- - Monday, September 12, 2016


By Larry McShane

Kensington, $25, 314 pages

In the history of America’s criminal organization Cosa Nostra, popularly known as the Mafia, Vincent “the Chin” Gigante stands out not only as one of the most powerful and successful bosses, he also stands out as one of the most peculiar.

The New York tabloids covering the Cosa Nostra “goodfella” criminals called Vincent Gigante “the Oddfella” due to his habit of walking the streets of Greenwich Village in New York City in pajamas, slippers, a ratty robe and an old cap. Helped along by an escort, he would mutter incoherently to himself.

Larry McShane, a reporter with the New York Daily News, offers an interesting look at this unusual gangster in “Chin: The Life and Crimes of Mafia Boss Vincent Gigante.” The book details how Gigante rose from a professional boxer to be a driver, bodyguard and hit man for crime boss Vito Genovese, and eventually became the Genovese crime family boss himself. The book also explains how his public “crazy act” kept him out of prison.

“Most incredibly and indelibly, the ultimate stand-up mobster played a broken-down man in a stunningly successful ruse to dodge and vex prosecutors. It was a piece of improvisational street theater that ran longer than anything on or off Broadway during his eight decades on earth,” Mr. McShane writes. “There were hints, whispers from informants, and finally a long-awaited admission that the whole thing was a brilliant scam. But for three decades authorities were powerless to prove Gigante’s sanity and convict him, as they would any other criminal.”

As Mr. McShane tells us, Vincent Gigante’s first big murder contract was a failure, yet it secured his future in Cosa Nostra. He shot Frank Costello, known as the mob’s “Prime Minister,” point-blank in the head in an apartment house lobby, but the bullet failed to kill him. Costello, a Vito Genovese rival to succeed Charles “Charlie Lucky” Luciano after his deportation to Italy, refused to identify his assailant. Costello later took a hint and retired from organized crime.

Although he was initially identified as the shooter by other witnesses, the Chin beat the rap and became the right-hand man to the new, undisputed Genovese crime family boss.

The Chin was so feared and respected in his day that he ordered his underlings to never say his name — they were simply to rub or point to their chin — and the order was mostly obeyed as they knew the ruthless Gigante would order the death of any offender.

“By 1985, when Gigante was surreptitiously running the Genovese family, and Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno took the law enforcement heat as its straw boss, the family’s assorted illegal enterprises included gambling, extortion, loan-sharking, and bid-rigging,” Mr. McShane writes. “The Genovese influence extended to the garbage, concrete, construction, and music industries; they held an iron grip on the labor that allowed them to dominate the New Jersey waterfront, the Javits Convention Center and the Fulton Fish Market.”

The Chin ruled more than 400 mobsters and his influence extended to Philadelphia, Miami and other areas far from New York.

Mr. McShane interviewed Philip Leonetti, the former Philadelphia and South Jersey Cosa Nostra underboss, who noted that Vincent Gigante was in a class by himself.

“Within our family, we viewed the Chin as a very, very smart man, a secretive man, very cunning and ruthless,” Mr. Leonetti told the author. “He was old-school Cosa Nostra — stay low-key, follow the rules and make money.”

Mr. Leonetti explained that Vincent Gigante wasn’t trying to be a celebrity. He said that the Chin was a gangster and he knew the ways of Cosa Nostra better than anyone in the country.

His old world style and views of Cosa Nostra clashed with rival John Gotti, the flashy, publicity-seeking gangster who ascended to the Gambino crime family leadership by murdering the previous boss, Paul Castellano, without securing the OK from the other New York crime family bosses who sat on the ruling “Commission.” The Chin reportedly put out a contract on John Gotti for this offense, which resulted in the death of another hoodlum who resembled Gotti. Further attempts to kill him were frustrated by the fact that Gotti was constantly shadowed by law enforcement officers as well as reporters.

The Chin’s long-running ruse finally failed him in 1997. A favored associate became a federal informant, which led to a racketeering conviction and a final admission that his crazy act was just that. Vincent Gigante died in prison in 2005 when he was 77.

This fascinating book about an unusual crime boss is chock full of tales of murder, corruption, internecine mob warfare and inside information on criminal life in the Cosa Nostra. It is a must-read for anyone interested in crime.

Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage, terrorism and the military.

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