Despite all the hype about the American Mafia being ruled by a “boss of bosses,” the last man to lay claim to the title was Salvatore Maranzano in 1931, and he lasted only a few months before being assassinated. Since then, the press has assigned the mantle to various mafiosi, but none have really deserved it. Carlo Gambino did achieve a sort of de facto status, but he knew the value of humility and made no effort to grab the title.
In 1957 Vito Genovese made an overt effort to seize overall mob leadership. He was to fail almost as ignominiously as Maranzano did, although he ended up being “taken out” by the feds rather than by bullets.
In many respects Genovese, who preferred being called “Don Vito,” had all the qualifications for being the boss of bosses. He was one of the most feared of the Mafia dons, killing as readily as Albert Anastasia, but possessing the cunning to plot his foes’ downfall — a quality the slow-witted Anastasia did not possess. As much as any single person, he can be credited with keeping the Mafia in the narcotics business, a move that some other mafiosi, such as Frank Costello and, despite the contentions of federal narcotics authorities, Lucky Luciano, at times strongly opposed.
Genovese started out in Luciano’s shadow in the 1920s and in the course of knocking off many rivals rose to the top with Lucky. After World War II he started a murder campaign to gain new status for himself, with Luciano in exile in Italy. He is known to have ordered the deaths of Willie Moretti in 1951, Steve Franse in 1953, and Albert Anastasia in 1957. And he was the obvious mastermind behind the attempt on the life of Frank Costello, which eventually led to Costello’s retirement.
Facing a murder charge in 1937, Genovese was forced to flee to Italy, where he succeeded in ingratiating himself with Benito Mussolini, despite the Fascist leader’s ruthless campaign to destroy the Italian Mafia. He became the chief drug source for Mussolini’s foreign minister and son-in-law, Count Ciano. During the war, to further gain Mussolini’s approval, Genovese ordered the execution in New York of Il Duce’s longtime nemesis, radical editor Carlo Tresca, a mob hit that was performed by a rising mafioso named Carmine Galante. By 1944 Mussolini’s regime was crumbling, and the opportunistic Genovese surfaced suddenly as an interpreter for the U.S. Army’s intelligence service. Due to his energetic and diligent labors for the U.S. Army, a number of black market operatives were arrested in southern Italy. However, the military’s pleasure with Genovese soured when it was discovered that he himself had simply taken over the operations.
Genovese was returned to the United States after the war, but all the witnesses to the murder charge against him were silenced. He won his freedom. He then sought control of the Luciano family and the dominant role in the American Mafia. To succeed, he had to eliminate acting family chief Frank Costello and diminish the outside influence of Meyer Lansky, while continuing to pay lip service to Luciano. Not being fools, Costello and Luciano from afar continually set up roadblocks against him, and it took Genovese almost a decade to move in earnest, building a war chest out of a secret narcotics racket.
Costello was Genovese’s first target, but the murder plot backfired. Costello was only slightly wounded. A few months later, however, Genovese had Anastasia murdered, an advantageous move for Genovese since Anastasia was Costello’s main muscle. Without him, Costello, the “Prime Minister of the Underworld,” was helpless.
Next, Genovese sought to tighten his new stranglehold on the Luciano crime family. He was a prime mover in the famed Apalachin Conference in upstate New York. Genovese probably even expected to be anointed boss of bosses at the meeting, but it ended in a total fiasco when authorities raided the affair and scooped up dozens of Mafia figures. Genovese had been set up beautifully by Costello/Luciano/Lansky, none of whom were present, and by Carlo Gambino who was. (Gambino and Lansky had cooperated with Genovese in the killing of Anastasia for their own motives. Gambino wanted to take over the Anastasia crime family, and Lansky was angered by Anastasia’s moves to invade the Cuban casino scene, which Lansky deemed his domain. Now, with Costello, they tipped off the authorities about the meeting.) Instead of emerging the foremost mafioso in the nation, Genovese succeeded in angering the nation’s bosses, who blamed him for the Apalachin disaster.
Genovese knew that sooner or later he had to eliminate Costello, Lansky and even Luciano. He probably did not yet suspect Gambino’s role. Don Vito’s mistake was in assuming he had time to act; he knew his enemies would not risk open gang warfare. But warfare was not necessary. Just as their cunning stopped Apalachin, so it stopped Genovese. Costello, Lansky and Luciano concocted a major narcotics smuggling deal. There is reason to suspect that they even induced Chicago don Sam Giancana to join the conspiracy. (All that would have taken was Lansky’s offering Chicago a bigger cut in Cuba.) Then, having dropped the deal in Genovese’s lap, the four conspirators pitched in $100,000 for a minor Puerto Rican drug pusher named Nelson Cantellops to implicate him. Although it was hardly credible that a low-level figure like Cantellops could have the information to trap a big shot like Genovese, the federal government chose not to be too inquisitive. Genovese and 24 of his supporters were nailed, and, in 1959, Genovese was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
According to informer Joe Valachi, Genovese continued to direct the activities of his crime family from behind bars. Genovese became paranoid about the frameup and suspected almost everybody. He had his top aide on the outside, Tony Bender, assassinated, suspecting him of being involved. Later he also suspected Joe Valachi of being an informer and ordered him killed in prison. Desperately Valachi opted for government protection and turned stool pigeon, becoming one of the prize informers of all time, revealing many Mafia, or as he preferred calling it, “Cosa Nostra,” secrets.
In 1969 Genovese died in prison, proof that mere brawn was insufficient to take over organized crime in America. In the 1970s statements attributed to Luciano, and later confirmed by Meyer Lansky and others, revealed how they made the government their partner in getting rid of Don Vito.