Made Men: The True Rise-and-Fall-Story of a New Jersey Mob Family
Greg B. Smith
New York: Berkeley Books, 2003
Subject, Methods, Database:
A journalistic account of the inner workings of the DeCavalcante crime family in the years 1998 and 1999, primarily based on transcripts of secretly recorded conversations, including conversations recorded by family associate and FBI informant Ralph Guarino.
Ralph Guarino decides to work as an informant for the FBI in January of 1998 in the face of an indictment for masterminding a heist at the World Trade Center. Guarino, then in his mid forties, is a career criminal with an "impressive record" that culminated in charges involving fraud, larceny and general felonious behavior. He moves around in wiseguy circles and one of the Cosa Nostra members he knows is Vincent "Vinny Ocean" Palermo, a member in the crime family of "Sam the Plumber" DeCavalcante and also the husband of DeCavalcante's niece. Palermo puts Guarino with his driver and longtime friend, "profoundly unsuccessful" bookmaker Joseph "Joey O" Masella. In the months to come Guarino records Joey O talking about private matters, Mafia dealings, and most of all schemes to make money he desperately needs to pay off his debts to members of various Cosa Nostra families. By October of 1998 Joey O's debtors have apparently grown tired of his excuses and have him killed, but the book does not really tell who orchestrated the murder. A week after the murder Guarino is reassigned to "a fifty-four-year-old old-school gangster" Joseph "Tin Ear" Sclafani who's favorite topic of discussion is the fact that he has been passed over for promotion to capo. At the time, the DeCavalcante family is run by a "ruling panel" appointed by incarcerated boss John Riggi and family consigliere Stefano Vitabile. One of the members of the "ruling panel" is Vincent Palermo. When Palermo gives out the order to kill veteran capo Frank D'Amato, FBI informant Ralph Guarino is asked to participate. Although the murder plot fails, "Tin Ear" Sclafani ends up proposing Guarino for membership in the DeCavalcante family.
Before Guarino is inducted he is pulled off the street and placed in the witness protection program, along with his wife and two children. The move has become necessary because of a leak inside the police that could have compromised his informant status.
As a result of Guarino's work, on 2 December 1999 some 40 members and associates of the DeCavalcante family are arrested, including Vincent Palermo who a few months later decides to cooperate with the government. More members and associates are arrested in two waves in October of 2000 and March of 2001. In the end, the tape recordings made by Ralph Guarino have "set off a chain reaction that resulted in seventy arrests and ten informants" (p. 314).
Greg Smith's "Made Men" stands in the tradition of previous mob books in that it details the inside world of Cosa Nostra, in this case not based on confessions but on surveillance records. What sets it apart from previous accounts is the zeitgeist of the Soprano Era. The focus is not on the bizarre and sinister sides of mob life, but on the 'banality of evil'. Here we have a description that tries not to prove how "powerful" and "ruthless" mobsters are. Instead, the members and associates of the DeCavalcante family are portrayed in the Tony Soprano way as family men who fight with their wives, worry about their kids' education and in between collect money from illicit activities and go out to kill people who have violated some mob rule.
As far as the reality of organized crime is concerned, the Soprano view seems to provide a more complete and balanced picture. However, some really interesting aspects are only very briefly touched, such as the collective leadership structure of the DeCavalcante family and the relationship between the DeCavalcante family and its New York branch and the five New York Cosa Nostra families. Another interesting aspect addressed in the book is the apparently declining appeal of Mafia membership. Brown quotes Joey O from surveillance transcripts rejecting the idea of becoming a made member: "I am very happy the way I am. Who the fuck needs it? I don't want the headaches that go with it" (p. 177). And finally there is the issue of life imitating art and vice versa in the case of the Sopranos. Smith presents transcripts of conversations about whether or not the TV-series was modeled after the DeCavalcante family ("Is that supposed to be us?", p. 244), and he discusses the links between the TV production and real organized criminals, stressing that in "many instances, the activity depicted on television was remarkably similar to the activity of the real-life Mafia, activity no member of the public had ever been privy to" (p. 146).
Greg B. Smith's "Made Men" vividly describes the banality of mob life in the Soprano Era.
© Klaus von Lampe, all rights reserved.