From Karen Gravano, a star of the hit VH1 reality show Mob Wives, comes a revealing memoir of a mafia childhood, where love and family come hand-in-hand with murder and betrayal.
Karen Gravano is the daughter of Sammy "the Bull" Gravano, once one of the mafia's most feared hit men. With nineteen confessed murders, the former Gambino Crime Family underboss--and John Gotti's right-hand man--is the highest ranking gangster ever to turn State's evidence and testify against members of his high-profile crime family.
But to Karen, Sammy Gravano was a sometimes elusive but always loving father figure. He was ever-present at the head of the dinner table. He made a living running a construction firm and several nightclubs. He stayed out late, and sometimes he didn't come home at all. He hosted "secret" meetings at their house, and had countless whispered conversations with "business associates." By the age of twelve, Karen knew he was a gangster. And as she grew up, while her peers worried about clothes and schoolwork, she was coming face-to-face with crime and murder. Gravano was nineteen years old when her father turned his back on the mob and cooperated with the Feds. The fabric of her family was ripped apart, and they were instantly rejected by the communities they grew up in.
This is the story of a daughter's struggle to reconcile the image of her loving father with that of a murdering Mafioso, and how, in healing the rift between the two, she was able to forge a new life.
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St. Martin's Press
February 14, 2012
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Excerpt from Mob Daughter by Karen Gravano
"If we have to go to war, that's what we have to do."
I was nine years old when I began to suspect that my father was a gangster. It was Sunday and Dad had us all packed into the car for an afternoon of house hunting. He loved driving around different neighborhoods, pointing out houses he liked and sharing his renovation ideas. On this particular Sunday, we were cruising around Todt Hill, an upscale community on the southern end of Staten Island, filled with homes owned by doctors, lawyers, and "businessmen."
Mom was in the front seat with Dad, and my younger brother, Gerard, and I were buckled in the back. My father had just finished the renovations on a three-bedroom house he'd bought for us in Bulls Head, a predominantly blue-collar neighborhood just over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and not far from the two-bedroom apartment we had been renting in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
My father was obsessed with construction and remodeling. He'd ripped apart and remodeled every place we'd ever lived in. He'd started tearing apart the new house the minute we had taken ownership, knocking down walls and putting in improvements, like nice European tiles.
My brother and I attended the local public school, P.S. 60. My mother would walk me to school every day. I had some good friends there, but Dad's friend Louie Milito was forever suggesting that he transfer me to the private prep school on "The Hill." His own daughter, Dina, went there. And so did Dori LaForte. Dori's grandfather was a big player in the Gambino crime family. "The Hill" had large manicured homes dotting its steep streets and was about ten minutes from our three-bedroom house on Leggett Place. Anybody who was anybody lived on "The Hill."
One particular house in this fancy neighborhood belonged to Gambino family crime boss Paul Castellano. We were on one of our Sunday expeditions when Dad pointed it out to us. It was an enormous monster of a house, unlike any other in the neighborhood. It was way fancier and more ornate. It looked more like an Italian villa or a museum, with its iron gates and a gigantic fountain spewing water in the middle of a large, circular brick driveway filled with expensive cars and incredibly manicured grounds. It must have cost a fortune. There was an elaborate security system with surveillance cameras monitoring the perimeter, which seemed to span an entire block.
"Wow," I said. "What does Paul do that he has such a big house?"
"He's in the construction business," my father replied.
I remembered thinking how glad I was that my father worked in the same business as Paul, so that maybe one day we could get a mansion like that. Dad didn't say Paul was his boss in one of New York's biggest, most blood-letting, most feared crime families, or that the construction business wasn't building somebody a little house, but more like construction racketeering, loan-sharking, and extortion. He didn't mention being a businessman like Paul was putting your life on the line. I'd have to wait to learn this angle of the business.
By the fall, my father announced that I was going to be transferring to a new school. He wanted me to get a superior education and had me enrolled at the prestigious Staten Island Academy. I was furious about leaving my friends and worried that I wouldn't fit in with the kids at private school. I was there just a few weeks when a classmate invited me over to her house to play. She lived so close to school, we could see the playground from her yard. It was a beautiful day, and we were outside on her front lawn. Her mother had just gone inside to make us some lemonade when my new friend made a startling announcement.
"My mother and father say a big gangster lives in that house," she said, pointing across the street to the Castellano estate.
I knew that Paul was Dad's friend. I put two and two together and decided if Paul Castellano was a gangster, my father must be one, too. He just didn't act like a gangster. My idea of a gangster was Vito Corleone, the fictional mob boss in The Godfather. The movie had even been filmed a few blocks from my school.
Still, I'd been confronted with the possibility that my father was "connected" before. When I was six, I found a gun in my parents' bedroom in our apartment on Sixty-first Street in Bensonhurst. Mom was in the kitchen, and I was amusing myself by hiding some of my favorite books under their bed. That's when I came upon the pistol Dad had stuffed beneath the mattress. I knew my father had served in the army during the Vietnam War because I'd seen his dog tags. I wondered if this was a souvenir from the war. Racing to the kitchen, I went to ask my mother about my startling discovery.
"Mommy, does Daddy have a gun because he was in the army?"
"Yeah" was all she could muster.
The next day, I bragged to my friends at school, telling them my father had a gun under the bed because he was in the army. My teacher overheard me and went directly to my mother. When Dad found out, he wasn't upset. He just told me not to talk about it anymore.
My father had this "coolness" about him. He was hipper than the other kids' dads. He wore sweats and gold chains, and he had tattoos, Jesus on one arm and a rose on the other. He also had a small diamond in the middle of his chest. He owned nightclubs and always stayed out late. Some of his friends were bouncers. They spoke and dressed differently from the dads of the other kids at school. They had wads of cash in their pockets and always came bearing gifts, even if it was just a box of pastries on Sunday.
On weekends, my father would sometimes take me with him to "the club" in Bensonhurst. I didn't know it then, but it was a local mobster hangout, also known as a men's "social club." Dad would first get the car washed and then we'd stop in. Guys would be playing cards and drinking coffee. The club looked like a big kitchen, with tables and chairs set out around the room and a few pictures, mostly scenes of Italy, hanging on the walls. There were no women around, ever. An older man named "Toddo" was usually at one of the tables in the back. He was always nicely dressed in slacks and a sweater, sporting a big, fancy watch and a pinky ring.
"Hey Bo, what's up?" my father would say. It's how he addressed everyone, even me. I didn't know why he addressed people as Bo, not Bro.
"Go say hello to Uncle Toddo," he'd instruct, pushing me in the old man's direction.
I'd have to go over and hug and kiss him. "How you doing, kiddo?" he'd ask. The old man would pat me on the head and then stick a twenty-dollar bill in my pocket.
I thought it was weird the way the men all kissed each other on one cheek and then exchanged a firm handshake. No one just walked into a room and said hello; it was always a handshake, and there always seemed to be an order of whose hand should be shaken first. Obviously, I didn't know that Toddo was Salvatore "Toddo" Aurello, a capo in the Gambino crime family, and my father's boss and mentor in the mob. I just thought Dad respected him more because he was older.
It wasn't until I was twelve years old that I knew for certain that my father was a gangster. Even then, I knew not to ask any questions.
* * *
When I was in middle school, I overheard my parents talking about some guy who wanted to buy one of my father's nightclubs. It was late afternoon and we were all over at my aunt Fran's for Sunday dinner. Fran was one of my father's older sisters. She and her husband, Eddie, lived across the street from us in a two-family house. Dad's mother also lived there, in an apartment downstairs.
Aunt Fran was closer to my father than his sister Jean. Dad and Fran were closer in age and seemed to have more in common. Fran was always warm and loving. She played the piano, and she taught Gerard and me how to play. She'd sit us down and tell us stories about my grandparents, and how they had come over from Italy. My father's mother, Kay, wrote children's stories that were published here in the United States. Aunt Fran would read us those stories, and she'd add to them with her own fanciful fabrications. One of Grandma Kay's stories was about a little girl named Karen and a rabbit. Another one was about my cousins and how they flew through the city on the wings of an eagle. My Aunt Jean, or Jeannie, who was Dad's eldest sister, kept the books at her house, but they were all lost in a fire after Grandma Gravano died. Jeannie was married to my uncle Angelo. He wasn't involved in "the life." He was an engineer