Rare Photo Captures "Zu Cola" Gentile's 1937 Drug Bust

Zu Cola was a member of what later became the Gambino crime family.
"Zu Cola" Gentile, left, with hand over face during a most ignoble moment in his bio, the 1937 drug arrest.
 (Thanks to Christian Cipollini for picture.)

If ever there were a Zelig in the American Mafia, his name was Nicola "Zu Cola" Gentile.

Gentile is a significant source of information about the American Cosa Nostra's early years. The unique role he played expanded his knowledge. He was a sort of mobile troubleshooter who'd swoop in wherever and whenever needed. Mobsters all over the country frequently required his services.

He published his memoirs, Vita di Capomafia, in Italy in 1963. That year, Joseph "Joe Cago" Valachi appeared before Arkansas Senator John L. McClellan's Permanent Subcommittee, aka the McClellan hearings.

Many view the book as important as most other major sources of the Mafia's early years. It's up there with The Valachi Papers and Joseph Bonanno's Man of Honor memoir.

Born in Siculiana, Sicily, on June 12, 1884, Gentile arrived in the U.S. at age 19. As Mike Dash noted in The First Family: Terror, Extortion, Revenge, Murder, and the Birth of the American Mafia, "According to his own account, given decades later when he was in his seventies and no longer had a lot to fear, he emigrated to the United States in 1903, lived and worked in Kansas City, Missouri, and was initiated into what he called the onorata società—the Honored Society, the Mafia—in Philadelphia two years later. Later Gentile moved to Pittsburgh, where he joined another Mafia family, and he spent time in San Francisco and Chicago, too."

Gentile's role uniquely evolved, however. He became a kind of consiglieri-at-large. Dash, in The First Family, identified Gentile as an "American Mafia killer and diplomat whose smooth journey through half a dozen U.S. families gives vital insight into the fraternity in (Giuseppe) Morello’s time."

Gentile's memoir.

Gentile was a troubleshooter, negotiator, messenger and mediator. He also was a member of what became the Gambino crime family.

His memoir offered a wealth of information about the various mobsters in power back then, including Morello and the very mysterious Salvatore D'Aquila, among them.

He wrote about the existence of two Mafia Commission precursors formed before 1909. Members of the first body included only the most powerful bosses.

The second "Commission" Gentile described as much larger. He called it a “general assembly,” with maybe 150 delegates. This group supposedly met to carry out specific duties. Among them were electing capos during emergencies and approving or denying murder requests.

The Clutch-Hand

Gentile "revealed the Clutch Hand as the most senior, most powerful Mafioso in the country, and probably no one in the Italian underworld was better placed to know the truth.... In his youth, the Agrigento man was arrogant and tough—”the classic raw material of the Mafioso”—and he soon built a reputation as a killer, ingratiating himself with his fellow Sicilians in Pittsburgh by violently subduing the local Neapolitans... But Gentile was something of a diplomat as well, with contacts among members of the Mafia in many cities, and one of the Mafiosi with whom he was acquainted was Giuseppe Morello. There is no reason to doubt a man of his seniority and experience when he described the Clutch Hand as “boss of the bosses of the honorable society when I first entered it.”

Giuseppe Morello, considered first Mafia boss of bosses.

Gentile's "memoirs describe (Mafia crime) families in New York, Philadelphia, and New Orleans, in Pittsburgh and Chicago.... Kansas City and San Francisco were also mentioned; Boston, Baltimore, Detroit, and Wilkes-Barre were not, though there is independent evidence of Mafiosi operating in these districts from the first years of the century. In another decade families would be established in several other large cities—Cleveland, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Buffalo...."

As for the two early committees, Gentile viewed them as unnecessary, though ineffective may be the more-accurate descriptive.

A young "Zu Cola," as he was known.

Gentile was "more scornful of the general assembly, which was, he said, “made up of men who were almost illiterate. Eloquence was the skill that most impressed the hall. The better someone knew how to talk, the more he was listened to, and the more he was able to drag that mass of yokels the way he wanted.”

D'Aquila, Boss of Bosses

One figure about whom Gentile wrote was Salvatore "Toto" D'Aquila. Apparently, Gentile is one of the only sources of information about this Cosa Nostra boss.

Noted Dash of D'Aquila:

"Ruthless Palermo Mafioso and cheese importer who kept a low profile and headed his own family in Harlem from at least 1912 in rivalry to Morello’s. After the Clutch Hand’s imprisonment, had himself declared America’s boss of bosses in succession to him; later arranged for Morello and Lupo to be sentenced to death. Shot dead in 1928 ambush and succeeded by Masseria."

"D’Aquila was a dangerous man: arrogant, ambitious, and feared rather than respected by his men. He was efficient, too, and with Lupo and Morello out of the way wasted no time in turning his own family into the strongest cosca in the city. D’Aquila achieved this feat in part by attracting defectors from New York’s other Mafia gangs; most came from the Morellos."

C. Alex Hortis, in The Mob and the City also detailed D'Aquila based on Gentile's information.

"The capo di capi of the American Mafia between 1910 and 1928 was an extraordinarily secretive man by the name of Salvatore “Totò”D'Aquila," Hortis writes. 

"He spent the majority of his life in Palermo, Sicily, when that city was swarming with rival clans. Barely 5 feet, 2 inches tall, D'Aquila had a penchant for dressing well and speaking smoothly. Soon after disembarking, he became a confidence man in Manhattan, talking his marks out of their money. D'Aquila gradually established himself as a gang leader with a base of power in East Harlem. 

"When Giuseppe Morello went to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary for counterfeiting in 1910, Salvatore D'Aquila became capo di capi at the nadir of the Sicilian Mafia in the second decade of the twentieth century, only to see its fortunes reverse during Prohibition. Flush with cash, Totò D'Aquila moved his family to an elaborately furnished house across from the Bronx Zoo. By outward appearances, D'Aquila was a quiet family man with successful business ventures in real estate, olive oil, and cheese importing. Behind the scenes, it was a different story."

Gentile, Hortis adds, noted how in the "1920s, D'Aquila significantly expanded the reach of the capo di capi. 

"D'Aquila became “very authoritative,” enlisted a “secret service” of spies, and brought trumped-up charges against rivals. Other informants confirm that D'Aquila presided over trials of mafiosi who allegedly broke rules of the mob. With D'Aquila acting like a kind of judge, the trials were held before the “general assembly” of Mafia representatives from clans across America."

No source is perfect, however. David Critchley noted in The Origin of Organized Crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891–1931 that: "Even the experienced Nicolo Gentile was taken in by the great Purge myth of 1931 when stating, “60 fellows destined to die. My name also appeared on this list.”... Nevertheless, such sources supply essential material."

Christian Cipollini, the author of several award-winning organized crime nonfiction books, plus a new graphic novel about Lucky Luciano titled LUCKY, sent us the above photograph of Gentile's arrest.

Zu Cola, Cipollini noted, "wasn't a household name like a lot of his friends and enemies of the time were."

"However," he added, "the truth of organized crime history is that the characters some would call 'secondary' were really quite major.

"Gentile was definitely a big deal. The mob-at-large seemed to rely on him quite a bit for his negotiation skills. Ironically, or perhaps not ironic, the guy negotiated himself out of a death sentence, so I'd say that's pretty significant and one can understand why the underworld would respect that kind of individual."

Gentile, a high-profile figure in the underworld during his heyday, was the target of several hit attempts.

One of his more dramatic close calls occurred when Salvatore Maranzano invited him to attend the new boss of boss's self-coronation in Chicago (after Joe "The Boss" Masseria's murder).

Pittsburgh Mafia boss Giuseppe Siragusa had made accusations against Gentile, so he was supposed to participate in a sort of underworld trial that could have concluded with his execution. But first, Gentile met with host Al Capone to deny the charges.

Zu Cola then threatened to behead anyone who didn't believe him.

However, as Cipollini continued, "the most profound reason Gentile is a crucial subject within organized crime history is because of his personal memoirs and the published book that surfaced about ten years or so after that.

"His memoir truly helped people understand what took place in that criminal world, especially with regard to the 1931 purge or 'Night of the Sicilian Vespers' as legend dubbed it. His notes, along with the later-published book Vita Di Capomafia provided insight that basically filled in some blanks and/or was corroborating to Bonnano's and Valachi's versions of how, for example, Luciano and his pals changed the entire mob structure in 1931.

"In my opinion, Gentile's telling of the history is likely more accurate than Valachi's."

Gentile, having aligned himself with Charles "Lucky" Luciano, played a role in Luciano's narcotics operation. He was arrested in New Orleans in 1937 on drug charges. (Photo atop this story captures Gentile's arrest in New Orleans; he'd leave the U.S. within a year.)

Gentile decided he'd had his run in the United States; he fled to Sicily out on $15,000 bail.

About the time of his escape to Sicily, Gentile decided to write about his Mafia experiences.