A WEDDING IN THE FAMILY

It could have been any traditional Catholic wedding: a Saturday afternoon high Mass at a suburban church, a young bride and groom standing on the altar flanked by a dozen bridesmaids and groomsmen--all sisters and brothers--facing a priest, two deacons and several altar boys, with proud parents beaming from the front pews.

But the several hundred people present knew this was no ordinary ceremony.

For one thing, the groom was Joseph Gregory Bonanno, 25, recently graduated from University of Arizona Medical School. He is the first-born son of the first-born son of Joseph Bonanno Sr., "Joe Bananas," one of the most powerful and famous Mafia bosses of all time.

The elder Bonanno couldn't attend the wedding. Now 82 and ailing, he's in the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan., for refusing to testify in an ongoing Mafia trial in New York. Ironically, he had written an autobiography about his Mafia career--but refused to testify about it. Thus, contempt of court.

But the presence of the missing Bonanno was palpable. Sprinkled throughout Saints Simon and Jude Cathedral were a score of men who were unmistakably from his world, aging "wiseguys" dressed in ill-fitting suits, with famous names out of Mafia lore like Profaci and Trafficante, who embraced and exchanged Sicilian greetings with Salvatore (Bill) Bonanno, 53, the father of the groom.

Later that evening, the elder patriarch telephoned from prison in Kansas to the reception hall of the Mountains Shadows Resort in Scottsdale. The call was plugged into the public-address system and 400 dinner guests stood up rapt, as if in reverence, some with tears in their eyes, as they listened.

"This is grandfather Bonanno," he said, in his thick Sicilian accent. "I'm calling to share this glorious day with you."

He said he couldn't be there "because, as you all know, I'm still on vacation," drawing a laugh from the crowd. But he was there "in spirit," he said. And he told his grandson to always be proud of his family name.

When he addressed the groom as "Dr. Joseph Bonanno," the crowd broke into cheers and sustained applause.

At that moment, Hollywood writer-producer Bob Dellinger, standing at his table in the center of the room, was filled with another kind of elation. He embraced his wife, Blenda, lit up a cigar and turned to the small Hollywood contingent with him. "Life imitating art," he said. "You couldn't have written this any more dramatically."

For those at the Dellinger table, the evening represented the real-life final scene in a planned TV movie based on the life of Rosalie Bonanno, the mother of the groom and Bill Bonanno's wife of nearly 30 years. It's tentatively titled "Veiled Shadow: The Story of a Mafia Wife."

It's to be produced by Group W Productions, which scored a notable TV ratings success on NBC in January (No. 6 that week) with "Mafia Princess." That was based on the book by Antoinette Giancana, daughter of Sam Giancana, the late Mafia boss of Chicago. The book was co-authored by Tom Renner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning organized-crime reporter for Newsday. The daughter was played by Susan Lucci (she stars as the much-married Erica Kane in "All My Children"); Giancana was portrayed by Tony Curtis.

Dellinger's dinner partners were about the only non-Italian or Sicilian-descended guests at the affair. They included Christine Foster, Group W vice president of development, and Hollywood agent Mickey Freiberg, a founding partner of the Artists Agency. He sold the project to Group W and is negotiating with a New York publisher to sell the story in book form.

There were obvious parallels this evening to the famous wedding scene in "The Godfa ther," the movie that--for better or worse--has defined the Mafia in the minds of most Americans. But Dellinger insists, "We're not going to do some rip-off or exploitation piece; this is not a Mafia story."

Dellinger first met Bill Bonanno in 1972 when both were in prison at Terminal Island. Formerly a successful advertising executive and TV producer, Dellinger was doing time for attempted extortion and assaulting a federal officer. Bonanno, serving a three-year sentence for mail fraud, was a student in the creative-writing class that Dellinger founded at the institution.

Following their releases in 1973, Dellinger wrote an article about Bonanno for Sunday Calendar. In the course of his research, he traveled to the Bonanno home in San Jose and met Rosalie.

"To me, the real story of the Bonannos was this petite, gracious and quiet woman," he said. "She's been through hell with this guy, endured public humiliation, ridicule and gossip, been left alone for months, even years at a time when he was in prison or on the run, been forced to go on welfare once.

"Yet through it all, she's managed to build her own career as a real-estate broker and raise four beautiful children, get them through college and keep them completely apart from her husband's life style. That's amazing to me.

"So this will be Rosalie's story," he said. "It's her life, not Bill's or the Bonanno men's. And she's very fragile in the area of exposing it. It's very painful for her. She always said, 'Why would anyone be interested in my story? I'm just a boring housewife.' "

Judging by Dellinger's research--the product of "hundreds of hours of interviews over a 13-year period"--it's difficult to imagine anyone describing Rosalie Bonanno's life story as boring.

She was born Rosalie Profaci, the daughter of Salvatore Profaci, who was consiglieri to his brother, Joseph Profaci, the don of the powerful Profaci crime family durings its heyday between the 1930s and 1950s. The product of a strict Sicilian Catholic upbringing, she was sent off to a convent school at age 7. But, as she related to Dellinger, she grew to resent the constant dark presence of the Mafia in her life, especially after her father was burned to death in a suspicious boating accident when she was 18.

When she became engaged to Bill Bonanno a year later, Rosalie actually thought she was about to get away from the suffocating Old World traditions of her father and uncle--after all, young Bonanno was fresh out of college and the Army and living in Arizona.

But the Bonanno-Profaci wedding on Aug. 18, 1956, turned out to be a historic affair in the annals of organized crime: It was the symbolic marriage of the two largest crime families in America. It was highlighted by a formal sit-down dinner reception at the Hotel Astor in New York that was attended by nearly 3,000 people, including the heads of all 24 Mafia families from around the country--among them Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia, Sam Giancana and Tony Accardo.

The wedding cake was 17 feet high. Tony Bennett and the Four Lads performed for free. The Pope sent best wishes. And Joseph Bonanno Sr., who would soon make an ultimately unsuccessful bid to become the Mafia's "boss of bosses," presided over the event "like a medieval duke," in Dellinger's words.

The way Dellinger plans it, the Bonanno-Profaci wedding will be the opening scene of his film and the wedding of Dr. Joseph Bonanno and Kathleen Milo in 1986 will be its climax. "These weddings are the bookends," he said.

But Dellinger emphasized the contrast between the two affairs: "In 1956, it was a Family wedding, with a capital F . The Mafia and its traditions dominated. Tonight, it's family with a small f .

"These guys are dinosaurs," he said, gesturing to a group of Mafia-types joshing in a corner. "Their life style is a thing of the past. And they are here because they are relatives, cousins, not because they represent something in Mafia hierarchy. Even Bill is a dinosaur, a man out of time, like his father.

"Tonight is Rosalie's triumph," Dellinger went on. "She grew up in this Sicilian world and she has always hated its tradition, just hated it. In the Sicilian tradition, it's always the first-born son who carries on the family business. But Rosalie was always determined: 'You will not have my son.' And tonight she's won. At her wedding, Joseph Bonanno Sr. was the Godfather; tonight he's just the grandfather."

Christine Foster acknowledged that the success of "Mafia Princess" made Group W, a division of Westinghouse Electric Corp., more receptive when agent Freiberg approached her about doing Rosalie Bonanno's story. "There's obvious interest in women in the Mafia," she said. "But what drew me to the story was the tremendous inner strength she's exhibited growing from passive women to one of determination and independence. I think most women will identify with her struggle.

"Rosalie and I have a lot in common," Foster went on. "We were raised as Catholics, both in convent schools."

In fact, Foster was a nun for five years, a member of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Order in Los Angeles. "But even as a nun, I don't think my Catholic training was as strict as Rosalie's. I really identify with value systems and morals she was brought up with and how those came in conflict with the life style that was all around her." Freiberg said he was aware of Foster's religious background before going in. "That's one of the reasons Bob and I went to her," he said. "We felt Rosalie would need to deal with a woman who had some understanding of her background and Christine seemed like a perfect match."

"Veiled Shadow" would mark the third time a member of the Bonanno family has gone public with details of life in the underworld.

Bill Bonanno was the cooperative subject of journalist Gay Talese's 1974 best-seller "Honor Thy Father" (Dell). That chronicled young Bonanno's sudden takeover of the family's business in the late 1960s following the kidnaping of his father by rival mob factions during what's become celebrated as the "Banana Wars." The book was turned into a CBS-TV movie (starring Joseph Bologna as Bill, Brenda Vaccaro as Rosalie and Raf Vallone as Joe) and made Bill Bonanno a national celebrity, frequent talk-show guest and sought-after college lecturer.

In 1983, Joe Bonanno wrote his autobiography, "A Man of Honor," published by Simon & Schuster. In it, he gives his version of his 50-year involvement in what he calls "my Tradition." He traces events from his childhood in Sicily, through his years as the head of the most powerful of all Mafia families, to his retirement to Tucson in 1969 following the Banana Wars, to his first felony conviction in 1980 for attempting to block a federal grand jury investigation into the business activities of his sons Bill and Joseph Jr.

He originally was sentenced to five years in prison on the charges, but his sentence later was reduced to one year, which he served. It was his first prison term.

Ironically, it was the publication of "Man of Honor" that was partially responsible for his absence at his grandson's wedding. In the book, he confirmed the existence of the Commission of the Mafia, which ruled on disputes among the families. Law enforcement sources say that Rudolph Giuliani, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, consequently decided to subpoena Bonanno to testify as a sort-of expert witness in a New York organized-crime case. "They wanted him to testify about the makeup of the mob so that the jury would understand that it really does exist," said one Justice Department official.

But Bonanno refused, claiming he was too ill. Last September, a federal judge in New York ordered him jailed for contempt. He's served half of a maximum 18 months. He made several requests to be released for the weekend to attend the wedding in Phoenix, but they were turned down.

"Not being here is one of the greatest disappointments of my father's life," said Bill Bonanno.

The father of the groom was being interviewed over dinner the night before the wedding. He was seated at a center table in the restaurant of the resort where the reception was to be held and where the family had booked eight rooms for the weekend.

As a constant parade of family members, distant relatives and friends stopped by the table to pay their respects, Bonanno appeared remarkably relaxed and in good spirits for a man facing a seemingly endless chain of legal problems.

Having already spent nine years in prison on a variety of racketeering and fraud convictions, he's currently appealing a four-year prison sentence for allegedly bilking nine elderly people out of $110,000 in a home-improvement scam. His brother Joseph Jr. also was charged in that case but has yet to be tried. In addition, the brothers are on trial in Sacramento in another fraud case that went to the jury the Thursday before the wedding. (There was no verdict by Calendar's deadline.)

"I take things a day at a time," Bill Bonanno said with a shrug. "I have to."

Having gone through his whole life being described in the press as "the son of Mafia chieftain Joe Bonanno," he said he hopes his own children don't suffer the same fate because of what he refers to euphemistically as "my life style."

He has four children: Charles, 28, who is adopted; Joseph, 25, who has been accepted into a surgery residency program at Loyola Medical Center in Chicago; Salvatore, known as Tore, 23, a recent graduate of the University of Arizona College of Business, and Felippa, known as Gigi, 22, who is a grade-school teacher in Grass Valley, Calif.

"In moments of somber reflection, I often wonder, 'When it will all end? When will the sins of the father stop being visited upon the sons?' I hope it ends here, with this wedding. Finally, we have a first-born who is breaking away to go off on his own, and hopefully the others follow."

Bonanno is a dichotomy. With his dark-rimmed reading glasses, tousled black hair, graying beard and yuppie-casual attire, he looks more like a college don than a Mafia one. He can be charming, affable, humorously self-deprecating. A seemingly modern man, he nonetheless can launch unabashedly into a treatise on Sicilian tradition that would strike anyone unfamiliar with that tradition as appallingly archaic.

For example, early on in son Joseph's relationship with Kathleen Milo, Bonanno sat his future daughter-in-law down and explained to her "how she would be a special person if she married Joe, the first-born son of the first-born son, because she would then become the vehicle for carrying on the family name, tradition and heritage," Bonanno related. "In our philosophy, there's a tremendous emphasis placed on the first-born son--he occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of Sicilians."

But why isn't adopted-son Charles, who's three years older than Joseph, considered the first-born?

He paused for a moment. 'It's a matter of blood," he said. "I feel guilty saying this, and it's not to minimize the love and affection we feel for him, but it's the tradition.

"In fact," he added, "I've often thought that Rosalie always had a special place in her heart for (Charles), was closer to him than the others, because he was adopted."

Of his new daughter-in-law's non-Sicilian heritage, he said, "She's a Calabrese, meaning her family is from Calabria, which is way down in the boot of Italy just three miles across the strait from Sicily." He added with a laugh, "So that's almost as good."

The new Mrs. Bonanno, 24, called "Beany" by her friends, is a stockbroker for Dean Witter Reynolds. Her parents, Charles and Mary Hoiness (Charles is Kathleen's stepfather), are schoolteachers in the Phoenix area.

The Bonanno-Milo wedding carried the unmistakable imprint of a Bill Bonanno production--right down to white lace tablecloths and Joe Vaccaro's (all-Sicilian) Band, which alternated standards of the 1930s and '40s with such Sicilian favorites as "La Tarantella" ("The Spider"), "Anema E Core" ("Love of My Heart") and "Non Ti Scordare di Me" ("Please Don't Forget Me"). There was nothing approaching rock 'n' roll for the children's numerous college-student friends among the guests.

On the day before the wedding, Bill Bonanno seemed to be everywhere, overseeing staff preparations despite being on crutches--the result of torn ankle ligaments suffered in a recent boating accident.

"I told the hotel staff that I wanted every glass and every piece of china and silverware inspected before it came out of the kitchen," he said. "I told them I'd leave it up to them, but that if I found one spot on anything, I'd have my people do it for them."

He said that his own father had done exactly the same thing at his wedding almost 30 years before.

On Friday night before this wedding, Bonanno called a meeting of all the male members of the wedding party. "I said, 'I expect you to conduct themselves as gentlemen and representatives of our family. I want to see dignity, and keep your heads up.' "

He also instructed them to double-check all their rented formal wear that night to make sure everything was right.

One nephew, Joseph Genovese, apparently didn't check--only to discover the next morning that he'd been given two left shoes. But rather than admit to his uncle he hadn't followed instructions, the young man wore the shoes all day Saturday. By Sunday, he could hardly walk at all.

On Sunday morning following the wedding, Bill Bonanno met again with a Times reporter and photographer at the resort restaurant. He was to sit in on what would be his wife's first one-on-one encounter with a representative of the press.

"Rosalie will be along in a minute," he said, explaining that while he had nothing to do with the TV movie project, he was concerned about the way his wife might be treated by the press. "I've had a lot of experience with the media and publishers and agents," he said. "So I know all about the kind of backslapping-backstabbing that goes on. I know that their goals are different from yours (meaning the interviewee) and I don't want her to be a lamb led to the slaughter. She's going to be speaking to you from the heart and she'll be trusting that you have her interests at heart."

As he waited for his wife to show, Bonanno filled the time by giving his view of her story, saying, "Of course, she may come along and tell you I'm full of it."

After the wedding in 1956, "she became the proper Sicilian-American housewife with a domineering husband who didn't know what price she was paying," he said. "But I remember the exact moment when I realized that things were going to change--I call it 'The Americanization of Rosalie.'

"It was 1969, I was facing a 15-year prison sentence and she had just started going to Finch College, computer school. She had four kids in the house. It was 6 p.m. and I stood watching out the kitchen window as she got into a car with this guy from class, her ride. I said to myself, 'This is the beginning of the end.'

"You have to understand the trauma of that moment for someone who was raised with my traditional overbearing Sicilian sense of what's right and wrong. Here she was getting into a car with some guy I hadn't met yet.

"So she became a modern American woman. She's a real-estate broker now and it's still hard for me to understand."

Rosalie finally arrived for the interview, the very picture of a modern American woman: tanned, perfectly coiffed and stylishly dressed in a bright blue polka-dot sun dress, cut away over one shoulder.

The night before, she'd greeted hundreds of people, made scores of introductions, posed for dozen of photographs and laughed and danced for hours with friends and family. A gracious, outgoing hostess.

On this morning, however, faced with a single reporter whom she'd already met and spoken to several times, Rosalie Bonanno was clearly nervous.

The reporter asked the basic question: What does she hope to accomplish by opening up her private life to the public and was she frightened at the prospect?

She paused, as if to catch her breath, and looked down at the table.

"That's a tough question," she said. "I really don't know. I don't see any reason why people would find my story all that interesting, although my friends tell me it is. I still can't believe it's really going to happen."

She looked to her husband for help. "You think it's too late to back out?"

He was wincing, clearly pained by her discomfort. He jumped back in to pick up the slack. But after a few minutes of monologue, he stopped short. "There I go again," he said. "It's her conversation and I'm dominating it."

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