Here’s my pet theory: Right after godfather Paul Castellano was gunned down in front of Sparks restaurant in December 1985, crack spread uncontrollably on New York streets. Castellano’s death, like Capone’s imprisonment in 1930, triggered mayhem: Wiseguys set out on their own with just enough venture capital and entrepreneurship to start doing business. Later John Gotti reined them in and restored a kind of disordered order. In the meantime, other gangs already in operation—Colombian and Chinese—cashed in on the disarray and brazenly branched out into new territory. There were freelancers, also, reveling in the Mob’s temporary glasnost.
Given my parti pris, I was curious to read Boss of Bosses—The Fall of the Godfather: The FBI and Paul Castellano, by Joseph F. O’Brien and Andris Kurins, if only to discover that Castellano had been the antidope La Casa Nostra pope. In the early 1980s Castellano dictated “Two Commandments”: “No one caught dealing drugs after 1962 . . . could ever become an initiated member of the Gambino family,” and “anyone caught dealing drugs, and whose activities in any way implicated other family members, would be whacked.” Before his death, some member of LCN were already dealing it, warily. Here were the seeds of discord. It was open season when he died.
One likes to have one's pet theories confirmed, which is precisely the level at which this cleverly constructed and predictable booklike docudrama operates. Everyone’s predigested versions of the Mob and the FBI are once again trotted down the aisle, a fashion show of mediated wisdoms. Written in short chapters, or scenes, Boss of Bosses is the script for the movie of Boss of Bosses. O’Brien and Kurins score points with the premise that the Mob learns its line and gestures from movies and book about the Mafia. Their book does too. Reading it one can actually sense representations building one upon another, piling up into mountains of images and words, to create what seems like “real life.”
Boss of Bosses recounts the Paul Castellano reign, as told by the FBI men who were responsible for bugging his Staten Island residence and bringing about his fall: An indictment by the government and assassination by Gotti’s men. To execute the placement of Gotti’s men. To execute the placement of the listening device took months of planning. As the authors humbly put it, “A more crucial quarter-hour would be difficult to locate in all the annals of the fight against organized crime in America.” In that 15 minutes the FBI invaded the Castellano residence and wired his kitchen, where he did most of his business.
O’Brien and Kurins report what “O’Brien and Kurins” had to do in order to get inside. In the third person, they reconstruct their dialogues with one another and their superiors, which set in motion the invasion of the godfather’s mansion. In reverential detail, they relate how Paul Castellano came to be Boss of Bosses, how his particular brand of wisdom served him well and moved him up the ranks. But there wouldn’t be a story without an equally reverential analysis of his fall: He was complacent and out of touch in Staten Island; he wasn’t watching his troops; he was home, because he was sexually obsessed with his Colombian mistress/ maid, Gloria Olarte; and worst of all he kicked out his wife, Nina, violating the code any reasonable Mafia chieftain obeyed.
To make the story worthy of being read or filmed, O’Brien and Kurins must construe the Boss and themselves as bigger than life; otherwise they might look too little on the screen. The FBI’s bringing in some businessman who heads an illegal corporation isn’t as thrilling as bringing in, say, a tragic hero. “Of all recent Mob Bosses, he had the most self-discipline, the most restraint. He kept his ego out of his businesses. He did not make the kind of mistakes—mistakes that generally sprang from character flaws rather than mere tactical misjudgment—that precipitously brought down other Dons. The more impressive Big Paul’s track record became, the more he began to haunt the imaginations of certain Special Agents. He was growing into a figure worthy of obsession.”
From the FBI agents’ point of view, Castellano’s obsession with Gloria is central to his downfall. Castellano had been impotent since 1976—”ironically, the same year he became the omnipotent Godfather. The disability apparently had not greatly bothered him until the Colombian maid entered his life.” From the tapes they learn that he will undergo an operation—a penile implant—to be able to have intercourse with her, a source of sly humor throughout the book. Gloria is a troubling, salacious punchline, a dirty joke that messes with Big Paul’s mind. The writers ask what they think is the Mob’s question: “Why did he indulge this crude, sharp-tongued unglamorous woman, this foreigner with her accent and her appalling table manners?” But in their words, she’s just a hole: “‘You wait and see,’ said Andy Kurins. ‘He’s following that metal dick of his into a cold and lonely place.’” The special agents’ “obsession” with the Boss must never be thought of as sexual. A sprinkling of misogynist dialogue and some innuendoes about Gloria function to separate the men from each other.
When they bust him, Kurins and O’Brien given Castellano respect. They allow him time to change into his suit; they don’t cuff him in front of his family. On another day, bringing him to court, they escort him to the Second Avenue Deli, for his favorite—a corned beef sandwich on rye. After months of surveillance, the FBI agents are sad to take him in; they’ve come to like the Godfather. Passing Castellano over to the marshals “they felt strangely like they were giving the bride away at a wedding.”
In the current exposition of cops and robbers, everyone is the hero, and everyone the antihero. Besides, if the supposed bad guys don’t have stature, the good guys look bad. Castellano has to be heroic, for if he isn’t, what are the FBI guys? Just a couple of antihero-worshipping G-men, playing with an underworld figure’s civil rights.