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Frank Costello

Prime Minister of the Underworld

Frank Costello

A murder mastermind and cunning crime strategist, he was also dapper, a gambler, an ex-bootlegger, an almost very wholesome fellow — that’s what Frank Costello was.

Joe Kennedy, Sr.

The engaging tales about Costello are legion. He told anyone who’d listen that he and Joe Kennedy up in Boston went way back—to bootlegging, in fact. And he was always groomed to staid perfection. There was the time he was on trial and his lawyer asked him to stop wearing $350 suits, which were hurting his case with the jury, and to switch to clothes from the plain pipe rack. Costello was adamant. “I’m sorry, counselor,” he said, “I’d rather blow the goddamn case.”

A psychiatrist might deduce much from the behavior of a gangster whose obsession with “looking aces” was more important than avoiding a criminal conviction. And yes, Costello did have a psychiatrist, Dr. Richard H. Hoffman, an expert with a Park Avenue clientele. After two years of treatment the newspapers found out about it, and Hoffman admitted he was treating Costello. He said he had advised him to mingle with a better class of people. Angrily, Costello broke off with Hoffman, saying he had introduced Hoffman to a better class of people than Hoffman had introduced him to.

Of course, Costello’s “better class of people” were in the political world. He exercised more political pull than any other major executive within organized crime and the national syndicate. Frank Costello stood for the “big fix.” He bought favors and thought nothing of spending the mob’s money in advance to make sure he could get them when needed. Scores of political leaders and judges were beholden to him. He dangled more of New York’s Tammany Hall bosses on a string than any mayor or governor or president. The press described him as “owning” them all, from Christy Sullivan to Mike Kennedy, from Frank Rosetti to Bert Stand, and from Hugo Rogers to Carmine DeSapio. Costello had done them favors, had raised money for them, had delivered votes through political clubs he controlled when such actions really counted. And when it came time for political appointments Costello practically exercised the same sort of duties the U.S. Senate had—to advise and consent. Tammany boss Rogers put the situation in the proper perspective when he said, “If Costello wanted me, he would send for me.”

When it came to judges, at various levels, Costello referred to them as “my boys.” In 1943 Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan obtained a wiretap on Costello’s telephone, and his investigators were party to an illuminating conversation on August 23 between Costello and Thomas Aurelio just minutes after Aurelio was informed he was getting the Democratic nomination to a state supreme court judgeship:

“How are you, and thanks for everything,” Aurelio said.
“Congratulations,” Costello answered. “It went over perfect. When I tell you something is in the bag, you can rest assured.”
“It was perfect,” Aurelio said. “It was fine.”
“Well, we will all have to get together and have dinner some night real soon.”
“That would be fine,” the judge-to-be replied. “But right now I want to assure you of my loyalty for all you have done. It is unwavering.”

Despite the revelation of the wiretap, Aurelio won the judgeship after beating off disbarment proceedings.

Clearly, when Costello said something was in the bag, it was, and in a mighty big bag. Indeed, Costello may have been “an almost very wholesome fellow,” but he was definitely a corrupter, a character who furnished step stools for slot machines so little kids could get high enough to plop in their nickels. He was a murderer, not with a garrote or gun, but with upraised hand, voting the death penalty or handling the money payoff for a hit.

Born Francesco Castiglia in Lauropoli, Calabria, in southwest Italy, four-year-old Costello came to New York with his family. The family settled in East Harlem, already turning into a slum area. When Frank was 14 he robbed the landlady of his parents’ flat, wearing a black handkerchief over his face as a mask. The landlady nevertheless recognized him and informed the police. Frank made up an alibi that was accepted by the police, and he beat the rap. In 1908 and 1912, he was charged with assault and robbery but was discharged on both occasions. Frank’s brother Eddie, 10 years his senior, was engaged in gang activities, and he brought Frank into the fold. At 24, Costello was sentenced to a year in prison for carrying a gun. He was not to return to prison for the next 37 years.

Charles “Lucky” Luciano

Meyer Lansky

In the early days of Prohibition, his best friends were Lucky Luciano, a Sicilian, and Meyer Lansky, a Polish Jew. Costello never seemed particularly bigoted about crime, possibly because his hatred for his father diminished any bias he may have had about the values of the “old country” Italians. The trio were to become the most important figures in the formation of the national crime syndicate during the 1930s. While Luciano and Lansky took care of organizing criminal outfits, Costello developed contacts and influence among the police and politicians. As the eldest of the trio, Costello had the maturity to impress those to be bribed.

By the mid-1920s the trio’s various criminal enterprises were making them very rich. To protect their interests, they were paying, according to statements attributed to Luciano, $10,000 a week in “grease” directly into the police commissioner’s office. Later, during the regimes of commissioners Joseph A. Warren and Grover A. Whalen, the amount was said to have doubled. In 1929, just after the stock market crash, Costello told Luciano he had to advance Whalen $30,000 to cover his margin calls in the market. “What could I do?” Costello told Luciano. “I hadda give it to him. We own him.” It never occurred to his partners—and later on to other members of the crime syndicate—to question Costello on how he dispensed mob money. Costello was regarded as a man of honor on such matters. Besides, the results were there to see, with cases never brought to court, complaints dropped, sentences fixed, and so on.

Costello became a vital cog in the national crime syndicate, which could not operate successfully without protection. The gangs cooperated and Costello supplied the protection. As part of his reward, Costello got the rights to gambling in the lucrative Louisiana market, where Huey Long was entrenched, hands wide open. And he was hailed by all the crime family heads as the “Prime Minister of the Underworld,” the man who dealt with the “foreign dignitaries”—the police, judges and politicos.

J. Edgar Hoover

Costello is generally credited with neutralizing J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. For years and years, Hoover maintained that there was no Mafia and no organized crime in America. Costello helped keep it that way, not through bribery, but rather through a simple form of “stroking.” The FBI chief was an inveterate horseplayer, a big gambler who claimed never to bet more than $2 a race but used FBI agents to scurry off to make bets for him at the $100 window. Through Frank Erickson, the syndicate’s top bookmaker, Costello would learn when a “hot horse” was running (in Mafia parlance, a hot horse does not mean one with a good chance of winning, but a sure thing) and he would pass the word to columnist Walter Winchell, a mutual friend of both Costello and Hoover. Winchell slipped it to Hoover, and there is considerable evidence from FBI agents about how pleasant Hoover could be after he had a satisfactory day at the track. (There is ample evidence from FBI and Winchell staffers of Hoover’s horse betting and of Erickson-Costello-Winchell tips to the FBI head.)

And what was Hoover’s attitude toward bookmaking and gambling, which with the repeal of Prohibition became the chief source of income for the national syndicate? “The FBI,” Hoover declared, “has much more important functions to accomplish than arresting gamblers all over the country.”

In such a cozy arrangement Costello and Hoover lived happily ever after, and the Mafia and organized crime continued to grow.

Abe “Kid Twist” Reles

Costello groupies from the press and admirers have tried to whitewash Costello by noting that he was not a murderer. But he did sit in on all syndicate decisions concerning major hits. If he was at times a moderating force (too much bloodletting complicated his bribery activities), he did join in on murder plots. Within the underworld, Costello is generally credited with being the man who saw to it that Abe “Kid Twist” Reles, the “canary” in the Murder, Inc., exposures, stopped talking, permanently. Among those so stating have been Luciano, Lansky, and another leading Jewish mobster, Doc Stacher. As Stacher put it in an interview with journalists in the 1970s:

. . . he got to work and found out which room Reles was in at the Half Moon [the Coney Island hotel where Reles was being kept under protective custody]—not so hard because the cops had a round-the clock guard on it. But then Frank really showed his muscle. He knew so many top-ranking cops that he got the names of the detectives who were guarding Reles. He never asked exactly how Costello did it, but one evening he came back with a smile and said, “It’s cost us a hundred grand, but Kid Twist Reles is about to join his maker.”

Costello’s vast influence at so many levels of government was laid bare at the Kefauver Committee hearings of the early 1950s. While Costello insisted that only his hands and not his face be shown on television, that minor nervous finger ballet hardly covered up his anxiety. When he left the stand, Costello knew his days as Prime Minister were rapidly coming to an end. He had become too hot.

Joe Adonis

Vito Genovese

In that period — with Luciano deported to Italy and his hopes of being allowed back to the United States shattered, and Joe Adonis being harassed and facing the same fate — Costello faced tax problems that would deliver his second prison term. Meanwhile, the ambitious Vito Genovese moved to take over Costello’s position atop the Luciano crime family. Costello needed muscle for support; he depended on mobster Willie Moretti, who bossed an army of at least 50 or 60 gunners, but Moretti, losing his mind from syphilis, was recommended by Genovese for assassination to protect mob secrets. Costello determined he needed a new prop. He decided to build up Albert Anastasia, at the time an underling to Brooklyn Mafia boss Vince Mangano. Anastasia hated Mangano but probably did not have the brains to topple him on his own. Costello rather obviously put him up to murdering Mangano and taking over. Now Anastasia, formerly the chief executioner of Murder, Inc., had the gunners of an entire crime family to come to Costello’s assistance. Genovese was countered for a solid half dozen years. Only in 1957 did he finally dare try to have Costello assassinated. Costello survived the murder attempt, the assailant’s bullets just grazing his scalp. But later that year Genovese had Anastasia knocked off. It finally looked like Genovese had won. Costello developed a firm desire to retire from mob activities, to battle instead the federal government over taxes and his possible deportation.

Willie Moretti

Carlo Gambino

Costello still owed Genovese one. Together with Lansky, Luciano and Carlo Gambino, they worked out a cunning plot to have the government take Genovese off their hands. Gambino had connived with Genovese to erase Anastasia and take over the crime family himself, but now he switched sides because he did not want Genovese as an overboss. The four involved Genovese in a narcotics scheme, and when he was deeply involved, they tipped off authorities. In 1959, Genovese was put away for 15 years on a charge the government itself must have sensed odd. During Genovese’s imprisonment in Atlanta — where he was to die 10 years later — Costello did a short stretch there as well. The pair had what was said to have been a “sentimental reconciliation.” Still, when Costello left the prison he must have had pleasant thoughts about Genovese remaining behind.

During the last decade of his life, Costello shuttled between his Long Island estate and his Manhattan apartment, living the life of a country squire and a retired don—despite the occasional newspaper stories that he was back on top. When he was buried in 1973 his widow, Bobbie, insisted that none of his underworld cronies show up or send flowerbedecked tributes.

One who did show up was a distant cousin who as she turned to leave the gravesite, leaned over to Bobbie’s ear and asked: “What are you going to do with Frank’s clothes?” The widow walked off without answering, but perhaps dapper Frank would have appreciated the question.