Everybody’s Mafia

The Mafia Is Not an Equal Opportunity Employer

by Nicholas Gage
McGraw-Hill, 224 pp., $6.95

Honor Thy Father: The Inside Book on the Mafia

by Gay Talese
World, 526 pp., $10.00

The Godfather

by Mario Puzo
Fawcett, 446 pp., $1.65 (paper)

The Godfather

directed by Francis Ford Coppola


As with God in the late Middle Ages, all that there is to know about the Mafia seems to be known by now except whether it actually exists. Among recent exegetes, Professor Joseph Albini finds the evidence so conflicting that no single Mafia can be deduced. Like a street-corner rationalist looking for contradictions in the Bible, Albini believes that when two accounts differ they must both be wrong, and that separate names (Cosa Nostra, the Outfit, etc.) must necessarily stand for different things.

Nicholas Gage finds the fragmented testimony of such canaries as Valachi and Nicola Gentile sufficient to prove the opposite—with a secret society bound to silence, it’s about all the evidence you’re going to get. Gay Talese, who writes like a man on a tapped phone with a gun in his ear, suggests that there may indeed be such a thing but that the American branch consists by now of tired businessmen on the way down. Mario Puzo, as a novelist, has no professional opinion to offer, but knows a good myth when he sees one.

Puzo at least is right. The ineffable Norman Podhoretz recently ascribed our interest in gangsters to our need for success stories (given time, Podhoretz would undoubtedly find sublimated success drives in Love Story and The Sound of Music). But surely no explanation is necessary. The myth of feudal bandits dumped down on twentieth-century Brooklyn is so intrinsically fascinating that even the characters in the real thing, who ought to know better, are tempted to believe it, making it a fact in its own right.

For instance, several gangsters have congratulated Mr. Puzo on his uncanny portrayal of their profession in The Godfather, even though Puzo confesses (in The Godfather Papers)1 that he had never met a gangster in his life. Which means either that the Corleones are just a typical Sicilian family, or—somewhat more likely—that if you make a portrait brave and noble enough, people will see themselves in it somehow.

Similarly, much has been made by unbelievers of the fact that mafiosi never use the word Mafia. But in recent testimony in Boston, Joe “Barbosa” Baron did indeed use it, doubtless having picked it up in his reading. Hoods are as suggestible as the next fellow, and an old friend of Joey Gallo says that Crazy Joe used to think he was Richard Widmark before he had models closer to home. So we may get a Mafia yet, if those lines around The Godfather movie pay attention.

To judge from Albini’s book (which, allowing for special pleading excessive even in a scholar protecting his turf, seems to be a reasonably thorough historical study), the Mafia has always been a myth, but in this same potent sense of a religious myth, like a nonexistent saint who works real miracles. Mafia legends may be sturdier than the real thing. It is, in fact, virtually impossible to trace what became of the real thing between its alleged founding in 1282 and its re-emergence in 1860: indeed, even the founding is in doubt. The phrase “Morte Alla Francia Italia Anela,” which Gage blithely passes on as the origin of the term, could not have been used at that time because Sicily did not consider itself part of Italy (Albini, as usual, beats you to death with other reasons, but this one should do). But the basic legend of a local girl being avenged against a French officer provided a symbol with or without the slogan, a Garden of Eden, worthy of a man of respect.

The subsequent history of the Mafia suggests a series of ad hoc brotherhoods that folk history has somehow run together. For some thousand years, anyone who could rent a boat could occupy Sicily, and the natives found it necessary to improvise outlaw structures to cope with each occupation in turn. Obviously a myth of unbroken resistance could be used to lend legitimacy and authority to such kangaroo governments, and it seems likely that some groups claimed more history than they were strictly entitled to: for instance, the Beati Paoli, who believed they were descended from the Minor Brethren of St. Francis and still had powers of priesthood conferred in 1185. A secret society can always surface under new management and claim it was there all along—as to some extent the IRA has done in our own time. In Sicily, as in Ireland, the shortage of official history gave the field to unofficial history, and the cult of a 700-year-old Mafia has endured as an inspiration and occasional embarrassment to the present members.

Thus, anyway, Professor Albini. And since the links are undoubtedly missing, the historic Mafia may be called for now a functioning superstition. Gage and Talese both leap gracefully over some 600 years of Mafia evolution, allowing only that it seems to have changed sharply by the nineteenth century. Looking at our present version, one notes among American Mafia families little sign of the mystic continuity necessary for such long life. In Honor Thy Father, the Bonanno gang begins to split the moment Joe appoints his son Bill to the succession. Far from honoring such blood loyalty, the lower ranks mumbled about nepotism just like regular executives and jumped to other organizations for upward mobility. Even in The Godfather, which seems to exalt family ties beyond anything in actual experience, a rival gang leader takes it for granted that he can do business with the son if he can manage to kill the father first. The fact that he can’t may be why, in Oscar Wilde’s phrase, we call it fiction.

The gap between Mafia legend and fact is what makes the mafiosi so richly and, for them, inconveniently dramatic, whether for comedy or tragedy. There are certainly plenty of other gangsters, Jewish and Irish and whatnot. But how many of them believe they are blood descendants of a great patriotic movement? The stately sense of honor and loyalty makes even their silence dramatic. Nobody ever invoked the Fifth with such panache. If I were Sicilian, I would think twice before disowning them completely, cant notwithstanding. When Lucky Luciano guaranteed the protection of the Florida coast in World War II, he was doing no more than Francis Drake would have done. If they receive undue attention, it is not just because of bigotry, but because they are men to whom attention must be paid, knight errants gone wrong and not to be mistaken for your usual pig thief.

Of course it’s a myth. Out of the desperate history of Sicily, it would be too much to hope for such flowers. The style is miracle enough. If mafiosi really had the honor and loyalty they profess, they would not need to kill each other half so often. The famous Banana war,2 like all the other Mafia wars, was no tale of heroic vengeance but a squalid exchange of double-cross and triple-cross worthy of a major world power. And in all these books, even Puzo’s dithyramb, I found somewhat less loyalty and honor than in Albert Speer’s memoirs. What they would behave like without their myth of nobility shakes the imagination.

Perhaps the Mafia has traveled badly and American air doesn’t suit it. Young Bill Bonanno is as dismayed as his father before him by the decline in discipline among the younger hoods, although the more spectacular betrayals are still performed by the elders. But to judge from Barzini’s notes on the subject,3 or Albini’s, Mafia honor at best was barely enough for thieves to get by on. The early brotherhoods were desperate amalgams which found robbing in packs more effective than robbing singly. The early appearance of blood oaths indicates how little spontaneous trust there ever was among them. One theory on the mainland was that they were really Arabs anyway, and perhaps there is an Arab touch to their individualism and paranoid gallantry; but mostly what they were was starving.

Anyway there is no occasion for funny blood theories. The Sicilians were as adaptable as anyone else would be whose history keeps coming unstuck. One colonization is bad enough; numerous ones splinter the personality to madness. The spiritual response, as in Ireland, was to give themselves more tradition than they needed. But the physical response was to cooperate with every invader who came along, from the Bourbons to Garibaldi to the American army in World War II. And even over here they are ultrapatriots to the legitimate non-Sicilian government. Far from being a national liberationist movement gone sour, the Mafia could almost be defined as those who sold out first and best, the supercolonials. And of course they sold out the only thing they had to sell, their own people. What they offered in each case was the same gimcrack feudalism, based on a patron-client network, claiming all kinds of bloodlines but in fact being a shifting meritocracy of courage, shrewdness, and cruelty.

When they came to this country, the Sicilians found only one trifling difference in political organization from what they were used to. Instead of a new government arriving every few years, new subjects arrived, causing roughly the same net effect of institutional unraveling. Theoretical legitimacy might exist in Washington and in those remote backwaters known as state capitals, but actual social legitimacy had to be established over and over again with each new group. This was pre-eminently the land of the ad hoc brotherhood and the kangaroo court. From Grand Kleagle to baseball commissioner, private law always existed alongside public, and an immigrant could be pardoned for confusing the two.

In the cities where the Sicilians settled, the Irish had already established their own legitimacy. One way and another (history records no clean ones), they had captured the official titles and were the “law.” But Sicilians were not fooled by this. The city machines were no more the law than the Bourbons had been. In fact, the Sicilian saw nothing much here to surprise him: patronage and pay-off, justice as political adjustment, cops as mercenaries, politics in the raw, too young to cover itself respectably. It is Albini’s contention that the Mafia was imported solely as technique, but even this was hardly necessary, since everything but the language was already here, from Tammany down to the Irish betting parlors.

That, for Albini and to some extent Talese, is that. Standard Mafia apologetics leans hard on this similarity to other American institutions. Bill Bonanno, through his mouthpiece Talese, broods at length over the hypocrisies of private business and public justice. What are we doing that’s different? he says. (The persuasiveness of this defense depends partly on how you feel about other American institutions.) Albini for his part sees no need to conjure up an international conspiracy. Mafiosi tend to be intensely local. They haven’t even infiltrated eastern Sicily, let alone the Italian mainland (recent news reports say they have, but every crime wave looks like Mafia to mainlanders). Wherever a local situation demands it, some Sicilians will fall back on Mafia technique, forming secret brotherhoods, enforcing their own laws (rather heavy on capital punishment, but what can you do when you haven’t got prisons?), and making whatever deals they can with the current Bourbons; even, perhaps, pretending to a history, a continuity, that isn’t there.

In real life, according to Albini, the early American Mafia did not even know it was a Mafia until it read about itself in the papers: it was simply a blanket phrase for a lot of disconnected local groups, some relatively honest, applied indiscriminately by a salacious press. As usual, Albini pushes his theory outrageously hard. For instance, in discussing the famous Hennessy case, which seemed to locate a self-conscious Mafia unit in New Orleans in 1890, he says the murder of police superintendent Hennessy could not have been a true Mafia job because the leader paid the killers bonuses, and he wouldn’t have had to if he already had their sworn allegiance. If that doesn’t sound like a defense lawyer down to his last trick, at least it doesn’t sound like the voice of impartial scholarship.

But so far the point may be largely academic anyway. An international crime syndicate in the 1890s would have been a cumbersome affair at best. The question is not whether the Mafia has a past but whether it has a future. The standard post-Valachi version, as repeated by Gage and others, is that the new revised Mafia only came into being in the 1930s, after the night of the Sicilian Vespers, when Lucky Luciano stepped over forty or thirty or ninety dead bodies (accounts vary as much as Joe McCarthy’s lists) and began organizing the survivors into a modern business. Albini rebuts this notion by pointing out that nobody has ever named the actual victims. This may not be conclusively important: to be credited with a killing is almost as good as doing it, in that world of rumor and bluff. What is important is Albini’s further claim that Luciano never organized anything at all outside of New York, and even in the city was no more than an arbitrator among families, and a not very effective one at that.

This gets us at last to the nub of the matter. If Luciano did not organize the Mafia, did anybody else? Or is it still just a series of shifting alliances with no one mind of its own? Albini is at his most strenuous in discrediting the evidence of a National Mafia Commission, and he dismisses the convocation at Apalachin on the following dubious grounds, among others: observers got the numbers wrong again (but it’s hard to count men running through the bushes); crime syndicates have been known to meet before on an impromptu basis, which doesn’t imply a permanent organization (but the other meeting he cites, in Atlantic City in 1929, did not consist entirely of Italian families); the representation does not square with our knowledge of Family power structure and therefore there is none, only a constant shift of power relations. (OK, our reading of that was too rigid. Our canaries only saw part of the forest.)

For his coup de grâce, Albini adds that the alleged commission was not able to prevent the Banana wars—which is rather less than proving that the United Nations doesn’t exist because it never stopped anything. Obviously the commission is not so powerful that it can prevent a powerful family from defying it. But we do learn from Talese’s book that members of the Bonanno family had trouble getting work during the wars and that many of them defected as a result. Which is a lot more than the UN can usually manage.

Similarly, in hacking away at the myth of an international Mafia, Albini sweats a little too hard for his own good. Reading him you would suppose there were no contacts at all between American mafiosi and the old country. For instance, he nowhere mentions Vito Genovese’s enforced sabbatical in Sicily, during which he was of such service to the US Army and after which he did so much to get the Mafia into the narcotics trade. Nor does he go into Luciano’s Old Boys convention in pre-Castro Cuba, which proved so embarrassing to Frank Sinatra. Since the drug business depends heavily on international cooperation between dishonest men, the vestigial blood loyalties of the Mafia might be expected to give them an edge here. But Albini’s Mafia, being nonexistent, would not know what to do with an edge.

The myth of a monolithic international machine may be easy to dispose of, for now, on psychological grounds alone. The question is whether, in this age of mergers and lightning communication, the Mafia has resisted bigness altogether and remained uniquely a cottage industry. The quick answer, comforting mainly to Italians, is that if it has it will shortly be crowded out by more cosmopolitan syndicates. The word may survive even this, and is already used loosely to cover crime of all races, but it won’t be the same.4

In fact, each of these books except Albini’s conveys a certain nostalgia about the old Maf, an unusually nostalgic organization to begin with. Nowa-days the Mob can barely find enough hungry Italian boys and so far refuses to replace them with lesser breeds—presumably because these would lack the necessary honor. When Joey Gallo was in prison, he toyed with the idea of giving black gunmen equal employment, but the results were not encouraging. Joe Colombo was killed by one, and who could have hired him but Joey?


It is clearly in the Mafia’s interest to appear to be going out of business, but to a flourish of trumpets, which these books provide. The Mafia soul has always been split between secrecy and ostentation. If the secret is too well kept, who will respect them? Gage describes the ornate interiors of their houses, compared with the drab front they must show the tax man. Talese contrariwise contrasts the meanness of their hide-outs and all-round dullness of their lives with the “compulsion to travel first-class on airplanes, to lease a Cadillac.”

Both versions would seem to be correct. A capo who lives too well is in danger from his own people: several have been gunned down for their conspicuous consumption—living well is revenged the best. Meyer Lansky was safer in an anonymous Florida cottage than a don in a gilded fortress. On the other hand, a man must impress his clients somehow. So one arrives at these enormously complex façades: not just silk on the inside and cloth on the outside, but a constant switch back and forth depending on who’s looking. Thus the mania for respectability: the plain gray suit and the flashing ring. In the circumstance it is quaint of Bill Bonanno to rail at the hypocrisy of more orthodox public figures.

Gay Talese has been criticized for writing what amounts to promotional material for the Bonanno family, but his book is an invaluable document and I don’t know how such books can be obtained without some compromise. It is a lot to ask of an author that he betray the confidence of a Mafia family. As with a tapped phone call, one must interpret the message. Honor Thy Father conveys at least what the Bonannos would like you to think of them, or what they wouldn’t mind you thinking of them. Talese signals occasionally to his educated audience—dull, aren’t they? Almost pathetic. But that’s all he can do. Our language differs from theirs about a few words like “dull.” (God knows, they would find Sidney Hook’s life dull.) But beyond that, Talese must play it straight.

His account of Bill Bonanno’s thought processes is therefore all the more illuminating for being precisely the way Bill would like you to get it. When I add that it reminded me of Yogi Berra reading Gospel comics, this is not to indicate that Bill seems stupid. On the contrary. He is stupid only in the one area where he can’t afford to be intelligent, that is, in questions of moral legitimacy. Here he becomes like a scientist hanging onto a fundamentalist religion. He argues like a well-drilled child, going over the same responses again and again, and never moving forward an inch. We’re only doing what everybody else does, the Banana war is nothing compared with Vietnam (that mighty mother of excuses), we’re only providing for needs that society is too hypocritical to recognize—fair enough if you include listening to the juke box and hauling grain among these. The Mafia uses legitimate businesses to “dry clean” its money—and apparently its members’ consciences.5

Thus the dramatic problem that The Godfather fails to resolve in either book or film and that makes it finally only superior melodrama turns out to be a pseudoproblem. How, we had wondered, could a nice boy like The Godfather’s Michael Corleone become a ravening killer? Puzo makes up incidents galore and even takes us inside Michael’s head, but the join is never satisfactory. We go from Jekyll to Hyde, with no believable chemical in between.

But Bill made the same transition in real life and we are also offered his head, or at least his words, to examine, and there’s simply nothing there—just a few catechism answers he’d absorbed as a child in case they came in handy. Entering his father’s business was no more of a moral crisis than joining the army and killing somebody there. If he had not been drafted he would have carried his bloody catechism unused to the grave, as a civilian carries his My Lai.6

Unfortunately the author cannot follow Bill all the way to the trenches. Talese’s role was like that of a Mafia child, or, as Bill Bonanno might say, like a US citizen under Johnson, assured that the other guy started it and that daddy detests violence. Talese’s account of the Banana war seems disingenuous even on a reading of texts. Nicholas Gage states categorically that Joe Bonanno had contracts out to kill the archdukes of the Luchese and Gambino families and that the contracts fell into the wrong hands—Joe Colombo’s, as it happened—lighting the whole string of crackers. Talese ascribes the contracts to a loyal but muddled lieutenant of Bonanno’s, acting for once in his life without orders. (This lieutenant died shortly afterward of heart failure, the Mafia’s No. 1 killer.) And during the war itself, according to Talese, we are not to suppose young Bill did any actual killing. Some days he went to work like a Jane Austen gentleman who does something or other in the City; other days, he hid out and worried about his weight, every fluctuation of which is carefully recorded; but in neither case was he anything but passive.

Some critics have found mischief in this apparent whitewash, but the writer as Mafia child has an interesting vantage point. With the violence down to a dull roar off stage, we get a better look at the way of life all that blood7 is paying for. There is a brooding sense of self-pity and injured innocence in the Bonanno household that infects even their pleasures. Joe Bonanno loves to read about himself but everybody gets him wrong and he is in no position to correct them. Young Bill loves to travel first-class but dares not stick his head out the front door. Even when he goes to jail he cannot cash in on his small power. Candy bars are sneaked in to him, but he can’t eat them in case they’re poisoned. The grievance throbs like a nonstop migraine. If we’re only doing what everybody does, why can’t we enjoy it the way they do? Bill even lacks every American’s birthright, a credit card, and is caught using someone else’s: a fine ending for a man of respect.

Talese’s book has a further peculiar advantage of a kind that can only happen once. The method he has chosen, that of the nonfiction novel or new journalism or whatever it’s called this month, would be, at least as practiced here, an unfortunate strategy for most subjects. Talese uses the resources of fiction all right—but what fiction! For instance, to vivify scenes where he was not present himself, he decorates with things that are likely to have happened, those lifelike things we all do—i.e., Bill loosens his tie when he boards his plane, stretches his legs, etc.—little wax flowers of description that give off the same unreality as bad Victorian novels. But this proves to be weirdly right for the subject. The prose matches the stiff watchful façade of the Mafia. One is reminded of a touched-up country wedding photo, with the cheeks identically rouged and the eyes glazed, of the kind the Bonanno family might have ordered for themselves back in Sicily.

Mario Puzo profits from the same oddity. He has said that he wishes he’d written The Godfather better—and he certainly could have, being not only a gifted writer but a knowing one. (Read The Godfather Papers, a first-rate collection of essays only glancingly related to The Godfather, hence outside our present scope.) But a better book might have been less true to the subject. The stilted, frequently abstract dialogue of hack fiction echoes precisely the ruminations of Bill Bonanno in real life. Mafiosi would seem to love the orotund phrase that says it all—the kind of phrase that good writers despair of finding and bad writers find all the time. Puzo may go too far in equipping his killers with quasi-artistic temperaments, but their response, again in real life, suggests that this is not displeasing to them.

Interestingly enough, this avowedly commercial novel has been transposed note for note into a film apparently acceptable to the high-brow—which may say something about why high-brows go to films and don’t read novels. Of course, the book’s in-between bits, the arbitrary jumps from head to head, the had-I-but-knowns (“if someone had told her she would not see Michael again until three years passed, she would not have been able to bear the anguish of it”), the speed-writing clichés (“his face red with fury,” “the smiles vanished from the faces of…”), and the I-give-up transitions (“the change in him [Michael] was…extraordinary”) have been dumped and replaced by specific movie virtues. Still one wonders if book-people haven’t surrendered too much to film in drumming melodrama out of literature. In its very artificiality, melodrama offers specific literary possibilities lacking in naturalism. And our Puzos might be tempted to write those in-between bits better if such efforts were not foredoomed to be called commercial.

This is by the way. The novel remains at least an excellent screenplay and the movie is preposterously entertaining, telling Puzo’s compendium of old-time Mafia anecdotes with all the gravity of Old Testament epic. Marlon Brando as the Godfather does everything wrong, even his self-consciously Italian hand gestures are out of synch with his words, but in an atmosphere where solemn hamming is to the point, this doesn’t matter as much as it might. Brando is in an unhappy phase of his career where he seems to be wondering, how can I be great in this role? and he interprets until the sweat runs.

But the rest of the cast conveys the precise guts of the Mafia myth, the engorged self-respect and self-importance, the theatrical secretiveness, the eerie sense of play, as though it were all really an opera after all. Al Pacino’s face in frequent close-up does all that can be done for Michael’s baffling motivation. (I didn’t know a face could take that much close-up and still say anything.) James Caan as Sonny Corleone conveys the empty geniality that backs onto homicidal rage better than Widmark ever did. And Robert Duvall as the non-Italian consigliere has all the weasel cunning of the outsider signed on by the Myth but not really part of it.

There are some other things to praise in the movie—the interior sets, which convey everything that Gage and Talese have to say about Mafia home life, the stately operatic movement from tableau to tableau, and the extraordinarily clear articulation of the story line. As to the violence, I have to disqualify myself. I don’t enjoy it and therefore don’t look at it. Like a surgeon I heard about who walked out of M.A.S.H., I don’t like to watch people suffer if I can’t help them. I am told that the violence in The Godfather is quite elegant and suitably unreal. To hell with it.

In one sense Talese and Puzo would seem to cancel out in their moral effect—Talese demythologizing as fast as Puzo mythologizes. In another sense, they complement each other—Puzo glamorizing and Talese telling us not to worry. Perhaps the whole moral issue only exists in the heads of the noncriminally minded anyway. Non-Italian gangsters flourish very well without a myth. The black and Puerto Rican street gangs of New York, pushing for the latest in new legitimacies, may pick up some style hints from it. But the urge to set up private governments, police, and courts will presumably continue on its own steam until we achieve a common legitimacy, a Mafia of the people, as Bill Bonanno might say if he ever used the word, or split definitively into our constituent fragments.

As to the specific future of organized crime, The Godfather will no doubt do its little bit to sustain the slanderous impression that Italians have a lock on it. This is bad for the Mafia but good for everybody else in that line of work. Nicholas Gage, in his slapdash but readable book—sort of a Ripley approach to the subject—reports on a group of Italian carpenters who were held on suspicion for hours at the Heathrow Airport while Meyer Lansky slipped into England unnoticed to set up a huge gambling operation.

If the Mafia has an international future—if, that is, it is to impose its hierarchic technique and legitimacy over the new electrosphere or global village—its high visibility will be a problem. But it has had this problem before in the United States and has solved it in every major city, regardless of Italian population. The Mafia knows how to work with outsiders, as the British worked with the Fuzzy-Wuzzies, without losing identity. And it knows that a few Sicilians, maybe the fewer the better, go a long way. (The usual number cited is around 5,000 mafiosi in the US.)

Is the Mafia (outside of its undoubted entertainment value) worth the fuss? Again like God, if it exists, it would seem to be pretty important. All that totally unaccountable money and power has to have political consequences. And the Mafia becomes more unaccountable by the minute, as operations tangle and ramify. President Nixon puts the gambling take at between 20 and 50 billion dollars a year, which by me is no information at all. If you can’t get closer than that, you’re just using your figures, like Luciano’s corpses, for effect. Gage gives the Mob no more than 40 percent of the US drug trade, which is still a nice piece of business if he’s got it straight. But over-all income is so diversified by now that it is harder to trace than the CIA use of foundation conduits. In fact the same method is used—fungibility as it was called in the Encounter case: the laundering, or downright transubstantiation, of money by frequent reinvestment at home and abroad.

So it is possible (this much of the myth seems to be true) to work for the Mafia without realizing it. Their boast that they can get a man into the White House “and he won’t know it till he gets the bill” may be just a flash of the old grandiloquence; at least its blundering attempts to get at the Kennedys through Sinatra (amusingly reported by Gage) suggest an idea whose time hadn’t come. But a trial of corrupt officials, stultifying monopolies, and decayed cities is not bad to be going on with, for an organism within an organism, or cancer.

To conclude: a last word from the skeptics, and perhaps a low-church compromise. If the Mafia does not exist, it would be baneful to believe in it. It gives us a Loch Ness monster to blame for all manner of local ills that need separate attention. It gives all of us the luxury of helplessness, and it gives politicians in particular an Orwellian cause, now that communism has slipped a bit, to raise funds for. (Curiously, the one with the richest opportunity, J. Edgar Hoover, denied the existence of the Mafia for years.)

A compromise would start with the lowest consensus: that there is such a thing as Big Crime, that it is more broadly organized than it used to be, and that Sicilian “families” play some part in it. The Death of the Mafia school maintains that the latter will soon be phased out, or will go relatively straight, and that crime, like prizefighting, will be taken over by the ambitious poor. It would be nice to think of the poor taking over such a large industry. But I think the argument overlooks just that largeness: the apparatus is there now like General Motors. A crook can’t start out as he once could in a small way of business and hope to compete. You need capitalization and contacts and experience, and these the Mafia can provide pre-eminently, whether to Puerto Ricans working the numbers or Frenchmen refining heroin.

It could be that the Mafia will take an increasingly remote or entrepreneurial part in all this; and the Sicilian wing, or Mafia proper, is likely to see its name applied to more and more heathens until, like the Roman Church, it acknowledges Chinese capos and Nigerian consiglieri. But the Sicilian branch will probably retain a special place in this UN of crime, partly because it has the best myth and partly because it got there first, and established a grip on the machinery.

The new capos who can keep up with the wild bookkeeping will not be as much fun as the old ones—but then, as Stephen Potter would say, maybe they never were. The Golden Age is always just behind them. The new prototype is suggested by Bill Bonanno himself, suaver and better educated, less visible, and cooler in every way: like the latest Henry Ford compared with the old curmudgeon. The managerial revolution has as usual smoothed and dulled the reality. But the Mafia myth itself is in good shape, as suggested by the latest publishing lists and those lines at the movie. And if the myth was never true but always effective, why should not this continue to be so? The Godfather is like a recruiting poster for the Crusades. War isn’t like that any more, and never was, but certain temperaments will follow the poster anyway. And, reinforced by these heavy injections from the media, the Mafia should be able to attract all the fiery young Corleones it needs, even if it’s only to man the switchboard and analyze the computer, and be snuffed out at last by a missing credit card.

  1. 1

    The Godfather Papers and Other Confessions, Putnam’s, 252 pp., $6.95.

  2. 2

    Presumably so called because the name Bonanno captured the fancy of the New York Daily News headline writers.

  3. 3

    Luigi Barzini, From Caesar to the Mafia, Library Press, 335 pp., $8.95.

  4. 4

    As Gage points out, the Mafia has always coexisted with local crime syndicates, such as the Purple Hand Gang in Detroit, the Cleveland Syndicate, etc. Since their work looks roughly the same, it is easy to confuse them and lump them under one heading. But an international syndicate would need to stitch together not only these organizations, for American distribution purposes, but also assorted Turkish politicians, French middlemen, Vietnamese talent scouts, and God knows what else. And who is better equipped to assemble such packages than the Mafia?

  5. 5

    By entering legitimate business they establish sources of income that appear legal and often pay just enough taxes to avoid prosecution. The legitimate businesses give them opportunities to reinvest money made in the rackets. Such businesses themselves can be extremely profitable, especially when the Mob succeeds through terror tactics in gaining a local or regional monopoly”—Michael Dorman, Payoff (McKay, 1972). Dorman adds that Mafia campaign contributions look better when they come from “businessmen.”

  6. 6

    According to the Banana code, the Mafia will wither away the day that all human pleasures are declared legal. The American Mafia was originally conjured up simply to help move booze, stayed around to gamble, and creaked into the drug era, with some of the older capos protesting (they love children, it seems). The trouble with all this is that, even if there were no crimes left (and who can bet they wouldn’t come up with a new one?), the Mafia’s mode of operation would remain criminal almost by definition. As a large outlaw apparatus, it would still lack politicians and judges and have to buy a piece of someone else’s; lack social sanction and have to improvise its own, etc. So that even if all its businesses were legitimate it would be some distance from the respectability that Bill Bonanno craves.

  7. 7

    In this case, Mafia blood. How well Bugsey Siegel’s boast, or lament, “we only kill each other,” holds up generally is hard to say. Gage says that Mafia loan sharks can be quite reasonable, even friendlier than Chase Manhattan ones at times. But again, the Mob needs it both ways—a reputation for killing, a reputation for not killing—and our hard-breathing law officers will have to solve a lot more murders before we know how much of either is deserved.