“People take one little piece of true information, twist it around, add a lot of bullshit, and come up with some charges that don’t even resemble the truth.”
Fifty years ago, in April of 1970, a bomb exploded inside of the Louisiana state Capitol in Baton Rouge. Fortunately, the device, which was planted in the Senate chambers, didn’t injure anyone, but the damage wasn’t exactly insignificant. Windows shattered. Marble slabs fell from the walls. The dais was split into pieces. Today, there’s still at least one visible reminder of the explosion: A pencil that hangs like a stalactite from the room’s ceiling.
Two weeks earlier, the Capitol—the House that Huey Built—had been rattled by a different kind of bomb. Life magazine published a staggering, sensational story, a story so explosive that it threatened to end the careers of dozens of people who worked in that building, including the man who was supposed to be in charge, Gov. John J. McKeithen, also known as Big John.
The story was actually a follow-up on a trilogy of reports Life published nearly three years before. Big John had been so indignant over those stories that he flew to New York City, alongside his heavy-hitter lawyer Camille Gravel, with the intention of telling the bigshots at Time-Life that they didn’t have a damn clue. Instead, it quickly became clear to the governor that they had better intel than he did. He’d been so impressed (and frankly, stunned) that he offered to become a confidential source for their stringer down in New Orleans, a freelance writer named Dave Chandler.
So when Chandler’s follow-up appeared in the pages of Life‘s April 10th edition underneath the headline “The Little Man is Bigger Than Ever,” there was perhaps no one more shocked by the report than Big John. He was completely blindsided.
According to Chandler, the governor wasn’t really running things down in Louisiana. Carlos Marcello was.
Chandler alleged that Marcello, the “reputed” boss of the New Orleans Mafia, had effectively infiltrated state government and, as a consequence, was now amassing a personal fortune, all courtesy of the taxpayers of the great state of Louisiana. Marcello, he claimed, had his tentacles everywhere, and poor John McKeithen was totally clueless.
Three years earlier, McKeithen had hastily assembled an investigation into Life‘s original stories about Marcello, the most significant of which involved an elaborate and ultimately unsuccessful scheme to bribe Edward Grady Partin, a local union boss, to recant his testimony against Jimmy Hoffa, with the hope that it would help spring Hoffa from prison.
Chandler’s name didn’t appear in the byline, but his authorship was an open secret.
It was a wild story. Apparently, Marcello had been surreptitiously communicating with one of Gov. McKeithen’s staffers, Aubrey Young, through a secret phone line installed in the governor’s office (later, it was revealed that the phone was actually located in the Speaker’s office). Young was to help broker a deal between Partin and some unnamed mobster from New York.
Despite his title in the governor’s office, Young was never in any real position of power. He’d been a down-on-his-luck family friend that McKeithen brought with him from Caldwell Parish. Gus Weill, the public relations guru who had served as McKeithen’s executive secretary, once described him as a “glorified gopher.” Young was also a severe alcoholic, and all of this allegedly had occurred during an epic bender. (He would later become a founder of Louisiana’s chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. He also would later be indicted with Marcello in the Brilab sting, though unlike Marcello, he was ultimately acquitted).
McKeithen had asked Camille Gravel to lead the investigation, but after only a few months, Gravel resigned in protest, presumably over a disagreement about who he was allowed to question, though Gravel vowed to never disclose the details (and according to his family, he never did). Suffice it to say, the investigation never amounted to much.
This time, things would be different. The legislature would be in charge.
When Carlos Marcello arrived at the state Capitol on the morning of March 18, 1971, people were genuinely surprised by how good he looked. He’d only recently returned home, after spending five months in prison for assaulting an FBI agent. (That’s another story). He’d shed more than a few pounds at Club Fed, likely because, at least in part, the federal government didn’t have spaghetti and clams on the menu.
A decade earlier, when he frustrated a 34-year-old Bobby Kennedy by asserting his Fifth Amendment rights nearly 70 times during the McClellan Hearings, the press (heck, even the Times-Picayune) managed to pay him at least one compliment: He showed up in style. On that day, he wore a neatly-tailored gray suit, a slim black tie, a beautiful pair of alligator boots, and most importantly, some sleek tortoise shell wayfarers.
By 1971, however, he had no interest in looking like a sharply-dressed wise guy, and he knew better than to wear sunglasses during his testimony in front of the boys in Baton Rouge. He’d just turned 61, ancient for a gangster. No one called him “the Little Man” any more, at least not to his face. He was Mr. Marcello, or if you were from down on da bayou, “Uncle Carlos.” He was still dapper, but his sartorial choices now projected distinction and respectability instead of cool and contempt.
That morning, in a stuffy committee room in the basement of the state Capitol, Carlos Marcello, flanked by a pair of attorneys, politely answered questions from members of the awkwardly-named Louisiana Legislative Mafia Probe Committee. He only mentioned the Fifth Amendment a few times, and when he did, no one was disagreeable about it. The room was packed with Louisiana lawyers. There was a good chance at least a handful of them knew that Carlos Marcello had once forced the courts to affirm the broad Fifth Amendment rights of anyone compelled to testify in front of a legislative committee.
Because Dave Chandler’s report was entirely constructed around the premise that Carlos Marcello was secretly in charge of state government, there was really only one question the committee wanted answered: Who exactly did Marcello know in the government?
It took more than three hours for him to get through the list, but ultimately, the only thing Carlos Marcello proved was that he was a 61-year-old multi-millionaire from New Orleans. There were no bombshells. Sure, he knew a whole bunch of prominent politicians and public officials—judges, governors, legislators, district attorneys, sheriffs, and most of the people in the room that day. What did that prove?
Only a couple of years back, it wasn’t much of a secret that he had been trying to convince the powers-that-be to build the Superdome on Churchill Farms, his land in Jefferson Parish, and despite what Chandler had insinuated in his report, it also wasn’t much of a secret that the state had purchased some of his land to build a pumping station.
Similarly, everyone had been keenly aware that Churchill Farms happened to be smack-dab in the middle of where the state had hoped to entice the federal government to build an interstate connector, a project that was being marketed as the new “Dixie Highway.” (It never got built).
Chandler had told the readers of Life magazine that Marcello had purchased the property, which was close to 6,000 acres, a dozen years before for around $1 million. Now, thanks to the new pumping station (which Chandler claimed had only benefitted Marcello), it was valued at a staggering $60 million.
It was a ludicrous exaggeration.
For one, Marcello hadn’t spent $1 million to buy the property; he acquired it from someone who owed him around $60,000 in gambling debt, and even then, it wasn’t entirely clear whether he’d made a good deal. You couldn’t build much of anything there. It was just an expanse of uninhabitable swamp.
But even with the new pumping station, the land wasn’t worth anywhere close to $60 million. And while there were some legitimate questions about how the station got fast-tracked for construction in the waning days of Gov. Jimmie Davis’ second term, Marcello wasn’t the main beneficiary; the station opened up an additional 8,000 acres for development. Together, the 14,000 acres comprised the last undeveloped part of the New Orleans metro area that was within the flood protection zone.
Eventually, it became clear to the members of the Louisiana Legislative Mafia Probe Committee that while Dave Chandler may have written a dazzling story, it was just that: A story. He’d stitched the whole thing together with innuendo, half-truths, and outright slander. Two people who were named in his report sued him for defamation, and they both won. When the committee issued its final report, it vindicated Gov. McKeithen—and by extension, Carlos Marcello—almost entirely, though it hardly mattered. The damage had already been done to Big John, and Marcello may have preferred to have been found to be secretly in control of state government. “How about dat?”
Instead, the committee directed its ire at Chandler and his editors at Life magazine. The report was scathing, but at least one advisory member of the committee, Paul Hebert, the highly-respected dean of LSU Law School who had once served as a judge in the Nuremberg Trials, thought they hadn’t gone far enough. He wrote separately to emphasize that, in his opinion, Chandler had been reckless and defamatory. (Chandler didn’t exactly help out his own cause. During the committee’s investigation, he launched a vanity campaign for governor, which he said he’d undertaken as a way of collecting material for a book he intended on writing. He never wrote the book, and he only mustered a few hundred votes).
There was at least one moment of levity during the committee hearings. At one point, while Marcello was rattling through the names of all of the people he knew, he was asked if he was acquainted with a man named Joseph “Zip” Chimento of the Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office.
“Sure, I know him. I christened his child,” Marcello said. “I’m his godfather.”
“If the meanest man in the republic is deprived of his rights, then every man in the republic is deprived of his rights.”
Nearly six months ago, I published the first of what I intended to be a three-part series on the life of Carlos Marcello. Part Two came out in early May, and unless you follow me on social media, you may be wondering what happened to Part Three.
I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that Part Three isn’t likely to be published any time soon, but the good news, at least to those of you who enjoyed the series, is that I decided instead to write a book. In fact, it’s about all I’ve been doing during the past few months.
There are other books about Carlos Marcello, most notably John H. Davis’ 1989 page-turner, Mafia Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy. Davis’ book, which is now out-of-print, is a gripping read, and even today, it continues to inform practically everything else that has been written about Marcello, which would be great except for one minor problem: John H. Davis, much like Dave Chandler before him, didn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. To put it more bluntly, Mafia Kingfish isn’t a biography of Carlos Marcello. It’s a novel about a character named Carlos Marcello.
I’ve spent the better part of the year researching Marcello’s life, a task that has been made both considerably easier thanks to the digitization of newspaper archives and public records and also considerably more challenging because there are now hundreds of thousands of pages to comb through. But the more I’ve read, the more convinced I’ve become of what I had attempted to articulate in the first two stories: At some point, probably when he was in his early forties, Carlos Marcello had the disorienting experience of being turned into a celebrity villain, a creation of the press, the police, and the politics of his time. Even after his death in 1993, that’s largely how he’s still defined.
With the exception of Buddy Lemman’s book Hail to the Dragon Slayer and Mike Fawer’s From the Bronx to the Bayou, the only account of his life that actually humanized him (at least the only one I’ve discovered so far) was a three-part series by Dean Baquet and Jim Amoss that appeared in the Times-Picayune in 1982. Everything else, I’m afraid, is either pulp fiction or a variation on the conspiracy theory that casts Marcello as the mastermind of JFK’s assassination (and/or RFK’s assassination and/or MLK’s assassination and/or Jimmy Hoffa’s murder/disappearance and/or a CIA plot to assassinate Fidel Castro). To be sure, conspiracies are a part of his story. How could they not be? But in many ways, they obscure a truly remarkable and definitively American saga.
Marcello arrived in this country when he was only eight months old, and 42 years later, he was at the center of the longest and the most expensive deportation case in American history. At one point, he was “extralegally” deported to Guatemala; he used the word “kidnapped,” on the basis of a birth certificate that the United States government knew to be fraudulent. Somehow, he snuck back into the country, and although the federal government kept trying, they were never able to get rid of him.
He got his big break as a partner in Frank Costello’s slot machine and gambling rackets, though he was largely an obscure underworld figure until Sen. Estes Kefauver introduced him to the country as one of the nation’s most dastardly criminals. (Before his debut in the Kefauver Hearings in 1951, Marcello’s name had appeared in the pages of the Times-Picayune less than a dozen times. One of the stories was about how he became the first person ever to be taxed under a new federal law, the Marihuana Tax Act).
You can buy his FBI file, along with the Final Report of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, on the internet for $12.99. It’s more than 4,000 pages long. For $29.99, you can also buy a book of all of the petitions he filed with the United States Supreme Court.
Some believed he was the most powerful mafioso in the country and that he sat atop a multi-billion dollar empire. Some have speculated that he was a monster responsible for the most horrific public murder in American history: Assassinating our young, handsome president by blowing his head off in the middle of a Texas parade. (Others claimed he secretly ran the Louisiana state government).
What’s the truth?
Well, that’s why I decided to write this book. (To be clear, I’m still in the process of writing. If you have something you think that needs to be included, feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re in the publishing industry, yes, I do have a book proposal I can send your way).
As I mentioned up top, there is at least one critical difference between the book I’ve been writing and every other biography about Marcello. For the first time ever, members of Carlos’ tightly-knit family, including his son Joe, have agreed to share their side of the story.
In addition, I’ve been able to obtain a copy of something that had previously been known only to Marcello’s family and closest friends. Three days after Marcello’s death, his longest-serving attorney and confidante, Mike Maroun of Shreveport, began dictating notes for a book he had planned to write about his friend’s life.
Without spoiling anything, I can promise at least one thing: Nearly 60 years later, the truth about how Carlos Marcello managed to slip back into the country from Guatemala will finally be revealed.