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Man of honor crimezine Joe Bonnano mafia

Joseph Bonnano—a man of tradition

Bon Vinuti Crimeziners, Comu va? The tiny town of Castellammare Del Golfo, Sicily is much more than a tiny fishing village, or a marginally pronounceable scrabble high score, it is also the birthplace of Mafia boss of bosses Joseph Bonanno.

For generations Castellammare has been a place of tradition, so it is perhaps no surprise that Joe Bonanno refers to himself as a man of tradition, in a similar way he refers to his associates as men of tradition. Joe eschews the word Mafia, but in his Autobiography, A Man of Honor, he tells us at a very early stage the true Sicilian meaning of the word Mafioso; an adjective that means—spirited, brave, keen, beautiful, vibrant and alive. Anything can be Mafioso he tells us—an apple a woman, a horse or a man.

The pejorative connotations of the word Mafia are something that Bonanno struggles with throughout the book. As a man of tradition, Bonanno prizes respect above all things and he outlines in great detail just what kind of respect he is talking about. He would have us believe that his kind of respect has little to do with the world of modern “gangsters”—people who confuse fear with respect.

Bonanno also wants to make clear he hates the sobriquet “Joe Bananas”. Bonanno means “Good year” in Italian; all educated people he assumes would know this.

In the 1920s Bonanno went to naval college, with big plans of sailing the world, but Benito Mussolini threw a spanner in his educational ambitions and Bonanno moved to Brooklyn, by way of Cuba and Tampa Florida; where he quickly hooked up with Salvatore Maranzano and the Castellammarese mafia clan.

Crimeziners who are interested in the genesis of the Sicilian mafia and the many stories this branch of organized crime gave way to, will find this book fascinating. Clear parallels can be drawn between Bonanno’s early career and Mario Puzo’s stories about the Corleone family for example.

Bonnanno is understandably coy about his nefarious dealings, however. He prefers to call himself a businessman and describes his legion of associates as like-minded men of tradition, helping each other forward in a strange country.

Bonanno rarely dishes the dirt in this book. He does however make notable exceptions. He doesn’t have too many kind words to say about Brooklyn crime lord Joe “the Boss” Masseria, nor does he have much time for Masseria associates Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, or Vito Genovese. He also has a dim view of Big Al Capone of the Chicago Outfit, a man who gave him a gold watch upon their meeting. For Bonanno men like Capone and Meyer Lansky represented a new and unwelcome addition to his circle of business associates—men who were non-Sicilian—men without respect—professional gangsters.

Bonanno provides invaluable background to the November 14, 1957 Apalachin Crime Commission meeting/bust, that blew the lid of the American Mafia and changed the FBI focus away from chasing communists. Typically, Bonanno says he wasn’t there, and that his involvement was down to and underling who had his driving license getting busted in his place.

The discerning reader will quickly realize that while Bonanno spins a fascinating yarn, his version of events is often times doubtful at best. Throughout, he adopts an “I never done anything wrong, not ever,” tone that gradually becomes more wearing and less believable as the book goes on. A good example of which is his version of the career changing kidnap plot that saw him “retire” to his home in Arizona.

The Tucson years were plagued by ill health—he had three heart attacks—and a constant barrage of harassment from Federal Law enforcement. He also picked up a five-year felony conviction—a convoluted indictment, alleging he obstructed a San Jose grand jury investigation into his California assets. He served one year, due to ill health, which isn’t bad going considering he was 75 years old at the time, and had been at the top of his mafia game for decades.

Man of Honor was published in 1983 and at the time many New York mafia leaders, such as Gambino boss Paul Castellano and Joseph Massino, whined endlessly on Federal wire taps about “that rat” Bonanno; although it must be noted that Bonnano kept his vow of omertà to the very end, whilst Massino subsequently became the biggest rat the Bonnano family ever had, doing perhaps more damage to the mafia than even the Joe Pistone/Donnie Brasco undercover sting.

A man of Honor Joseph Bonanno

Joseph Bonanno—businessman, honorable man of tradition.

It should also be noted, that [former] United States Attorney and hat in the ring political crank, Rudolph Giuliani, has cited the mafia family chart in Bonnano’s book as instrumental in his landmark Mafia Commission trial of 1985; a prosecution that saw the successful RICO prosecutions and subsequent jailing of mafia kingpins such as ‘Big’ Paul Castellano, ‘Fat’ Tony Salerno, Carmine ‘the snake’ Persico and Tony ‘Ducks’ Corallo. The prosecution failed to snare Bonanno [although Bonnano family boss Phil ‘Rusty’ Rastelli caught a twelve stretch].

Man of Honor may not tell the full story, but the part it does tell is certainly very engaging. Check it out Crimeziners.

Joseph Bonanno died on May 11, 2002, of heart failure at the age of 97. He is buried at Holy Hope Cemetery & Mausoleum in Tucson, Arizona.