AMERICANS HAVE LONG had a love affair with the criminal mind. From Jesse James and the Wild Bunch to Bonnie and Clyde and Al Capone, we're fascinated with the wrong side of the law and often blur the roles of the players, making the bad guys the heroes. Sometimes the supposed "good guys" in law enforcement contribute to that with their own sleazy behavior. There's still no clear historical consensus over the Earps and the Clantons or Butch and Sundance and their pursuers.
Those prior eras generally lack the memoirs of the major participants. The Mafia at the end of this century, declining into irrelevance as the British Empire did earlier, has left few firsthand accounts by major players. That makes Tucsonan Bill Bonanno's book important -- he was one of those players.
Unlike his father Joseph's 1983 memoir, A Man of Honor, Bill Bonanno didn't use a ghost writer. The senior Bonanno is hardly illiterate -- he speaks five languages -- but his English required assistance. His son's doesn't. Listening to the younger Bonanno discuss the book makes it clear most written words are his.
Academic historians will some day include the Mob in mainline American history. Bonanno claims that nobody got the Democratic nomination for president for about half a century without organized crime's support, through control of big city machines and labor unions. It's an entirely plausible claim worthy of further research. And that didn't leave the GOP clean -- he also claims that the crime-fighting New York governor Tom Dewey backed off after major campaign contributions were channeled his way.
Bonanno also discusses the relationship between the 24 national Mob families and the Kennedy family, from old Joe's bootlegging deals with Mafia Don Frank Costello to his periodic visits to Tucson to bag campaign funds for son JFK. And Bill claims the 1960 Democrat convention deadlock between JFK and LBJ was resolved when New York Mafia leader Tommy Luchese proposed to Joe Kennedy that the organization would support JFK on the first ballot if LBJ got the VP slot. The deal was cut with Luchese -- and Bill Bonanno, who was then a major figure in his father's "family."
The alliance didn't hold. JFK wasn't supposed to allow brother Bobby to pursue certain Mafia figures with diligence, and Papa Joe wasn't supposed to have an incapacitating stroke in 1961, removing his influence. Which led to Dallas in November of 1963.
Is there anybody left who really buys the Warren Commission report? According to Bonanno and other sources, the Chicago, New Orleans and Florida mobs hit the president without the knowledge of the rest of the organization, who were surprised by the move. Bonanno has a juicy graph describing his incredulity at seeing Jack Ruby, who used to hang around with Sam Giancana's Chicago family, on camera in Dallas. Someday the official histories will so note, but not until a few more people have died off and a lot of poli sci types give up their denial. Bonanno even names the guy who told him he was the real trigger man.
But the book is more than an exposé of the Kennedy assassination. It's Bill Bonanno's own story, which is too close to that of Sonny in The Godfather not to have influenced Mario Puzo. The 1956 wedding of Bill to Rosalie Profaci, niece of one of the heads of another of the five New York families, also gave Puzo material, with Tony Bennett singing for 3,000 guests. And Bonanno honestly admits to his own frailties, including an extramarital affair that must still hurt both him and his wife.
The Bonanno family has lived in Tucson since 1941. Bill, along with his brother and sister, grew up and attended school here. It wasn't until the 1950s, after he graduated from the University of Arizona, that he became an active player in his dad's business. There are some interesting Tucson residents named along the way. Joe claims to have retired to Tucson and left the Brooklyn operation in the hands of others by 1968. Bill was then pursued by the Feds for a variety of raps, many petty, and has spent his share of time behind bars.
He cites three reasons why the "way of life" he knew is now gone: narcotics, Americanization and government reaction to the Kennedy hit.
Many of the old bosses opposed the dope trade, believing they were doing well enough with ordinary crime -- loan sharking, gambling, fixing government contracts -- not to need the added heat drugs brought. Even those who chased the senior Bonanno, including Tucson's own FBI author Bill Roemer (Man Against the Mob, Ballantine, 1989) verify that. The newer dons like John Gotti were greedier, which attributed to their demise.
Americanization and intermarriage has broken up the old neighborhoods and the culture that produced the social structure from which the Mafia and other groups sprang. And the Kennedy killing forced many otherwise recalcitrant government officials into a strong reaction against those who ordered it.
This slice of high-level Mafia existence definitely belongs on the shelves of two different libraries -- collections on organized crime and those on the Kennedy assassination. Besides its obvious historical relevance, it's a fun read loaded with Tucson references.