Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno

Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno
Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno

In October 1986 Fortune magazine rated Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno, the 75-year-old head of New York's Genovese crime family, as America's top gangster for power, wealth and influence.

Not all experts would agree with that assessment or indeed, despite federal prosecution of Salerno on racketeering charges, that he ever became the boss of the Genovese clan (since the death of Funzi Tieri in 1981). They hold the theory that elderly Philip "Cockeyed Phil" Lombardo really reigned.

What is not in dispute is the fact that Fat Tony through the years was able to strike terror in others, at least outside the Mafia, if not quite as thoroughly within it.

Under Genovese boss Tieri, Salerno functioned at times as consigliere while at the same time allegedly bossing a $50-million-a-year numbers racket in Harlem, as well as a major loan-sharking operation. While there is much talk about the Mafia being pushed out of the ghettos by the emerging black and Hispanic gangsters, Salerno has long given the lie to that line.

For years one of Harlem's biggest operators, Spanish Raymond Marquez, reportedly paid Salerno 5 percent of his income for the rights to operate. Of course, it has always been alleged that everyone doing business in Harlem—be they black, brown, white or yellow—had to give Fat Tony something.

The reason: The wrath of Fat Tony was considered awesome. Fear of Salerno has even extended to informers placed under the federal witness protection program. One such witness who uninhibitedly identified a New Jersey Mafia boss, Gyp DeCarlo, balked when asked to identify Fat Tony. The witness had already testified that Fat Tony Salerno had been involved in certain wrongdoings, but on the stand he got cold feet and declared he had meant another Fat Tony Salerno.

In the 1970s and 1980s Salerno divided his time among Miami Beach, a 100-acre estate in upstate Rhinebeck, New York, and his apartment on posh Gramercy Park in Manhattan. He provided an indoor riding arena and private schooling for his children, and spent $27,000 on new cars—all on a declared income of $40,000. Salerno was sentenced to a six-month jail term in 1978—for the first time— on gambling and tax evasion charges.

Under him the Genovese crime family was said to operate in numerous fields and rackets, including narcotics, gambling, loan-sharking, extortion, waterfront activities, pornography, union rackets, carting rackets and vending machines.

Fortune started its hit parade of the nation's top 50 mob bosses in 1986 as a list somewhat akin to its annual list of America's top 500 companies. It said organized crime is a $50 billion a year industry and "mirrors the management structure of a corporation."

Impressed by Salerno's trappings of wealth, common to many top mobsters, the magazine declared him to be the top "earner" of the underworld. Lost in their description is an authoritative picture of the shifting tides of Mafia power.

From the late 1950s until his death in 1976, Carlo Gambino became the top mafioso in New York and the nation, in the process raising the smaller, former Anastasia family to preeminence over the larger Luciano-Costello Genovese group. Gambino was instrumental in the deposing of Genovese and slowly asserted his authority over the Genovese family, eventually installing Tieri, an old and loyal friend, as boss.

Before his own death, Gambino ordered control of his crime family passed to Paul Castellano, his brother-in-law. Castellano, although he headed the most powerful crime family, did not get that much respect in the underworld; Tieri pushed his family back to the top rung, although, ever-loyal to Gambino, he never sought to depose Castellano.

When Tieri died in 1981, Castellano and the Gambino family reasserted their old powers: Salerno and the Genoveses' efforts to expand through Philadelphia into Atlantic City were stunted, and the Gambinos took over more of the activities in the New Jersey gambling city.

Fat Tony maintained his tough-guy form right up to his indictment on RICO charges, when he realized his time had passed. Of all the defendants in the socalled Mafia Commission trial, Salerno seemed oblivious to any strategies to fight. During the trial, he spent his free time during recesses munching away on Baby Ruth and Mars bars and the like. Once while awaiting the return of the jury from lunch, he pulled out an Almond Joy.

A member of the prosecution's team, in a friendly moment, approached Fat Tony and offered him a granola bar, saying, "They're really much better for you, Mr. Salerno. Better than all that chocolate."

Fat Tony waved the granola bar away and said, "Who the fuck cares. I'm gonna die in the fucking can, anyway."

Fat Tony was right—he did die in the can five years into his 100-year sentence.