After Lucky Luciano left the American crime scene – first by his imprisonment and later by his deportation to Italy – only one mob leader exhibited the cunning and brains to become what may be described as the de facto “boss of bosses” in the Mafia. That man was not Vito Genovese, Joe Bonanno or Carmine Galante- all of whom undoubtedly pictured themselves as worthy of such a role. Rather it was the retiring Carlo Gambino.
Gambino was a study in contrasts. Short and bulb-nosed, he was considered a coward by many in the underworld. Joe Bonanno called him “a squirrel of a man, a servile and cringing individual. When Anastasia was alive, Albert used to use him as his gopher, to go on errands for him. I once saw Albert get so angry at Carlo for bungling a simple assignment that Albert raised his hand and almost slapped him . . . . Another man would not have tolerated such public humiliation. Carlo responded with a fawning grin.”
Gambino was a man who preferred being misunderstood. He enjoyed playing the humble corner-fruit-market shopper on expeditions to the old neighborhood (from fashionable Long Island retreat), much as Mario Puzo’s Godfather who was modeled after Gambino. He always appeared ready to turn the other cheek. “Gambino was like the hog snake, which rolls over and plays dead until trouble passes,” said Albert Seedman, chief of detectives of the New York Police Department. But within the closed circles of the mob, Gambino was the firm traditionalist, demanding every sign of respect due a godfather. He even exercised the secret fine points of honor among mafiosi. When Gambino shook hands with a person, he turned his palm under the other’s, indicating he was merely going through a formality. If however he accepted the man, he would shake hands by putting his own palm on top.
Gambino had been an ever-ambitious youthful associate of Luciano and Meyer Lansky, the twin architects of organized crime in America. He rose through the ranks to become underboss to the brutal Albert Anastasia in the 1950s, aiding him in deposing their crime family’s first boss, Vince Mangano, whose body was never found.
When in the late 1950s Vito Genovese made his move for the prime position in the Mafia, he approached Carlo Gambino about deposing Anastasia. Then he, Gambino, would inherit Anastasia’s family – and obviously, in Genovese’s mind at least, become the latter’s vassal. Gambino had no intention of letting that happen, and while he agreed and handled much of the arrangements for Anastasia’s assassination, he immediately began plotting Genovese’s end as well.
Anastasia was murdered in a New York barbershop in 1957 shortly after an assassination attempt on Frank Costello was botched. This was to place Genovese in a dominant position, but one that Gambino was determined would be short-lived.
Despite his double-dealing about Anastasia, Gambino quickly made peace with Costello and the exiled Luciano, both of whom had been close to Anastasia. Together with Meyer Lansky, the four of them plotted to remove Genovese from the scene by having the federal government take care of him. Genovese, within just a few months of reaching the pinnacle, was set up in a narcotics case (actually a second one, since federal agents bungled a first frame arranged by Gambino and allowed Genovese to get away) and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. He died there, and Carlo Gambino inherited the position as the strongest family leader in New York.
He kept solidifying his position by judicious alliances and killings until few save Joe Bonanno even thought to challenge him. When he died in October 1976 of a heart attack, Gambino went out in true Godfather style. Reporters and onlookers were cordoned off from the hundreds of mourners at his funeral. Hard-faced guards needed only a few threatening words to discourage any would-be intruder. Things were handled with the decorum that Carlo Gambino would have demanded.