The Genovese Family

The celebrated and infamous Lucky Luciano was the first head of this crime family. When Luciano was sent to prison in 1936, his henchman Frank Costello took over.

Costello was a different breed of don. He was not a micromanager, nor was he into the sensational aspects of being a gangster. He was more like quiet Meyer Lansky, who pulled strings and made bundles of money and stayed out of the headlines. Costello was a “big picture” guy who looked beyond New York City to expand his family's interests as far west as Las Vegas and as far south as Cuba. Costello was affectionately called “the Prime Minister” because of his diplomatic skills, and his ability to delegate leadership made his family a lot of money.

Vito and Costello

Vito Genovese, the namesake of the crime family, had served as Luci-ano's underboss, and by all rights he should have succeeded Mr. Lucky as boss. Genovese, however, left the country to avoid a murder charge and was languishing in Italy. After World War II, Genovese came back to America, where he was expected to stand trial for the murder. As often happens in Mafia murder trials, key witnesses were themselves mysteriously murdered. As a result, Genovese remained a free man.

Vito Genovese and Frank Costello vied for control of the crime family for many years. Genovese chipped away at Costello's power with a series of small but significant moves. A series of hits eliminated many of the top guns in Costello's corner. But Costello was able to keep control by exerting his influence over other families. This kept the balance of power in Costello's favor for a few more years.

Frank Costello, born as Francesco Castiglia, preferred negotiation to assassination and was a shrewd and skilled leader of men. (And a lucky one, too.) He survived a shot to the head, which only grazed him, by a hit man who could not shoot straight; Costello lived to tell the tale.

In 1957, Vito Genovese staged an unsuccessful hit on Costello. Costello was shot and wounded in the lobby of his luxury apartment building on Manhattan's Central Park West. The hit man who missed was Vincent “Chin” Gigante, who went on to be one of the Mafia's most colorful characters.

But Genovese was able to get rid of one of Costello's closest allies, Albert Anastasia, boss of the soon-to-be Gambino family. In the sensational barbershop chair hit, Genovese was helped by an Anastasia associate, Carlo Gam-bino, who then assumed control of the family. Gambino then switched sides and joined an alliance with Costello and Meyer Lansky to take out the ambitious Genovese.

Frank Costello decided to retire. Genovese was now the top dog. However, Genovese dabbled in narcotics, which led to his downfall. He was sent to prison after assuming control of the family.

Successors

Genovese continued to control his empire from his jail cell. Mafiosi have often had special privileges while in prison. Through bribery of guards and prison officials, mobsters had access to better food, drugs, phone calls, meeting rooms, and plenty of conjugal visits. This freedom behind bars enabled many of the big kingpins to continue to oversee and run their crime families from the slammer.

Genovese was monitoring his gangland operations and even ordering hits during his sentence. Nevertheless, he could not be a completely hands-on don from the little cell he shared with informant-to-be Joe Valachi. The men on the outside whom Genovese relied on were not the brightest bulbs lighting the underworld, and they could not compete with the machinations of the savvy Carlo Gambino and usurpation in his own family.

The Genovese family leadership went to great lengths to avoid being watched by the feds. They would hide in the backs of cars while traveling to meetings, hold sit-downs in the early mornings, and rotate their hangouts across New York City.

Vito Genovese died in prison on Valentine's Day 1969. While he was in prison the Genovese family was ruled by a threesome — Thomas Eboli, Gerardo “Jerry” Catena, and Philip “Benny Squint” Lombardo (also known as “Cockeyed Phil”). While Eboli was out front, many in the know thought that Lombardo was the real boss. The wily Genovese wise guys were known to have false front-bosses in order to hide who was really running things.

Gerardo Catena was one of the most influential Genovese bosses in New Jersey, but he remained above any internal family politics and below law enforcement's radar. After his release from prison in 1972, Catena moved to Florida. He died of natural causes at age ninety-eight in 2000.

Eboli was not respected by his own men or the Mafia community at large. And if you're not a man of respect in the Mafia, your lifespan is often a short one. After a botched drug deal with the Gambino family, Eboli was whacked while leaving his girlfriend's apartment. Lombardo and Cat-ena sank back into the shadows and Gambino cleared the way for Frank “Funzi” Tieri to fill the slot. “Funzi,” though not a household name like Gotti or Capone, was an effective don who brought the Genovese family back to prominence. He also never forgot that it was Gambino who put him there.

When Tieri died in 1981, it is believed that “Fat Tony” Salerno took over, though other sources maintain that it was “Cockeyed Phil” Lombardo. The Genovese crime family became the second most powerful of the five families, second only to the Gambinos.

Taking It on the Chin

When Salerno was sent away for 100 years, the colorful and eccentric Vincent “Chin” Gigante took over. The Chin had a unique way to keep the law off his case. And it almost worked. Gigante was often seen wandering around his Greenwich Village neighborhood in a bathrobe and talking to himself. This behavior caused wags to give him the moniker “the Oddfa-ther.” It was generally accepted that he was faking it in an effort to avoid prosecution for his many crimes via an insanity plea. The feds were not fooled. Secret wiretapped conversations revealed a sane and lucid criminal mind at work. In 1996 he was charged with murder and racketeering and was sentenced to twelve years in prison. He died in December 2005.

  1. Home
  2. Mafia
  3. The Five Families of New York
  4. The Genovese Family
Visit other About.com sites: