Q&A With "Chin" Author Larry McShane

Larry McShane covers the Mafia, among other things, for the New York Daily News; he authored a book about Vincent "The Chin" Gigante that is available now.

Chin: The Life and Crimes of Mafia Boss Vincent Gigante will be available on May 31. (McShane also had a hand in writing Ralph Natale's memoirs, as noted, which is due for release next year but is already available for preorder in the U.K. The title, Lost Lives and Forgotten Vows: The Ralph Natale Story, may change, as the book's publisher noted.)

Chin: The Life and Crimes of Mafia Boss Vincent Gigante is the first book dedicated solely to The Chin.
First biography of the Oddfather

McShane's Gigante offering is a welcomed addition to Mafia-related nonfiction, and since it is the first book dedicated solely to The Chin, it fills a huge void as well. Previously, Selwyn Raab's Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America's Most Powerful Mafia Empires included details of Gigante's reign as part of its overview of the New York Mafia. Gigante's daughter also has written a memoir about her father, The Godfather's Daughter: An Unlikely Story of Love, Healing, and Redemption.
I caught up with McShane a couple of weeks ago and am posting this much later than I intended. I know VICE has published a very similar story recently, but I believe mine covers somewhat different ground. In fact, Larry dropped one tantalizing morsel definitely worth a follow-up. See if you can find it in the Q&A. I was initially going to work it into this story but decided it would needlessly hold up the Q&A to which Mr. McShane kindly dedicated his time.

Thanks, Larry!

So how did you start covering the Mafia for the Daily News?

I joined the Daily News in 2007, after working for The Associated Press in 1980. I was born in the city, up in Inwood, and worked mostly in New York City (with a one-year stint in Baltimore, 1983, and one year with AP as a national writer, 1998). I grew up reading the News, which was always filled with tales of the mob –Don Vito Genovese, Tommy Ryan, Crazy Joey Gallo – so that’s where my initial interest was piqued. I was working on the December 1985 night when Big Paul Castellano was gunned down outside Spark’s Steakhouse, and was sent to the scene – incredible, like a movie set, except with two dead bodies in the middle of East 46th St. And that, of course, started a busy stretch of mob stories, with Gotti and Gigante, the Comission trial, the big-name Mafia turncoats like Gravano and Al D’Arco. Lots of high-profile mob trials, too.

What led to you writing the Chin book?

I landed on Gigante as the topic for a book because I covered him for so long – I was at his trial in ’97 to see Gravano testify, and I was there when he pleaded out six years later. Plus the story is so good – the guy wandering Greenwich Village in his robe and slippers. The whole thing struck me as very cinematic, the Oddfather and “The Godfather.” Plus I was surprised that nobody had written a book about him.

John Pritchard, head of the FBI Genovese Squad, said the family benefited from true loyalty to the Chin – the guys around him... were people he knew and trusted.  
The feds considered and rejected trying to put a “Donnie Brasco” in the Genovese family ...

How difficult was the research? Any details you could offer on where the gold was -- any particular trial transcript or informant's 302s?

The research wasn’t as difficult as I feared. I FOIAed Chin’s FBI file, along with his file from the Bureau of Prisons. The prison folks sent along 4,000 pages, dating back to his 1960s incarceration on the drug bust with Genovese, and it was filled with all sorts of good stuff – for example, his interview with prison officials upon arrival at Lewisburg, where Chin talked about growing up in the Village, among other things. I also spent a full day going through clippings at the Daily News morgue, and found some interesting nuggets along with lots of details on the Costello hit attempt and other far less-notorious incidents. The FBI file had a great story about the feds banging on the door of Chin’s brother Pat, looking for the mobster. Turns out Chin was inside, and he put on the crazy act for the two stunned agents. Most of the informant stuff came out at trial.

Tell us something the average mob aficionado doesn't already know about Gigante.

No one is sure where the crazy act came from, but the first time the Chin ever used a mental health dodge was to skip out on an October 1964 meeting with his parole officer after getting out of Lewisburg. Gigante had his lawyer call to say the Chin was in a “markedly nervous state” – and it worked. By 1970, he was checking himself into a Westchester County psychiatric facility on an almost annual basis. The street theater followed a few years later, and became Gigante’s go-to ruse in public. From small things ,,,

What made the Genovese family so powerful in your view. And why do they have so few defectors?

The Genovese family ran the unions, and that was a real source of power and money. When I spoke with John Pritchard, head of the FBI Genovese Squad, he said the family benefited from true loyalty to the Chin – the guys around him were often from the neighborhood, and were people he knew and trusted. The feds considered and rejected trying to put a “Donnie Brasco” in the Genovese family because they felt the members would never trust an outsider.

What was the root cause of The Chin's animosity for John Gotti? Bobby Manna, Genovese capo in New Jersey, also seemed to hold  deep animosity for Gotti as well....

Chin’s animosity toward Gotti stemmed from the Castellano hit, which of course was done without his permission (or the OK of the Commission). Chin and Big Paul were close, and Castellano was one of the few Mafiosi aware of Gigante’s rise to boss when the word was kept under wraps. Gigante initially met with Tony Ducks Corallo to get approval for the murder of Gotti.

While the Castellano killing was the first strike against Gotti for Chin, the older boss also despised the Dapper Don’s high profile and embrace of the high life. Gigante believed the Mafia was a secret society, and wanted no part of any publicity in the press. Gotti appeared on the cover of Time magazine, right? One law enforcement guy described Gigante as the anti-Gotti in his approach to mob leadership. Bobby Manna was just following his boss’ instructions, although he ran a lot of the family’s New Jersey operations and there was a feeling that Gotti was trying to expand into their territory.

Where did Gigante stand on the Carmine Galante hit? Was he in charge yet, or was it still Benny Squint? Do you know the year The Chin was formally made official boss?

Gigante wasn’t the boss when Galante was whacked. He was installed in 1981, but not at any sort of mob ceremony with burning holy cards or pricked fingers. Fat Tony Salerno was a patient at New York University Hospital after suffering a stroke. Chin paid a visit, accompanied by Sammy Black Santora and Bobby Manna, and a deal was reached where Salerno was “pulled down” – removed from the top spot. Chin immediately ordered Vincent (Fish) Cafaro to work as Salerno’s liaison to the new regime, and he ordered Cafaro to stay quiet about the leadership change, even to other members of the Genovese family. Salerno kept his mouth shut, too, and was indicted and convicted in the Commission trial as the Chin remained a free man. The hide-the-boss trick was, in Chin’s case, a way of steering clear of the FBI and keeping his name quiet even without the world of the Mafia.

Fat TonySalerno was “pulled down” – removed from the top spot of the Genovese crime family.
Salerno was busted down to soldier when The Chin rose to power.

Why did they whack Eboli? Rumors are Gambino was behind it -- but what about Benny Squint? Wouldn't he want to have a say? How'd that work?

The Eboli hit was never solved, but reports at the time indicated Gambino was furious with Tommy Ryan over an unpaid debt. Funzi Tieri was also no fan of Eboli, either. Benny Squint took over from Eboli, with Tieri acting as the family figurehead and repping the Genovese at Commission meetings. Random fact: On the night before his death, Eboli was hanging out with chart-topping singer Tommy James.

What inspired the Chin to play the Oddfather role?

One thing: He did not want to return to prison after doing his time in the drug case. There was also an FBI memo suggesting, oddly enough, that Chin was afraid a return to prison would make him “crack” – and become an informant or a homosexual. But he was absolutely determined to stay on the streets, even if it meant walking them in a bathrobe and slippers.

What is your opinion about the five families today.... do you think they'll be able to rebuild to a significant extent?

I doubt it – they lack the kind of organization that was needed to make the really big money, like in the Windows scam or the “Concrete Club.” There was also a clear deterioration in the kind of men running the mob – Junior Gotti was a far cry from Lucky Luciano. The feds did a good job in disrupting the mob’s old bread-and-butter industries: Fulton Fish Market, the waterfront, construction. I’m supposed to speak with the FBI soon to get a handle on the current state of the mob. Powerful is a relative term – they won’t ever be as powerful as they once were.