From blood oaths to unbreakable codes, a former Mafia boss talks about living the high – and dangerous – life.
Halloween is, of course, a time associated with suspense and exhilaration, a season devoted to blood and old rituals.
For six young men in New York in 1975, however, Halloween that year would be even more significant than usual. For on that day, they would take the oath that would mark them as fully initiated members of La Cosa Nostra, or the Mafia.
Michael Franzese, who was one of the six, still remembers the night clearly.
“They don’t tell you the night that this happens. For security reasons, only the top members of the hierarchy know. They don’t want the FBI seeing one of these rituals,” Franzese says, speaking during the Masters of Success 2015 event last weekend, organised by Summit Capital Training.
He recalls how he was told to wear a suit, and to drive to a catering hall owned by the son of one of the top Mafia members.
“It was late at night, in a dimly lit room. They wanted you to understand how serious this was. We walked individually into the room, to face all the bosses, who were sitting in a horseshoe configuration. There were candles in the background,” Franzese recalls.
There, he faced the boss, who first pricked Michael’s finger with a pin before making a cut with a knife.
“Then I was told to cup my hands. They took a picture of a saint, a Catholic altar card, lit it and put it in my hands. It burnt, but didn’t hurt because it burnt quick.
“They said: this is the oath. Tonight, Michael Franzese, you are born again into a new life, into La Cosa Nostra. Betray your brothers, betray your oath, and you will die and burn in hell like this saint is burning in your hand. Do you accept? And I said ‘yes’.”
Franzese, then just 24 years old, says he felt “exhilarated” upon passing the initiation because everything he had worked for during the past two years as a Mafia recruit had paid off.
“What attracted me to the life wasn’t really the money or the power. It was the idea of being part of a brotherhood of men. Nothing’s stronger than that.
“When I came into the life, they told me, Michael, wherever you go in the world, we’re always going to have your back. You never have to worry about your mother, your wife, your sister. To me that was very powerful,” he says.
Not everyone could become a “made man” of the Mafia, Franzese says; members usually had to have Italian fathers.
According to him, life in a Mafia family had its ups and downs, and was very different from normal family life. This was due to his father, reputed Colombo family underboss John “Sonny” Franzese, having such a high profile.
“He caught the eye of law enforcement, so we had to deal with them being around us, and in our view, intruding into our lives all the time. As a result, I grew up hating them. They were the enemy to me. I’d say as a kid, if I were to get lost, the last person I’d go to was a police officer. I figured he would hurt me more,” Franzese says.
“On the flipside, my dad had many good contacts, and we had privilege. There was a famous nightclub in Manhattan called the Copacabana, and my dad was very close to the owner. So as a kid I went there quite a bit, and met everyone from Frank Sinatra to Sammy Davis Jr.”
Franzese recalls a time the code of the Mafia led to a tragedy in his life.
“My best friend, a kid I loved very much, was murdered. He was married, and he was having an affair with my sister, and I didn’t know it. And in that life, you don’t disrespect women. That’s the number one sin,” Franzese explains.
“When we found out about it, the boss told me this was going on, and I couldn’t save him. He was murdered. It was something that even today, I have trouble dealing with. But in that life, you can’t break the rules.”
Indeed, the oath of the Mafia was to become so ingrained in his life that Franzese felt awful when he eventually left his life in organised crime, feeling he had betrayed everyone.
“I miss the camaraderie I had with the guys sometimes,” Franzese replies when he’s asked if he misses anything about his old life. “I loved the feeling. Yeah, the money was good, but I don’t need it now. I reached a stage in life where I’m comfortable.”
How did he keep himself alive after leaving the Mafia, which is notorious for exacting gruesome revenge on those they feel have betrayed them?
“I spent 20 years in that old life at a very high level. I knew what people there would do and wouldn’t do. When I left that life, I changed my lifestyle,” Franzese explains.
“I did things to protect myself. For example, I don’t walk my dog at seven every morning. In case they are watching me, wanting to know the best time to hit me. I don’t make any patterns in my life.”
Franzese adds he had outlasted most people from his old life. The current leaders of the mob, he says, have no reason to come after him unless he puts them in a difficult position.
“The other five guys who took the oath with me in 1975, they all died. And not of natural causes, every one of them was murdered.
“The Fortune article on the 50 top mob bosses? Today, 44 of them are dead, and three of them that I know of are doing life in prison without parole,” says Franzese, adding that he was truly blessed to be out of that life.
“I don’t know one member of any family from that life that hasn’t been totally destroyed,” he says.
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