Magazine | September 30, 2019, Issue

Criminal Charisma

Marlon Brando in The Godfather (Paramount Pictures, IMDb)

‘You’re watching The Godfather? Again?”

“Yes, again,” I respond to my wife. “Also, don’t ask me about my business.”

My beleaguered spouse rolls her eyes at this familiar retort, but she has only herself to blame. By all accounts, a woman reared in a large New York household and blessed with a salubrious Latin name — a “Maria” in the middle; the whole shebang — should be enthusiastic about watching the story of the Corleone family for the umpteenth time with her husband. 

She should be excited, for that matter, to watch the violent pseudo-realism of Scorsese’s Goodfellas or to binge-watch the contemporary struggles of the Soprano family. Yet it’s never so.

The real Mafia was a criminal enterprise that trafficked in human misery, and there’s absolutely no reason to romanticize such things. Italian Americans, she argues, would be far better off educating people about the cultural and scientific achievements of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Fermi, Montessori, and so on. 

This, I explain, is exactly what “Joe” Colombo, founder of the Italian-American Civil Rights League and head of a crime family, told a crowd during a 1971 rally in Manhattan just before he was gunned down by an associate of Vincenzo “Vinny” Aloi. I happen to be reminded of this event because I just finished my fifth reading of Selwyn Raab’s Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires

Really, though, I still hold out hope for a change of attitude. She owes me. I married this woman for her generosity, beauty, and intelligence, but I will admit to feeling ripped off when all her family turned out to be as normal as she was. Those promising rumors about a sketchy Staten Island relative turned up nothing. There would be no union reps at family weddings, no sanitation experts turning up at picnics in their white shoes or leisure suits. 

Well, there were a few leisure suits, but they were draped on the bodies of men with disappointingly strong moral fiber. 

Deep down, I had hoped that my marital status might result in a Tom Hagen situation. Though I could, of course, never be a made man myself, the life of a Jewish consigliere has much to offer. Meyer Lanksy, Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, and Mickey Cohen, to name just a few, had made their bones in the underworld. I’d watched dozens of mob movies and was prepared to soberly shepherd the family business into legitimacy. 

None of this came to fruition. Instead I have a wife demanding a sit-down so she can ask me whether my juvenile obsession with the mob is going to accompany me into retirement. Moreover, what could I, a middle-aged family man who types words for a living, possibly find appealing about the immorality and violence of the Mafia?

It’s a fair question. For one thing, there’s nostalgia. We grew up with the mob — by which I mean that they were in our collective imagination. And every neighborhood kid had some ambiguous, completely unprovable Mafia tale to tell.

My gangster story took place in my dad’s small jewelry shop (speaking of ethnic stereotyping!) on Long Island. Gino, who frequented the shop and would order gaudy Italian horns and bracelets for kids he had christened with exotic names like “Georgina” and “Giuliana,” regularly dropped allusions to his alleged criminal lifestyle. And when Gino found out that my father’s shop had been robbed by three gunmen, he offered to bring the culprits to justice, because the cops, he noted, were “@&*!%#$ useless.” 

My dad, who couldn’t really disagree about the aptitude of local law enforcement, was wary — Gino didn’t present himself as the sort of guy who was going to make a citizen’s arrest — and politely declined his offer. 

I’m skeptical Gino was connected. It’s far more likely he ran a successful plumbing company. To a kid growing up in the New York area in the ’70s and ’80s, though, it wasn’t completely out of the question that he was connected to the mob. When I first read Gay Talese’s classic book about the “Banana War,” Honor Thy Father, in my early 20s, I was surprised to learn that the inept Salvatore “Bill” Bonanno had lived in a modest house only one town over from where I grew up. 

More generally, of course, our fascination with Cosa Nostra is no different from our fascination with gunslingers. We’ve been celebrating psychotic murderous men such as Billy the Kid for more than a century. We embrace the lore of the western, not the reality. In the same way that no one really believes that Robin Hood was a swaggering Saxon noble fighting Norman overlords for the poor — or whatever they have him doing in the newest iteration — no one really believes that goodfellas lived under a code of honor. 

The mob movie — The Public Enemy or Little Caesar, for example — is as old as the American Mafia, which was first truly organized under the Commission in 1931. James Cagney was beloved. Lucky Luciano, not so much. 

Put it this way: Next to Italian-flag bunting and a map of Sicily at one of my favorite childhood pizza shops was a mural of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, James Caan (a Jew from the Bronx), and Marlon Brando (a Christian Scientist from Nebraska). No one thought to paint the faces of Vincent “Chin” Gigante or Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno. We love mob stories, not mobsters.

Now, if compelled to intellectualize the appeal of mob movies, one might argue that Americans tend to admire those they see as tough, free, fearless, and resilient because, to some extent, this is how they see themselves. At least, that’s what I’m telling my wife. 

This one time. 

David Harsanyi is a senior writer for National Review and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun

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