The Life We Chose (2023) – William “Big Billy” D’Elia – Book Review

Books about Mafia Bosses are a dime a dozen, but it’s not every day that you see one written with the assistance of the guy on the cover. Prior to the publication of The Life We Chose by author Matt Birkbeck, only two other English books were written with the help of the title character in question. A Man of Honor about Joseph Bonanno was pretty good but flawedThe Last Don about Ralph Natale was well… you can read about it here… How did William D’Elia’s book stack up? Unfortunately, the third time wasn’t the charm. The issue was not with “Big Billy”. He came off very truthful and I thought answered to the best of his ability as long as it stayed away from the topic of violence. And that’s not a knock against him, we don’t know the nature of his cooperation agreement. The main issue that arises with this book is how Matt chose to structure it and which “plot points” he leaned into. There is a couple of ways I would use to describe this book. In many ways, it reminded me of Michael Franzese’s Blood Covenant, where a lot of surface-level anecdotes were told that hint at bigger and better stories that never get explored. It also felt like a typical Mafia-related writing check-the-box exercise. Bootlegging? Check. Cuba/Fidel Castro/CIA? Check. JFK? Check. Jimmy Hoffa? Check. The Godfather? Check. Unfortunately, few if any of these had anything to do with Billy or had any impact on his “mob career”. And now we come to the biggest structuring problem and why those events take up so much of the word count. This book contains 21 chapters. Spoiler Alert! Russell Bufalino dies in Chapter 14. As a result, much of this book isn’t even about D’Elia, it’s about Russell with Billy just hanging around at the scene, literally driving the plot forward by getting Bufalino from one place to the next. Akin to The Godfather, it’s not really a book (or movie) about the Mafia, rather it is a story of a father-son-like relationship between two individuals and their (personal) family dynamics. After completing the book, it is clear the intentions were all wrong. Billy wanted “to correct” Russell’s image after his portrayal by Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. For Matt Birkbeck, this was an opportunity to expand Bufalino’s story, a man the author is clearly fascinated with. Between these goals, there was little room for D’Elia’s own story, and it gets squeezed between the sidelines, almost an afterthought left to the very end of the book. In this way, the jacket cover is brilliant as William remains in the shadows of his own mentor.     

Let’s start with a few positives because there are some things that the book did very well. The picture section at the back is brilliant, probably the best one I have ever seen. There are only a couple of stock photos taken from newspaper archives and the rest were sourced courtesy of the Bufalino and D’Elia families’ personal collections. There were countless pictures of William with Russell at various stages of their lives, showcasing the deep bond the two men enjoyed. It was well selected and it’s honestly worth to the grab the book just for them. Birkbeck is also a good writer. His prose is easy to read, and he made even the more mundane activities sound pretty exciting. This all helps make for a quick read and I was able to knock out the book in just a couple of afternoons. Lastly, William came off as a pretty likeable individual who didn’t embellish his stature too much and answered the questions posed to him in a thorough way. We get a good grasp of his personal relationship with his family and how the mob life impacted his household dynamics. We also get a very thorough understanding of his relationship with Russell Bufalino and the evolution from being complete strangers to that of a father and son duo. The best parts of the book are those little stories and moments of dialogue that help characterize Bufalino and D’Elia and bring them to life. We also get a great look at interactions between Bufalino’s inner-core group of friends, namely his cousin Angelo, his underboss Dave Osticco and soldier Casper Guimento. One gets the sense of friendship and loyalty they exuded to Russ. However, that’s where the positives end, I’m afraid.     

The biggest problem is that the book focused way too much on Russell Bufalino and that impacted the story selection and pacing. The text lingers on Jimmy Hoffa and Cuba for way too long. These were (perhaps) important events for Bufalino, but they hardly affected Billy’s life – he was inconsequential at that point. Thus, some years get outsized focus and before you know it the book is about to end and it’s only the 1990s, the time William truly got to be his own man. Maybe Matt was about to hit his contractual word count limit, but we breezed through two decades in only a short bit which left an unsatisfying account of Billy’s reign as the Boss. Besides his involvement in Philadelphian mob politics and settling hip-hop contracts, we really get nothing about his time as the leader. D’Elia was repeatedly described as a mob powerbroker with numerous contacts, but we really get nothing from the text to substantiate that. It’s not that it was made up, we do know he maintained relationships with other smaller Midwest and West Coast families deep into the 1990s and yet we get nothing about the meeting he helped set up between the Los Angeles and Pittsburgh families. We have FBI reports as to why that meeting happened for example, but it would’ve been nice to get his perspective on the event. For a Mafia diplomat, we really don’t get too many stories that reflected that. Hardly anything is written about Billy’s criminal enterprises, union activities, garbage rackets, and other ventures. Was he involved in the coal scams of the 1970s? I don’t know. Billy is a secondary character in his own book and that’s just not right. Birkbeck could’ve just published a revised version of the Bufalino book containing Billy’s new information and given D’Elia’s story room to breathe in a dedicated manuscript.     

The other main problem with the book is the spotty research, carelessness about protocol, and the inability to distinguish which facts were supported by corroboration from Big Billy. Basic and small mistakes litter the book that detracts from its credibility. For instance, Matt wrote that Nicky Scarfo appointed John Stanfa as his successor when it is well known that the latter usurped that position after Nicky Jr. and Scarfo’s loyalists were unable to maintain their grip over the family. Sometimes titles are thrown out in a confusing manner. For example, Joseph Zito was described as a “Bufalino soldier”, but based on contemporary newspaper articles and the Pennsylvania Crime Commission, he was likely an associate. At another time,  Ellis Klepfer was depicted as both a “member” and “associate” of the Bufalino family in the same sentence! The distinction might be pedantic to a casual reader, but those two words mean two very different things. Without a bibliography or endnotes, however, it makes it really hard to understand where he got some of the more questionable details. Relatedly, it is sometimes unclear when Matt’s facts are corroborated by Billy and to what extent he agreed or supported them. The biggest instance of that was when Matt claimed that at one point Russell Bufalino was running the Magaddino (Buffalo) and Genovese families during their times of uncertainty. Now that is a big, big claim. Billy somewhat meekly and implicitly acknowledged that Russell was involved in the leadership of the Genovese but didn’t offer much detail or really explain what it mean practically and how it manifested politically. At other times, Matt missed the chance to push Billy to explain his characterization of certain individuals. Billy called Tino Fiumara the Boss of the Genovese crime family. Fuimara was, at one point, on a ruling panel in the late 2000s, but that was well after Billy was off the streets. So, why did he call him that and what did he base that off? Were Vincent Gigante and Liborio Bellomo the “Front Bosses” all along, covering for Tino? I don’t know because we are not told. The facts, dates, titles, and people needed to be polished up.     

Perhaps I’m being punitive because I bought this book with the expectation that it would answer a singular question that was ultimately left unanswered. In the United States, there were about 26 (give or take) Mafia families, dotting metropolitan cities and rural villages alike. Today fewer than 10 remain (and even fewer are criminally active). Why is that? RICO, demographic changes, and a host of other reasons are perfectly valid explanations, but none of those can explain why Thomas “Sonny” Ciancutti from Pittsburgh couldn’t make a few Italians. Clearly, there are Italians in the Steel City area that are willing to commit crimes with the recent Robert Iannelli case coming to mind. Why didn’t Pete Milano make a few guys before checking out – just to keep “this thing” going? These men swore oaths to commit murder on behalf of their secret society, their brotherhood to preserve their unique way of life. William D’Elia was in a meeting with Salvatore J. Profaci, a Colombo captain, who exclaimed, “[La Costa Nostra] is a beautiful way of life if we respect it”. D’Elia agreed, replying “The way it’s supposed to be, it’s not an instrument to make money.” If he liked the Mafia so much, why did he never induct anyone? Why did he not make new soldiers and keep the Bufalino crime family going, to be passed down to the next generation? Why let this thing you love so much wither away and die? I really, really wanted to know this, to understand his thought process and reasoning. Why let your legacy die? Why let Russ’s legacy die? Why contribute to the death of the Mafia? 

I remain hopeful and optimistic. Perhaps Big Billy will jump on the YouTube circuit and give us the time of day to find out more about his life. There is still time… Anyways, where’s Joe Massino?

With that being said, thank you for reading this review. As always shout out to the R/Mafia Discord. Please check out JoePuzzles234’s website on California’s Cosa Nostra and The Black Hand Forum for the most well-researched Mafia information.