Prisons: Penthouse Proust

For Joe Valachi, the twelve days of Christmas always turned up 13. "I believed in Santa Claus and hung up my stocking," he solemnly attests in a recently completed 1,180-page autobiography. "But all I would get on Christmas was having my father try and give me a glass of whisky." So, as any child psychologist might have predicted, Joe joined the Cosa Nostra, muscled his way up through the ranks and then, in a long-running 1963 TV series that might have been called 1,000 Days with Bobby Kennedy, transferred his allegiance to the Irish Mafia.

These days,...