March 03, 1997 12:00 PM

I LIVE FOR MY FAMILY,” SAYS VICTORIA Gotti. And you needn’t look farther than the kitchen of her 14-room Old Westbury, N.Y., mansion for proof. Among the family keepsakes decorating the gleaming countertops are a plaque from younger brother John (“Sisterly Reflections”) and another plaque from her mother. But it’s the color photograph above the sink that reveals the most about this first-time novelist’s notorious family. It’s a snapshot of her father, convicted Mafia boss John Gotti, smiling, in a prison cell. “We have identical personalities,” says Victoria. “I’m the only one of his children with the cleft chin. He thought that was an omen.”

A less devoted daughter might consider the resemblance a curse, given that John Gotti, 56—former head of the Gambino crime family—is serving a life sentence for murder and racketeering at the U.S. penitentiary in Marion, Ill. Victoria, though, is proud of her father. She maintains he is innocent, denies Mob connections and is unapologetic about her roots, even if growing up Gotti hasn’t always been easy. “It’s like having the last name Kennedy,” she explains, without irony. “All this conspiracy, all this innuendo, the Mob, the FBI…. Will it die down? No, so [you] get used to it. Otherwise you go sit in a corner, cower and cry.”

Clearly this is no weepy wallflower. Gotti, 33, has survived both illness and personal tragedy and has gone on to thrive as a mother and writer. This month she is breaking new ground by publishing her first novel, The Senator’s Daughter, revolving around the murder of a handsome “Jimmy Hoffa character” who is both a “good guy” and a ruthless thug. Like her father? This is a work of fiction, not a compendium of Victoria’s secrets, says Gotti, who counts Ken Follett among her favorite authors, a taste she shares with her famous parent. On her monthly visits with him, the two often chat about the latest John le Carré or Sidney Sheldon, and the elder Gotti has pronounced himself proud of his daughter’s book. “Most publishing houses expected this tell-all on John Gotti,” says Victoria. “But that’s not what they [are] getting.”

Instead, readers can expect a thriller—”flashy but powerful,” according to the respected Kirkus Reviews—sprinkled with noncontroversial details drawn from the author’s upbringing. Victoria Gotti’s first memories are of the cramped, three-room Brooklyn apartment where she lived with her parents, John and Victoria, and siblings Angela, now 35 and a Queens, N.Y., homemaker, John, 32, the reputed acting boss of the Gambino crime family, pet shop owner Peter, 22, and Frank, who died in 1980. “We were very poor,” Victoria says. Her mother made the children’s clothes and cut their hair. Gotti has little to say about the “odd jobs” her father did for a living. “I just remember him leaving in the morning and coming home for dinner,” she says.

Except, of course, during the time he spent behind bars for such crimes as car theft, hijacking and attempted manslaughter. (“It’s very possible she knows nothing about the operational details of the Gambino crime family,” says investigative reporter Gene Mustain, coauthor of two books about her father. “His daughters were likely shielded.”) By 1980, the Gottis had moved to predominantly blue-collar Italian-American Howard Beach in Queens, where a tragedy occurred that would haunt them for years. On March 18, a neighbor, John Favara, 51, was driving along 157th Avenue when he accidentally struck and killed 12-year-old Frank Gotti, who was riding a friend’s minibike. “Mom flipped out that night,” recalls Victoria. “She kept telling me, ‘Please, please go out to the funeral home. He needs a blanket. My son is cold.’ ” (Favara disappeared several weeks later and was never seen again.)

Her mother was paralyzed by grief “for a good year,” says Gotti, who took care of the household. “I grew up overnight,” she says. “I knew my responsibilities.” By then a precocious 16-year-old, Gotti had enrolled at St. John’s University in Queens the previous year. But her personal trials were just beginning. One day, while working out with the college track team, she developed stabbing chest pains and was diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse—a heart condition that can cause dizziness and serious palpitations. (Gotti, who still wears a heart monitor, wrote a book on the disease, Women and Mitral Valve Prolapse, in 1995 and raises funds for a Long Island chapter of the American Heart Association, among other charities.)

In 1984, after a brief stint as a fashion designer, Victoria married her first boyfriend, Carmine Agnello, now 36, whom she describes as a real estate investor. Shortly after the honeymoon, Gotti discovered she was pregnant, but the child—a daughter she named Justine—was stillborn nine months later. For weeks, Victoria mourned, sleeping on the floor in the nursery of her Atlantic Beach, N.Y., house, refusing to see people or take phone calls. Finally her father broke the spell. ” ‘Look,’ he said, ‘you’re doing what your mother did after Frankie was killed.’ I realized that he was right,” she says. Within two months, Victoria was pregnant with the first of three healthy sons—Carmine Jr., 10, John, 9, and Frankie, 6.

Gotti tries to shelter her boys from the steady stream of news items about the family’s Mob connections, such as a recent New York Daily News report that her husband, who lost his city contract to remove abandoned cars in Brooklyn in 1991 because of alleged Mob ties, was under investigation for operating a Queens chop shop selling stolen auto parts—an allegation his attorney denies.

“I fare great in the face of adversity,” says Gotti. “I will take you to task if you push me. It’s probably one of my bad traits.” And one of her strengths, says her friend Tula Rios. “In light of her father’s celebrity, she wanted to put something substantial out there,” Rios says of Victoria’s new book. “She’s not just John Gotti’s daughter.”

PATRICK ROGERS

HELENE STAPINSKI in New York City

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