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Eric Dezenhall Headshot

Waiting for Lucky Luciano

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If you ever want to really tick off organized-crime junkies at a book signing, tell them that their favorite mobster died nearly broke.

I have made this point more than once while on book tours talking about my crime novels. The reaction I get is the New Jersey equivalent of telling a five year-old there isn't a Santa Claus. It shatters a fundamental belief system about how the world works. Or how some folks want it to work.

I call this mafiaphilia, a very American syndrome characterized by the irrational belief that our outlaws are sagacious, all-controlling wizards who beat the system, kill presidents, and smirk all the way to the bank as they enjoy their freedom into old age.

The proof of this, paradoxically, is that nobody can find any proof (or their assets) - such is the alchemic cleverness of our Mr. Big.

Never has there been a greater challenge to mafiaphiles than the recent release of Tim Newark's book, Lucky Luciano: The Real and the Fake Gangster.

Newark concludes that while Luciano played a pioneering role in modernizing the rackets during and after Prohibition, the jig was largely up after he went to jail on vice charges in 1936. In the final years of his life, "Charlie Lucky's" name was used as a proxy for anything sinister and seemingly organized.

Luciano is a fascinating case of how criminals are made, broken - and made again.

Sicilian-born Salvatore Lucania - he Americanized his identity as a boy to Charles Luciano -- first won the respect of other criminals as a hit man on the streets of Lower Manhattan. Later, with his partner, the diminutive Russian-Jewish immigrant Meyer Lansky, he engineered the ultimate, um, management transition by offering the old-fashioned (and bigoted) "Moustache Pete" Mafiosi a retirement package consisting of a whole lot of lead. The old-timers were replaced overnight by a loose confederation of multi-ethnic crooks.

During World War II, in a program coordinated by Lansky, Luciano used his contacts to secure the New York waterfront from Nazi sabotage and help plan the Allied invasion of Sicily. While the value of Luciano's cooperation has been exaggerated by mafiaphiles, the government was sufficiently impressed that they commuted his long prison sentence, permitting his deportment to Italy.

Luciano's second coming as a criminal legend came about through a clever device: He did nothing. He was the Wandering Sicilian, archly smirking for tabloid photographers who interpreted his every tic as a sign that he had just pulled off a big caper, a narrative that law enforcement authorities were all too happy to confirm to justify their own budgets.

Indeed, if Mafiosi and mafiaphiles needed Luciano to be Mr. Big, the FBI and narcotics agencies needed him to play this role even more, writes Newark. Linked to everything from the fabled French Connection heroin ring to the rise of cocaine use in the west, the former teenage dope peddler was unlikely involved in either enterprise.

Luciano's passivity had nothing to do with the mob's fabled opposition to narcotics and everything to do with the workaday impossibility of running an international drug ring while under constant surveillance by a phalanx of highly motivated lawmen.

This prosaic reality rings true. Having grown up in a New Jersey neighborhood where it was common to have a relative, family friend (or three) tied in some direct or attenuated way to "the life," I became fascinated with the disparity between what our culture insisted on believing about this loose confederacy of rapscallions and the banal realities of their lives.

The singer, Al Martino, who played crooner Johnny Fontane in The Godfather, was my neighbor, which validated the youthful delusions of my crowd that we were a part of something, well, kind of badass. To our disappointment, there was nothing remotely sinister about Martino, who personally tended to the masonry on his house, and who never failed to return an errant Frisbee when one of us purposely tossed it over his fence with the hope of meeting Luca Brasi.

Six crime novels later, I've come to accept that my great grandfather, who apparently had a liquor beef go up to the New Jersey State Supreme Court during Prohibition, was not a financial wizard who socked away a stash in Switzerland but, for a long time, it was really cool to think so.

It is fitting that Luciano died of a heart attack on the tarmac of a Naples airport meeting a Hollywood producer considering making a movie about his exploits. Exhausted from a life on the lam, unable to hatch any big schemes under the obsessive eyes of law enforcement and, his gangland pension dwindling, Luciano, the Man, died playing his last card: Luciano the Legend.

Luciano himself said it best when toward the end of his life he admitted that if he had had his life to live over again, he would have been straight: "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."

In the meantime, my search for that numbered account in Switzerland from my (alleged) bootlegger ancestor continues.

No matter what I find, I'll just wink and let you conclude what you will.