In the Literary Coup of the Year, the F.b.i. Grabs Mafia Leader Joe Bonanno's Memoirs

It sounded like the charter for a Boy Scout troop. The organization’s purpose, according to the document, was “to keep the peace in New York and all over the country—to make law, to settle trouble and to guarantee justice for all.” But the individuals in question wore no merit badges and, though they could be ostentatiously reverent, they were far from clean. They were the five criminals—Lucky Luciano, Joe Profaci, Vincent Mangano, Gaetano Gagliano and Joe Bonanno—who made up the first national “commission” of the American Mafia in 1931.

Until now the inside story of the Cosa Nostra has been restricted to the highest echelon of organized crime by the Sicilian code of omerta—silence. But before breakfast last March 17, state and federal agents served a search warrant on Joe “Bananas” Bonanno, now 75, at his home in Tucson, Ariz. Once inside they went unerringly to sliding wall panels in his bedroom that camouflage his buco (Sicilian for “hiding place”). As Bonanno stood by in his pajamas, watching helplessly and vomiting, agents brought out guns, $40,000 in cash, a list of names and addresses (including those of judges, state officials and a congressman)—and an extraordinary 250-page manuscript. In English and Sicilian, it outlined Bonanno’s life in the Mafia, which is nothing less than the history of the Mafia itself.

The manuscript, recently made available to PEOPLE, could take the FBI all summer to translate and compare with known facts; it consists of Bonanno’s fragmentary notes to himself in a hieroglyphic scrawl. But the cache in that buco and the scraps of paper lawmen have been culling from his trash for more than three years have already led to his indictment for conspiracy to obstruct justice by withholding evidence. They also prompted the present nine-member Mafia commission to hold frantic meetings on how to deal with perhaps the most disastrous breach of security in mob history.

Why would Bonanno commit so gross an indiscretion? Officials point to the overweening vanity reflected in alternate titles he gave his manuscript: “The Real Story of Joe Bonanno; or, The Prince of the Honored Mafia” and “The Sicilian-American Mafia Prince.” Authorities familiar with the mob say no one has a higher opinion of Bonanno than he himself and, though he is known to others by his reputation for extortion, narcotics trafficking and murder, his self-portrait is that of a picaresque hero and a happy man.

One of the manuscript’s most astonishing passages deals with Bonanno’s effort in 1964 to take over the mob in Canada and both coasts of the U.S. simultaneously by contracting for three assassinations. The targets were dons Carlo Gambino, Tommy “Three Finger Brown” Lucchese and Stefano Maggadino. When the intended victims found out about the triple hit, they had Bonanno kidnapped in Manhattan. In his papers he refers to the incident as “a dirty and desperate conspiracy” against him, but his claim of affronted innocence gets little credence from Mafia experts.

Having botched such a spectacular coup, Bonanno seemed certain to be killed, but the manuscript explains how, incredibly, he avoided execution by invoking arcane bylaws of the mob that his keepers were too green to know about—and the old dons too senile to remember. Bonanno told the three commissioners delegated to handle his case that they “didn’t have any official authorization” to execute him because “J.B. [Joe Bonanno] was the head of the committee who elected the commission every five years. The five years was already passed and they were all out.” That argument, plus Bonanno’s contention that he was the sole U.S. representative of the “mustaches,” the aged godfathers in Sicily, left his accusers scratching their heads. “To check out some of that stuff, you’d have to go by mule into the hills of Sicily,” says one observer. Flummoxed, the commission simply kept Bonanno in captivity for 18 months. Then “the commission voted against J.B.,” but released him on his promise to retire.

Joe Bananas was as bad as his word. For more than two years, the infamous “Banana Wars” were fought on the streets of New York, leaving at least eight mobsters dead as Bonanno struggled to regain power from his Tucson headquarters. Though he was never reinstated as head of New York’s Bonanno family, the manuscript and the memos recovered from his trash show a continuing involvement in Mafia activities in the U.S., Canada and Europe. They link him to, among other things, the importation of Mafia “soldiers” from Sicily, concealment of records from government investigators and the murder of an FBI informant in San Diego.

Bonanno, on the other hand, sees himself as anything but a mobster. His manuscript recounts the deathbed invocation of his father, a Sicilian don: “Above all, be a Bonanno and be proud of the Bonannos.” After what he calls “college”—a two-year Palermo seaman’s school—Joe came to the U.S. and went to work. “I was in [the] bootlegging business at age 21 or 22,” he writes. A long section of the Bonanno papers is devoted to the “Castel-lammare Wars”—between immigrant thugs from his home town of Castel-lammare del Golfo and non-Sicilian gangsters in New York—in which the present-day structure of the U.S. Mafia was forged. By age 26, Joe was a don himself and a member of the first Cosa Nostra commission, set up to keep peace among the families.

That high office squared with Joe’s opinion of himself. He has often claimed a traceable family line to Charles Bonanno, said to be the designer of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. In Joe’s daylight role as a legitimate businessman—he controls a cheese company in Wisconsin—he likes to mention his meeting with Billy Graham, a handshake with FDR and his close acquaintanceship with judges, congressmen and high church officials.

Bonanno’s princely self-image is supported by his roseate view of the mob. It was formed, he writes, to avenge the rape of a Palermo girl by a soldier of the French occupation in the 13th century. Sicilian menfolk launched the so-called “Vespers Insurrection.” “The mother of the girl cried ‘Ma-Fia’ [my daughter],” he recounts in a passage authorities suspect he borrowed from a more literate author. At first “the symbol of protection…against the oppressor,” the Mafia became, Bonanno continues, “the symbol of honor, courage, integrity, justice and liberty. This secret organization was to bring about the righting of wrong.”

Bonanno has good reason to feel charitable about the organization’s power. Arrested 12 times in his long and bloody career, he has been convicted only once—of a 1942 labor law violation, for which he was fined $450. Just as nimbly he has escaped the justice of the dons, and seems about to do it again. After lengthy deliberation in Fort Lauderdale last month, his successors on the commission adjourned without deciding what to do with him. The reason: They still aren’t certain if they need permission from the mustaches to punish him. The only man who seems to know for sure is Joe Bonanno.

Related Articles