When The Commission Thwarted Carlo Gambino's Efforts To Keep Membership Books Closed

Intriguing bits of New York Mafia history came to light recently via a New York Daily News report by Larry McShane that details how in 1976, members of the Mafia Commission banded together to thwart Carlo Gambino's efforts to keep the books closed.

FBI memo from New York Daily News

Gambino didn't want any new members to be made because of his concerns about informants in his midst. He reportedly had even considered absorbing the four other New York families into one big Gambino family. Gambino mulled such things in the aftermath of his arrest in 1970, which resulted from information provided to the Feds by Boston-based informant John J. (Red) Kelley, who that very year was putting New England mob boss Raymond LS Patriarca and others in mob murders and other crimes via his courtroom testimony.

The Mafia closed the books in 1957 -- after the disastrous Apalachin meeting that sent wiseguys scurrying through the woods in their silk suits and gleaming shoes -- but by the mid-1970s, most Mafia families wanted to open them again. There was a strong need for an infusion of new blood to invigorate things and put more cash in the pockets of the bosses.

Finally in 1976, new members started to be made, when Gambino was suffering the physical effects of severe heart problems. Gambino, who rose to power in 1957 with the murder of Albert Anastasia in midtown Manhattan, was unable to muster up enough support on the Commission to prevent the effort. Only around a decade earlier he so completely dominated the Commission that he and allies Thomas (Tommy) Lucchese and Stefano Magaddino were able to chase boss Joseph Bonanno out of New York.

In 1976 there was initially a "limited opening " of the books, as per the Commission, which allowed each of the Five Families to  initiate 10 new members each.

McShane's Daily News story, based on a long-buried FBI document, offers insight into how the Commission thwarted Gambino. (The Daily News unearthed the memo and related documents via a Freedom of Information Act request.)

The Genovese, Colombo, Lucchese, and Bonanno bosses overruled Gambino, "whose fears proved quite prescient," as McShane writes, noting that the same year the Commission opened the books, FBI undercover agent Joe Pistone wormed his way into the Bonanno family and the Gambino family inducted Sammy (The Bull) Gravano — who, as readers of our Ravenite Transcript Series know in detail, flipped and became a government witness 15 years later, bringing down boss John Gotti and dozens of others.

“Source states Gambino adamantly opposed new membership for fear of informant penetration,” notes the Feb. 17, 1976, memo sent directly to FBI Director Clarence Kelley about the top-echelon sit-down. "However (he) was outvoted 4 to 1 and reluctantly agreed go along with the proposal of 10 new members each for the five families.

“Source speculated that if Gambino had been able to persuade one other LCN (La Cosa Nostra) boss to oppose the proposal he would have been in a position to delay or prevent implementation.”

Gambino died peacefully at his Massapequa, Long Island, home of natural causes about eight months after losing to the Commission, having commanded one of the largest, richest, and strongest Mafia families in the United States. During more than 50 years of involvement in organized crime, he served only 22 months in jail.

Dislike of the new breed of "Americanized" gangsters also reportedly fueled Gambino's push to keep the books closed. “Some of the old-timers didn’t like the new guys, the Americans, when people got made,” Bruce Mouw, once head of the FBI’s Gambino Squad, says in the Daily News report. “They didn’t trust the new generation. They liked the old paisans. It’s the dinosaur theory: They didn’t like anything new.”

Carlo Gambino
Carlo Gambino died in 1976, the same year new members got buttons.

We can't help but recall that there was a time when Carlo Gambino himself had been considered part of the new breed of "Americanized" gangster that Sicilians needed to be wary of.

Joe Bonanno, in his 1983 memoir A Man of Honor, described himself and Mafia bosses Joe Profaci, Vincent Mangano, Tommy Gagliano, and Stefano Magaddino as the Conservative (or traditional) wing of the Mafia Commission.

"We were the Tories of the Commission," Bonanno writes, "and for almost thirty years our views prevailed. We were the most tradition-bound, and our philosophy reflected our Sicilian roots. For example, we steadfastly opposed such immoral enterprises as prostitution and narcotics trafficking. For nearly thirty years, we on the conservative faction presented a common front."

The Tories were dead set against the emergence of the Mafia's so-called liberal wing, Bonanno writes. Members of the liberal wing, he said, included Charlie Luciano, Gaetano (Tommy) Luchese, Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia, and Carlo Gambino who "represented new tendencies in our Tradition. All of these men, to a greater or lesser extent, reflected and embodied American trends which we of the old school found distasteful and potentially ruinous."

One thing: technically, the Bonannos were not on the Commission in 1976...they regained their seat when Joseph Massino emerged as boss after Phil (Rusty) Rastelli.