Carlos Marcello: Big Daddy In The Big Easy
The Evil Genius
In January 1951, a hearing was held in the federal courthouse in New Orleans. Before a packed audience of spectators, reporters and photographers and under the scrutiny of cameramen filming for national news syndicates and television stations, Carlos Marcello and a group of men were questioned by members of a Senate investigation team. Known as the Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, it was chaired by Senator Estes Carey Kefauver. In the 16 months of its existence, from May 1, 1950 to September 1, 1951, the committee heard more than 500 witnesses from minor hoodlums to major racketeers, and also officials on every government level. It investigated and took evidence in 14 cities and, for the first time, on a public basis, it disclosed the link between organized crime, business and politics.
Kefauver was in the prime of his political life. A Democrat from Tennessee, a Roper poll later in the year called him one of the ten most admired men in America. He would become known also as the godfather of the American Presidential Primary system, as he was the first politician to see primaries as a "corridor to power." On this visit to New Orleans however, he was leading a group of men who had been formed into a committee to investigate organized crime. Their brief was to target gambling with the aim of promoting federal laws to control its activities interstate.
During a week-long session, the committee called many people to give evidence. There was Carlos and his brother Anthony. Also interviewed were James Brocato, Joe Poretto, Dandy Phil Kastel, Sheriff Frank Clancy and the mayor of New Orleans, DeLesseps Morrison. Carlos was grilled about a huge range of his activities and asked about his interests in bars, clubs, slot machine companies, racing wire services. He was also quizzed about his relationship with other known gangsters across America, men such as Santo Trafficante Jr., the Mafia boss of Tampa, Florida, and Joe Savela (Joe Civello), who ran organized crime in Dallas.
His relationship to this man was particularly important, although its relevance would not be obvious for a number of years. Carlo Piranio founded the Dallas Mafia in the early 1920's. He died in 1930 from natural causes and the underboss, his brother Joe, succeeded him. In 1956, Joe committed suicide and was replaced by Civello. It is thought Carlos had used his influence to help Civello, born and raised in New Orleans, up into the seat of power, and the two men remained very close friends for the rest of their lives.
Carlos was grilled about his involvement in the Jefferson Music Company, the Beverley Country Club, and the Willswood Tavern. The list of questions was endless. The committee researchers had done their job well. To each and every one, Carlos invoked his right to plead the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer on the grounds that it might incriminate him. He did this 152 times in all. In fact, he only ever answered one question. When asked by a committee member: "What laws have you violated?" he said: "Not being an attorney I would not know."
Frustrated by the arrogance and obvious disdain that Carlos was showing them, the committee cited him for contempt and he was sentenced to six months in prison. Eventually an appeals court overturned the verdict. The committee did make known for the first time the extent of Carlos Marcello's position and power in organized crime. Kefauver told the packed courtroom:
"The record is long, the connections are bad, the implications are sinister, and we wanted to find out among other things what was the trouble with our naturalization and immigration laws that a man who is the evil genius of organized crime in Louisiana is apparently having such a detrimental effect on law enforcement and to decency in the community, how can he continue to stay here."
The immigration authorities obviously responded to Kefauver's plea. They began an investigation into the background of Marcello, which led up to the first deportation order against him, initiating a case and a struggle that lasted until his death forty years later.
If nothing else, the Kefauver hearings at last brought Carlos out in the open. The stocky, little man (his height seemed to vary between 5'2" and 5'4" depending on whether or not he was wearing stacked heeled shoes) with the squat figure and the wide grin, the man who spoke English that was discombobulated by its Louisiana twang and semiliterate heritage, the man who came to be known as "The Midget of the [Mafia]," was exposed in the press and on television as: "the evil genius of crime," and "one of the principal criminals in the United States today," and "the number one hoodlum." Secret rendezvous were exposed, political contacts revealed and the involvement of his brothers in the crime family became public knowledge for the first time; the tip of the iceberg was finally being exposed.
The publicity also brought about logistical changes for Carlos. His bar and restaurant on State Highway 90 was now the subject of public scrutiny as well as that of law enforcement stakeouts. It was time to move on.