By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
Considered one of the preeminent American gangsters of the pre-World War Two era, Charles "Lucky" Luciano, in 1936, was indicted in New York, and charged with masterminding one of the largest prostitution rackets in American history. Found guilty on all counts, Lucky was sentenced to 30 to 50 years for the crime of compulsory prostitution. In 1946, as a reward for his alleged wartime cooperation, he was paroled on the condition that he depart from the United States and return to his native Sicily.
Sicily was a major producer of sulfur. Antonio Luciana, Luciano's father, worked in one of the mines in Lercara Friddi, a village south of Palermo. Antonio and wife Rosa bore three sons and two daughters. Salvatore Lucania (Lucky Luciano) was born 11 November 1898. The family arrived in New York a decade later at the height of Italian immigration to the United States. The Lucanias settled in at 511 East 13th Street and later relocated to 265 East 10th Street in the midst of a teeming immigrant neighborhood.
Salvatore took on the name Charles while attending School 19. He was one of the unruly boys who preferred the streets to the classroom. His persistent truancy earned him a sentence at the Brooklyn Truant School in 1911. At age 14, he left school to work as a shipping clerk at the Goodman Hat Factory on Greene Street, with a weekly salary of $5. Found guilty of dope peddling on 27 June 1916, he served eight months at the New Hampton Farms Reformatory. Returning to his Goodman job, Charles left after two years and began his career as a fulltime criminal.
On 3 January 1946, New York State Governor Thomas E. Dewey announced that he was commuting the sentence of Charles Luciano (Dewey was the District Attorney who put him behind bars) and to be deported back to Italy. The statement read: "Upon the entry of the United States into [World War Two], Luciano's aid was sought by the armed forces in inducing others to provide information concerning possible enemy attack. It appears that he cooperated in such effort though the actual value of the information is not clear. His record in prison is reported as wholly satisfactory."
The "information" it was claimed by Luciano's shrewd lawyer, Moses Polakoff, was that his client had kept the New York docks safe from sabotage and had aided the military authorities for two years as preparation for the Allied invasion of Sicily. Many have scoffed at the notion that Luciano had done anything of value to help the war effort. Later he admitted as much when he remarked that "I do not remember where Sicily was on the map, but I talked to some of my influential friends."
According to testimony before the 1950 Kefauver Hearing on Organized Crime, the wartime Office of Strategic Services (the OSS was the direct lineal ancestor of today's CIA; it was disbanded by President Harry Truman on 20 September 1945) while engaged in Italian espionage used Luciano's services in planning for the Sicilian invasion. "The OSS responsibilities for Italian espionage were preempted by the office of Naval Intelligence through a mysterious arrangement with the American Mafia. The criminal syndicate agreed to direct clandestine operations on the island of Sicily in return for the parole of Mafia chief Lucky Luciano. The 'deal' was arranged by Assistant New York District Attorney Murray Gurfein, who became an OSS colonel in Europe later in the war. Brennan was kept informed of these negotiations but the OSS remained aloof partly at the insistence of Major George White, director of Donovan's counter-espionage training and a veteran official of the federal Narcotic's Bureau, who refused to trust the Syndicate." (This is a summary of the testimony of White and other American officials involved in the ONI-Mafia accord.)
Exiled to Italy at age 46, Luciano was transported to the immigrant station at Ellis Island. On February 3rd he boarded the Laura Keene, a freighter moored at Pier Seven in Brooklyn's Bush Terminal. When the ship docked at Naples seventeen days later, Charley Lucky was escorted to police headquarters. He informed the Italian authorities that he would visit relatives in Naples and Sicily but had no intention of residing in his hometown. From that time forward his movements were to be closely monitored by the Italians and U.S. counterintelligence agents. There were American mobsters and narcotraffickers in Italy. The authorities would dog Luciano's steps as they were convinced that he would maintain contact with the underworld, and they were duty bound to reincarcerate him.
He found a house at 37 Via Basurto, traveled with his girlfriend, Virginia Massa, one of many, to Palermo and was observed visiting known members of the Sicilian mafia at the Hotel delle Palme, a well-known upscale hotel of the day. He then vanished and surfaced in Havana, Cuba, where he consorted with known gangsters of his acquaintance. Detained by the authorities, he eventually left Cuba on a merchant ship bound for Genoa, Italy. The Italians were quick to charge Luciano with clandestine departure without official government permission. What credentials had he used to travel abroad? The streetwise Lucky had secured an Italian passport using his birth name, Salvatore Lucania, to the consternation of the police.
Reporters flocked to an interview session in Rome. The questions came fast and Luciano fielded them, as he did with all interviews, with a flash of sarcasm, posing as a mild-mannered man of few pretensions, who was being crucified by everyone and unfairly judged. His timid and sad demeanor did not fit the expectant tough, brash, cold-eyed killer of popular imagination. "Are you a drug lord?" "Sure, my territory's to be all of Europe and the Middle East-Russia, too. Anything more you want to hear? No snatching, no baby killings, no ax murders, no clubbing old women to death? If they need anybody for them, send them to me. I'll take the rap for them. I always do."
The Press claimed that Charley Lucky had access to as much as 90 million dollars in dirty money. He was living well, if not lavishly, and he had no visible source of income. He hired a press agent who set up a meeting with reporters to scotch rumors of his enormous wealth. Charley replied that he a certain investments in Italy. There was that pastry and liqueur store in Lercara Friddi that he had in partnership with a cousin. And the Italian film industry, Cinecitta?, had shown interest in some kind of business venture.
No press agent could erase his mobster past, which had become an amalgam of fact and fancy. He was the international poster boy of the Italian-American mob, the man who eliminated the earlier generation of Italian "Mustache Petes" and displaced the once prominent Jewish and Irish mobsters, an image that continues to this day. All were convinced that he was deep in illicit narcotics peddling, and commanded respect both in America and Europe. For the Press he represented the embodiment of structured and sophisticated organized crime. "Are you a narcotics czar?" "Selling dope? There's a hell of a lot easier ways to make money. I'm not crazy!"
In July 1949, when the police searched his Rome apartment no drugs were found. Vincent Trupia, an American, was arrested at the Rome airport with a half-million dollars of cocaine in his luggage. Lucky was subsequently taken into custody and jailed at Rome's famous Regina Coeli prison. Once again, Luciano could not explain the source of his income. Notebooks from his apartment revealed addresses of a number of his previous American associates. He was released after seven days, banned from Rome and forced to relocate to Lercara Friddi. He hated Sicily, its oppressive heat and abject poverty, and was lucky enough to finally be permitted to settle in Naples.
Agents continued surveillance on Charley Lucky's every move as did the Italian police. How did he afford his high-end apartment? They knew he was consorting with known drug dealers, yet nothing uncovered could establish that he was part of a drug smuggling ring. His telephone was tapped, his correspondence read. "I'm in no mafia," he continued to stress. In 1950, his Italian passport was canceled. He sought to burnish his image by investing in a children's hospital. Meanwhile, he played the horses at the Naples' racetrack, purchased property outside of Rome and a villa on the scenic Bay of Naples. Where did the funds come from? The authorities were baffled.
In the early 1950s, a Neapolitan judge described Luciano as a threat to society, a racketeer who engaged in illegal narcotics. Luciano's insistence that his money derived from business ventures in the United States fell on deaf ears. His movements were restricted to his apartment during the evening hours and he could not travel beyond sixteen miles from his residence. In 1958, he was questioned about the November 1957 Apalachin mob convention meeting at the farmhouse of Joe Barbara, the owner of a beer and soft drink distribution business in Endicott, New York, and a known associate of Sicilian-American mobsters. Did Luciano send a message to the meeting concerning narcotrafficking? He had not.
There was talk of a film treatment. Charley Lucky would sell his rags-to-riches story to Hollywood. George Raft, the former dancer, film star, cinematic gangster and admirer of real mobsters, was Lucky's choice to play him. In August of 1960, Luciano confirmed that he had a heart condition. His voice had been reduced to a whisper, his face devoid of expression. It was January of 1960 when Hollywood mogul Martin Gosch called Lucky to say that actor Cameron Mitchell had signed for the film role. Gosch was on his way to Naples' Capodichino airport to talk business.
Luciano was under tight surveillance when he arrived at the airport. While walking to the parking lot the mobster's eyes began to roll and he fell against Gosch. Charley Lucky died of a massive myocardial infarct. On his person were found $100, a photo of his current female companion, a doctor's prescription, and a religious medallion.
After an autopsy, the body was removed to Santissima Trinita? Church. Joe Adonis and the Fischetti brothers paid their respects. Journalists and agents were in full evidence while three hundred mourners entered the church. One of the wreaths said, "So long, pal."" Adrianna Risso, in black veil, who claimed she was engaged to marry the deceased within two months, sobbed and kissed the coffin, while flanked by two strong-arm types, who would not allow photographs. Salvatore Lucania's remains were temporarily housed in the Poggioreale English Cemetery. Their permanent home is the family vault at St. John's Cemetery, Middle Village, Queens, New York.
Martin Gosch was a creature of Hollywood. He was described as "diabolical and his conniving methods will stop at nothing," a liar and a typical Hollywood opportunist. He and Richard Hammer published "The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano," in 1974. This controversial autobiography had been dismissed as a phony. Luciano never mentioned a hidden manuscript. The FBI flatly declared the book "a complete fraud, along the lines of Clifford Irving's alleged memoirs of Howard Hughes," whom Irving had never met or communicated with, but claimed he had. The Luciano book originally formed the basis of a script for the proposed Hollywood film and was turned into a book to recover loses. There is no evidence beyond the claims made by the ghostwriters of actual interviews between Luciano and Gosch.
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