• U.S.

Prisons: Penthouse Proust

3 minute read

For Joe Valachi, the twelve days of Christmas always turned up 13. “I believed in Santa Claus and hung up my stocking,” he solemnly attests in a recently completed 1,180-page autobiography. “But all I would get on Christmas was having my father try and give me a glass of whisky.” So, as any child psychologist might have predicted, Joe joined the Cosa Nostra, muscled his way up through the ranks and then, in a long-running 1963 TV series that might have been called 1,000 Days with Bobby Kennedy, transferred his allegiance to the Irish Mafia.

These days, Joe, 62, has his stocking filled without ever hanging it. For, unlike most axed network heroes, he has a lifetime contract. Under a life sentence for killing a fellow inmate at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in 1962, Valachi now resides in a fourth-floor, 25-ft. by 50-ft. chamber known as “the penthouse,” a District of Columbia jail cell that boasts a well-stocked refrigerator, television, and—as a chastening reminder of the 32 murders in which the Justice Department estimates he took part—an electric hot plate. The Government feels obliged to protect Valachi because in ratting on the syndicate before the Senate’s McClellan Committee, he violated “omertà,” the underworld’s blood rule of silence.

To while away the hours, the District’s $3,000-a-month star boarder reads movie magazines, performs isometric exercises, chain-smokes Camels while he chain-watches TV, and whips up his favorite recipes on the hot plate. He also spends considerable time fussing with his greying hair, which was dyed henna for his Senate scenes and is now walnut brown. “I put a big dent in Cosa Nostra,” he says, “and I’m enjoying it.”

The Cosa Nostra boys, who would like to put a big dent in Joe, so far have had to be content with advertising a $100,000 price on his head. That price may go higher. Last week the Justice Department announced that it had offered Valachi’s memoirs, entitled The Real Thing, to a dozen U.S. and European publishers. Valachi was asked to write his life’s story on the chance that he might recall some forgotten tidbits of information. No luck. Rather than junk the monumental tome, federal officials decided to waive the rule against federal prisoners writing about their crime careers in the hope that Valachi’s disclosures will alert the public to the syndicate’s threat.

Actually, U.S. lawmen have not made a single major arrest as a result of Valachi’s reminiscences, oral or written, though federal officials still maintain that his evidence is invaluable. It certainly is for Joe.

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