Joe 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. Hed 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 Costellos life failed, but it succeeded in forcing him into retirement, leaving the door open for Genovese to assume the mantle. As Carl Sifakis points out in The Mafia Encyclopedia
, Genovese had to walk a fine line to achieve his goals, paying lip service to Lucky Luciano who was still a powerful influence in the family while reducing Meyer Lanskys control over syndicate rackets.
Genovese had proven that he could thrive in hostile situations when he fled to Italy in 1937 to avoid a murder rap in the United States. Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini had mounted a campaign to rid Italy of the Mafia, but Genovese managed to befriend Il Duce and even supply drugs to the dictators brother-in-law. As a token of his friendship with the dictator, Genovese arranged a hit on radical journalist Carlo Tresca who had long been a thorn in Mussolinis side. But when Il Duces regime started falling apart, Genovese simply switched sides, helping the American Army clean up the black-market trade in southern Italy, secretly taking over those operations for himself. Genovese had a knack for landing on his feet.
In 1944 Genovese returned to New York
where he chafed under the leadership of Frank Costello while managing to maintain the demeanor of a loyal soldier. Genovese felt that he, not Costello, should have been named boss of the Luciano family, and he intended to right that wrong. He slyly argued for the execution of New Jersey
boss Willie Moretti in 1951, reasoning that Moretti, who was suffering from dementia as a result of untreated syphilis, was a liability and had to be eliminated before his loose lips got everyone into trouble. This may have been true, but Morettis Jersey
boys also provided the muscle behind Costello, and eliminating Moretti would weaken Costello. But Costello stayed one step ahead of Genovese and made a pact with Albert Anastasia to provide the same services Moretti had.
Genovese had been outmaneuvered, but he bided his time until 1957, when he ordered the failed hit on Costello and then a successful hit on Anastasia, ostensibly to help Carlo Gambino take over Anastasias family. With Costellos power severely diminished, the stage was set for Don Vitos ascendancy.