John “Sonny” Franzese Sr. in the 1960s and at the peak of his powers
It has been a while since my last “Mafia book review”, but what can I say? I have been busy writing about another topic. Yet I couldn’t resist giving my thoughts on Sonny: The Last of the Old Time Mafia Bosses, John “Sonny” Franzese, written by author S.J. Peddie. This was a book that I anticipated for several months now, and it was an exciting time given this was the very first “live” book roll-out I consciously experienced. All of the previous reviews dealt with biographies written several years to several decades ago. When I first saw the book cover, I thought it looked amazing and the title encapsulated what John “Sonny” Franzese was all about. The red rusted almost brown jacket colour was a perfect choice; there is a lot of symbolism one can extract from it. I had high expectations from the author because I saw S.J. Peddie’s work with Newsday on the American Gangster documentary series about Sonny. Once I got the book, I finished it in a day. A couple of days later, I read it again. I really wanted to sink my teeth into the manuscript. So, what do I think about it? I liked the book, but I think there could have been more to it. It felt like eating an entrée in a fancy restaurant; the meal is delicious, but you don’t leave the table quite full and satisfied. Let’s dig deeper.
I was pleasantly surprised just how much the author and Sonny talked. When she said she had six extensive interviews, she really meant it and every chapter included quotes and insights from the man himself. Sure, he didn’t outright say he was part of the Mafia or talk about his many alleged murders, but he opened up himself quite a bit. From his childhood experiences to his opinions on some of Gangland’s most famous figures, to his encounters with celebrities and famous musicians and beyond, Sonny came across as a very charismatic and sometimes funny guy. Some mob lingo slipped from him on occasion when he referred to Morris “Mo” Levy, the powerful music executive, as “a friend of mine”. Another thing that jumped off the page was his ego, the man sure did love himself and a lot of his stories ended with his win over an adversary or the conquering of a famous beauty. It was also clear that he was shameless about his career choice, only regretting what prison life did to his family. But besides his perspective, S.J. Peddie interviewed over a hundred people from his long-time mistress Gina Lynch to Sonny’s extended family and even other former gangsters like Michael’s former loyal henchmen Frankie “G” Castagnaro. This helped create a very full narrative and a layered perspective on the man, and the author’s efforts were clearly rewarded.
Something else I really appreciated was S.J. Peddie’s scepticism and pushing back on some of the claims her interviewees made. I was somewhat worried that the book would be too apologetic towards the Franzese family, given this project was partially kicked-off thanks to Michael Franzese’s suggestion. I’m relieved to say that those fears were unfound. The author ripped into Michael within the first few pages and rightfully stated that he was a cooperator. In fact, Michael’s image got quite a trashing from new revelations that he tricked his first wife, Maria, into signing divorce papers under false pretenses and that he lied to his immediate family in the lead up to his cooperation, putting his own brother John Jr. in a fatal position that he was lucky to survive. The relationship between Sonny and Michael was also not as peachy as he made it out to be. She also revealed more of what he told prosecutors, such as illuminating Edward McDonald about the Mafia’s presence in Denver through the Smaldone brothers. I didn’t realize just how long the stench of his cooperation hung over Sonny, as both members within the Colombo’s and from other Families brought this up decades later. The author was also sceptical of Sonny and rightfully called him out or presented alternatives to some of the events he described. In all, she provided a very balanced take on the Franzese family. Any Hollywood glimmer and allure were stripped away by the time one got to the last page. Both of Sonny’s families suffered, largely because of him.
Finally, I think the most stand out part of this book was when it dealt with Sonny’s trials in the late 1960s and his battles against the infamous crew of bank robbers that put him away for 50 years. This was the most thoroughly described section and I think the book on Sonny was largely an excuse to explore and talk about Sonny’s four indictments, all handed down in 1966. The trials were described with immaculate detail, full of court excerpts and the accompanying theatrics. The author again came off unbiased and gave the robbers their due credit. They did come across well on the stand, and the defence’s tactics largely failed to dislodge them. If anything, I went into reading this book with the idea that Sonny was probably framed, but after reading about the case, I’m not so sure anymore. One of the strongest arguments for the frame job is that the bank robbers were used as witnesses in two subsequent trials: the Ernie “the Hawk” Rupolo homicide and the Abraham “Al” Ezrati home invasion cases. Both times, Sonny was found not guilty. Clearly then, the majority of juries found those witnesses to be unreliable. Sonny was framed and just plain unlucky that the first jury didn’t give him a fair shake. Well as it turned out, in both subsequent trials, a miraculous last-minute witness appeared that injected just enough reasonable doubt to muck up the prosecutor’s case. I knew there was one in the Rupolo homicide but didn’t know the same thing transpired in the home invasion case. That made me believe that maybe after finding that his lawyers were unable to discredit the bank robbers, Sonny took the matters into his own hands and got himself insurance. The post-trials saga between the Franzese family and the robbers was also quite interesting, and a surprising number of facts and events were mentioned that Michael Franzese has conveniently failed to recall either in his books or videos. I don’t think I would be able to find a better overview of Sonny’s cases and it is clear the author dedicated an inordinate number of hours to that part of his life. Yet with the good also came the bad and there were crucial things that I felt were either in need of further development or outright missing.
Maybe I’m not the right person to judge this book. I clearly have a bias for the Franzese family because their story has captivated me for so long. Maybe I’m being overly critical of a book meant for a more general audience that likes to read about crime and American history, but I can’t help myself. I thought given S.J. Peddie’s access to so many people connected to Sonny Franzese, her capacity to access a vast amount of court and judicial records, ability to interview prosecutors and law enforcement agents, talented writing skills, and connections within journalism and beyond that, she could have written a fuller story. I think she should have expanded on three key areas: Sonny’s Family, Sonny’s family, and Sonny’s businesses. I also think that at times her skepticism did not go enough. For instance, she accepted both Sonny’s induction at 14 and Michael Franzese’s induction in 1975 at face value. While Sonny’s induction date has more leeway because of how old he is, Michael was almost certainly inducted in 1978, not 1975. What did it really mean that Sonny’s father was a ‘Cosa Nostra don in Naples’? There could have been a bit more pushback and explanation, I think.
One aspect that I thought was a bit lacking was really contextualizing Sonny’s standing within the Colombo Family and beyond. That context was really well fleshed-out during the Family’s transition from Joseph Magliocco to Joseph Colombo and the entirety of his reign. We got bits of that after Sonny’s first parole in the late 70s and early 80s and in the 2000s, but I think more could have been done. We barely got anything about his working relationship, opinions or interactions with Alphonse “Little Allie Boy” Persico in the late 90s and early-to-mid 2000s, nor his dealings with other senior members and captains within the Colombo Family after the mid-80s. Moreover, what about his interactions with other crime families? Sonny himself talked about Joseph Bonanno being jealous of him, why not explore his role in the ‘Bananna Wars’? Finally, I think more could have been done in regards to the exploration of Sonny’s crew, given their loyalty gave Sonny a lot of his power. Felice “Philly” Vizzari seemed like the only constant, and he was well developed, but what about the rest? The Galasso’s for example, while mentioned in the book, were a missed opportunity. Three generations of that family served as associates to Franzese in different rackets and I think it would have been neat to dig into that. What about Tony “the Gawk” Augello? Sonny said he refused to meet Nicky Barnes because of his drug-dealing activities, and yet Sonny’s very own crew member was reported by Newsday to have been part of a massive heroin ring. How did Sonny feel about that? The book could have used a bit more of that.
Sonny’s relationship with his family was written about in great detail. In fact, the book could be aptly described as being less about Sonny Franzese and more about the Franzese family. A lot of time was dedicated to describing Sonny’s home life, from his constant fights with Tina to his immediate relationships with his sons Michael and John Jr. Carmine “Tutti” Franzese was also mentioned in the book and Sonny had a good relationship with him. Michael, though, was of a different opinion on Tutti due to an incident involving him and Joseph “Little Joey” Brancato spreading a rumour that could have damaged Tina’s reputation. Michael is admittedly cagey about this situation, but maybe this could have been explored more? We also found out that Sonny’s extended family was also deeply involved in the Mafia. John Jr.’s cousin, Michael Catapano, was Sonny’s acting captain and another cousin, John Capolino, was also part of an incident that occurred with the Bonanno’s. Sonny said he tried to push his family away from crime, so how did those cousins get involved? Did Sonny encourage their descent into criminal activity? What about Sonny’s siblings? Onofrio Franzese was briefly mentioned, but we know that at least one other brother of Sonny’s was involved in crime – how was their relationship like? The book could have used a bit more of that.
S.J. Peddie went into considerable depth about Sonny’s music business and connections, his extortion plots and interactions with different artists. It was extremely well done and the most thorough assessment I have seen of his relationships within the entertainment industry. I felt like his other businesses and rackets could have benefited from a similar level of intense exploration. For instance, she mentioned Sonny’s main bread and butter was loan sharking and talked at lengths about the innovation he brought into the racket by leveraging degenerate bankers into putting out loaned money on the street. How about exploring Sonny’s relationship with Melvin Cooper, the loan shark of the waste industry that Sonny Franzese controlled? I think it would have been great to mention given the impact he had on the Franzese family via his involvement in Michael Franzese’s loan sharking and extortion RICO case in 1984/1985. In other instances, it was mentioned that Sonny was very interested in the labour movement, but details of that were sparse besides a story involving the Barbers’ Guild. S.J. Peddie’s very own Newsday reported that Franzese’s associates infiltrated unions in New Mexico representing car dealership employees. What was that all about? In 1980, the Allied International Union of Security Guards and Special Police came into his orbit. How did that happen? Maybe these are only interesting to me, but I would have loved just more sections dedicated to his schemes and control over the labour movement and other rackets in general. I think the book could have benefitted greatly from that.
Overall, Sonny: The Last of the Old Time Mafia Bosses provided for a compelling narrative that served as a great introduction to Sonny Franzese’s life of crime. The cover didn’t lie when Nicholas Pileggi was quoted as saying, “Couldn’t put it down”. I read this book from start to finish in one sitting, twice. It was a gripping tale, full of rich history that took the readers on an emotional rollercoaster. I just wish it had a little more meat on the bones.
Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoyed this. I will be getting back to my other writing project that will hopefully finish sooner than later. Yes, my next write up, partially, does have to do with the Franzese’s and the Colombo’s.