Francesco Saverio Castiglia – aka “Frank Costello” and “Frank Saverio” – was born in 1893 in Lauropoli, Calabria, in the Italian “boot.” He entered this country as a baby in 1895 with his family, settling in the East Harlem section of Manhattan where he would be raised and reared.
He was naturalized in 1925 in NYC, and by the mid-1920s, he was residing in midtown Manhattan.
In later years as he rose up the underworld ladder, he would have dual residences at the exclusive 115 Central Park West (Apt 18-F) and 5 Barkers Point Lane out in Sands Point on Long Island, two of the most prestigious addresses in the country.
Frank stood 5-foot 7-inches tall and weighed 155 pounds with dark brown eyes and jet-black hair in his younger years. He had a reserved demeanor.
He was also well known for his sharp intelligence and always comporting himself as a gentleman, and he had a penchant for smoking English Oval brand cigarettes. Costello always dressed immaculately in the finest suits, shirts, and ties and could easily have been mistaken for a Park Avenue businessman.
Frank had originally taken the nickname of Costello as a derivation of his surname Castiglia. And I think it spoke to the influence of the Irish at that time that he thought it a good way to blend in.
He married a Jewish girl, the former Loretta Geigerman, and although never having children, they would have a happy union, spending the rest of their lives together.
Costello had a brother who was very close to him, Eduardo (Eddie Costello), who was also a member of this borgata. The brothers would operate in unison all their lives. Eddie was known as Frank’s muscle and right-arm.
Costello was known to frequent the finest restaurants, nightspots, and hotels. The Waldorf Astoria and the Biltmore were favorites of his; the Copacabana and Pygmalion were among other favored nightclubs.
The Prime Minister
Frank Costello was widely known as “The Prime Minister” of the national crime syndicate because of his vast influence and the power he exerted over New York City politics. For years, he was very influential in the selection of many candidates for public office who were associated with Tammany Hall in New York City.
Judges, prosecutors, county attorneys, congressmen, and higher-ups in the NYCPD, etc., were all said to be on his payroll. He was known as a kingmaker, even said to have been instrumental in the selection of a nominee for the presidency of the United States.
This is a man who had Carmine DeSapio, the Tammany Hall power broker in his pocket, and all that went with that. During an intense investigation of Costello decades back, his home telephone was tapped by investigators. They soon got an earful.
One evening, Frank received a call from none other than Judge Thomas Aurelio, who had recently been appointed to the bench. He called, as a boy would his father, profusely thanking “Don Francesco” as he referred to Frank, and pledging his undying loyalty and fealty to the underworld boss for having him appointed to the bench.
Costello replied, “When I tell you something’s in the bag, it’s in the bag, okay!” This gives you a tiny glimpse of his power!
FBI # 936217, NYCPD # B-38412
His activities included liquor bootlegging, slot machines, bookmaking, shylocking, diamond smuggling, bribery-official corruption, and business infiltration. I must preface his biography by saying that Frank was not an inherently vicious or dangerous mafioso.
He was nobody’s fool of course, and I’m certain that he did what had to be done if you crossed him or you had to “go.”
But he was a very logical and intelligent man and did not always resort to violence as a method of first resort. He used his brain and would typically figure out a way to accomplish his goals without killing.
And I think this was one of the primary differences between him and a lot of his mob brethren.
It served him very, very well in life.
A Unique Mafioso
One of the most influential and powerful Mafia leaders to ever operate in this country, Costello was considered to be one of the top controlling figures of all types of commercial activities throughout the U.S.
He dealt with all ethnicities while in the rackets, including Jews, Irish, and Italians, of course. He was an intimate boyhood friend of Lucky Luciano, Joe Adonis, Meyer Lansky, and Bugsy Siegel.
And he forged very close friendships with other top mafiosi including the notorious Albert Anastasia and Willie Moretti. Both of Calabrian heritage such as himself, they were considered inseparable and his right-arm.
When Costello became “acting boss” in 1946, he elevated Moretti to be his underboss. And, of course, Anastasia was underboss of the Mangano Family of Brooklyn at the time and would soon become the boss after the disappearance of the Mangano brothers.
Frank also did not travel with a bodyguard. It wasn’t his way. There were times he would have a driver, and there were times that he did indeed travel with what you’d call bodyguard or assistant.
Typically, that man oftentimes was of Irish or Jewish descent and not how readers would imagine a mob boss to operate. Frank was a unique mafioso for sure.
Among his closest associates were his brother Eddie, Phil Kastel, and Frank Erickson.
He was the president of 79 Wall St. Corp., (his wife was secretary and treasurer), a multimillion-dollar conglomerate that owned multiple skyscraper buildings from 79 to 89 Wall Street and through 148 to 152 Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan.
He held public or hidden ownership interests in numerous other valuable properties throughout Manhattan, its outer boroughs, and Long Island as well as the world-famous Copacabana Nightclub and other Manhattan nightclubs, several Las Vegas casinos through hidden ownership points (The Flamingo Hotel & Casino, The Frontier Casino), and legitimate businesses throughout the U.S.
His roster of criminal associates reads like a who’s who of the American underworld:
• Salvatore (Lucky Luciano) Lucania
• Vito (Don Vitone) Genovese
• Joseph (Joe Adonis) Doto
• Meyer Lansky
• Vincent (Jimmy Blue Eyes) Alo
• Quarico (Willy Moore) Moretti
• Anthony (Augie Pisano) Carfano
• Albert (The Executioner) Anastasia
• Michael (Mike) Miranda
• Giuseppe (Joe) Profaci
• Charles (The Blade) Tourine
• Frank Erickson
• Philip (Dandy Phil) Kastel
• Nicholas (Cockeyed Nick) Rattenni
• Carlos Marcello
• Eduardo (Eddie Costello) Castiglia
….and includes almost every important racketeer in the United States if not the world!
Since 1908 he had seven arrests for:
>> 1908 – assault and robbery
>> 1915 – possessing a gun (one year)
>> 1935 – liquor bootleg conspiracy
>> 1939 – alcohol tax conspiracy
>> 1951 – contempt of court
>> 1952 – contempt of congress (18 months prison and $5,000 fine)
>> 1954 – income tax evasion (five years)
In 1961, deportation proceedings were started against Frank, but they would go nowhere fast. Costello made sure to use his influence to quash further deportation efforts.
By the way, after his jail term for gun possession, which was a youthful indiscretion and not indicative of the man or his mentality, Frank swore that he would never again carry a gun in his life…. and he never did!
Costello made his initial fortune from the bootlegging of liquor. He was considered one of the biggest bootleggers in the United States at the time.
What made Frank so unique was his foresight, smarts, and business acumen to engage in the smuggling of the finest quality liquors and spirits from Canada and overseas in Europe, as opposed to the manufacturing of bathtub gin and the operating of alcohol stills as so many of his gangster friends and competition were doing.
In 1929, he was operating rum-running boats on Long Island in partnership with Philip (Dandy Phil) Kastel, who would become a lifelong partner. In 1930, Frank went partners with George McManus in the Kips Bay Brewery at 1st Avenue and 37th Street in Manhattan. In time, he became the top liquor smuggler from Europe, securing the exclusive franchise for Kings Ransom Scotch.
Later, he became the sole owner of the William Whittley Distillery in Scotland, the manufacturers of Kings Ransom and House of Lords Scotch Whiskey, buying out the previous owners of record in a multi-million dollar deal. And in later years, it was said that he secured additional franchises for several other top brands. These and other ventures made him a multi-millionaire many times over by the end of the Prohibition era.
It was a vast fortune incalculable in mere dollars and cents…. and Frank was just getting started!
Nightclubs, Gem Smuggling, and Slot Machines
By 1931, he was said to have gone into partnership with Sherman Billingsly in the world-famous Stork Club on 53rd Street in Manhattan. In years to come, he, of course, would be well known as the true owner of another world-famous nightspot – The Copacabana.
He was said to have derived much of his early income via gem smuggling from abroad. One of his couriers, killed in an airline crash while on a mission, was carrying $600,000 in diamonds, which were scattered far and wide over a southwestern area of the U.S.
From 1933 through at least the mid-1960s, Costello was the sole owner of the Hills Vending Co. of Chicago, Illinois. This was one of the largest manufacturers and distributors of slot machines in America. He placed these machines all over New York City and the tri-state area, handling distribution through a second vending company he created named Midtown Novelty Co., of NYC.
Costello made untold millions through this racket for years until New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia started cracking down on his operations in 1935, busting up his machines and dropping them in the East River.
Ever smart as a whip, Frank then pivoted and shipped thousands of his machines down to New Orleans, where he went into partnership with the Mafia Boss of Louisiana, Carlos Marcello.
He opened up the Pelican Novelty Company, taking in Phil Kastel as a junior partner to keep watch over their operation. This company later became known as the Louisiana Mint Company and was said to be one of the largest coin-machine companies in the United States.
Harold Geigerman, Frank’s brother-in-law, was later placed as the manager of this firm. Kastel, Geigerman, and Costello were said to headquarter out of the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans. The state was in Carlos’ hip pocket, and partners Costello, Kastel, and Marcello operated there unimpeded for many years to come.
On another note, Frank was said to be a very close personal friend of Huey P. Long, who soon became very influential in Louisiana politics and became Louisiana’s governor. During negotiations for this deal, Frank and the governor at that time, Jimmy Davis, had numerous parties on a state boat. Governor Davis adhered to Frank’s request and appointed Jim O’Connor as the parish prosecutor in order to protect Costello’s gambling and slot machine interests.
Costello also had John Grosse, the former chief of detectives, appointed to sheriff and promised Grosse 8% of the syndicate’s take from their slot machines so as to keep the wheels greased properly.
By 1963, Frank controlled vast slot machine and gambling concessions in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and California, and was said to be the largest independent coin machine operator in the United States.
As though his vast influence was not already felt throughout the state, Frank “The Prime Minister” Costello was indeed a fixer and power broker at the very zenith of power, and a kingmaker extraordinaire!
The likes of which have never been exhibited in this country, before or since, by any mafioso or single politician.
Francesco Castiglia was a mafioso of the first order, unparalleled in his vision and the breadth of his accomplishments by anyone else in the underworld, and very few in the upper world as well!
On the Payroll
And here is an additional list and sampling that I think may help drive my point home.
All of the men named below were said to be on Costello’s payroll:
• Judge Odeman of Baton Rouge, chairman of the State Democratic Committee accepted a $100,000 bribe from Costello and company.
Costello is alleged to have also had the following politicians in his hip pocket – all of them repeatedly taking bribes from his henchmen, couriers, and frontmen;
• Postmaster General Robert Hannagan
• U.S. Congressman Haber
• U.S. Senator Ellender
• New Orleans Mayor Morrison
• State Senator Bloomfield – $2,000 a month in bribes
• New Orleans Chief of Police Rye
• Baton Rouge City Police Captain Goode
…..all these various payoffs were handled by either Joe Tortorici, Phil Kastel, Frank Vissiu, James (Jimmy Moran) Brocato, or Marty Tortorici on behalf of Costello and Marcello.
• The Director of Public Works
• The Sheriff of Jefferson Parish
• A top official of the Bureau of Internal Revenue (to cover up any income tax violations or improprieties).
• Chief Atkins of the Louisiana State Police
• A police reporter for the Adams Newspaper, The Picayune, was on Marcello and Costello’s payroll to cover up any negative “bad” stories.
• and R.M. Stewart, a corrupt Baton Rouge newspaperman who played ball with the racketeers.
…..and this was but a smidgeon of the power brokers said to be under Frank’s influence.
• Frank Erickson, considered one of the biggest horse-sport bookmakers in the nation, was considered a close friend and gambling partner of Costello’s in the rackets. One more indication of Frank’s power.
• And George Morton Levy, owner of the Roosevelt Raceway in Westbury, Long Island, was alleged to have paid Costello and given him points in the racetrack to use his influence to keep underworld bookmakers away from the track so as not to ruin the track’s volume of betting business.
Such was the reputation of Frank Costello, to think that the mere mention of his name was enough to purge the track of undesirables.
Frank was an “original” along with Lucky Luciano, Vito Genovese, and others in the formation of “This Thing” in 1931.
He was given the coveted position of being the Family “Consigliere”…. a position he was born for.
Conflict with Vito Genovese
With Luciano’s jailing in 1936, Frank was catapulted to “Acting Boss” of the entire borgata, a position he didn’t necessarily want but accepted nonetheless out of the respect he had for his dear friend Lucky. And, of course, Lucky had offered Frank the spot because he trusted Costello implicitly.
Vito Genovese, as official underboss, normally would have been offered the job, but he had went “on the lam” years earlier to avoid a murder indictment. He hid out in Italy. It was WWII, and he ingratiated himself to Il Duce himself – Benito Mussolini, so Genovese was out of the picture. This arrangement worked perfectly for over a decade.
The Luciano borgata made untold monies; all the rank and file were happy. There was little in the way of strife or gangland killings among each other during Frank’s tenure at the top of the heap. And best of all?…. they were low-key….Don Francesco was a wonderful Capo!
Then, the volcano would erupt!
Vito Genovese was extradited back to the States to face trial for murder. He had been apprehended in Napoli by American troops, shackled and jailed, and brought back to face the music.
After the mysterious jailhouse poisoning of the state’s prime witness, the case was dismissed against Vito. He was soon back on the streets and itching to take back what he felt was rightfully his…. the position of Boss!
He bided his time for several years, slowly but surely sowing the seeds of discontent within the ranks of the borgata. He aligned himself for the most part with his Napolitani amici, men whom he felt he could confide in and count on to back him in the eventual power play he had been planning all along.
In 1957, he felt the time was right to strike. He had again cemented his position in the Italian underworld.
One evening after enjoying a late supper with several close friends at a midtown Manhattan restaurant, Costello made his way to the lobby of his Central Park West apartment building. Upon entering the lobby and strolling to the elevators, a voice called out his name.
As Costello turned to see who it was, a single shot creased his head. It went through his hat and grazed his skull. Blood poured from his forehead but luckily it was only a flesh wound; he would live.
Vincent (Chin) Gigante, a young Genovese associate was almost immediately identified as the assailant. It would come out years later that the full hit team consisted of Vincent (Chin) Gigante, Thomas (Tommy Ryan) Eboli, and Dominick (Cokie Dom) Alongi. But only Gigante came under scrutiny and arrest at the time.
At the trial, Costello claimed that he couldn’t identify his assailant, all but assuring Chin’s acquittal. Gigante walked to Frank’s table after the acquittal and put his hand out to Frank saying, “Thanks Frank!” Costello shook his hand in a show of friendship and solidarity. Frank was then put “on the shelf” by Genovese as a persona non grata.
Always the Diplomat
Several years later, while both Frank and Vito were serving time in Atlanta, they had the chance to meet and talk in private, having a heart-to-heart and comparing notes of various events that had led up to their conflict and Costello’s subsequent shooting.
Vito reinstated Frank to the active rank of a “soldier” in good standing. Frank had explained to Vito that the position of boss was Vito’s for the taking and that he had never sought nor coveted the post of “Representante”.
In his later years, Frank Costello continued to live a wonderful life, as he had all his life.
He enjoyed his beautiful homes, entertaining guests with his devoted wife Loretta at their summer home on the water in Sands Point. dining in the finest of Manhattan restaurants, and vacationing in Europe and other exotic destinations.
He always wore the finest of clothes and enjoyed the finer things this life had to offer. His “official” status as a mere soldier meant little in the eyes of all who had known him in “The Life!” The title belied his true status. For he was still the “Boss” to all! He was still a very revered elder statesman of the underworld. He carried a dignity, and was afforded a respect, reserved for few!
Francesco (Frank Costello) Castiglia died on February 18, 1973. He was 82 years old. He had passed away in the comfort of his bed with his shoes off!
I personally consider Frank to have been among the smarter of the hoodlum set. Maybe “the” smartest! And I never considered him a gangster, for he was not. In my eyes, he was the consummate racketeer! And I mean that as the highest of compliments to a man who could have become anything he set his mind to in life.
He rose from a level of poverty not to be wished on his worst enemy and became an unbelievably accomplished millionaire whose financial wealth was almost incalculable.
But his was also a wealth of culture and spirit to have self-educated himself to be able to more than hold his own with the best of them, whether they be college professors or socialites, or the most important of underworld Mafia bosses.
Frank had a pet phrase that he recited on more than one occasion to those who thought he beneath them, and as a life lesson, he had learned during his long career. He would say the establishment and society defines a racketeer as the following:
“A racketeer is anyone who attempts to accumulate wealth, power and prestige, at the expense of entrenched wealth, power and prestige.” He was absolutely correct of course. The Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Kennedys were the robber barons of America.
They had raped a young America before the current laws on the books were enacted by them. They defrauded the stock market of billions (not millions). They bootlegged liquor and adjusted and formulated laws “after” they had made their illicit fortunes..off the backs and sweat of the little people. And they made sure to tighten the penal system thereafter so that anyone attempting to do the same as they had done earlier would be jailed as a “racketeer” so as to keep the balance of power they had achieved…..what a life this is huh? Lol
Until the next time…”The Other Guy”