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LUCKY LUCIANO: Criminal Mastermind

8 minute read
Edna Buchanan

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 labored 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 harbor.

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 Harbor, 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.”

Novelist Edna Buchanan’s Garden of Evil will be published next year. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986

Enterprising Criminals Have Always Found an Opportunity

The unofficial social law of newcomers is that the “first generation gets on, the second generation gets honor, and the third generation gets honest.” Irish, Italians, Jews, Russians, Dominicans, Vietnamese and Chinese have been led from ethnic enclaves into the mainstream, at least in part, by criminal enterprise. So Lucky Luciano wasn’t the only hyphenated-American mobster to realize that opportunities for profit existed in the world of business and were available without the usual qualifications of education, experience and aptitude.

Labor “leader”
The son of a hardware-store owner on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Louis (“Lepke”) Buchalter emerged from a Jewish ghetto to change the face of American labor in the 1930s. Although his fame comes from his leadership of the notorious Murder, Incorporated, Lepke was a pioneer labor racketeer. He learned early that if all the workers in an industry were members of a union, then the selective enforcement of union contracts could lead to domination of entire industries. Employers who paid off gangsters to ignore contracts could produce goods for less and gain a bulletproof advantage. At the height of his power, Lepke ran New York City’s garment trade.

Gasoline Powered
More recently, members of the Russian mafia developed a scheme with implications for society as profound as Lepke’s. They realized that the American tax code offered what speculators might call an opportunistic arbitrage in commodities like gasoline. Here’s how it works: only about 60% of the retail price of gasoline is represented by the cost of production and distribution; the rest of it is taxes. The Russians moved into the gasoline wholesale business, setting up phony companies to buy gasoline and then folding the firms before the government could collect the taxes.

Without the government’s take, the Russians could undercut the competition and still reap huge profits on the gas sales. By the early 1990s Russian mobsters dominated most of the gasoline wholesale business on the East Coast of the U.S. Estimates of Russian profits from just this one scam run into the billions of dollars, making the Russian mob a formidable new force in American crime.

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