The last Don, as seen by the Family.

The last Don, as seen by the Family.

The last Don, as seen by the Family.

Bringing out the dead.
June 14 2002 1:56 PM

John Gotti

The last don, as seen by the Family.

John Gotti
John Gotti

It is a little-known fact, even among Mafia hobbyists, that John J. Gotti, a man seldom credited with sophistication, raised his children to be avid readers. His daughter Victoria, who is the smartest Gotti (and who, if the world were a different place, would now be the boss of the Gambino crime family), has a living room lined with books, many of which were not written by Sidney Sheldon, and she is a writer herself of halfway-credible mysteries. His son and sad-sack heir, John, who is known as Junior, is an autodidact and a compulsive reader of history, particularly the history of Native America.

Several years ago, when I was writing about organized crime for the New York Times Magazine, I fell into an exchange with Junior about the powerful, metaphoric role the American Indian plays in his inner life. Junior refused to talk to me about organized crime, but on Native Americans he became logorrheic. Over the course of several furtive conversations—furtive, I think, because he didn't want his egg-headedness revealed to his crew members, most of whom worked, putatively, for auto-salvage firms in north Queens and who possessed no particular love for Native Americans, apart from their casinos—Junior shared book recommendations and explicated his view that the fight of Native Americans was also the fight of Italian-Americans.

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"If you look at the history of the Indians, you see that they were oppressed by the government," he told me. "It's just the same with Italian-Americans. We're oppressed just like the Indians. It's history repeating itself." Over several conversations and a letter, it became clear he saw his father as the last, great chief of his tribe and the federal prison at Marion, Ill., as a barbed-wire reservation. He told me that his father was a source of pride and hope to Italians everywhere (with the exception of Rudolph Giuliani).

Junior was delusional, of course—Chief Joseph and Sitting Bull were, if memory serves, fighting over matters slightly more elevated than control over New York City's exotic-dance-club industry. But in the belief that his father was a great populist figure, Junior was not alone. He was joined by the tabloid press and by generations of glory hounds at the U.S. Justice Department, who, for careerist reasons, made far too much of Gotti, and of organized Italian-American crime generally.

Some time after my conversations with Junior, I visited Salvatore "Sammy Bull" Gravano in order to talk about, among other things, Gotti's legacy. Gravano was the Gotti lieutenant-turned-informant who was responsible in part for his boss's downfall. I met Gravano in Phoenix, where he was doing an ostentatiously poor job of hiding from the Mob. After testifying against Gotti Senior, Gravano, who has committed at least 18 murders, was placed in the witness security program but soon dropped out. "They wanted me to live in Utah," he said. "No way was I living in Utah." He moved to Phoenix with his family and changed his new name, but not much else. Soon after I last saw him, he was convicted on charges that he had established himself as Arizona's largest supplier of Ecstasy.

The mere fact that Gravano lived semi-openly—we sat on the patio of a Ruth's Chris Steakhouse; he put his back to the sidewalk and didn't care that our waiter recognized him almost immediately—was an indication of Gotti's diminishment. When I asked Gravano if he was scared that Gotti Junior, then still a free man, would have him killed for turning on his father, he smiled.

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"Junior's a pussy," he said.

I mentioned Junior's Indian obsession, which Gravano dismissed caustically: "It's all bullshit," he said. "John (Senior) wasn't an Indian, he's a crook. He's never been as big-time as everybody thought."

Which is true—Gotti and the Mob he personified have never been (to borrow from Hyman Roth) as big as U.S. Steel. In recent years, their presence could only be felt in a few places like the Javits Center in Manhattan or in the carting industry on Long Island.

Gravano and I talked about many different subjects that night, including the mysterious appeal of his one-time boss.

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"First of all, he dressed good," Gravano said. "Second of all …" He paused. "Second of all, I don't know. He dressed really good."

This is the best explanation for Gotti's appeal I've heard. Most mobsters, Gotti's son included, are slobs, partial to track suits and Filas. But this man looked good. The first time I ever laid eyes on Gotti Senior, outside the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, I was struck by how well turned-out he was (Brioni, I think, not that I know from Brioni) and by how he seemed to project power. As he waded through the scrum of ink-stained wretches, he very deliberately made eye contact with female reporters, who made eye contact back. The male reporters all angled for Gotti's eye as well, hoping for a playful finger-wag or a pat on the back. He obliged but kept his mouth shut, which was part of the mystery, and the attraction.

But we eventually heard him on tape, his stupidity captured by FBI bugs. He was brutal, only inadvertently funny, and, most horrible of all, whiny. That just about did it for me. I was imagining Sonny, but listening to Fredo.

Gotti's death means that the Mob, which is finished in actual fact, may finally be finished as a cultural phenomenon as well. A brief survey of the up-and-coming leadership of the desiccated Five Families reveals no one with the looks, attitude, style, or mental equipment to retain our interest. As for Gotti Junior, now serving a relatively short prison sentence for racketeering, he is not very good at organizing crime, even worse than his father was, which is saying something, as the elder Gotti is generally credited with ruining the Gambinos, once the strongest of the Five Families.

Our culture has an obvious soft spot for handsome Italian outlaws, but Junior does not know how to play the role—or care. The most shocking thing I ever learned about Junior concerned his dining habits. His sister once told me about a visit they made to Illinois to see their father in prison. They were on the road and hungry, and she suggested Italian, or a steakhouse. "But John says, Cracker Barrel," she told me. "I said, 'What's Cracker Barrel?' He said I'd love it. So we get there, and all the furniture and everything is wood. Then he said the chicken and biscuits are really good. Chicken and biscuits? I said I was hoping for a steak. He said they had a country-fried steak that was excellent. I said, 'Country-fried steak?' "

I told Vicky I couldn't believe this story. She told me to check with Angelo. Angelo Ruggiero is one of Junior's closest friends and the son of his father's late crony Anthony "Quack-Quack" Ruggiero. I found Angelo a few days later and asked him if his friend John actually enjoyed eating at Cracker Barrel.

"Look," he said, "How much Italian food can you eat?"

John J. Gotti, Junior's father, was an evil man, a widow-maker, a liar, and a thief, but he at least knew how to dress, how to carry himself, and how to eat. In this sense, perhaps he really was the Last of the Mohicans.