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Frank Costello was born in Cosenza, Italy on 26th January, 1891. His family moved to the United States four years later and settled in East Harlem, New York. Costello became head of the notorious 104th Street Gang. In 1915 he was arrested and found guilty of carrying a concealed weapon.
On his release from prison he became involved in more serious crime. Costello joined the Lucky Luciano gang, and after he was deported to Italy, Costello ran his interests in the United States.
In 1951 Costello was convicted and sentenced to 18 months for contempt of court. This was followed by five years in prison for income-tax evasion. Out on bail, Costello was shot in his hotel lobby. It was believed that a rival gang leader, Vito Genovese, had taken out a contract on Costello's life. Costello survived and served another spell in prison for contempt of court, before dying of a heart attack on 18th February, 1973.
Francis "Frank" Costello
Francis "Frank" Costello (1931–2006) is the main antagonist of the 2006 live action crime drama film, The Departed. An Irish-American mob boss, Costello rules over the Irish neighborhood of South Boston as its reigning local crime kingpin - using his mole among the police in order to avoid interference in his operations even at the age of 70, Costello continues to directly manage the affairs of his empire, taking greater and greater risks for the sake of profit - despite the fact that he no longer needs the money, as he himself admits.
He was portrayed by the veteran actor, Jack Nicholson, who also played Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, The Joker in Tim Burton's Batman, and Colonel Nathan R. Jessup in Rob Reiner's A Few Good Men.
The Early Career of Vinny “The Chin” Gigante
US Department of Justice/Wikimedia Commons
Born in New York City in 1928, Vincent Gigante was one of five sons of Salvatore and Yolanda Gigante, both first-generation immigrants from the Italian city of Naples.
While his parents were honest workers—Salvatore was a watchmaker and Yolonda a seamstress—Gigante’s life of crime began shortly after he dropped out of high school at age 16 to become a boxer.
Nicknamed “The Chin”—inspired by his mother’s heavy-Italian pronunciation of the diminutive of the Italian form of his name, Vincenzo—Gigante would go on to win 21 of 25 fights in his brief career. An able boxer, it would be his battles outside of the ring that would quickly become his life’s work.
Phil Stanziola/Library of Congress Vincent Gigante in 1957.
A powerful mafia boss by the name of Vito Genovese took a liking to the young boxer and became a mentor to the Gigante. Gigante, in turn, took his mob apprenticeship seriously, getting himself arrested seven times before he turned 25 for crimes ranging from auto-theft to arson.
By the 1950’s, Vincent Gigante had risen to become a full-time gangster, working as an enforcer for the Genovese family, where his career in the mafia took its turn into history.
The Senator and the Gangsters
Americans had seen nothing like it before—not in their own living rooms. Three years before the Army-McCarthy hearings and 22 years before Watergate, the Kefauver Committee hearings in the winter of 1951 brought a parade of gamblers, hoodlums, crooked sheriffs and organized-crime figures out from the shadows to sit and testify before the white-hot lights and television cameras. Housewives were glued to their sets day after day, while in barrooms and cafeterias, men gathered on their lunch breaks to witness the proceedings. Stores and offices across the country piped in day-long radio broadcasts. Colorful criminals, sweating and tapping their fingers nervously, seemed to step off the set of Hollywood gangster movies, speaking in broken English, under oath, about their activities. Some just sat in stony silence, refusing, as one witness said, to “criminate” themselves.
All of it came courtesy of a deliberate-speaking, endlessly polite Southern senator in horn-rimmed glasses named Estes T. Kefauver. Chairing the Senate Committee to Investigate Crime and Interstate Commerce, the Tennessee Democrat organized a barnstorming tour across the country, handing down subpoenas from New York to New Orleans to Detroit to Los Angeles and sweeping into local courtrooms to expose thugs, politicians and corrupt law enforcement agents. The tour began quietly in January of 1951, but by February, in a serene postwar America where house and apartment doors were not always locked, “Kefauver Fever” gripped the nation, and the perception of a ubiquitous underground crime wave added to the country’s anxieties over communism and nuclear confrontation during the Cold War.
Senator Estes Kefauver. Photo: Wikipedia
Born in 1903, Estes Kefauver studied at the University of Tennessee and at Yale University where he received his law degree in 1927. He returned to Tennessee to practice law, taking an interest in finance and taxation, married a Scottish woman, Nancy Pigott, and started a family that would include four children. Kefauver was elected to the House of Representatives in 1939 and re-elected four times his support for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation made him stand out in conservative Tennessee. Kefauver then made a bid for a Senate seat in 1948, running against E. H. Crump, the mayor of Memphis and boss of Tennessee’s Democratic Party. After Crump accused Kefauver of being a raccoon-like communist sympathizer, Kefauver calmly donned a coonskin cap for his next speech and said, “I may be a pet coon, but I’m not Boss Crump’s pet coon.”
With his new cap (which he was later depicted wearing in a portrait on the cover of Time), Kefauver was elected to the U.S. Senate and assumed office at a time when newspapers were beginning to report on extensive political corruption and government ties to organized crime. In 1950, he introduced a Senate resolution to establish a committee to investigate labor racketeering in interstate commerce. In January of the next year, the Kefauver Committee took to the road, crisscrossing the country to ferret out likely targets who could be exposed.
Lawyers for the Committee arrived ahead of the chairman, terrifying local law enforcement as the committee drew up subpoenas and prepared for hearings to be broadcast on both television and radio. Kefauver would then arrive, as he did in the Committee’s first stop in New Orleans, and begin his questioning of, say, corrupt sheriffs, who would admit they did not exactly enforce the law when it came to gambling and prostitution in the parishes of Louisiana. “Diamond Jim” Moran, the owner of La Louisiane Restaurant in New Orleans, took advantage of the free publicity and repeatedly plugged his restaurant, which was teeming with illegal slot machines. “Food for kings,” he said.
When the Committee arrived in Detroit two weeks later, two local stations interrupted their regularly scheduled programming to cover two days of hearings featuring, as the Daily Boston Globe put it, “a parade of hoodlums of every description… the records of their dealings with murderers, dope peddlers, gamblers.” It was estimated that 9 out of 10 televisions had been tuned in. The general manager at WWJ-TV, where the station’s switchboard was jammed with appreciative callers, said the hearings were “the most terrific television show Detroit has ever seen.”
In St. Louis, the city’s squirming police commissioner said he couldn’t recall any details about his net worth before his life as a public official. Then the betting commissioner, James J. Carroll, refused to testify on television, stating that it was an invasion of privacy.
“This is a public hearing and anyone has a right to be here,” Kefauver told him. “Mr. Carroll, I order you to testify!”
“This whole proceeding outrages my sense of propriety,” Carroll shouted back. “I don’t expect to be made an object of ridicule as long as television is on.”
Kefauver warned Carroll that he’d be cited for contempt by the Senate, but Carroll refused to answer any questions, meandering nervously around the courtroom. The argument was captured by television cameras, as Carroll simply picked up his coat and began to walk out.
“Television,” Kefauver said calmly with a smile, “is a recognized medium of public information along with radio and newspapers. We’ve had several witnesses who seemed much less timid and experienced … I refuse to permit the arrangements for this hearing to be dictated by a witness.”
The bars and taverns in St. Louis did more business than they did when the World Series was broadcast three months earlier. But the Kefauver hearings were only beginning to capture the public’s attention. The Committee went west to Los Angeles, taking testimony from a handcuffed Allen Smiley, one of mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel’s former associates. Then Kefauver headed north to San Francisco, uncovering a vast pattern of illegal payouts from lobbyists to state legislators. The hearings on the West Coast drew the largest audiences recorded in daytime television.
By the time the Kefauver Committee arrived in New York, in March of 1951, five of the city’s seven television stations were carrying live proceedings, broadcast to dozens of stations across the country. The entire metropolitan area had become obsessed with the drama. There were “Kefauver block parties,” and attendance on Broadway wilted. For eight straight days, mobsters were dragged before the committee. None of the witnesses made the impact of Frank Costello, who started out by refusing to testify because, he said, the microphones would prohibit him from privately consulting with his attorney, sitting next to him.
Kefauver arranged a compromise. The television cameras would not show his face, but focus only on his hands. Never mind that newsreel cameras captured Costello’s entire face and body as he spoke—the highlights of which were shown on newscasts later that evening. On live television, the cameras zoomed in on the mobster’s meaty hands as he nervously fingered the eyeglasses resting on the table, or moved to dab a handkerchief to his off-screen face as he dodged question after question, making him appear all the more sinister to daytime viewers. When asked by the Committee to name one thing he’d done for his country, Costello snapped, “Paid my tax!” The Los Angeles Times said it was “the greatest TV show television has ever aired,” and Variety estimated that ratings were “among the highest ever achieved” to that time.
Costello was a tough act to follow, but Kefauver found the star of the show in Virginia Hill Hauser—an Alabama-born former waitress and moll to the late Bugsy Siegel. Wearing a mink cape, silk gloves, and a large hat, and with the presence of a movie star, Hauser strutted into the U.S. Courthouse in Foley Square. She wasn’t about to let some stuffy senators from Washington, D.C. rough her up the way they had Costello.
In a defiant tone and her nasal voice, Hauser regaled the Committee with remarkable stories of friendships with “fellas” who gave her gifts and money. But as to how those men came into their money, Hauser said, she didn’t know “anything about anybody.” She and Bugsy had had a fight in a Las Vegas hotel, she said, after “I hit a girl at the Flamingo and he told me I wasn’t a lady.”
Gangster moll Virginia Hill Hauser's combative testimony made her the star of the Kefauver Hearings. Photo: Mafia Wiki
When she finished, she had to fight her way past the throng of scribes, slapping one female reporter in the face and cursing the photographers. “I hope the atom bomb falls on every one of you,” she shouted as she left the building. Hauser soon after hopped on a plane and fled the country to evade a tax evasion charge by the Internal Revenue Service.
After seeing Hauser’s appearance at the hearings, the columnist Walter Winchell contemplated the seemingly timeless paradox of reality television when he wrote, “When the chic Virginia Hill unfolded her amazing life story, many a young girl must have wondered: who really knows best? Mother or Virginia Hill? After doing all the things called wrong, there she was on top of the world, with a beautiful home in Miami Beach and a handsome husband and baby!”
The hearings made Estes Kefauver so popular that he decided to seek the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1952. Remarkably, Kefauver beat the incumbent, Harry S. Truman, in the New Hampshire primary, leading Truman to abandon his campaign for renomination. Although Kefauver won the majority of Democratic primaries, he lost the nomination to Adlai Stevenson, who then lost the general election to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. And even though Kefauver ran as Stevenson’s vice presidential candidate in the Democrats’ losing 1956 bid, it was the crime hearings that would cement the Tennessee senator’s legacy.
The Committee ultimately produced an 11,000-page report and exposed millions of Americans to organized crime for the first time. But in fact, the Kefauver hearings had little impact in the cities the Committee visited: He and his men swept in and then just as quickly swept out, leaving behind titillating news coverage and an unforgettable television experience. The Committee’s recommendations on how to clean up organized crime were largely ignored, and the crime syndicates went back to business as usual, often with the same shadowy characters from the hearings still in control.
Becoming Boss Of All Bosses
Following the Castellamarese War, a new crime family emerged led by Lucky Luciano. Frank Costello became consigliere of the Luciano crime family and took over the slot machine and bookmaking endeavors of the group.
He quickly became one of the family’s top earners and vowed to put slot machines in every bar, restaurant, cafe, drugstore and gas station in New York.
Unfortunately for him, then-Mayor Fiorello La Guardia interfered and infamously dumped all of Costello’s slot machines into the river. Despite the setback, Costello accepted an offer from Louisiana governor Huey Long to put slot machines throughout Louisiana for 10 percent of the take.
Unfortunately, while Costello was creating a slot machine empire, Lucky Luciano wasn’t getting so lucky.
Leonard Mccombe/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images Frank Costello was known for his “humanity” as a leader.
In 1936, Luciano was convicted of running a prostitution ring and sentenced to 30-50 years in prison and deported back to Italy. Vito Genovese temporarily took control of the Luciano family, but just a year later he too landed himself in hot water and ended up fleeing home to Italy to avoid prosecution.
With the head of the Luciano family and its underboss both in trouble with the law, the leadership duties fell to the consigliere – Frank Costello.
With his booming slot machine business in New Orleans and the illegal gambling rings he had set up in Florida and Cuba, Frank Costello became one of the most profitable members of the Mafia.
But this position also landed him in the middle of one of the biggest Senate hearings on organized crime of all time.
Secret Story of Frank Costello That Was Almost Written
Ten days before he died, Frank Costello made one of the biggest decisions of his long life. He decided to talk.
On Feb. 8, the day after he suffered a mild heart seizure, the man who went to jail rather than answer questions put to him by the United States Senate passed the word to Peter Maas, an author specializing in crime subjects, that he would submit to months of questioning fora biography.
The decision culminated five months of delicate prodding by Mr. Maas, followed by two months of probative conversations between the author and the 82‐year‐old Costello, who was called the Prime Minister of the Underworld and who was consulted right up to his death by Carlo Gambino, the most powerful of the active Mafia bosses.
That Raspy Voice
In the raspy voice that was so long incorrectly identified with an early cancer operation, Costello, once the most investigated man in America, talked about his associations with the rich and the mighty, the meaning of his life and, very reluctantly, the Mafia.
He never had throat cancer, Costello said. Forty years ago, polyps formed on his vocal cords. One doctor wanted to cut them off, another advised burning them off. He opted for burning and his vocal cords were scorched, resulting in the gritty quality of his voice. Sometimes, in: mid‐sentence, his voice would disappear entirely. “I went with the wrong doctor,” he told Mr. Maas philosophically.
“My most difficult problern was drawing him out on the Mafia,” Mr. Maas recalled in an interview.
“He considered himself man of stature. His attitudes, even his manner, said that he felt he had maintained a life on a level far above the conventional rackets.
“He was much more interested in talking about himself in relation to Joe Kennedy, Huey Long and Fiorello La Guardia.”
Costello told Mr. Maas that he and Mr. Kennedy were “partners” in the liquor business. He, said that at the invitation of Long, then a United States Senator from Louisiana, he moved his slotmachine headquarters to New Orleans in 1935. La Guardia, as Mayor of New York, had personally led the police on raids to seize Costello's slot‐machines here.
Costello never sought publicity and had resisted the idea of a book for a number of years.
Mr. Maas is the author of “The Valachi Papers,” the story of the Mafia soldier who turned informant, and “Serpico,” a book on Frank Serpico, the former detective who played a key role in triggering the Knapp Commission investigation into police corruption. The Serpico book is scheduled for publication soon.
Lapt June, Mr. Maas said, he was told by a mutual friend that Costello might be open to, an approach by the author. Through intermediaries he let Costello know he was interested.
Breaking the Ice
Oh Dec. 1, Mr. Maas said, Costello came to his apartment on East 57th Street for a meeting. They talked for nearly three hours. The man who for a time ran the Mafia family once headed by Charles (Lucky) Lticiano drank coffee, smoked cigarettes and listened intently while the author made his pitch.
“I told him that he was a legithnate figure in American history, and I meant‐it,” Mr. Maas recalled. “There isn't a level of society that his career didn't touch.”
Costello said he would think about it, Mr. Maas said.
The author said he had serious doubts that Costello could actually bring himself to break more than a half century of silence. But he reappeared at the Maas apartment on Dec. 12. “Let's talk about what would be in the book, off the record,” he said.
From that day until late in January, Mr. Maas said, the two met on an average of once a week for two to three hours at a time. Costello did most of the talking.
Mr. Maas is quite reluctant to disclose much of the substance of these talks until he decides how, if at all, the material can be used.
The author did reveal that Costello told about beingcontacted by Joseph P. Kennedy, who, Costello said, wanted help in bringing liquor into the country. He and the late patriarch of the wealthy and powerful Massachusetts family were in the liquor business together for a time thereafter, according to Costello. Mr. Kennedy was a major importer of Scotch whisky for 13 years following the repeal of Prohibition.
Mr. Maas said that he had not fully explored the Kennedy‐Costello relationship as portrayed to him by Costello in the interview and that therefore the terms of Costello's business dealings with Mr. Kennedy had not yet been defined.
Stephen Smith, Mr. Kerinedy's son‐in‐law who has acted frequently as a Kennedy family spokesman, said in an interview that there was nothing in Mr. Kennedy's record to reflect a business relationship with Costello. Mr. Smith said Mr. Kennedy had never been involved in the illegal importation of liquor.
“I can't say he never talked to Frank Costello,” Mr. Smith added, “but never heard of it, and I'm sure it would come as news to anybody in the family.”
William P. Marin, longtime counsel to Mr. Kennedy, also said Costello had in no way been connected with Mr. Kennedys liquor ‐ importing business.
Mr. Maas said it became obvious during his talks.with Costello that he was not as ethnically oriented as the other old Mafia bosses.
Regard for Lansky
“He certainly didn't hold in awe some of the Mafia leaders of the past who are revered by everybody else in the organization, yet he spoke with great regard about Meyer Lansky, Mr. Maas said.
“He was a man who would go way out of his war to avoid violence,” Mr. Maas said. “He believed that, with serious effort, there are few things that can't be worked out peacefully.”
“He wanted respect, but seemed quite secure and didn't need to be fawned over like so many of his colleagues.”
After one of their sessions, the author walked with Costello to a fashionable East Side eating place. It was crowded, but the owner desperately wanted to make a place for his visitor. Costello wouldn't have it and went elsewhere. “I should have called,” he told the disappointed host.
“That was like him,” Mr. Maas observed. “He was sure of himself. He didn't need it.”
Aware of Position
Yet Costello was aware, not without some pride, that he was someone about whom a good portion of the populace never tired of talking.
Once, while leaving Mr. Maas's building with the author, he remarked: “I hope, nobody sees us. They'll swear. I own the building.”
Some ground rules were established, pending Costello's decision whether to go ahead with extensive interviewing, and they agreed to work at. Costello's estate at Sands Point, L. I.
When the word finally came that Costello wanted to proceed, the writer's relief was tempered by the news, that he received simultaneously, that Costello was in the hospital with a heart ailment.
On Sunday morning, Feb. 18, Mr. Maas's telephone rang. “He's gone,” said the voice on the other end.
What convinced Costello to talk?
“He didn't need the money,” Mr. Maas insisted. “To him it would have been a tangible piece of evidence that he transcended the world of the Mafia. He wanted to leave that.”
Mr. Maas feels the best summary of what he lost came from his Italian doorman one afternoon when the author had seen his frequent guest to the front door of the building.
On his way back to the elevator, the doorman stopped Mr. Maas and, in an almost inaudible whisper, said, “Hey, that's the real Godfather.”
Did Frank Costello Ever Make His Bones?
Welcome back to the Social Club. For this edition of Uncle Frank’s Place I wanted to answer the question I get asked most often about the Prime Minister.
You know the one, “Did Frank ever make his bones?”
Out of everything I have Read about the man, I have only come across one story of Costello’s rum-running days that told of a dispute he had with a rival bootlegger over territory. This rival was later found dead, his body riddled with bullets, and some said Costello took the credit for it. Those who knew Frank, however, claimed this story to be ridiculous, and they could scarcely imagine Frank carrying a gun, let alone using one. The general consensus was that he had nothing to do with the murder and simply used the story to bolster his reputation not a bad idea given his line of work. This author tends to believe the theory that he himself never pulled the trigger, though he easily could have paid someone to do it.
So I suppose my answer is no, I don’t think he ever made his bones, but would I be surprised if I found evidence that he had? Not really. He was, after all, a gangster.
How then did Costello ever get to be a made man? The answer is simple Frank didn’t make bones, he made money and connections, and he made a lot of both. He simply was too much of an asset for the mob to turn away, though I have yet to come across a story of him participating in the induction ceremony for La Cosa Nostra. If it happened, he never talked about it, which is not surprising as he hated talking about the mob and generally refused to do so.
History has been kind to Frank. He is known as a gentleman gangster, a corrupter not a killer, and in mob terms, not a very dangerous man. He is generally not held in the murderus league of Genovese, or Anastasia, but this is where history sometimes gets it wrong. In many ways, he was the most dangerous of them all. Frank had so many tentacles throughout the worlds of law enforcement, business, and politics, his nickname should have been “the Kraken.”
He had no need to get his hands dirty, and if he wanted you taken care of, no place was safe: not even a hotel full of cops as the “Canary who could sing but couldn’t fly” taught the mob world. Even a guarded prison cell could not protect you, as in the case of Peter LaTempa. He may not have carried a gun, but some of the most terrifying hits in mob history happened at the hands of the gentleman gangster. Frank was also a suspect in Arnold Rothstein’s murder.
After his death, police found a note for $25,000, and a check (that bounced,) for $10,000, both signed by Frank Costello. Frank settled with the Rothstein estate for $5,000, and quickly took over Rothsein’s lucrative bookmaking racket. It is estimated that Murder Inc., Costello’s elite squad of hit men, were responsible for over one hundred murders during Frank’s reign as boss, though the actual number may be much higher. While he preached nonviolence, and never participated in the killing himself, as the boss he would have certainly had to give the order. Like anyone in a position of true power, such as a general, or a president, you may not see it through the camera eye, but “His Grey Eminence,” as the younger mobsters who looked up to Frank called him, had blood soaked deep into those well manicured hands.
Collaboration with Luciano
The two Italian criminals, Frank Costello and Luciano, met when each was leading their gangs. The two became friends before they became partners in crime. Despite most of Luciano's team disapproving the partnership, the two formed a formidable duo. They made deals involving huge commercial gains with the renowned Jewish criminals of that era.
The two Italians found themselves on the wrong side of the law in 1926 after they faced bribing charges. Dwyer, a Jewish criminal, was found guilty and served a two years jail term. Costello, however, got away with the crime.
Frank Costello took over the operations both gangs. This situation did not, however, go well with some of Dwyer lieutenants.
The New York Underworld later destroyed the partnership of Costello-Madden-Schultz. Despite this setback, Costello influence continued through the 1920s.
His way of doing business and associating with the New York criminals led to his famous nickname &lsquoPrime Minister of the Underworld.' He associated with the politicians, criminals, judges, cops and anyone who they felt could stand in their way of criminal activities.
By 1940, Frank Costello controlled the New York politics through the Democratic Party. During his apex rise to power, reports started emerging that Costello earned his fortune as a crime czar.
Frank Costello, Dandy Phil Kastel among underworld luminaries involved at time of 1957 debut
Las Vegas was in the middle of a slump. It was April 1957, and the town was still coming to terms with the opening of five major resorts two years earlier. The Dunes, Riviera, New Frontier, Royal Nevada and Moulin Rouge had all struggled through ownership changes, some slipping into bankruptcy the latter two never recovered. The previous year’s opening of the Hacienda had been a low-key affair with little glamor. So to open the doors of the town’s most expensive hotel yet built was going against the grain.
Tropicana Hotel 1957. (Las Vegas News Bureau)
The Tropicana had been planned since 1955, and on the surface did not seem to have been hurt much by the failures of that year. It had a curious ownership structure: Miami hotelier Ben Jaffe (part owner of the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach) owned the land on which the casino would sit, but Conquistador Inc. would build and operate the resort.
It just so happened that Conquistador’s owner, “Dandy” Phil Kastel, had a long and fruitful partnership with Frank Costello, perhaps the nation’s most infamous gangster in the spring of 1957. For years, Kastel had run New Orleans’ Beverly Club (an ostensibly illegal but still operating casino) for Costello the two also shared in a Louisiana slot machine route operation that, similarly, might have been illegal on paper but which police managed to avoid until the Kefauver Committee’s spotlight forced them into action. And it almost goes without saying that most “Miami hotel men” who came to Las Vegas in this era were more than familiar with Meyer Lansky, another famous gangland name.
Kastel was the driving force behind the Tropicana’s construction, and was happy to talk about his vision for Las Vegas. In an interview with New York Times reporter Gilbert Millstein, he admitted that while he had been “good friends” with Frank Costello for years, the reputed Mob boss had “no interest” in the Tropicana whatsoever because he was too busy and troubled to take on Las Vegas. “You couldn’t give him all of Las Vegas,” Kastel explained.
It was Kastel’s experiences with the Beverly Club — and elsewhere — that convinced him to build the Tropicana. “I’ve seen a lot,” he said. “I know all types — underworld, upper world, middle world — and a lot of pretty nice people. I saw where there was a need for a first-class establishment without, you understand, knocking any other hotel. I’m a particular operator. I like to give value.”
That value took the form of a hotel-casino that cost $15 million, making it by far the most expensive Las Vegas resort yet built — closer to the $19 million it would cost for Caesars Palace nine years later than the $8.5 million high-rise Riviera. The Trop earned its nickname “the Tiffany of the Strip.”
That $15 million delivered 300 rooms in two three-story wings that swept back from the main building in a Y shape. Described as having a “quiet dignity” in the Las Vegas Review-Journal (not precisely the words that first come to mind when discussing Las Vegas casinos today), the hotel was noted for its spacious lobby area and mosaic tile-lined entrance.
And so the doors opened on April 4. “Lush luxury, extremely good taste, warmth, intimacy, and functional efficiency,” enthused the Las Vegas Sun.
The Theater Restaurant, whose tiered floorplan gave every table an unobstructed view of the semi-circular stage, saw its first action that night with a gala revue that featured nearly three dozen dancers and the Las Vegas big stage debut of singing star Eddie Fisher. Produced by show business veteran Monte Proser, the revue featured original songs in an overarching storyline.
Kastel reached out to Los Angeles for culinary expertise, bringing in restaurateur Alexander Perino, whose Perino’s restaurant in L.A. was world renowned — an early example of a Las Vegas casino importing a celebrity chef, although in Perino’s case it was decades of superior dining, not television show, that had brought him fame. Perino oversaw the Theater Restaurant, the Brazilian Room and Perino’s Gourmet Room.
From Fremont Street, the Tropicana lured Ronzone’s, a downtown Las Vegas fashionwear staple, which established its first branch store in the new resort.
Frank Costello, wearing a bandage around his head after attempted murder, New York, 1957. A note police found in his pocket after the shooting revealed the skim at the Tropicana. (Getty Images)
Unlike many of the resorts that had faltered two years earlier, the Tropicana boasted veteran leadership from day one, with many of its executives hailing from the Sands. Former Sands part-owner Louis Lederer served as secretary-treasurer and as half of the Executive Committee, which called all the shots at the Tropicana. The other half was T.M. Schimberg, the soft drink king of Chicago, who also presided over a Windy City real estate empire. Together, Lederer and Schimberg were responsible for the resort’s day-to-day operations, with Lederer presumably taking a more active role than Schimberg, who retained both of his Chicago businesses.
The casino itself was presided over by J.K. Houssels, who was one of the first owners of full-on Las Vegas gambling halls following their 1931 legalization. The former miner and Army Air Force pilot had managed at various times the Las Vegas Club, Showboat and El Cortez in addition to starting a bus line and taxi company. In his free time, he bred thoroughbreds.
A substantial investment in the resort buildings and executive talent promised to give the Tropicana the kind of pop the busts of 1955 had lacked. It wasn’t known at the time, but behind the scenes the Tropicana had even more veteran leadership in the form of Costello, who had a more active interest in the casino than his friend Dandy Phil wanted to admit. At the time of the opening, the general public was blissfully (or willfully) ignorant of Costello’s involvement, although in a few weeks Costello’s private business would become public in the most explosive way imaginable.
On May 2, 1957, while entering a New York apartment building, Costello was shot and wounded by Vincent “the Chin” Gigante on orders from rival Mafia boss Vito Genovese. Written on a piece of paper found by police inside Costello’s coat pocket was the exact gross win from the Tropicana as of April 27, 1957 — $651,284, less $153,745 in markers (loans to players), with the proceeds from slot machines at $62,844. The note mentioned $30,000 for “L” and $9,000 for “H,” likely money to be skimmed on behalf of Costello’s underworld partner Meyer Lansky and perhaps for Mob-connected Teamsters union boss James Hoffa. It was a big national news story.
Costello survived the shooting with a minor head wound, but six months later, during the famous Apalachin meeting of American crime family leaders on November 14, he agreed to step aside and allow Genovese to become boss of the Luciano family. Months earlier, Nevada’s state gaming agency had refused to license the Mob-tainted Kastel, and Tropicana landlord Jaffe convinced veteran local casino executive Houssels to take full control of the casino.
David G. Schwartz, author of several books on Las Vegas gaming history, is director of the Center for Gaming Research and teaches history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Frank Costello – Prime Minister of the Mob Part I
Frank Costello was one of the most notorious Italian Mafia bosses in American history, with a reach that covered a vast national racket and extended deeper into politics than any other. He was dubbed the “Prime Minister of the Underworld” and led an organization nicknamed the “Rolls-Royce of organized crime.”
Born in 1891 in Lauropoli, a village on a mountain in Calabria, Italy, Costello was originally named Francesco Castiglia, a moniker he changed years later to avoid the stigma of Italian organized crime. At the age of four, he, his mother and his older brother, Edward, immigrated to the United States to join their father, owner of an Italian grocery in East Harlem.
Frank Costello joined the criminal underworld at a young age: His brother, Edward, introduced him to local gangsters by the time he was a teenager. By the age of 13, Frankie, as he now called himself, belonged to a gang and began committing petty crimes. But he rose fast, and he was soon running the 104th Street Gang.
He skated on several early crimes. At 14 he robbed the landlady of the tenement building where he lived with his parents, but he gave the police a phony alibi, and they bought it. He notched his first arrest in 1908, on charges of assault and robbery. He was charged with the same crime in 1912, but he got off clean both times.
Then in 1915, he did 10 months of a 12-month prison sentence on a firearms beef. When he got out, he made a decision to stop committing violent crime himself and focus on more lucrative enterprises. It was the last time he would be behind bars for 37 years despite a life full of crime, and he later claimed it was the last time he carried a gun.
Costello began making lasting ties in the world of the Mafia as soon as he was released. But they were often unusual friendships involving gangsters outside the closed ranks of the Italian-American mob.
He married a Jewish girl, Loretta Geigerman, almost unheard of for an Italian Mafioso. He would eventually become friends with such Jewish mobsters as Meyer Lansky, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, Louie “Lepke” Buchalter and Arnold “The Brain” Rothstein.
But one of his earliest and most important relationships developed while he was doing work for the Morello family, an early New York Italian gang founded by Giuseppe “The Clutch Hand” Morello. The Morello gang, a predecessor of today’s Genovese crime family, was known for the scope of it power and the ruthlessness of its violence.
It was through that gang that Costello met Sicilian-American Charles “Lucky” Luciano, a racketeer in the Little Italy neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Luciano, who would one day come to run the Morello family, introduced Costello to Vito “Don Vito” Genovese (also a future boss and the namesake of the modern family), Tommy “Three-Finger Brown” Lucchese (future boss and namesake of the Lucchese family), Siegel and Lansky.
Frank Costello – (second from right) portrayed by actor Costas Mandylor in the 1991 movie Mobsters.
Luciano’s friendship with Costello – not to mention their partnerships with Jewish gangsters – didn’t sit well with the older, more traditional Mafiosi with whom Luciano associated at the time. They viewed Costello as an outsider because he wasn’t Sicilian, even referring to him as the “dirty Calabrian.”
Nonetheless, these young men formed a tight circle, going to work for themselves in burglaries, extortion, armed robbery, gambling, and drug trafficking. But the real money started flowing with the advent of Prohibition and the Volstead Act, which made alcohol illegal – and immensely profitable. They partnered with Rothstein, who provided the initial funding.
Chicago is notorious for its corrupt ties between pols and organized crime, especially during the 1920s. But there was plenty of crooked money flowing in New York City, too. During the height of Prohibition, Frank Costello and his cronies were forking over an estimated $100,000 a week in protection money to politicians, judges, district attorneys and police.
Even the New York City Police commissioner, Grover Whalen, was in the pocket of the Mafia. When the stock market tanked in 1929, Costello was forced to advance Whalen $30,000 to cover his margin calls.
All told, Costello, Luciano, Siegel and Lansky were pulling down $4 million a year in pure alcoholic profit – nothing compared to the $100 million in annual profit generated by the Chicago Outfit under Al Capone, but plenty when the fragmented nature of New York’s Mafia is taken into account.
Around this time, at Luciano’s urging, Frank changed his name from Castiglia to Costello, which is Irish. “When we got up into our ears in New York politics, it didn’t hurt us at all that we had an Italian guy with a name like Costello,” Luciano later said.
Rothstein was murdered in late 1928 over a gambling debt, and Costello and Luciano decided to leave the freelance life. They signed up with Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria, head of the old Morello family.
Masseria had taken over the organization and expanded it while Morello languished in prison, and he was now engaged in a bitter contest with the crime family run by Salvatore Maranzano (later known as the Bonanno family). This feud would soon erupt into outright war and enhance Costello’s place in the New York underworld.
The so-called Castellammarese War (made famous by The Godfather) erupted when Masseria ordered Genovese to assassinate the leader of a Brooklyn gang that was associated with Maranzano’s outfit. Retaliatory murders on both sides soon spread as far as Chicago.
In part to bring an end to the killing and in part because they knew Masseria disapproved of Costello’s non-Sicilian background, Luciano and Costello turned coat and flipped sides along with Genovese and Lucchese. They conspired with Maranzano to execute Masseria.
The deed was done in an Italian restaurant in Cony Island on April 15, 1931. Masseria was playing cards when (according to legend) Luciano got up to use the bathroom. Four men, including Siegel and Genovese, burst in and gunned Masseria down. No witnesses came forward and one was charged.
With Masseria gone, Luciano took the reins of the Morello family. He named Genovese his underboss and made Frank Costello his consigliere.
Maranzano used the opportunity to create the “Commission,” the organization used to this day to manage disputes and handle business among the five crime families of New York City. He also made himself its head, or “boss of all bosses.” But he didn’t hold that job for long.