Fifty years ago this fall, in the tiny town of Apalachin, near Binghamton, N.Y., Americans were unexpected guests at the coming-out party for organized crime. American popular culture has never been the same since then. Neither has the psyche of Italian-Americans.
The Apalachin conclave of 1957 was the final event in a series of truly Byzantine shifts and alliances in the world of organized crime. As the iconic “Godfather” film notes, there had been a great struggle in the mob over drug trafficking. By the spring of 1957, it had become nearly impossible to salvage the non-trafficking accord crafted by leaders 10 years prior.
The key figure in the drama was Frank Costello, the flashy, debonair prime minister, so-called for his political talents, who tried to maintain the sanction against drug dealing. He was allied with powerful leaders like Joe Bonnano and Albert Anastasia. However, others like Vito Genovese favored narcotics trafficking as good business.
As a result of many machinations, a “contract” was put out on Frank Costello in May 1957. Most surprisingly, the attempt failed.
Costello retired from “office,” but Albert Anastasia, once the CEO of Murder Inc., wished to “hit” Genovese. According to Bill Bonnano’s book, Joe Bonnano convinced Anastasia to sit tight while he (Joe) was on a trip to Italy. On Oct. 25, 1957, while relaxing in a barber’s chair, Anastasia was gunned down in what was the most famously reported and photographed mob hit ever.
This assassination was equivalent to a political coup d’etat. To prevent the chaos of all-out war, a number of diplomatic meetings were held to re-establish order: who would forgo vengeance, who would sell drugs, how the syndicate would continue in the future. The Apalachin meeting was to be the last of these diplomatic congresses. But some good luck and some good police work put an end to the mob convention before it began. The group was dispersed, as were doubts about the existence of organized crime.
Since the coming out at Apalachin, the idea of an American Empire of Crime seized upon the popular imagination, and mob figures, books, TV dramas and movies became cultural icons. The TV show “The Untouchables” (1959-1963) portrayed Elliot Ness battling hundreds and hundreds of Italian-American gangsters. For America, it became clear that all Italian-Americans were mobsters and all mobsters were Italian-Americans.
Fortunately, Italian-Americans could proudly point to the fact that one (just one) of Ness’ lieutenants was himself an Italian-American. Pheww!
This flat-out stereotyping found Italian-Americans powerless to resist it or change it.
With the release of “The Godfather” movies in 1972 and 1974, America was treated to a different view of organized crime and its Italian connections. The intense character portrayals and brilliant acting in these films made Italian-American crime lords sympathetic figures who exercised a favorable hold on the national imagination. For various reasons, movies about Louis Lepke (with Milton Berle), Bugsy Siegel and Dutch Schultz failed to create a similar standing for Jewish-American mobsters.
For psyche of Italian-Americans, the result of the “Godfather” movies was truly schizophrenic. Should they condemn or admire the heroes of the films, even as the majority of Americans seemed to lionize them?
The release of HBO’s hugely popular and successful drama “The Sopranos” brought organized crime into our living rooms, each episode willingly accepted and highly anticipated by the American public. The mobsters fleeing in the Apalachin countryside wound up safe at home in our living rooms and rec rooms!
Certifying this change has been the rise of tourism and museums dedicated to the history of mobsters and organized crime. In Chicago, there is a popular Al Capone bus tour taking tourists to gangland sites.
The Chicago Historical Museum’s Web site gets 50,000 hits a month for Al Capone, but only 10,000 for the Great Chicago Fire.
In Las Vegas, Mayor Oscar Goodman is founding a “Mob Museum.” The project is a good bet to succeed, according to some museum consultants.
So it comes as no surprise that in little Apalachin, the owner of Angelo’s Pizza, is working with the Internet store, nymobstore.com, which sells mob memorabilia. The items range from Frank Costello T-shirts to special key chains, with plans to sell the tomato sauce made by Fat Clemenza in “Godfather I.”
Since Apalachin 50 years ago, the mob has been sanitized and found fit for American cultural consumption. “The Sopranos” recently won three more Emmys. In June, Hillary Clinton ran a campaign video mimicking the final “Sopranos” episode.
Only one thing remains to be done. Our government should come into the 21st century and stop labeling crime groups by the names of Italian-American leaders who have long gone from the scene, replaced by other ethnic groups whose chronicles and films are now being made.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Silvio Laccetti is a professor of social sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. Readers may send him e-mail at slaccett AT stevens.edu.