The Cigar: Carmine Galante, Mafia Terror

Image of The Cigar: Carmine Galante, Mafia Terror
Release Date: 
March 28, 2023
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The Cigar: Carmine Galante, Mafia Terror is more a collection of mob lore and history than an account of a mafia terror, but in those stories we see an aspect of the American mob into which we rarely get a glimpse.

Authors Frank Dimatteo and Michael Benson, in their fourth collaboration, lay out and support the case about the mob’s active involvement in the heroin trade. Galante held the primary responsibility for keeping the heroin moving through the pipeline recounted in the film, The French Connection. In fact, it makes sense to think of Galante as the missing link in the evolution of the Italian Mafia.

The authors deliver a cursory but complete enough history of the Mafia to make a credible case for Galante as a seminal figure in the mob’s transformation from a secret society relevant only to immigrants to a pop-culture phenomenon that warranted its own beat in the New York newspapers even when there wasn’t a gang war on.

Galante was born into the first era but died in the second and, as it turns out, is the weird puzzle piece that links the periods. He was born in the time of the “Mustache Petes” era, men from the old country had very specific ways of behaving. He came of age and thrived just as the “Young Turks” started putting the Mustache Petes out of the picture.

The new mob, which made its bones bootlegging, emerged from the Depression with a higher tolerance for risk and a more voracious appetite for cash. Sure, there were other “vices” like gambling and prostitution, and hijacking and armed robbery were omnipresent, but the smuggling revenue had to be replaced. Line-item revenues are as important for the Mafia as for any other multinational business.

The Young Turks came out of smuggling, so it made absolute sense they were open to changing the cargo but not the business model. Still, there was a sense that drugs, particularly heroin, were a “dirty” trade. As the mob moved more toward the “respectability” that came with running gaming houses, appearing separate from the drug trade was paramount for many of the top-echelon mobsters.

As the authors write: “In order to understand the Carmine Galante story, you got to understand the mob’s hypocritical, phony, and two-faced policy when it comes to drugs, specifically the dreaded babonia—heroin. [Lucky] Luciano liked to say, “we don’t do that”—that is, push junk. Gambino said, no, never, but that was largely public relations, one step toward plausible deniability should some hood be caught trying to get through Idlewild with a kilo in his luggage. There was too much money in opiates to ignore. Money outweighs morality. Every time.”

Morality wasn’t an issue for Galante. It is worth noting that, although he was maybe “the” key player in getting heroin from Canada into the U.S., until now he’s been more of a bit player or not recognized at all.

For example, as Galante was the Consigliere of the Bonanno family, second in command to Don Joseph Bonanno, but Galante’s name didn’t appear in Bonanno’s memoir. 

Even the book bearing his name seems to happen around him more than because of him. Galante was impressively, legendarily silent. The authors drew most of their reporting from FBI files and the occasional account from Galante associates, both police and criminals.

Instead, The Cigar: Carmine Galante, Mafia Terror is a look at how the mob ate itself over drugs and paranoia. How greed is an unsustainable business model.

There are no end to the cameos, as Galante crossed paths with some of the century’s most infamous names on their respective underworld journeys. For instance, Jimmy Hoffa, John Gotti, and Joseph Pistone, the undercover FBI agent portrayed in the movie Donnie Brasco all make appearances. Galante spent a chunk of his life in jail, as the mob world evolved and then eroded around him.

So elusive was Galante’s character that the authors are unclear whether he was a barely literate brute or a sociopathic genius. As a result, The Cigar: Carmine Galante, Mafia Terror presents an uneven narrative that relies on other unknown or little-known mob history and lore. But the facts and insight that are unearthed wouldn’t have come to light without an attempt to piece Galante’s life together. In accounting for his whereabouts (or trying to) the authors provide significant context to the mob’s machinations, particularly in the latter half of the 20th century.