“As the city became a crossroads of humanity, migrants filled out map-of-the-world neighborhoods; they forged a Creole culture, rich in foodways, music, and a good deal more— tradition-bearers of a grand American city.
The Business of Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler
For most of its first decade, until construction on St. Louis Cathedral was completed in 1727, the streets of the Vieux Carre in the young French settlement of New Orleans were lined with billiard halls and cabarets and bars, but not a single house of worship. The writer Jason Berry, whose book City of a Million Dreams offers the most definitive and enchanting accounts of the first 300 years of New Orleans, has also called the place he calls home “a city that winks at sin.”
After Frank Costello and “Dandy Phil” Kastel moved to town (along with an “angel investment” from Meyer Lansky, who was never really involved in the day-to-day operations of anything but managed to be a part of nearly everything the mob touched back then) and got into business with Carlos Marcello, the vice squads and police investigators and anti-corruption crusaders spent far more time tracing and explaining the history of the Mafia than the business of the Mafia. From a law enforcement perspective, the lessons from the bloody battles over Prohibition weren’t that the law itself was cruel and pointless or about the futility of a war over a consensual crime; it was that Prohibition failed because the bad guys were simply more sophisticated and more resourceful.
When one looks back at the news reports from the middle of the last century about organized crime in America- especially in Louisiana, there is an aspect of the coverage that is consistently, glaringly missing, the answer to one, simple question: Is there anything really new about this news?
In 1803, when Louisiana became a US territory, New Orleans had more places to gamble than New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore combined.”
He may have appeared like a real crime-fighter at the time, but watching the footage of Fiorello LaGuardia and a battalion of police officers sluggishly heave slot machines from the bed of a boat and into the Long Island Sound now looks downright silly (and not only because the mayor would probably be charged with a series of felonies if he tried to pull off a stunt like this today).
The truth is that there have been gambling establishments in New Orleans for more than 300 years— sometimes perfectly legal, sometimes existing in the extralegal realm built by political capital, and sometimes unsanctioned but never wholly intolerable.
“In eighteenth century, Louisiana officials passed ordinances outlawing gambling and other activities considered vices during religious services, limited the pots for games of chance, and finally prohibited gambling all together. When none of these measures proved successful, Louisiana Governor Louis Billouart de Kerlérec opened a government-run casino in New Orleans in 1753,” explains historian Jay Precht in 64 Parishes. “In 1803, when Louisiana became a US territory, New Orleans had more places to gamble than New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore combined. So entrenched was the practice that when the federal government banned gambling in the territory in 1812, it exempted New Orleans.”
There is an impulse to treat organized crime in New Orleans and the life story of Carlos Marcello as existing outside of the history of the city itself, as a singular phenomenon that was exported to America from Italy, as something entirely unique to the Mafia. Indeed, there is an entire body of work about Marcello and the New Orleans Mafia constructed around the implication that— aside from the Hennessy Assassination and the lynchings that followed in the early 1890s, the cultural and historical influences of New Orleans are somehow irrelevant.
Nearly all of the scholarship about Marcello, including, most prominently, John H. Davis’s Mafia Kingfish, comes from people who misapprehend or ignore the ways in which culture and history alter the magnetic field in Louisiana and particularly in New Orleans. They rush through those details too hurriedly and interpret many of them wrongly. In his biography of Marcello, for example, Davis referred to former New Orleans Mayor deLesseps Story “Chep” Morrison, Sr. as “Chet,” which may seem minor to anyone unfamiliar with the cast of characters but would, to a reader from Davis’s native New York, be the equivalent of a writer misidentifying Rudy Giuliani as “Ruby” in a book about a mafioso from the Empire State, the kind of tiny mistake capable of unraveling a writer’s credibility entirely and leaving a reader adrift with an unreliable narrator.
Davis’s book, Mafia Kingfish, is particularly problematic for anyone attempting to reconstruct the story of Carlos Marcello, not just because Davis (the first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) decided to present his antihero as a creature of the Mafia, as if he was merely an interloper in Louisiana and not a lifelong resident of the state, but also because it’s served as the source material for dozens and dozens of other narratives about Marcello. And like Davis’s book, nearly all of the other accounts were also written by outsiders who were similarity distracted by the novelties and eccentricities of New Orleans too much to be bothered by the veracity of the actual story—in the same way “ghost tours” market the French Quarter to tourists.
Too much has been made, for example, over Frank Costello and Carlos Marcello’s friendship with a one-time bootlegger and full-time New Orleans bon vivant named James Brocato, better known as “Diamond Jim” Moran, one of the city’s first celebrity restauranteurs and given the nickname on account of how he festooned himself with a king’s ransom of diamond bling. In the mid-50s, Moran bought the venerable New Orleans culinary institution, La Louisiane, from the Alciator family, and turned it into Diamond Jim’s La Louisiane, offering diners the option of “Diamond Studded Meat Ball and Spaghetti,” which was, the restaurant boasted, “a distinctly Moran concoction deliciously seasoned with a mushroom center.”
“Diamond Jim” was his own brand, a larger-than-life character who entertained the city’s most luminous guests, including Rocky Marciano and Marilyn Monroe alongside her husband Joe DiMaggio. Because Moran’s name appeared on incorporation documents for one of Costello’s front companies, the Louisiana Mint Company, he made a very brief appearance at the Kefauver Hearings.
However, despite his nominal associations with Costello and Marcello, there is no evidence Moran had been a part of the mob or was, like some speculate, a “made man.”
“Diamond Jim” always makes an appearance in stories about the New Orleans Mafia of his day; he was an Italian restauranteur who served Italian food and had been more than happy to introduce the Crescent City to wealthy, well-connected Italian-American businessmen. And he put his name on everything he owned and made sure someone got photographs of him next to every famous name- or at least mentioned in the press accounts- that he served at his clubs and restaurants. “Diamond Jim” was a bright, shiny object that caused distractions.
Moran has occasionally been misidentified as the owner of the New Orleans nightclub that hosted the meeting between Frank Costello and other mob leaders on May 5, 1947, less than a week after “Silver Dollar Sam” was deported to Italy and Carlos Marcello was named as the new head of the New Orleans Mafia. Moran was not the owner of the Black Diamond Club, and, like nearly everything about the government’s four decade-long pursuit of Marcello, it is possible the entire story was concocted. The detail about Marcello’s “election” in 1947 is based on testimony provided by federal investigators, who, by their own admission, had been unable to conduct meaningful or verifiable surveillance until 1979.
And this is the other fatal flaw in how the story of Marcello has been told and retold: There is, throughout nearly everything written about him, a reflexive tendency to unquestionably trust everything the government had in its file on the mafioso, with one enormous exception: The sensational conspiracy theory, dismissed by the members of the Warren Commission, that he’d been involved in orchestrating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which we will consider in Part Three.
The legends about Marcello feeding his enemies to the gators came out of the fishing and duck hunting trips he’d take with people visiting from out-of-town, city slickers who were already primed to be scared to death by the haunting tapestry of the Louisiana swamp. All the Little Man had to do to put the fear of God into some Big Shot from the Big City who was unfamiliar with the marshlands and waterways that he’d known since he was a child was to take out whatever gun he had on him and just start shooting into the water like a madman.
After the Bayou Brief published Part One of this series, two friends reached out to me on social media to share morsels of family folklore they’d each been told about an uncle or a grandfather who tagged along with Marcello on one of his trips down at Churchill Farms or his hideaway duck camp in Lacombe. In the FBI file on Marcello, an agent had included a piece of gossip he’d been told from an informant— some low-level gangster in New York— about a capo who sentenced a double-crossing solider in his crew to a trip down to Marcello’s swamp.
The man never returned home, the informant claimed, and the word was that Marcello and his boys had beaten the hell out of the man, dumped him in a tub of lye, and then fed his body to Marcello’s collection of bloodthirsty pet alligators. It’s the kind of campfire stories boys tell each other to inspire nightmares. He was a man who enjoyed living more than whatever thrill his business partners up in New York got from taking a life. That wasn’t for him.
For now, however, it is worth questioning how much of the government’s pursuit of Marcello was grounded in real evidence of monstrous criminality and how much of it, like the city Marcello called home, was a “spectacle.”
Next Page: A Culture of Spectacle