LUCIANO UNDERESTIMATED GENOVESE, AND PAID FOR IT.
Updated: Apr 5, 2021
One of the more interesting stories in mob myth and lore is what happened October 1946 in Havana, Cuba. As history tells us, Meyer Lansky via Charles "Lucky" Luciano would call a meeting at the Hotel Nacional. The meeting had many preface's, but most importantly was that Luciano wanted to discuss the business of the mob. The three main factors concerning Luciano was the narcotics trade, cuban gambling, and the ongoing problem with Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel. On the back end, there were some other issues concerning Luciano, but we will get to that.
What Luciano wanted, was the drug routes he worked out with Sicilian gangsters while deported to Italy, to be fully functioning. There was too much money for the mob to ignore, and Luciano would work out the schematics for the routes, and for those who were in charge of drop off spots. Many people think that Cuba was the way station for gambling, but in reality Cuba was chosen to be a waypoint for narcotics trafficking bring 90 miles off American shores. The argument that Luciano would make, is that if they didn't get involved in narcotics, other criminal groups would, and he worried about that power grab, Going back to the early 1910's Luciano had been active in the narcotics trade, so it was a familiar operation to him. Back in 1928, right after Arnold "The Brain" Rothstein got clipped, Luciano and Louis "Lepke" Buchalter took over Rothstein's drug rackets. In the 20's they imported cocaine, marijuana, and sometimes even heroin, but it wasn't until the 1930's when they started importing heroin and coke from the East Asia Golden Triangle. The triangle would see drugs shipped to South America, into Cuba, then pushed into the Florida. The Cuban government, turned their heads. The entire plan was to utilize smuggling points, where narcotics could be stored, then shipped by sea from North Africa to Sicily to Corsica, into Montreal, the Caribbean, then into Cuba, to Florida then to New Orleans. and with Luciano's control of the docks in Brooklyn, New York, Philadelphia and most of the eastern seaboard, it was a plan that was essentially fool proof. What Luciano needed was firmer distribution points.
Luciano would further iron it all out. The Luciano crime family would oversee drug operations New York. The Marcello crime family would oversee operations in New Orleans. The Trafficante crime family would oversee operations in Tampa. Luciano would used his Sicilian contacts in Italy to arrange everything. While Luciano had the ports locked down, he needed specific men representing all the families to handle the day to day movement of the drugs. Frank "Fingers" Coppola, who was a member of the Partinico clan, who was a subset of the Zerilli crime family of Detroit would distribute. Detroit would then ship drugs to their New York counterparts. Giovanni Ormento would handle business for the Lucchese's, Carmine Galante, Natale "Joe Diamonds" Evola would handle business for the Bonanno's, Frank "Cheech" Livorsi would handle things for the Luciano crime family, Joseph "Joe Bandy" Biondo would handle business for the Mangano crime family.
The Italian subset that would ensure the product would sail smoothly were Frank Barone, Giuseppe Arena(in Rome) Frank Pirico, Frank Saverino and Giovanni Maugeri in Milan, Salvatore DiBella in Naples, Joseph "Peachy" Pici in Genoa and Milan. The Bellanca gang also got involved, which included Antonio, Joseph and Sebastiano Bellanca, Gaetano Martino, all subordinates of the Mangano crime family. A crew from Albert Anastasia's group also pitched in, including Carlo Gambino, Settimo "Big Sam" Accardi, Joseph "Hoboken Joe" Stassi, James Stassi and Anthony Stassi. Anthony Granza, Vincent Ferrara, Louis Cirillo.
Luciano would even name Vito Genovese a large part of the operation, which included Vito, Anthony "Tony Bender" Strollo, Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, Joseph Valachi, Vincent "Vinny Bruno" Mauro, Frank "The Bug" Cartuso, Salvatore "Sam" Maneri, who all were closely aligned with the Papalia-Agueci Network. It was a subset of the Magaddino crime family. The Canadian side of things would be controlled by Johnny Papalia (Hamilton)and Alberto Agueci.(Toronto). It truly was the first groundwork of what would be called "The French Connection," and would lead to what we also know as "The Pizza Connection" decades later. With plans set, it was all systems go. The bosses would vote, and it was green lit.
The second topic, which was Cuban gambling. Luciano wanted complete control over the gambling and put Meyer Lansky in charge of it all. He wanted Lansky to set up casinos and resort hotels, and put money wherever it was needed to facilitate friendly business agreements with the Cuban government. For Lansky it was an easy task as he already essentially owned the Cuban government. Luciano wanted Cuba to be a destination for the wealthy and pampered and wanted to cater to Hollywood as well. He had learned from Las Vegas and that mess that it wasn't always the easiest things to do, which brings us to The Siegel Problem.
Benjamin "Bugsy" Seigel had been friends with both Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano for a long time. They came up together, and Luciano always liked Siegel, and even if Siegel was loyal to Luciano, Luciano realized that Siegel had his own trappings. Fame, women, and money. In the mid 1930's, the New York mob and the Chicago mafia had sent players out west to setup and control the first ever racing wire, along with gambling in Los Angeles and in Nevada.
The secondary reason was the shipments of narcotics needed to be control coming in and out of Mexico. For years the mob had used Virginia Hill, who spoke fluent Spanish and had a way of controlling men through sex, to keep messages going back and forth between narco traffickers and the American mafia. While out West, it was Siegel who had an inspiration. The lore of it all, at least from the Vegas perspective was that Siegel was somehow the solitary guy who had ideas for Vegas. That claim sadly isn't accurate. In fact, Siegel while he was out west, he had heard about a hotel that was slowly being built by Billy Wilkerson. Wilkerson was a Hollywood nightclub owner, one of the founders of the Hollywood Reporter. He had ideas on building a hotel, club and casino out in the desert. The problem Wilkerson had was funds. When Siegel heard about it, he essentially went to visit Wilkerson, and forced him out with the threat of death. Siegel then would place a call to Meyer Lansky back in New York, and describe what was essentially Wilkerson's idea. He begged Lansky to sell the idea to Luciano and Chicago.What Siegel wanted was permission, but more importantly money. Luciano would agree, as did Chicago.
Siegel had told the boys that he expected construction costs to be around $1.5 million. In those days that was a ton of cash, but the mob trusted Siegel and he had proved his worth by dispatching several problems for the mob over the years, especially when he was a member of Murder Incorporated. Whether the mob knew he was banging Virginia Hill, is always going to be subject to assumption, but I think the end result was, they definitely knew. As building began in Nevada there immediately were a ton of problems. Siegel who was busy philandering in Hollywood, put Virginia Hill in charge as the project manager. Her job was to ensure the project was being handled, construction materials arriving on time, workers came and went as expected, but she failed on every single level. Contractors feeling underpaid, and loathing Hill, devised a scheme to rip off Siegel. At night when the site was done for the day, contractors would steal the the construction materials, and turn around the next day and sell them back to Siegel. He was apparently unaware this was going on. It didn't help this was post World War II, and labor costs and materials had almost tripled. What was supposed to cost $1.5 million now came in just shy of $6 million dollars, and the mob was NOT happy.
As the price began to skyrocket, the mob started peeking into the operation, and they would find that Virginia Hill was frequently traveling to Zurich, Switzerland and depositing money into an account with both Hills and Siegel's name attached. The mob was told by a banker overseeing the account, that Siegel was depositing huge sums of money, and with the price of the building skyrocketing, they knew what was going on. Siegel was asking for more and more money and skimming off the top and using Hill to facilitate it. Luciano would explain that Siegel robbing them was the last straw and ordered his death immediately.
Luciano had sentenced Siegel to death, and rightfully so. However, and this is where mob scholars disagree. Most have made the argument that Luciano held off only because they wanted The Flamingo to open, and see what it did. I accept that as truthful, but I also heard a different version. Meyer Lansky, who loved Siegel like a brother, interjected, and disagreed with killing Siegel. He felt Siegel should be sent for, and be able to argue in his own defense. While it looked bad, and Lansky knew it was, he thought after all the three had been though that Siegel deserved the benefit of the doubt. Luciano wasn't going to commute the sentence, but rather placated Lansky, by agreeing to hold off. It presented it's problems for Luciano. On one hand everyone was mad and wanted Seigel's head on a platter, but he also needed the casino to open, and killing Siegel at this point would create more havoc. It's been said, at that meeting while Luciano appeared to appease Lansky, he secretly told others he wanted Siegel dead as soon as possible.
The Flamingo would open December of that year, and it was a flop. The mob wanted Seigel dead, and Lansky begged for another chance for Siegel to prove that The Flamingo could be a success. The Flamingo would open a few months later, made a small profit, but Luciano had enough. Siegel was killed in the home he shared with Virginia Hill June 20, 1947. It's been alleged Frankie Carbo did the handy work.
Vito Genovese. One of the problems ongoing, at least in the inner circle of Luciano was the power that Genovese felt he was owed. Vito Genovese, prior to being indicted for murder, was the underboss of the family. He was next in line.
As he fled for Italy, Luciano would then name Frank "The Prime Minister" Costello as his acting boss. The move while necessary on all levels because Luciano had been expelled to Italy, would turn out to be a wise move, but one that wouldn't last. As Genovese returned to New York, he wanted his rights to power back. In his absence Frank Costello had turned the family into a political juggernaut. Costello's ability to control city hall and politicians had become the way the Luciano crime family was going to head. They needed "friends" in high places, and Costello's ability to talk and charm was worth it's weight in gold. The problem is, Genovese felt, he was the better man for the job, and slowly began to grumble about not getting what he deserved. Luciano knew what was going on behind the scenes. In an effort to stifle Genovese, Luciano talked at length at the meeting about Maranzano and Massiera's downfall. They both wanted to be boss of bosses, and have ultimately control of the mafia, and Luciano saw that as a hinderance not a help or a solution, which is why he set them both up to be killed. While Luciano could have named himself boss of bosses and would have been unrivaled in that, he chose to spread the wealth and the power. He banned the title when the mob was restructured after the deaths of Maranzano and Masseria. However.....
With Genovese sort of beginning his whisper campaign, Luciano felt that maybe a way to keep Genovese on his heels would be to reinstall the boss of bosses title. It was a move to control Genovese more than anything. Albert Anastasia who was already angry that Genovese was moving in on his turf backed the idea, as did Carlo Gambino and Frank Costello and others. I'm sure the move infuriated Genovese, in fact, we know it did because of what happened later that night. Luciano knew Genovese was furious, and called him up to his private Villa. Genovese entered, and Luciano allegedly asked his men to leave. This would be a one on one discussion. Genovese sat down, explained that Luciano had been removed from America, he was aging, and a better solution to the problem may be Luciano stepping down and retiring and enjoying life in Italy. I would largely assume it came off like Genovese telling Luciano what to do, and Luciano reacted by almost beating Genovese to death in that villa. Men rushed into the villa, and carried a battered and bloody Genovese to another room, where it took almost a week for him to recover from the beating he took. Genovese would head home furious.
I don't know if Luciano felt it was over and done with, and I don't know why Luciano just didn't have him killed. I speculate it had more to do with the narcotics operation and in that time he needed someone he could half trust to be at the wheel. Surely Luciano could have acquired someone else, but he didn't. What we know happened next, is pure insanity. Vito knew as long as Anastasia was alive, as long as Costello was in charge, Luciano would never be dethroned. He had a short term plan, and a long term plan. The plans were simple. To kill the snake you chop of it's head. That's exactly what he did.
Genovese knew, that Luciano was hated by the American government. He also knew as long as Luciano was in Cuba he had an arms reach into America. Genovese would contact those within the government and told them that Luciano was residing in Cuba. The American government who at the time was sending medical supplies and food to Cuba was enraged. The United States government told Cuba if they didn't remove Luciano from the Island that all medical supplies and food would be cut off. Cuba under pressure, had no choice. They forced Luciano back to Italy. Shoving Luciano back in Italy did two things. It made Costello weaker, and it also rendered Luciano without the kind of power he once had. Granted Luciano could have exerted it, but for some reason he didn't.
The next move for Genovese, was to kill Anastasia and Costello. He knew Frank would not give up the reins and if Costello was to be killed, they would have to avert war by killing anyone who was powerful enough to exact revenge.
With Anastasia close to Costello and Luciano and relatively feared and powerful he needed an accomplice. He would approach Carlo Gambino who at the time was an underboss for Albert Anastasia. He offered to whack Anastasia in return for Carlo looking the other way on the hit on Costello, and in return he would become boss of his own family. Genovese was slick enough to realize that given certain realities, Gambino would never achieve boss status unless Anastasia went to prison for life, and even then likely wouldn't give up the reigns to Gambino. Gambino worried about the commission, and Genovese explained that he already began the whisper campaign against Anastasia, and with Anastasia making waves for killing Arnold Shuster(who dimed out bank robber Willie Sutton) and for griping about money from casinos and wanting a bigger portion added fuel to the fire. Genovese would explain he would go to bat for Carlo and explain that Anastasia was going to have them both killed and that they were being retroactive. Gambino played Genovese every single step of the way, and agreed.
We know wha happened next. Costello would be shot at by Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, who would botch the murder, but it was enough for Costello to retire. We also know, that Albert Anastasia was shot and killed by Joey Gallo and his crew of misfits, in a move that Carlo would use a few times during his career, especially when it came to Joe Colombo. He would use Gallo to continue warring with Colombo weakening not just Gallo, but also the Colombo crime family, but that's years later.
Gambino would ascend the throne, as would Genovese. Appalachin would come next, largely an absurd meeting called by Genovese to recognize himself as boss of bosses. It's exactly what Luciano didn't want. It went against all he believed in. Why Luciano didn't kill Genovese astounds me. I think he underestimated the balls on Genovese. Perhaps he did and just didn't care anymore. What Genovese pulled off no matter how you look at it, was brazen. It not only put Luciano on the shelf but changed the mob landscape. Luciano though, always the fox, would have his revenge. He would setup Genovese and Gigante to take a drug pinch. How did that go down? Easy. He asked Carlo Gambino to pay off a Puerto Rican drug dealer to setup Genovese. Carlo easily did as he was asked. It would pay off for Gambino in the end, because Genovese would go to jail and die, and Gambino would become the boss of bosses of the entire mafia. For a brief time, Genovese got what he wanted, and the mob father of American Cosa Nostra was left with memories of former days gone by. Perhaps of all of them, Gambino was the most intelligent. He played them all, and the rest, as they say is history.