The Genovese Crime Family

New York’s Genovese crime family, the largest and most influential crime family in the United States, may have been born with the swipe of a knife over a clean-shaven cheek that left a lasting scar and an incentive for the man who received it, Charles, “Lucky” Luciano.

Over the years Luciano told several stories about how he got his nickname and the cut on his right cheek that caused his eye to droop. According to one such tale, kidnappers had tied him up and held him hostage, demanding inside information about a large drug shipment that was coming into New York City.

In another version the scar was a present from a policeman who believed Lucky had acted inappropriately with one of his daughters. Either of these might be true, but the story that makes the most sense given Luciano’s career in crime claims that in 1929 a gang of thugs sent by Mafia boss Salvatore Maranzano captured Luciano, tied him up, hung him by his arms from the rafters, and tortured him. Maranzano certainly had motive. From Maranzano’s point of view, Luciano didn’t know his place. He was smart and ambitious, and unlike the small-minded “Moustache Petes” who ran the Mafia in America in the early part of the 20th century, Luciano had vision. Maranzano felt threatened.

Petty rackets were for suckers, Luciano believed, and the Sicilian immigrants’ suspicion and distrust of all non-Sicilians was counterproductive to the real goal of organized crime: making money. Maranzano and his chief “moustache Pete” rival, Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria wanted to keep their organizations exclusively for Sicilians. Luciano by contrast saw a role for all the ethnic crime groups in America, particularly the Jewish gangs. Why have dozens of squabbling local gangs when a nationwide syndicate with central authority could pool resources and turn criminal enterprise into big business? Putting together a national syndicate was Luciano’s dream.

Luciano’s positive feelings about the worth of non-Sicilians stemmed from his childhood. Born Salvatore Lucania outside of Palermo, Sicily, Luciano came to New York City as a boy. He started his first racket when he was still in elementary school. “For a penny or two a day,” Carl Sifakis writes in The Mafia Encyclopedia, “Luciano offered younger and smaller Jewish kids his personal protection against beatings on the way to school; if they didn’t pay, he beat them up.” But one scrawny, little Jewish boy from Poland defied him, and when Luciano tried to carry out his threat of violence, the kid put up a fight and showed that he was a lot tougher than he looked. Luciano was impressed. He asked the boy what his name was. Maier Suchowljansky, the boy said. Years later he would shorten his name to Meyer Lansky, and he and Luciano would form a partnership that would revolutionize crime in America.

The Rise of Don Vito

Vito GenoveseJoe Valachi, the first Mafia member in America to turn informant, characterized Vito Genovese this way: “If you went to him and told him about some guy doing wrong, he would have the guy killed and then he would have you killed for telling on the guy.”

Genovese could be as vicious as the Lord High Executioner, Albert Anastasia, but he was far more cunning. He’d long dreamed of taking control of the syndicate and becoming capo di tutti capi, boss of all bosses, constantly jockeying for position, waiting for the moment when he could make his move. The attempt on acting boss Frank Costello’s life failed.