Al Capone ran part of it. Robert F. Kennedy investigated it. And Francis Ford Coppola made one of the greatest films of the 20th century dramatizing it.
But Mario Cuomo didn’t think the mafia was real.
Or, at least, he said he didn’t.
“You’re telling me that Mafia is an organization,” he was quoted as saying, as the New York Times reported, “and I’m telling you that’s a lot of baloney.”
Cuomo’s attitude when it came to la cosa nostra wasn’t the product of ignorance or denial. He feared lazy stereotypes of Italian Americans as slick-haired criminals maligned the people he spent much of his career fighting for.
He didn’t even want to hear the word “mafia.”
“Every time you say it, you suggest to people that organized crime is Italian,” he said in 1985. “It’s an ugly stereotype.”
For Cuomo, who died Jan. 1 at 82, the stereotype was telling: His early life sounds like pages from a Mario Puzo novel. The man who would become New York’s first Italian American governor was born on a table in the back of a grocery store where his parents — Italian immigrants who couldn’t read or write English — worked.
“We, at that point, spent all day in one room with a black tub in which we washed with a cloth and we washed clothes,” Cuomo told C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb in a 2004 interview. “A blackstone tub, and a toilet and cots and curtains.”
He only became fluent in English as a teenager — and later said his Italian American background prevented him from getting jobs in law firms as a young attorney.
“I obviously am the original ethnic from Queens: my hands, my face, my voice, my inflections,” he said, as the New York Times pointed out.
But Cuomo soon had the opportunity to use that face and voice to defend Italian Americans who needed help: the Corona Fighting 69, homeowners in Queens who successfully fought New York City’s plan to raze their homes to build a new high school.
It was Italians versus city hall, and the Italians won.
“They said we were stupid and unsophisticated,” one resident said in 1972. “Maybe we were. But look what has happened. We saved most of the homes and we’re not finished.”
For Cuomo, this wasn’t just a fight about redevelopment — it was a fight for a neighborhood’s soul.
“The great tragedy is that the community spirit that was once so wonderful here may never be the same,” Cuomo said at the time.
Within a decade Cuomo would move from borough star to the national spotlight, winning the governorship in 1982. But even in Albany, he was ready to do battle with those who slighted — or those he thought slighted — Italian Americans. He endured skits by reporters at an annual satirical show that invoked gangsters. He expressed concern when a list of candidates for judicial vacancies didn’t include enough minorities — among whom he included Italians. And he went on the offensive when an opponent suggested he “made his bones” with the Democratic organization of Queens County.
“‘Made his bones,’ if you look at the dictionary of slang, is an expression used by so-called ‘mafia’ people to indicate that you have been accepted as one of the elite in the mafia by having committed a murder,” Cuomo said in 1986. “… What it suggests to me is an attempt to create a kind of image of association with organized criminals.”
Cuomo’s concerns were legitimate. As he contemplated running for president in the 1980s, some wondered whether an Italian could take the White House. A Catholic? Okay — maybe once. But a man from an ethnic group middle Americans associated with hit men?
“The real problem for such a candidate would be the mirror-image of Jimmy Carter`s problem in 1976,” the Chicago Tribune noted in 1986. “Not bigotry, just the feeling by people in, say, Plains, Ga., or Midland, Tex., or eastern Kentucky that someone like Mario Cuomo is, well, different — as different as Carter seemed in Cuomo’s Jamaica section of Queens.”
Thirty years later, this observation seems quaint. But Chris Christie, take note: 30 years later, though an African American has been elected president, an Italian American still hasn’t.
Cuomo’s son, another New York governor, said his father took perceived slurs in stride — and paved the way.
“He is the model of decorum and civility and grace,” Andrew Cuomo said in 2010, “and he was on the stage at the same time that you were watching Italian-Americans depicted in movies and television as thugs and people who were crude.”
Still, Cuomo avoided seeing “The Godfather” for decades. When he finally sat down to watch it in 2013, it merited a mention in the New York Times.
“Maybe this thing was a masterpiece,” he said. Yet: “I’m against the death penalty,” he said, “except for people who make bad movies.”