Fact and Fiction in The Godfather
The Real Godfather
When we first meet Don Corleone in The Godfather, Part I, he's dressed in a tuxedo, a red boutonniere in his lapel, holding court and receiving visitors in his dark office while friends and family celebrate his daughter's wedding out in the sunshine on the grounds of his estate outside. He's a king in his castle. But later when we see him on an average business day, his suit is unremarkable, his fedora a bit crushed. He runs his empire out of his olive-oil importing company in the city, but his headquarters are mundane, even a bit shabby. Despite his position as head of one of the most powerful crime families in the country, Don Corleone presents himself as a humble man, and his appearance underscores his apparent lack of interest in the accoutrements of wealth and power. When author Mario Puzo created the character of Don Corleone in his book The Godfather, he had plenty of real-life models to choose from, but one mob boss stands out as his most likely main inspiration: Carlo Gambino, the cunning boss of the family that took his name.
Unlike Marlon Brando, Carlo Gambino hardly looked the part. A small man with beady eyes and a large nose, Gambino often appeared to be frail and retiring. Mob boss Joe Bonanno once called him "a squirrel of a man, a servile and cringing individual." But looks were deceiving, for Carlo Gambino, like Don Corleone, had a chess master's ability to see two moves ahead of his opponents, giving him the ability to outflank them while deceiving them into thinking they had the better of him.
In the 1940s, New York's five families were still forming, and alliances between emerging bosses were quickly made and unmade as each man jockeyed for the most advantageous position. Opportunities arose when the powerful and influential Charles "Lucky" Luciano, one of the main architects of the American Mafia, was deported to Italy in 1946, and mobster Frank Costello led Luciano's family in his absence. The impeccably groomed Costello, a low-key executive-style mobster, was known as the "prime minister of the underworld" for his ability to hobnob with the upper crust and broker deals with politicians and union officials. What he lacked was dependable muscle within the ranks of his own family. For that he made pacts with bosses from other families who, for a price, lent Costello the manpower he needed. Costello's most valued general was Albert Anastasia, the violent "Lord High Executioner" who had blasted his way to the top of the Mangano family. Anastasia's underboss at the time was Carlo Gambino.
Rival boss Vito Genovese made no bones about his desire to become boss of all bosses, wanting to unite several families under his leadership, but the strength of the Costello-Anastasia coalition managed to keep Genovese at bay for a number of years. Then in 1957, Genovese made his move with an assassination attempt on Costello as he was entering his swank Central Park West apartment building. But the shooter missed his target, the bullet only grazing Costello's scalp.
The botched hit stirred up an angry hornet's nest in gangland. Everyone assumed that Genovese was behind the attempted hit, and he knew that his days would be numbered if he left things as they were. If Costello decided to retaliate, he would outsource the job to Albert Anastasia. To save his own hide, Genovese put out a contract on Anastasia who was gunned down by two assailants as he sat back in a barber's chair relaxing with his eyes closed.
The hit was organized by Anastasia's own underboss, Carlo Gambino, who had made a secret deal with Genovese. Gambino was promised Anastasia's job as boss of the Mangano Family as soon as Genovese accomplished his goal of becoming capo di tutti capi. Frank Costello, now without Anastasia and his troops to back him up, decided it would be wiser to retire than go head-to-head against Genovese. Gambino became the new boss of the Mangano Family.
Unfortunately for Vito Genovese, he underestimated Gambino, who had no intention of operating under anyone's rule. Gambino quietly reached out to Frank Costello and managed to make peace with him, even though Gambino had been instrumental in Costello's sudden retirement. Gambino also reached out to Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, the Jewish hood who had been Luciano's partner in the creation of a national crime syndicate. They all hated Genovese and feared what would happen if he realized his dream of taking total control of the Mafia. Genovese knew that Luciano, Lansky, and Costello hated his guts, but he assumed that Carlo Gambino was still on his side. It was a fatal assumption.
Vito Genovese was one of the mob's biggest advocates for getting into the drug business. He felt that the profits were too good to pass up. Knowing how Genovese felt about narcotics, the gang of four set him up with a lucrative drug deal, then tipped off the government. They paid a Puerto Rican drug dealer $100,000 to cooperate with the feds and point the finger squarely at Genovese. Though the case against Genovese was shaky and the drug dealer's testimony smelled fishy, the government was eager to have Genovese behind bars. In 1959 the would-be boss of all bosses was convicted on charges of narcotics trafficking and sentenced to 15 years. He died in prison after serving 10. With Costello tied up with federal tax fraud charges, Luciano still in exile, and Lansky keeping a low profile, Carlo Gambino, the "squirrel of a man" with the heart of a fox, quietly became the most powerful mob boss in the country.
Gambino continued to make alliances with fellow gangsters, and by the 1970s the bosses of the other major families in New York were friends of Carlo, some of them installed through his influence.
Gambino lived on a large estate in Massapequa on Long Island, a compound similar to Don Corleone's in The Godfather, Part I. And like Don Corleone, Carlo Gambino died of a heart attack at the age of 76. Unlike many of their peers, they both died free men.