Sunday, April 4, 2010
Frank Costello, known as the "Prime Minister of the Underworld" and head of the Luciano crime family, announced that he was near retirement in 1957 -- and was unceremoniously shot in the head.
But Costello survived, and fingered Vito Genovese's chauffeur as the shooter.
A war was sure to ensue. Eager to avoid bloodshed, the dons gathered in a "for members only" club on Mott Street between Hester and Grand streets in Little Italy. There sat a Gambino, Bonanno, Luchese and a short, gravel-voiced man nicknamed "Lefty."
Genovese pleaded his case to his mobster peers. The other bosses listened, but it was Lefty who coolly rendered the verdict: Vito's life would be spared, but one more such infraction, and he'd be as good as dead.
Such was the power of Paulie "Lefty" Della Universita -- known as "The Judge" -- who served as an adviser to the Mafia's Five Families at the height of New York City's mob activities, a book claims.
From the 1950s until the 1980s, Lefty provided the final say in almost all mob disputes, according to "For Members Only: The Story of the Mob's Secret Judge" by G.T. Harrell.
When the Gambino family wanted to rub out a made man, they went to Lefty. If the Bonannos wanted to discuss financial matters, the family's boss and cronies held closed-door meetings at Lefty's apartment above Vincent's Clam Bar in Little Italy. And if a lower-level mobster was going to be promoted, Lefty's say was law.
The book was commissioned by Lefty's great-nephew Gerald Vairo Jr., based on interviews with family members and Little Italy residents, and researched with the help of lawyer John Laikin. It chronicles the rise of "The Judge" from a poor Sicilian teen to a legendary adjudicator, who called the Mafia's shots from the shadows, earning him another nickname, "The Ghost."
A Criminal is Born
The Della Universita family emigrated from Sicily to New York in 1915. When Catarina, the mother, died, leaving behind seven children, five were shipped upstate to an orphanage. Paulie, who was 10, disappeared the day he was supposed to go.
Paulie, left with his overworked father, started a life of crime by the age of 13, when he assembled a youth gang.
"The smart little son of a bitch had made a deal with the Jewish owner of a candy store on Mulberry Street to let his 'crew' use an empty room in the back as their own members-only social club in exchange for not robbing his store," his sister, Sadie, recounts in the book.
In their heists, Paulie and his sidekicks staked out stores manned by a single person. Two kids would start a fake fight. As the storekeeper broke up the combatants, one would run around and steal the cash from the register.
After several successful robberies, Paulie was called into a club that catered to the likes of Frank Costello, Carlo Gambino and Giuseppe "Joe Bananas" Bonanno.
Sitting there was none other than the notorious gangster Charles "Lucky" Luciano, who grabbed the kid, warned him not to steal from stores and said, "You ain't nut'n but a piece of s- - -. Capice?" the book says.
Still, Luciano was impressed by Paulie's gumption and offered him a job as counter boy at the club, serving drinks, cleaning ashtrays and sweeping floors.
Paulie Earns His Nickname
Paulie made his "bones" in 1938 after he shot an Irishman who had instigated a fight in Little Italy. That job sealed his status as a member of Luciano's crew.
By 1940, Meyer Lansky, a k a the "mob's accountant," and Benny "Bugsy" Siegel took Paulie under their wings and taught him the numbers racket. Lansky was impressed by Paulie's natural gift for remembering numbers without having to write them down, the book says. He was given a beat along Hester and Mott streets. Paulie sold heroin on the side, diluting the drugs to boost his profits.
He also dressed the part of a gangster, donning custom-tailored suits and fedoras.
He earned his nickname the night that a fellow for-members-only patron started saying lascivious things about Anna, a girl he fancied.
Paulie plastered the guy with punches that sent him "off his feet and launched him through the window smashing onto the pavement outside."
Onlookers were so impressed by his left hook that they began calling him "Lefty." The name stuck. And so did the girl. They married shortly after and remained together until Lefty died in the mid-1990s.
Paulie moved into a two-bedroom apartment above Vincent's Clam Bar on Mott Street with his wife. According to family members, he never paid a dime in rent.
In 1945, Paulie arranged a heist from a lower Manhattan dock of morphine pills that were supposed to be sent to wounded soldiers overseas. "Once everyone gets paid, lay low for about a month. If anyone spends any money on a car, suit, or so much as a pair of shoes, I'll personally take him out. Capice?" he said.
He would find that the shipment was worth half a million dollars, making it the largest drug heist in American history at the time, which is confirmed by a New York Times newspaper clipping in 1945.
But he didn't get away with this one. Lefty was arrested in 1945 for hijacking the truck and spent $35,000 on a lawyer, who got him a reduced sentence of three years in Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate Dannemora.
When he got out, it was clear his star was rising in the Mafia world.
When debtors got in over their heads with multiple shylocks, or lenders, there were often murders, then revenge killings and then inter-family wars. Lefty decided he would end this practice, so he called together the Commission -- the League of Nations for gangsters started by Luciano.
Paulie suggested to the Commission that if a guy got on the hook for several shylocks at once, one shylock would take up all the debts and negotiate a new, often lower, interest rate. Today, this would be called debt consolidation. Then, it was called common sense. Now, the debtors would be able to pay back their debts and killings would be avoided.
Paulie's street smarts became widely respected after the killings waned, and the Five Families' bosses started to go to him for matters not financially related.
He pressured the bosses for better standards for decisions. If a guy wanted someone rubbed out, he had to present his case to the Commission, Paulie insisted, echoing the rules provided by Luciano. But if the Commission couldn't come to a decision, there would be an impartial judge that would make the final call. This person would come to be Lefty.
He quickly earned the nickname "The Judge" from all the Mafia higher-ups.
He proved prescient in warning the bosses not to attend the famed 1957 Apalachin organized-crime summit in upstate New York. The meeting caused a media sensation and confirmed the existence of the National Crime Syndicate, a crime organization started by Luciano and Meyer.
Almost overnight, his stature grew so much that he was now only taking closed-door meetings with bosses at his apartment.
The Changing of the Guard
Lefty established a ruse, disguising himself as a low-level bookie so that he would move under the radar as the feds focused on bigger fish, the book says.
Although behind closed doors, Paulie sat at the head of the table, reserved for bosses, in public view he was nondescript.
Even when officers raided his apartment or his members-only club, they turned up nothing, since most of the numbers rackets were done in his head.
His power grew beyond New York, as he began visiting Las Vegas, Chicago and Detroit, coming back with suitcases full of $100 bills, his family members recalled. He negotiated with unions like the United Auto Workers and the AFL-CIO.
Still, Lefty wasn't above taking bloody matters into his own hands. When a high-level Mafioso named Salvatore "Sally Burns" Granello told him to "expletive off" during a meeting discussing Granello's drug-addict son, who was stealing from made men, Lefty was enraged. The next day, he shot Burns in the head and stuffed him in the back of a car, the book alleges.
Paulie's hit sent the following message: "I'm in charge and don't any of you forget it," the book says.
He even insisted that Marlon Brando, whom he had most likely met during the time the actor was preparing for "On the Waterfront," stole the deep, scratchy voice he acquired by chain-smoking cigarettes and cigars and used it in "The Godfather."
Is Lefty's story too good to be true?
Law-enforcement mob experts told The Post they'd never heard of him -- but they admit there's a lot of mystery about the mob in Lefty's day. "If he lived on Mott Street and was in the life, that might make sense. There were a lot of guys running around at that time we didn't know anything about," said one.
Public records and news clips back up some of Lefty's exploits. And author Harrell, who says he confirmed the book's contents with FBI sources, believes Lefty lasted so long exactly because he kept a low profile.
If he was the pivotal mobster his family claims, it was in the late 1980s that Lefty started to give up the game.
Lefty went into semi-retirement until his death in 1994 at age 75. But his great-nephew says his name still gets things done in Little Italy.
"It was clear since I was young that he ran that neighborhood," Vairo says.