Agro’s Aggro

Karl Miller

  • Boss of Bosses. The Fall of the Godfather: The FBI and Paul Castellano by Joseph O’Brien and Andris Kurins
    Simon and Schuster, 364 pp, £15.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 671 70815 5

Staten Island, New York, is a sombre place as islands go, but it has managed to cast some spells. Once upon a time there was a Prospero there in the shape of Marius Bewley, literary critic, Anglophile and Adlai Stevensonian, who held court among his cats in a Gothic villa above the ferry terminal, where crowds would leave for work in their instalments, churning past the Statue of Liberty towards the Wall Street skyline. Many of these people were descendants of the weary masses summoned by Liberty from their hard times in Europe; and many of them have since been diverted across the Verrazano Bridge, by car, to Brooklyn. Up the road from Marius’s villa, moreover, in the years that followed, there came to live, with his Dobermans, a fairy godfather – of the kind that used to be seen as the immigrant’s friend – and in Marius’s time, too, there were indications, sounds and airs, that the black magic of the Mafia was known to the island.

Paul Castellano was a Staten Island householder who can rarely have set foot on the ferry and who was eventually to stay at home, save for the occasional progress by limousine across the bridge. The mansion he lived in, nicknamed the White House, stood on top of the highest hill in the vicinity of Manhattan. He was the Godfather of the Gambino Family of the Cosa Nostra, having succeeded to the throne as a cousin, married to the sister-in-law, of Carlo Gambino, who had in his day been considered one of the most resourceful of Mafia dons or capos. In 1985, after being charged with racketeering offences and then bailed, he was shot dead by four gunmen from a faction within the Gambino Family. His spell had begun to fade. His proscription of drug-dealing had displeased confederates, and his commitment to the rest of the Gambino rackets, which were chiefly in the area of labour and food distribution, appears to have declined. He had taken as a mistress his Colombian maid, Gloria Olarte, a woman said to have been stunned and silenced by a rape during her adolescence, who contributes to the book a strong presence and a habit of talking about herself in the third person, and in a Latin American English roguishly transliterated here; and he was presently to expel his wife from the mansion. These last aberrations are thought to have further displeased his followers, with their extra-mural mistresses. Meanwhile the mansion had been bugged by the authors of the book, agents of the FBI. Attracted, we are given to understand, by Agent O’Brien’s blue eyes, Gloria was to assist the police, a leetle, with their enquiries.

O’Brien and Kurins also talk about themselves in the third person. They make good use of their experience of Mafia practice, though they might have been rather less sparing with material based on the transcripts obtained from the bug they screwed into a table-lamp in the space next to the kitchen where Castellano chose to do his don’s business. From a hostile and triumphal standpoint, their sharp-witted book presents a picture which complements the insider accounts available in Scorsese’s Mafia films. Omerta, the code of honour with its injunction to secrecy, has been breached over the years, but these descriptions and transcriptions are among the most informative of the testaments and exposés I have read. There is much that remains dark – which will not cruelly disappoint those who feel, as there is reason to do, that O’Brien and Kurins can be commended for not telling what they are not certain of, while also, no doubt, refraining from telling what they are, or have been, persuaded they should be silent about.

Mafia-watchers, intent on the American thing and on its Italian counterpart (thousands of Mafia detainees have recently been set free in Italy, on technical grounds), have sometimes been struck by a resemblance to the IRA. Both organisations employ terror and originate in forms of subjection. They have both received both the blessing and the curse of the Roman Catholic priesthood. Both thrive on fear and favour. Both assert an ethnic claim within the boundaries of an alien state. Both constitute secret or hidden governments whose operations are obvious to the world but are hard to indict and to restrain. Their leaders are thoroughly known but are not often imprisoned. The leaders of the IRA pursue subversive political aims to a degree not found among Mafia bosses in America, who may even be portrayed at times as American patriots; and they have not enriched themselves. But that might come. One day, just foreseeably, the IRA may be ancient and affluent.

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