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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 969

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This is the grave of Lucky Luciano.

As with most gangster scum, the only really interesting thing about Luciano is how often he’s been portrayed in film and television. What can you say, mobster pics are fun.

Born in 1897 in Sicily, Salvatore Lucania grew up in an Italian family that was not long for Italy. His father desperately wanted to move to the United States, like many Italians of that era. The family finally raised enough money to immigrate in 1906. They moved to the Lower East Side of New York, like many of their kin. But Salvatore was a real punk. He dropped out of school at age 14 to sell hats, which was probably fine with the family, but he also got into all sorts of trouble, was a big gambler, and became a gangster soon after. His parents tried to save him by sending him to reform school but it didn’t work. I mean, he was a real piece of work from the time he was a kid. He started by charging Jewish kids money so that the Italian or Irish gangs wouldn’t harass them on the way home from school. He was a pimp while still a teenager. He got to know Meyer Lansky when he tried to extort Lansky in his protection racket and the Jewish kid told him to go fuck himself. That was the kind of response Luciano could respect and they became friends. Great….

Well, by 1920, with the rise of Prohibition, the world was made for gangsters such as Luciano. He seems to have been good at sucking up to the right mob heads. He became a gunman for Joe Masseria and also started working for Arnold Rothstein. The Jewish gambler became Luciano’s top mentor, teaching him how to dress and how to live and work in high society as a man people would respect and not just a street hustler. He got arrested frequently, at least 25 times between 1916 and 1936, but never served time. He was nearly beaten to death in 1929 but never said who did it. This is how he got his droopy eye. It’s still unclear how his name got changed to Luciano. Probably newspapers who couldn’t deal with Italian names.

In 1931, Luciano had Masseria killed, which helped him out tremendously. Salvatore Maranzano organized the New York mafia into the Five Families after this and put Luciano in charge of one. He then had Maranzano killed after he discovered the older mobster was going to have him killed. A lovely group of people. Anyway, Luciano was the biggest crime boss in the U.S. after this.

This put him in the targets of Thomas Dewey, the prosecutor who would make his fame on busting the Mafia and ride that nearly to the presidency. Dewey really went hard after organized crime, to the point that Luciano had to veto a Dutch Schultz plan to have Dewey assassinated. Luciano rightfully figured that would be the ultimate disaster. But Dewey wanted Luciano. He finally got Luciano for pimping. Luciano wasn’t a street level pimp but he ran the racket. Getting a tip he would be arrested, Luciano fled to Hot Springs, Arkansas, but he was spotted there and arrested. Amazingly, in 1936, a jury finally convicted Luciano of a crime, 62 counts of compulsory prostitution. He was sent to prison.

Luciano kept running his crime network from prison, but it wasn’t the same. When the acting boss, Vito Genovese, fled to Italy to escape a murder charge in 1937, things didn’t get better. Frank Costello replaced him as acting boss and then as full-time when it became clear that he would not get out. Luciano was rotting in prison until World War II. Then he became useful. That’s because the mob controlled the docks and the government worried about German and Italian agents. So they offered Luciano a deal. He would work with the mafia in both the U.S. and Italy to give the American Navy help. In return, he would have his sentence commuted. Luciano certainly didn’t care about either the U.S. or Italian governments, but he did want to be free. So he agreed and held up his part of the bargain. Dewey was forced, with great reluctance, to commute his sentence if he agreed not to fight his deportation to Italy. Luciano agreed but no one thought he would live up to it.

Within just a few months of his return to Italy, in October 1946, Luciano secretly got on a boat for Cuba. While there, he was openly participating in mafia conferences and went back to taking over the business. He also was partying with Frank Sinatra in Havana casinos. So the U.S. told Cuba it would not export any prescription drugs with narcotics in them until Luciano was deported. That was enough to scare off the Cubans under the gangster Batista, who knew who buttered his bread. He would stay in Italy the rest of his life. He was placed in prison for two years upon his return, released in 1949, and told to stay out of trouble. Oh yeah OK. He immediately got back into the drug trade, shipping narcotics to New York. There was more violence between Luciano’s interests in the U.S. and that of other mobsters, which led him to pay Puerto Ricans a lot of many to falsely implicate Vito Genovese in a drug deal.

In any case, the life of this complete reprobate finally ended in in 1962 while at the Naples airport, where he was meeting someone talking about making a film on his life. He was 64 years old.

Again, the only real interesting thing about Luciano is that the rise of the mob film after The Godfather meant that he got portrayed a lot. The first portrayal of him was a fictionalized version of Dewey’s prosecution. This was Marked Woman, from 1937, where Eduardo Ciannelli played the Luciano character and Humphrey Bogart played Dewey (!!). He got a bit of other media attention during his life. But it was the 70s when he became a common character. Angelo Infanti played him in the pretty awful The Valachi Papers. Gian Maria Volonte played him in the Francesco Rosi biopic with his name. Vic Tayback got the role for Lepke. Christian Slater played him the 1991 film Mobsters. Stanley Tucci played him the same year in Billy Bathgate. Andy Garcia got the role in Hoodlum. Anthony LaPaglia played him in Lansky, the 1999 version not the new version from 2021. Vincent Piazza played him in Boardwalk Empire, the flawed but still pretty solid mob series on HBO.

The U.S. agreed to Luciano’s wishes to be buried in the U.S. He is in St. John Cemetery, Queens, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other gangster scumbags, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Meyer Lansky is in Miami and Arnold Rothstein is in Queens, but a cemetery I have not visited. Amazingly, he’s not the worst person buried there because that’s also where Roy Cohn resides. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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