Known by some as Joe Bananas (A name he abhorred based on the connotation that he was crazy), Giuseppe “Joseph” Bonanno saw over 95 years on this earth while living a life of crime and privilege. If that isn’t amazing enough, you could factor in his survival within the American Mafia and seeing it change three times over. From being raised within the principles of Castellamarese’ men of honor, to being the youngest of the five bosses on The Commission, boss Joe was respected by gangsters and lawmakers alike. Hailing from Castellammare del Golfo, Joe Bonanno and family first immigrated to Brooklyn, New York when he was 3 years old and then again at 20 after both his parents died (His father was an important mafia leader in Sicily).
When Joe came to America, he was tutored by the infamous gangster Salvatore Maranzano. Don Maranzano was a man with qualities that Joe admired and eventually took on himself, qualities such as education, keeping a guise of royalty and sticking to a type of philosophy that bordered on ruthlessness and admiration all in the same breath. Maranzano showed Bonanno how to earn, how to profit and even how to kill. Bonanno became Maranzano’s bodyguard, his student and his friend, an honor which placed him in the middle of one of the mafia’s bloodiest battles…
The Castellammarese War
In the late 1920’s Joe Bonanno like most young gangsters was bootlegging liquor. The money from illegal liquor was so much that Dons became millionaires overnight and of course it meant blood feuds for rival families. One such feud was between Joe “the boss” Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. Both old men of the old mafia ways who had carved out a path to money and power in America through gambling, racketeering and now the bootleg markets. When the war between the Masseria and Maranzano factions began in New York City, it quickly spread and involved all the major cities in the United States. Joe was a soldier for Maranzano during this war and the feud continued until a wildcard known as Charles “Lucky” Luciano presented itself – but that is another story.
Youngest Boss of The Commission
When Maranzano was eventually murdered, Luciano opted out of the role of “boss of all bosses” and established The Commission. It was to be a council of five to decide on mafia principles, executions and judgments. The five bosses who ran it would be the supreme justice of organized crime and would be the deciding factor in anything major within the families. The men elected to these seats were Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Joe Bonanno, Joe Profaci, Joe Scalise and Paul Gagliano. Though many of these heads changed throughout the years for a variety of reasons not limited to death; Joe Bonanno retained his seat as the youngest elected commission member and was eventually the only original commission member remaining.
The commission worked very well for organized crime up until the faces at the seats began to change. When Albert Anastasia (head of Murder Inc., the Mafia’s assassination squad) started wanting non wise guys killed there became a separation in ideals that eventually got him killed. Joe loved Albert and was one person who could reason with the Mad Hatter (name coined for Albert Anastasia, also known as Lord High Executioner). Joe saw the death of his friend as a move for power by the conniving Vito Genovese and Joe Profaci so he was forced to act.
Now this period of Bonanno and The Commission is one of debate. Some sources believe he tried to plot his way into being boss of all bosses over his associates and was found out so he faked his own kidnapping to escape Mafia wrath. However according to Joe in his biography, his uncle Stefano Maggadino kidnapped him for almost a year to save him from his fellow bosses who had put a number on his head. Whichever source is true, it is known that Joe was missing in action for a period of time whilst another war erupted through his son Bill Bonanno who stood up as boss in his stead. When the smoke cleared and the bodies were buried, Joe re-appeared before the commission to explain his absence. The commission deemed it best that the old boss retire given the uncertainty of his motives.
Don Peppino – A Man of Honor
It goes without saying that Joe Bonanno was a remarkable man. He retired with family to Arizona where he had more than a few run-ins with the prying FBI. He sold his regal house in Hempstead, Long Island, and a fourteen-room farmhouse near Middletown, New York. Severing all ties to New York, he exiled himself to Tucson where he had maintained a home for health reasons since the early 1940s. Although he was finished as a majestic godfather in the East, Don Peppino continued to dabble in lesser rackets in Arizona and California with his sons.
Joe Bonanno died at age 97 after recording his side of the story in his autobiography aptly dubbed “A Man of Honor” which pretty much sums up his long life. Even mayor Rudy Giuliani who rarely has anything good to say about mafia members has a kind of reverence for the old Don when it comes to mentioning him. Being one of the men to finally bring Don Joseph Bonanno to court after he refused to break omerta, Giuliani describes him as being almost regal in his methodology and a man of the old world. To live to such an old age after a life that cannot be described as careful or easy is a wonder upon itself, the youngest to ascend and the oldest to go, Giuseppe “Joe” Bonanno was indeed a badass and an extraordinary man. Many will say he was the last of his kind, dapper, commanding respect with his pinky ring in sway.
See some words or phrases that you don't understand? Check out The Dragon's Lexicon.