Biography of a low-profile “original gangster” who connected the Prohibition era and the “Five Families.”
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist DeStefano (The Big Heist: The Real Story of the Lufthansa Heist, the Mafia, and Murder, 2017, etc.) creates another readable, well-researched take on organized crime. Frank Costello (1891-1973), writes the author, “was like the fictional bootlegger Jay Gatsby.” Unlike Gatsby, Costello thrived for decades, due to a combination of luck and restraint, even as the American public turned against the gangsters who were elevated during Prohibition. Costello was closely connected to mob heavyweights like Lucky Luciano, and his political connections and aversion to the limelight helped him survive. At the height of his power, Costello and Tammany Hall influenced the nomination of Franklin Roosevelt: “The relationship between the mob and Tammany was one that seemed to be shaped by the reality of their separate worlds.” DeStefano acutely re-creates the strange milieu of New York City politics during the peak of organized crime’s influence, tracking the interplay among Costello, political fixers, law enforcement, and reformers like Fiorello La Guardia. The author notes that important people “were taken in by [Costello’s] smoothness and his persuasiveness.” During the 1940s, he was increasingly pursued by righteous prosecutors, offended by his evident impunity. DeStefano follows his trials, concluding, “since 1927, the box score read: Costello 3 and federal prosecutors 0.” Despite his attempts at respectability, Costello’s notoriety increased, culminating in a 1951 televised appearance. “Of all who testified,” writes the author, “it was Costello who represented what [Sen. Estes] Kefauver saw as the face of organized crime.” DeStefano tells Costello’s story well, yet the nature of his subject’s discreet crime philosophy and careful existence limits the author’s strengths. Apart from a botched attempt on Costello’s life in 1957 organized by Vito Genovese (after which Costello purportedly retired), his story is largely free of violence and dramatic set pieces after Prohibition.
Will appeal to readers of criminal histories and tales of New York’s political underworld.