He was born and died in Italy, yet the influence on America of a grubby street urchin named Salvatore Lucania ranged from the lights of Broadway to every level of law enforcement, from national politics to the world economy. First, he reinvented himself as Charles ("Lucky") Luciano. Then he reinvented the Mafia.
His story was Horatio Alger with a gun, an ice pick and a dark vision of Big Business. He was nine when the family immigrated from Sicily, where his father had labored in the sulphur pits, to New York City. He took to the streets early, was busted almost at once for shoplifting, later for delivering drugs. Luciano was a tough teenage hoodlum on the Lower East Side when his gang targeted a skinny Jewish kid whose bold defiance won their respect. The encounter led to a merger of Jewish and Italian gangs and a lifelong friendship. When Luciano rebuilt the mob, Meyer Lansky was the architect. A ruthless natural ability enabled them to rise through the ranks of their chosen profession. Sometimes they simply eliminated the ranks. When they downsized colleagues, it was permanent.
Taking advantage of Prohibition in 1920, Luciano and Lansky supplied booze to Manhattan speakeasies. While others used small boats to offload mother ships, their contacts enabled them to dock ships in New York harbor.
An upwardly mobile member of New York's largest Mafia family, run by Giuseppe ("Joe the Boss") Masseria, Luciano grew impatient at the Castellammarese war in the late 1920s, a long and bloody power struggle between Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano. Lucky offered to eliminate his boss and end the violence, which he saw as disruptive to business. At an Italian restaurant, Joe the Boss ate lead. Lucky assumed control of the dead man's lottery business, while Maranzano seized his bootlegging turf.
Lucky's vision of replacing traditional Sicilian strong-arm methods with a corporate structure, a board of directors and systematic infiltration of legitimate enterprise failed to impress Maranzano. An ancient-history aficionado and would-be Julius Caesar, Maranzano aspired to be boss of all bosses. Most of all, he wanted to avoid Caesar's fatal miscalculation. He found Lucky too ambitious, too enterprising, too dangerous.
And Maranzano was too late. He was killed by police impersonators, hit men provided by Lansky and mutual friend Benjamin ("Bugsy") Siegel. More rubouts followed, in a well-orchestrated cutback of old-time Sicilian gangsters. Yet Luciano's management style would be far different from that of his Chicago counterpart Al Capone, who spent more time killing than doing business.
The FBI describes Luciano's ascendancy as the watershed event in the history of organized crime. After his hostile takeover, Luciano organized organized crime. He modernized the Mafia, shaping it into a smoothly run national crime syndicate focused on the bottom line. The syndicate was operated by two dozen family bosses who controlled bootlegging, numbers, narcotics, prostitution, the waterfront, the unions, food marts, bakeries and the garment trade, their influence and tentacles ever expanding, infiltrating and corrupting legitimate business, politics and law enforcement.