BY MARIA KONNIKOVA
Mobsters are often portrayed as men who care about their communities and who live by their own codes of honor and conduct, impervious to the political whims of the establishment.
In 1947, when Elaine Slott was sixteen, she travelled with her mother and sister to visit her aunt and uncle in Florida. The day after they arrived, however, Elaine and her aunt boarded another plane by themselves. Elaine soon found herself speeding to Cuba, where the family had business interests. Elaine remembers that night well. After they landed, she and her aunt left Havana and drove for several hours into areas that seemed increasingly remote. It was very late and very dark when they finally arrived at a stately house. Along with a few guests, a number of family members, including Elaine’s uncle, had gathered there for a dinner party. Their host, who had been cooking pasta, emerged from the kitchen wearing a white apron. He introduced himself to Elaine as Charlie.
Over dinner, Charlie was charming. He personally brought out and served all of the food. After appetizers came the pasta, and Elaine found herself staring down at a plate she had assumed was meant to be shared by everyone at the table. “I could never eat all this!” she declared. Charlie laughed and proposed a wager: he’d give her two dollars if she ate it all. Another guest immediately joined in: another two dollars for the girl. Elaine had no pocket money, and wanted to buy some souvenirs for her sister, who was still back in Florida. So she ate the whole plate. There were cheers. She was paid in full. On her way home, she bought the souvenirs. She didn’t give it another thought.
Several weeks later, a photograph in a newspaper caught her eye. It showed a man who seemed intriguingly familiar. Above it was a headline about the infamous Charles “Lucky” Luciano. He’d been captured in Cuba and was being deported to Italy. “Ma, why didn’t you tell me who it was?” Elaine demanded. “It’s not important that you know everything,” her mother replied. Elaine shouldn’t have been too surprised: the uncle she visited in Florida was Meyer Lansky. That night, he’d sent his niece and his wife to see his best friend.
A few weeks ago, Slott, a diminutive, delicate octogenarian, recalled those days wistfully over steak at the première of AMC’s “The Making of the Mob,” a docu-drama about the early years of organized crime, when Lucky, Meyer, and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel ruled the land. She remembers Charlie as a gentleman and her uncle as a charismatic, loving person who cared deeply for his family. Meyer Lansky’s grandson, Meyer Lansky II, a fifty-eight-year-old former casino operator who was sitting at the same table, said that he felt the same way. He remembers walking with his grandpa on the beach in Miami and listening to his business advice. His granddad was a kind, peaceful man—and, Lansky II is quick to stress, he never got his hands dirty. (Or so it’s said.)
It’s no surprise that family members paint idyllic pictures of their mobster ancestors. Every mobster was also a father, brother, uncle, or grandfather, and—at least theoretically—his villainy didn’t spill over into those roles. The real question is why so many other people feel the same way. We don’t glamorize all violent crime; no one holds the Son of Sam or Charles Manson in high regard. (It’s hard to imagine their descendants gathering for a celebratory dinner at a steakhouse.) So why are Al Capone, Lansky, Arnold Rothstein, Luciano, and their ilk held up as mythic figures, even heroes of a sort, not just by their families but by the general public? Why are members of the Italian mafia treated more like celebrities than unsavory criminals?
Part of the answer is historical. According to James Finckenauer, an emeritus professor at Rutgers University and the author of “Mafia and Organized Crime: A Beginner’s Guide,” the glamorization of the mob started with Prohibition. In the early years of the twentieth century, mobsters were just small-time operators. Then came the Volstead Act, which outlawed alcohol. “One of the side effects was to solidify organized crime and create a real, international organization out of what was, in essence, small criminal groups,” Finckenauer told me. Because Prohibition was hugely unpopular, the men who stood up to it were heralded as heroes, not criminals. “It was the start of their image as people who can thumb their noses at bad laws and at the establishment,” Finckenauer said. Even when Prohibition was repealed and the services of the bootleggers were no longer required, that initial positive image stuck. Books like Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather” communicated the idea that mobsters were men who cared about the happiness of their communities and who lived by their own codes of honor and conduct, impervious to the political whims of the establishment.
The specific immigrant identities of the original mobsters also made them easier to admire. With the significant exceptions of Meyer Lansky and Arnold Rothstein, the original high-profile mafiosos were, by and large, Italians. And, even as late as the nineteen-twenties, Italians and Italian-Americans were often considered “other” by much of the rest of the country. In fact, many people subscribed to what criminologists call the alien conspiracy theory of organized crime—the idea, as Finckenauer puts it, that “Southern Italians came to us with evil intent to create criminal enterprise on our shores.” (Today, Donald Trump advances a similar theory about immigrants from south of the border.) That outsized sense of Italians’ otherness, combined with the idea that the mob’s rigid rules precluded the involvement of outsiders, made mobsters less threatening. “By and large, people are under the impression that if they don’t have any dealings with stuff the mob deals with—no drugs, no borrowing money, no illegal gaming—they have nothing to fear from organized crime,” Finckenauer said. Because their violence seemed directed at their own communities, not anyone else’s, it was easy to romanticize.
Social psychologists have long distinguished between “in-groups” and “out-groups.” Out-groups come in different guises. There are some with whom we feel absolutely no affinity; often, we separate ourselves from them by putting them down. But other out-groups are enough like our in-group that, although their identity remains separate from ours, they seem like less of a threat, It is to this second category that the mafia belongs. People who see themselves as “all-American” can be fascinated by Italian mobsters, and even admire them, without worrying that their lives will come into contact with mobsters’ lives. It’s no coincidence that the other glamorized mob figures in the U.S. are Irish: from “The Departed” to the forthcoming Whitey Bulger biopic “Black Mass,” they’re presented as similar enough for sympathy, yet different enough for a false sense of safety to creep in. For reasons of language, culture, and race, members of the Chinese and Russian mob have proven harder to romanticize.
Ultimately, the mob myth depends on psychological distance, a term coined by the New York University psychologist Yaacov Trope to describe the phenomenon of mental distancing that takes place when we separate ourselves from events, people, emotions, or concepts. In some cases, that distance comes naturally. As painful events recede into the past, our perceptions soften; when we physically remove ourselves from emotionally disturbing situations, our emotions cool. In other cases, we need to deliberately cultivate distance—to “gain perspective.” Trope likens it to the old cliché of missing the forest for the trees: you can wander around in the trees forever or, through training or external intervention, realize that you need to step back to see the full vista.
Once attained, psychological distance allows us to romanticize and feel nostalgia for almost anything. It provides a filter, eliminating some details and emphasizing others. We speak of the good old days, hardly ever of the bad. Psychological distance is, among other things, a coping mechanism: it protects against depression and its close cousin, rumination, which pushes us to dwell too long on unpleasant details from the past instead of moving forward. When, instead, we smooth the edges of the past, remembering it as better than it was, we end up hoping for an equally happy future.
But psychological distance doesn’t require time. Under the right conditions, it can flourish in the moment. The psychological distance provided by “otherness” mimics the distance provided by time. It’s not a phenomenon unique to the mafia. It’s easy to glamorize warfare when there is no draft, or to idealize anyone whose life style seems risky and edgy without putting you, personally, at risk—spies and secret agents, rebels without a cause, the beatniks of Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road.” As long as there isn’t an easy-to-recall, factual reminder that brings us down out of the clouds of romanticism, we can glamorize at will. The lives of serial killers offer those concrete reminders: they lurk in neighborhoods like ours, threatening people who could be us. The mob is more abstract: it’s a shadowy, vague “organization” whose illicit dealings don’t really impinge on us. Abstraction lends itself to psychological distance; specificity kills it.
We grant mobsters dignity because we enjoy contemplating the general principles by which they are supposed to have lived: omertà, standing up to unfair authority, protecting your own. Those principles are what you see and hear when you watch Lansky and Luciano’s golden years reënacted in the “The Making of the Mob,” or when you follow Whitey Bulger’s takeover of Boston in “Black Mass.” In the same way, when Meyer II or Elaine Slott speaks to me about the past, I hear echoes of greatness—of lofty ideals and grand ambition, of important principles that the cold world didn’t always uphold. That dinner in Cuba is recalled as an illustration of friendship and family: Lucky was just a man making good, torn from the people he loved so the U.S. could make a political statement. Because they’re related to him, Lucky Luciano’s familiars see him as a principled man worthy of our admiration instead of a criminal deserving of our disdain. Psychological distance allows us to see him this way, too. It makes us part of the family.