Victoria's Secret

WASHINGTON POST

The custom-made black Brioni suit, the elegant, hand-painted silk tie, handkerchief, and Gucci loafers were all part of his image. He looked more like a movie star than a man accused of racketeering and extortion.

--From "I'll Be Watching You,"

by Victoria Gotti

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The gentleman described above is, technically speaking, Dimitri Constantinos, a casino developer. He is framed by ambitious, corrupt prosecutors, poor soul, and by villainous turncoats in his own family. Before the novel ends, however, Dimitri demonstrates his true heroism, his loyalty, his pure heart.

Which figures: The author of this saga is the daughter of John Gotti, the convicted felon once known to tabloid headline writers as the Dapper Don and to the Justice Department as New York City's leading--and best-dressed--mobster.

"Oh, god, he's got charisma," says Victoria in an interview. "Charisma personified, oh, my goodness." She's gushing about her father, not the suave Dimitri, but it's not always easy to tell.

In fact, a number of things about Victoria Gotti are a bit unclear. When she talks about Dad as a misunderstood entrepreneur--"He was, contrary to reports you read or you're told, involved in a number of businesses," is her practiced reply--does she believe it? A jury disagreed: John Gotti, convicted of murder and racketeering, is six years into a life sentence at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill.

When she defends her younger brother John Jr., who's behind bars awaiting trial on his own racketeering charges (the indictment says he's the acting don), is she convinced of his innocence?

As for this posh six-acre spread on Long Island, with the pillared house, the stables, the tennis court and brazenly turquoise pool, is her husband Carmine's metal-recycling business doing that spectacularly?

What's clear, though, is that despite reporters' raising insulting questions like these, Victoria Gotti, 33, is having a swell time being a novelist. Late at night, when "the house is quiet, the kitchen's clean" and Carmine and their three boys are asleep, she sits up with a legal pad. The yarns she pens combine the women-in-peril motifs of Mary Higgins Clark with the name-brand potboiling (Frette sheets! Valentino gowns!) of her idol Sidney Sheldon.

"When I finish a scene I think is dynamite--what a high, I'll tell ya," Victoria says in the throaty tones of Brooklyn by way of Howard Beach, Queens. "I call up a few girlfriends, and we'll go over to the Cheesecake Factory and have banana cheesecake with tons of whipped cream."

She's settled in her living room, which reflects a penchant for gold leaf and elaborate draperies. Done up--lots of hair, lots of jewelry--but not stuck up, Victoria just wants "to be known as a good author, at least an entertaining author." She'll never be Updike, but she might be on her way to being Krantz, another personal fave. Crown has shipped a quite-respectable 50,000 copies of "I'll Be Watching You," her second novel.

In it, she indulges in a little wish fulfillment: The requisite gorgeous heroine Rose, having overcome the also-requisite childhood obstacles, writes thrillers that sell by the truckload and becomes the toast of several continents.

"I'd like to be Rose when I grow up," Victoria acknowledges. As for that rogue Dimitri, she says she gave him her father's style.

"Watching him swagger into a room, watching the response from women--worship is a strong word but appropriate," she reminisces. She is talking about Dad now, not Dimitri. "From men, it was a combination of admiration and envy."

Like Rose, Victoria Gotti has endured some hard times. Chronic heart disease has put her in the hospital with alarming frequency. Her first published work was titled "Women and Mitral Valve Prolapse." Nevertheless, she describes her childhood as otherwise idyllic.

She was, in her telling, the bookworm ("what one would call a nerd") of a close-knit and perfectly benign clan. None of "that whole Francis Ford Coppola melodrama," she says. There are elements of her account, however, that cause an outsider to go hmmmm.

The five Gotti kids lived humbly in Brooklyn and then less humbly in Queens, with their devoted mom and generous pop.

"If an ice cream truck came down the street and he had five bucks in his pocket, $4.95 went to the kids, all the kids in the neighborhood," Victoria says. "Everyone loved him. Loved him!"

And who better to serve as her protector when her brother filched and read her locked diary and shared it with his buddies? Devastated, she told her father, who chewed out John Jr. but good: Bad enough to be nosy, but to be indiscreet. . . .

"That privacy thing was a big deal to him," she says. Hmmmm.

The FBI, it should be noted, is weary of the Gotti-as-charmer, Gotti-as-Robin Hood interpretation.

"The government proved to a jury's satisfaction that Gotti was the head of the Gambino organized crime family and that he had sanctioned several homicides and directed the activities of a violent criminal enterprise," a spokesman for the bureau's New York office says. Five homicides, to be precise. "His alleged philanthropic activity, or support or lack thereof in the community, is not really an issue with us."

It took the feds years, as part of the long crusade that helped cripple the mob in New York, to convict Gotti in 1992. Now his daughter says it's a mistake to see her new novel as an attack on any particular law enforcement official like, oh, say, former U.S. attorney-turned-mayor Rudy Giuliani.

"But the good guys are not always the good guys," she warns darkly. "And the bad guys aren't always the bad guys. . . . My point is, corruption is everywhere, from the mean streets of east New York to the White House."

This is a message that Gottis everywhere can applaud, and they have. Her father wrote to tell her how much he liked her book--"with an exclamation point. I thought, 'Whew,' " she reports. "At any age, we still seek our parents' approval. People would say, 'Oh, move on. Grow up.' I dunno, it goes back to that respect thing."

Prison affording ample time to read, they talk books when she visits her father.

"We both agree on Sidney Sheldon," she reports. Beyond that, John Gotti loves John le Carre, while Victoria Gotti prefers something a bit more romantic. "I like to be transported," she says.

Which is also her goal as an author.

"You buy my book, I work for you," she says. "If I took you away for a while, out of your mundane existence for five hours, mission accomplished. And you got your $23 worth."

Her publisher has contracted for two more books, and she's wondering which of two ideas to take up next in her late-night writing sessions. One tale, which came to her before the recent switched-at-birth case in Virginia, concerns a young woman who grows up in a family that's not really hers.

"She wants this other girl's life," Victoria explains. Hmmmm.

Or she might continue an already-begun legal thriller, in which Our Heroine is a defense attorney. As the case proceeds, she learns that her client, whom she trusted and believed, is guilty after all.

"She gets this sick feeling," Victoria narrates. "And he turns to her with a devilish smile and says, 'When did you figure it out?' "

"But the good guys are not always the good guys. And the bad guys aren't always the bad guys.

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