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Frank Costello – The Underworld’s Prime Minister

Retired Intelligence Detective Gary Jenkins brings you the best in mob history with his unique perception of the mafia. Gary interviews author Ronald Fried about his book on Frank Costello. Mr. Fried researched Costello and crafted a novel using actual situations and Costello’s exact language taken from newspapers, court proceedings, and transcripts from the famous Kefauver hearings. He tells how Frank Costello helped the Mafia transition from bootlegging during Prohibition into the 1930s and showed them how to transfer the organization into interstate gambling. Some of the stories he learned were how Costello ensured his slot machines had a step stool for kids to reach the coin slot. We learn how Costello was such a serious gambler that he would drink water and challenge other men to see who could urinate for the longest time. He won every time.
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But welcome all you Wiretappers out there back here in the studio of gangland wire in the studio with me and Ron Fried. Right. Okay, Fried has written a book about the Prime Minister of the underworld. And he was an immensely important man in that transition from the old mustache Pete days on into the modern crime syndicate. He was kind of the, I’d say the brains behind Lucky Luciano, in my opinion. But anyhow, rod has written a book about the Prime Minister of the underworld. So rod, welcome.

Ronald Fried 00:33
Thanks a lot. Thanks for having me.

So tell me, I know this is a novel, it’s a novelized form, but it’s based on facts. Right? How did you go about, you know, how do you go about doing that? Transport, translating facts into the novelization form?

Ronald Fried 00:51
Well, one of the things that I noticed I worked on a TV show about the history of organized crime, about founding of the New York Mafia, what I noticed is that a lot of the mistakes historical errors or rumors or myths, or plain old nonsense, from One Book To the next book to the next book get repeated, repeated, repeated. So I thought it was really hard to get at the truth, for a number of reasons. One is that it’s not as though like the History Department at Harvard University of study, this is exactly what happened. The other the other problem is that all the people who were there when these events unfolded, were actually criminals, right? And one thing we know about criminals is they lie a lot, right? They do not tell the truth. And they make up stories, and they’re very self aggrandizing. When you’re dealing with the history of organized crime, particularly those sort of mythical days of the 20s 30s 40s, and 50s, is there’s a lot of exaggeration, a lot of lies, there’s a lot of nonsense people want to believe things that simply aren’t true. So I thought that a novel would be would be one way to try to get at the truth. However, I wanted it to be historically accurate. So what I did was, I wrote a novel in which everything that Frank Costello said is, on the record, he actually said, so what he said in court, what he said in interviews, and what he said in the keep over hearings, televised congressional hearings about organized crime in America. That’s all those are actually his words. He gave interviews, he held a press conference. If the guy loves to testify, love to talk about himself. So there was a considerable record. And then the things that he says in private to Meyer Lansky, to Joe Adonis to his wife, that was all invented, or his inner thoughts. You know, what he thought about Frank Costello what he thought about Thomas Dewey, these people who are prosecuting him, when he started, the congressmen and senators were confronting him on television that I made up, but I think that having studied Frank Costello quite a bit, you know, I hope that it’s somewhat accurate to its plot at the plausible version of what the Bible what made him angry, but he resented and what he was proud of. Now, the idea of a novel is that Frank is older. You’re and he’s looking back, and he’s trying to tell the truth. And, you know, you could ask, what does Frank Costello capable of telling the truth? I don’t know. Because, you know, he did at one point agree to, to write a bit more with Peter moss right. And they met and this is before Costello died, and they were ready to get going. But what Peter Maas said afterwards, is that Costello just wanted to talk about how legitimate he was. That was one of the things that Frank Costello he had his foot in two worlds, right. So Frank Costello, was both after Lucky Luciano was first imprisoned and deported. Frank Costello was the acting head. That was one hat that he wore, they wear another hat, which is that he was very politically powerful. He was in a sense, the head of Tammany Hall to the Democratic Party, should New York City politics means a lot so that he could he could veto the nomination of a judge. He could make sure that someone that he approved up became the boss of Tammany Hall. And when Frank Costello held a fundraiser trying to prove the legitimacy for the Salvation Army congressmen, senators, judges, they all had to come because Frank invited them and but at that same party, Vito Genovese was there. So there is two worlds coming together. And what’s interesting about Costello is that he had he had that fundraiser. So why don’t you have that fundraiser? Because he wanted to think of himself as legitimate isn’t legitimate citizen, right. But what happened it backfired on him as many of those efforts to be illegitimate did because once word leaked out that Frank Costello had thrown this fundraiser at the Copacabana, which he secretly controlled. The newspapers loved the story. So it was all over the tabloids and he was embarrassed and ultimately, the Salvation Army had to sort of backpedal and distancing themselves from Frank Costello. And that, that’s what interested me about Costello was his desire to to seem like a legitimate person that struck me as interesting sort of poignant, really was I was interested in in how that backfired on him and led him to make decisions, which, you know, objectively, were not good decisions. If you if what you want to do is the head of Genovese crime family is keep your head down, not be written about be ignored. stay under the radar, don’t put your finger in the eye of prosecutors who really want to put you in jail? That’s a long answer to one question. Yeah.

Well, that’s a good one. No, I had slains a lot about Brian Costello, and his public persona. He obviously was really public at the time. And, and, and the politics, how powerful he was politically, and why was that? You know, we hosted fundraisers for the Salvation Army and things like that. So he was, he was also he knew the power of the dollar. I imagine he was given a lot of money to New York, indigenous,

Ronald Fried 06:21
one of the things I mean, what happened is, as, as I’m sure you know, right, without prohibition, no huge amount of organized, no mafia. Money, prohibition was really the legislation in a number of ways. For one thing, it corrupted all the police officers in big cities, right, because they didn’t want enforce these rules, right? It corrupted citizens, right, because it turned a citizen who just wanted to beer into a law break. Right. So it’s spread corruption. And one thing that Frank Costello did, he he was a corrupt, but he continued that tradition, by corrupting politicians and judges, and how did he do it? He did it with all the money that the mob had from prohibition. So they use that money to wait for his political influence. It wasn’t like a fundraiser today, they had either they had the threat of violence behind everything that they that they said did. And that really, you know, there’s a line in the novel that money is power. Greed is a powerful thing, which was fear. So they had both things working for them. Because Frank still didn’t have to even make an explicit threat. It was understood he was a

corruptor. And how he crafted people after Prohibition was over was with slot machines. Because, yeah, people like to gamble as well as drink. So now gwright still illegal. And so he really got into the slot machines and thought Business Big Time, which continued policemen don’t really like to object to any laws, because they like to gamble. And politicians don’t like to enforce and pass gambling laws, particularly because they like to gamble. But there are always a group of citizens out there that think that gambling should be illegal and should not be available. You know, it’s all over the place. Now. We’ve got guys that spent a lot of time for sports gambling. Now, every state practically as sports gambling legalized, as well as the casinos. As the as he got into that, then the boy he must have lost some political power because LaGuardia cracked down on the slots and drove me around. It’s really out of New York. So how did you lose the

Ronald Fried 08:30
New Orleans? Yeah, right. So he had no slot machines and candy stores all over, you know, small stores, mom and pop stores all over all over the city. And they’re called one armed bandits. And my one of my favorite little facts about this was that in order to get money from children, one of Costello’s ideas, put up a step in front of these slot machines look good, could stand nodding and could reach the slots and put it into what’s interesting about LaGuardia. LaGuardia was not a part of Tammany Hall, right. He wasn’t right. He ran as a Republican, slash independent. So he said he wasn’t a part of Frank Costello. He ran it stands in opposition to Frank Costello is a political machine. And it’s interesting that the things he just mentioned, alcohol Costello’s in the alcohol business, gambling, Costello was in the gambling business, essentially juice loans, right loan sharking, right? Well, you know, what is the credit card companies charge an outright, you know, 25% interest on your purchase of a sofa. I mean, so many of these things that were criminalized and Frank Costello’s day, are legal. So in the sense those that legislation created an opportunity for for someone like Frank Costello or any other gangsters, there’s actually a line of monopoly put in to sort of use lies. out, which is the lawyer of Frank Costello is the one who just legalize it. And it’s in his, his, his lawyers. They’ll never legalize like off track betting that’ll never happen. Well, it all happened, you know. Anyway. So after after LaGuardia made a big show out of cracking down on the slots, Costello moved to slot machines down to New Orleans. And he sent his brother in law down there to oversee the operation along with some of the other his other gambling cronies, stupid. yoredale. Yes, exactly. That the handy dandy Rasteli was his partner in gambling. His brother was someone else but went down to New Orleans and worked in that also casino outside of the I’ve seen the limits of New Orleans. So he was able to run a fairly high end casino there. But I think he had to cut in the the bosses in New Orleans as well. Up law, who was I guess he was the governor and senator that I’m not really sure he had to get a piece of the action. So supposedly dandy, Philip could still be sure that every month in a locked box in a hotel, there is a certain amount of cash available sort of for per the governor and senator really wants to pick up at that time.

Now, you mentioned Huey P. Long. Yeah. You ran across that story about how Costello say saved him from a beaten in a bathroom. Yes, yes.

Ronald Fried 11:35
Yes. Yes, yes. I don’t know whether that’s true. But it gets repeated a lot. One thing I didn’t put up speaking of men’s rooms, I don’t know if you can use it’s not but it’s pretty fun. I didn’t put this in but Costello liked to gamble about everything. You know, basically, if he didn’t have a bid on a ballgame or fight or he didn’t feel like he was in the action so we don’t miss needed that to feel alive. And you’ve done a lot of money. One of the things he did was he could he would bet with his friends who could pee the longest, for lack of a better phrase to put it in his whole method for how he did it. Like you don’t drink a lot of water beforehand to drink some. And he said that a lot of men have pissed away a fortune on the only man who made a fortune pissing.

I had not heard that story before. That’s a good one.

Ronald Fried 12:20
Yeah, you know, you stick with me. I’ll give you all the highbrow stuff.

Really? So down in New Orleans, he’s operating down there, but he has people down there. So does he establish any kind of residence or is he stay in New York? He’s a born and bred New Yorker, you know, famous. We’re sitting around on the Upper East Side having an apartment and Central Park. And ya know, I think that Louisiane B went back

Ronald Fried 12:45
and forth. But no, he didn’t. He didn’t really live there. I mean, he trusted Shilka cell and it was a successful operation. He also had interest in Meyer Lansky casinos in Broward County in Florida. I think he would go down there just to check out his business. And then later, of course, in New Orleans, I beg your pardon in Las Vegas. And then But then, you know, he couldn’t he couldn’t really speak on the phone that much because his phone was tapped. And that’s how we got into a lot of trouble. Because the wiretaps,

wiretaps, there was no wiretap law one way or the other back in those days. So those would all been we’re able to use those and you find those in court files, actual transcripts are

Ronald Fried 13:25
well, you know, I actually didn’t dig into the I didn’t I didn’t read the transcripts of his phone calls. But there’s some famous passages that that I didn’t incorporate. And the most famous thing is that he got a call from a judge named a really up who had just been promoted for magistrate to be nominated for both parties. This indicates how much power yet to be on the Supreme Court in the state of New York. So a really would come to see castella previously the answer is tell, calls Frank Costello and says, If Frank Costello said he doesn’t want to thank you, and I pledge my undying loyalty. And Frank Costello says, When I tell you something’s in the bag, it’s in the New York District Attorney Frank Hogan made sure that that was the newspapers, that was a huge scandal, and that there was a public hearing about it, whether or not to just Barr really take away the nomination, and Costello was called to testify. When he testified he bragged about all of his legitimate friends. But then he didn’t deny that all these other people like Al Capone, like Luciano, etc, etc. And when he was finished, his lawyer George Woolf turned to him and said, You love it? Don’t you love to testify? And he did. You know, he loved to sort of get out there and brag, that’s what got him into trouble. And in your later life, he would give interviews. One Amazing Thing that I came across is that they were really after him both the federal government at that IRS version, Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as Frank COVID. In New York. They’re really after Costello. And so they put out a story that he was in charge of importing heroin into into New York, he had sort of famously stated that loads the drug industry, illegal drugs, and he was involved in. So he, he held a press conference. And I had the transcript at the press conference. But the amazing thing about the press conference is that he pretty puts himself out there, he’s gonna deny it, and he’s about thinks that this is gonna be good for his reputation. But in fact, he’s incredibly vulnerable, because he can’t answer half the questions. Do you know what I mean? Like, were you the biggest owner of slot? Were you the beat? Did you run more slot machines than anyone else in New York? Well, I wouldn’t say that. I don’t know anything about this thing they call the mafia, you know, it’s okay, really. And they would ask them specific questions. And, you know, I’d prefer not to say I don’t want to be with them. I think that he was vulnerable in ways that he didn’t understand or was in denial about. So I think that he had a certain amount of naivete about where he stood in society. You know what I mean, I think that perhaps had to do with being an immigrant. And that that, in a sense, brought him down. And to me, that was the crux of the story. And you see that, and the real reason I wrote the book was, I was really fascinated, like, why did he great to testify on the keyboard? because others are just with it, when they’re not gonna talk about him, like Costello thinks, Well, I can talk to these people. I’m wondering that, you know, I have not been to York, we won’t be judged, or talk to them. But he didn’t understand the vulnerable. He was, as I just said, and there was something else that made it fascinating to me, is that these were the first major congressional hearings that were televised, right? And no one that went really understood the power of television as a new medium. But it was a complete sensation. People weren’t going to the movies, they were watching it on television. And when people went to television, or went to the movies, they didn’t want to see what the movie was. They said put the TV on, we want to see Frank Costello testify, stores, department stores, were saying Open late because people were watching this live on television, it was coast to coast, he became a star, it really didn’t want to be a star

in today’s world. he’s most famous for that line,

Ronald Fried 17:11
you must have in your mind, something you’ve done that you can speak out to your credit as American citizens, if so what are they paid by tights? And then when they laugh, he looked surprised. Yeah. And that’s honestly, that’s why I wrote the novel, NAFTA word where you see what happens, we’re backwards. But it was to get to that point in that in the sense where the novel ends, you know, there’s an afterword afterwards, which shows you what happens, right? Because to me, the drama of that, and how he, how he sort of wised up, where he really is an American sight. That’s why I wrote the novel. And that’s why I decided to just tell it to the first person, because I wanted to imagine what his inner voice might be like, what he was feeling, what he was thinking, how much he hated those congressmen, how much she resented them how much he thought, and I know that this to be true that had he been born elsewhere, he would have had a very different life because he was very gifted in a minute’s bootlegging operation, importing enormous amounts of booze into this country is very complicated. He had no shipping Empire really to bring the booze in. He was he had he had airplanes to track where the Coast Guard was bribing the Coast Guard, very elaborate way. I mean, it was a pretty brilliant operation that he had going so you know, he always thought might he abused that, that talent elsewhere when you’ve run a corporation, etc, etc. And to me that that’s what made him vulnerable. And if he’s, the character is vulnerable, then he’s interesting because he’s got two sides to him. That makes the story interesting.

Really, you know, for me that’s that’s what has always drawn me to the mafia and the men in it that run it is that it? Take them out of that criminal organization and put them into legitimate business. They’d be successful. Right, this guy that here in Kansas City that went to jail for a drug, little drug ring he had and I’ve gotten to know him since he got back when he’s connected. And he started he got now legitimate loan sharking but to Buy Here Pay Here car business and they charge huge amounts of money on that but but poor people will mean that’s, you know, that’s the only way they can get a car and you got to have a current Kansas City and he made really good money and now he’s retired from that and then after work I mean if he didn’t I told him I said if you’d have just done this back in 1990 You wouldn’t have spent 12 years in the penitentiary and you’d be a Lodi but yeah, I know. I know. I’ve learned my lesson. So

Ronald Fried 19:45
well. Yeah. But yes, the folks like that and then they’re gangsters who a sociopath

innovates comes really,

Ronald Fried 19:54
you know, you wouldn’t want living next to you or Dutch, Dutch Schultz, who really was I mean, these people were, were serial killers. I mean, they really weren’t. They had no empathy for them.

Well, he’s an interesting guy, a never ending, you know, bunch of stories about him and he’s complicated and work in both levels. He was the first guy that was really skimming out of Las Vegas that we found out about and then, you know, that was before Las Vegas was Las Vegas in the way and wouldn’t it wasn’t really anything to anybody outside of the the Pew Bob guys had the foresight to invest in that casino out there. Yeah, inverse casino, the flamingo limit the other so it’s, and that’s been for years. That was their lifeblood that scared me that a casino gambling money is you know, has been their lifeblood. You know, now that it’s all legal. I don’t know where they make their money. Now, I hear from internet scams, but I don’t know. All right, Ron, okay. Fried hits. Right. Frank Costello a novel that correct title? That is correct. Right. Okay. Free. Thanks a lot for showing up and imparting your wisdom about your knowledge about one of the more important figures of the early transition of organized crime from the Black Panthers to the national crimson to get without men like Frank Costello, it might not have made that transition and made so much money during the Prohibition. So it was. He’s an interesting guy.

Ronald Fried 21:23
Thank you, Gary. It’s a pleasure to talk to you. I

really appreciate it. Well, guys, you know, I ride motorcycles and don’t forget, look out for motorcycles when you’re out there on the streets. And if you or your friends or relatives or somebody you know has a problem with PTSD. If they’ve been in a service, go to the VA website and get that hotline. there’s help available. Okay, thanks a lot, Ronald. Thanks, Gary. Appreciate it.

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