Updated news on the Gambino, Genovese, Bonanno, Lucchese and Colombo Organized Crime Families of New York City.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Life Inside The American Mafia For The Mob Wives

Her father is a New York mafia bigshot who is now serving time (like just about every other man she knows). So what does Jennifer Graziano do? She makes a reality television show about the wives and girlfriends left at home. Brave woman…
Forty years ago a New York mafia boss called Joe Colombo began attracting a lot of media attention.
He’d come up with the clever idea of spinning police interest in his affairs into an attack on the Italian-American community. He picketed FBI headquarters, gave speeches and appeared on television protesting against this terrible injustice.
But the bosses of the other mafia families were unhappy with his high profile and in June 1971 he was shot.
How times change.
I’ve come to Staten Island, a suburb of New York long popular with Italian Americans, to interview Jennifer Graziano. She is the daughter of a high-ranking mafioso – and the creator of a reality TV show, Mob Wives, starring her own friends and family.
The Mob Wives cast is made up of the partners and daughters (or both) of mafiosi. It offers an irresistible glimpse into a secret world.
And no, I don’t mean the world of protection rackets and crooked politicians – thanks to the likes of Henry Hill (on whose testimony the film Goodfellas was based) and Joe Bonanno (whose autobiography helped Rudy Giuliani bring down the heads of New York’s five families in 1985) we already know plenty about that.
'I wanted to show what this lifestyle is like for the women,’ says Graziano: how it feels to be a powerless bystander in a volatile world, to surrender the right to know your husband’s business and to pick up the pieces and explain it to the children when he’s thrown behind bars.
Graziano filmed her sister and three of her oldest friends – including the daughter of the Gambino family underboss, Sammy ''The Bull'’ Gravano – for the first series. (A second series and a spin-off, Mob Wives Chicago, have followed in America.) Graziano herself stays behind the camera.
The opening sequence shows the four women marching under stormy skies clad in furs and flashing jewellery.
They are glossy-lipped and foul-mouthed with fiery temperaments and complex, contradictory feelings about what they call 'the lifestyle’. What emerges is a cross between The Sopranos and The Jeremy Kyle Show.
The Sopranos, incidentally, is 'very, very true to life,’ says Graziano. 'A lot of the storylines were based on real occurrences. There was one my father [Anthony Graziano] swore was about us. But I’m not going to talk about that.’
Mob Wives owes more than a little to The Real Housewives reality television franchise. It is, in fact, why Graziano created her show. She’d started writing a drama about her life when she saw how popular Housewives was.
'I thought, “I can do that. I have everyone right under my nose.”’
Her sister, Renee, is made for reality television. She’s a self-described drama queen overflowing with one-liners: 'Either play on team Renee, or team go away’; 'I need a break. I have to go fur shopping.’
Other cast members include a gravelly voiced blonde feared for her street-fighting and two quieter, but no less steely women.
A typical episode of Mob Wives involves a perceived slight that snowballs, thanks to much gossiping and several shots of Patrón tequila, into a full-on hair-pulling catfight. Sometimes it ends in hugs all round; other times they have to be dragged apart.
Graziano’s house is being renovated so we meet at her cousin’s place. It is exactly as you’d imagine a gangster’s mansion:
a grey limestone building with carved mahogany doors wide enough to drive a car through and ornamental trees trimmed into spirals dotting the kryptonite-bright lawn. Inside, a gold and white shih-tzu called King Oscar pitter-patters on the tiled floors.
Unlike the surgically enhanced women in the show, Graziano, 39, doesn’t like to be 'all glammed up all the time’.
She is wearing a simple black outfit with just a couple of bling touches: big diamanté hoop earrings and leopard-print stilettos. 'Eighty-five per cent of Staten Island women have had plastic surgery,’ she says with a laugh. She hasn’t – 'yet’.
All of the cast’s fathers and husbands are currently in prison so, reasons Graziano, the show 'isn’t exposing anything that wasn’t already public knowledge. And the girls know what to say and what not to say; we’ve been trained.’
Still, I’m not surprised when she tells me her father was 'very angry’ when he found out about it. 'He didn’t speak to me for a while.’
Another person her father has had cause to be angry with is Gravano, a family friend who turned government informant in 1991, bringing down John Gotti in exchange for a reduced sentence.
'The code of silence went a long time ago,’ says Thomas Reppetto, a former chief of detectives in Chicago, now a Harvard fellow and the author of American Mafia.
'Before, the sentences were light and often the mob could bribe a jury. And if you talked, you were dead – there was no witness protection. Now [since the 1980s], they’re facing 40 years or life. A lot of people talk to save themselves.’
Gravano’s betrayal made his family pariahs overnight. They moved to Arizona, and the return of his daughter, Karen, to Staten Island is the opening drama of Mob Wives.
Gravano himself, a convicted hit-man with 19 known murders to his name, apparently told his daughter 'he didn’t like some of the language Karen used’ in the programme.
Their language, in fact, is as idiosyncratic as their moral code. 'Away’, for example, means in prison.
Carla Facciolo explains her shoulder-shrugging acceptance of her husband’s incarceration thus: 'My father went away, my uncles went away so when Joe went away I was like, “Oh, there goes another one.”’
'Growing up,’ says Graziano, 'I didn’t have any friends outside the lifestyle. Things like your father going away, that’s kind of embarrassing. Within the lifestyle it’s like, “Such-and-such got arrested.” “Oh yeah? What’s the charge for?”’
Is it common for the men to go to prison? 'Yes. This is my father’s third or fourth time in jail during my lifetime. My brothers-in-law, both of them, a couple of times. Karen’s father. Everyone.’
In the second series, one of the cast members turns out to be an FBI informant – the cause of Anthony Graziano’s latest sentence. Graziano takes a deep breath when I bring this up.
'It was the most unexpected person on earth to do that.’
Some of the show’s most difficult and poignant scenes involve the children. When they’re very small, says Graziano, 'we tell them Papa’s in the army’.
But Facciolo decides that, at eight, her son is old enough to know where his father is. Joe Junior’s response? 'I want to go to jail.’
His mother’s stunned, tormented face as she navigates between telling the boy his father’s done bad things and preserving the child’s respect for him is quite agonising.
Fortunately for Graziano’s mother, Jennifer was 18 and her sister Renee 22 the first time Anthony was imprisoned. By then they were well aware of the illicit nature of their father’s business.
The first time Graziano heard the word mafia she was 10.
'It was the first day of school and everyone had to state what their parents did for a living. I was like, “My mother’s a housewife and my father’s a… a…” I didn’t know what to say.
'And the next day this kid said to me, “My dad says your dad’s in the mafia.” And I went home and I asked my dad, “What’s the mafia?” And he said, “What do you mean, 'What’s the mafia?’ Yeah, Mothers and Fathers Italian Association. What about it?”’
Her father was 'a successful mobster. We used to go to school in a limo. We used to get free things all the time, we would always be taken to the front of the line, free dinners in restaurants.’
She remembers a trip to a fairground when she was seven years old. She had 'seven thousand goes at this game but I didnt win so I was walking away.
'Then one of my father’s friends said [to the stallholder], “Give her her prize.” And I said, “I didn’t win.” And he was like, “Yes you did.”
'I was so confused. The guy gave me the biggest prize. I won a load of games that I didn’t win that day. There was a guy behind us carrying all my animals.’
Did people fear her father? 'Yeah, definitely. They feared me as well and my sister – nobody would do anything wrong to us.’
When they grew older, 'Our guy friends who knew my father would tell other guys who were trying to hit on us, “You can’t talk to her.”' Wasn't that annoying? 'It was very annoying!’
Does she feel guilty about the people who might have suffered at her father’s hands? She draws back and sucks in her breath. There’s a long pause.
'Luckily for me, I’ve never heard of any particular person having suffered because of my father.’ She drinks some iced water. 'That’s a tough question. It’s something I really don’t think about.’
The Italian-American community in New York has tended to stick together.
'Most of the Italian guys want Italian women. The girls who aren’t Italian are usually…’ Graziano cups her hand over her mouth and stage-whispers, 'the girlfriends.’
Ah, yes. The mafiosi’s notoriously relaxed concept of fidelity.
'What was the toast? “To our wives and sweethearts!”’ says Reppetto, an Italian American whose own father 'was not on this side of the law’.
Is cheating still so pervasive? Graziano nods.
'They usually have a mistress and a girlfriend,’ adds her cousin. Mob wives are 'more tolerant’ of affairs, says Graziano. Do the men tolerate the women’s affairs, too? 'Oh, no! Are you crazy?’
Graziano is divorced with a 13-year-old son and hasn’t had a mafioso boyfriend since her teens. She understands the appeal: 'They dress well. They carry themselves a certain way. They’re very confident. It was never my thing.
'I mean, I like a tough guy, of course, and I like a sharp-looking guy, but I prefer it if they’re not a mobster.’
Her reasons are not moral; she’d just 'rather not suffer the consequences’: the seized assets, prison visits. 'I’d rather be with a regular businessman.’
There are cultural issues, too, that might put a woman off. When I ask if mafia men do much housework she laughs.
Her cousin cuts in: 'None! What! So! Ever!’ What about childcare? 'Childcare? Childcare? Oh my god! They spend $10,000 to go for a weekend somewhere. Then they don’t see them.’ Graziano smiles. 'They do it their own way.’
Do the women ever get involved in business? 'Business? With the guys?’ Graziano finds this absurd. 'No.’ Did that bother her? 'Yes, it did. You can’t go out unless you ask your husband for money. I said, “Oh, no, I’m not living that way.”’
One of the women, Drita D’Avanzo, has been married for 10 years, eight of which her husband has spent in prison. Her decision to stick with him – they call it 'waiting’ – is a source of continual heartache.
'You’re kind of programmed to wait,’ says Graziano. But in recent years some women have turned their backs on this tradition.
And others. 'Families are becoming more liberal and girls are going to college, and that means they’re meeting guys from outside the lifestyle. It’s not usually approved of.’ She gives a wry smile. 'And I’m sure their new boyfriends tread lightly.’
She intends to steer her son away from the lifestyle, too. 'I want him to be a doctor or a football player or something.’ Is he good at football?
'Yeah. Number-one draft pick every year.’ The boy probably has real talent. On the other hand, as Graziano says, 'My father is still who he is.’


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