The Don was a real man at the age of twelve. Short, dark, slender, living in the strange Moorish-looking village of Corleone in Sicily, he had been born Vito Andolini, but when strange men came to kill the son of the man they had murdered, his mother sent the young boy to America to stay with friends. And in the new land he changed his name to Corleone to preserve some tie with his native village. It was one of the few gestures of sentiment he was ever to make.
In Sicily at the turn of the century the Mafia was the second government, far more powerful than the official one in Rome. Vito Corleone’s father became involved in a feud with another villager who took his case to the Mafia. The father refused to knuckle under and in a public quarrel killed the local Mafia chief. A week later he himself was found dead, his body torn apart by lupara blasts. A month after the funeral Mafia gunmen came inquiring after the young boy, Vito. They had decided that he was too close to manhood, that he might try, to avenge the death of his father in the years to come. The twelve-year-old Vito was hidden by relatives and shipped to America. There he was boarded with the Abbandandos, whose son Genco was later to become Consigliere to his Don.
Young Vito went to work in the Abbandando grocery store on Ninth Avenue in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. At the age of eighteen Vito married an Italian girl freshly arrived from Sicily, a girl of only sixteen but a skilled cook, a good housewife. They settled down in a tenement on Tenth Avenue, near 35th Street, only a few blocks from where Vito worked, and two years later were blessed with their first child, Santino, called by all his friends Sonny because of his devotion to his father.
In the neighborhood lived a man called Fanucci. He was a heavy-set, fierce-looking Italian who wore expensive light-colored suits and a cream-colored fedora. This man was reputed to be of the “Black Hand,” an offshoot of the Mafia which extorted money from families and storekeepers by threat of physical violence. However, since most of the inhabitants of the neighborhood were violent themselves, Fanucci’s threats of bodily harm were effective only with elderly couples without male children to defend them. Some of the storekeepers paid him trifling sums as a matter of convenience. However, Fanucci was also a scavenger on fellow criminals, people who illegally sold Italian lottery or ran gambling games in their homes. The Abbandando grocery gave him a small tribute, this despite the protests of young Genco, who told his father he would settle the Fanucci hash. His father forbade him. Vito Corleone observed all this without feeling in any way involved.
One day Fanucci was set upon by three young men who cut his throat from ear to ear, not deeply enough to kill him, but enough to frighten him and make him bleed a great deal. Vito saw Fanucci fleeing from his punishers, the circular slash flowing red. What he never forgot was Fanucci holding the cream-colored fedora under his chin to catch the dripping blood as he ran. As if he did not want his suit soiled or did not want to leave a shameful trail of carmine.
But this attack proved a blessing in disguise for Fanucci. The three young men were not murderers, merely tough young boys determined to teach him a lesson and stop him from scavenging. Fannucci proved himself a murderer. A few weeks later the knife-wielder was shot to death and the families of the other two young men paid an indemnity to Fanucci to make him forswear his vengeance. After that the tributes became higher and Fanucci became a partner in the neighborhood gambling games. As for Vito Corleone, it was none of his affair. He forgot about it immediately.
During World War I, when imported olive oil became scarce, Fanucci acquired a part-interest in the Abbandando grocery store by supplying it not only with oil, but imported Italian salami, hams and cheeses. He then moved a nephew into the store and Vito Corleone found himself out of a job.
By this time, the second child, Frederioo, had arrived and Vito Corleone had four mouths to feed. Up to this time he had been a quiet, very contained young man who kept his thoughts to himself. The son of the grocery store owner, young Genco Abbandando, was his closest friend, and to the surprise of both of them, Vito reproached his friend for his father’s deed. Genco, flushed with shame, vowed to Vito that he would not have to worry about food. That he, Genco, would steal food from the grocery to supply his friend’s needs. This offer though was sternly refused by Vito as too shameful, a son stealing from his father.
The young Vito, however, felt a cold anger for the dreaded Fanucci. He never showed this anger in any way but bided his time. He worked in the railroad for a few months and then, when the war ended, work became slow and he could earn only a few days’ pay a month. Also, most of the foremen were Irish and American and abused the workmen in the foulest language, which Vito always bore stone-faced as if he did not comprehend, though he understood English very well despite his accent.
One evening as Vito was having supper with his family there was a knock on the window that led to the open sir shaft that separated them from the next building. When Vito pulled aside the curtain he saw to his astonishment one of the young men in the neighborhood, Peter Clemenza, leaning out from a window on the other side of the air shaft. He was extending a white-sheeted bundle.
“Hey, paisan,” Clemenza said. “Hold these for me until I ask for them. Hurry up.” Automatically Vito reached over the empty space of the air shaft and took the bundle. Clemenza’s face was strained and urgent. He was in some sort of trouble and Vito’s helping action was instinctive. But when he untied the bundle in his kitchen, there were five oily guns staining the white cloth. He put them in his bedroom closet and waited. He learned that Clemenza had been taken away by the police. They must have been knocking on his door when he handed the guns over the air shaft.
Vito never said a word to anyone and of course his terrified wife dared not open her lips even in gossip for fear her own husband would be sent to prison. Two days later Peter Clemenza reappeared in the neighborhood and asked Vito casually, “Do you have my goods still?”
Vito nodded. He was in the habit of talking little. Clemenza came up to his tenement flat and was given a glass of wine while Vito dug the bundle out of his bedroom closet.
Clemenza drank his wine, his heavy good-natured face alertly watching Vito. “Did you look inside?”
Vito, his face impassive, shook his head. “I’m not interested in things that don’t concern me,” he said.
They drank wine together the rest of the evening. They found each other congenial. Clemenza was a storyteller; Vito Corleone was a listener to storytellers. They became casual friends.
A few days later Clemenza asked the wife of Vito Corleone if she would like a fine rug for her living room floor. He took Vito with him to help carry the rug.
Clemenza led Vito to an apartment house with two marble pillars and a white marble stoop. He used a key to open the door and they were inside a plush apartment. Clemenza grunted, “Go on the other side of the room and help me roll it up.”
The rug was a rich red wool. Vito Corleone was astonished by Clemenza’s generosity. Together they rolled the rug into a pile and Clemenza took one end while Vito took the other. They lifted it and started carrying it toward the door.
At that moment the apartment bell rang. Clemenza immediately dropped the rug and strode to the window. He pulled the drape aside slightly and what he saw made him draw a gun from inside his jacket. It was only at that moment the astonished Vito Corleone realized that they were stealing the rug from some stranger’s apartment.
The apartment bell rang again. Vito went up alongside Clemenza so that he too could see what was happening. At’ the door was a uniformed policeman. As they watched, the policeman gave the doorbell a final push, then shrugged and walked away down the marble steps and down the street.
Clemenza grunted in a satisfied way and said, “Come on, let’s go.” He picked up his end of the rug and Vito picked up the other end. The policeman had barely turned the corner before they were edging out the heavy oaken door and into the street with the rug between them. Thirty minutes later they were cutting the rug to fit the living rooms of Vito Corleone’s apartment. They had enough left over for the bedroom. Clemenza was an expert workman and from the pockets of his wide, ill-fitting jacket (even then he liked to wear loose clothes though he was not so fat), he had the necessary carpet-cutting tools.
Time went on, things did not improve. The Corleone family could not eat the beautiful rug. Very well, there was no work, his wife and children must starve. Vito took some parcels of food from his friend Genco while he thought things out. Finally he was approached by Clemenza and Tessio, another young tough of the neighborhood. They were men who thought well of him, the way he carried himself, and they knew he was desperate. They proposed to him that he become one of their gang which specialized in hijacking trucks of silk dresses after those trucks were loaded up at the factory on 31st Street. There was no risk. The truck drivers were sensible workingmen who at the sight of a gun flopped on the sidewalk like angels while the hijackers drove the truck away to be unloaded at a friend’s warehouse. Some of the merchandise would be sold to an Italian wholesaler, part of the loot would be sold door-to-door in the Italian neighborhoods— Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, Mulberry Street, and the Chelsea district in Manhattan— all to poor Italian families looking for a bargain, whose daughters could never be able to afford such fine apparel. Clemenza and Tessio needed Vito to drive since they knew he chauffeured the Abbandando grocery store delivery truck. In 1919, skilled automobile drivers were at a premium.
Against his better judgment, Vito Corleone accepted their offer. The clinching argument was that he would clear at least a thousand dollars for his share of the job. But his young companions struck him as rash, the planning of the job haphazard, the distribution of the loot foolhardy. Their whole approach was too careless for his taste. But he thought them of good, sound character. Peter Clemenza, already burly, inspired a certain trust, and the lean saturnine Tessio inspired confidence.
The job itself went off without a hitch. Vito Corleone felt no fear, much to his astonishment, when his two comrades flashed guns and made the driver get out of the silk truck. He was also impressed with the coolness of Clemenza and Tessio. They didn’t get excited but joked with the driver, told him if he was a good lad they’d send his wife a few dresses. Because Vito thought it stupid to peddle dresses himself and so gave his whole share of stock to the fence, he made only seven hundred dollars. But this was a considerable sum of money in 1919.
The next day on the street, Vito Corleoue was stopped by the cream-suited, white-fedoraed Fanucci. Fanucci was a brutal-looking man and he had done nothing to disguise the circular scar that stretched in a white semicircle from ear to ear, looping under his chin. He had heavy black brows and coarse features which, when he smiled, were in some odd way amiable.
He spoke with a very thick Sicilian accent. “Ah, young fellow,” he said to Vito. “People tell me you’re rich. You and your two friends. But don’t you think you’ve treated me a little shabbily? After all, this is my neighborhood and yon should let me wet my beak.” He used the Sicilian phrase of the Mafia, “Fari vagnari a pizzu.” Pizzu means the beak of any small bird such as a canary. The phrase itself was a demand for part of the loot.
As was his habit, Vito Corleone did not answer. He understood the implication immediately and was waiting for a definite demand.
Fanucci smiled at him, showing gold teeth and stretching his nooses-like scar tight around his face. He mopped his face with a handkerchief and unbuttoned his jacket for a moment as if to cool himself but really to show the gun he carried stuck in the waistband of his comfortably wide trousers. Then he sighed and said, “Give me five hundred dollars and I’ll forget the insult. After all, young people don’t know the courtesies due a man like myself.”
Vito Corleone smiled at him and even as a young man still unblooded, there was something so chilling in his smile that Fanucci hesitated a moment before going on. “Otherwise the police will come to see you, your wife and children will be shamed and destitute. Of course if my information as to your gains is incorrect I’ll dip my beak just a little. But no less than three hundred dollars. And don’t try to deceive me.”
For the first time Vito Corleone spoke. His voice was reasonable, showed no anger. It was courteous, as befitted a young man speaking to an older man of Fanucci’s eminence. He said softly, “My two friend have my share of the money, rll have to speak to them.”
Fanucci was reassured. “You can tell your two friends that I expect them to let me wet my beak in the same manner. Don’t be afraid to tell them,” he added reassuringly. “Clemenza and I know each other well, he understands these things. Let yourself be guided by him. He has more experience in these matters.”
Vito Corleone shrugged. He tried to look a little embarrassed. “Of course,” he said. “You understand this is all new to me. Thank you for speaking to me as a godfather.”
Fanucci was impressed. “You’re a good fellow,” he said. He took Vito’s hand and clasped it in both of his hairy ones. “You have respect,” he said. “A fine thing in the young. Next time speak to me first, eh? Perhaps I can help you in your plans.”
In later years Vito Corleone understood that what had made him act in such a perfect, tactical way with Fanucci was the death of his own hot-tempered father who had been killed by the Mafia in Sicily. But at that time all he felt was an icy rage that this man planned to rob him of the money he had risked his life and freedom to earn. He had not been afraid. Indeed he thought, at that moment, that Fanucci was a crazy fool. From what he had seen of Clemenza, that burly Sicilian would sooner give up his life than a penny of his loot. After all, Clemenza had been ready to kill a policeman merely to steal a rug. And the slender Tessio had the deadly air of a viper.
But later that night, in Clemenza’s tenement apartment across the air shaft, Vito Corleone received another lesson in the education he had just begun. Clemenza cursed, Tessio scowled, but then both men started talking about whether Fanucci would be satisfied with two hundred dollars. Tessio thought he might.
Clemenza was positive. “No, that scarface bastard must have found out what we made from the wholesaler who bought the dresses. Fanucci won’t take a dime less than three hundred dollars. We’ll have to pay.”
Vito was astonished but was careful not to show his astonishment. “Why do we have to pay him? What can he do to the three of us? We’re stronger than him. We have guns. Why do we have to hand over the money we earned?”
Clemenza explained patiently. “Fanucci has friends, real brutes. He has connections with the police. He’d like us to tell him our plans because he could set us up for the gyps and earn their gratitude. Then they would owe him a favor. That’s how he operates. And he has a license from Maranzalla himself to work this neighborhood.” Maranzalla was a gangster often in the newspapers, reputed to be the leader of a criminal ring specializing in extortion, gambling and armed robbery.
Clemenza served wine that he had made himself. His wife, after putting a plate of salami, olives and a loaf of Italian bread on the table, went down to sit with her women cronies in front of the building, carrying her chair with her. She was a young Italian girl only a few years in the country and did not yet understand English.
Vito Corleone sat with his two friends and drank wine. He had never used his intelligence before as he was using it now. He was surprised at how clearly he could think. He recalled everything he knew about Fanucci. He remembered the day the man had had his throat cut and had run down the street holding his fedora under his chin to catch the dripping blood. He remembered the murder of the man who had wield the knife and the other two having their sentences removed by paying an indemnity. And suddenly he was sure that Fanucci had no great connections, could not possibly have. Not a man who informed to the police. Not a man who allowed his vengeance to be bought off. A real Mafioso chief would have had the other two men killed also. No. Fanucci had got lucky and killed one man but had known he could not kill the other two after they were alerted. And so he had allowed himself to be paid. It was the personal brutal force of the man that allowed him to levy tribute on the shopkeepers, the gambling games that ran in the tenement apartments. But Vito Corleone knew of at least one gambling game that had never paid Fanucci tributes and nothing had ever happened to the men running it.
And so it was Fanucci alone. Or Fanucci with some gunmen hired for special jobs on a strictly cash basis. Which left Vito Corleone with another decision. The course his own life must take.
It was from this experience came his oft-repeated belief that every man has but one destiny. On that night he could have paid Fanucci the tribute and have become again a grocery clerk with perhaps his own grocery store in the years to come. But destiny had decided that he was to become a Don and had brought Fanucci to him to set him on his destined path.
When they finished the bottle of wine, Vito said cautiously to Clemenza and Tessio, “If you like, why not give me two hundred dollars each to pay to Fanucci? I guarantee he will accept that amount from me. Then leave everything in my hands. I’ll settle this problem to your satisfaction.”
At once Clemenza’s eyes gleamed with suspicion. Vito said to him coldly, “I never lie to people I have accepted as my friends. Speak to Fanucci yourself tomorrow. Let him ask you for the money. But don’t pay him. And don’t in any way quarrel with him. Tell him you have to get the money and will give it to me to give him. Let him understand that you are willing to pay what he asks. Don’t bargain. I’ll quarrel over the price with him. There’s no point making him angry with us if he’s as dangerous a man as you say he is.”
They left it at that. The next day Clemenza spoke with Fanucci to make sure that Vito was not making up the story. Then Clemenza came to Vito’s apartment and gave him the two hundred dollars. He peered at Vito Corleone and said, “Fanucci told me nothing below three hundred dollars, how will you make him take less?”
Vito Corleone said reasonably, “Surely that’s no concern of yours. Just remember that I’ve done you a service.”
Tessio came later. Tessio was more reserved than Clemenza, sharper, more clever but with less force. He sensed something amiss, something not quite right. He was a little worried. He said to Vito Corleone, “Watch yourself with that bastard of a Black Hand, he’s tricky as a priest. Do you want me to be here when you hand him the money, as a witness?”
Vito Corleone shook his head. He didn’t even bother to answer. He merely said to Tessio, “Tell Fanucci I’ll pay him the money here, in my house at nine o’clock tonight. I’ll have to give him a glass of wine and talk, reason with him to take the lesser sum.”
Tessio shook his head. “You won’t have much luck. Fanucci never retreats.”
“I’ll reason with him,” Vito Corleone said. It was to become a famous phrase in the years to come. It was to become the warning rattle before a deadly strike. When he became a Don and asked opponents to sit down and reason with him, they understood it was the last chance to resolve an affair without bloodshed and murder.
Vito Corleone told his wife to take the two children, Sonny and Fredo, down into the street after supper and on no account to let them come up to the house until he gave her permission. She was to sit on guard at the tenement door. He had some private business with Fanucci that could not be interrupted. He saw the look of fear on her face and was angry. He said to her quietly, “Do you think you’ve married a fool?” She didn’t answer. She did not answer because she was frightened, not of Fanucci now, but of her husband. He was changing visibly before her eyes, hour by hour, into a man who radiated some dangerous force. He had always been quiet, speaking little, but always gentle, always reasonable, which was extraordinary in a young Sicilian male. What she was seeing was the shedding of his protective coloration of a harmless nobody now that he was ready to start on his destiny. He had started late, he was twenty-five years old, but he was to start with a flourish.
Vito Corleone had decided to murder Fanucci. By doing so he would have an extra seven hundred dollars in his bankroll. The three hundred dollars he himself would have to pay the Black Hand terrorist and the two hundred dollars from Tessio and the two hundred dollars from Clemenza. If he did not kill Fanucci, he would have to pay the man seven hundred dollars cold cash. Fanucci alive was not worth seven hundred dollars to him. He would not pay seven hundred dollars to keep Fanucci alive. If Fanucci needed seven hundred dollars for an operation to save his life, he would not give Fanucci seven hundred dollars for the surgeon. He owed Fanucci no personal debt of gratitude, they were not blood relatives, he did not love Fanucci. Why, then, should he give Fanucci seven hundred dollars?
And it followed inevitably, that since Fanucci wished to take seven hundred dollars from him by force, why should he not kill Fanucci? Surely the world could do without such a person.
There were of course some practical reasons. Fanucci might indeed have powerful friends who would seek vengeance. Fanucci himself was a dangerous man, not so easily killed. There were the police and the electric chair. But Vito Corleone had lived under a sentence of death since the murder of his father. As a boy of twelve he had fled his executioners and crossed the ocean into a strange land, taking a strange name. And years of quiet observation had convinced him that he had more intelligence and more courage than other men, though he had never had the opportunity to use that intelligence and courage.
And yet he hesitated before taking the first step toward his destiny. He even packed the seven hundred dollars in a single fold of bills and put the money in a convenient sick pocket of his trousers. But he put the money in the left side of his trousers. In the right-hand pocket he put the gun Clemenza had given him to use in the hijacking of the silk truck.
Fanucci came promptly at nine in the evening. Vito Corleone set out a jug of homemade wine that Clemenza had given him.
Fanucci put his white fedora on the table beside the jug of wine. He loosened his broad multiflowered tie, its tomato stains camouflaged by the bright patterns. The summer night was hot, the gaslight feeble. It was very quiet in the apartment. But Vito Corleone was icy. To show his good faith he handed over the roll of bills and watched carefully as Fanucci, after counting it, took out a wide leather wallet and stuffed the money inside. Fanucci sipped his glass of wine and said, “You still owe me two hundred dollars.” His heavy-browed face was expressionless.
Vito Corleone said in his cool reasonable voice, “I’m a little short, I’ve been out of work. Let me owe you the money for a few weeks.”
This was a permissible gambit. Fanucci had the bulk of the money and would wait. He might even be persuaded to take nothing more or to wait a little longer. He chuckled over his wine and said, “Ah, you’re a sharp young fellow. How is it I’ve never noticed you before? You’re too quiet a chap for your own interest. I could find some work for you to do that would be very profitable.”
Vito Corleone showed his interest with a polite nod and filled up the man’s glass from the purple jug. But Fanucci thought better of what he was going to say and rose from his chair and shook Vito’s hand. “Good night, young fellow,” he said. “No hard feelings, eh? If I can ever do you a service let me know. You’ve done a good job for yourself tonight.”
Vito let Fanucci go down the stairs and out the building. The street was thronged with witnesses to show that he had left the Corleone home safely. Vito watched from the window. He saw Fanucci turn the corner toward 11th Avenue and knew he was headed toward his apartment, probably to put away his loot before coming out on the streets again. Perhaps to put away his gun. Vito Corleone left his apartment and ran up the stairs to the roof. He traveled over the square block of roofs and descended down the steps of an empty loft building fire escape that left him in the back yard. He kicked the back door open and went through the front door. Across the street was Fanucci’s tenement apartment house.
The village of tenements extended only as far west as Tenth Avenue. Eleventh Avenue was mostly warehouses and lofts rented by firms who shipped by New York Central Railroad and wanted access to the freight yards that honeycombed the area from Eleventh Avenue to the Hudson River. Fanucci’s apartment house was one of the few left standing in this wilderness and was occupied mostly by bachelor trainmen, yard workers, and the cheapest prostitutes. These people did not sit in the street and gossip like honest Italians, they sat in beer taverns guzzling their pay. So Vito Corleone found it an easy matter to slip across the deserted Eleventh Avenue and into the vestibule of Fanucci’s apartment house. There he drew the gun he had never fired and waited for Fanucci.
He watched through the glass door of the vestibule, knowing Fanucci would come down from Tenth Avenue. Clemenza had showed him the safety on the gun and he had triggered it empty. But as a young boy in Sicily at the early age of nine, he had often gone hunting with’his father, had often fired the heavy shotgun called the lupara. It was his skill with the lupara even as a small boy that had brought the sentence of death upon him by his father’s murderers.
Now waiting in the darkened hallway, he saw the white blob of Fanucci crossing the street toward the doorway. Vito stepped back, shoulders pressed against the inner door that led to the stairs. He held his gun out to fire. His extended hand was only two paces from the outside door. The door swung in. Fanucci, white, broad, smelly, filled the square of light. Vito Corleone fired.
The opened door let some of the sound escape into the street, the rest of the gun’s explosion shook the building. Fanucci was holding on to the sides of the door, trying to stand erect, trying to reach for his gun. The force of his struggle had torn the buttons off his jacket and made it swing loose. His gun was exposed but so was a spidery vein of red on the white shirtfront of his stomach. Very carefully, as if he were plunging a needle into a vein, Vito Corleone fired his second bullet into that red web.
Fanucci fell to his knees, propping the door open. He let out a terrible groan, the groan of a man in great physical distress that was almost comical. He kept giving these groans; Vito remembered hearing at least three of them before he put the gun against Fanucci’s sweaty, suety cheek and fired into his brain. No more than five seconds had passed when Fanucci slumped into death, jamming the door open with his body.
Very carefully Vito took the wide wallet out of the dead man’s jacket pocket and put it inside his shirt. Then he walked across the street into the loft building, through that into the yard and climbed the fire escape to the roof. From there he surveyed the street. Fanucci’s body was still lying in the doorway but there was no sign of any other person. Two windows had gone up in the tenement and he could see dark heads poked out but since he could not see their features they had certainly not seen his. And such men would not give information to the police. Fanucci might lie there until dawn or until a patrolman making the rounds stumbled on his body. No person in that house would deliberately expose himself to police suspicion or questioning. They would lock their doors and pretend they had heard nothing.
He could take his time. He traveled over the rooftops to his own roof door and down to his own flat. He unlocked the door, went inside and then locked the door behind him. He rifled the dead man’s wallet. Besides the seven hundred dollars he had given Fanucci there were only some singles and a five-dollar note.
Tucked inside the flap was an old five-dollar gold piece, probably a luck token. If Fanucci was a rich gangster, he certainly did not carry his wealth with him. This confirmed some of Vito’s suspicions.
He knew he had to get rid of the wallet and the gun (knowing enough even then that he must leave the gold piece in the wallet). He went up on the roof again and traveled over a few ledges. He threw the wallet down one air shaft and then he emptied the gun of bullets and smashed its barrel against the roof ledge. The barrel wouldn’t break. He reversed it in his hand and smashed the butt against the side of a chimney. The butt split into two halves. He smashed it again and the pistol broke into barrel and handle, two separate pieces. He used a separate air shaft for each. They made no sound when they struck the earth five stories below, but sank into the soft hill of garbage that had accumulated there. In the morning more garbage would be thrown out of the windows and, with luck, would cover everything. Vito returned to his apartment.
He was trembling a little but was absolutely under control. He changed his clothes and fearful that some blood might have splattered on them, he threw them into a metal tub his wife used for washing. He took lye and heavy brown laundry soap to soak the clothes and scrubbed them with the metal wash board beneath the sink. Then he scoured tub and sink with lye and soap. He found a bundle of newly washed clothes in the corner of the bedroom and mingled his own clothes with these. Then he put on a fresh shirt and trousers and went down to join his wife and children and neighbors in front of the tenement.
All these precautions proved to be unnecessary. The police, after discovering the dead body at dawn, never questioned Vito Corleone. Indeed he was astonished that they never learned about Fanucci’s visit to his home on the night he was shot to death. He had counted on that for an alibi, Fanucci leaving the tenement alive. He only learned later that the police had been delighted with the murder of Fanucci and not too anxious to pursue his killers. They had assumed it was another gang execution, and had questioned hoodlums with records in the rackets and a history of strongarm. Since Vito had never been in trouble he never came into the picture.
But if he had outwitted the police, his partners were another matter. Pete Clemenza and Tessio avoided him for the next week, for the next two weeks, then they came to call on him one evening. They came with obvious respect. Vito Corleone greeted them with impassive courtesy and served them wine.
Clemenza spoke first. He said softly, “Nobody is collecting from the store owners on Ninth Avenue. Nobody is collecting from the card games and gambling in the neighborhood.”
Vito Corleone gazed at both men steadily but did not reply. Tessio spoke. “We could take over Fanucci’s customers. They would pay us.”
Vito Corleone shrugged. “Why come to me? I have no interest in such things.”
Clemenza laughed. Even in his youth, before growing his enormous belly, he had a fat man’s laugh. He said now to Vito Corleone, “How about that gun I gave you for the truck job? Since you won’t need it any more you can give it back to me.”
Very slowly and deliberately Vito Corleone took a wad of bills out of his side pocket and peeled off five tens. “Here, I’ll pay you. I threw the gun away after the truck job.” He smiled at the two men.
At that time Vito Corleone did not know the effect of this smile. It was chilling because it attempted no menace. He smiled as if it was some private joke only he himself could appreciate. But since he smiled in that fashion only in affairs that were lethal, and since the joke was not really private and since his eyes did not smile, and since his outward character was usually so reasonable and quiet, the sudden unmasking of his true self was frightening.
Clemenza shook his head. “I don’t want the money,” he said. Vito pocketed the bills. He waited. They all understood each other. They knew he had killed Fanucci and though they never spoke about it to anyone the whole neighborhood, within a few weeks, also knew. Vito Corleone was treated as a “man of respect” by everyone. But he made no attempt to take over the Fanucci rackets and tributes.
What followed then was inevitable. One night Vito’s wife brought a neighbor, a widow, to the flat. The woman was Italian and of unimpeachable character. She worked hard to keep a home for her fatherless children. Her sixteen-year-old son brought home his pay envelope sealed, to hand over to her in the old-country style; her seventeen-year-old daughter, a dressmaker, did the same. The whole family sewed buttons on cards at night at slave labor piece rates. The woman’s name was Signora Colombo.
Vito Corleone’s wife said, “The Signora has a favor to ask of you. She is having some trouble.”
Vito Corleone expected to be asked for money, which he was ready to give. But it seemed that Mrs. Colombo owned a dog which her youngest son adored. The landlord had received complaints on the dog barking at night and had told Mrs. Colombo to get rid of it. She had pretended to do so: The landlord had found out that she had deceived him and had ordered her to vacate her apartment. She had promised this time to truly get rid of the dog and she had done so. But the landlord was so angry that he would not revoke his order. She had to get out or the police would be summoned to put her out. And her poor little boy had cried so when they had given the dog away to relatives who lived in Long Island. All for nothing, they would lose their home.
Vito Corleone asked her gently, “Why do you ask me to help you?”
Mrs. Colombo nodded toward his wife. “She told me to ask you.”
He was surprised. His wife had never questioned him about the clothes he had washed the night he had murdered Fanucci. Had never asked him where all the money came from when he was not working. Even now her face was impassive. Vito said to Mrs. Colombo, “I can give you some money to help you move, is that what you want?”
The woman shook her head, she was in tears. “All my friends are here, all the girls I grew up with in Italy. How can I move to another neighborhood with strangers? I want you to speak to the landlord to let me stay.”
Vito nodded. “It’s done then. You won’t have to move. I’ll speak to him tomorrow morning.”
His wife gave him a smile which he did not acknowledge, but he felt pleased. Mrs. Colombo looked a little uncertain. “You’re sure he’ll say yes, the landlord?” she asked.
“Signor Roberto?” Vito said in a surprised voice. “Of course he will. He’s a good-hearted fellow. Once I explain how things are with you he’ll take pity on your misfortunes. Now don’t let it trouble you any more. Don’t get so upset. Guard your health, for the sake of your children.”
* * *
The landlord, Mr. Roberto, came to the neighborhood every day to check on the row of five tenements that he owned. He was a padrone, a man who sold Italian laborers just off the boat to the big corporations. With his profits he had bought the tenements one by one. An educated man from the North of Italy, he felt only contempt for these illiterate Southerners from Sicily and Naples, who swarmed like vermin through his buildings, who threw garbage down the air shafts, who let cockroaches and rats eat away his walls without lifting a hand to preserve his property. He was not a bad man, he was a good husband and father, but constant worry about his investments, about the money he earned, about the inevitable expenses that came with being a man of property had worn his nerves to a frazzle so that he was in a constant state of irritation. When Vito Corleone stopped him on the street to ask for a word, Mr. Roberto was brusque. Not rude, since any one of these Southerners might stick a knife into you if rubbed the wrong way, though this young man looked like a quiet fellow.
“Signor Roberto,” said Vito Corleone, “the friend of my wife, a poor widow with no man to protect her, tells me that for some reason she has been ordered to move from her apartment in your building. She is in despair. She has no money, she has no friends except those that live here. I told her that I would speak to you, that you are a reasonable man who acted out of some misunderstanding. She has gotten rid of the animal that caused all the trouble and so why shouldn’t she stay? As one Italian to another, I ask you the favor.”
Signor Roberto studied the young man in front of him. He saw a man of medium stature but strongly built, a peasant but not a bandit, though he so laughably dared to call himself an Italian. Roberto shrugged. “I have already rented the apartment to another family for higher rent,” he said. “I cannot disappoint them for the sake of your friend.”
Vito Corleone nodded in agreeable understanding. “How much more a month?” he asked.
“Five dollars,” Mr. Roberto said. This was a lie. The railway flat, four dark rooms, rented for twelve dollars a month to the widow and he had not been able to get more than that from the new tenant.
* * *
Vito Corleone took a roll of bills out of his pocket and peeled off three tens. “Here is the six months’ increase in advance. You needn’t speak to her about it, she’s a proud woman. See me again in another six months. But of course you’ll let her keep her dog.”
“Like hell,” Mr. Roberto said. “And who the hell are you to give me orders. Watch your manners or you’ll be out on your Sicilian ass in the street there.”
Vito Corleone raised his hands in surprise. “I’m asking you a favor, only that. One never knows when one might need a friend, isn’t that true? Here, take this money as a sign of my goodwill and make your own decision. I wouldn’t dare to quarrel with it.” He thrust the money into Mr. Roberto’s hand. “Do me this little favor, just take the money and think things over. Tomorrow morning if you want to give me the money back by all means do so. If you want the woman out of your house, how can I stop you? It’s your property, after all. If you don’t want the dog in there, I can understand. I dislike animals myself.” He patted Mr. Roberto on the shoulder. “Do me this service, eh? I won’t forget it. Ask your friends in the neighborhood about me, they’ll tell you I’m a man who believes in showing his gratitude.”
But of course Mr. Roberto had already begun to understand. That evening he made inquiries about Vito Corleone. He did not wait until the next morning. He knocked on the Corleone door that very night, apologizing for the lateness of the hour and accepted a glass of wine from Signora Corleone. He assured Vito Corleone that it had all been a dreadful misunderstanding, that of course Signora Colombo could remain in the flat, of course she could keep her dog. Who were those miserable tenants to complain about noise from a poor animal when they paid such a low rent? At the finish he threw the thirty dollars Vito Corleone had given him on the table and said in the most sincere fashion, “Your good heart in helping this poor widow has shamed me and I wish to show that I, too, have some Christian charity. Her rent will remain what it was.”
All concerned played this comedy prettily. Vito poured wine, called for cakes, wrung Mr. Roberto’s hand and praised his warm heart. Mr. Roberto sighed and said that having made the acquaintance of such a man as Vito Corleone restored his faith in human nature. Finally they tore themselves away from each other. Mr. Roberto, his bones turned to jelly with fear at his narrow escape, caught the streetcar to his home in the Bronx and took to his bed. He did not reappear in his tenements for three days.
* * *
Vito Corleone was now a “man of respect” in the neighborhood. He was reputed to be a member of the Mafia of Sicily. One day a man who ran card games in a furnished room came to him and voluntarily paid him twenty dollars each week for his “friendship.” He had only to visit the game once or twice a week to let the players understand they were under his protection.
Store owners who had problems with young hoodlums asked him to intercede. He did so and was properly rewarded. Soon he had the enormous income for that time and place of one hundred dollars a week. Since Clemenza and Tessio were his friends, his allies, he had to give them each part of the money, but this he did without being asked. Finally he decided to go into the olive oil, importing business with his boyhood chum, Genco Abbandundo. Genco would handle the business, the importing of the olive oil from Italy, the buying at the proper price, the storing in his father’s warehouse. Genco had the experience for this part of the business. Clemenza and Tessio would be the salesmen. They would go to every Italian grocery store in Manhattan, then Brooklyn, then the Bronx, to persuade store owners to stock Genco Pura olive oil. (With typical modesty, Vito Corleone refused to name the brand after himself.) Vito of course would be the head of the firm since he was supplying most of the capital. He also would be called in on special cases, where store owners resisted the sales talks of Clemenza and Tessio. Then Vito Corleone would use his own formidable powers of persuasion.
For the next few years Vito Corleone lived that completely satisfying life of a small businessman wholly devoted to building up his commercial enterprise in a dynamic, expanding economy. He was a devoted father and husband but so busy he could spare his family little of his time. As Genco Pura olive oil grew to become the bestselling imported Italian oil in America, his organization mushroomed. Like any good salesman he came to understand the benefits of undercutting his rivals in price, barring them from distribution outlets by persuading store owners to stock less of their brands. Like any good businessman he aimed at holding a monopoly by forcing his rivals to abandon the field or by merging with his own company. However, since he had started off relatively helpless, economically, since he did not believe in advertising, relying on word of mouth and since if truth be told, his olive oil was no better than his competitors’, he could not use the common strangleholds of legitimate businessmen. He had to rely on the force of his own personality and his reputation as a “man of respect.”
Even as a young man, Vito Corleone became known as a “man of reasonableness.” He never uttered a threat. He always used logic that proved to be irresistible. He always made certain that the other fellow got his share of profit. Nobody lost. He did this, of course, by obvious means. Like many businessmen of genius he learned that free competition was wasteful, monopoly efficient. And so he simply set about achieving that efficient monopoly. There were some oil wholesalers is Brooklyn, men of fiery temper, headstrong, not amenable to reason, who refused to see, to recognize, the vision of Vito Corleone, even after he had explained everything to them with the utmost patience and detail. With these men Vito Corleone threw up his hands is despair and sent Tessio to Brooklyn to set up a headquarters and solve the problem. Warehouses were burned, truckloads of olive-green oil were dumped to form lakes in the cobbled waterfront streets. One rash man, an arrogant Milanese with more faith in the police than a saint has in Christ, actually went to the authorities with a complaint against his fellow Italians, breaking the ten-century-old law, of omerta. But before the matter could progress any further the wholesaler disappeared, never to be seen again, leaving behind, deserted, his devoted wife and three children, who, God be thanked, were fully grown and capable of taking over his business and coming to terms with the Genco Pura oil company.
But great men are not born great, they grow great, and so it was with Vito Corleone. When prohibition came to pass and alcohol forbidden to be sold, Vito Corleone made the final step from a quite ordinary, somewhat ruthless businessman to a great Don in the world of criminal enterprise. It did not happen in a day, it did not happen in a year, but by the end of the Prohibition period and the start of the Great Depression, Vito Corleone had become the Godfather, the Don, Don Corleone.
It started casually enough. By this time the Genco Pura Oil Company had a fleet of six delivery trucks. Through Clemenza, Vito Corleone was approached by a group of Italian bootleggers who smuggled alcohol and whiskey in from Canada. They needed trucks and deliverymen to distribute their produce over New York City. They needed deliverymen who were reliable, discreet and of a certain determination and force. They were willing to pay Vito Corleone for his trucks and for his men. The fee was so enormous that Vito Corleone cut back drastically on his oil business to use the trucks almost exclusively for the service of the bootlegger-smugglers. This despite the fact that these gentlemen had accompanied their offer with a silky threat. But even then Vito Carleone was so mature a man that he did not take insult at a threat or become angry and refuse a profitable offer because of it. He evaluated the threat, found it lacking in conviction, and lowered his opinion of his new partners because they had been so stupid to use threats where none were needed. This was useful information to be pondered at its proper time.
Again he prospered. But, more important, he acquired knowledge and contacts and experience. And he piled up good deeds as a banker piles up securities. For in the following years it became clear that Vito Corleone was not only a man of talent but, in his way, a genius.
He made himself the protector of the Italian families who set themselves up as small speakeasies in their homes, selling whiskey at fifteen cents a glass to bachelor laborers. He became godfather t Mrs. Colombo’s youngest son when the lad made his confirmation and gave a handsome present of a twenty-dollar gold piece. Meanwhile, since it was inevitable that some of his trucks be stopped by the police, Genco Abbandando hired a fine lawyer with many contacts in the Police Department and the judiciary. A system of payoffs was set up and soon the Corleone organization had a sizable “sheet,” the list of officials entitled to a monthly sum. When the lawyer tried to keep this list down, apologizing for the expense, Vito Corleone reassured him. “No; no,” he said. “Get everyone on it even if they can’t help us right now. I believe in friendship and I am willing to show my friendship first.”
As time went by the Corleone empire became larger, more trucks were added, the “sheet” grew longer. Also the men working directly for Tessio and Clemenza grew in number. The whole thing was becoming unwieldy. Finally Vito Corleone worked out a system of organization. He gave Clemenza and Tessio each the title of Caporegime, or captain, and the men who worked beneath them the rank of soldier. He named Genco Abbandando his counselor, or Consigliere. He put layers of insulation between himself and any operational act. When he gave an order it was to Genco or to one of the caporegimes alone. Rarely did he have a witness to any order he gave any particular one of them. Then he split Tessio’s group and made it responsible for Brooklyn. He also split Tessio off from Clemenza and made it clear over the years that he did not want the two men to associate even socially except when absolutely necessary. He explained this to the more intelligent Tessio, who caught his drift immediately, though Vito explained it as a security measure against the law. Tessio understood that Vito did not want his two caporegimes to have any opportunity to conspire against him and he also understood there was no ill will involved, merely a tactical precaution. In return Vito gave Tessio a free hand in Brooklyn while he kept Clemenza’s Bronx life very much under his thumb. Clemenza was the braver, more reckless, the crueler man despite his outward jollity, and needed a tighter rein.
The Great Depression increased the power of Vito Corleone. And indeed it was about that time he came to be called Don Corleone. Everywhere in the city, honest men begged for honest work in vain. Proud men demeaned themselves and their families to accept official charity from a contemptuous officialdom. But the men of Don Corleone walked the streets with their heads held high, their pockets stuffed with silver and paper money. With no fear of losing their jobs. And even Don Corleone, that mgt modest of men, could not help feeling a sense of pride. He was taking care of his world, his people. He had not failed those who depended on him and gave him the sweat of their brows, risked their freedom and their lives in his service. And when an employee of his was arrested and sent to prison by some mischance, that unfortunate man’s family received a living allowance; and not a miserly, beggarly, begrudging pittance but the same amount the man earned when free.
This of course was not pure Christian charity. Not his best friends would have called Don Corleone a saint from heaven. There was some self-interest in this generosity. An employee sent to prison knew he had only to keep his mouth shut and his wife and children would be cared for. He knew that if he did not inform to the police a warm welcome would be his when he left prison. There would be a party waiting in his home, the best of food, homemade ravioli, wine, pastries, with all his friends and relatives gathered to rejoice in his freedom. And sometime during the night the Consigliere, Genco Abbandando, or perhaps even the Don himself, would drop by to pay his respects to such a stalwart, take a glass of wine in his honor, and leave a handsome present of money so that he could enjoy a week or two of leisure with his family before returning to his daily toil. Such was the infinite sympathy and understanding of Don Corleone.
It was at this time that the Don got the idea that he ran his world far better than his enemies ran the greater world which continually obstructed his path. And this feeling was nurtured by the poor people of the neighborhood who constantly came to him for help. To get on the home relief, to get a young boy a job or out of jail, to borrow a small sum of money desperately needed, to intervene with landlords who against all reason demanded rent from jobless tenants.
Don Vito Corleone helped them all. Not only that, he helped them with goodwill, with encouraging words to take the bitter sting out of the charity he gave them. It was only natural then that when these Italians were puzzled and confused on who to vote for to represent them in the state legislature, in the city offices, in the Congress, they should ask the advice of their friend Don Corleone, their Godfather. And so he became a political power to be consulted by practical party chiefs. He consolidated this power with a far-seeing statesmanlike intelligence; by helping brilliant boys from poor Italian families through college, boys who would later become lawyers, assistant district attorneys, and even judges. He planned for the future of his empire with all the foresight of a great national leader.
The repeal of Prohibition dealt this empire a crippling blow but again he had taken his precautions. In 1933 he sent emissaries to the man who controlled all the gambling activities of Manhattan, the crap games on the docks, the shylocking that went with it as hot dogs go with baseball games, the bookmaking on sports and horses, the illicit gambling houses that ran poker games, the policy or numbers racket of Harlem. This man’s name was Salvatore Maranzano and he was one of the acknowledged pezzonovante,.90 calibers, or big shots of the New York underworld. The Corleone emissaries proposed to Maranzano an equal partnership beneficial to both parties. Vito Corleone with his organization, his police and political contacts, could give the Maranzano operations a stout umbrella and the new strength to expand into Brooklyn and the Bronx. But Maranzano was a short-sighted man and spurned the Corleone offer with contempt. The great Al Capone was Maranzano’s friend and he had his own organization, his own men, plus a huge war chest. He would not brook this upstart whose reputation was more that of a Parliamentary debater than a true Mafioso. Maranzano’s refusal touched off the great war of 1933 which was to change the whole structure of the underworld in New York City.
At first glance it seemed an uneven match. Salvatore Maranzano had a powerful organization with strong enforcers. He had a friendship with Capone in Chicago and could call on help in that quarter. He also had a good relationship with the Tattaglia Family, which controlled prostitution in the city and what there was of the thin drug traffic at that time. He also had political contacts with powerful business leaders who used his enforcers to terrorize the Jewish unionists in the garment center and the Italian anarchist syndicates in the building trades.
Against this, Don Corleone could throw two small but superbly organized regimes led by Clemenza and Tessio. His political and police contacts were negated by the business leaders who would support Maranzano. But in his favor was the enemy’s lack of intelligence about his organization. The underworld did not know the true strength of his soldiers and even were deceived that Tessio in Brooklyn was a separate and independent operation.
And yet despite all this, it was an unequal battle until Vito Corleone evened out the odds with one master stroke.
Maranzano sent a call to Capone for his two best gunmen to come to New York to eliminate the upstart. The Corleone Family had friends and intelligence in Chicago who relayed the news that the two gunmen were arriving by train. Vito Corleone dispatched Luca Brasi to take care of them with instructions that would liberate the strange man’s most savage instincts.
Brasi and his people, four of them, received the Chicago hoods at the railroad station. One of Brasi’s men procured and drove a taxicab for the purpose and the station porter carrying the bags led the Capone men to this cab. When they got in, Brasi and another of his men crowded in after them, guns ready, and made the two Chicago boys lie on the floor. The cab drove to a warehouse near the docks that Brasi had prepared for them.
The two Capone men were bound hand and foot and small bath towels were stuffed into their mouths to keep them from crying out.
Then Brasi took an ax from its place against the wall and started hacking at one of the Capone men. He chopped the man’s feet off, then the legs at the knees, then the thighs where they joined the torso. Brasi was an extremely powerfull man but it took him many swings to accomplish his purpose. By that time of course the victim had given up the ghost and the floor of the warehouse was slippery with the hacked fragments of his flesh and the gouting of his blood. When Brasi turned to his second victim he found further effort unnecessary. The second Capone gunman out of sheer terror had, impossibly, swallowed the bath towel in his mouth and suffocated. The bath towel was found in the man’s stomach when the police performed their autopsy to determine the cause of death.
A few days later in Chicago the Capones received a message from Vito Corleone. It was to this effect: “You know now how I deal with enemies. Why does a Neapolitan interfere in a quarrel between two Sicilians? If you wish me to consider you as a friend I owe you a service which I will pay on demand. A man like yourself must know how much more profitable it is to have a friend who, instead of calling on you for help, takes care of his own affairs and stands ever ready to help you in some future time of trouble. If you do not wish my friendship, so be it. But then I must tell you that the climate in this city is damp; unhealthy for Neapolitans, and you are advised never to visit it.”
The arrogance of this letter was a calculated one. The Don held the Capones in small esteem as stupid, obvious cutthroats. His intelligence informed him that Capone had forfeited all political influence because of his public arrogance and the flaunting of his criminal wealth. The Don knew, in fact was positive, that without political influence, without the camouflage of society, Capone’s world, and others like it, could be easily destroyed. He knew Capone was on the path to destruction. He also knew that Capone’s influence did not extend beyond the boundaries of Chicago, terrible and all-pervading as that influence there might be.
The tactic was successful. Not so much because of its ferocity but because of the chilling swiftness, the quickness of the Don’s reaction. If his intelligence was so good, any further moves would be fraught with danger. It was better, far wiser, to accept the offer of friendship with its implied payoff. The Capones, sent back word that they would not interfere.
The odds were now equal. And Vito Corleone had earned an enormous amount of “respect” throughout the United States underworld with his humiliation of the Capones. For six months he out-generaled Maranzano. He raided the crap games under that man’s protection, located his biggest policy banker in Harlem and had him relieved of a day’s play not only in money but in records. He engaged his enemies on all fronts. Even in the garment centers he sent Clemenza and his men to fight on the side of the unionists against the enforcers on the payroll of Maranzano and the owners of the dress firms. And on all fronts his superior intelligence and organization made him the victor. Clemenza’s jolly ferocity, which Corleone employed judiciously, also helped turn the tide of battle. And then Don Corleone sent the held-back reserve of the Tessio regime after Maranzano himself.
By this time Maranzano had dispatched emissaries suing for a peace. Vito Corleone refused to see them, put them off on one pretext or another. The Maranzano soldiers were deserting their leader, not wishing to die in a losing cause. Bookmakers and shylocks were paying the Corleone organization their protection money. The war was all but over.
And then finally on New Year’s Eve of 1933. Tessio got inside the defenses of Maranzano himself. The Maranzano lieutenants were anxious for a deal and agreed to lead their chief to the slaughter. They told him that a meeting had been arranged in a Brooklyn restaurant with Corleone and they accompanied Maranzano as his bodyguards. They left hum sitting at a checkered table, morosely munching a piece of bread, and fled the restaurant as Tessio and four of his men entered. The execution was swift and sure. Maranzano, his mouth full of half-chewed bread, was riddled with bullets. The war was over.
The Maranzano empire was incorporated into the Corleone operation. Don Corleone set up a system of tribute, allowing all incumbents to remain in their bookmaking and policy number spots. As a bonus he had a foothold in the unions of the garment center which in later years was to prove extremely important. And now that he had settled his business affairs the Don found trouble at home.
Santino Corleone, Sonny, was sixteen years old and grown to an astonishing six feet with broad shoulders and a heavy face that was sensual but by no means effeminate. But where Fredo was a quiet boy, and Michael, of course, a toddler, Santino was constantly in trouble. He got into fights, did badly in school and, finally, Clemenza, who was the boy’s godfather and had a duty to speak, came to Don Corleone one evening and informed him that his son had taken part in an armed robbery, a stupid affair which could have gone very badly. Sonny was obvidusly the ringleader, the two other boys in the robbery his followers.
It was one of the very few times that Vito Corleone lost his temper. Tom Hagen had been living in his home for three years and he asked Clemenza if the orphan boy had been involved. Clemenza shook his head. Don Corleone had a car sent to bring Santino to his offices in the Genco Pura Olive Oil Company.
For the first time, the Don met defeat. Alone with his son, he gave full vent to his rage, cursing the hulking Sonny in Sicilian dialect, a language so much more satisfying than any other for expressing rage. He ended up with a question. “What gave you the right to commit such an act? What made you wish to commit such an act?”
Sonny stood there, angry, refusing to answer. The Don said with contempt, “And so stupid. What did you earn for that night’s work? Fifty dollars each? Twenty dollars? You risked your life for twenty dollars, eh?”
As if he had not heard these last words, Sonny said defiantly, “I saw you kill Fanucci.”
The Don said, “Ahhh” and sank back in his chair. He waited.
Sonny said, “When Fanucci left the building, Mama said I could go up the house. I saw you go up the roof and I followed you. I saw everything you did. I stayed up there and I saw you throw away the wallet and the gun.”
The Don sighed. “Well, then I can’t talk to you about how you should behave. Don’t you want to finish school, don’t you want to be a lawyer? Lawyers can steal more money with a briefcase than a thousand men with guns and masks.”
Sonny grinned at him and said slyly, “I want to enter the family business.” When he saw that the Don’s face remained impassive, that he did not laugh at the joke, he added hastily, “I can learn how to sell olive oil.”
Still the Don did not answer. Finally he shrugged. “Every man has one destiny,” he said. He did not add that the witnessing of Fanucci’s murder had decided that of his son. He merely turned away and added quietly, “Come in tomorrow morning at nine o’clock. Genco will show you what to do.”
But Genco Abbandando, with that shrewd insight that a Consigliere must have, realized the true wish of the Don and used Sonny mostly as a bodyguard for his father, a position in which he could also learn the subtleties of being a Don. And it brought out a professorial instinct in the Don himself, who often gave lectures on how to succeed for the benefit of his eldest son.
Besides his oft-repeated theory that a man has but one destiny, the Don constantly reproved Sonny for that young man’s outbursts of temper. The Don considered a use of threats the most foolish kind of exposure; the unleashing of anger without forethought as the most dangerous indulgence. No one had ever heard the Don utter a naked threat, no one had ever seen him in an uncontrollable rage. It was unthinkable. And so he tried to teach Sonny his own disciplines. He claimed that there was no greater natural advantage in life than having an enemy overestimate your faults, unless it was to have a friend underestimate your virtues.
The caporegime, Clemenza, took, Sonny in hand and taught him how to shoot and to wield a garrot. Sonny had no taste for the Italian rope, he was too Americanized. He preferred the simple, direct, impersonal Anglo-Saxon gun, which saddened Clemenza. But Sonny became a constant and welcome companion to his father, driving his car, helping him in little details. For the next two years he seemed like the usual son entering his father’s business, not too bright, not too eager, content to hold down a soft job.
Meanwhile his boyhood chum and semiadopted brother Tom Hagen was going to college. Fredo was still in high school; Michael, the youngest brother, was in grammar school, and baby sister Connie was a toddling girl of four. The family had long since moved to an apartment house in the Bronx. Don Corleone was considering buying a house in Long Island, but he wanted to fit this in with other plans he was formulating.
Vito Corleone was a man with vision. All the great cities of America were being torn by underworld strife. Guerrilla wars by the dozen flared up, ambitious hoodlums trying to carve themselves a bit of empire; men like Corleone himself were trying to keep their borders and rackets secure. Don Corleone saw that the newspapers and government agencies were using these killings to get stricter and stricter laws, to use harsher police methods. He foresaw that public indignation might even lead to a suspension of democratic procedures which could be fatal to him and his people. His own empire, internally, was secure. He decided to bring peace to all the warring factions in New York City and then in the nation.
He had no illusions about the dangerousness of his mission. He spent the first year meeting with different chiefs of gangs in New York, laying the groundwork, sounding them out, proposing spheres of influence that would be honored by a loosely bound confederated council. But there were too many factions, too many special interests that conflicted. Agreement was impossible. Like other great rulers and lawgivers in history Don Corteone decided that order and peace were impossible until the number of reigning states had been reduced to a manageable number.
There were five or six “Families” too powerful to eliminate. But the rest, the neighborhood Black Hand terrorists, the free-lance shylocks, the strong-arm bookmakers operating without the proper, that is to say paid, protection of the legal authorities, would have to go. And so he mounted what was in effect a colonial war against these people and threw all the resources of the Corleone organization against them.
The pacification of the New York area took three years and had some unexpected rewards. At first it took the form of bad luck. A group of mad-dog Irish stickup artists the Don had marked for extermination almost carried the day with sheer Emerald Isle elan. By chance, and with suicidal bravery, one of these Irish gunmen pierced the Don’s protective cordon and put a shot into his chest. The assassin was immediately riddled with bullets but the damage was done.
However this gave Sanrtino Corleone his chance. With his father out of action, Sonny took command of a troop, his own regime, with the rank of caporegime, and like a young, untrumpeted Napoleon, showed a genius for city warfare. He also showed a merciless ruthlessness, the lack of which had been Don Corleone’s only fault as a conqueror.
From 1935 to 1937 Sonny Corleond made a reputation as the most cunning and relentless executioner the underworld had yet known. Yet for sheer terror even he was eclipsed by the awesome man named Luca Brasi.
It was Brasi who went after the rest of the Irish gunmen and single-handedly wiped them out. It was Brasi, operating alone when one of the six powerful families tried to interfere and become the protector of the independents, who assassinated the head of the family as a warning. Shortly after, the Don recovered from his wound and made peace with that particular family.
By 1937 peace and harmony reigned in New York City except for minor incidents, minor misunderstandings which were, of course, sometimes fatal.
As the rulers of ancient cities always kept an anxious eye on the barbarian tribes roving around their walls, so Don Corleone kept an eye on the affairs of the world outside his world. He noted the coming of Hitler, the fall of Spain, Germany’s strong-arming of Britain at Munich. Unblinkered by that outside world, he saw clearly the coming global war and he understood the implications. His own world would be more impregnable than before. Not only that, fortunes could be made in time of war by alert, foresighted folk. But to do so peace must reign in his domain while war raged in the world outside.
Don Corleone carried his message through the United States. He conferred with compatriots in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, and Boston. He was the underworld apostle of peace and, by,1939, more successful than any Pope, he had achieved a working agreement amongst the most powerful underworld organizations in the country. Like the Constitution of the United States this agreement respected fully the internal authority of each member in his state or city. The agreement veered only spheres of influence and an agreement to enforce peace in the underworld.
And so when World War II broke out in 1939, when the United States, joined the conflict in 1941, the world of Don Vito Corleone was at peace, in order, fully prepared to reap the golden harvest on equal terms with all the other industries of a booming America. The Corleone Family had a hand in supplying black-market OPA food stamps, gasoline stamps, even travel priorities. It could help get war contracts and then help get black-market materials for those garment center clothing firms who were not given enough raw material because they did not have government contracts. He could even get all the young men in his organization, those eligible for Army draft, excused from fighting in the foreign war. He did this with the aid of doctors. who advised what drugs had to be taken before physical examination, or by placing the men in draft-exempt positions in the war industries.
And so the Don could take pride in his rule. His world was safe for those who had sworn loyalty to him; other men who believed in law and order were dying by the millions. The only fly in the ointment was that his own son, Michael Corleone, refused to be helped, insisted on volunteering to serve his own country. And to the Don’s astonishment, so did a few of his other young men in the organization. One of the men, trying to explain this to his caporegime, said, “This country has been good to me.” Upon this story being relayed to the Don he said angrily to the caporegime, “I have been good to him.” It might have gone badly for these people but, as he had excused his son Michael, so must he excuse other young men who so misunderstood their duty to their Don and to themselves.
At the end of World War II Don Corleone knew that again his world would have to change its ways, that it would have to fit itself more snugly into the ways of the other, larger world. He believed he could do this with no loss of profit.
There was reason for this belief in his own experience. What had put him on the right track were two personal affairs. Early in his career the then-young Nazorine, only a baker’s helper planning to get married, had come to him for assistance. He and his future bride, a good Italian girl, had saved their money and had paid the enormous sum of three hundred dollars to a wholesaler of furniture recommended to them. This wholesaler had let them pick out everything they wanted to furnish their tenement apartment. A fine sturdy bedroom set with two bureaus and lamps. Also the living room set of heavy stuffed sofa and stuffed armchairs, all covered with rich gold-threaded fabric. Nazorine and his fiancee had spent a happy day picking out what they wanted from the huge warehouse crowded with furniture. The wholesaler took their money, their three hundred dollars wrung from the sweat of their blood, and pocketed it and promised the furniture to be delivered within the week to the already rented flat.
The very next week however, the firm had gone into bankruptcy. The great warehouse stocked with furniture had been sealed shut and attached for payment of creditors. The wholesaler had disappeared to give other creditors time to unleash their anger on the empty air. Nazorine, one of these, went to his lawyer, who told him nothing could be done until the case was settled in court and all creditors satisfied. This might take three years and Nazorine would be lucky to get back ten cents on the dollar.
Vito Corleone listened to this story with amused disbelief. It was not possible that the law could allow such thievery. The wholesaler owned his own palatial home, an estate in Long Island, a luxurious automobile, and was seeding his children to college. How could he keep the three hundred dollars of the poor baker Nazorine and not give him the furniture he had paid for? But, to make sure, Vito Corleone had Genco Abbandando check it out with the lawyers who represented the Genco Pura company.
They verified the story of Nazorine. The wholesaler had all his personal wealth in his wife’s name. His furniture business was incorporated and he was not personally liable. True, he had shown bad faith by taking the money of Nazorine when he knew he was going to file bankruptcy but this was a common practice. Under law there was nothing to be done.
Of course the matter was easily adjusted. Don Corleone sent his Consigliere, Genco Abbandando, to speak to the wholesaler, and as was to be expected, that wide-awake businessman caught the drift immediately and arranged for Nazorine to get his furniture. But it was an interesting lesson for the young Vito Corleone.
The second incident had more far-reaching repercussions. In 1939, Don Corleone had decided to move his family out of the city. Like any other parent he wanted his children to go to better schools and mix with better companions. For his own personal reasons he wanted the anonymity of suburban life where his reputation was not known. He bought the mall property in Long Beach, which at that time had only four newly built houses but with plenty of room for more. Sonny was formally engaged to Sandra and would soon marry, one of the houses would be for him. One of the houses was for the Don. Another was for Genco Abbandando and his family. The other was kept vacant at the time.
A week after the mall was occupied, a group of three workmen came in all innocence with their truck. They claimed to be furnace inspectors for the town of Long Beach. One of the Don’s young bodyguards let the men in and led them to the furnace in the basement. The Don, his wife and Sonny were in the garden taking their ease and enjoying the salty sea air.
Much to the Don’s annoyance he was summoned into the house by his bodyguard. The three workmen, all big burly fellows, were grouped around the furnace. They had taken it apart, it was strewn around the cement basement floor. Their leader, an authoritative man, said to the Don in a gruff voice, “Your furnace is in lousy shape. If you want us to fix it and put it together again, it’ll cost you one hundred fifty dollars for labor and parts and then we’ll pass you for county inspection.” He took out a red paper label. “We stamp this seal on it, see, then nobody from the county bothers you again.”
The Don was amused. It had been a boring, quiet week in which he had had to neglect his business to take care of such family details moving to a new house entailed. In more broken English than his usual slight accent he asked, “If I don’t pay you, what happens to my furnace?”
The leader of the three men shrugged. “We just leave the furnace the way it is now.” He gestured at the metal parts strewn over the floor.
The Don said meekly, “Wait, I’ll get you your money.” Then he went out into the garden and said to Sonny, “Listen, there’s some men working on the furnace, I don’t understand what they want. Go in and take care of the matter.” It was not simply a joke; he was considering making his son his underboss. This was one of the tests a business executive had to pass.
Sonny’s solution did not altogether please his father. It was too direct, too lacking in Sicilian subtleness. He was the Club, not the Rapier. For as soon as Sonny heard the leader’s demand he held the three men at gunpoint and had them thoroughly bastinadoed by the bodyguards. Then he made them put the furnace together again and tidy up the basement. He searched them and found that they actually were employed by a house-improvement firm with headquarters in Suffolk County. He learned the name of the man who owned the firm. Then he kicked the three men to their truck. “Don’t let me see you in Long Beach again,” he told them. “I’ll have your balls hanging from your ears.”
It was typical of the young Santino, before he became older and crueler, that he extended his protection to the community he lived in. Sonny paid a personal call to the home-improvement firm owner and told him not to send any of his men into the Long Beach area ever again. As soon as the Corleone Family set up their usual business liaison with the local police force they were informed of all such complaints and all crimes by professional criminals. In less than a year Long Beach became the most crime-free town of its size in the United States. Professional stickup artists and strong-arms received one warning not to ply their trade in the town. They were allowed one offense. When they committed a second they simply disappeared. The flimflam home-improvement gyp artists, the door-to-door con men were politely warned that they were not welcome in Long Beach. Those confident con men who disregarded the warning were beaten within an inch of their lives. Resident young punks who had no respect for law and proper authority were advised in the most fatherly fashion to run away from home. Long Beach became a model city.
What impressed the Don was the legal validity of these sales swindles. Clearly there was a place for a man of his talents in that other world which had been closed to him as an honest youth. He took appropriate steps to enter that world.
And so he lived happily on the mall in Long Beach, consolidating and enlarging his empire, until after the war was over, the Turk Sollozzo broke the peace and plunged the Don’s world into its own war, and brought him to his hospital bed.