High Times Greats: Frank Costello

Meet the father of modern smuggling.
High Times Greats: Frank Costello
Artwork by Chuck Wilkinson

From the November, 1976 issue of High Times comes Gilbert Choate’s profile of rumrunner-turned-media-mogul, Frank Costello (1891-1973). We’re republishing the story below, in conjunction with Costello’s birthday January 26.

If Frank Costello were alive today, dope shortages would be as rare as a cab in the rain. Frank paid no heed to hijackers and blockaders; he was impervious to obstacles like the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, the U.S. Constitution, the nettlesome ambushes of rival bootleggers and the worst obstacles the elements could hurl at him, including icebergs, which he wanted to buy so they couldn’t sink his rumrunners as they had the Titanic. Costello simply didn’t know the meaning of the word impossible. He didn’t know the meaning of many other words, either (he was an “illiterate numbskull” according to biographer David Hanna), yet he is remembered today as the greatest Italian-American since Abraham Lincoln. For he perfected the art and science of smuggling as we know it today.

Of course, smuggling is as old as the three wise men who ran frankincense and myrrh over the Bethlehem border, but it was “Uncle” Frank Costello who brought it into the twentieth century. Captain Bill McCoy, the first Prohibition skipper to anchor his cargo ship outside the coastal limit and sell his wares to anyone with the price of a drink, likened himself to patriot John Hancock, who smuggled Jamaican rum into the Colonies before, during and after the American Revolution, but Costello looked forward to the time when he would run America as business, with the aid of a select group of businessmen. Costello brought to crime the same organizational savoir faire Henry Ford brought to industry. And despite the many hazards to his health that his profession entailed, he lived to the ripe old age of 82.

Costello’s life is filled with episodes more inspiring than the Bible. When he first achieved eminence in the 1920s, he glittered brightly in the galaxy of talent that included Mayor Jimmy Walker, gambler Arnold Rothstein, musicians Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong, evangelist Aimee Semple MacPherson, inconoclast H. L. Mencken, reporter Damon Runyon, not to mention Toots Shor, Babe Ruth, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross, James Thurber, George S. Kaufman and Charles Lindbergh.

They all did their part to keep the Twenties roaring, but Costello supplied the grease that turned all their gears—bootleg whisky. Costello was the model for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in 1927 and for Mario Puzo’s The Godfather 40 years later: he even reportedly inspired Carl Barks, a Walt Disney studio artist, to create Donald Duck’s Uncle Scrooge, who, unlike Uncle Frank, was the richest duck in the world because his orderly business practices were superior to the crude tactics of his rivals, the Beagle Boys. At the height of his power, when he was the capo il tutti capi or Boss of Bosses, Costello was more popular than Santa Claus. The reason for his popularity was simple: Costello never killed anybody he could pay off. He believed everyone should get “his fair share”: nobody had to starve on a cop’s salary, or a judge’s, when Frank was around. Because he realized that this democratic arrangement could never prevail in a totalitarian society. Costello was a lifelong enemy of communism. By the time of his death in 1973, Uncle Frank and Uncle Sam had been allies for the better part of a century.

For instance, one of the earliest beneficiaries of Costello’s business acumen may have been Joe Kennedy, father of Jack, Bobby and Teddy. Joe invested in Scotch whiskey early in Prohibition and is said to have sold it to Costello at eight dollars a case to import to the United States for $85 a case. In the 1960s, persons not unknown to President John F. Kennedy renewed the old family friendship when they called on Frank to discuss the vexing problem of Fidel Castro, whose revolution in the Caribbean was interfering with the collection of revenue from Costello-owned casinos in Havana. Frank agreed that it was a shame and expressed his concern to Sam “Momo” Giancana, who said he would see what could be done. Giancana headed south to talk matters over with the bearded rebel, but unfortunately he had no success. Even more unfortunately, Giancana had a slightly fatal accident after he most foolishly revealed some of Costello’s most jealously guarded spaghetti recipes to a Senate subcommittee investigating the CIA in 1975.

The chain of events that led Frank Costello, a poor immigrants’ son from the poverty stricken hills of Calabria, Italy, to the big seat in the boardroom is a chronicle of luck and pluck, a full-dress four-act American Dream. To tell it properly requires the bold, broad strokes of an Horatio Alger. For Frank Costello was larger than life. A man for all seasons, who started out running rum and wound up controlling America’s consciousness.

The tiny and impoverished village of Lauropoli, Italy, was founded in the year 1776, the same year as the United States, and it had its very own constitution: “Anyone who has trouble with justice, or is wanted by the law, is free to come and live in the new town of Lauropoli, where he and his family will have a nice house, work and full protection.” An apt stage for Francesco Castiglia to make his entrance, and he had the good sense to be born there in 1891, at the height of Lauropoli’s poverty boom. The event was not reported in the New York Times, though his death was considered front-page news in 1973. In the years between, Frank lived an interesting and exciting life, marked chiefly by hard work and the tendency of his friends and family to succumb to the unfortunate disease of lead poisoning. However, Frank soon had lots of nice money to compensate him for these bereavements.

When he and his mother arrived in New York in 1896, however, they went promptly to church to thank St. Francis for their safe delivery. Then they took the subway uptown to East Harlem where Frank lived with his parents, brother and four sisters for the next 20 years. As the young Castiglia twig was bent into manhood, Frank found his way into the gangland that composed New York’s colorful immigrant underworld. Jewish and Irish gangs dominated the West Side and Lower East Side, later the home of Flower Power; the Germans of Yorkville swore eternal fidelity to beer, McKinley and the Kaiser, in that order, and Frank’s neighborhood was the turf of the Black Hand, the Unione Siciliane, and the Artichoke King—Ciro Terranova, the vegetable tycoon whose iron grip on the city’s groceries, fruit markets and restaurants attracted Frank with his early love of power play and easy money. He began running errands and collecting rent for Terranova before 1910 and was still on friendly terms with him in the 1930s, when Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia decided to put the Artichoke King out of business by declaring artichokes illegal in New York. Those were the good old days.

Equally important in young Frank’s mental environment were the local Irish pols and ward-heelers who ferried between East Harlem and Tammany Hall with graft, favors and bankrolls the size of your foot. Frank ran errands for them too, and learned in return the gladhanding, doubledealing techniques that were to stand him in good stead as a gangland “peacemaker” who eventually earned the title “Prime Minister of the Underworld.”

Enter Prohibition. In this chapter we find Frank on the side of a good cause for the first time in his life. American drinkers who were deprived of their liquor by the Volstead Act of 1921 rightly saw themselves as the “most oppressed” people in the world, and they enthusiastically embraced freedom fighters like Al Capone, Dutch Schultz and above all Frank Costello. So much illegal liquor entered the United States during the 1920s that it is impossible to credit Frank with all of it, but he certainly invented the businesslike type of bootlegging that maximized profits while guaranteeing the consumer a drink that was clearly a cut above the white-lightning bathtub gin of the period.

Frank’s partners were notorious: his first bankroll came from gambler Arnold Rothstein, who fixed the 1919 World Series and dominated U.S. crime until his death by murder in 1928, and “Big Bill” Dwyer, a front man who also owned the Brooklyn Dodgers. But it was Frank who created the business structure for their joint venture.

Now, most of the bootleggers of the day were haphazard racketeers who simply hijacked their liquor from government warehouses and from each other; some simply chartered boats and trusted their luck; many who opened their own clandestine breweries and distilleries were amateurs who blinded many customers with wood alcohol or poisoned them with putrid rat meat used to give their ersatz liniments the appearance and distinctive bouquet of 12-year-old Scotch. Much of what was drunk as “liquor” during the Prohibition era might as well have been gasoline, but Frank’s dedication to methodical smuggling made it possible to bring in the real McCoy (named, as a matter of fact, after Captain Bill McCoy). According to George Wolf, Costello’s attorney for 30 years, “Frank’s operation was organized exactly like a corporation, with departments and staffs for all phases of the business. Not that these departments weren’t unusual. Operating out of an office Frank leased at 405 Lexington Avenue, the ‘business’ had a traffic department, a distribution department, a corruption department to handle bribery, a defense department to cope with rivals and even an intelligence department to keep an eye on what prohibition enforcement agencies were doing.” All they needed was a Minister of Education!

During Prohibition. American knowhow produced as many ways to smuggle liquor as there are to have sex. Booze crossed borders in hollow legs, in hollow eggs, on the backs of pack animals and in the packs of families on camping trips. Pipelines underneath the Great Lakes pumped in Canadian whiskey, and gunboats fired torpedoes full of moonshine at the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. And although the predominant point of entry was the million-mile-long Canadian border, the most glamorous and notorious smugglers’ alley was Rum Row, stretching from Delaware to Long Island Sound, where Captain Bill “The Real McCoy” McCoy, Frank Costello and anyone else with a boat and a gun, had a lark dodging the Coast Guard to make millions with liquor from Nassau, Bimini and every other spit of land in the Atlantic Ocean that could be used for transshipping.

In these ports, the bottle would be packed into ‘hams’’—burlap bags full of straw to prevent breakage. Cargo ships would carry the hams to Rum Row, where contact boats would ferry the booze to shore. Then the freight was carried to warehouses where it was doctored—one part Scotch, one part grain alcohol and three parts water—and sent on its merry way. Hijackers abounded at every point, but the very nice money involved made it a not unpleasant business to be in.

In the early days, from 1920 to 1924, the undermanned Coast Guard with its vintage fleet of Spanish-American War tanks and tubs, stood little chance of overpowering the smugglers they were supposed to chase. As a result, Rum Row soon acquired the reputation as a party spot. Harold Waters, a Coast Guardsman who served in the International Ice Patrol at the time, later reminisced:

“Rum Row quickly developed a community life of its own. Fresh provisions were brought out from shore every day, along with the morning and evening newspapers. For entertainment, to keep their crews from getting bored, the bigger ships featured happy hours, impromptu concerts graced by paid entertainers from shore. There was also dancing on the main deck of evenings and no lack of dance partners, mostly girls who came out just for kicks; later they would brag to their more sedate shoreside sisters of having danced with swashbuckling partners offshore. Music was provided by paid orchestras.”

“Call girls from New York City, Cape May, Atlantic City, Wildwood and other ports always considered it a signal honor to be ‘invited’ out to Rum Row, where they received double the shoreside price for their favors, as well as what was quaintly called a hazard bonus.”

Waters remembers seeing ships flying the flag on national holidays—including the King’s Birthday and Bastille Day, since many of the cargo ships were British or French. Sightseeing boats were more common on Rum Row than Coast Guard cutters in hot pursuit.

Costello made an early reconnaissance and discovered the rocky subarctic island of St. Pierre, off Newfoundland, population 300, the last French possession in the New World north of Devil’s Island. Sometime in 1921, Frank traveled to St. Pierre and struck a deal with its mayor. The details are not known, but Frank’s business brought millions of dollars to the tiny island, where he is remembered to this day with greater reverence and awe than Jesus Christ.

From St. Pierre, Frank’s cargo ships would make their way to Rum Row, staying carefully tuned to the Coast Guard radio channel—not for intelligence on antismuggler movements, but for weather reports and iceberg news. At Rum Row, they would transfer their cargo to skiffs, scows and launches equipped with war-surplus Liberty Ship engines that could easily outrun the Coast Guard fleet of icebreakers and salvage ships. This was seldom necessary, however, as Frank and Big Bill Dwyer took the precaution of buying off the Coast Guard. The speed was more important in outrunning hijackers, who resorted to dastardly tricks like shooting at the rumrunners, posing as Coast Guard ships, and otherwise wreaking havoc. The whole journey took about two days if the weather was nice, but more often a week or longer when the seas were choppy, as they frequently are in the North Atlantic. The longer a rumrunner stayed at sea, the greater risk he or she ran of the crew breaking into the cargo and demolishing it orally. This frequent occurrence was the great plague of Rum Row, and many bootlegging skippers took vows of temperance after thirstily sampling their own wares and tumbling into the water as a result.

To help his skippers, Frank devised ingenious codes. For instance, the skippers of cargo ships carried the torn halves of dollar bills which the skippers of the contact boats had to match before he would let them on board. Bills of various denominations were used to separate cargo ships, contact boats, and paid-off Coast Guard commanders. The Coast Guard also used semaphore and systems of blinking lights to inform ships that they were cleared to pass, or to inform them of other Coast Guard craft in the area which had not been paid off. For contingencies like these, Costello sent along bagmen with several thousand dollars in cash to persuade the Coast Guard’s able seamen to cooperate. Occasionally the bagmen would augment their worth by permitting themselves to be hijacked, bought off and released to deal with Frank as best they could, but those who stayed around soon found this to be an unhealthy practice.

Frank’s corruption of the Coast Guard was the most massive wholesaling of federal services to a private citizen in all of recorded history. At its worst in 1923, Frank Costello commanded more naval power than the Royal Admiralty at the height of the British Empire. Nor did the Coast Guard stop at ignoring his activities (with an occasional bust for appearances’ sake). They provided safe passage for Costello convoys, performed rescue duty on sinking Costello rumrunners, and frequently helped with the offloading. Seaman Harold Waters states that a good many Coast Guarders were not above taking a drink of bootlegger’s whiskey, either: ice patrol around St. Pierre, his mates were frequently stood drinks by the affable rummies. However, the luckiest drinkers of the period were the bathers and beach fanciers who frequently found hundreds of bottles of Scotch mingling at their waists with other aquatic life forms.

Eventually the government succeeded in extending the three-mile coastal limit to 12 miles, making it more difficult for the speedboats to make their runs. As early as 1921, the Hovering Vessels Act enabled the Coast Guard to board ships flying foreign flags on the high seas on suspicion of smuggling, but many Coast Guard captains found the enforcement of this law repugnant to the code of the sailor, not to mention the risk of upsetting the generous Mr. Costello and Mr. Dwyer. But late in 1923, Coast Guard sources informed Costello that the agency was finally getting serious about Rum Row. They had borrowed 25 destroyers from the Navy, with batteries of 4″50 and 3″50 caliber guns, quick-firing one-pounders, and crews armed to the gizzard with machine guns, pistols and grenades. Their top speed was thirty knots, as fast as any rumrunner on the seas; faster than most, in fact. And while they launched the Navy destroyers, the Coast Guard was building its own fleet of cutters to do battle with the bootleggers.

In the years that followed, rumrunning became serious business. There were no more parties on Rum Row. Skippers armed their men with heavy artillery and prepared to fight pitched battles with the Coast Guard. Costello hauled his fleet into dry dock to mount armor plating, cannon and machine guns. His captains had already seen action in battle with hijackers; now, often disguised as Coast Guard cutters themselves, they prepared to fight a war. Costello also made a heavy investment in aircraft to provide cover for his vessels while scanning the horizons for hijackers, government gunboats and other untoward obstacles. Ironically, Washington had virtually disbanded the U.S. Air Force after World War I and was not to revive it until World War II, so Frank’s supremacy in this field went pretty much unchallenged.

Soon, federal cutters were firing on rumrunners in full view of terrified bathers at Coney Island. The rummies fought to the death, setting their cargoes ablaze and going down with their ships when they were too drunk to do otherwise (this bug was never entirely ironed out). One of the strangest naval encounters ever fought took place between the speedboat Elise and Commander Backer, at the helm of one of the borrowed Navy destroyers in the mid-Twenties.

Backer’s desk officer, Lieutenant O’Dow, spotted the Elise within U.S. coastal waters at dawn. Taking O’Dow’s binoculars, Backer’s eyes told him the whole story at once: the cargo in plain view on the open deck, and a deckhand thumbing his nose at Backer. The commander, a temperance man, saw red. “All forward guns, commence firing!” he barked. “Aim for the bow.”

As the Elise began to take evasive action—zigzagging out of the direct line of fire—Commander Backer was startled to hear the throbbing engines of a seaplane. Circling over his head, the seaplane dropped to the waterline and laid down a heavy smoke screen. As the ship’s guns began firing upon the Elise, heavy, greasy black effluviants polluted the poopdeck and all hands. “Steady as she goes!” roared Backer.

The Elise was now circling toward the destroyer’s stem. Backer ordered the guns retrained to starboard. Suddenly, a submarine surfaced 50 yards to starboard.

“Engines stopped, sir,” came a voice from the wheelhouse.

“Who stopped them?” yelled Backer. “Full speed ahead!”

The voice replied, “The screws have been hit, sir.”

A portly German officer emerged from the hatch of the U-boat. Lifting a megaphone, he shouted to the destroyer.

“What did he say?” Backer asked.

“He said ‘OK,’ sir,” a deckhand replied.

“Ask him what the hell he means by OK,” Becker told O’Dow.

“Yesssir,” snapped O’Dow. “What the hell do you mean by OK?” he shouted back at the German.

“Friends, indeed, need help, SOS,’’ shouted the German.

By this time Backer had received a radio message from base headquarters in New London, Connecticut: “Sending aircraft to assist you. Commandant asks to pass personal message to Commander Backer. This is the message: Pull yourself together. Positively no submarines in your vicinity. Positively no aircraft your area. What’s the commotion? Full report required when you return to base.”

By this time the submarine was within hailing distance without megaphones. “Greetings to Americans from Oberlieutenant Hochman, commander of French submarine.”

“French!?”

“Versailles Treaty. We train French crew on our boat. French crew verdammt! Engine broken.”

Costello heard the whole story from the radio operator, who was on his payroll. He was delighted by it no less than he was by the total escape of the Elise, one of his own ships.

If speedboats, air cover and acts of God like U-boats helped keep Frank’s fleet afloat, it was wholesale bribery of the Coast Guard that made it profitable for so many years. By 1925, someone in Washington figured this out and sent out orders for a total housekeeping. As a result, Costello and Big Bill Dwyer came to trial in 1926. Dwyer took most of the rap, while Frank posed as a minor figure. Although Dwyer served several years in prison, Costello obtained a hung jury by demonstrating that all the government witnesses were paid informers, and also by bribing a juror. He continued to run rum until the Repeal of Prohibition. If private individuals pestered him about his bootlegging interests, he merely allowed them to marvel as he did at the wonders of the untamed sea that caused so many of his Caribbean-bound ships to wash ashore in Rum Row.

At the peak of his strength, Costello’s fleet brought him an income of millions of dollars every year and permitted him such luxuries as an onshore radio station that broadcast information about the weather to his ships. However, his frequency was open to many listeners, and his accurate weather reports probably saved millions of lives. Had Prohibition been in effect at the time of the Titanic and Lusitania disasters, Costello would probably have prevented their sinkings and the onset of World War I out of sheer public-spiritedness.

During the Prohibition era. illegal liquor trafficking gave spaghetti-loving entrepreneurs the money and power they would continue to wield in American life until this day. At the outset, the syndicate was ruled from New York by Joe Masseria, a local Black-Hander who thrived on extortion, blackmail and speakeasies. Under Joe the Boss, Costello and Dwyer controlled rumrunning. Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Vito Genovese controlled prostitution and narcotics. Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, Joe Adonis and Albert Anastasia ran Murder, Inc., and outside of New York various clans acknowledged Joe the Boss’s supremacy in settling intramural affairs. Sam Lazar in Philadelphia, John Lazia from Kansas City, Moe Dalitz and Lou Rothkopf of Cleveland, King Solomon in Boston and even Al Capone in Chicago loosely paid tribute to Joe the Boss. In Masseria’s name, Luciano and Costello invited all of mobland to Atlantic City in 1929. It was decided there that rackets would henceforth be run on a cooperative basis, with each mob acknowledging the other’s supremacy in its geographical area, and that Alphonse Capone would take a year’s vacation in prison to relieve the criminal commonwealth of the federal heat that Capone’s noisy Chicago mayhem had generated.

It was at this meeting that Luciano and Costello established the “corporate” syndicate that would replace the old-fashioned, free-lance laissez-faire gangsterism of the Twenties and the immigrant gang-rule era. Unfortunately, that era was epitomized by their beloved Joe the Boss.

Joe the Boss was the archetypal glamorous gangster with a handlebar moustache, garter belts on his biceps and glittering rings on his pinkies. Instead of elegantly twirling his spaghetti on a fork, he noisily sucked up each individual strand. To teach Joe some table manners, Lucky Luciano took him to lunch in Coney Island in 1931. When Lucky excused himself, the other irate diners displayed their disapproval of Joe’s habits by firing 20 slugs into his brain.

Lucky Luciano was now the Boss of Bosses. With Costello acting as his peacemaker, he made peace with “mad dogs” like Dutch Schultz by having them killed. Luciano’s vision of a modern organization of spaghetti fanciers tolerated no upstarts like Schultz and Capone, whose noisy belligerence only drew attention to criminal enterprise. With Costello and Meyer Lansky, he redirected rackets profits into legitimate business concerns. But of course, Luciano and Costello continued to expand syndicate control of slot machines, bookmaking, narcotics, prostitution and other lucrative sidelines. Their wealth brought them into influential circles where they were enthusiastically received by native American pasta enthusiasts.

Alas, Lucky Luciano was finally brought to heel in 1936 by New York special rackets prosecutor Thomas Dewey. Luciano collected a 30-to-50-year sentence in maximum security for “pimping.” His mother was heartbroken, and Frank Costello was sincerely grieved. Most painful of all was the fact that Dewey went to so much trouble to nail Lucky: after all, it was Lucky who ordered Dutch Schultz’s execution when the Dutchman insisted on putting Dewey away. And now this! As Costello was later to remark, “There’s no justice in this world.”

As if this were not enough, Dewey continued to persecute citizens who shared an admiration for spaghetti. Albert Anastasia, Joe Adonis and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter all fell under Dewey eyes when the plucky prosecutor unveiled the Murder, Incorporated scandal by persuading a former contract killer named Abe Reles to tell America how this corporation of hired killers had executed over 1,000 citizens in cold blood. However, despite these cruel attacks on his friends, Costello continued to serve as a peacemaker, persuading Lepke to surrender himself in 1939. To Dewey’s chagrin, however, Lepke surrendered not to him but to J. Edgar Hoover and Walter Winchell! To Lepke’s chagrin, Dewey retaliated by having him electrocuted. By this time, Frank Costello had emerged as the “Prime Minister of the Underworld”—with Tom Dewey hot in pursuit! By 1943, however, Dewey was compelled to make a deal. As governor of New York, he was responsible for the security of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which had become a happy hunting ground for German saboteurs. Dewey was at first hostile to a Navy proposal that Luciano give his blessing to a scheme for syndicate thugs to protect the yards. Frank stepped in and arranged for Lucky’s transfer to a “gentlemen’s club” prison. Finally, Luciano agreed to sell Uncle Sam protection, and there was no further Nazi sabotage in the Brooklyn Navy yard, where, by the way, I went on a submarine in dry dock in 1963. Lucky and Frank did not stop there; they arranged to have General Patton’s Sicilian invasion force met by Don Calogero Vizzini and other members of the local spaghetti appreciation society eager to fight the retreating Germans. They were given the most up-to-date U.S. weapons with which to do so. After the war, the Sicilian government was simply handed over to Don Vizzini.

With Lucky taken care of, Frank reluctantly assumed the post of Boss of Bosses. George Wolf later allegedly stated that he would have preferred to remain a racketeer and gambler submissive to the will of Luciano, who in turn would continue to receive the adulation of the public. In fact, Luciano in exile continued to be the supreme arbiter of taste when Costello could not make a peace. But thanks to the efforts of Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan, Costello was soon receiving the credit due him as Prime Minister of the Underworld. Hogan, who later achieved notoriety for his single-minded persecution of the Panther 21 in the 1960s, brought a case against Costello for peddling his Tammany influence to name a judge to a Democratic ballot in New York. Costello beat the rap and the judge. Thomas Aurelio later turned out to be blameless: Costello even said, “I can’t even get a parking ticket fixed with him.” But Hogan made sure that Frank’s friendships with Luciano, Joe the Boss, Al Capone, Dutch Schultz, Bugsy Siegel and all the rest were front-page news for weeks. When it was over, Frank Costello was il capo di tutti capi to John Doe.

To defuse these attacks, George Wolf and Meyer Lansky encouraged Costello to invest as heavily and ostentatiously as possible in legitimate concerns. Nonetheless, he continued to dispense his largesse to the Democratic Party, and by 1949, according to Wolf, his control of New York State politics was complete—though not complete enough to prevent Republican Governor Dewey from deporting Lucky Luciano to Italy. And not complete enough, either, to prevent another powerful capo, Vito Genovese, from making his bid for the title of Boss of all Bosses.

Between his appearances on the televised Kefauver Commission hearings on crime in 1951, his conviction for tax fraud in 1954, an attempted execution by a Genovese gunman in 1957—the first personal attack on Costello since Ciro “The Artichoke King” Terranova had beaten him up for withholding $37 in rent collections (before World War I) and his final remandment to the federal penitentiary at Atlanta, where he finally made peace with cellmate Genovese, Costello did not seem to have much time to function as Boss of Bosses. Yet he remained influential in U.S. politics and crime, and after his release from Atlanta, he was left in peace by Genovese, to live his remaining years in peaceful retirement. In the years of his reign, he had had a fix in at FDR’s White House, owned New York Mayor William O’Dwyer (no relation), bankrolled Bugsy Siegel’s contribution to the ecology of Nevada, the city of Las Vegas, controlled an army and a navy that rivaled any post-World War I power and sunk roots into the Democratic Party national machine that persist to this day. And as he entered his eighth decade, Costello could watch with pleasure the rise of a new generation of smuggler, the hippie marijuana importers who were discovering for themselves the glorious contrabandista science that Francesco Castiglia had perfected, much as a Renaissance painter or Baroque composer perfected each masterpiece in minutest detail.

Is there a moral to the Frank Costello saga? George Wolf stresses that the Boss of Bosses was not an executioner but a peacemaker, who once told Lucky Luciano “Violence is ignorance.” In his own way, minority-group member Frank Costello was an apostle of nonviolence like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Nor was his “evil” of his own making: when the Senator Estes Kefauver tried to deport Costello in the 1950s, Italy protested that he was a product of American society and had not been a criminal when he left Calabria at the age of four.

What of his crimes? Costello eschewed extortion, blackmail, contract murders, hard narcotics and many other unsavory rackets. From 1932 on, he earned his living as a gambler, taking a percentage of a network of bookies, slot machines, casinos, policy banks and numbers runners —innocent pastimes endorsed by every state in the union in the form of parimutuel and offtrack betting, lotteries, bingo parlors and other innocent forms of merriment the whole family can enjoy while supporting good causes like education, the arts and highway construction. Before 1932, Frank made a few dollars smuggling liquor that the country greatly needed. In some ways, Frank was deeply hurt by Keith Stroup’s failure to invite him to join the board of directors of NORML when it was chartered in 1972. He always craved acceptance by the “best” people.

If Frank Costello were around to put the cannabis importing racket on a businesslike basis, there wouldn’t be dope shortages. Arrivederci, Francesco. We shall not see your kind again.

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