Joseph Bonanno, 97; Infamous Mobster

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Joseph Bonanno, the notorious gangster known as “Joe Bananas” who ran one of the nation’s most powerful Mafia groups in the 1950s and ‘60s, died Saturday in Tucson. He was 97.

Bonanno, who retired to Arizona in 1968 and had suffered from several health problems in recent years, died of heart failure, said his attorney, Alfred “Skip” Donau. He died peacefully, surrounded by his family, Donau said.

At the height of his power, Bonanno directed one of the five original crime families in New York City. The public knew him as “Joe Bananas”--a nickname he detested.


By his own admission, he was a member of “the Commission,” which acted as an organized-crime board of directors in New York and other major U.S. cities. He denied engaging in such “unmanly” activities as narcotics trafficking or prostitution, though authorities said otherwise.

Through it all, Bonanno called himself “a man of honor.”

“I say before, and I say again: All my life I’ve been misunderstood,” he told Mike Wallace during a 1983 “60 Minutes” interview. “I just run my family as a father.”

“I was born a man of honor,” he said. “I was the most respected man in New York and all over the country.”

Joseph Bonanno was born Jan. 18, 1905, in Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily, the son of a prosperous farmer whose family commanded both fear and respect.

His parents brought him to the United States when he was a year old but returned five years later to Castellammare, where Joseph began living the life of a well-to-do Sicilian youth.

Recalling this time in later years, Bonanno told how he and a band of youthful companions used terror to enforce the code of silence upon younger and weaker schoolmates, and how his father conspired to destroy a virtuous woman’s reputation in order to beat a murder charge.


His father died when he was 10, his mother five years later. At 19, Bonanno returned to the United States illegally through Cuba and joined the Brooklyn Mafia gang commanded by Salvatore Maranzano, an old friend of his father’s.

The emergence of the Maranzano gang caused concern for Joe Masseria, who was then considered the leader of all Mafia organizations in New York. Most of the gang’s members hailed from Castellammare.

Young Bonanno quickly built a reputation, increasing Maranzano’s illicit liquor business, expanding the Italian lottery operation to all of Brooklyn and investing the extra money in many legitimate businesses. Masseria decided to wipe out the Castellammarese faction as a possible rival.

The “Castellammarese War” of 1931 began with several street murders and seemed for a time to be a simple takeover by the Masseria group. But as the months passed, the tide of battle began to shift.

Aided by Bonanno’s strategic and tactical abilities, the Brooklyn group soon gained a considerable advantage in numbers and firepower. Masseria lieutenants Lucky Luciano and Vito Genovese, realigning their loyalties, arranged Masseria’s murder in return for an open-arms welcome from the Maranzano organization.

Three months later, Bonanno conspired to take the place of his employer and benefactor, Maranzano, by having the older man shot and stabbed to death.


His reward was immediate.

In New York City, five Mafia “families” were established, headed by Luciano, Vincent Mangano, Gaetano Gagliano, Joseph Profaci, and the youngest don of the national syndicate, 26-year-old Bonanno.

In the fall of 1931, just two months after he set up the murder of his father’s old friend, Bonanno married Fay Labruzzo--and began a period of tranquillity and prosperity that would last two decades.

His cash reserves enabled him to make a number of profitable real estate investments during the Depression and, unlike many other mobsters, he largely avoided serious trouble.

Al Capone went to prison for income tax evasion. Genovese fled the country to avoid a murder charge. Luciano was imprisoned for pimping, and other Mafia chieftains were busily shooting each other in territorial disputes.

Bonanno was arrested numerous times, including once in the 1930s when he was accused of transporting guns for Capone. But his sole conviction during that era came in 1945 for violating wage laws. He was fined $450.

Bonanno fell from grace during the 1960s, reputedly for trying to become the boss of bosses in what came to be known as “the Banana War.” The battle among the crime families resulted in his eventual exile to Tucson.


His crime family still bears his name, though he maintained in his 1983 autobiography, “A Man of Honor, the Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno,” that “I’m not a Father anymore and there is no Bonanno Family anymore.”

Even in his waning years, Bonanno was unable to avoid the attention of prosecutors.

In 1980, they succeeded in getting the only felony conviction against him, for obstruction of justice for trying to block a federal grand jury investigating his sons.

Evidence that led to the conviction was obtained by a narcotics strike force that sifted through his trash for years.

A federal judge eventually reduced his five-year sentence to a year, and Bonanno served nearly eight months in a Lexington, Ky., federal prison before being paroled in July 1984.

In 1985 and ‘86, he served 14 months in prison for contempt of court. He had refused to answer prosecutors’ questions before a planned trial of reputed leaders of New York’s organized crime families.

The judge and prosecutors--including then-U.S. Atty. Rudolph Giuliani--had traveled to Tucson to take his testimony, but Bonanno claimed ill health in refusing to testify.


In 1984, he sued his publisher for $18 million over what he said was a depiction of a “cheap gangster” on the cover of the paperback version. He described himself in the book as a “venture capitalist” who invested in businesses with owners that invited him to become a partner because of his connections.

But a 1983 New York City police report to the Senate Judiciary Committee said the Bonanno organization historically “has been deeply rooted in the importation of narcotics” into the United States and was also heavily involved in pornography.

The “Banana War” ran roughly from 1964 to 1969, and started after Bonanno reportedly plotted to assassinate several other family bosses, including Carlo Gambino and Thomas Lucchese.

In October 1964, Bonanno disappeared, allegedly kidnapped by a cousin and rival just as he was supposed to testify before a grand jury in New York City.

Bonanno said he was released after being held in a farmhouse for six weeks. He later fled to his second home in Tucson and stayed out of sight for 19 months before surrendering to a federal judge in New York. Authorities suggested his kidnapping was staged to prevent him from having to testify.

Meanwhile, Bonanno’s crime family descended into civil war between a group loyal to Bonanno and his son Salvatore and another composed of dissidents supported by the other commission bosses.


At least 13 people died, including three Bonanno opponents killed in a gunfight at a Queens restaurant. The dispute dragged on for five years with no clear winner. Bonanno’s two sons, Salvatore and Joseph Jr., also have been involved in scrapes with the law.

Joseph Jr. was given a 120-day jail sentence in June 1985 after pleading guilty to making a false statement to a federal drug agent during an alleged cocaine conspiracy investigation.

Both sons also were charged in an alleged home-improvement scam. Salvatore was convicted and Joe Jr. pleaded no contest in a plea bargain.