Saturday, May 27, 2017

Book Reviews: Last Don Standing-The Secret Life of Mob Boss Ralph Natale

Last Don Standing-The Secret Life of Mob Boss Ralph Natale
by Larry McShane and Dan Pearson
Many people have written books about the Philadelphia Mob of the last forty years. That organization has been in near constant chaos since the 1980 murder of boss Angelo Bruno, known somewhat inaccurately as the "Gentle Don". This latest foray into that milieu details the story of Bruno loyalist and enforcer, later boss and government witness, Ralph Natale. Natale was imprisoned during many key events in the modern Philly mob's timeline. Natale describes many happenings he heard about or confirmed via other mobsters. Presumably, the authors have researched and verified Natale's stories. Something that the book emphasizes is that despite their evil, many mobsters, like anyone else, love their families. Mobsters want their families provided for during their incarceration. As most hoodlums can't qualify for or use unemployment insurance for this purpose, they often rely on their mob partners and/or bosses to do this. 

Theoretically it's a best business practice for a Mafia Family to support the relatives of incarcerated members. People who know that their families are safe and financially stable are less likely to take rash steps like starting mob wars from behind bars or worse, begin blabbing to the FBI.

In fiction, for example, the Corleone and Prizzi bosses paid the wives or mothers of imprisoned employees the same income the men earned when free. And upon a gangster's release from prison, a high level family leader, perhaps even the boss, would stop by the man's house to drop off some bonus cash and to congratulate him for keeping his mouth shut. These actions kept morale high and discouraged informing. Some real life bosses understood the benefit of having engaged loyal employees. But in real life this all for one, one for all plan rarely worked out. Mobsters are far too selfish. In real life only the meanest bosses and/or the most savage killers could ensure that their income stream would be uninterrupted by prison terms. 

The bosses do not give a single **** about the men serving beneath them. Not one. It's really every man for himself. So your average hoodlum facing prison got nothing from the Family. If a thug complained about the lack of bail money, funds for lawyers or other financial support during his crisis, he'd learn the hard way not to make complaints again. Gangsters, by definition, are violent, evil, greedy, untrustworthy people. When one of them goes to prison, his fellow hoodlums don't help his family. They steal his business. This lack of well, Family loyalty, is ultimately what made Ralph Natale betray the Philly mob. The funny thing is that he waited until he became the boss to do it. There's a strong streak of crotchety "Kids these days!" or "Get off my lawn!!" feeling running through this book. Natale, born in 1935, was an old school gangster. He was a special assistant to Angelo Bruno, the Philadelphia Boss. Bruno used Natale for hits or other sensitive assignments he didn't want other Family members to know about. Natale nourished a reputation as a killer. Natale had thriving interests in loan sharking, labor racketeering, political corruption and other mob activities. Natale was friendly with Teamsters Boss Jimmy Hoffa, though he lacked the influence to prevent Hoffa's murder.

With Bruno's patronage, Natale would have continued his upwards rise but misfortune occurred. In 1979 Natale was convicted for arson and drug trafficking. His cousin was among those who set him up. Natale would spend all of the eighties and the early nineties behind bars. Natale wasn't there to protect his mentor Bruno from treachery or take revenge for his murder. Natale's wife no longer received payments once the new boss took over. Natale watched and fumed as men he considered inferior (Nicky Scarfo and Phillip Testa) almost destroyed the Family with internal feuds and purges. Shortly before Natale's 1994 release he gathered mobsters to himself and started cleaning house. From 1994-1998 Natale was boss of the Philadelphia Family. He installed Skinny Joey Merlino as underboss.

There are some people who think that Skinny Joey Merlino, born in 1962, was the real Family leader. Some authors and informants have argued that Natale wasn't even formally inducted into the Family until the early nineties. Natale disagrees, obviously. But almost anyone who could settle this controversy is dead or otherwise not talking. Either way, Natale proved to be unable to run the Family in the face of modern law enforcement surveillance techniques. Natale was soon busted for parole violations and drug dealing. When, per Natale, Merlino declined to guarantee monies to Natale's family because he believed Natale was never again leaving prison, an embittered Natale became a turncoat and testified against the Philly family, most specifically Joey Merlino.

I was familiar with many stories detailed here. Natale confirmed the widespread belief that Sonny Liston threw the fights against Muhammad Ali. Natale is dispassionate about his illegal activities. He regrets his adultery but that's about it. Natale thinks he paid the price for his misdeeds. According to Natale he only murdered people who violated their shared gangster code. Natale does express annoyance at having been talked out of or prevented from killing some miscreants, primarily Merlino and former boss Nicky Scarfo. Natale provides few details about his personal life. His father was an abusive mob associate. Merlino's wife was a shrewd observer. She would share with her husband her take on someone's behavior, body language or verbiage. Attention to minor details sometimes saved Natale's life.

Certain aspects of mob life are similar to corporate or political environments. If someone became the new CFO or executive Vice-President of a Fortune 500 company he would be upset to discover that he was getting less money or fewer stock options than his predecessor because the company CEO and Chairman had decided it made more sense to them to split the money two ways instead of three. A mobster faced with that dilemma doesn't call board meetings, resign or threaten to sue; he makes plans to kill the other Family leaders. This is a decent book if you're completely unfamiliar with the Philly underworld. As with all such books, remember that the person speaking doesn't always tell the truth. This is a short book. Larry McShane also wrote the book Chin.
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