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Number 148 in this series. Link to all items here.
Many buildings in Naples are marked as the place where this or that painter, politician or poet lived. But famous crooks? I wasn't sure; thus, I wandered up to via Tasso 484 on the off-chance that there would be a plaque somewhere. I don't know what I was expecting: maybe "In this building is where American mobster, Lucky Luciano, lived the last 16 years of his life." No such luck. In any event, we have at least a bit in common: not only did Lucky live about five minutes from my house, but we were both born on November 11.
Charles "Lucky" Luciano was born Salvatore Lucania in Lercara Freddi near Palermo in Sicily in 1897. He emigrated at the age of nine to New York with his family, got started early on his life of crime and never looked back. The New York Times of Jan. 27, 1962, reporting on his death, cited an early probation report on Luciano that said, "His freedom from conscience springs from his admitted philosophy: 'I never was a crumb, and if I have to be a crumb I'd rather be dead.' He explains this by stating that a crumb is a person who works and saves and lays his money aside: who indulges in no extravagance. His description would fit the average man." Time magazine called him "...Horatio Alger with a gun, an ice pick and a dark vision of Big Business" for he was the one who turned disparate mob families in New York into a corporation-like "crime syndicate." Between 1919 and 1936, when he was finally arrested and prosecuted by special rackets prosecutor, Thomas Dewey, Luciano was involved in drug trafficking, assault, gambling, bootlegging, prostitution, loan sharking, and slot machines. The nick-name "Lucky" comes from the fact that he survived being "taken for a ride" by rival mobsters early in his career. They just beat him up and left him with scars.
On his conviction in 1936 he was sent to Sing Sing to serve 30-50 years, but released in 1946 when his sentence was commuted by Dewey, who in the interim had been elected governor of the state of New York. The condition for the release was that Luciano be deported and not attempt to return to the United States. The word was that Luciano had helped the US war effort first by enlisting and organizing the workers of the Port of New York in the US effort against German submarines constantly lurking off the coast and then by convincing the Mafia in Sicily to come out of hiding and help the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, but neither Dewey nor Luciano would comment. Luciano said he "couldn't talk about those things." The Armed Forces denied it. (It is, however, part of Neapolitan post-war lore that organized crime returned to Italy only because the Allies were willing to set anyone up in power who claimed to be an anti-Fascist.)
Although Luciano said that he didn't feel comfortable living in Italy and was even under house arrest in Naples on various occasions, his life was not all that bad. He had an apparently bottomless well of money and even looked the part of the Hollywood gangster—tailor-made clothes, fast cars and beautiful women. Though he said that he never married because "I have enough problems," he did have a longtime girl-friend, Igea Lissoni, a nightclub dancer. They were reported to have married in November, 1949, but both denied the report. She died of cancer in 1953 at age 37, leaving Luciano devastated.
In January, 1962, Lucky Luciano died at Capodichino airport in Naples of a sudden heart attack as authorities were preparing to arrest him in connection with an international drug trafficking ring. He had just met with Martin Gosch, a US film and TV producer who was interested in making a film about his life. While his family in America went through legal hoops to have his body returned to the United States, Luciano had a funeral in Naples. He went out in style; it was one of those affairs with eight black horses drawing a black and silver funeral carriage. He lay in a chapel until authorities decided to allow his removal to the United States. He was finally buried at St. John's Cemetery, Middle Village, Queens, New York in the family vault. There were 300 hundred people in attendance. Emanuel Perlmutter's report in the New York Times from February 8, 1961, closes with,
As the guards closed the bronze doors of the vault, a small stained-glass window in the rear was briefly visible to onlookers. It depicted a bearded saint leaning on a shepherd's staff. A newspaper man stopped [Luciano's brother] Barolo Lucania as the mourner's car was about to leave and asked him if he knew the identity of the saint in the window, "I don't know," the brother replied. "I'm not acquainted with saints."
[Also see this letter from Larry Ray in his "Remembering Naples" portion of this encyclopedia. It contains a personal recollection of Lucky Luciano.]