Vincent Gigante, gangster: born New York 29 March 1928; married 1950 Olympia Grippa (two sons, three daughters), (one son, two daughters with Olympia Esposito); died Springfield, Missouri 19 December 2005.
In his heyday, Vincent "Chin" Gigante was considered the most powerful Mafia don in the United States. But you wouldn't have guessed it looking at the old man, wandering around lower Manhattan in his pyjamas, mumbling to himself - apparently just another of those harmless, mildly deranged people you see on the streets of most big cities, deserving only of sympathy and assistance.
In the case of a man dubbed the "Pyjama Don" or the "Oddfather" by the New York tabloids, the performance was a charade. His shambling figure was boss of the Genovese crime family, the "Ivy League" of the Mafia. As often as not he was on his way to a meeting in a local café, to whisper his orders to associates. Far from being one of life's losers, in his chosen field of crime Gigante was a perfect specimen of the American Dream.
He was born to humble Neapolitan immigrants in New York, and would spend most of his life in Greenwich Village in Lower Manhattan. As a child, his mother called him "Cincenzo" - hence his lifelong nickname "Chin". In his late teens Gigante was a very decent boxer, winning 23 of 24 fights as a light heavyweight. No less impressive was his youthful criminal record - seven arrests before the age of 25, albeit on relatively minor charges. Most important of all, he acquired along the way a very powerful patron: Vito Genovese, head of the Mafia family which Gigante would one day lead.
By the time he was 22, the pugilistic career was over - although a purported fight injury would serve as a useful pretext for the later tales of mental incapacity. By the mid-1950s Gigante was a full-time enforcer for the Genovese family. Then came the curious episode of the "botched" hit organised by Genovese against his bitter underworld rival Frank Costello.
One day in 1957, Gigante walked up to Costello in the lobby of the upper West Side apartment block where he lived, and fired at him with a shotgun. But he barely grazed his target. Gigante was charged with attempted murder, but at the trial Costello testified he could not recognise his assailant. Gigante was acquitted, murmuring "Thanks, Frank" as he left the courtroom.
Costello for his part soon retired, and his illicit business passed to the Genovese family. Gigante meanwhile flourished mightily. By 1980 he was a consigliere, and a couple of years later he succeeded the ailing Tony Salerno as capo. For the next decade and a half, "Chin" was arguably the most powerful mafioso in America, accorded pre-eminent status by his peers in the Commission, the Mafia's in-house ruling body.
At its height, the family's businesses of illicit bookmaking, loan sharking and racketeering in New York's construction and haulage industries were raking in an estimated $100m (£57m) a year. All the while, the master of these operations pretended to be a punch-drunk crazy. Between 1969 and 1990 he checked himself into a Westchester County psychiatric hospital 22 times. Often he was to be spotted shambling around the streets of Greenwich Village in pyjamas, blue dressing gown and slippers, muttering to himself.
"Vincent is a paranoid schizophrenic. He hallucinates. He's been that way since 1968," his brother the Rev Louis Gigante once said, reeling off a list of daily medications that included Valium, Thorazine and sundry other calmants. The strategy worked until 1990, when Gigante was indicted on 14 federal counts of racketeering and extortion. A six-year legal battle over his sanity followed - until the Mafia turncoat Sammy "The Bull" Gravano testified that Gigante not only had been totally lucid at gangland summits, but had admitted to colleagues that his peculiar behaviour was a sham to throw investigators off his track.
On 25 July 1997, the 69-year-old Gigante was convicted on a range of charges after a trial in which he sat in a wheelchair in the dock, staring silently and refusing to testify on his own behalf. Sentencing him to 12 years in jail, the judge described him as "an old man finally brought to bay in his declining years after decades of vicious criminal tyranny".
Even so, the ageing capo is reckoned to have run the Genovese family until 2003 from his prison cell. That year he pleaded guilty to obstructing justice by faking mental illness and had three years added to his sentence.
Rupert CornwellReuse content