Although his name doesn't have quite the (in)famous ring as his predecessor, Al Capone, Lucky Luciano takes the cake for being, hands-down, the most powerful mobster the world has ever seen. In a matter of two decades, with the aid of the 18th amendment, uncanny street smarts, and the superhuman ability to withstand a Sicilian tracheotomy, Charles Luciano went from being a nickel-and-dime pimp with a fourth grade education to the leader of a powerful crime syndicate that extended its influence throughout the continent and, in time, a good portion of the rest of the world.
Born on the island of Sicily in 1897 under the less evocative sobriquiet of Salvatore Luciana, he emigrated to New York City in 1906. Not long after that he decided that assimilation was not part of his American dream and left school to become a delinquent, selling drugs and women, and stealing practically anything he could get his sticky little fingers on.
Luciano got his first big brush with the law at the tender age of nineteen, when he was arrested for dealing heroin on the streets of New York City. Shortly after his release from Hampton Farms, a facility designed to rehabilitate troubled youths, Salvatore decided to change his name to Charlie after too many harsh experiences being called "Sal" (at that time, a name characteristically thought of as feminine) in the slammer. (*Ahem*) It also dawned upon him that it would be safer and more profitable for him to dupe gullible hoodlums into selling dope for him rather than putting himself back at risk, so he joined the Big Apple's legendary Five Points Gang, whereupon he met future big-leaguers such as Al Capone, Johnny Torrio, and Frankie Yale. Luciano spent the rest of his teenage years and early twenties behind the diamond-checkered grips of a .45 automatic, intimidating shopkeepers, home-dwellers, and random pedestrians into giving up their valuables in exchange for keeping their brains in their skulls.
If that course had continued unchecked, it's not difficult to imagine Luciano winding up dead or back in prison sometime before the age of thirty, but, much to the delight of the American criminal underworld, 1920 rolled around. With it came the ratification of the ill-conceived 18th Amendment, which was mostly envisaged by puritanical WASPs as a means to take alcohol out of the hands of those dirty, unwashed papist immigrants that threatened the values of the fair Republic. Luciano fell in with fellow Sicilian Joe Masseria's gang and began to run liquor, smack, and women of ill repute for La Cosa Nostra. Like most pimps everywhere, Luciano quickly gained a reputation for being abusive (disciplinary object of choice: his own leather belt) and lecherous (he picked up the habit of a different girl every night, something that lasted with him well after the prime of his life). In no time at all, the streets of New York were running with cheap, black-market hootch, heroin, and underage Irish / Italian prostitutes. It was the dawn of a golden age for organized crime, one that has yet to be surpassed.
Sometime shortly after the First World War ended, Luciano met a couple of nice Jewish boys from Brooklyn named Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky. There are many legendary stories as to how this dynamic trio actually came together, usually detailing a surrealist encounter involving screaming whores, a naked Siegel, and a raging pimp armed with a leather belt and a monkey wrench putting the smack down on someone. However it actually happened, the three formed a quick mutual bond in a rapid amount of time, becoming almost like a band of brothers.
In 1929, Joe Masseria's gang became involved in a violent turf war with a rival organization headed by Salvatore Maranzano, the would-be one-and-only ruler of New York City. On a dark October night of that year, Luciano was on a pier on the Hudson River, inspecting a fresh shipload of reefer that had just sailed in. Four of Maranzano's no-necked thugs pulled up in a car, grabbed Luciano, threw him into the car, and bound and gagged him before he could shout for the police to come to his aid. They took turns beating the living shit out of him for an hour while the driver rolled on at a leisurely pace toward Staten Island. Once there, they slit Luciano's throat from ear to ear, dumped his body in a ditch, and, still laughing their asses off, left him for dead and drove away.
But "Lucky" ne' Salvatore lived through this attack. He recovered and suggested to Boss Masseria that this gang war had to end, the sooner the better. Luciano, along with his old buddies Siegel and Lansky, arranged to see Maranzano on peaceful terms to set up a truce. They struck a deal with the kingpin to divvy up Masseria's turf: Maranzano was to get the entirety of the bootlegging operation; Luciano would be left in control of the drugs and women. Luciano set up a meeting with Masseria at an Italian restaurant on Coney Island, Nuova Villa Tammaro, on April 15, 1931. Luciano excused himself to go to the john, leaving his table with Masseria unattended. Soon after he disappeared, Joe Adonis, Albert Anastasia, Bugsy Siegel, and Vito Genovese walked into the restaurant, pumping ten rounds into the quivering body of Luciano's boss. Luciano had only to zip his fly and wash his hands before he could walk out the leader of his own Mafia gang.
Of course, payback being the bitch it is, Luciano had to get his revenge on the man who tried to murder him, and it was no surprise to anybody when Maranzano got rubbed out than six months after the takeover. With all potential rivals out of the picture, this second murder paved Luciano's way to become the premier Don of New York City.
Through agreements between Dutch Schultz and other Jewish and Italian crime lords of the Big Apple, Luciano was able to consolidate the power of NYC's criminal gangs and streamline their money-earning rackets into a hierarchial, efficient, corporate enterprise. He set up a board of directors that included all the major kingpins of the day, including lifetime pal Meyer Lansky. There was even a judicial system to hear complaints and determine by consensus if someone had erred to the degree where he needed to be clipped.
The cartel, soon afterward dubbed the "National Crime Syndicate" (TM) was an astounding success, as its tendrils of influence spread from New York City proper to the Northeast to the entire eastern seaboard of the United States. Luciano soon expanded the scope of his enterprise from the classic combo of guns, booze, and sex to include death in the form of Murder Inc., an agency staffed with pre-screened professional hitmen who catered to perfectly reputable Italian businessmen and other wealthy people.
From 1931 to 1936, Luciano lived the life of royalty -- or at least, as much as an aristocratic life as a lowborn Sicilian thug could hope to achieve. Everyone wanted to be seen with this celebrity, despite his obviously deep connections with vice, murder, and whoredom. Out of self-consciousness and a knowledge that too much attention in the public spotlight was often a bad thing (see Al Capone) Luciano became somewhat of a recluse, spending most of his time in his hotel room with his women.
But even with his low profile, he was still a potential target. Sadly, the state of New York decided that the world had finally had enough of this big pimpin', murderous smuggler, and sought to do the world a favor by putting him behind bars on numerous charges of prostitution at the end of 1936. With about twenty years of uninterrupted business behind him at that point, it can be said with a fair degree of certainty that they wanted to take their time with his case.
At first, Luciano wasn't even that concerned, repeatedly claiming that he didn't even have anything to do with prostitution (something he probably only considered a secondary source of income at this point, anyway). But thanks to the tireless efforts of special prosecutor Thomas Dewey, dozens of witnesses were paraded by the witness stand in an effort to incriminate Luciano with a deluge of first-hand accounts, alleging that Luciano was some kind of "king pimp" of the New York. Lucky was enraged by this turn of events and complained that the government had bribed and coerced the testimony of these small-time whores, pimps, and two-bit gangsters, giving them loads of free dope and air travel to Europe. Initially, the public laughed, figuring that Luciano was completely full of shit and was trying to go down planting a seed of doubt insinuating that he was framed. However, documents subsequently retrieved from Dewey's office confirmed that a large number of tickets to Europe were purchased by the office in the same year as Luciano's trial. Even more incriminating, some of the former witnesses (especially the prostitutes) had been shipped away to Europe permanently and received monthly living stipends from the prosecutor on which to survive.
It was slowly becoming clear even to the most jaded observer that Dewey's case was at least partially trumped-up. After a few years of surfacing evidence and pressure from Luciano and his legal team, a number of the witnesses went so far as to recant their testimony, but this, of course, did nothing to further the then already-rendered verdict: thirty-five years in prison.
Like most mobsters, Luciano spent his time in prison scheming of ways to get out and enjoying the countless perks and respects a crime lord customarily gets in the Big House. One day, while reading the paper about six months or so after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Luciano had a bit of an epiphany which he thought could serve to get him out of jail a bit earlier. He realized how much the War Department was worried about spies and saboteurs disrupting the war effort, not to mention German U-boats sneaking right into naval shipyards and taking pot shots at unprotected vessels. With the management of Albert Anastasia and Frank Costello, they set their eyes on the SS Normandie, a French luxury ocean liner that the Navy had been planning to convert into a transport ship for the Allies.
Suddenly, overnight, the Normandie, innocently docked in West Manhattan harbor, was a gutted, useless wreck. Naturally, the Navy and the public were shocked, outraged, and panicked at this failure of imagination that occured right underneath their noses, and Naval Intelligence was charged from preventing any such incidents from ever happening again, since it was obvious to everybody, of course, that foreign terrorists were responsible for the catastrophe. As a direct result of this, playing right into Luciano's hands, the government initiated "Operation Underworld." Naval intelligence officers came to him in prison to ask for his help with the investigation and in other counter-intelligence operations. Luciano agreed, and he was entrusted with helping the government find contacts on Sicily and in Italy before the Allies invaded. Of course, the only stipulation to the provision of his aid was an agreement for a reduced prison sentence. Naturally, since it was a matter of utmost national security, there could be no way that the district attorney's office (still managed by Dewey at this time) could say no. After a bit of pressure, Dewey agreed to parole for the notorious gangster, but only after Luciano agreed to leave the country to go back to Italy, in 1946.
Luciano lived out the rest of his life in the Old Country, still conducting business of the NCS even as an exile. In December of 1946, he flew to the island of Cuba to attend a convention of sorts with other syndicate mobsters, where he was honored and affirmed by old comrades, assuring him that he was still in control of the operation.
Three major things of note happened at the Havana Conference. The first was a nice little flurry of fisticuffs between Luciano and Young Turk Vito Genovese, the latter not-so-politely suggesting that the elderly mobster step down and relinquish control of things. This incensed, aging (raging?) pimp retaliated by cracking three of Genovese's ribs, proving he could still throw down with the best of them, with or without a monkey wrench.
The two other, more somber events concerned themselves with major decisions to be made by the syndicate over its future plans stateside. Luciano had the impression that the narcotics trade was becoming a bit too risky for the Mafia to stay in for much longer, but his protest went by largely unheeded by the delegates in attendance. Lansky informed his friend that Genovese was in control of too much of the trade (and making far too much money thereby) to pull out of it by that point, so they would just stay in and see how things went.
Another issue of importance was the fate of Bugsy Siegel. Bugs had been deliberately left out of the conference because of the failure of his $6 million Flamingo Hotel which was beginning to cause his cohorts no small amount of concern. They passed a vote, and despite Lansky's and Luciano's objections, a solid majority condemned the man to death. Siegel was bumped off six months later on June 20th, 1947.
Some years later, Luciano began planning to produce a film about his life and criminal career. He decided to meet with a producer at Capodichino Airport in Naples, Italy, to discuss details of a screenplay. On January 26th, 1962, as he crossed the runway to meet the man, he dropped dead of a sudden heart attack. He was sixty-four years old.