God’s Godfather

Douglas Johnson

  • God’s Banker: An Account of the Life and Death of Roberto Calvi by Rupert Cornwell
    Gollancz, 260 pp, £8.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 575 03351 7
  • A Man of Honour: The Autobiography of a Godfather by Joseph Bonnano and Sergio Lalli
    Deutsch, 416 pp, £9.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 233 97609 4
  • The Biggest Game in Town by A. Alvarez
    Deutsch, 186 pp, £8.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 233 97521 7

On the evening of 15 June 1982 Roberto Calvi landed in a private plane at Gatwick airport and using a false passport proceeded to London. At the time he was one of the most sought-after men in Europe, and at the centre of a considerable financial scandal. The Ambrosiano Bank, of which he was director, was in the process of collapsing and there was talk of gigantic sums of money, thousands of millions of dollars’ worth, having vanished into thin air. And this was not all. Scandals surrounding banks are common enough in Italy, but this promised to be something big even by Italian standards. Not only were many famous institutions and individuals implicated: it was certain that the Vatican was involved. Via the Istituto per le Opere di Religione, and through a host of surrogate companies and banks, Calvi had lent large sums to the Papacy. He was no ordinary banker. He was God’s banker.

From his hastily hired flat, at Chelsea Cloisters in Sloane Street, Calvi telephoned frequently to his family. On the morning of Thursday 17 June he spoke three times to his daughter in Zurich, and urged her to go to the United States to join her mother and brother. ‘Something really important is happening,’ he told her.‘Today and tomorrow all hell is going to break loose.’ But the next day he was found dead, his pockets stuffed with bank-notes and weighed down with stones, hanging from Blackfriars Bridge. Financial scandal seemed to have been completed by murder, and the stage set for sensational happenings.

But as Rupert Cornwell, the Rome correspondent of the Financial Times, has shown in a fine example of investigative journalism, the sensations rapidly became muted. Owing to a newspaper strike, it was some time before the implications of Calvi’s strange death could be discussed at any length. The Vatican, always economical of information and skilful in manoeuvre, was able to suggest that its only error had been a misplaced confidence in Calvi. Something like half of the missing money was made good by the Bank of Italy. It was pointed out that the failure of a private Italian bank was only a small manifestation of a crisis which was affecting the world banking system as a whole. A host of minor scandals and irrelevant rumours obscured rather than clarified the Calvi affair and it began to look as if the sensation-mongers were losing interest and the investigators were making little progress. Italian society was not shaken to its foundations and, as Cornwell puts it, the ways of Italy did not change. The British judicial system played its part in taking some of the sting out of the affair when an inquest, held some five weeks after the discovery of Calvi’s body, decided that the cause of death was suicide by strangulation.

But two events have taken place which suggest that the story is by no means over. The one, which forms a postscript to Cornwell’s book, was a second inquest at the City of London Coroner’s Court. On 27 June 1983 the original verdict of suicide was replaced by an open verdict. The possibility that Calvi might have been murdered was therefore admitted officially, even if reluctantly. The second event, which is much more important, came too late to be included in Cornwell’s book. It concerns the godfatherly Lucio Gelli, the Venerable Master of a Freemasons’ lodge known as P-2 (Propaganda-Due, to distinguish it from a more conventional Propaganda lodge based in Turin). In 1981 the membership list of P-2 had been discovered and published, and it was realised that this organisation had penetrated the whole of the state system. Its 962 names made up the greater part of the Italian establishment; amongst its members were the military and secret service hierarchies, the leaders of the judiciary, the police, the civil service, as well as prominent politicians and industrialists. There was a direct link between P-2 and Calvi, and it was clear that the affairs of the Ambrosiano Bank were intimately involved with this giant organisation which appeared to be the effective governing force of the country.

At the time Gelli had taken refuge in South America, where he had many connections. But in September 1982 he appeared disguised at the counter of a Swiss bank and endeavoured to withdraw some 55 million dollars from an account. His disguise was penetrated and for this attempted fraud he was arrested and placed in the ultra-modern prison of Champ Dollon. The Italian judicial authorities asked that he be extradited and returned to Italy, where he was due to face several charges, and to be interrogated by the parliamentary commission which was inquiring into P-2. This application for extradition was down to be heard on 19 August 1983.

On the night of 9-10 August Gelli escaped from prison. It now seems clear that this escape was the result of a well-organised operation. The prisoner was taken from his cell in the small hours by one of the warders, who installed him in the back of his car. The warder, Eduardo Ceresa, had for some time been in contact with Gelli’s family and his associates, and it seems likely that the other guards who were working the sophisticated internal television system agreed to look away from their screens at the crucial moment. Then some hours later, no warder having noticed that the cell was empty, Ceresa drove his car out of the prison and across the French frontier, a journey which he had frequently taken in the preceding weeks, so that he was well-known to both the Swiss and French officials there. From Annecy a helicopter, hired in the name of a Monegasque antique-dealer, took Gelli to Monaco, where he disappeared. His wife, exactly on cue, also vanished from Arezzo, where they had a villa.

This escape, not surprisingly, was surrounded by rocambolesque detail and fantastic rumour. At first it was claimed, and by no less a person than a Swiss judge, that Gelli had not escaped but had been kidnapped. Then it was reported that in the helicopter Gelli had pretended to be suffering from toothache and had adopted the old-fashioned remedy of swathing his face in bandages, thereby disguising himself for the benefit of the pilot – hardly accustomed, one may suppose, to seeing his fellow Monegasques similarly attired when they have dental troubles. The fugitive was subsequently said to have been seen in the Caracoles restaurant in Barcelona, at the Plaza Hotel in Montevideo, and at the Cistercian monastery of Saint-Honorat in the Lérin islands, off Cannes. It was put forward as a reasonable hypothesis that he was in touch, through his daughter, with the famous plastic surgeon Ivo Pantaguy and was receiving treatment on an island situated some three hundred kilometres south of Rio de Janeiro. Italian journalists claimed to have seen film which revealed Gelli’s friendship with all sorts of powerful international figures: the inevitable Henry Kissinger, Mr Moon, Vice-President Bush and the President of the World Bank, Robert McNamara.

More serious was the realisation that the antique-dealer, Deverini, who was accused of having helped Gelli to enter Monaco illegally, had earlier been accused of murder. It was remembered, too, that a Colonel Salvatore Florio, who had once ordered a Lieutenant Rossi to carry out an inquiry into the affairs of Gelli, was killed in a mysterious road accident four years later, whilst Rossi himself was to be found shot in his office, having apparently committed suicide. Illustrious corpses appeared to be present in both the stories of P-2 and the Ambrosiano Bank. Gelli’s perfect escape reminded everyone that P-2 had not lost its power merely because it had come under intense public scrutiny, and it was thought that opponents of this association could well find it dangerous to be too outspoken or too persistent in their opposition. It was not surprising that the news from Geneva on 10 August quite dominated the parliamentary debate that was accompanying the formation of the new Italian government led by the socialist Bettino Craxi.

But what does it all mean? What is the point of so much organisation, so much activity, such an undercurrent of violence, corruption, blackmail and crookedness? We can hardly say, as Werner Sombart did of the industrial revolution: all this so that a handful of men should grow rich! The amassing of personal fortunes by individuals, and the exploitation of public life for this end, is part of the fabric of Italian society. It was natural enough that Calvi should seek to give his bank international stature. It was in no way remarkable that Gelli should have the versatility to change sides when it suited him, whether as a Fascist, as a member of the partisan movement that opposed Mussolini, or as a trusted associate of General Peron in the Argentine. Calvi is not the first ambitious banker in Italy, nor Gelli the inventor of intrigue. The suspicion is that they were working for more than themselves and that their activities were channeled into some grand design.

For many, this grand design can only be connected with the Papacy. The Vatican has, for some time, had two major preoccupations: Latin America and Eastern Europe. The former preoccupation has become more intense with the evolution of Latin American politics and with the Catholic Church’s increasing involvement in them, the latter with the advent of a Polish Pope. The presence of the Chicago-born Cardinal Markinkus as the close confidant of Paul VI from 1964, and as President of the Vatican Bank since 1971, has also encouraged those who wish the Papacy to be active in these parts of the world. It could well be that the stories of millions of dollars being smuggled to South America, or destined to support Solidarity in Poland, are false, or exaggerated, but it is certain that Italian Freemasonry, like other Italian institutions, is extremely adaptable and that it is not the anticlerical force that it was in the days of Depretis, De Sanctis and Crispi. Its links with the Christian Democrats are notoriously close and anti-Communism can be a powerful unifying force in a country which lacks any real social or political consensus.

There is every reason to believe that P-2 came to dominate the Ambrosiano Bank. Calvi certainly paid his dues in P-2 from 1977, but he may have been a member for several years before that, possibly before he became the general manager of his bank in 1971. The secretive atmosphere of the Masonic lodge must have suited Calvi, who was an evasive, elusive man, always seeking to do things by stealth, whilst the Ambrosiano’s extension of its operations to the Caribbean and to Latin America must have suited Gelli. Only when it had become apparent that the Ambrosiano Bank was over-committed, and when it was being investigated for currency offences and for other fraudulent dealings, did Calvi become useless to P-2.

This might help to explain some of the peculiar circumstances of Calvi’s last days. Why did he come to London? He had done little business in England, he had few contacts and no friends there. The only indication of any possible reason for such a journey is to be found in his conversational references to a London lodge of the Freemasons. Possibly he expected this lodge to assist him. Why should he have committed suicide in this city which, for him, was alien and strange? And how could this man, aged 62 and unaccustomed to physical exercise, climb over the parapets of the bridge and the scaffolding which was fixed to it, acquire a rope and weigh himself down with stones, all without dirtying his clothes and his hands? Yet why should murder be committed in such a complicated and fussy manner? Why should the body have been suspended from Blackfriars Bridge and not simply disposed of in the river? The answer might be that this murder was meant to be, and to be seen as, a Masonic murder, associated with a special ritual. The bridge was Blackfriars, which might suggest Masonic brothers and their black cloaks. The stones with which the body was weighted were massoni. In Masonic ritual anyone who betrays secrets is killed in places where the tide washes over the body (as it washed over Calvi’s). Was not this murder a public demonstration of the strength of P-2?

These arguments are put forward and discussed, with great common sense, by Mr Cornwell. He is the first to admit that there is no proof. Might not Calvi have come to London simply because he was not known here? He was accompanied by one Flavio Carboni, a Sicilian property speculator with many contacts in the underworld. Why should the killing of Calvi not be seen in terms of the activities of professional killers who might have forced Calvi to hang himself on Blackfriars Bridge, a place which is normally deserted in the early hours of the morning? And can one dismiss out of hand the Falklands connection – the fact that Blackfriars Bridge was painted pale blue and white, Argentina’s national colours?

Mr Cornwell is undoubtedly correct when he suggests that the Calvi affair consists of a great many pieces in a kaleidoscope, all of which can be shaken into endlessly tantalising theories. But Vatican politics have never been easily defined, and though one knows a little about the disputes that surround the roles of the Opus Dei, the Society of Jesus, and the pro-Italian, anti-Polish faction, one cannot begin to visualise the complexities of Vatican involvements and commitments. Similarly the variety of the activities for which P-2 is responsible defies classification. It is said that P-2 was involved in the explosion at the railway station at Bologna which was attributed to neo-Fascist organisations. There is no proof of this, but it seems likely that P-2 has contacts on the extreme Right. Yet it has established, especially through Claudio Martelli and Spartaco Vannoni, a good relationship with the Socialists, and even with Craxi himself. It has been claimed that the Christian Democrat Giulio Andreotti, several times Prime Minister and still a minister, is one of the leaders of P-2, as is his fellow Christian Democrat, Francesco Cosentino.

How can we attribute any coherent political policy to an organisation which covers such a wide spectrum of political allegiance? Can we simply define Propaganda-Due as Propaganda Fide? It is more likely that we are witnessing in P-2 a modernised version of the traditional Italian secret society. In a country where government is unsuccessful and weak, with an uncertain future, where localism is powerful, bureaucracy incompetent, and where there are vast differences between rich and poor, an individual’s best bet is to be taken up by some secret society. He does not feel that he belongs to a national society: therefore he will take refuge in a lesser one. A tradition has developed which cultivates secrecy, the back door, the personal connection, special allegiances, private codes of honour and justice. The most famous examples are the Mafia of Sicily and the Camorra of Naples.

It is a fact that we have been told more about the Mafia as it has existed in the United States than as it has existed in Sicily. But according to Joseph Bonnano (known, not always to his pleasure, as Joe Bananas), most of what we have been told – whether as a result of the official inquiries of such people as Senator Kefauver, or in terms of the revelations of Joe Valachi or the imaginings of film makers – is wrong. It is as an old and sick man, with a prison sentence hanging over him, that he has written this book (with assistance) and put forward the traditional view of the Mafia as a way of life and a set of principles rather than an institution. When, momentarily in jail in French Canada, he was vociferously hailed by all the other prisoners as ‘Le Boss’, and he has been regarded as the most honoured leader of the American Mafia. He is not only Don Peppino, he is the Don of Dons.

He describes how the Sicilians, because of their poverty, feuded amongst themselves as a means of survival. Sicilian immigrants in America continued this tradition, and formed clans, or Families, for the mutual advantage of their members. When a young man joined a Family, he learned to be obedient and to keep secrets, he discovered that he was accountable for all his actions, he realised that he had to be loyal to the Family and devoted to the Family’s interests. Once he had proved himself then he could hope to be considered ‘a man of honour’, someone who was worthy of this all-embracing way of life.

Bonnano does not like to talk of the Mafia. He prefers to speak of the Tradition, and to emphasise its ideals, whereby a man who is poor or hungry or persecuted will be helped by his Family. He agrees that under the influence of the American way of life the Tradition was debased and it became infested by petty criminals as it was invaded by non-Sicilians and by some who were not even Italian. He strains credulity when he suggests that the Tradition is really a form of ‘togetherness’: this reminds one of the occasion when a former South African Prime Minister described apartheid as ‘good-neighbourliness’. But it is noticeable that even this benevolent account emphasises that vengeance is a personal matter and that the most noble (his word) principle of all is omerta, which he defines as refusing to betray one’s friends to the authorities.

For all that Bonnano denies that the Mafia is an organisation, this fascinating story gives examples of how it is precisely that. And there are many instances of how the machinery takes over, of how, for no reason at all, a man will become suspicious of his cousin, a rumour will spread that deadly rivals have become reconciled, the whisper go round that someone has talked too much. There will be a shooting and a corpse. Then there will be revenge and it will all begin again. There seems to have been no way of stopping it.

Perhaps Gelli’s P-2 is also something of a machine that exists for its own benefit. Cornwell tells us that Gelli once described himself as ‘part Garibaldi, part Cagliostro’ and he was pleased to think of himself as a marionettist, controlling, cajoling, demonstrating, without there being any ultimate goal to all his activity other than to sustain and protect his own power and that of his friends. The Mafia rarely sought to promote change. Lampedusa, in his novel The Leopard, gave the Mafia the motto, ‘To change everything so as to change nothing,’ and it could be that the Gellis and Calvis were simply trying to hold on. Calvi, who rarely talked about books, used to recommend his friends to read The Godfather.

But the machinery that they created took on a life of its own and they entered an unreal world. They are not unlike some of the people described by A. Alvarez in his neat account of a visit to the gamblers of Las Vegas. Even the money values are artificial. In the poker room, if a player talks about a nickel he means five hundred dollars, a dime is a thousand, a big dime is ten thousand. All that counts is the action, the ritual of the game. Nobody notices what anyone else looks like or is doing. There is no conversation. The outside world ceases to exist. This does not mean that tragedies do not take place: someone is ruined, someone commits suicide, just as Calvi is dead and Gelli is on the run. But when the news spread that a heavy loser had blown his brains out in the lobby of Caesar’s Palace, the only response was that of a young woman who said that she was at Caesar’s yesterday. The mountains off the horizon no longer seem real; nor do the jet trails high above them. Everything is swallowed up by the romance of action and by a vast, insatiable narcissism. Nature imitates art, and reality imitates the worst fiction. Especially in Las Vegas; but also in Italy.