Bound by Honor: A Mafioso's Storyby Bill Bonanno
No one can tell the true story of the Mafia in America better than Bill Bonanno. He was there. He lived it.
Bill Bonanno was born into a world of respect, tradition, and honor. The son of legendary mafioso Joe Bonanno, Bill was a "made" member of the Mafia by the time he was in his early twenties. He was rumored to be the model for The Godfather's/i>/p>
No one can tell the true story of the Mafia in America better than Bill Bonanno. He was there. He lived it.
Bill Bonanno was born into a world of respect, tradition, and honor. The son of legendary mafioso Joe Bonanno, Bill was a "made" member of the Mafia by the time he was in his early twenties. He was rumored to be the model for The Godfather's Michael Corleone and was the subject of Gay Talese's best-selling Honor Thy Father.
Now retired, Bill is finally ready to give an eyewitness account of his life as a high-ranking captain in the Bonanno crime family, one of America's most powerful Mafia syndicates. He takes you inside the mob at its peak, when New York's Five Families-Bonanno, Gambino, Colombo, Lucchese, and Genovese-not only dominated local businesses, but also controlled national politics. For the first time, Bill Bonanno discloses the machinations behind his marriage to Rosalie Profaci (niece of the powerful don Joe Profaci), and even that cemented the alliance between the two Families with all the pomp and circumstance of a royal wedding. From the truth about the mysterious disappearance of his father to a startling disclosure about he mob's participation in the Kennedy assassination, Bill Bonanno lays bare the inner workings of his chaotic, violent, and surprisingly human world with unparalleled detail and insight.
Bound By Honor not only recounts Bill Bonanno's tumultuous life, but also is an engrossing chronicle of organized crime. Bonanno's story provides a remarkable glimpse into all of the intriguing personalities of the underworld of yesterday to today, from Bugsy Siegel to John Gotti.
This book is a must for readers of Mario Puzo, Gay Talese, Nicholas Pileggi, and others who have written abut the Mafia, but who have never been in the eye of the storm in quite the same way as Bill Bonanno in Bound By Honor.
"Surprising detail and sophistication...The Family story he tells is pretty hot stuff."Biography magazine
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Bound By Honor
A Mafioso's Story
By Bill Bonanno
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Armeda Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Nineteen fifty-four. Spring. Mass has ended. A knot of people move out of a small adobe-style Catholic church in Tucson, along white walks framed by neat flower beds filled with desert plants: blooming cactus, epiphytes with pale green leaves and deep scarlet blossoms. There are two men in the center of this slowly moving group that surrounds them and shields them from the eyes of the curious: Joseph P. Kennedy and my father, Joseph Bonanno.
The men have known each other for almost thirty years. To all the world, these men are as different as night and day, as different as an ancestry that is Irish and privileged on one side, Sicilian and underworld on the other. But these two Joes, in my mind, are really opposite sides of the same coin. Their story is actually one, shrouded in the richness of disguise and irony: a Tale of Two Joes, an American Success set to the words of Emma Lazarus and the ideas of Niccolò Machiavelli.
Two men. Two seemingly separate destinies. Their lives are rooted in the neighborhoods of the American immigrant communities in which they grew up, among people new to this country, struggling to survive poverty, prejudice, and political powerlessness. Joe Kennedy is from a family that would not accept those limitations—the same as Joe Bonanno. Kennedy's father and then Joe Kennedy himself built out of the back rooms and saloons of their neighborhood a powerful answer to powerlessness. The building blocks were booze—and claps on the back: relationships. Out of the saloons of Boston's Back Bay, Joe Kennedy was raised to understand the importance of friendship. Like his father before him, he was there with money, contacts, advice, and support for those in need; in turn, he got back the kind of willing support and loyalty that allowed him to extend contacts and friendships: to the cop on the beat, the neighborhood shopkeeper, the local ward boss, the councilmen, representatives, mayors, and governors who supposedly ruled over them.
Joe Bonanno's father, Salvatore, my grandfather, at the turn of the century was also a man with a saloon and a thousand friendships, who understood that the nature of fellowship was decidedly political. But in the Sicilian wards of Brooklyn, political power worked a little differently. English was not spoken; relationships with the high and mighty were built more clandestinely. But the building blocks were the same. The men and women who did not have enough to eat or to pay their rent or to find good doctors for their children went to the Bonannos for help—which they received and for which they paid back in support and loyalty all that had ever been extended to them. Joe Bonanno and Joe Kennedy, from the time they were kids, understood this basic principle of friendship. That is what joined them at the hip (that and Prohibition). That was what made them men of power.
But as I was walking along behind them that morning, I was even more keenly aware of what it was that had pulled these men apart and set them on very different paths. It was not so complicated to understand.
One of the men was about six feet tall, with sandy reddish hair. He had a long, oval, freckled face—and he spoke English impeccably, so that it was easy to imagine him dining with diplomats or to see him as a diplomat himself, speaking for his country, skillfully, subtly, at official state dinners and at country clubs, in private negotiations with ambassadors, even with heads of state.
The other could never fit in that way. My father was shorter, stockier. His hair, though thinning, was still thick and dark. His face was broad rather than oval. His jaw was as solid-looking as a warehouse loading dock. Though he spoke six different languages and read philosophy and literature as eagerly as others pored over newspapers, his English was still heavily accented—enough so that when he met diplomats and heads of state, he would often, in spite of himself, feel out of place and embarrassed.
I knew why Kennedy was there that day. He was looking for money and support for his son John, recently elected to the U.S. Senate. Nineteen fifty-six was coming up, an election year, a chance for a little-known but well-placed senator from Massachusetts to grab a vice-presidential spot on the ticket, or at least to get his name up in lights so that he could position himself later on for better things.
What could Joe Bonanno possibly do for Joe Kennedy to enable a son of his to make a run for the sun? Begin with the Democratic party in New York State. No Democrat in New York got elected without the backing and approval of the Five Families. My father was the Father of one of those Families. As far back as 1932, when FDR was first elected to the White House, Joe Bonanno was involved. He was introduced to FDR at a Democratic party dinner after the election. FDR pulled him aside, had my father photographed with him, and gave him the picture as a keepsake and thank-you for all the help in the campaign and over the years. Don't expect anything as a presidential candidate without New York.
In Arizona and the West, where we had been established since the beginning of the forties (when, for health reasons, I was sent to school there), my father, though he kept a low profile, had a network of powerful business and social connections that included Judge Evo DeConcini (father of U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini); Morris and Stewart Udall; Congressman Harold Patten; Governor Ernest McFarland; the state Democratic party chairman, Joe Walton; Larry D' Antonio, the state party treasurer; Gus Battaglia, the state party secretary; and Dick Jenkins, the Pima County Democratic boss. Joe Bonanno definitely was a man to see.
Joe Bonanno that day promised he would do what he could to help Joe Kennedy when and if the time came. This was a pledge made out of friendship—but also out of something else. My father knew Joe Kennedy, knew enough about his past to feel confident that any help offered would be returned. There was friendship—and a skeleton or two in the closet. Once upon a time, Joe Kennedy had been in the bootlegging business, and one of his partners at that time happened to be an associate of my father's, Frank Costello. My father regularly spent time in the twenties at Sag Harbor, New York, where Costello had a home. Kennedy used Sag Harbor as a drop-off point for contraband whiskey he smuggled into the country from Europe. My father clearly remembered a couple of occasions when Kennedy joked and bragged about having had to pitch an illegal immigrant or two overboard to divert possible interception by Coast Guard patrol boats. The men joked about it over drinks in the library of Costello's rambling estate overlooking the harbor. Other people were present. My father remembered who they were. He had a memory like an elephant.
When Kennedy left Arizona that year, I thought a lot about my own future. Where was I going? What was I doing? Unlike Kennedy's son, I was not running for office; no one was out raising money for me. Though my father had shaped me as surely as the climate and soil of Sicily had shaped the olive tree, he was not campaigning for me to do anything. I wished he was. I was still uncertain, at the age of twenty-two, of what to do with the special legacy of my family's tradition, which I felt in my blood but not yet in my feet. What office was I going to fill?
I had recently been through college at the University of Arizona. I had been a good but fitful student, switching majors, never sure of what I wanted. For a time, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer or a diplomat. I didn't speak with an accent; my look was long and rangy—quite American. But I also knew that I was the son of Joe Bonanno, and the name Bonanno, if not the look, had already set a boundary for me I had to acknowledge. For a while, I had simply wanted to be a rancher. I had worked for years on our family farms, which grew livestock and special Pima County cotton, and then, for a year, I majored in agriculture at the University of Arizona. But ag school was the end of the line; it never suited me. Then I was a business major, largely because I was in love with a girl who was in love with numbers, too—but not mine. Because of the Korean War, I joined ROTC, which was mandatory.
I liked the military well enough to think seriously about it as a career for a time. I liked the discipline, the Bunker Hill-to-Iwo Jima sense of tradition and all that. Plus, I happened to be a very good marksman, skilled in the use of many types of firearms. I had an outlet for all that in the military. I went through special training one summer, and there was a chance my unit might actually be called, but it was at the end of the Korean War and the order never came. My unit was disbanded and the appeal of the military seemed to go with it. I was soon back in Arizona, back to figuring out what to do next.
I knew my father's history quite well by then. I knew he was a man of power and that his power was exerted behind the scenes rather than out front. I knew his activities reached into many areas, mostly legal, but some—like gambling—illegal. A few years earlier, that alone would have attracted me. I considered myself something of a daredevil as a teenager. I fell in with a group of kids who were into running guns into Mexico. It was a lark for me, a way to make easy money on my own. Guns were legal in Arizona, so there was no problem purchasing them. There wasalso no problem taking them into Mexico and selling them at a huge profit, usually to big shots high up in the police or military who had their own little personal armies they needed to equip.
The guys I ran with weren't at all like me. They were guys "from the other side of the tracks," half-breeds and barroom hustlers. They talked tough, acted tough—and were tough, I guess—but I thought I was just as tough, just as daring. My running with them had an element of secret pleasure in it because I knew I wasn't at all like them but could keep up very well.
One day, five of us went into Mexico with a trunkful of guns, which we delivered to a "rancher" just outside of Agua Caliente, a town about ten miles from the border. It turned out our customer was an "el capitano" of some kind in the Federates. When we delivered our cargo, the "el jefe" tried to screw us out of the money we had coming. The guy was also a hothead—as were a couple of our guys. We got into a shouting match that quickly escalated into some serious pushing and shoving. Pretty soon, there were bodies flying in the dust all over the place. We got ourselves together, got back in our car, and took off, heading straight for the border. The big shot and his friends were in a couple of cars behind us, in hot pursuit.
As we neared the border and saw the pileup at the customs stations, we ditched our car, got out, and ran for it, with these guys a couple of hundred yards behind us. We never saw our car again, but that hardly mattered. I think the difference between our getting away and our spending years in some hellhole of a Mexican dungeon was, ultimately, the fact that we were in a little better shape than the pistoleros who were chasing us. We came steaming through the checkpoint, screaming, "We're Americans! We're Americans!" Even though the guys behind us were yelling to have us stopped, we were allowed to pass on the Mexican side. We were stopped by American authorities, questioned, and then, after it became clear what was involved, were charged with some kind of border violation and allowed to go free on our own recognizance, pending later court appearances.
When my father, who was in New York at the time, heard what had happened, he immediately dispatched my uncle Frank Labruzzo, my mother's brother, to Tucson to clear up the matter. I don't know what he did precisely, but Uncle Frank took care of things, and the charges were dropped. My friends got off, too. I then went back to New York and spent the summer with my family—and with Uncle Frank. He was a group captain in my father's Family. And, with my father's approval, if not his blessing, I remained at his side, watching and learning.
Because Uncle Frank was my favorite relative, because he was a generous and intelligent man, we talked a lot. We talked about books, about what I was doing—and not doing—in school, about what I wanted out of life. All the while, he kept me at his side as we went through different neighborhoods. I saw how he operated as a group captain, the respect people showed him—bookmakers, people in his "crew," cops who were friends—for a price—who could be counted on to turn the other way and who, in turn, looked to him to see that things remained quiet on their beat.
Uncle Frank was my teacher. I remember being with him in his office at the L&G Trimmings Company once when a man who had defaulted on a loan dropped by. The man was nervous, shifty-eyed, obviously fearful. When Frank asked him why he hadn't been making his payments, the guy went into what seemed to me to be an obvious song and dance.
"Oh, business is awful. I gotta fuckhead for a partner. I don't know if I can even stay in business. I got bills; my kids need clothes...." And so on and so forth. Frank just stared the guy down and said very quietly, "I need the money."
The guy was shaking by now. "You'll get the money or I'll turn over my restaurant to you."
Frank got up from behind his desk and walked over to the guy. He put an arm around his shoulder and walked him to the door.
"I don't want your restaurant; you just do what you can to pay the loan back, okay?"
"Oh, I will, I will," the guy said, and slipped out the door as if he was late to catch a train. Frank walked back into the room, poured himself a cup of coffee, and then asked me what I thought. I told him. I told him I thought the guy was just playing the violin, that, in reality, he was one more person who was quick to borrow and slow to pay. Frank motioned for me to come over to his desk. He opened a drawer and asked me to take a look. There was a .38 revolver lying there.
"Pick it up," Frank said. "Is it loaded?"
"It is," I said.
"What else do you notice?"
"It looks like you haven't fired it in a while," I said.
"I haven't," Frank said, "because I haven't needed to. You know why that is? Because people know that I have the gun. That's all they have to know. The minute I use it, what they know about me changes. I'm their friend when I don't use it; I'm their enemy when I do. You understand? That violinist ... we've known each other for years.... He's a good guy. He'll do the best he can. He'll pay me ... and I can wait."
I think it was at that point—when I was not yet nineteen—when I sensed that this was the life that was waiting for me and that it was one that actually connected to traditions I believed in. When I returned to Arizona the following fall, after the military, I pursued my studies but also began to involve myself more directly in my father's world. I wanted to do this. It made sense, more sense than anything else. I carried messages and briefcases full of documents and, sometimes, cash to different places—Californiaor Canada, where my father had business interests or crews. We had crews in Arizona, too. And, over time, my father allowed me to work with them. We had illegal activities that included gambling, slot machines, and bingo, which were all unsanctioned but allowed to flourish because of the wants and needs of the people in Phoenix. There were arrangements with other Families to stay out of the area, relationships with local officials, permits and payoffs to take care of.
It was on that trip of old man Kennedy's when it suddenly came to me that I knew exactly what I wanted. I sat in a pew behind and to the side of my father and Joe Kennedy at Mass that day. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the two Joes with their heads bowed, kneeling side by side, brothers of shadow and sunlight. Joe Kennedy's son, I knew, had had his life picked out for him. He had no more choice in what he was going to do than he had had in selecting the college he went to or the color of his hair and eyes. Well, neither did I. In my father's world, though, he never had to say a word to me; tradition had already made me who I was. You could say that, sitting in that church, I had a revelation.
After Kennedy left, I sat with my father in the kitchen of our house. I remember the look and feel of the day very clearly. It was toward evening. Shadows had crept over the rear wall of the garden that closed our house off from the street. My father was sitting with his habitual glass of cognac, smoking a cigar. He must have known what was on my mind, because when I told him, he did not seem at all surprised. I asked him, in Sicilian, for his blessing.
Excerpted from Bound By Honor by Bill Bonanno. Copyright © 1999 Armeda Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Bill Bonanno lives in Arizona.
Bill Bonanno lives in Arizona. He is the author of Bound By Honor: A Mafioso's Story.
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