“Stereotypes become stereotypes because nine times out of 10 they are true.”
Louis Ferrante fulfils some of those preconceptions.
He is New York Italian, powerfully built, and was wearing a black shirt when interviewed for HARDtalk by Sarah Montague.
He worked for John Gotti of the infamous Gambino crime family, which pulled off some of the most lucrative heists in American history.
But he is younger than you would think, given that he ran his own “crew” and did nine years in jail before deciding to change his life and become a writer.
Ferrante’s moment of truth came when a prison guard at the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center described him and his kind as “animals”.
Two months in solitary forced him to ponder the question: was he an animal? If so, why was he one?
“I thought about the people I’d victimised… and I realised I did deserve to be in a zoo,” he recalls.
For the first time in his life he started reading books, looking deeper into himself and searching for some answers.
He set himself the challenge to read the entire prison library.
“Prison was the greatest thing that happened to me, because it gave me time to look inside myself, the solitude that I needed to take a closer look at everything around me; to analyse myself.”
He educated himself and converted to Judaism.
Given his experience behind bars, Ferrante believes the prison services should be about giving inmates the opportunity to change their lives.
But before his own transformation, Ferrante’s “greatest aspiration” was always to be a member of the Mafia.
A kid with big balls and no brains can go from flat broke to fat pockets with one good stick-up. It’s the quickest money on the street
He started off as a kid, sawing the tops of meters to get the coins, and hijacked his first truck as a teenager, using a gun.
“I was 17 years old. I liked girls. I liked to drive fast cars. I liked hamburgers and French fries.
“And I’d just realised that I liked to hijack trucks”.
A common misconception about the Mafia is that you have to have a genetic link to a “family” in order to be a member.
Not so, says Ferrante. The most famous Mob bosses were not born into “the Life”.
Lucky Luciano, Thomas Lucchese, Carlos Marcello and Vito Genovese all started out as petty thieves, graduating to bigger crimes as the years passed. So did John Gotti and so did Ferrante.
Whether he is accurately described as a “boss” is debatable.
His memoir, Tough Guy, more modestly describes him as a “Mafia insider”.
But he was on the list being passed around the five Mafia families and was on the verge of being “made” when he was arrested for racketeering.
“I had a dozen good men under me… I was already equal to a made man, since I answered directly to the heads of my family.”
In a legitimate business he would be considered middle management.
At the height of his criminal career Ferrante had the trappings of wealth.
“I’d drop $10,000 at the tables in Atlantic City, pick up a $500 tab at a steakhouse, and hand out hundreds to anyone with a story.”
He made his money robbing trucks, selling on bent goods bought with fake credit cards made from stolen numbers, dealing with anything from high quality white goods to government bonds.
In an early mistake he robbed a truck load of cheap underwear.
“I was stuck with 500 boxes of brassieres I couldn’t sell as slingshots”.
But mostly his jobs were highly lucrative.
His book enables you to check what you think you know about the New York Italian underworld with reality.
You have to be Italian to be “made”? True.
Under no circumstances do you take your beef with another gangster to his home, involving his family. Also true.
He consorted with characters like Bert the Zip, Tony the Twitch and Barry the Brokester, who always maintained he could not pay you because he was broke.
Bobby Butterballs he leaves us to work out for ourselves.
He maintains that there is honour amongst thieves:
“Jimmy and I had no contract, no lawyers, no bill of sale; a handshake sealed the deal. Try that in the straight world”.
And he would have you believe that he was a nice cuddly gangster. He maintains he never murdered anyone.
But that was perhaps more by luck than judgement.
Ferrante glosses over quite how much he injured people, and he admits in his book that he beat someone up and left him not knowing whether he was alive or dead.
Collecting money, he says, was easy for him. “I collected $20,000 from a guy who owned a dress company in a garment centre. I threatened to hang him out the window. He paid, even though his office was on the first floor.”
When HARDtalk presenter Sarah Montague asked him how he asserted himself in prison he used elliptical phrases like: I would have to “declare myself” or “express myself”.
Writing his life story cannot have been an easy decision. The Mafia are not keen on insiders discussing their modus operandi.
He has changed the names to protect the innocent and conceal the guilty, and says as a matter of honour he has never ratted on his former associates.