“There is no organized crime in New Orleans. No, there’s no organized crime here. Do you want some girls?”
The Prime Minister of the Underworld Moves to the Swamps
Frank Costello and “Dandy” Phil Kastel’s House of the Rising Sun
Francesco Castiglia was four when he went on his first great adventure, all the way to the other side of the ocean, just like the great Italian explorer Cristoforo Colombo had done four hundred years before, except that Francesco was with his mother Maria and his older brother Ed, who made him forget to be afraid. Four years later, in their new country, another pair of fearless brothers conquered the sky. And four years after that, Francesco was now Frankie, and he and Eddie figured they could conquer the streets.
The world was suddenly becoming smaller, and yet somehow, it seemed even more mysterious. Another Italian, Guglielmo Marconi, found a way to send messages through the ether, completely hidden from sight, unlocked only through a machine that seemed to work so simply even if no one understood how.
By the time Francesco Castiglia was Frank Costello, men had made fortunes through decoding the unseen. The empire of the air, they called it.
He would one day preside over a different kind of invisible empire, but because his lifelong friend Charles “Lucky” Luciano still held onto power, even in exile, having been deported back to Sicily, Costello could never earn the title of “emperor;” he was, instead, the “prime minister.”
Frank Costello has always played a more prominent part of America’s retelling of the myth of the Mafia than Carlos Marcello. But this is attributable to both the happenstance of living in a bigger media market and of Costello’s involvement with the more sinister elements of Cosa Nostra.
The Shakespearean tragicomedies and melodramas of the New York Mafia and their Five Families made for better copy: Bitter rivalries that performed their acts of justice on the streets, men who followed the example of the vengeful God of the Old Testament more than they looked to the teachings of Christ or the grace of Mother Mary or redemption of the Saints that adorned the jewelry around their necks.
Men like Costello were the heirs to the mob that Al Capone introduced into the American imagination during his reign of terror in Chicago, the City of Broad Shoulders.
Carlos Marcello may have hustled his way to their attention by outsmarting the old men who had once been in control of the gritty, grimy streets of the French Quarter and the drug trade that moved through the port, or maybe he was the beneficiary of pure dumb luck. But New Orleans was the Big Easy, the City that Care Forgot. And though the U.S. government begged to differ, Carlos Marcello was unmistakably from New Orleans.
At the end of his career, when the feds were closing in on him by enlisting the services of Joe Hauser, the FBI got hundreds- maybe thousands- of hours of recorded conversations with the mobster. When he wasn’t talking about what he’d just read in the paper, Marcello talked about what he’d just eaten for lunch or, usually, where he wanted to go for dinner. In all those hours, the Little Man- not even once- accidentally confessed to anything more sinister than bribing people who worked for the same government that was paying people to lock him up.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Mayor LaGuardia in New York threw some of the slot machines into the Hudson Riv4er, bringing the media along with him for the theatrical performance, and the most notorious one-armed bandit of them all, Lucky Luciano, managed to get himself thrown out of the country. But LaGuardia hadn’t taken either man out of business, and he hadn’t taken all of their slot machines either.
We don’t have to guess who the Kingfish told Costello to ring in Louisiana, after he gave him his blessing to relocate. Seymour Weiss at the Roosevelt Hotel or any one of a number of the members of Huey P. Long’s sprawling political operation, and it was Weiss’s responsibility to collect the $20,000 a month “campaign donations” that Costello had been gladly contributing to the Long machine.
Notably, Frank Costello didn’t open up shop in Louisiana in 1933, the year he struck the deal in Sands Point, and he stayed put in 1934 too, the year LaGuardia took over City Hall. And when he was finally ready to pack up shop in 1935, the year Long was (likely) accidentally killed by his bodyguards (the official theory is that he was assassinated by Baton Rouge physician Carl Weiss, Sr.), he asked his most trusted deputy, a disgraced former securities broker named Phillip Kastel and better known as “Dandy Phil” to drive the moving van and scout things out ahead of him.
As we explored in Part One of this series, the American Mafia was first established in New Orleans, but in the years since the assassination of City Police Superintendent David C. Hennessy and the mass lynchings of the Italian-American suspects that followed, its grip on power had loosened.
Charles Matranga, often referred to as the city’s first Mafia godfather, had handed over the operation to Corrado Giacona and Giacona’s street boss, Sylvestro “Silver Dollar Sam” Carolla. By the time Marcello was a part of the syndicate, Giacona was more like a godfather emeritus than an active boss, and, for all intents and purposes, the organization really belonged to Carolla. (Marcello officially took the reigns from “Silver Dollar Sam” in 1947, after Carolla was deported back to Italy. Notably, some question whether Giacona was ever officially involved at all ).
During Prohibition, a time when mobsters like Capone were becoming obscenely rich by being even more obscenely violent, the Big Easy Mafia was puttering along. Partly, this is because the organized crime syndicate wasn’t all that organized, and partly, it’s due to the fact that— as the “Liquor Capital of America”— the market for booze was, pardon the pun, over-saturated. There is at least one legend about Capone sending his minions to strong-arm Carolla into giving Capone— the original “Scarface”— a mainline to the New Orleans liquor supply-chain and returning to Chicago without any booze but with a bunch of broken bones.
Costello— it’s worth mentioning— was only able to buy a home near the Sands Point Bath and Country Club on Long Island thanks to the money he made from bootlegging, a business he learned at the foot of Arnold Rothstein, the man who behind the curtain of the Black Sox Scandal, the infamous fix of the 1919 World Series (In Fitzgerald’s retelling in The Great Gatsby, Rothstein is the model for the character Meyer Wolfsheim).
Shortly before Costello’s death in 1973, he revealed— for the first time— a story about advising an Irish-American patrician from Boston on how to improve the man’s scotch smuggling operation. It’d happened decades earlier, but he never forgot the man’s name: Joseph P. Kennedy.
The New Orleans that awaited Frank Costello and “Dandy Phil” Kastel was theirs for the taking, and, unlike New York, perfectly content to let them mind their own business, as long as they were gracious guests.
Next page: The Business of Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler