In a one-hour talk that has the easy-going feel of a conversation in a diner, Nicholas Pileggi provides an account of how the Mafia came to power in New York City.
Pileggi, born February 22, 1933, may well be America’s leading expert on the Mob. He started reporting on the New York City underworld for the Associated Press in the 1950’s and in the late 1960’s began contributing gripping articles to New York Magazine about the activities of mobsters. Pileggi’s book, Wiseguys: Life in a Mafia Family, about the organized crime career of Henry Hill, served as the basis for the acclaimed film, Goodfellas, for which he co-wrote the screenplay with Martin Scorsese. He teamed up with Scorsese again to write the screenplay for Casino, based on the crime writer’s book, Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas.
Pileggi’s 1988 talk is delivered at a time when John Gotti still held sway over the New York Mob, and before anyone had heard of Tony Soprano. Filled with compelling vignettes, the writer’s lecture is also skillfully crafted. He suggests that New York City, shaped by the corruption of Tammany Hall, was a perfect foil for La Cosa Nostra, which rode the wave of Southern Italian immigration to America in 1910. Tammany Hall --itself a reaction to the aristocratic, blue-blood American ruling class -- always relied on hoodlums to enforce its machine politics.
Pileggi describes the New York Mafia, once known as the Seven Families, as a generational power structure. Its members love and believe in their world and would rather die than leave it. Thus, a mobster, knowing that his appointed ride in a car to New Jersey will be his last, spends his remaining free minutes giving a bartender the keys to his car and apartment, instead of trying to escape while he has the chance.
The veteran crime writer says there are three essential bulwarks to Mob culture; the first of which is hard work. As soon as they wake up in the morning, Pileggi says a Mafioso is “scheming about how to get over.” The mobster, Paul Vario, insisted that his henchmen provide him with stolen credit cards which he would then use at a restaurant, risking arrest, because the illicit food “tastes sweeter.” A notorious mob hit man, Dandy Jack Parisi, when asked why he went to Mass every day, replied that he “asks God to give me strength to steal."
Pileggi describes the second hallmark of Mafia power as the willingness to descend into unpredictable, irrational, “nutty” violence. Thus, a Mafia “made-man” can become murderous at the smallest insult, like getting bumped unintentionally in a bar. Think of Joe Pesci, as the mobster Nicky Santoro, and that ballpoint pen in Casino. “Mobsters aren’t people you want to hang around with,” Pileggi cautions with a chuckle. “They’re the kind of guys who in high school would step on your glasses if you dropped them. . . . Compassion has been bred out of them.” The threat of sadistic violence has given the Mob the leverage to muscle in on legitimate businesses and unions throughout New York City. Violence is such a part of the internal code of the Mafia that beatings administered by police are accepted almost stoically as part of The Life.
The third essential element for Mafia cultural longevity is the ability to live in a protected environment, be it Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, Mulberry Street in Manhattan or Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. They are limited, unsophisticated worlds, that -- until recently -- were impossible to penetrate by others. Literally staring out from behind barroom windows, the Mob knows everyone who comes in and out of these neighborhoods. The ordinary citizens in such confines are terrorized yet crudely protected by this constant underworld presence. Pileggi relates one blood-curdling tale of a would-be rapist who made the fatal mistake of following a young woman home to her apartment building in a Mafia neighborhood.
Pileggi doesn’t worry that his encyclopedic knowledge and reportage of Mob habits endangers his life. “I am just an anthropologist. Nobody shoots anthropologists,” he says to an audience member concerned about his personal safety. The writer leaves it to professional law enforcement to arrest and prosecute organized crime. “I am not Dick Tracy, I just report.”
At the end of his lecture, Pileggi predicts the inevitable decline of organized crime. He attributes this to changed social factors. For one, too many children of Mafiosi are leaving The Life to live The American Dream, becoming dentists, lawyers, etc. Pileggi believes Mob involvement in narcotics trafficking has also taken a toll on the organization. Sellers and buyers of drugs don’t have the fortitude to maintain the internal code of loyalty and silence known as Omerta. Mobsters and addicts, caught up in drug stings, have turned state’s evidence, bringing down dozens of their brethren. Over the last two decades, the Mafia’s influence in New York City has declined dramatically, as turncoats and witness protection plans prove Pileggi’s thesis.
Nicholas Pileggi's orginal talk at the NYPL Celeste Bartos Forum was on January 26, 1988. The WNYC broadcast edition of his address was March 28, 1993.