By Seth Ferranti
Vincent "Chin" Gigante ran New York's Genovese crime family for nearly a quarter-century. After assuming power in the early 1980s, the Chin raked in some $100 million calling the shots for upwards of 300 made men operating in New York's Little Italy, on the Miami docks and in the streets of Philadelphia. Loyal soldiers apparently referred to him by rubbing their chins after Gigante issued an edict that his name not be uttered in public.
Throughout his reign, Gigante was at the helm of one of the most powerful mafia organizations in the United States. The former professional boxer, who made his bones in the crime world as a ruthless contract killer, was known for enforcing mob code by, well, killing guys who violated it. The Chin was even said to put a contract out on John Gotti after the latter had Big Paul Castellano, boss of the Gambino family, whacked without getting his OK first.
Despite the fearsome reputation, though, the Chin was probably best known as the Odd Father because he feigned insanity at key junctures, puzzling doctors, frustrating law enforcement officials, and prolonging his reign. It might be hard to envision now, but the crime boss routinely gallivanted around Greenwich Village, Manhattan, in a bathrobe, slippers and floppy hat pulled down low on his head. He was known to urinate in public, play pinochle in storefronts, and even hid a second family from his wife.
A 30-year run of psychiatric evaluations finally came to an end when the Chin was declared competent to stand trial in 1997. He was convicted of racketeering and murder conspiracy, and sentenced to federal prison, where he died in 2005. Later this month, veteran New York crime reporter Larry McShane is coming out with a definitive history of the mafioso, Chin: The Life and Crimes of Mafia Boss Vincent Gigante. The seasonedDaily News writer, who covered the aftermath of the 1985 hit on Castellano, goes deep on the life and misadventures of one of the quirker mob bosses in US history.
Ahead of the book's release on May 31, we spoke to McShane about this uniquely American true crime character.
Vincent Gigante after being accused of shooting Frank Costello in 1958. Photo by Art Whittaker courtesy NY Daily News via Kensington Books
VICE: Walk us through how Gigante became head of the Genovese Crime Family in the first place.
Larry McShane: The Chin was the son of Italian immigrants who settled in Greenwich Village during the great wave of immigration of the 1920s. He became a professional boxer, a mob-dominated sport at the time, and gravitated toward his neighborhood's wise guys—most importantly, future bosses Vito Genovese and Tommy Eboli. Don Vito became the head of the family that would bear his surname, and the Chin followed him to the top of the Mafia hierarchy.
An FBI memo described Gigante as "an efficient hit man" for Genovese, although his most famous foray into mob murder was the botched May 1957 hit on mob boss Frank Costello. Chin missed a shot from point-blank range, but the shooting boosted his mob profile and helped convince Costello to step down. Genovese replaced Costello, bringing Chin to the big leagues.
Who were the guys that he came up under in the mob?
Vito Genovese was his mentor, but he was also schooled by guys like Fat Tony Salerno and a terrifying mob enforcer named Gaetano (Corky) Vastola. Chin was also a pal of the legendarily mobbed-up music business impresario Morris Levy.
Talk about the planned hit on John Gotti and why it never actually came about.
The Chin was outraged when Gotti had fellow boss Big Paul Castellano whacked in December 1985, allowing Gotti—the "Dapper Don"—to take over the Gambino family. Gotti's failure to receive permission from Gigante and the other bosses on the Mafia's ruling commission was a violation of basic mob etiquette, and an affront to the power of the sitting Mafia dons.
There was one near-miss in the effort to kill Gotti, a bombing that killed his underboss Frank DeCicco and badly injured a Gotti lookalike who was mistakenly targeted. Gigante was also infuriated by Gotti's high-rolling lifestyle, and his courting of media attention. The old-school Chin preferred to keep his mouth shut and his business to himself.
In an odd twist, Gotti was saved in some ways by his love of attention: The constant presence of the media and the FBI made it extremely difficult for the Chin to kill his rival.
During what years exactly did the Chin run the Genovese family, and what rackets did he oversee?
Chin took over in 1980, and he basically ran the family until his second federal conviction in 2003. He ran the family from prison after his 1997 racketeering conviction, and oversaw pretty much everything under Genovese family control: construction, unions, garbage hauling, gambling—you name it, Chin probably had a piece of it. He was known among his guys as a generous boss who shared the wealth with his mob family.
He seems like an old-school mafioso you just don't see anymore, an archetype we recently got a taste of during the Lufthansa heist trial.
I think it's safe to say he was the last of that breed. I can't think of anyone with a mob pedigree like his: Protégé of Vito Genovese, would-be killer of Costello, and ultimately the most powerful mob boss in the United States. He ran the family for near a quarter-century in a business where few get out intact. The guys of his early days—Snake Persico, Fat Tony Salerno, Tony Ducks Corrallo—all went away in the Commission trial in '86.
OK, we have to talk about the Oddfather nickname and his strange behavior.
The nickname was bestowed on Gigante by the New York tabloids in tribute to his bizarre street persona. The Chin, in a long and successful effort to dodge police and prosecutors, walked the streets of Greenwich Village dressed almost like a homeless man—ratty bathrobe, funky cap and slippers. The outfit was accompanied by bizarre behavior that ranged from chatting with parking meters to pissing on the street. It was an act worthy of Pacino or De Niro, and kept the Chin out of jail for nearly three decades. If there was an Oscar for best performance running a mob family, he would have retired the award.
So wait, in your opinion, was he really crazy or was it just an act?
Crazy like a fox was the FBI's assessment. Two different federal judges ruled he was sane as well. But the act itself was a thing of twisted beauty, complete with annual trips to a suburban psychiatric facility, the weird wardrobe, the loony antics on the Greenwich Village streets. The clothes helped make the crazy man, but it was Gigante who pulled it off in public. The performance was so good that it took the federal government seven years after his 1990 indictment to get him in court, and then only after endless psychiatric evaluations by an assortment of doctors.
It remains the single most brilliant gambit in the annals of organized crime, if not crime dating back to when Cain killed Abel. He's one of a kind, and one who will never be duplicated. To run the Genovese family in two centuries, despite constant FBI attention, was astounding. And to do it with the mental incompetency dodge is the cherry on top of the crazy cake. The mob will never see his like again.
How did you get on this beat in the first place?
I was working at the Associated Press on the night of the Castellano murder, and went to the crime scene outside Sparks Steak House—it looked like the set of a mob movie, except the two bodies in the middle of the street were arriving for dinner an hour earlier. I wound up doing a lot of mob stuff after that, and Gigante always stood out from the rest of the bosses. I spent a lot of the next 18 years writing about the Chin, and was in court for his racketeering trial and his final guilty plea.
Chin's brother, Father Louis Gigante, was kind enough to meet me at the beginning of the project, which was a big help. I had a chance to speak with his daughter Rita when she wrote a book a few years back. I spoke with several mobsters, including Crazy Phil Leonetti of the Philly family and the so-called "Yuppie Don" Michael Franzese. John Pritchard, head of the FBI's Genovese Squad in the 80s, was a huge help, as were a number of federal prosecutors who helped put the Chin away, and other FBI agents involved in the cases.
If he was the last of a dying breed, what's the state of the Mafia in America?
The FBI doesn't devote the resources it once did to the mob, particularly given the threat of terrorism. I'm told the five New York families endure in various levels of disarray, but things like Commission meetings—get-togethers of all the bosses—are history now. The old bosses were known by their nicknames: Don Vito, Tommy Ryan, the Chin, Tony Ducks, Big Paul. Could anybody name the heads of the families these days?
Check out more info on the book and pre-order a copy here.
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
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