By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
Raymond Chandler(1888-1959) was a noted novelist and screenwriter who influenced the modern detective story with the fictional protagonist shamus Philip Marlowe, private eye. New York City racketeer Charles (Lucky) Luciano (1897-1962) was born in Lercara Fridi, Sicily (buried in St. John's cemetery in Queens, New York), given a lengthy prison sentence in 1936 on a prostitution charge, paroled in 1946, and deported to Italy.
What follows is Chandler's interview with Luciano in Naples, Italy. The interview was commissioned by the London Sunday Times. It was never published. Helga Green, Chandler's agent, who was present, warned the Times that both men had been "extremely drunk" by the end of it. Chandler did not follow the standard question/answer format. Rather, he conducted an open chat with Luciano, taking the measure of the man and his era. Chandler's letter to Luciano (21 March 1958) requesting a meeting promised that "…the purpose to the interview would be solely the attempt of one man to understand another and would in no way or under any circumstances to smear you…." Chandler's suggested title for the article ("My Friend Luco") bears out his intention. The interview took place later in 1958.
Luco. That is what they call him in Naples where no one I met had an unkind word for him. No doubt the Neapolitan police have, but they haven't been getting very far lately in prosecuting him. Nor has the American Narcotics Bureau, which at the present is under the control of the Attorney General Brownell, who, as I understand, was campaign manager for the man [the racket-busting Thomas E. Dewey] who prosecuted Luco.
His real name is Charles Luciano Lucania. He is known to the newspaper public as Lucky Luciano. Lucky in what way? He is supposed to be a very evil man, the multimillionaire head of a world-wide narcotics syndicate. I don't think he is either. He seemed to me about as much like a tough mobster as I am like the late unlamented Mussolini. He has a soft voice, a patient sad face, and is extremely courteous in every way. This might all be a front, but I don't think I am that easily fooled. A man who has been involved in brutal crimes bears a mark. Luciano seemed to be a lonely man who had been endlessly tormented and yet done little or no malice. I liked him and had no reason not to. He is probably not perfect, but neither am I.
His story goes back a long time, and many people may have forgotten what a monster he was made out to be. He was born in Sicily and taken to America as a child by his parents. He grew up in a tough section of New York. Italian and Sicilian immigrants are usually too poor to live anywhere but in tenement distracts. At seventeen he admits to have been involved in some kind of narcotics business. Later on, during the prohibition era, he became a bootlegger or proprietor of gambling houses. So, considering his handicaps, he must have been a very able man.
Of course these were illegal activities under the law, but few Americans except bluenoses and fanatics ever believed in prohibition. Most of us went to speakeasies and bought bootleg liquor quite openly, the ‘most of us’ including judges, police officers and government officials. I remember that in one nightclub in Los Angeles where the Metro Goldwyn studios are situated, two policemen were always on duty—not to keep you from getting liquor, but to keep you from bringing your own instead of buying it from the house.
Prohibition was one of our worst mistakes. It enriched the mobs and made them powerful enough to organize on a nation-wide scale, so that today they are almost untouchable. As for gambling, in some form or other it is legal or countenanced almost everywhere in America. Betting on horseraces at pari-mutual tracks is more than legal; it is a valuable source of revenue to the various states.
Every so often we try to salve our consciences by selecting a highly publicized scapegoat in order to create the illusion that our laws are being rigidly enforced. In 1936 Luciano had reached a position of such sufficient eminence to be selected. Some such scapegoats are guilty, some half or doubtfully guilty, and some—not many, I hope—are framed.
I believe Luciano was deliberately framed by an ambitious prosecutor. He was outside the law, technically speaking, but I don’t believe the crime with which he was charged: compulsory prostitution, and for which he was convicted, had anything to do with his real activities. He was the first of all tried in the press, which is an unfortunate part of our way of life, since if a man is abused long enough and hard enough, his actual trial in court makes him look guilty at the beginning. What happens to you depends on how the cards fall, how good a lawyer you have, if you can afford a good one, how stupid or intelligent the jury is, and usually most of them are hopelessly stupid, because intelligent men can usually find a way of escaping jury duty.
One of the worst menaces to any real justice is the big-time newspaper columnist. They are out to create sensation at whatever cost; they care nothing about the fate of the people they attack, and still less about truth. In a way they are worse than the crooks they attack.
A judge may be the most honorable man in the world, but he can’t do more than instruct the jury to the best of his ability. Perhaps it may seem that in Luciano’s case the sentence was rather excessive, but I am no judge of that. He go 30 to 50—quite a chore.
He served ten years and then, by some rather unusual executive procedure, he was released and sent to Sing Sing to be deported. He was pardoned on the grounds that he had given the armed forces information for the invasion of Sicily. The armed forces must have laughed their heads off. About all Luciano could have told them about Sicily was that it was an island. They already knew more about Sicily than the Sicilians. The real reason for his release could surely have been only one thing: that his lawyers have secured evidence that he has been framed and were prepared to use it against the prosecutor, now an important political figure. He had built his career on spectacular convictions. But he never got what he wanted. We Americans are not fools. At times we may look foolish, but in a pinch we can tell a cat from a leopard.
Luciano went to Rome, but the police made his life impossible. He went to Cuba, and the American Narcotics people jumped on his back. He went to Naples. The police there watched him constantly. He changed his residence very few months. No use. America has become an empire. Its money and influence penetrate everywhere outside the Iron Curtain. Nothing can give him back his life or his freedom. The job on him was too thorough.
No one knows the facts. I can only go by my feeling about the man. If Luciano is an evil man, then I am an idiot. The man who convicted him has had his reward—also his failure. I’d rather be an idiot than live with his soul, if he has one.
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