“I think there are some facts in this fiction book”
Although never given a formal nickname, Ralph “Wiggum” Natale would be the perfect one. Much like his Simpsons namesake, Ralph came off as a jumbled mess of one-part tough guy, two-parts bitter, and zero-parts self-aware. He likened himself to a Carlo Gambino but came off more like an Anthony Ruggiero. The Last Don Standing, written in 2017, is full of hyperbole, lies, and exaggeration from a marginal player in organized crime whose claim to fame was becoming a lightning rod for law enforcement. Unfortunately, the authors were convinced they had the next Mafia Prince on their hands, going as far as ripping it off by starting the book with an ominous murder story. Instead of dealing with the fact they just got bamboozled, the authors were trying their hardest to convince the readers (and themselves) that Ralph Natale was the real deal. To its credit, the book does offer another set of eyes on the tumultuous period of organized crime in Philadelphia following the downfalls of both Angelo Bruno and Nicky Scarfo and its resulting fallout. Is this book completely worthless? No. Can you get the same information elsewhere? Yes. Should you read it? Only if you hate yourself. Despite the general hatred towards this book, I will split my thoughts into three sections: The Good, The Terrible, and… The Intriguing?
Now you might be wondering how can the Last Don Standing have any redeeming qualities. Well, it does… somewhat. I think this book works only when paired with Mafia Price, written by fellow Philly mobster Phil Leonetti. Mafia Prince is based on the perspective of Phil and as such heavily focused on the Cowboy era of Nicodemo Scarfo and Atlantic City. Thus, the book was light on detail regarding Philadelphia before and after Scarfo’s time. When paired together, readers are offered a more thorough perspective on Bruno’s last years as Boss as well as the aftermath of Philadelphia’s leadership being decimated by Nicky’s RICO conviction in 1988. The book does a really good job at illustrating two points: i) how hard it is to be a mob Boss and ii) the anarchy on Philadelphia’s streets after Scarfo’s era. We get a firsthand look at the chaos as three factions emerge to claim the mantle. Scarfo Jr. was desperately trying to maintain what was left after his father’s conviction. John Stanfa showed up out of nowhere with the support of some old-timers and the Gambino’s to claim control of the streets. Finally, upstart punks like Joey Merlino and his Ciancaglini acolytes put their feet down to assert dominance. The shoot-outs, betrayals, and eventual victory of the Natale-Merlino faction makes for a riveting read. We get a firsthand look at the urban warfare and the stressful lives of wise guys in the 90s. One minute you are driving down the highway with your son, the next minute he has a bullet logged in his jaw due to a barrage of fire from rival gangsters. Mobsters were gunned down in front of their houses, restaurants, before trials. It was a real throwback to the days of Prohibition and Al Capone. I thought those parts of the book were done well and showed us a deeper look into South Philadelphia during the tumultuous times of the 1990s.
Well… where do I even begin? The title is false advertising. This book is not about “the last don” as only one and a half chapters are dedicated to Ralph Natale’s tenure as “Boss”. Not to mention all the blatantly false or misleading information given out, the most painful one being his super-secret initiation ceremony with Carlo Gambino and Angelo Bruno. How about his egomaniacal, self-absorbed, and self-serving narrative? Let me break it down into more detail.
Ralph Natale’s tenure as Boss was a short one, lasting only 45 months. Actually, it was unusual in several ways. Despite claiming to be the one calling the shots, it is well known that Merlino was the one who controlled things. That’s not to say Ralph was useless, he had some connections to several old-timers and acted as the perfect lightning rod. This book served as an opportunity to learn more about what it was like to be a Boss, even if in name only. Unfortunately, unless Joseph Massino or Joey Merlino writes a book, this was our only opportunity to get the perspective of a more contemporary mob “Boss”. All that is wasted. Instead, the book’s page count is padded out with exposition you can Google and third-hand stories told to Ralph Natale. In fact, aside from the questionable facts, that was my main problem with the book. You can’t even call this a biography because a lot of chapters are filled with needless historical exposition to give context to events in Philadelphia or retelling stories that Ralph heard from others. Most of them had nothing to do with Ralph, so why should we care? At least a third of the book focused on events that took place while Ralph Natale was in prison, which meant he could rarely offer an insightful perspective or tell us something we don’t already know. More infuriatingly is that some chapters are dedicated to things that have almost nothing to do with the mob or Philadelphia. Where are the prison stories? Ralph spent so much time in there, I’m sure he could tell us more than what’s written. It was very frustrating reading that.
What makes the dishonesty worse is Ralph Natale’s unapologetic, ego-driven narrative where he always claimed he was the best. From the very first story, readers are meant to come away with the idea that Ralph Natale was a stone-cold gangster. A bonafide mobster. A man who had a good sense of irony. Ralph killed Joe McGreal (union official) in the car Ralph gifted to him. Like something out of a Godfather movie – Ralph literally gave the man the gift of death. After taking a test as a child, it was determined that Ralph had an IQ of 138. All the nuns were raving about it. At eleven, he already held a reputation in the streets of Philadelphia as a tough guy, someone not to be trifled with. Wayne Grande’s father praised Ralph Natale’s marksmanship. Certified gangsters like Salvie Testa looked up to Ralphy from afar. As a mere associate, he carried himself in a nonchalant way – calm and confident like the mob Boss he was destined to become. And the book goes on and on like this. From the way Ralph Natale portrayed himself, you’d think Carlo Gambino was the one taking lessons from him. But was he really that smart? He got caught on wiretaps blabbing like a high school teenager. Merlino wanted to get rid of Ron Previte (cop turned mobster turned FBI informant), but Ralph kept him because he was cash thirsty. He complained about Nicky Scarfo’s homicidal tendencies but killed or conspired to kill four people in his short tenure, ranging from captains to associates. Despite being a follower of true “Cosa Nostra” principles, Ralph conveniently deflected his two drug charges. He lied to the judge about his regret of joining the mob when the book says he flipped just to stick it to Merlino. Ralph Natale got 13 years. His pal Joey Merlino would get out two months before him. In an ironic twist of fate, the guy who claimed to mastermind the Mafia’s takeover of Atlantic City never saw a dime from it. He went to jail before the action started and came out after the unions were already purged of LCN. Ralph Natale got the short end of the stick many times, and truthfully, he deserved it for subjecting readers to this book. The “last don” was just a grumpy meth dealer who could not do the time. Walter Jr. would run laps around him.
*** This assumes we can trust the book***
The book’s contents around John Stanfa, one time boss of the Philly Crime Family, created several questions/implications towards Joey Merlino, modern-day Philadelphia, and the Gambino Crime Family. While everything Ralph Natale said must be taken with a mountain-sized grain of salt, his conversations with Vic Amuso initiated thought-provoking questions regarding modern-day La Cosa Nostra. According to mob tradition, only a Boss can initiate new members into their crime family, and the Boss is only official if he is recognized by The Commission (at least when it was relevant like it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s). This raises questions regarding Philadelphia’s situation post-Scarfo and today’s Gambino Crime Family. First, Vic Amuso “said” that John Stanfa was never formally appointed as the boss of the Bruno-Scarfo Crime Family. That was because the new Commission members (post Commission Trial) created a rule whereby foreign-born Italians were forbidden from becoming Bosses. Given Stanfa was born in Sicily, he was not eligible for the Boss position. Furthermore, his primary backer, the Gambino Family, renounced their support for him as well. This means that John Stanfa was never really the Boss and thus anyone who was brought into the Family under his reign was not a real made member. This line of thought throws a huge wrench into current-day Philadelphia, considering Joey Merlino was originally made under Stanfa, and thus anyone initiated under Merlino (including Ralph Natale) is not technically legitimate. Of course, for all practical purposes, this doesn’t matter as Merlino, and his Borgata are recognized by the New York families. This is just an interesting what-if situation. However, an astute “mobologist”, might question Ralph Natale’s story and the supposed foreign-born ban by stating that the alleged Boss of the Gambino Crime Family is non-other than Domenico “Italian Dom” Cefalu, born and raised in Palermo, Sicily. There are three ways to explain that situation. First, the Commission overturned the rule at some point, the rule never existed in the first place and was a convenient excuse for Ralph Natale/Joey Merlino to delegitimize Stanfa’s regime, or finally that whatever rules the Commission imposed are no longer followed because it either doesn’t exist or holds no real authority anymore. Whatever the case may be, it is a curious hypothetical to discuss.
Another interesting aspect that the book raised, is the internal politics between crime families and their internal Sicilian factions. While the Bonanno Zips are more well-known for their unruliness and at times hostile relationships with their American counterparts, culminating with Carmine Galante’s failed coup to oust the Commission-appointed boss, the Gambino Zips had agendas of their own it seemed. John Stanfa got his start in Philadelphia thanks to the close friendship between Angelo Bruno and Carlo Gambino. John Stanfa’s nephew [allegedly] was John Gambino and recommended that he was placed with Bruno*. The Gentle Don, who was Sicilian himself, took a quick liking to Stanfa with the latter becoming his driver. At that time, the Philly mob was aligned with the Gambino Crime Family, and Paul Castellano wanted it to remain as such, maintaining close ties with Angelo Bruno. Any change in leadership was going to tilt the balance of power in the Genovese’s favor, giving them control of the Commission. Few knew of the impending hit on Bruno, as orchestrator Antonio Caponigro was being nudged towards this suicidal plot by the treacherous Genovese. But an unlikely person did know, one who could have saved Bruno and prevented the chaos that would follow his death. John Gambino [allegedly] knew due to Stanfa’s involvement and instead of informing his boss, Big Paul, about it, he chose to do nothing allowing Bruno to die. Now, why would John Gambino allow this to happen? A fellow Sicilian died. The Gambino’s interests and position were irrevocably harmed. How did John benefit from this? We will probably never know. But this does show that least at that time, the Sicilian faction was like a Family within the Family – its agenda not always lining up with the broader Borgata. Maybe Nicky Scarfo was right by not trusting those Siggys.
* I could not find a third party independent source describing the exact relationship between John Stanfa and the Gambino family. The book, The Last Gangster, by George Anastasia, mentions that John Stanfa had, “several family members … were major Mafiosi – and his family ties to the Gambino organization.” So, at the very least John Stanfa has some distant relationship with John Gambino. Furthermore, he was arrested driving a car registered to a company owned by Emmanuel ‘Matty’ Gambino following the Bruno murder. Whatever his exact relationships were, he was extremely close to the Sicilian Gambino faction.
Hope this sparks some interest in the Philly mob. Next time we will go back to New York and discuss Little Al D’Arco’s rise to power and the tumultuous reigns of Vic Amuso and Gaspipe Casso.