Romanticized by Hollywood as a fearless and dashing mob boss, Lucky Luciano was one of the biggest criminal minds of the 20th century. Should he have lived in a different era and applied himself to a legitimate business venture, he could have climbed to the very top of the corporate ladder. He is considered the father of modern organized crime, since he was the one who redesigned the structure of mafia essentially molding it into “organized” crime. He replaced traditional rule by the “Boss of all Bosses” in favor of a ruling committee – the commission – the governing body of the American Mafia.
Salvatore Lucania, born in 1897 in Sicily, arrived in New York with his family at the tender age of 9, settling on the Lower East Side and quickly becoming a crime prodigy. Earning a meager, honest living through diligent, hard work didn’t appeal to him. By the age of 10, he was already involved in mugging, shoplifting, gambling, and extortion. Sometime later he was jailed for selling heroin, which served as an opportunity to complete his criminal education.
By 1916 he was a leading member of the Five Points Gang but, most importantly, befriended Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, young Jewish gangsters who became his companions in crime for life.
On January 17, 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, otherwise known as Prohibition, took effect, opening a world of possibilities to the young criminal minds. At the time Lower Manhattan was run by two competing mafia bosses: Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. Acting as a hired gun for Masseria, Luciano earned his first serious gangster stripes. In the early 1920s, Luciano and his associates offered their services to Arnold Rothstein, known as The Brain or The Man Uptown. Mr. Rothstein was the person who first realized that the Prohibition was a business opportunity and a means to enormous wealth. According to crime writer Leo Katcher, Rothstein “transformed organized crime from a thuggish activity by hoodlums into a big business, run like a corporation, with himself at the top.” Seeing talent and ambition in Lucky, Rothstein groomed him and taught him how to run bootleg alcohol as a business, as well as how to dress, appreciate finer things in life and move in high society, transforming a street rat into a polished, well dressed, respectable mobster. Rothstein met his end in 1928 when he was assassinated for failing to pay a gambling debt.
In contrast with poor mannered, crude, traditional mafia bosses, Lucky Luciano was a progressive mobster with “equal opportunity” employment policies – he was willing to work not only with Italians but also Jewish and Irish gangsters, as long as there was money to be made.
In 1929, Luciano was forced into a limousine at gunpoint, beaten, stabbed, and left for dead on Staten Island. He somehow survived the ordeal but was forever marked with a scar and droopy eye. The incident most likely earned him the moniker “Lucky.”
Young Luciano was not only fearless but also smart and calculating which insured his survival in the brutal world run by mafia cut-throats. Collaborating with brainy, cool-headed Meyer Lansky, he figured out a way to play Masseria and Maranzano against each other, eventually assassinating them both.
With Maranzano and Masseria out of the way, Luciano climbed to the top of the ladder, controlling illegal gambling, extortion, bookmaking, loansharking, drug trafficking, garbage hauling, construction, Garment District businesses, and trucking. Instead of going the traditional route and crowning himself as “capo di tutti capi” – Boss of all Bosses, he created the Commission to serve as the governing body for organized crime. The Commission was originally composed of representatives of the Five Families of New York City, the Buffalo crime family, and the Chicago Outfit of Al Capone. In theory, all the decision-making was done democratically by majority vote, but in reality, was controlled by Luciano.
By the 1930s Luciano was presiding over bootlegging, narcotics, loansharking, labor union rackets and prostitution. He was swimming in money and power, he dressed like a dandy and kept a very expensive suite in Waldorf Astoria. It all came crashing down in 1936 when Lucky ran out of luck and was arrested by special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey on charges of facilitating prostitution. Luciano was convicted and sentenced to 30 to 50 years.
But this is not how the story ends. With connections and money, Lucky ran the prison as well as the Commission from the inside, but, alas, could not buy himself an appeal. His lucky break came during WWII. The US government was paranoid about German war vessels entering NY Harbor. Since the Mafia controlled the waterfront, a deal was struck in which the mafia would cooperate with the US Navy in providing intelligence, assuring lack of sabotage, and tightening waterfront security in exchange for a commutation of Luciano’s sentence. He was released from prison in 1946 and immediately deported to Italy.
The criminal mastermind did not enjoy his forced retirement, especially when he knew there was so much money to be made in heroin. Since running the operation from overseas was not very convenient, Luciano secretly moved to Havana, Cuba. His objective was to be closer to the US so that he could resume control over American Mafia operations and eventually return home. At the time, Lansky was already established as a major investor in Cuban gambling and hotel projects. In 1946, Lansky called a meeting of the heads of the major crime families in Havana, dubbed the Havana Conference. The Conference, which took place at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, was organized to address the following important topics: the heroin trade, Cuban gambling, and what to do about Bugsy Siegel and his floundering Flamingo Hotel project in Las Vegas.
After Luciano was deported from Cuba, he was shipped back to Italy where despite the fact that he was under close Italian police scrutiny, he continued to direct the drug traffic into the US.
Lucky Luciano died of a heart attack in 1962 at the Naples airport, where he had gone to meet with a movie producer considering making a film based on his biography. With the permission of the US government, Luciano’s relatives took his body back to New York for burial. He was laid to rest in St. John’s Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens.