Underboss (1997) – Salvatore Gravano – Book Review

“When the villain thinks he is the hero of the story”

The Bull clearly took some fashion advice from Gotti

Underboss, written by Peter Maas and published in 1997, contains enough war stories to make a Vietnam veteran blush. With its unfiltered, seemingly raw narration and crude persona, the audience is lulled into a false sense of trust and belief in every word contained within the manuscript. After all, our narrator speaks so clearly, so vividly about his Mafia life and deeds. How can you question this tell-all peek into his soul? Yet it is with this vulnerability that we get to see a glimpse of the man’s true nature. Burdened with the world’s biggest chip on their shoulder, Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano cannot get enough of himself. For all the talk about his supposed disgust for arrogance, a parade of characters is put in front of the reader to tell us about how great he is. From being complimented for his courage by different Gambino captains to being called the best witness they’ve ever seen by a federal judge; Sammy’s ego is continuously stroked. By the end of the book, readers are left with the impression that the Bull was the best thing to happen to La Cosa Nostra since a band of Sicilian farmers invented Omerta. Was he? In reality, what we got was a book narrated by an insecure man with a Napoleonic complex that’s full of excuses, hyperbole, and outright hypocrisy. He complains about the degradation of Cosa Nostra, and yet fails to acknowledge his direct contribution to it (even before testifying). Sammy likes to take full responsibility for all the successes in his life, but what about his betrayals and murders? Sorry, those were just out of his hands. In saying all of that, I liked the book as it gives us a great personal viewpoint into the politics of the Gambino Crime Family, the last moments of glory, and the twilight days of the Mafia in New York. If you can filter out the egoism, it makes for a great read. I want to further elaborate my thoughts about the book and Sammy in general into three sections: the good, the bad, and the Michael Franzese situation.

The Good:

The book has a fantastic subtle way of portraying the deterioration of La Cosa Nostra, which I found extremely refreshing. At the beginning of almost every chapter, readers are introduced to an old legendary Mafia heavyweight ranging from Joseph Colombo to Salvatore “Toddo” Aurello (Gambino skipper) who serve as mentors to Sammy, schooling him in the “true ways” of the mob. The readers are meant to admire the straight but street-wise demeanor of Joe Colombo or the low-key but alert nature of Toddo. Yet as the story unfolds, and new chieftains appear, they seem to exhibit more and more flaws. Paul Castellano was to be admired as an exemplary racketeer, a construction whiz, but a cowering gangster. Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso was a stone-cold gangster, but also a two-face, trigger happy cheat. Simply put, the new bosses did not live up to the old, they did not respect the rules. They were less and less Cosa Nostra. All this served as foreshadowing to the decay of the mob, personified in John Gotti.

The intricate detail and descriptiveness provide for a rewarding reading experience to those seeking to understand “the life”. We are given a unique narrative that explores the ins and outs of the mob. The politics, positions, culture, business operation, mob mentality; everything is provided in graphic color and vivid descriptions. We learn how they infiltrated legitimate businesses, controlled the unions, interacted with different Families, and how hits were set up. More importantly, we get to see how Sammy Gravano was different in his conduct and thought process compared to his fellow mobsters, and why that enabled him to become so successful. Many vivid stories in the book highlight his charisma, boldness, leadership skills, and head for business. For instance, early in his Colombo days, Sammy gets involved in a nightclub venture alongside John Rizzo (Gambino soldier) and Matty Gambino. Through his diligence and sheer tenacity, he managed to turn a half-done club into a main attraction of the neighborhood. To further increase the profitability and appeal of the club, Sammy also built a gambling den in the back to cater to a diverse set of clientele. All of the sudden, we see a trunk-diving thug transform into a legitimate businessman. Sammy does not skimp on stories and events, and readers are bombarded with more characters and plotlines than a Leo Tolstoy novel.

The Bull was a certified gangster, and he has the body count to prove it. What I found most fascinating is his reflections after he participated in murders and a deep dive into the psyche of a killer. Like many killers who have spoken about their deeds, what I find incomprehensible is the feelings that Sammy describes when talking about his “body of work”. No remorse. No guilt. Nothing. A cold barren emptiness. Not before the murder. Not after. More often than not, Sammy would explain away his actions as justifiable and shifted the blame (and the guilt I presume) to the now-deceased individual. Nick Scibetta (Sammy’s brother-in-law) was a junkie, he had to go. Paul Castellano was putting his interest ahead of the Family’s, he had to go. To a reader like me, this seems unfathomable. How can one not feel anything (or in fact feel joy) when you see the life drain out of another human being? To a guy who seems to hold nothing back, one murder was suspiciously missing. The book forgot to mention the murder of Alan Kaiser. Who knows? Maybe that’s the one he feels bad about.

The book is written in a fairly digestible way where most chapters focus on a theme/story even if some chapters are not placed in chronological order. Certain passages/phrases in the book sounded like something Tobias Funke from Arrested Development would say. I’d encourage people to read it just for that and look for those hidden Easter eggs. The epilogue I found extremely humorous, given that readers know what happened to Sammy shortly after the book was published. Sammy mentions that only dumb people go into a life of crime and that “nerds” and honest work is to be commended. At least he was self-aware…

The Bad:

Sammy never needed to join the Mafia. He didn’t come from a broken home. He didn’t even come from a poor home. Sammy’s parents owned a house, a summer cottage, and a garment factory! Yet with his dyslexia, the Bull found himself bullied by both kids and teachers. This led to his bitterness for the system and authority, and he looked towards the wiseguys on his street corner for self-assurance. They didn’t care about these learning problems; they appreciated his strength and courage. His childhood experience shaped and created a compulsive need from within to be liked, respected, and even feared by everyone around him. This Napoleonic complex made it so that Sammy always had to be the best at everything; he was the best shooter, he conquered the most broads; he was the biggest earner; Sammy Gravano always had to be first. Readers get overwhelmed with his egomaniacal, self-absorbed, and self-serving narration. This bleeds into some of the narrative elements of the book that make you question it. Despite being a lowly Colombo associate – Toddo, “thought the world of Sammy”. Yet, right in the next chapter, we find out Toddo barely knew anything about the guy. His incessant self-stroking is also presented in a way where it isn’t Sammy always saying how great he is, it’s the peers and victims around him! Prosecutors told him that they thought he was the real gangster, not John Gotti. John Keys (Philadelphia capo) praised Sammy as “true Cosa Nostra” moments before the latter shot the former to death. Sammy was a genius surrounded by morons. I understand biographies are meant to portray yourself in the best light, but even Michael Franzese didn’t disrespect his readers this much.

Although the book is extremely faithful and authentic in terms of events, his significance or role within certain stories made me question it due to the earlier point of Sammy’s superiority complex. After merely becoming an associate, the book makes it seem like Joe Colombo jumped for joy learning that Sammy chose to join his Family. Carmine Persico would personally school and look out for the young criminal. Despite being absent from the hundreds of hours of tape, Sammy Gravano was apparently a personal favorite of Paul Castellano, with him and Frankie DeCicco personally keeping the peace within the Family. He was Paul’s guardian angel until he wasn’t. Sammy was undeniably an important figure in LCN, but he does seem to make himself just a tad more important than he was early on. Besides the continued self-arrogance, the hypocrisy within the book is infuriating. Despite constant proclamations from himself and his peers of being “true Cosa Nostra” (even when becoming an informant), the book is filled with instances where he trampled on Cosa Nostra principles when it served him. In one instance he complained that Gaspipe, who gave them tentative support to whack Paul, double-crossed them and killed Frankie DeCicco in an attempted to assassinate John Gotti. He used this example to highlight the general degradation of Cosa Nostra principles. John’s flamboyant personality was also a betrayal of Cosa Nostra. This was a secret society after all. Can you blame Sammy for flipping? Cosa Nostra was a sham, an old way of thinking that was not upheld by his generation of mobsters. While all that is true, the book painfully glosses over Sammy’s contribution to the deterioration and downfall of “this thing”. Multiple times we see Sammy’s contempt for authority/rules translate to his Mafia dealings. We see multiple instances of disrespect uttered by Sammy towards his bosses. He tells another associate, “fuck Junior [Persico]”. Similarly, he badmouthed and threatened to kill Paul Castellano to his entourage for an unsanctioned hit (not to mention being intimately involved in his assassination later on). That’s not very Cosa Nostra like. In another instance, he raised his hand and threatened to kill DiBono over money. How about the fact that he schemed behind Rizzo’s back to get Louie made because he thought he deserved it? Sammy being oblivious and refusing to take responsibility for his actions in breaking mob rules is pretty infuriating as a reader. How do you have the gall complaining about others not following Cosa Nostra rules, when you aren’t following them too?

Right from the get-go, John Gotti is presented as hot-headed, arrogant, and incompetent. He is juxtaposed versus other Mafia leaders to demonstrate that he is not Boss material. Sammy’s coping mechanism and justification for what he had done was to believe his betrayal paled in comparison to John Gotti’s betrayal towards him. He is the villain of the book. The take on Gotti is fairly one-sided and only hints of complements are presented here and there (his dress style or his willingness to get dirty) to maintain an illusion of fairness. His biggest issue with Gotti seemed to be the characterization and reasons as to why certain murders took place. Sammy claimed that John Gotti and his crew were wholly responsible for the Robert “DiB” DiBerardo (Gambino capo) murder, while Gotti claimed on wiretaps that Sammy wanted DiB dead. Regardless of how or why it happened, Sammy would benefit the most, taking over DiB’s rackets and bumping up his cash flow. Sammy was appalled at John’s characterization of himself as being a “mad dog” begging John to let him kill people left and right. To John’s defense, Sammy had a knack for killing people that stood in the way of his greed or ability to control. I have no doubt, after reading this book, that if Sammy stayed loyal and somehow the Gambino leadership got acquitted in that trial, he and John would duke it out.

The Michael Franzese Situation:

Sammy’s biography is wholly superior to that of Michael’s, the book goes far deeper into the state, organization, and politics of LCN both within the Gambino Family and New York as a whole. As such it is the better Mafia book and would appeal to audiences who are interested in both the gangsterism and racketeering aspects of the mob. However, that book did make me question his claim of never meeting Michael Franzese even more. Sammy claims to be among the first 25 or so participants that picketed the FBI headquarters in NYC. Well, Michael was there too (and has the arrest sheet to prove it). How did they not meet or see each other? Hard to believe, especially as Sammy got into construction and nightclubs later on. Their impending clash will be something special. However, he does confirm two facts that Michael Franzese has been clowned upon by mafia enthusiasts. First, some mafia aficionados claim that the “books” were actually not open until 1976, or 1977, or even 1978 depending on who you ask. Therefore, Michael Franzese is lying when he says he was made on Halloween night in 1975. Well, Sammy does indeed confirm that the books were opened in 1975. Michael also claims that he didn’t make his bones when becoming a made man, an assertion many say is impossible. Well, once again, the book does confirm that killing someone was not a prerequisite to being made in that era of LCN. Overall, these are two mafia heavyweights and their imminent sit-down would make the famed Havana Conference look like child’s play by comparison.