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Lucky Luciano
1897 - 1962

 


He downsized, he restructured and he used Standard & Poor's as much as Smith & Wesson to change forever the face of organized crime
By EDNA BUCHANAN for Time Magazine
 

 

He was born and died in Italy, yet the influence on America of a grubby street urchin named Salvatore Lucania ranged from the lights of Broadway to every level of law enforcement, from national politics to the world economy. First, he reinvented himself as Charles ("Lucky") Luciano. Then he reinvented the Mafia.

His story was Horatio Alger with a gun, an ice pick and a dark vision of Big Business. He was nine when the family immigrated from Sicily, where his father had laboured in the sulphur pits, to New York City. He took to the streets early, was busted almost at once for shoplifting, later for delivering drugs. Luciano was a tough teenage hoodlum on the Lower East Side when his gang targeted a skinny Jewish kid whose bold defiance won their respect. The encounter led to a merger of Jewish and Italian gangs and a lifelong friendship. When Luciano rebuilt the mob, Meyer Lansky was the architect. A ruthless natural ability enabled them to rise through the ranks of their chosen profession. Sometimes they simply eliminated the ranks. When they downsized colleagues, it was permanent.

Taking advantage of Prohibition in 1920, Luciano and Lansky supplied booze to Manhattan speakeasies. While others used small boats to offload mother ships, their contacts enabled them to dock ships in New York harbour.

An upwardly mobile member of New York's largest Mafia family, run by Giuseppe ("Joe the Boss") Masseria, Luciano grew impatient at the Castellammarese war in the late 1920s, a long and bloody power struggle between Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. Lucky offered to eliminate his boss and end the violence, which he saw as disruptive to business. At an Italian restaurant, Joe the Boss ate lead. Lucky assumed control of the dead man's lottery business, while Maranzano seized his bootlegging turf.

Lucky's vision of replacing traditional Sicilian strong-arm methods with a corporate structure, a board of directors and systematic infiltration of legitimate enterprise failed to impress Maranzano. An ancient-history aficionado and would-be Julius Caesar, Maranzano aspired to be boss of all bosses. Most of all, he wanted to avoid Caesar's fatal miscalculation. He found Lucky too ambitious, too enterprising, too dangerous.

And Maranzano was too late. He was killed by police impersonators, hit men provided by Lansky and mutual friend Benjamin ("Bugsy") Siegel. More rubouts followed, in a well-orchestrated cutback of old-time Sicilian gangsters. Yet Luciano's management style would be far different from that of his Chicago counterpart Al Capone, who spent more time killing than doing business. The FBI describes Luciano's ascendancy as the watershed event in the history of organized crime. After his hostile takeover, Luciano organized organized crime. He modernized the Mafia, shaping it into a smoothly run national crime syndicate focused on the bottom line. The syndicate was operated by two dozen family bosses who controlled bootlegging, numbers, narcotics, prostitution, the waterfront, the unions, food marts, bakeries and the garment trade, their influence and tentacles ever expanding, infiltrating and corrupting legitimate business, politics and law enforcement.

Luciano also led the trend in gangster chic. He lived large, in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria. Expensive and elegant suits, silk shirts, handmade shoes, cashmere topcoats and fedoras enhanced his executive image. There was always a beautiful woman, a showgirl or a nightclub singer on his arm. Sinatra and actor George Raft were pals.

The good life ended in 1935. Thomas E. Dewey was appointed New York City special prosecutor to crack down on the rackets. He targeted Luciano, calling him "the czar of organized crime in this city," and charged him with multiple counts of compulsory prostitution. The trial was sensational. Tabloids went wild. Lucky vehemently denied being a pimp. "It's a bum rap," he said, a lament echoed down the years to modern Miami, where a few aging mobsters remember the man. "Nobody had anything bad to say about Charlie," one of them told me. "He's the one who put it all together. A gentleman. He'd give a girl a hundred dollars just for smiling at him. That pimp charge was a frame just to get him off the streets." Convicted on 62 counts in June 1936, Luciano got 30 to 50 years in prison.

It took Hitler to win Lucky his freedom. After Pearl Harbour, German U-boats off the U.S. coast were sinking merchant ships regularly. U.S. intelligence suspected they were aided by spies or Nazi sympathizers. Then the Normandie, a French liner being retrofitted into a troop ship, sank in the Hudson River, sparking fears of sabotage.

Stymied intelligence agents turned to the underworld for help. Lansky, known in the '30s for breaking heads at pro-Nazi meetings, acted as liaison and was allowed to visit Luciano. Lucky put the word out to cooperate, and formerly mute dockworkers, fishermen and hoodlums became the eyes and ears of naval intelligence. Soon eight German spies, who had landed by U-boat, were arrested, and explosives, maps and blueprints for sabotage were seized.

When the invasion of Italy was planned, the Allies needed intelligence for the landing at Sicily. Lucky for them, again. On V-E day in 1945, Luciano's lawyer petitioned for clemency, citing his war efforts.

Eventually, a deal was reached that included deportation — Luciano had never become a citizen — and he was sent to Italy in February 1946. He surfaced months later in sunny, pre-Castro Cuba. Lansky, Sinatra and other pals paid visits — so many, in fact, that the press took note, and in February 1947 the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics learned of Luciano's reappearance in the Americas. U.S. authorities claimed that he planned to headquarter a worldwide drug-smuggling operation in Cuba. Lucky was again packed off to Italy.

He died there, in homesick exile, on Jan. 26, 1962. Unlike so many of his predecessors and colleagues, he expired of natural causes, a coronary — an occupational hazard common to hard-driving executives. Or maybe he was just lucky. Italian and U.S. officials quickly announced they had been about to arrest him in a $150 million heroin ring. The fatal attack came at an airport, where he had gone to meet a Hollywood producer.

Lucky Luciano excited the American imagination, always captivated by bad guys. A reporter who tracked him down in the twilight of his life asked if he would do it all again. "I'd do it legal," Lucky replied. "I learned too late that you need just as good a brain to make a crooked million as an honest million. These days you apply for a license to steal from the public. If I had my time again, I'd make sure I got that license first."
 


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Although he was once called "one of the 20 most influential builders and titans of the 20th century, "Charles "Lucky" Luciano (1897-1962) was a mobster. His advice was sought after by world leaders, but he was still a kingpin of crime. He eventually died in Italy as a deported criminal.

Luciano was born in Palermo, Italy on November 27, 1897. His parents, Antonio and Rosalia Cuania, brought their four children to New York City in 1907. His father, a sulphur pit worker in Italy, hoped to find a better life for his family. Luciano attended Public School 19, completing sixth grade. Arrested at the age of ten for shop-lifting, he was released to the custody of his embarrassed parents. The arrest neither frightened him nor did it teach him a lesson. He was arrested several more times for minor theft. By 1915, Luciano had become a tough teenage hoodlum on the Lower East Side of New York.


A Natural Leader

Luciano soon had a gang of tough Italian boys following him. He taught his gang the "protection" racket, and they spent their time collecting pennies from local Jewish boys who paid to keep from getting beat up. One young boy, Meyer Lansky, refused to be intimidated and instead laughed at the tough Italians. That bold defiance impressed Luciano. The unlikely pair became best friends and were able to merge the Italian and Jewish gangs on the Lower East Side. Their friendship resulted in a successful crime partnership that would last until their deaths. Lansky would eventually became the architect of Luciano's criminal empire in New York and around the world.

Luciano took a job delivering hats for a Jewish hat maker named Max Goodman. The relatively successful Goodman exposed Luciano to a middle-class lifestyle. But Luciano didn't plan to work as hard as Goodman. He soon realized that if he slipped some drugs into the hatbands, he could kill two birds with one stone. He also learned one of the most valuable lessons of his life, that of making money behind a legal "front." Soon he was making more money than he had ever seen before as a drug dealer. He even served a term at Hampton Farms for selling drugs. It was after his release from this state facility for youthful offenders that he changed his name. He felt that his given name of "Salvatore" or "Sal" was a girl's name, so he became known as "Charlie."

At first Luciano and Lansky, along with friends Frank Costello and Benny "Bugsy" Siegel, committed simple robberies to make ends meet. Eventually the ruthless natural leadership style of each man enabled them to rise to the top of their chosen profession. It was said of the Luciano organization that when they "downsized" some of their colleagues, the move was permanent.


Prohibition Era

An action by the United States government gave Luciano the idea that propelled him to the top of the underworld. In 1919, the sale of alcoholic beverages was outlawed. It became clear that the demand for alcohol was still large and whoever could provide the drinks would become very rich. By 1920, he and Lansky were supplying alcoholic beverages to all the Manhattan "speakeasies" (bars).

As Luciano's fame grew, a war was being fought between major local gangs in New York. Luciano, at 23, aligned himself with the largest Mafia family, that of Guisseppe ("Joe the Boss") Masseria. He continued with his bootlegging empire, and controlled plants, distilleries, trucks, and warehouses for the sale of illegal alcohol. Some of his partners included Guisseppe ("Joe Adonis") Doto, "Waxey" Gordon, and Arnold Rothstein, who "fixed" the 1918 World Series.


Boss of Bosses

Luciano began to reconsider his alliance with Guisseppe Masseria, who he realized wasn't the most powerful of the two major families. There are many different stories about the attempted murder of Luciano, who was becoming a problem for both bosses. Some reports indicate that gangsters in an Irish mob beat him nearly to death. Other reports claim it was police officers looking for a payoff, or federal officers who caught him with illegal alcohol, or the father of a girl Luciano had impregnated. Whoever was responsible, Luciano was beaten severely, cut across the face with a knife, and dropped off as dead in a river on Staten Island. Having survived this vicious beating, he earned the nickname "Lucky."

Luciano realized that the war had to end, and that he should be in charge of all the gangs in New York City. He had to figure a way to get the two main bosses to kill each other, since Mafia "soldiers" on both sides of the continuing war were being killed every day. He realized that the continuing bloodshed between gangs was attracting more and more of the attention of authorities, and disrupting his lucrative businesses. He contacted the other boss, Salvatore Maranzano, and an arrangement was made to assassinate Masseria. Luciano met with his boss at a Coney Island restaurant to discuss plans to eliminate Maranzano. Masseria was delighted that his top lieutenant was forming such a plan against his old enemy. Luciano excused himself to use the rest room and four men entered the restaurant: Bugsy Siegel, Al Anastasia, Vito Genovese, and Joe Adonis. They shot Masseria to death. When Luciano emerged from the rest room the four men had disappeared and the police had no case against him.

Next on the list was Maranzana, who didn't know that most of his "underbosses" and "capos" had given their loyalty to Luciano. They saw that Luciano was a better businessman, who would bring them more profits. Maranzana invited Luciano to a meeting, where he planned to have him killed. Luciano didn't show up for the meeting, but four "tax men" did. Maranzana had been having tax problems, so the four were brought all the way to his inner offices. By the time his personal bodyguards realized what was happening, Maranzana was dead. They fled in fear, and the way was clear for Luciano to become the most powerful of all crime figures, the New York "boss of bosses."

Luciano adopted the efficient idea of "crime families," appointing faithful supporters to head each one. He wanted to establish order. With the help of his longtime friend, Meyer Lansky, he created "the commission" or "Unione Siciliano." A group of his Sicilian friends sat on the board, and all organized crime activities in the 1930s were decided by this commission.

Top crime bosses were also popular society figures. Luciano was often seen at restaurants and the theatre with well known civic leaders, entertainers, and other notables. Although he had bodyguards with him, he didn't really need them. Luciano was clearly in charge of organized crime and nobody dared to challenge his authority.


Prosecution

Law enforcement officials also knew who was the top crime figure in the U.S. In 1936, New York district attorney, Thomas E. Dewey, brought charges against Luciano for running a prostitution ring. Even though Luciano had once saved Dewey from an assassination plot, that did not stop Dewey from prosecuting him. Luciano insisted that he was not involved in prostitution. However, a series of witnesses testified against him and the district attorney won his case. Luciano received a 30 to 50-year prison sentence, the longest ever handed down for such a crime. He was incarcerated in Dannemora, the so-called "Siberia" of organized crime.


Deported to Italy

Efforts to secure his release proved futile until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, and the U.S. declared war. The U.S. Navy feared submarine attacks and needed the cooperation of all waterfront workers to prevent this. Since Luciano still maintained complete control over the New York waterfront, even from prison, he was in a position to bargain for his freedom. In exchange for getting the dock workers to help the U.S. Navy and ordering the Italian Mafia to work against Benito Mussolini, back in Italy, Luciano was promised a parole. However, he had to agree to return to Italy and remain there for the rest of his life. When he left prison in 1946, Luciano was taken to Ellis Island and sent back to Italy. Although he promised to return to his adopted country, that never happened. Luciano died of a heart attack in Naples, Italy on July 26, 1962.

 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 12 December, 2008