1897 - 1962
He downsized, he restructured and he used Standard & Poor's as
much as Smith & Wesson to change forever the face of organized
By EDNA BUCHANAN for Time Magazine
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
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."
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
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"
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
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.
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
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