Chapter 4: The New York Mob
Tell us about your first trip to New York. I believe it was on the eve of 1922.
Frank Costello delivered the clothes that I was to wear to the party. Just as the barber was putting his clippers away, Costello removed a bill from his wallet, handed it to the barber and said: “Remember, not a word to anyone about this—to anyone.”
The barber nodded, acknowledging that he understood. Costello knew that Luciano’s long-time barber could be trusted. The barber collected his bag and left my hotel room. With this haircut, I now looked more like Lucky Luciano than ever before, according to Costello.
The clothes were custom tailored for me to match Lucky’s wardrobe. Costello reminded me of my instructions; chief among them was to “say almost nothing to anyone other than me—not even to Silver Dollar Sam or Carlos. If you have to speak, do so in Sicilian and sound as if your voice is strained. The story is that you are recovering from the flu and you’ve lost your voice.”
Costello was concerned about my accent. It was apparent that I looked like Lucky Luciano, the guest of honor, but I sounded nothing like him. “You sound like you might be from Boston, but definitely not New York,” said Costello, who was clearly an Italian-born New Yorker. “And, don’t drink too much.”
My instructions were to get dressed and wait for Costello to return to my room, so that he could escort me to the party downstairs in one of the Knickerbocker’s grand ballrooms.
Costello returned just before ten o’clock to accompany me to the party. Two tough-looking men stood guard in the hall, limiting access to my hotel room. Costello reminded me once again, “Remember, you are Lucky Luciano, who will be meeting Silver Dollar Sam and Carlos for the very first time tonight. Your best friends, besides me and Meyer Lanksy, are Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia, and Ben Siegel. And whatever you do, do not make the mistake of calling Ben by his nickname Bugsy. They don’t know that you aren’t the real Luciano, so act as if you are glad to see them and everyone else but don’t say nothing to none of them. The only person, besides me and Meyer, that will be there who knows that you are not Lucky is Arnold Rothstein. I will point him out to you. Arnold is a big cheese and is the only one who tells Lucky what to do. The three of us, Arnold, Meyer, and me, will keep you from having to talk.”
The elevator doors swung open to the ballroom level. This was the grandest event that I had ever experienced. The fur coats, diamond rings and necklaces, and the gold watches—New Orleans was the wealthiest city in the south, but the money dripping off of people in this place surpassed anything that I had ever seen. There were at least one hundred people in the place. In addition to the dapper dons and elegant ladies there were scantily clad flapper girls, ice sculptures, balloons, confetti, and musicians.
Several people acknowledged us as we walked by, but as instructed I did not stop to speak to anyone. Costello and I stopped walking, and he directed my attention to the round table only a few steps away where Lansky was sitting with three men that I had yet to meet. Speaking softly in Italian, he briefly explained who each person at the table was and their relationship with Lucky.
Extending his hand to shake mine, Arnold was the first to speak: “I’m sorry to hear about your laryngitis, Lucky. You must have gotten hold of some rotten hooch, likely from Dutch.” This generated a few chuckles. Arnold was the oldest among the group, and the most famous. He was well known as a multi-millionaire business man and gambler. He was less known, at least publicly, as a gangster and bootlegger. Arnold was known by the Mob as The Brain, because he was a brilliant schemer. He was an exquisite dresser and eloquent speaker. He taught Lucky how to dress in the way of high society, silk shirts and silk ties and all. Ben Siegel and Frank Costello emulated Lucky’s new dapper style which resulted in creating the stereotypical image of the well-dressed Italian Mobster.
Ben Siegel added to the laughter by saying, “Bad cooch is more like it.” Ben was a handsome, but brutal man. He was a lover and a fighter. Lucky first met Ben as a teenage street thug and Lansky’s side kick. In public, he was seen most often with a beautiful woman by his side, but he was a feared Mafioso with a reputation for killing first and asking questions later.
"Now, now, Arnold; we have an understanding that Dutch will not be selling anymore of his product in our territory, and to let bygones be bygones." said Lansky, smiling, as he shook my hand. “Happy new year, Lucky.”
Lucky first met Meyer Lansky when they were barely teenagers. The story goes that Lansky, despite being much smaller, refused to pay Lucky for protection; a common racket among Italians. Lucky respected Lansky and they became best friends. Lucky was the first Sicilian gangster to accept a Jew as his equal. This has had major implications for the development of the Mafia, because Lansky introduced Lucky to Arnold Rothstein who taught the young Italians to organize their criminal efforts. In time, Lansky replaced Arnold as the brilliant criminal mind that directed the Italian Mafia to become the national crime syndicate.
The man named Dutch Shultz did not laugh or reach for my hand to shake. Instinctively, I turned to shake his hand next, but Costello indiscreetly used his hand to keep my arm from extending in Shultz’s direction and pulled out a chair for me to take a seat. Without having to be asked, a waiter was quick to pour a drink for me and Costello.
In a more serious tone Arnold said: “Yes Meyer that is in the past. Thank you for reminding me. Mr. Shultz, if there is nothing else, I would like to discuss some things with my associates now that Lucky and Frank are here.”
“Certainly. Happy new year to all of you,” Shultz said, looking directly at me as he stood to leave.
I noticed that Costello and Lansky seemed to be fighting to keep from laughing out loud at how everyone was fooled by Lucky’s double. Costello had a scratchy voice as the result of a botched tonsillectomy. He had broad shoulders and was also popular with the ladies. When Costello was younger, he carried a gun and wasn’t afraid to use it, but by this time, he used his uncanny ability to develop relationships with politicians, judges, and the police to benefit the Mafia.
Rothstein raised his glass. “May I be the first to toast to a prosperous New Year?”
“Even more prosperous than this past year,” said Meyer raising his glass.
The other glasses were raised and clinked together. Then Lansky said to me: “Lucky, don’t try to talk, because I don’t want you to strain your voice so that you can recover faster—”
“No! I think I like him better without a voice!” Ben interrupted. We all laughed but some of us weren’t laughing at Ben’s joke—we laughed because Ben still thought that I was the real Lucky Luciano. This was especially interesting because, I had learned, Ben “Bugsy” Siegel and Lucky Luciano had been close friends since they were teenage street thugs. In fact, no one was closer to Lucky, other than Meyer Lansky and Frank Costello.
“As I was saying, just nod your head,” Lansky continued. “Do you think that Ben will ever settle down with one woman?”
I shook my head, side to side, just as I had been coached.
“I can say the same about you, pal,” Siegel said as he raised another glass in the air, motioning it in my direction.
We all laughed; again it was the situation, not Siegel’s remarks, that caused the laughter.
“Ben, do you know any new jokes?” asked Costello.
“You know I do.” Ben told a few jokes. I don’t recall the content, but we laughed and laughed.
The laughter caught the attention of another Italian who I learned later to be Tommy Luchesse, and he joined our table, sitting in Dutch Shultz’s vacated chair. He waited for Ben to finish his latest joke so that he could contribute his joke.
Tommy was proud of himself for the laughter that his joke generated. He then stood with glass raised and said, “To the Volstead Act!” But before anyone downed their drink, Costello said: “You’ve made that same toast for the past two years; how about something new.”
“All right! To a happy new year, and to not taking too big a bite!”
After Tommy left our table, Lansky got everyone’s attention: “Gentlemen, I propose that we move our group up to Lucky’s suite for a special presentation. Frank, would you see to it that Silver Dollar Sam and Carlos join us there?” Vito Genovese and Albert Anastasia were instructed to remain at the party.
The rest of us followed Lansky’s instructions and made our way through the ballroom. Along the way, I received many smiles and winks from the ladies. There were two armed guards sitting in chairs on each side of the door to Lucky’s suite, just as had I had seen outside my room. We entered the suite, past the guards. Lansky instructed everyone to sit and drink until Costello arrived with Silver Dollar Sam and Carlos so that he could make the presentation to all of us at once. We did exactly as we were told.
Seated with me were Carlos, Sam, Rothstein, Costello, and Siegel. Lansky was the only one standing as he spoke: “Gentlemen. I have something extraordinary to present tonight. Lucky, would you please walk over to me.”
As instructed, I stood up and walked over to Lansky. Seconds later, the real Lucky Luciano entered the room and walked up to me. Luciano looked at me with amazement, and I at him. It was as if we were looking at ourselves in a mirror. I realized now why Costello had selected the clothes that I was wearing. The real Lucky was wearing identical clothes from hat to shoes. Ben Siegel was the most surprised of all for he was the only one in the room previously unaware of my existence, besides Lucky. For this reason, Lansky selected Ben Siegel to guess which one of us was the real Lucky Luciano. He guessed correctly but only after closely studying us—and even then he wasn’t totally confident in his decision. What gave it away, he said, was “the eyes—Lucky is surer of himself, and it shows in his eyes.”
Lansky stressed that my existence should remain top secret. “It could be very useful to our thing for Lucky to have a double. No one outside of this room knows about Little Brother—and we are to keep it that way.”
“Except for Al Capone,” Carlos said.
“I’ve already handled it with Al,” Lansky replied.
“As I was saying, this is top secret information. No one is to speak of this to anyone outside if this room—Ben, no one—not to Vito, not to Albert or Tommy—” Lansky continued.
“Yeah, I get the picture,” said Siegel. “Nobody.”
Luciano took charge. “Now that we’ve settled that, I would like to spend a few minutes getting to know my look-alike. Enjoy the rest of the party and I will be down in a few. Ben, send a couple of playthings up for Little Brother in about thirty minutes.”
Everyone left the room except for Lucky, Lansky, and me. The three of us sat in the living room of Lucky’s suite, each with a drink in our hand. Lucky asked a lot of questions about my history. He wanted to know about my family, which was limited to my mother who lived in New Orleans and her sister and her sister’s husband and their children, all of whom lived in Sicily, and whom I had never met. My mother never wanted to discuss them. Lucky spoke mostly in English, but he occasionally spoke Sicilian. When he did, I reciprocated by speaking in Sicilian. Lansky said that we sounded far more similar when we spoke in our native tongue. After a short while, Lucky told me that he wanted me to work for him and Lansky. “Silver Dollar has already agreed, but the ultimate decision is up to you.” He explained that he and Lansky were hatching a plan that could benefit from having me to serve as a decoy, or alibi, for Lucky. Accepting his offer meant that I would have to spend a great deal of time in hiding, for no one could know of me other than his most trusted circle of confidants. “Loyalty is as important as life and death,” he explained.
“What’s in it for me?” I asked.
Lucky and Meyer took turns explaining how I would be taken care of for the rest of my life. I would have enough money to do anything that I wanted; I could open my own business or travel the world. “But, for the next four or five years, we will need you to live a very quiet life—nothing dangerous and never in the spotlight. After all, you break a bone and have to wear a cast, I have to wear a cast.” Lucky explained.
Then Lucky pointed out that he had enemies. “If they were to mistake you as me, it would be best if you have our protection. There is a reason that I have armed guards outside of my door around the clock.” They told me that I didn’t have to decide right away, so we agreed that I would stay in New York for a month and see how it went.
There was a hotel room with a connecting door to Lucky’s suite. Lansky had a professional special effects guy design a costume that Lucky and I would take turns wearing. I was never to leave my room without wearing the disguise, unless I was supposed to be Lucky; in which case, he wore the disguise. A voice and acting coach was hired to teach me how to walk and talk like Lucky. After a few weeks, I was subjected to a series of tests. I would have dinner in a public place with one of Lucky’s gals or pals. If anyone approached me to speak, his pals would intercede on my behalf, or I would speak in Italian.
After a month of this, it was an easy decision. I could have anything I wanted delivered to my room. Steak, lobster, and champagne every night of the week if I wanted, and I had my pick of beautiful women, sometimes two and three at a time. When I got stir crazy, Lucky would arrange for me to have a vacation far away from New York, where no one was likely to recognize Lucky. Over the next four years, I got to visit Bermuda, the Bahamas, and Miami, among other places. All that I had to do was to be seen somewhere in public when it benefited Lucky, so that he could be somewhere else without his enemies knowing. Lucky was arrested several times and subsequently released, because credible witnesses would swear that they saw him far away from the scene of the crime while the crime was occurring. Once I spent a week in Hot Springs, Arkansas, pretending to be Lucky Luciano. I was a real celebrity among the locals. They loved for mobsters to visit their little town.
By 1929, Lucky had been using my services for a couple of years, at least. I would meet hoodlums on rooftops and even in Central Park to swap a briefcase of unknown contents for another briefcase of unknown contents. During these swaps, I would almost always speak in Italian, but by now, I could mimic Lucky’s English. This special arrangement had gone very well for Lucky and me, but one night things went terribly wrong. I was having dinner with Ben Siegel and a couple of beautiful broads at this really good Italian restaurant called Delmonico’s. I was approached by Tommy Luca, who I knew to be one of Salvatore Maranzano’s men. He pretended to be Lucky’s friend, but we all knew that he was a double agent. Don Maranzono was a dangerous rival to Lucky’s boss Don Masseria.
“Lucky, I’m surprised to see you here. I had heard you were in Brooklyn tonight.”
I had been well coached and knew how to respond to almost any situation. In English, I said: “I’ve been here all night with my pal, Ben, and my gal Erika.”
Tommy responded in Sicilian. “Right now in Brooklyn Don Maranzano is meeting with someone who looks an awful lot like you.”
I replied in Sicilian: “He has discovered my secret double. Please keep my secret, as it has given me plenty of alibis when I’ve needed one.”
This saved Lucky’s life. At that moment, he was being given a severe beating by Maranzano, but Lucky claimed that he was me, the look-alike, and that I was the real Lucky Luciano. Tommy Luca made a call to Maranzano and convinced him that he was certain that the real Lucky Luciano was having dinner at Delmonico’s.
Although I saved Lucky’s life that night, this was the beginning of the end of our mutually beneficial relationship.