Luciano: SS Normandie Sunk as Cover for Dewey
In 1942, Thomas E. Dewey was the politically ambitious district attorney for the Manhattan district of New York City. He had rocketed to fame as a special prosecutor appointed to go after corruption and organized crime in the city. His biggest success had been his successful prosecution, for leading a prostitution ring, of the uncrowned king of organized crime in the United States, Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Luciano was in the sixth year of a 30 to 50 year sentence, which was unprecedented for the crime for which he was convicted. Although he was doing his time at the very severe Dannemora prison in the far northeast corner of New York State, he still managed to stay on top of his many criminal activities.
The SS Normandie, when it was brought into service in 1935 in France, was the largest and fastest passenger vessel in the world. It was also very advanced in design and luxuriously and beautifully furnished. When France was overrun by Germany in 1940, the Normandie happened to be docked in the harbor of New York, and it was seized by the United States government. In 1942 it was still there, being refitted as a troop ship in support of the war effort. In February of 1942 it caught fire, officially as the result of a welding accident and sank.
According to Luciano, in his 1974 memoir, The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano, dictated to Martin A. Gosch and finished off by Richard Hammer after Gosch’s 1973 death, the Normandie’s sinking was pivotal to his release from prison after serving ten years, and the sinking was definitely not accidental. Dewey had put Luciano away, and Dewey, as the odds-on favorite to be elected governor of New York in 1942, would soon be in a position to grant Luciano clemency. Luciano’s strategy for release was of the familiar carrot and stick nature, to which one must also add a fig leaf. That’s where the Normandie’s sinking comes in.
The carrot was to be financial support for Dewey in his race for governor and, eventually, for president. The stick was to be a renewed appeal of the sentence based upon the changed testimony of a string of disgruntled witnesses. That second part of the strategy had failed before, but it represented a bigger threat this time because Dewey had presidential ambitions. He would be less inclined to run the risk of having his image tarnished by publicity suggesting that he had obtained his most famous conviction through the subornation of perjury, that the whole thing had been a railroad job. Also, in a remarkable, almost unbelievable turn of events, Dewey’s compliant judge in the case had privately flip-flopped. We shall have more to say about that later in the article.
As for the third part of the strategy, the fig leaf, we pick up the narrative on page 260 of the Testament. Luciano is speaking. Visiting him at Dannemora are Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, and his head lawyer, Moses Polakoff:
“Then Polakoff come up with the key question. He said, ‘If you expect to get a parole after Dewey becomes governor, just like that, you’re making a big mistake, Charlie. He’d be impeached, that’s how serious a mistake it would be. It would kill his chances to be President, and he’s not going to jeopardize himself whether you give him political support or not. Did you think about that?’
“I’d already thought about it and I told him I wasn’t stupid enough to think Dewey could spring me without the best possible excuse that would keep his face clean all the way through. That was the third big point. I told ‘em that about six months before the war started I got a letter from Vito [Genovese] from Rome, where the little prick was livin’ it up pretty good—he had big contacts, includin’ Mussolini himself. I knew Vito inside out, and the one thing I was sure of was that he never bragged; he liked to pull fancy tricks, but he never boasted to me. In his letter, Vito told me how great he was doin’. He made a lot of contacts down in Sicily with guys whose names I give him before he left. The most important thing he said was that in Sicily my name was like a king. Vito said that Mussolini was really pourin’ out the shit on Americans, but as far as I was concerned, down in Sicily they thought of me as a real number one guy. And that set me to thinkin’ how I could give Dewey the legitimate excuse he’d need to let me out.
“I had a newspaper with me and I showed them how the Navy Department was givin’ out a lot of stories about sabotage and fifth column and that kind of thing. There was even a story on the front page about a campaign they called ‘Zip Your Lip,’ which shows how worried they was about German subs sinkin’ our ships or some spies blowin’ up ships in the harbor. It looked like the whole Eastern waterfront, especially in New York, was a mess of sabotage.
“I could see Lansky start to smile while I was layin’ it out, because he was the first one to see what I was gettin’ at. He said, ‘Charlie, I get it, I get it. It’s terrific. How can Dewey turn down a patriotic hero? I gotta hand it to you.’ Then he looked at Costello, and Frank said, ‘Charlie, I think we can handle all the angles. We got a lot of people with the Navy guys down on Church Street and we can pass the word about anything. I think you’re as good as out.’
“So I said to them that they had two things to work on without delay. First, there hadda be front page stuff that would make it necessary for the Navy or someone to come to us for help. And they hadda line up all them witnesses and get ‘em signed, sealed and delivered, strong enough to make sure we could get a new trial if we needed to. They all thought it would be dynamite. But I said no, I had somethin’ else in mind and I wanted to hold it. I just needed to be absolutely sure we had it under lock and key.”
For a month after that meeting, Luciano waited anxiously, nervously, for some news. All he heard was that his friends had yet to come up with an idea that would start things moving. “I lost all my patience. I got into fights with guys in the yard; fellows would come up to see me and I’d turn away from ‘em. I knew that I was actin’ like a shitheel but I couldn’t help it; my nerves were ready to give up.”
Then in January of 1942, Luciano’s future brightened. Learning of Luciano’s need for a front-page event that would bring the potential peril of sabotage to the front, Albert Anastasia brought an idea to Frank Costello. “Costello got in touch with me right away. Albert had worked this idea out with his brother, Tough Tony [a major power in the International Longshoremen’s Association]. Albert said that the guys from Navy intelligence had been all over the docks talkin’ to ‘em about security; they was scared to death that all the stuff along the Hudson, the docks and boats and the rest, was in very great danger. It took a guy like Albert to figure out somethin’ really crazy; his idea was to give the Navy a real big hunk of sabotage, somethin’ so big that it would scare the shit out of the whole fuckin’ Navy. This big French luxury ship, the Normandie, was sittin’ at a pier on the West Side of Manhattan, and accordin’ to what Tony and Albert was told, the government was workin’ out a deal with that guy de Gaulle to take it over and turn it into a troopship. Albert figures that if somethin’ could happen to the Normandie, that would really make everybody crap in their pants.
“It was a great idea and I didn’t figure it was really gonna hurt the war effort because the ship was nowhere near ready and, besides, no American soldiers or sailors would be involved because they wasn’t sending ‘em noplace yet. So I sent back word to Albert to handle it.
“A couple days later, I heard on the radio where the Normandie was on fire and it didn’t look like they could save her. That goddamn Anastasia—he really done a job. Later on, Albert told me not to feel too bad about what happened to the ship. He said that as a sergeant in the Army he hated the fuckin’ Navy anyway.”
The strategy bore fruit. For the remainder of the war the mob offered its “protection” against sabotage on the docks, and at the end of the war Luciano was released from prison. From Luciano’s account, there is no indication that Dewey ever knew anything about the machinations behind the sinking of the Normandie, but Luciano strongly implies that his carrot—mob money for Dewey’s election campaigns—was at least as important as the fig leaf—reward for patriotic service in wartime—in obtaining Luciano’s early release from prison.
Luciano’s and the mob’s patriotic service went even further than protecting the docks, according to various sources who have a vested interest in our believing it. Luciano was among those sources until, it appears, he finally decided to clear the decks with his memoir, which was not to be released until after his death. Here, on page 268, is what he says about a major part of that legend:
“But as far as my helpin’ the government was concerned, then or even the following year when they said I helped ‘em open up Sicily for the invasion by getting’ the cooperation of the Mafia guys to help the American troops, that was all horseshit. It would be easy for me to say there was somethin’ to all that, like people have been sayin’ for years and I’ve been lettin’ ‘em think, but there wasn’t. As far as me helpin’ the army land in Sicily, you gotta remember I left there when I was, what—nine? The only guy I knew real well over there, and he wasn’t even a Sicilian, was that little prick Vito Genovese. In fact, at that time the dirty little bastard was livin’ like a king in Rome, kissin’ Mussolini’s ass.”
The Contrite Judge
Judge Philip J. McCook was the man who served up what would have amounted to a life sentence to Luciano for a relatively minor crime and who, according to Luciano, played a highly partisan role throughout the trial, ensuring his conviction. Luciano’s story of an amazing turn of events four years after the trial is made credible by its far-stranger-than-fiction nature. We back up a bit, then, to page 256 for the following account:
The first big leap forward toward success came at the end of 1940 when an unexpected visitor arrived at Dannemora. “I wasn’t expectin’ noboby and it kinda made me nervous, what with all that was goin’ on in New York with [Abe “Kid Twist”] Reles. (See “An Organized Crime Angle” section of “Forrestal, Part 6” article.) I could only think it hadda be some bad news. Then to make me even more jittery, instead of takin’ me to the visitors’ room, the guard walks me to Dr. Martin’s office. When I walk in, the warden tells me to sit down and then he clears out, leavin’ me alone. A half a minute later, the door opens and that son of a bitch Judge McCook walks in. Jesus, I hardly recognized him. In four years, this guy had aged a million years, I mean he looked like he was ninety. He comes over and shakes my hand and he asks me how I’m getting’ along, are they treatin’ me all right, that kind of thing. I say, yeah, sure. Then he sits down and just looks at me. So I sit down and look back at him, just waitin’. Pretty soon, he starts talkin’ and the words pour out of him like he can’t shut off the faucet. He tells me he’s a good Christian; he says he goes to church every Sunday and he always tries to do the right thing. I can’t understand none of this, so I just sit there and don’t say nothin’, just listenin’ and wonderin’ what the hell he’s getting’ at.
“Then McCook starts to shake like he was made out of jelly. Then the next thing, he starts to bawl, real tears. Can you imagine a big important guy like thim, a society guy, breakin’ down that way? A fuckin’ judge who sends people up to the pen, who puts guys in the hot seat, sittin’ there and shakin’ and cryin’? He asks me what he done to deserve what’s happenin’ to him. Well, I figure it must be pretty bad if he’s actin’ like that and comes all the way up to Dannemora to tell me about it, to cop a plea with me, of all people, that he never done nothin’ wrong to nobody.
“The whole thing sounded so crazy that I thought the guy blew his top. Then he gets to it. He tellsm me that after he sent me up, his house burned down to the ground and everything he owned was destroyed. But that was only the beginning. He says his wife and one of his kids died and he was getting’ hit by all kinds of disasters, one right after the other. He says that from the time he sentenced me, everythin’ in his life went sour.
“When he tells me all this, you know how I felt? I didn’t feel no pity for that dirty bastard. Why should I? What did he feel when he sent me up on that phony rap, which he knew goddamn well was a phony? So why the hell should I feel anything for him when he starts havin’ troubles? At that minute, I had all the troubles of my own that I could handle. But I didn’t say a word to him. I just let him talk, because now he was no different than some shitheel in my outfit who’d come up to my office to make a confession about what he done that was wrong and hope to Christ I wouldn’t break his head. They would always beat around the bush as long as they could and then they’d have to come to the point.
That’s the way it happened with McCook. When he gets all finished, he turns to me and says why did I put a Sicilian curse on him? I didn’t know what the fuck to say. I just looked at him like he was loony. Then he gets down on his knees, crawls over to me cryin’ like a baby; he grabs hold of my hand and starts slobberin’ over it—he even starts callin’ me, ‘Mister Luciano,’ and beggin’ me to take the curse off him, pleadin’ with me to help him. He swears he didn’t mean to do me no wrong, that what he done in court was what he thought was right. But now, after thinkin’ about it and searchin’ his soul, as he said, he thinks maybe he made a mistake and he has to make up for it. Right then and there, I knew McCook was my pigeon.
“It was all I could do to keep from laughin’. I tried to calm him down and that wasn’t easy. Here’s a guy who sent me to the can for fifty years and now he’s down on the floor kissin’ my hand and beggin’ me to take off the Sicilian curse. If it was in a movie, nobody’d believe it, but that’s the way it happened. Finally, I told him he shouldn’t worry about the curse no more because I’d arrange to have it taken off. I told him to go home, just not to worry no more, and one of my guys would be around to see him later on to discuss what he could do for me. When I said that, I could see that McCook got scared. But I told him he wouldn’t be asked to do nothin’ dishonest or illegal; only that one of these days it might be that he could help me get out of jail, and then the curse would be off permanent.
“So out of the clear blue sky, this guy fell right into my pocket. I didn’t have to pay him off or nothing’ like that. When I went back to my cell, all I could think of was that I finally got justice out of McCook, only it came four years late.” (In 1943, when Luciano made his first bid for parole, it was Judge McCook, in his role as a justice of the New York State Supreme Court, who heard the arguments. Though Luciano then had served only seven years of his sentence, McCook said, “If Luciano continues to cooperate and remains a model prisoner, it may be appropriate at some future time to apply for executive clemency.”)
Perhaps we’ll get to see if this episode is in a movie and if people will believe it. Next year, 37 years after the publication of the book, the movie version of The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano will be in the theaters. A more important question than this is if the makers of the movie will have the courage to incorporate the serious historical revisionism in the book, such as Luciano’s claims about the sinking of the Normandie and his debunking of the stories about his role in helping the allied war effort. Initial signs are not good, if the published storyline by co-screenwriter Bob DeBrino is any indication:
The incredible story of how Lucky Luciano known as the "Chairman of the Board" of La Cosa Nostra - The Mafia - used his power to aid the US Government during WWII to help protect the docks and mainland from Nazi saboteurs and further helped the Allies with the invasion of Europe. His rise to power from obscurity, his modernization of an organization of very flawed characters, his deportation to Italy, and in his final chapter his falling in love for the first time ever with Igea Lusconi, and his death from undetermined causes.
November 10, 2010