“Tough times make monkeys eat red pepper.”
Read Chapter 1: Frank Costello – Gambling Man
That’s how Frank Costello used to explain his dubious past. At the age of fourteen, he robbed the landlady at his Harlem apartment building. He knew she always awoke early to sweep the halls. He also knew she didn’t trust banks and kept the rent money she collected tucked between her bosoms. Frank had fallen out of a tree while visiting his aunt’s farm house, across the east river in Astoria. He injured his leg and the doctor bandaged it from heel to thigh, with strict orders to stay in bed for a few days. That night, however, Costello snuck out of the farm house and limped down the dirt road to catch a ferry back to his home in Harlem.
He waited until morning, then tied a handkerchief around his face and relieved the landlady of her monies before limping out the door and disappearing into the street. She recognized him immediately, but when the police arrived at the farmhouse and found Frank in bed with a bandaged leg, they concluded there must have been a mistake, and the future Mafia kingpin got away with it. It’s a fascinating glimpse into a budding, criminal mastermind. Years later, he was given an IQ test in prison and scored a very average ninety-seven, but I once heard a physicist explain, “There are different types of intelligence. My knowledge of physics wouldn’t keep me alive in the wild, but there are animals that have an intelligence I do not possess, an intelligence that helps them survive in the jungle.”
Costello grew up on the mean streets Harlem, streets paved by the likes of Lupo the Wolf, and not only did he survive in this jungle, for a time, he was the king of it…
“If you’re going to write a book about what a nice guy he was, don’t write too much about the twenties. He was a tough son of a bitch.”
That was the advice one source gave author Leonard Katz, while being interviewed for his excellent book, Uncle Frank. It is remarkable that comments like this are not more common, given Costello’s occupation.
One Tammany Hall politician described him as, “A prince of a fellow.” In fact, most people were taken aback by, “What a nice man he was.” There were even members of the police force who were sorry to see him retire, in a “better the devil you know,” sort of fashion.
Things was peaceful with Frank
As Joe Valachi explained, “Things was peaceful with Frank.” But beneath Costello’s affable and charismatic personality, he was, after all, a crook. It was a fact he regretted more and more as his life went on, and eventually it drove him into seeking a psychiatrist. The two had been introduced by Costello’s lawyer, and they had spent a fair amount of time together socially. The doctor likened a night on the town with Frank to tagging along with a Roman emperor.
The cast of characters who lined up to pay their respects or seek a favor ranged from politicians, entertainers, and Manhattan’s social elite, to the darkest denizens of the underworld. Their relationship ended on a sour note when the doctor leaked to the press that he was treating the Don. It was one of the few times those close to Frank recalled seeing his usually calm demeanour, melt away in fits of rage.
The few who were close to the boss knew there were certain things you did not do in his company. One example was, you never touched his plate at the dinner table. If you did, he would quietly push it away and reorder two servings of whatever it was he was eating. One for himself, and one for whom ever touched the plate. He would never raise his voice or carry on in a boisterous fashion like the movie mobsters; instead his point would be driven home with an awkward silence that would leave the offender extremely uncomfortable, with a plate of food they didn’t order. The biggest taboo was asking Frank about his past. Costello was evasive when questioned about it and if pressed on the issue, he would simply answer in that infamous voice,
“I never sold no bibles…”
Determined not to settle for a life of poverty like his father, Frank dropped out of school in the fifth grade, choosing instead to occupy his time with robberies, assaults and batteries. One of his earliest arrests occurred after he struck a man on the head with a hammer before making off with his valuables. This was apparently his preferred method of dispatching adversaries. Later, while serving as boss, he was informed that an associate in his New Orleans operation was skimming hauls.
When asked what he would like done Costello answered,
“Nothing. I’ll be down in a few days and will take care of it.”
He rented a hall, and brought his associates together. After speaking briefly to the room, he called the offender to the podium, pulled out a wrench he had hidden, and proceeded to knock the man unconscious before his audience.
In his younger years, Costello learned two valuable lessons that would stay with him his entire career. He had begun to build a reputation as a calm head who could be relied upon, and he caught the attention of a local mobster who put Frank to work collecting rents. One tenant, an ageing madam, was unable to pay the seventeen dollars and offered Frank the opportunity to lose his virginity in exchange for allowing her a months reprieve. She plied the young man with wine until he succumbed to her seductions, and he left without collecting a dime. He received what he described as the worst beating of his life. “I knew better,” he explained,
“But with every drink, her hair got longer and silkier.”
Later, if Frank said,
“Her hair’s getting longer and silkier,” his men knew the boss was not about to get involved in what ever deal it was he was referring to.
Consequently, he never became much of a drinker.
The second lesson was learned when he was caught rifling through a vending machine by a policeman. A local politician witnessed the whole affair and after sharing a joke with the officer, he assured the fellow Irishman that he would, “Take care of the little dago.” When the officer left, he turned to Frank, and before letting him go said, “Remember, I did you a favor.” It was a moment that made a lasting impression on the future Machiavellian.
Friendship with Lucky Luciano
Good with his fists, Frank was known to calmly and systematically cut down opponents. A far cry from the peacemaker he would later become known for, he was rarely without a gun in those days, and was well on his way to becoming just another hood, when the course of his life changed. Frank and his 104th St. Gang, were thrown out of a movie theater along with another group of miscreants. The other gang was led by the streetwise Salvatore Lucania. A friendship was born that day which would change the face of organized crime, and given they inhabited that dark realm of the triple-cross, it is remarkable the two remained loyal to each other until their final days.
According to Costello, Luciano pulled a knife on him once during an argument in their younger years, but Frank talked him down. Their partnership would only be tested by a competition over who had a penthouse on the higher floor of the Waldorf Towers. Lucky came out on top, and that never sat well with Frank.
This picture was taken at Frank’s cousin’s farm (I believe it was the very farm house where he injured his leg.) Costello was a frequent visitor at the farm until his cousin, Dominca, asked him to stay away. Lucky is on the left and Frank on the right. This is the only picture I have come across of the bosses together.
In Costello, Luciano felt he had finally met a fellow Italian who was just as smart as some of the Jewish kids in his circle. And like Luciano, Costello was extremely ambitious. Armed with street-smarts, drive, and the brains and brawn of Bugsy Seigel and Meyer Lansky, the Felony Fab Four quickly began making a name for themselves, robbing warehouses, shops, and banks. On one occasion, Frank was trusted with money to open a bank account for the copious amounts of cash they were beginning to aquire. He entered the bank prepared to open the account, but instead decided it would be an easy target for a hold-up. The foursome robbed the bank a few weeks later and opened an account elsewhere with the cash they had stolen.
September 23, 1914, Frank married Lauretta Giegerman
On September 23, 1914, Frank married Lauretta Giegerman, who everyone knew as Bobbie. Their marriage license lists her age as nineteen though she was only fifteen at the time. Throughout the trials and tribulations of Frank’s extraordinary life, Bobbie remained by his side. Those who knew the couple agreed: they truly loved each other. Frank kept a mistress throughout the marriage, and Bobbie was well aware of this, but as Toots Shor pointed out,
“I never saw him with anybody but his wife. He had too much respect for her to be seen with anybody but his wife.”
The couple were unable to have children and it has been accepted that this was because of Bobbie, but this could have easily been due to Frank. Like any man in his position, he was vain, and would have never let it be known he was incapable of conceiving a child. He was so vain, Bobbie was unaware her husband had a dental bridge until his funeral. Costello would be hounded through out his life by people claiming to be his illegitimate child, but nothing ever came of these accusations, and even today I come across people on the internet claiming to be his progeny.
Because run-ins with the law were becoming more frequent, Frank began to use several aliases. Costello was the name that stuck however, and he preferred it to his real name, Castiglia. Luciano took credit for coming up with the Irish version of his name, claiming it allowed him to move in more powerful circles. Frank remembers Luciano, giving the name of Lucky to himself, and not getting it after his infamous ride along.
“He figured people were more likely to do business with a man who was lucky.” Costello explained.
In both cases, it seems Luciano was right.
The Costellos newlywed bliss came to an end on March 12, 1915, when Frank was arrested for possession of a fire arm and sentenced to a year in prison. His arrest records show he began to write his last name with a capitol C, then crossed it out and wrote Saverio, his mother’s maiden name. For the first time, Frank Costello was going to jail, and unlike many of his cohorts, who seemed to constantly serve time and not give it a second thought, prison did not agree with Costello. Later, during his second sentence, one can clearly see the toll it took on him. Much like a term as president ages a person, so did incarceration to Frank. He served eleven months and was released for good behavior. Returning home, he vowed never to serve another day in jail. He never again carried a gun; instead he would use his intellect to get the two things that he craved most: money and power. Little did he know, the changing times would bring him more wealth and power than even he imagined…
Next time here at the Social Club, Frank’s bootlegging years. He would come under the tutelage of a staggering who’s who list in the Mafia’s dark hall of fame. Names that include Johnny “the Fox” Torrio, Arnold Rothstein, Joe “the Boss” Masseria, and Salvatore Maranzano.
I will also answer the question I get asked most often: did Frank Costello ever make his bones?
Until then, remember to always sit at the back.
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