It's all in the family: a look at five N.Y. Mafia empires

September 11, 2005|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,Sun Staff

CRIME

FIVE FAMILIES: THE RISE, DECLINE AND RESURGENCE OF AMERICA'S MOST POWERFUL MAFIA EMPIRES

By Selwyn Raab. St. Martin's Press. 784 pages.

Sometimes, you have to whack someone if you don't want to get killed yourself. But if that "piece of work" involves another made man -- another inducted member of La Cosa Nostra -- you'd better get permission from the boss first.

Those are the rules. So are these: The money trickles up. The family comes first. No hits on honest lawmen. And never, ever break the code of omerta -- silence.

These tenets have guided the American Mafia since Prohibition transformed Italian gangs into full-fledged, Sicilian-style organizations and Lucky Luciano formalized the five New York families by creating the all-powerful mob commission. Those families have been behind innumerable rackets -- schemes that skimmed money from everything from construction work to garbage collection to public housing; from New York's Fulton Fish Market to its Javits Convention Center; from the illegal liquor trade to the illegal heroin trade.

In Five Families, Selwyn Raab, a New York Times crime reporter, teaches this distorted honor code and shows its reach, introducing readers to a world of guns, money and wise guys.

In a detailed account pieced together from his own interviews (some with FBI and mob sources), investigative documents and court testimony, Raab tracks the five main New York Mafia families -- Bonanno, Colombo, Gambino, Genovese and Lucchese -- from their beginnings in the early 20th century.

He also profiles the agents trying to catch them, detailing their exploits and frustrations as shifting politics and law-enforcement priorities gave the mob varying levels of leeway to run their violent, multimillion-dollar schemes.

This American history through the lens of the mob reveals captivating tidbits: Freshman Sens. Joseph McCarthy and Estes Kefauver, for instance, both jockeyed in 1950 to head a new Senate subcommittee on organized crime. Kefauver, whose Democratic Party held the White House, won. As consolation, McCarthy began investigating Communist influence in the government.

Or take the 1971 movie The Godfather. The Colombo family made it known to Paramount that any negative portrayal of Italian-Amer-icans would not be appreciated. The wary movie studio removed all references to "Mafia" and "Cosa Nostra" from the script, using "family" and "syndicate" instead. To further appease boss Joe Colombo, the producers hired several of his gofers as extras.

The mob, Raab shows us, was -- and is -- involved in more than we realize. Raab criticizes the popular glorification of gangsters as endearing bad guys with an honor code, or as capitalistic criminals who do not bother innocent people. He shows the mobsters' lifestyle as bloody and vulgar, and describes how they imposed price increases and intimidation on law-abiding citizens.

"In real life," Raab writes, "no Mafiosi are 'good guys.' "

But it is hard not to get caught up in the cops and robbers chase of cunning bad guys and dedicated G-men, of afternoons spent at "social clubs" scheming the next hit, of evenings sneaking wiretaps into Mafioso cars and apartments. Behind-the-scenes details on John Gotti's dapper lifestyle, the true story behind the Gallo Wars (Crazy Joey Gallo was the subject of a Bob Dylan song), the FBI's secret bugging of a Lucchese leader's Jaguar -- these are page-turning narratives.

When, toward the end of the book, the Mafia tenets start to crumble as capos turn state witness and godfathers are found guilty on racketeering charges, it is hard not to feel a twinge of ambivalence. These gangsters are brutal and, in many ways, despicable. But like Tony Soprano, they also have an unmistakable brazenness that makes them compelling.

Although the book's title alludes to a resurgence, that part of the Mafia's tale is more prediction than history. With law-enforcement attention shifting from organized crime to terrorism, Raab speculates that the adaptable La Cosa Nostra is likely to do as it has done for decades: develop rackets to steal money from municipalities, businesses and honest workers.

The book is long, and sometimes plot lines blur among hits, retributions and nicknames. (Was that Fat Pete or Fat Ange? Sonny Red or Phil Lucky?) But for the most part, Raab's meticulously researched history is an engrossing initiation.

Stephanie Hanes covered federal law enforcement for The Sun. She is now on leave, living in South Africa.

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