Vito “Don Vito” Genovese
Vito Genovese (played by Craig Rivela) enjoyed a long run in the top echelons of Mafia power, both as an underboss and boss. He was a canny, ruthless survivor who habitually used violence and murder to get what he wanted, be it power, witness tampering or control of a family. Or a bride: Genovese married his second wife, Anna, twelve days after her husband’s body was found, strangled to death. Genovese was never convicted of murder, but his methods did backfire in one notable instance. While in prison, he reportedly ordered a hit on one of his soldiers, Joe Valachi, who was also his cellmate. The plan didn’t come off as expected; Valachi not only lived, he testified before a Senate committee in 1963, giving the public its first detailed look at the Mafia.
Born and raised near Naples, Genovese was 15 when his family came to the U.S. and settled in New York City’s Little Italy. His exploits as a menacing petty thief attracted favorable interest from the city’s Mafiosi, and his gangland career began. He quickly climbed the ranks and allied himself with another ambitious young criminal, Lucky Luciano. In the 1920s, Genovese worked for the city’s preeminent kingpin, Giuseppe “Joe the Boss” Masseria, and distinguished himself as a particularly tough customer, cunning and willing to do anything. He proved that in 1931, when he conspired with Luciano to murder Masseria and his rival Salvatore Maranzano, thus ushering in a new era of organized crime. Luciano became most powerful boss of New York’s Five Families; Genovese, who participated in the murder of Masseria, was his underboss.
In 1936, Luciano went to prison and Genovese took over the family’s daily operations. It was a short tenure; in 1937, he learned he was about to be arrested for murder and fled to Fascist Italy. Genovese flourished there; he became a key Mafia player and a friend of Benito Mussolini; after the Allied invasion, he ingratiated himself with the U.S. Army and used his position to run a thriving business on the black market. Towards the end of the war he was arrested and sent back to New York to stand trial for murder. Witnesses soon died or disappeared, and the case was dismissed. Genovese returned to the Luciano family, though he was not happy that Frank Costello had been chosen to lead the family after Luciano’s deportation to Italy. By 1957, Genovese had cultivated new allies and ordered a hit on Costello. The attempt was unsuccessful, but Costello decided it was time to retire. Two years later, Genovese was convicted on narcotics charges; he continued to control the Genovese Family from prison, until he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1969.