When, in the 1960s, New York's Gambino crime family was having a dispute with some bikers in Philadelphia over a certain peep-show operation, Ralph Natale was the gangster who fixed it for them. Natale worked under Philly boss Angelo the "Docile Don" Bruno, enforcing his will, monitoring the labor unions, and putting in work as needed. At the first sign of trouble, Bruno would bring in Natale, his favorite enforcer, whom he liked to refer to as the "Chinaman."
Natale eventually got pinched while helping out in the battle to seize casino rackets in Atlantic City and went to prison for 16 years – he was convicted of firebombing and cocaine offenses. After completing his term, he reemerged to wrestle control of the Philly mob for himself in the 1990s, naming Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino as his underboss. Natale's reign at the top only lasted a couple of years, however, before he was sent to prison again for associating with mobsters while still on probation.
But instead of taking care of his imprisoned boss and his family, Merlino cut him off, assuming the top spot himself, according to Natale. Stung by the betrayal and a 1998 indictment that could have put him inside for good, Natale became the first ever La Cosa Nostra boss to turn federal witness.
In their forthcoming book, Last Don Standing: The Secret Life of Mob Boss Ralph Natale, veteran crime reporter Larry McShane and producer Dan Pearson lean on the gangster's own recollections to tell his story. Along the way, we hear new accounts of the murder of Bugsy Siegel, Jimmy Hoffa's final days, and the boxing matches between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali that the FBI suspected were fixed. With total access to the mob boss turned rat, Last Don tells a story of the Mafia near its prime, when everything still seemed possible for an aspiring criminal who knew the right people.
VICE recently chatted with McShane, a veteran of crime reporting, about Natale's story and how it stacks up in Mafia lore. Here's what he had to say.
VICE: How did Natale first get involved in this world? Is it as simple as being born to it?
Larry McShane: Natale's dad was indeed a Philly numbers runner, but it wasn't like he followed the old man into the mob business. He and his father had a relationship that might kindly be described as prickly. Ralph actually wanted to kill his father at one point. His real tutor was a guy named [Felix] John DiTullio, a local bar owner and a legendary mob killer. DiTullio was known as "Skinny Razor" for his weapon of choice. He really took Ralph under his wing and provided an education on life and the mob, often while hanging out after hours inside his Friendly Tavern.
Natale spent 16 years in prison from the late 70s to mid 90s. That period – where he pays his dues and refuses to flip – obviously is crucial in the arc of his story. What brought him there, and how did he pass that time?
Ralph was convicted of arson, for helping the owner of a New Jersey furniture business known as "Mr. Living Room" torch his failing store. And then, while out on bail, he was nabbed in a drug deal involving 500,000 quaaludes and ten kilos of cocaine – a deal set up by one of his cousins. Ralph did time all over the place – Lewisburg and McKean, Pennsylvania; Florida; Ray Brook in upstate New York; Danbury, Connecticut. While locked up, he hand-wrote an autobiography/Philly mob history on a series of yellow legal pads. He gave up meat and became a vegetarian. He started a regime of weight lifting and exercise that continues to this day. In fact, he just turned 82 this week.
How did Natale finally stake his claim to running things in Philly?
He moved to reclaim the fractured Philly family from John Stanfa, one of the plotters in the execution of [his old boss] Angela Bruno. Ralph wanted to murder Stanfa as much as he wanted to reclaim Philadelphia as his own. The killing started even before Ralph was sprung from jail, with the first hit coming in May 1990, and the killings continuing through December 1996. The Ciancaglini family [for example] had fighters on both sides: Mikey, who was with Ralph and, Joey who was with the Stanfa group. Mikey was gunned down and murdered, and his brother was left permanently crippled – blind in one eye, deaf in one ear, both mentally and physically disabled – by a botched hit.
What kind of climate did he leave prison for in the 90s? I'd think the Mafia was already starting to atrophy by then.
By the time Ralph grabbed control of the Philly family in 1994, his peers were all dead or behind bars. His underboss at the time was Joey Merlino, who was 32 years old – two decades younger than Natale. A whole generation of Philly mobsters in between the two was locked up or buried while Ralph was in jail, and Nicky Scarfo was running the family (into the ground, to a large degree). His national connections during his first incarnation as Bruno's associate came through the Philly underworld. He met Carlo Gambino, a close friend of Bruno, through the Docile Don. And he was set up within the Teamsters by Chicago and Tony Accardo, also through his connections to Bruno. He wasn't a typical mob guy and even resisted becoming "made" because he liked hanging out in DiTullio's crew and didn't want to get bounced around to a different capo.
I have to ask about the murder of Bugsy Siegel and Jimmy Hoffa's final days, both of which you discussed with Natale.
Ralphie says the Siegel hit was done by Frankie Carbo and was set up by Bugsy's childhood friend Meyer Lansky. As for Hoffa, they were friends and business associates – Ralph worked for the teamsters. When Hoffa got out of jail, he decided to run for the presidency of the teamsters even though he was barred from the job. He came to Philly to get the backing of the family, knowing he needed some mob support going forward. They had a final, melancholy meeting in a Jersey bar – the Rickshaw Inn. Hoffa knew it was a long shot, and he was right; Angelo Bruno said it wouldn't and couldn't happen. "I could smell the dirt of the grave on him," Ralph said of their last meeting. Hoffa disappeared a short time later.
When it comes to betraying his friends, it seems like it was less a single event and more a series of them that sent Natale over the edge, right?
Ralph's eternal bitterness against Merlino and the rest of the 90s crew dates back to the late 70s, when he was first locked up. Bruno had promised to take care of his wife and five kids while Natale did his time and kept his mouth shut. But when Bruno was murdered in 1980, the envelopes of cash stopped showing up. He blamed Phil Testa, a.k.a. the "Chicken Man," and Nicky Scarfo for stiffing his family. Ralph never forgot that and wanted to kill both of 'em. When he and Merlino took over in '94, the two made a similar pact: If one of us gets locked up, the other will send cash to the other's family to help out.
Of course, Ralph got busted again, and Merlino never sent a penny. Merlino was supposed to give Natale's wife cash if Ralph went away, and he stiffed her. It was a betrayal that sent Ralph over the edge and led him to violate the oath of omertà that he really considered sacrosanct and essential to the Mafia. He contacted the feds, and a deal was cut. That's what led Ralph to flip and testify against Merlino. But he likes to note that he didn't become a permanent witness and appear at a ton of trials. When the Merlino trials were over, he left the witness business.
What about the allegations floating around among mafia obsessives that Natale was just a front-man for Merlino?
Ralph would say absolutely not true … he recruited Merlino in prison and made Joey the underboss. And Joey fucked Ralph when he got locked up.
So was Ralph flipping – symbolic though it might be – really that decisive for the trajectory of the mob in America?
I thought (and still think) it sounded like more of a big deal than it actually was. By then, New York's turncoat witnesses included high-level guys like Sammy Gravano and Al D'Arco. Phil Leonetti of the Philly mob had flipped and testified against Gigante. The world knew about Henry Hill after Goodfellas came out in 1990. So I didn't think it was a seismic event. And Merlino walked from both the trials where Natale testified against him, while Gravano and D'Arco in particular were devastating witnesses who helped convict dozens of mobsters.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Learn more about Last Don Standing, which drops March 21, here.
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