When Sonny Franzese died last month at age 103, he was the last living remnant of the New York Mafia from its heyday. A feared enforcer and dictatorial head of the Profaci (later Colombo) family, he knew where all the bodies were buried, so to speak, and may have had inside knowledge on the JFK assassination. Frank Sinatra kissed Sonny’s ring many times in public, and his ill-gotten gains funded everything from Deep Throat and Texas Chainsaw Massacre to bubblegum music like “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy”. Mark Jacobson attended his Brooklyn funeral and reports back on Sonny Franzese’s life of crime for PKM.
So they had the funeral Mass for Sonny Franzese, the old mobster finally dead at the astounding age of 103. The service was held at the deceased’s boyhood parish church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a low-slung, immigrant-class Roman Catholic sanctuary a block from the rusting thrum of the BQE. Born in Naples in 1917, the youngest son in a family of 16 that immigrated to Greenpoint in the 1920s, Franzese was one of New York’s best known, and most feared, Mafiosos for more than fifty years. His was a personal reign of terror during which Sonny was allegedly responsible for the murder of anywhere between 30 and 60 human beings, depending on who was doing the counting.
Even if no less than John Gotti called him “one tough fuck, maybe the toughest,” Sonny’s funeral brought little of the pomp associated with mob send-offs. No Don flew in from Chicago or Miami Beach to show respect, no famous singer from the nightclub days arrived to kiss Sonny’s ring as Frank Sinatra himself did at the Copa, in public, more than once. Nor was there any posse of feds on Padre Pio Way writing down license plate numbers. The lesson was clear. If you want a fancy funeral, don’t wait until you’re 103 to die. By the time they finally let Sonny out of jail for the last time in 2017, at an even 100, he was the oldest single prisoner in the federal system.
In keeping with the no-frills surroundings, the ceremony was short, to the point. Monsignor David Cassato blessed the bronze casket, declaring to the few dozen attendees, “Sonny died with Christ and he will rise with Christ.” As for what would happen next, the monsignor could only ask the congregation to pray the gangster would be forgiven his trespasses along with the innumerable other horrible things he’d done in his life, thereby escaping Hell and joining “the company of saints” in God’s Heaven.
It wasn’t the time, or place for full disclosure. Besides, almost everyone present had a rough working knowledge of Sonny’s century-plus life and times. According to legend, Franzese was the youngest Mafia member ever, becoming a “made man” when he was only 14. That was 1931, the same year Al Capone was sent to Alcatraz for not paying his taxes, two years short of the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, which was supposed cut off cash flow to the Underworld but instead resulted in one the most successful economic diversification programs in the annals of American capitalism, opening up new territories for sharp, ambitious young criminals like Sonny Franzese.
By the 1940s, after being tossed out the war-time Army for reputed “homicidal tendencies,” Sonny had a ringside seat to the secret history of the Nation. He was on the scene when Lucky Luciano, then serving 30 to life in Clinton-Dannemora, struck a deal with the FDR administration to keep New York longshoremen quiet, lest labor unrest interfere with the war effort. Sonny was there too, when Bugsy Siegel founded Las Vegas in 1947. He witnessed the rise (and often the fall) of figures like Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, Carmine Persico, Joey Gallo, Carlo Gambino and Vito Genovese. He was in position to know the truth, or some version of it, about the mob’s long rumored involvement in the Kennedy Assassination, especially the Jack Ruby part.
The lesson was clear. If you want a fancy funeral, don’t wait until you’re 103 to die.
Sonny also served as point man for the Profaci (later Colombo) Family’s singular insertion into the popular culture. If the dowdy mainstream sought to give society what it supposedly needed, Sonny, his pinky ring finger firmly on the dark collective Id, gave them what they wanted. He put up the bulk of the money for Deep Throat, the first “above ground” porno movie. It was a breakthrough, of sorts. Once you had to go to a frat party to watch an 8mm “blue” movie. Now you could get a long line of middle-class suburbanites to pay a then unheard of $5 to see the same thing. The movie wound up grossing over $200 million. Sonny also bankrolled the game-changing Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which launched every slasher franchise from Halloween on through Friday the 13th, not to mention inspiring the classic Ramones song in which Joey sings, “Texas Chainsaw Massa-cree, took my baby away from me.”
But it was in the music business that Sonny found his true métier, primarily as a “silent partner” at Buddah Records, one of the last remaining Tin Pan Alley holdouts following the record industry’s mass exodus to LA. In addition to hiring a teenage Neil Bogart, who later would make stars out of Kiss, Donna Summer and the Village People, Buddah was best known for tunes like The 1910 Fruit Gum Company’s “Goody, Goody Gumdrops” and “Yummy, Yummy Yummy” by The Ohio Express.
“They called it bubblegum, but it sold like crack,” Sonny later said. Fleeting chart smashes like “Green Tambourine” by Lemon Pipers, which went to #1 in 1967, were the perfect vehicle to launder the rivers of cash taken in by the Profacis’ extortion, loan sharking, bookmaking, and prostitution rackets, also largely overseen by Sonny in his heyday.
But if there was one thing above all that those assembled at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church knew about Sonny Franzese, it was that even if he could be a charming conversationalist, he didn’t talk when the cops wanted him to. He never ratted on anyone. Not once in the eighty-nine years from the time he became a “made man” until he drew his last breath in a Queens nursing home, had Sonny ever violated his sworn oath to Sicilian code of silence known as Omerta.
Case in point: In 1967, after Sonny managed to beat a number of murder raps, a ticked-off US Attorney’s Office pulled him for a string of bank robberies. It was total bullshit. Everyone knew Sonny wasn’t a bank robber. “Robbing banks is for idiots,” he was quoted as saying. Not that Franzese was about to tell the cops what he knew about the heist; he wasn’t going to tell them anything. Even when they gave him a 50-year sentence, Sonny refused to talk, thumbing his nose at the federal prosecutors, telling them they weren’t getting gotz from him, even if he had to “do the whole fifty.” Decades later, asked how it felt, all that time for something he didn’t do, Franzese just shrugged and said, “it evens out.”
This was dialectic of Sonny Franzese, mobster of the oldest school. On one hand he was a horrifying presence, nothing more than a glorified serial killer, someone who was quoted on a 2006 wiretap as saying that best way to take care of dead body was to chop it up in a kiddie pool, dry the body parts in a microwave and then run the remains through a commercial-grade garbage disposal. Yet, by the time-honored ethic of his unbroken oath, he was a paragon of rectitude, the most honest man alive.
He never ratted on anyone. Not once in the eighty-nine years from the time became a “made man” until he drew his last breath in a Queens nursing home, had Sonny ever violated his sworn oath to Sicilian code of silence known as Omerta.
The drama of Sonny’s funeral was whether the mobster’s long estranged son, John Jr., would show up. The Mafia has had its informers over the years, most notably Joe Valachi, the mid-level Genovese heroin trafficker whose watershed 1963 testimony finally put to bed J. Edgar Hoover’s long-held fairy tale about there being no such thing as La Cosa Nostra. Later on, the 1970 imposition of the neo-draconian Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, tilted the scales of justice forever in the government’s favor, overnight turning supposed men of honor into a legion of flippers. One shell-shocked mob man was heard to say, “who is this fucking Rico anyway?” But never in the annals of American Organized Crime had a Mafia son given evidence against his own father.
Yet, that’s what happened on June 9, 2010, when John Franzese Jr., a drug addict and HIV sufferer, sat in the witness box at the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse and pointed a finger at his 93-year old Dad. John Jr., prosecutors revealed, had been wearing a wire while driving his father around town, providing evidence that the nonagenarian Sonny was extorting money from Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club and a Long Island pizza parlor. Asked to identify the accused, John Jr. said, “he’s sitting there in the yellow shirt.”
Half blind, mostly deaf, suffering from heart and kidney problems, Sonny had barely been able to stay awake during the trial (wags dubbed him the “nodfather”). Now, following his son’s testimony, Sonny excused himself to go to the lavatory. He was followed into the men’s room by his estranged wife Cristina “Tina” Capobianco Franzese, mother of John Jr. The two got into a screaming fight overheard in the courthouse hallways during which Tina allegedly slapped around the wheelchair-bound underboss.
“I never beat you. Your mother beat you,” Tina was reported as yelling, to which Sonny replied, “I just want to go to the bathroom.”
Later, explaining her ire to newsmen, Tina took John Jr.’s side, saying “he should plead guilty and give his son a break.” But Sonny wasn’t taking a plea, even at 93 he wasn’t breaking his oath of non-cooperation, no matter what. Soon after, with the tab headlines reading “Rat’s My Boy,” Sonny, saying his heart was “broken,” vowed to have John Jr. murdered for his betrayal.
It was a bit of urban history to ponder as I sat in the Brooklyn church reviewing my however brief but memorable friendship with Sonny Franzese. We met sometime in 1980s at Jack Newfield’s house in the West Village. If there was a big prize fight on TV, Newfield, known for Old Testament investigative reporter’s motto “an eye and an ear for an eye” and his open-ended hamisha hospitality invited some friends over to see it. It was ritual, one of those men’s club type activities that no longer exist.
The pre-lims were for mingling and no aspiring chronicler of pre-gentrification New York could complain about the company. Regular attendees included George Plimpton, sundry Hamill brothers, Jimmy Breslin, Wynton Marsalis and his buddy Stanley Crouch, light-heavyweight champ Jose “Chegui” Torres, along with Budd Schulberg, who wrote the lines “I coulda been contender. I coulda had class” for Marlon Brando to say to his brother Rod Steiger in the back of a taxi cab in On the Waterfront. There were plenty of pols there too, from City Councilmen seeking Newfield’s endorsement in the Village Voice, an uptown crew featuring half the Dinkins administration, all the way up to Jack’s great friend, Mario Cuomo.
But Sonny was the real get. Newfield wrote a piece about him in the Voice, about how he’d been framed for the bank job, Sonny called to say he liked it, and Jack invited him over to see the fights. After all, Sonny was well acquainted with the Sweet Science. Back in the day, he had pieces of a number of welter and middleweights, including long-time buddies Rocky Graziano and Jake La Motta. He was known to have broken bread with Frankie Carbo, the vicious former Murder Inc. hitman who ran the sport back in the 1940s and early 1950s. Did it matter if Sonny had a hand in fixing fights, as many said? Not really. Even in this crowd (several FBI agents and Ray Kelly, the once and future NYPD commissioner, were regulars), there’s something about a Mafia man, especially one who, it was said, actually fitted a victim for the supposedly apocryphal cement shoes before dumping him in Jamaica Bay.
The allure was hard to deny when Sonny rolled in from Shrub Hollow Road in Roslyn with John Jr. and couple of walk-around guys, each carrying a massive platter of Italian pastries, heavy on the cannolis. Not a day past 80, the old man was spry then, still dying his hair jet black, “like Reagan.” The first thing he’d ask was which was Jack’s chair so he’d know not to sit in it. It was Newfield’s house after all, his realm.
Sonny and I bonded over the music business stuff, that whole Broadway nightclub world, the jazz clubs on 52nd Street, the record men in the Brill Building, and hang-outs like the Action House out on Long Island, where Buddah artists like The Jaggerz, the Honey Cones and Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band often played. The place was run by Phil Basile, an alleged Lucchese operative who handled several psychedelic-era bands like The Vanilla Fudge and The Vagrants, then fronted by Leslie West, nee Weinstein, of Mountain fame.
“One time I go over to that Action House there and they’ve got an LSD party going. Timothy Leary and Andy Warhol. The Mothers of Invention, bombed out of their minds, walking around screaming everyone should get high,” Sonny recalled, shaking his head over yet another scene in the goldmine.
A bunch of us asked Sonny what it was like to deal with Morris Levy, the most legendary of all New York music biz mobsters. Known as “the octopus,” Levy at one time or another controlled the careers of hundreds of musicians including Sam Cooke, Tommy James, Jackie Wilson and, most egregiously, the ill-fated Frankie Lymon, a star at age 16, dead of a heroin overdose on his Mom’s floor at 25. Levy also owned the famous Birdland jazz club which he said he named for his good “friend” Charlie Parker who later complained Levy refused to book him into his own room.
Levy was so powerful that stories abounded about the time he made John Lennon cry, after suing the Beatle for supposedly stealing lines from the classic Chuck Berry song “You Can’t Catch Me,” to which Levy owned the rights (of course). It was a matter for lawyers but according to the story, Lennon, keen to meet the infamous Morris Levy, went up to the gangster’s office at Roulette Records. Morris reputedly grilled the former Beatle, reducing him to tears. The settlement was Lennon had to include three Morris Levy-owned songs on his next record, the generically titled Rock n’ Roll.
“Morris?” Sonny said. “I loved Morris Levy. Too bad I had to take a contract out on him one time.” Asked why he did that, Sonny replied, “he tried to steal the Shangri-las off me.”
These lines and more were a good enough reason to go a man’s funeral, I thought, sitting in back pews of Our Lady of Mount Carmel church. There was a gospel choir singing and playing, not the usual RC fare. This was the idea of two of Sonny’s grandchildren, both of whom spoke at the funeral. Sonny taught them a lot, the grandchildren recounted. He told them how, in business, it was best not to trust anyone because as much as you might like them, sooner or later a situation would come up where it was their interests vs. yours. He also told them that when it came to music, real American music, “always listen to gospel.” So the grandchildren went out and hired a very good church quartet led by a pianist whose Instagram handle is TheBlackFranzLizst.
Sonny’s son, Michael, a former Colombo capo and movie producer once referred to as the “Yuppie Don,” was there, but John Jr. was not. He stayed home in Indianapolis, where he’d spent a dozen years in the Witness Protection Program and still lives today. It had been a long shot at best. Besides, most everything John Jr. was likely to say was already on record, summed up in ten minutes of video posted by the Indianapolis Star in 2019.
“Morris?” Sonny said. “I loved Morris Levy. Too bad I had to take a contract out on him one time.” Asked why he did that, Sonny replied, “he tried to steal the Shangri-las off me.”
“Like, people call me a rat, right? An informant, say I betrayed my father,” says John Jr. in the video’s opening. The same man who strode through Jack Newfield’s Greenwich Village door in 1987, decked out in a full length leather coat from Milan and slicked back Long Island hair now appeared as the person he’d become: a graying recovering addict and AIDS survivor named “Mat Pazzerilli,” a man with an as-yet unrescinded price on his head, someone who was fervently trying to convince himself the only reason he continued to get up in morning was because God wanted it that way.
It wasn’t that he’d exactly testified against his father, “who was going to jail anyhow,” John Jr. tells the camera. What he really did was “tell the truth, because I know inside of me that way of life is really bad. And how do it know that? Because I know this way of life is really good,” says John Jr. who currently manages a Sober Living Home and studying to become a priest. “So yeah, I’m a rat, I’m an informant, and I’m glad to be.”
There are some funny stories, like when John Jr. was sub-teen “baseball fanatic” and Sonny had the hot young Yankee first baseman Joe Pepitone over the house as a birthday present. Pepitone got there late and immediately started smoking a cigarette and talking about staying out late the night before. “My father took Joe Pepitone aside,” John Jr. remembered. “He said, `Look, I told my son you athletes don’t smoke and don’t stay out late, so don’t ever come over my house with that shit’.”
Mostly, though, the life of a deeply underachieving Mafia son sounds like no picnic. Never “made,” John Jr. spent the bulk of his mob career driving his father and other captains around. “These guys are tough to drive for, let me tell you,” John Jr. rattles off, stand-up style. “It’s make a left, make a right, don’t get too close to that car. They never tell you where they’re going. All the time you’re looking to see if someone is trying to kill you, if the FBI is looking to follow you, and either way if you make one normal little mistake at some point you’re going to go to jail or die. It was like a no-win thing.”
The video’s key scene begins as John Jr. is shown in a 2017 “meditation group,” talking about why he missed the last meeting. He went to visit his father whom he hadn’t seen in years. “The last time I saw him I was testifying against him in court,” he says. “I wanted to see my Dad…well…because I wanted everyone to know that what he said in the papers about killing me wasn’t true.”
When they met, the 101-year old Sonny “got emotional,” John Jr. reported. “Let me ask you something,” the old gangster wanted to know, “what made you do that? Did they give you a half a million dollars…was it your mother, did she talk you into doing that?”
This, after all these years was Sonny’s question: why? Why did John Jr., his own blood, do what he did? What coke-fueled combination of revenge fantasies, perceived permanent Fredo-dom, and downright desperation went into making that decision? (In court, it was charged that John Jr. sold out for the price of AIDS treatment.) But John Jr., the squealer, does not elaborate.
“No, Dad,” he tells his father, “it wasn’t Mom.”
Then, to hear John Jr. tell it, Sonny looked at him and said with finality, “you’re my son and I got to love you…but you’re crazy.”
That was it, the bottom line, after all these years. A crooked smile crossed John Jr.’s as he offers a last, parable-like comment on the central drama of his life. “Sonny Franzese has a way to not be Sonny Franzese because I’m a son who is crazy and a father has to love his son.”
By then, TheBlackFranzLizst was playing “Amazing Grace,” and they were pushing Sonny’s coffin into the back of the hearse to be buried in Middle Village. As the procession went by, I recalled the last time I saw Sonny Franzese. It was at Newfield’s someone had just knocked someone out in Vegas and it was time to go home. Sonny asked me if I wanted to go out and have a bite with him and John Jr. They were going to a club. It was already past one and with little kids at the time, I attempted to beg off. Sonny reached out and put his hand on my shoulder.
Mark,” Sonny said, “how long have we known each other, six, seven years? In all that time, have ever asked you to come out with us?”
“Then how can you refuse me now?” the Colombo Family Underboss asked.
John Jr. drove the car, a black Suburban, over to Park Avenue South, parking in front of a restaurant. “I want you to see how we’re greeted,” Sonny said as his son came around to open the rear door. It was an upscale joint, with a band. But as soon as Sonny stepped in the pianist, the leader of the group, stopped in mid chorus.
“Sonny!” he said, with his arms raised over his head. And I thought this only happened in the movies.
As people came over to talk to him, Sonny told me to wait in the back, where our table was made up. It was quite a table too, round, with a dozen or so places set. I had barely sat down when the tuxedoed maître d’ came over.
“Don’t sit there,” he whispered in my ear. “That’s Sonny’s seat.”