“Be the little guy. That way, they don’t see you comin’.”
“The only way you reach perfection is when there is nothing more left to steal.”
– FBI wiretap transcripts of Carlo Gambino, head of the Gambino crime family, New York, giving sagely advice to a newly ‘made’ rookie mafioso at his initiation ceremony.
Carlo Gambino under arrest. He was acquitted in this one, as in everyone of the other indictments he ever faced. (Photo courtesy: LA Times)
Remember that Roman emperor guy in Part-1 and I said I’d to tell you about another guy who liked to keep a very low profile? No? You really should be paying more attention to your Alzheimers, you know. Have you moved to an assisted living facility yet? No? Maybe I can help ya with that. It has female nurses in grass skirts with too few blades at the massage center. But this isn’t about girls in grass skirts, don’t lead my sharp intellect astray.
Do you play Scrabble? If you play it with family and friends casually, that’s okay, but if you play competition, it pays to be aware of those little two and three letter words that you never knew existed, which can be connected to existing strings, especially those little ‘hook’ words that connect the letters in your tray to something that leads to a big score on the board. In an intense competition, it is those little words that decide if you’ll win or you’ll lose. Did you know that ‘ed’ is a word? I bet you didn’t. No, it doesn’t stand for ‘Erectile Dysfunction’. It means ‘specialized’.
The second man was a diminutive person who never drew attention to him. You could equate him to a scrabble hook word – tiny, waiting in the wings to strike when the opportunity presented itself. He was from the same region of the world as the guy in Part-1 (Claudius), only he was born 1900 years later – in Palermo, Sicily – in a dirt poor household. In his teens, unable to get work, he stole away in a freighter to the US when he was just 17.
Like Claudius, this man too went on to become an emperor in his own right. Only, in his case it wasn’t a country, but a tightly-knit and murderous fraternity. The members of the fraternity didn’t just call him an emperor, but as a sign of respect and fear that he generated for a while in the 1940s through much of the 70s, Carlo Gambino was known as the Capo di tutti Capi, or ‘boss of all bosses’, arguably one of the most powerful American mob bosses in history and the most respected, judging by the fact that he was one of the handful of mafia bosses who managed to die a natural death, of old age.
A diminutive man with beedy eyes, a large nose and a mild, pleasant and deferential demeanor, Gambino was anything but imposing in stature. He never made his orders sound like demands, he issued them with a request that was deferential in tone. A compatriot of his, Joe Bonnano, one of the powerful heads of the five New York crime families of the 50s, once called Gambino a ‘squirrel of a man’. Maybe he did have the looks of a squirrel but he was anything but that. In fact Don Carlo Gambino had the heart of a daring cheetah, the cunning of a fox and the venom of a viper.
To wade through the vicious world of the mafioso right around the time organized crime was coming of age in America and be able to reach the very pinnacle, keeping at bay and earning the respect of the legends of the time – Lucky Luciano, Albert Anastasia, Vito Genovese, Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky – needed a special kind of nerve and only Don Carlo had that.
Gambino had the rare ability to see two moves ahead and act without hesitation when he saw an advantage. His mantra was ‘when you want to get at the other guy, first make him believe you are giving in to what he wants’. When the ambitious Vito Genovese tried to grab territory that belonged to him, Gambino laid a trap for him. He knew that Genovese was heavily involved in drug trafficking, an activity that was still in a nascent stage and frowned upon by the mafia bosses of the day. He also knew that three other bosses – Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky, and Lucky Luciano – hated Genovese.
Gambino saw an opportunity. He roped the other three in and put together a lucrative drug deal that was too good for Genovese to pass up. Then Gambino paid a Puerto Rican drug dealer $100,000 to rat on Genovese. The dealer was small fry and could not possibly have had access to mafia bosses. Besides, his testimony should have been struck down as hearsay. But the FBI wanted Genovese real bad – another thing that Gambino knew, from his law enforcement contacts. They swallowed the Puerto Rican’s account as authentic and managed to win a conviction that put Vito Genovese away for 20 years. Genovese dying, while still incarcerated, of a heart attack.
In the film “The Godfather”, Michael Corleone says to his lover, Kay Adams, “My father is no different than any other powerful man, Kay. He’s like a President or a Senator, any man who feels responsible for others, his friends, his family, his people…” That would aptly describe what Carlo Gambino thought of himself to be, a sentiment that played large in his psyche – that he was the savior.
While the other New York mafia bosses lead ostentatious lives – owning palatial mansions, flashy limos and strings of high-priced mistresses, Gambino was a singularly unpretentious man who was content living in a modest 2-storey brick house in Brooklyn that he shared with his wife of 40 years, the only difference being that the house was inside a heavily guarded cul-de-sac, with the other buildings owned and occupied by trusted family men (an aspect that was recorded by Mario Puzo, in his mafia opus ‘The Godfather’).
At the height of his reign as Capo di Tutti Capi, Carlo Gambino is said to amassed a fortune that was worth upwards of fifty billion dollars. His underboss, Aniello Dellacroce, once quoted Gambino exclaiming exultantly,” Well, what do you know, we are bigger than US Steel!” (The line was later used by the character, Hyman Roth, in the Francis Ford Coppola hit The Godfather- Part II).
The singer all America loves to idol worship – Frank Sinatra, feted by Republican Presidents and politicians who just love to run their campaigns on ‘ platform of law and order’. Here is Sinatra and his law breaking sponsors – Frank Sinatra (standing, second from left) and Carlo Gambino (standing, second from right) (Photo courtesy: Wikimedia)
(Personally, I hope Sinatra is rotting in hell.)
Gambino could bear a grudge too, as was evident by the Scialo killing…….
A feared soldier of the Colombo crime family, Dominick Scialo, was once at a restaurant when he spotted Carlo Gambino and began to harass and insult him in front of others. Gambino kept his cool and did not say a word.
Scialo was not touched, not a hair on his head bent. Instead, some time later, he was grabbed as he was entering a Colombo family social club, driven to Brooklyn and gently set down inside an open space that had a flat concrete surface, enclosed by vertical wooden slats that stood upright.
It was the foundation of a high-rise under construction and as Scialo stood there trussed up like a chicken, concrete was poured over him. Gambino is reported to have stood over the guy and watched. Then, while his head was still clear, the gooey concrete now lapping against his chin, Gambino stooped and placed a cigarette between his gasping lips and said,” Here, have a drag. It will calm you down.”
Concrete shrinks as it hardens and sets. A human body placed inside concrete when it is still wet, would be crushed by the contraction caused by the drying, shrinking concrete. Since the murder of Scialo, the near-perfect method of disposal and complete disappearance – leaving victims alive inside setting concrete became the disposal mode of choice for the American mob.
If you are walking by a construction site in Queens and you see the concrete churning on its own, inside the setting molds and you happen to hear wails and moans, like “Glub..glub… help..”, chances are good that the mixer operator is from Sicily.
In 1969, Don Carlo Gambino became the ‘Chairman of the Board’ of what became known as the National Crime Syndicate or simply “The Commission”. And then, in the early morning hours of Oct 15, 1976, he died of cardiac arrest at his home. The excitement of watching the New York Yankees winning the previous evening must have gotten to him.
He lay in state inside a Brooklyn church for two days, so that thousands of ‘the faithful’ could come to pay their respects to the little, soft-spoken man who had been the real life counterpart of Mario Puzo’s fictional ‘Godfather’. At the time of his death, the Gambino crime family was raking in 40-50 billion dollars a year.
Don Carlo left his mark even at his own funeral. A number of unmarked cars stood on the opposite curb with FBI agents inside, filming the people going in and out. The FBI agents waited, shivering in the chill of the fresh October rain, unable to even get out to relieve themselves.
That’s when members of the Gambino crime family brought trays of lemonade and sandwiches to them. Don Carlo had always reminded his men that the “FBI are just doing their jobs, feeding their families, seeing their kids through school, just as we are…”
I don’t condone what Carlo Gambino stood for. He stood for crime as we all know it. To any student of Catholicism, Carlo Gambino should not have been allowed to die peacefully and yet he did.
I simply question the Abrahamic (and in fact, universal) belief ….“as we sow, so we reap”. Who invented that BS????
Gary Robinson said:
What a great article, Achyut. I agree with you about Sinatra. He had an image of the famous crooner but he was close to cold blooded murderers. And yet Sinatra tried insinuating himself into the good graces of politicians like Reagan. Crime. Entertainment. Politics. They have made rather frightening bed fellows in the United States.
So true. Sinatra is feted and idolized by Americans even today. It’s sad that a nation with an 80% literacy has let this happen.