If fate had dealt him another heritage, Bill Bonanno might have even become an American diplomat. But he happened to be the eldest son of Joseph Bonanno, among the most powerful and ruthless Mafia bosses of the mid-20th century. When the call came, to borrow the title of the writer Gay Talese's celebrated account of the Bonanno family, "Honor Thy Father" became the watchword of his life.
Bonanno often said that when it came to the Mafia, fact and fiction were hopelessly blurred. He was no exception to the rule. There is no evidence the family dubbed "Bananas" by the New York tabloids was the direct model for Mario Puzo's The Godfather. But rather like the Michael Corleone character played by Al Pacino in the film, Bill Bonanno was originally never meant to be a gangster.
When he was 10, Bill (whose real name was Salvatore) contracted a severe ear infection, and the Bonanno family doctor in Brooklyn advised he be sent out to the warm, dry climate of Arizona. The family bought a ranch 20 miles south of Tucson, where Bill attended Catholic boarding schools, learnt the ways of the West, and enrolled at the University of Arizona, with a vague ambition of joining the foreign service.
But that peaceable existence ended when his father summoned him back to New York, to help him deal with rising tensions amid the 450-strong Bonanno organisation. Bill dutifully dropped out of college and returned to the main family business at a moment when some of its underlings were branching out of the traditional mainstays of extortion and gambling into the drugs business, against Joe Bonanno's wishes.
At the same time, after decades of little harassment, the police were tightening the screws on organised crime, especially after the 1957 raid on a meeting of Mafia chieftains from across the country at Apalachin in upstate New York. As the pressure mounted, Joe decided to elevate his son to the family's second ranking post of consigliere.
Alas, this rare instance of father-to-son succession in Mafia-land split the Bonanno family. On 28 January 1966 the "Banana Wars" erupted on the streets, when Bill and his bodyguards were ambushed on their way to a peace meeting with the rival faction, led by Gaspar Di Gregorio and Paul Sciacca. Two dozen shots were fired, but nobody was hurt. "If they'd known what they were doing, I wouldn't be here," Bill told the Los Angeles Times in 2005.
As it was, though, New York became a mob war zone in which survival became the paramount concern. "I had only one goal in the '60s actually two goals," he said. "When I got up in the morning, my goal was to live to sunset. And when sunset came, my second goal was to live to sunrise."
In the end the rebels prevailed and the Bonannos retreated to Arizona for good. Along the way Bill Bonanno did his share of prison time, spending a total of 12 years behind bars for a variety of mainly white-collar crimes, including conspiracy and business fraud. But in comparison to his father, it was pretty small beer. At one point he shared a cell with the convicted Watergate burglar Gordon Liddy, whom Bonanno admired, Talese said, as the "the only Nixon guy that kept his mouth shut."
In fact, Bonanno always distinguished between mafia with a small "m", and the Mafia of legend. He saw himself as the former, a mafioso or "one who makes himself respected." The Mafia by contrast was a word invented by law enforcement and the media, denoting a specific lifestyle, he would maintain, and "that lifestyle is foreign to me."
In the last decade of his life, Bonanno achieved a more widespread respectability. In 1999 he produced his autobiography, Bound by Honor: a mafioso's story, and helped produce television documentaries on organised crime. Even more unusually for a retired consigliere, he had his own website.
Rupert CornwellReuse content