.
That bright young lawyer’s name was Thomas E. Dewey.
The veil of secrecy that seemed to enshroud the Italian underworld proved especially frustrating for Dewey and his newly-assembled army of twenty assistant prosecutors. So when rumors that a new “downtown combination” was seeking to organize the previously freelance world of New York prostitution, and that the effort was headed by known Luciano associates Little Davie Betillo and Tommy “the Bull” Pennochio, Dewey sprang into action.
On February 1, 1936, at precisely nine o’clock on a Saturday evening, 160 NYPD officers descended on 80 known disorderly houses, arresting 87 prostitutes and madams. All were transported to Dewey headquarters on the fourteenth floor of the Woolworth Building where, after hours of fruitless interrogation, each was arraigned by Justice McCook and jailed as a material witness on a bond of ten thousand dollars. The women would remain in custody and without counsel for up to four months as Dewey, using his own combination of threats and outright bribery, sought to turn them into prosecution witnesses.
The trial of People v. Charles Luciano, etc. et al. began on May 11, 1936, and it lasted nearly a month. Using a so-called joinder law passed especially for his benefit, Dewey had indicted ten pimps, bookers, bondsmen, and strong-arm enforcers to sit in the dock alongside Betillo, Pennochio, and Luciano – the first time in New York history that multiple counts against multiple defendants would be tried under a single indictment, each defendant charged with ninety counts of compulsory prostitution.
But was Lucky Luciano, the high-living Boss of Bosses, really stooping so low as to skim the earnings of two-dollar prostitutes?
Sixty-eight witnesses testified for the prosecution; a Runyonesque cast of pimps and hookers, cops and hoodlums. And while the evidence against his co-defendants was overwhelming, only three sketchy characters were willing to implicate Lucky in the conspiracy. Then, just when the star defendant’s acquittal seemed a foregone conclusion, the dramatic, eleventh-hour appearance of Cokey Flo Brown – grifter, heroin addict, and sometimes prostitute – secured Lucky’s conviction on sixty-two counts. It was a verdict that burnished Dewey’s crime-busting image and launched a political career that would carry him first to the district attorney’s office, then to the New York governor’s mansion, then all the way to the front steps of the White House.
Freedom, Deportation, and Death
Despite later evidence of prosecutorial misconduct, and despite the recantation of Cokey Flo and the other key witnesses against him, Lucky’s sentence of thirty-to-fifty years in state prison was affirmed on appeal, and the end of his criminal reign seemed assured. But when, five years later, America’s entry into World War II made security of the New York waterfront a national priority, then-governor Dewey agreed to commute Lucky’s sentence in exchange for his cooperation in the war effort.
Deported to his native Sicily in February of 1946, Lucky lived briefly in Havana before pressure from the U.S. Narcotics Bureau forced the Cuban authorities to return him to Italy. Despite rumors of his continued involvement in international drug trafficking, and despite his role in helping finance construction of the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Lucky’s participation in and influence over American organized crime gradually waned as the years passed and his old allies died, were imprisoned, or retired.
Charles “Lucky” Luciano succumbed to a heart attack at Naples’ Capodichino Airport on January 26, 1962. Only in death was he granted his last and principal wish when his coffin arrived at JFK Airport on February 8, 1962. His body is interred at St. John’s Cemetery in Queens, in a family vault labeled Lucania.
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C. Joseph Greaves is the award-winning author of five novels including the forthcoming Tom & Lucky (Bloomsbury), a dramatization of Luciano’s 1936 vice trial. To learn more, visit chuckgreaves.com.
Photos: Wikimedia Commons; Evans / Getty; Dewar's Repeal / Flickr; Hulton Archive / Getty; Wired New York; Wikimedia Commons; Fox Photos / Getty; AFP / Getty; AFP / Getty; AFP / Getty