Although Joseph Bonanno’s crime family was, in 1931, the smallest of New York’s big five, he still wanted to be the largest power in syndicated crime in America.
Crime Family Boss
Bonanno came to America with his parents from Sicily when he was three years old, but the family returned to their hometown of Castellammare del Golfo. He lived out his teens there, absorbed the Mafia traditions and became an anti-Fascist student radical in Palermo following Mussolini’s seizure of power in 1922. Bonanno was forced to flee and reentered America in 1925 after sojourning in Cuba. Although some crime writers say Bonanno went to Chicago and worked under Al Capone, he instead stayed in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in a tight-knit area composed mainly of Castellammarese. He made a mark for himself among the mafioso as an enforcer who saw to it that Brooklyn speakeasies bought their whiskey from the proper sources. (In Honor Thy Father, a biography of the Bonanno family, Gay Talese writes: “. . . he did this without resorting to threats and pressure,” which would have made Bonanno a most remarkable — and probably a one-of-a-kind — hawker of booze in the era.)A young man who seized every opportunity he saw, Bonanno grabbed off virgin territories in Brooklyn for the Italian lottery. About 1927 Salvatore Maranzano arrived in America and effectively took over the leadership of the Castellammarese mafiosi. He soon launched a war of supremacy with Joe the Boss Masseria. Bonanno proved to be a dedicated and dependable soldier in that struggle which became known as the Castellammarese War. Eventually, Masseria was murdered and the war ended—although not by the hands of the Maranzano forces. Masseria was killed by combined Italian and Jewish gangsters who had entirely different plans for the underworld. Lucky Luciano, though serving under Masseria, had his own thing going with other mobsters, especially with Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky. Together these two envisioned crime operating in peace and the highest possible profitability by “syndicating” or “organizing” individual crime effort into a national network.
Neither Masseria nor Maranzano, who were closed minded Mustache Petes, wanted to consider working with other gangs, much less with other ethnics. After Maranzano had won the war, he took in Luciano as his number two man, and appointed him-self boss of bosses over them all. Neither Luciano nor his followers, including many Young Turks on Maranzano’s side whom Luciano secretly courted, cared much for the boss of bosses idea. Luciano vacated the position by having four Lansky gunners assassinate Maranzano less than five months after he’d taken full power.
Luciano kept only the five-family concept and named Bonanno to head up what was originally a large part of Maranzano’s Castellammarese crime family. Under Bonanno the crime family’s revenues rolled in and he was soon a millionaire. He diversified into a number of businesses and skimmed or covered up the income so adroitly that Internal Revenue could never catch him. Bonanno was into clothing factories and cheese firms and even a funeral parlor. Many police give Bonanno’s undertaking activities credit for starting a quaint custom of double-decker coffins, which permitted an extra corpse to be laid under a false bottom to the coffin. It is not known how many missing victims of the Mafia were buried in such communal coffins.
Oddly, although Bonanno was the youngest crime family head in the United States, he was among the most traditional. He took his position as a don — he preferred to call himself the “Father” of his family — most seriously. In his 1983 autobiography, A Man of Honor, Bonanno differentiated the attitudes of himself and Luciano, some think amusingly. Luciano, said Bonanno, was so Americanized that he operated on “the most primitive consideration: making money.” On the other hand, Bonanno continued, “Men of my Tradition have always considered wealth a by-product of power.” Such men of this tradition, Bonanno explained, “were mainly in the people business.”
Whatever business Bonanno considered himself in, it became evident over the years that he thought big. To some rival bosses, upset by his moves beyond his traditional territory, he was “planting flags all over the world.”By the 1960s this was very obvious. Bonanno had long since invaded the open Arizona territory and clearly looked to California where the local mafiosi were not considered serious competition. He had had casino investments with Meyer Lansky in pre-Castro Cuba and was working on going it alone in Haiti. He also worked rackets in Canada, which licensed Buffalo’s Stefano Magaddino, who considered much of that country his territory. By the early 1960s Bonanno for the first time faced some internal opposition from his soldiers who complained he was on the road so much checking out these developments elsewhere that he was neglecting family business in New York and that their revenues were suffering. Some New York bosses were also acting tougher with him, especially after Joe Profaci, who had been another longtime crime family boss in Brooklyn, died of cancer in 1962. Profaci had been Bonanno’s staunchest ally, but at the same time controlled Bonanno’s raging ambitions in the interests of underworld peace. Without Profaci’s restraint, Bonanno decided to make his big move. Profaci had been succeeded as boss by Joe Magliocco who also feared the other New York bosses. Bonanno approached him with a plan to kill off several other bosses, including Carlo Gambino and Tommy Lucchese in New York, Magaddino in Buffalo and Frank DeSimone in Los Angeles. Magliocco agreed to the plot and passed an order to a previously trustworthy hit man, Joe Colombo, to take out the New York chiefs. The plot collapsed when the ambitious Colombo instead revealed it to the intended victims.
Bonanno and Magliocco were ordered to appear before the Mafia commission, of which they themselves were members, to explain their actions. Bonanno refused to appear but Magliocco did and confessed. As punishment—and it was uncommonly light—Magliocco was allowed to retire from his crime family and be replaced as boss by Colombo. The commission had treated him easy because Magliocco was in poor health and likely to die soon (he did within half a year). Also, by showing leniency the commission was hoping to lure Bonanno in.
It didn’t work. Bonanno refused to appear. The commission then ordered him stripped of his crime family authority and replaced him with a Bonanno defector, Gaspar DiGregorio. This split the Bonanno family, some members going with the Bonannos, the others with DiGregorio. In October 1964 Joe Bonanno was kidnapped at gunpoint on Park Avenue while in the company of his lawyer. He was to disappear for 19 months during which time war broke out between the DiGregorio forces and Bonanno’s son, Bill. Dubbed the Banana War, it produced a goodly number of corpses but no decision.
Meanwhile Bonanno was being held prisoner by Buffalo’s Magaddino who was Bonanno’s cousin. Magaddino was clearly acting for the commission and tried to get Bonanno to agree to quit the Mafia and go into retirement. While under constant threat of death, Bonanno reasoned that the commission did not feel on safe ground but was worried that really bloody warfare could break out. It also did not wish to establish the precedent of the commission dethroning a boss since members might find themselves in the same position in the future.
Finally, Bonanno offered a compromise. He would retire to Arizona and his son would succeed him. The commission would not buy that one, realizing it would still leave Bonanno in effective control. Stalemated, Bonanno at last agreed to quit and accept the commission’s decision on his successor.Bonanno was released; but forcing an agreement out of Bonanno and making him live up to that agreement were two different things. Bonanno threw himself into the Banana War. The commission had in the meantime replaced the ineffective DiGregorio with a tougher man, Paul Sciacca, but he was no match against the wily elder Bonanno. In the ensuing killings the Bonanno forces inflicted more damage than they received. It is doubtful the commission could ever have won the Banana War, but in 1968 Bonanno suffered a heart attack and was forced into real retirement. This time an effective compromise was worked out. Bonanno went to Arizona and was allowed to maintain his western interests while giving up the Bonanno holdings in New York. It marked the end of an era. Bonanno was the last of the five original bosses of the 1931 American Mafia still living, but he was now out of action as well. But there were some exceptions. In 1979, when the families decided to rid themselves of the vicious Carmine Galante, a former underboss to Bonanno and at the time the new boss of the family, the Mafia powers thought it wise to get Bonanno’s approval. If not, they feared that, agreement or no agreement, Bonanno might launch a comeback in the hopes of promoting one of his sons into the top position in the crime family. Galante was hit, but no Bonanno offspring took over, a situation that undoubtedly left the father frustrated. The truth was there was only one Joe Bananas, and no one could match his cunning. Bonanno remained in the news. He was prosecuted and convicted on some criminal charges, and in the mid-1980s the federal government sought to make use of his autobiography to prove that there was a Mafia commission and that its present members were part of a criminal conspiracy and thus could be sent to prison. When the aging and ailing Bonanno refused to answer questions to a grand jury about the revelations in his book, he was jailed.
By the time he was approaching 90, Bonanno knew his era had passed. At 94 his son Bill said, “He visits my mother’s grave a few times a week, places flowers there, talks to her for a time, and returns to his home, where his keenest interests (aside from talking) are reading old classics—Dante and Homer—and watching vintage black-and-white movies on TV that hearken back to the days of his youth.” He died May 11, 2002, at a hospital in Tucson, Arizona, of heart failure at the age of 97.