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How John Gotti Whacked the American Mafia

Mob expert George Anastasia on the ways the Dapper Don helped speed the Mafia's downfall.

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Even in death, John Gotti suffers indignities. A Gotti biopic starring John Travolta and directed by Kevin Connolly (“E” from HBO’s Entourage) was scheduled to hit theaters on Dec. 15… only suddenly to be not only yanked from release but reportedly dumped by Lionsgate completely.

Travolta has since pushed back, insisting that it was actually a buyback that will allow for a wider release in 2018. Indeed, they now want the film to compete at Cannes. (It still needs to be submitted, much less accepted.)

This all feels oddly consistent with the Gotti story. By the time he died of throat cancer in 2002 at age 61, his nicknames seemed to mock rather than flatter him. The “Dapper Don” who bragged about wearing $1,800 suits gave up control of his wardrobe in 1992. That was the year he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole as the “Teflon Don” turned stickum. His conviction was particularly bitter since fellow defendant Sammy “The Bull” Gravano flipped on him. Thus Gotti, whose public flamboyance just dared the government to take him down… was taken down. And he remained down until his death.

Which was par for the course during an era when the mob was bold, aggressive, loud, treacherous, and often staggeringly inept, as if watching a season of The Sopranos in which every single character was Paulie Walnuts.

“It’s a dark comedy,” said George Anastasia. Anastasia spent decades documenting the mob in Philadelphia for the Inquirer, but also explored the “big stage” of New York with Gotti’s Rules: The Story of John Alite, Junior Gotti, and the Demise of the American Mafia. (Alite was a friend, enforcer and self-professed “babysitter” for Gotti Jr.)

Before we get to Gotti, these are reasons why the American Mafia went into decline—the Dapper Don by no means deserves all the credit.

The talent drain. If given the choice between being a criminal or pursuing a position that pays well, is respected in the community, and won’t get you imprisoned or killed, most people will take the latter. “Second-, third-generation Italian-Americans, the best and the brightest are doctors, lawyers, educators,” Anastasia said, with the result the mob was “scraping the bottom of the gene pool.”

A jump in jail time. “The RICO Act made penalties much more significant,” Anastasia observed. (Passed in 1970, RICO stands for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations.) “So instead of three, four years for bookmaking, now you’re bookmaker under a RICO charge and you’re looking at 10 to 20.”

Change in values. “Those old-time guys really believe in the Mafia as a way of life,” Anastasia said. “Men of honor. The Godfather bullsh-t.” Suddenly the organization fills with younger guys who look at it as a “way to make money.” When “they get jammed up and they’re looking at 10 to 20 years,” they see at it not in terms of loyalty but as straight economics: “How do I cut my losses?”

Add these three factors up and it’s no surprise you get…

The rise of the rat. Let’s be clear: crime tends to be stressful in the best of times. You’re battling the law and other criminals for the highest of stakes. But what if the people you thought had your back actually didn’t? “[Mobsters] make a business decision and they become cooperators,” Anastasia said. “You have the Witness Security Program so you can disappear and have a life after the Mafia.”

So you have less talent, less reliability, and greater risk. Clearly, this was an era that demanded exceptional leadership. Did the Mafia get it?

Oh, it most certainly did not. Indeed, there were intriguing trends in boss breakdowns:

Out of touch with the streets. “Paul Castellano was the boss before Gotti,” Anastasia said. “You had a lot of people within the organization who said, ‘He’s a racketeer but he’s not a gangster.’ He doesn’t understand the streets. I think that’s one reason Gotti was able to gain some support when he made the move on Castellano.” (Castellano was gunned down outside Manhattan’s Sparks Steak House in 1985.) It wasn’t just that Castellano had failed to maintain support—he didn’t even realize he’d lost it: “Castellano was not smart enough to realize that he had that problem. That’s an example of a guy who doesn’t really understand who he’s leading.”

Out of touch in general. “We had a boss in Philadelphia named Ralph Natale,” Anastasia said. “Natale had been away in jail for most of the ’80s and ’90s.” When he got out, he “thought he was Vito Corleone but he really was Uncle Junior. He wasn’t in the loop anymore but he thought he was and he had a bunch of guys around him who were willing to let him think that.” Indeed, Natale wound up cornering himself so completely that Philly was treated to the spectacle of a boss turning on the mob: “Ultimately, he became a cooperating witness because he got jammed up very quickly on drug-dealing charges.”

Out of touch with American values. Years after the threat had passed, Anastasia made the horrifying discovery there once was a plan to kill him: “John Stanfa was the boss in Philadelphia. He was born and raised in Sicily. In Sicily, they kill prosecutors, they kill journalists—if you’re not with them, you’re against them. He perceived me… I guess I was annoying him.” Anastasia noted that this was “kind of an aberration” because killing a journalist “creates more problems than it solves.”

Particularly when the plan is to lob a hand grenade into the writer’s home. (“My neighbors would be a little upset,” Anastasia quipped.)

Generally out of order. Incredibly, the attack wasn’t called off either because of its savagery or its shortsightedness (since it would have brought a huge amount of press and police attention), but because… well, they got distracted. Anastasia heard years later from an involved party: “By the time we got the hand grenades, we were so caught up in a war with this other faction that we stopped looking for you.”

Living for the moment. Anastasia observed a general operating principle for the Mafia is to “establish an organization that generates income and has steady cash flow.” At least, sometimes it is. Other times it’s just easier to drift from score to score. Anastasia recalled what one gangster said of another: “Ron Previte’s take on Joey Marino: ‘Joey’s agenda on Monday was to get to Tuesday.’”

Living for the spotlight. And now, enter John Gotti. Understand, Gotti wasn’t the only gangster who embraced notoriety: “Nicky Scarfo in Philadelphia was doing a lot of the same things.” (Albeit getting a lot less attention because it was in Philadelphia.)

Indeed, there was a historical precedent: “Al Capone was like that.” (Anastasia noted a geographic connection between Scarface and the Dapper Don: “Different regions of Italy each have a different stereotypical description. Sicilians are secretive and dark and brooding and stay in the shadows. People from Naples are fairly outgoing. Al Capone was Neapolitan and Gotti was Neapolitan. The stereotypical individual from Naples is kind of a rooster: somebody who likes to dress well, has a lot of bravado. That’s part of the equation with Capone and Gotti: their ethnicity.”)

Of course, this was unusual: it was generally accepted the way to survive was to stay low-profile. This resulted in episodes like “[Vincent “Chin”] Gigante pretending to be nuts all that time while he’s really running an organization”—a former boxer, “The Odd Father” famously talked to parking meters and urinated in the street in an attempt to establish himself as legally insane. Indeed, Anastasia noted that the Genovese family “oftentimes would prop up a straw boss as a misdirection kind of thing.” After all, the goal was to “make money, not headlines.”

Then John Gotti strode on to the “New York stage” at “the center of the universe”: “Boom there he is.”

Naturally, the world ate it up: “Good-looking guy, dressed very well, he’s on the cover of Time magazine. The American public has always been fascinated with the outlaw. Gotti epitomized all of that. He became the face of the American Mafia in the late ’80s into the ’90s.” While the press was obsessed with Gotti, the feeling was mutual: “Gotti was on Page 6 as often as on the front page. He wasn’t afraid of the media, great with sound quips. That kind of thing, all of that resonates.”

Indeed, it made an impression in the underworld: “The younger guys start to emulate Gotti. ‘Look at me, I’m a gangster!’ What’s the point of being a gangster if nobody knows it?” (Even today, the Teflon Don remains a significant figure in popular culture, particularly in rap lyrics.)

Gotti truly looked the part… he just didn’t play it particularly well: “The reality is I don’t think he was a very good boss.”

Why? Anastasia noted that a Gotti associate turned informant summed it up pretty well: “Mikey Scars—Michael DiLeonardo—once said to me, ‘Cosa Nostra was this thing of ours. Johnny made it this thing of mine.’ That was the difference. He talked about Cosa Nostra but it was very egocentric.”

Which didn’t help when the trials began and it was time for his associates to choose loyalty or their own skin.

Anastasia is quick to note the mob stills exists and still earns: “I think there are businesses in which these guys still make serious, serious money. Sports betting is one. Loan sharking is a corollary of that. If you stay in that world, you’re gonna do fine. You’re gonna stay under the radar.” (He also said legalized sports betting would only boost mob earnings, because when you “bet legitimately, you can’t bet on credit.” Meaning the people who develop a taste for it and get in over their heads know where to go.)

But “it’s never going to be what it was.”

Which may be why Anastasia believes the two most realistic mob movies are probably “Donnie Brasco and Goodfellas.” Goodfellas because it “really captured the grittiness, the treachery, you really can’t trust anybody. You never know who’s going to take you out.” While praising Godfather I and II as great works of cinema, Anastasia feels Brasco offered “Al Pacino’s best role as a gangster”: “He’s a schlub trying to make money—he’s got 25 hits to his credit but he doesn’t have 25 cents in his pocket.”

For most members of the mob: “That’s the reality of that life.”