On March 27th my review of Last Don Standing: The Secret Life of Mob Boss Ralph Natale appeared in the Washington Times.
The book was written by Dan Pearson, the executive producer of the Discovery Channel’s I Married a Mobster, and Larry McShane, a crime reporter and author of The Chin: The Life and Crimes of Mafia Boss Vincent Gigante. The book covers the life of Ralph Natale, the boss of the Philadelphia-South Jersey Cosa Nostra organized crime family in the 1990s, and the first mob boss to become a government witness.
As I wrote in the review, I grew up in South Philly, not far from where Natale was raised a generation earlier. I contacted him and we talked about his life and the book. I noted that he didn’t appear to be particularly remorseful or repentant in the book. I asked him if had any regrets about his past criminal life?
“I have regrets about one thing, I broke my marriage vows,” Natale replied. “That’s the only thing I regret in my life. When I was 12 years old, I was a hoodlum. I was a born killer, that’s what I did and why I rose to the top so easily. But I never touched an innocent man or a woman or a child. I just clipped the guys who were supposed to get clipped. And they went. It was a simple thing for me.”
Below is my interview with Ralph Natale:
Davis: Why did you write the book?
Natale: It was very simple. When I “went away,” the second time, I did 13 years. I told my friends to make sure every month that my wife has enough until I come home. Oh, yeah, yeah, they said. When I asked her every month, she said no, I said OK, maybe something happened. Then I said, OK, how about these punks?
Davis: That made you bitter?
Natale: When I first came home from the first bit - I did 16 on that because I didn’t want to be a witness - they were living in their mother’s homes and they were driving other people’s cars. Forty-five months later when they arrested me for a parole violation, they were now driving Mercedes, BMW’s and they bought their own homes. Forty-five months! Before that they didn’t know how to get out of their own way. This is all a matter of fact. Everybody in South Philly knows and everybody in the mob knows. And now when I go away and this thing happens, I said I want to see those punks. I got indicted for helping my son-in-law and his drug business, I leant him some money, and this and whatever. He got arrested with everybody else and my name came up. So I got indicted on this. Now this was the third time around. I was facing life. I would have gladly done it, gladly, because I did 16 when I really was in trouble. But they didn’t come up with a dime. And that’s why I wrote every word, and every part of it. You have to believe it because they never denied it. They couldn’t deny anything.
Davis: Did you have any difficulty testifying against your former criminal associates in court?
Natale: I saw them in the courtroom when I think did eleven or twelve days on the stand. In fact even the marshal said, we never seen nothing like it, you ripped the lawyers up. We never saw a man answer like you. I was telling the truth. It’s easy to tell the truth. The FBI agents when they arrested me in Florida, they said we’ll get you on the big one, I said you guys are crazy. It all came out later in the trial when I was a witness. That’s the reasons why I did this. Throughout the mob, every mob leader at that time could not believe it, but then they said we know why Ralphy did it, because these bastards kept everything for themselves and didn’t give me a dime.
Davis: Can you briefly describe what it was like to be the boss of the Philadelphia-South Jersey Cosa Nostra family?
Natale: Well, first of all, I always loved the guy who ran it, Angelo Bruno. When I went to work under “Skinny Razor,” John DiTullio, I saw what it was like to be admired and respected by “men,” and to tell men what to do and they would do it. I loved the ways, the world, everything was in place. I like things in order. I don’t like any disorder. When it gets disordered you see what happens in the world, in politics, in everything. It was like being dead and then all at once I became alive when I became a boss. I loved every moment of it. There is nothing like it in this world. I once saw a movie, a great sports movie, The Hoosiers. Did you see it?
Davis: Yes, good film, with Gene Hackman.
Natale: OK. When the woman in the movie was talking about her brother she said around here if a guy plays basketball, he’s treated like a God. Hackman said, listen, he told her, anybody, if he’s treated like a God for 15 seconds, then that’s well worth anything in the world. That’s true.
Davis: That’s the way you felt when you were the boss?
Natale: Yeah, that’s the way I felt. To be a part of La Cosa Nostra, when things meant something, you had to at least make a kill on your own. In my time, I committed, I think I pled to eight of them when I had to plea. I love my peace, I love my family, I love whatever I do, but if it comes time, I’m still mobster Natale. That’s all I know. The reason I speak so plainly is because I want you to understand what men like me are like. We don’t look any different. I don’t act like a mobster, I never did.
Davis: I’m half-Italian, I grew up and live in South Philly and I’ve covered organized crime for a good number of years. I know the Cosa Nostra culture.
Natale: The culture is this, if you can’t do it and then go home to sleep, then you shouldn’t do anything. I was brought up at 6th and Wharton in South Philly. I was born and raised in that area. My mother family comes from there. My father’s family died early in their lives when they came from the other side. They got caught up in that flu epidemic. I was still see the same stores, the same houses and the same people. And I love every one of them with my heart.
Davis: How were things different from when you were the boss and, say, from when Angelo Bruno was the boss in the 1960’s and 1970’s?
Natale: Well, when Ang was the boss, money was around. Gambling, and this and that, but when I became boss, we had to go out and make our money. There was a lot of punks around. It was tough. Two weeks after I came home I called one big meeting. I said I want everybody to go get these guys taking all the action and tell them to meet us. When we were through with this meeting at a banquet hall we all became partners with the guys that were there. That’s what I did. We started to make money.
Davis: Did you meet any resistance from other ethnic gangs, like the Russians or biker gangs?
Natale: Everybody else knew that I was home and they knew what kind of man I was on the street before and when I was in prison. Once I called them in and had something to say, they all knew I kept my word. And they had to keep their word. I wasn’t Superman. You could put two in my head. But so far, I’m OK. I’m here.
Davis: How different is today’s mob, as I guess you’re watching it from afar, and from your day and era?
Natale: They don’t keep the rules. The watch too many movies. They watch The Godfather, they watch Casino. I was with those people, I knew those people. It was a joke. And these guys want to walk and talk like that. It was not like it was when we were young. We had men on the street. The few men that are left are the men that did time with Scarfo. They all did their time like men and they all came home like men. I didn’t know them because I was much older than them and I was away, but I admired men who did their time and came home. They are the only men who are left in South Philadelphia.
Davis: Scarfo recently died in prison. What did you think of him and how he ran the crime family?
Natale: He destroyed it. Nicky Scarfo was a man who had a hole inside him. He had no soul, no heart. You know, he didn’t have one true friend? Not one. I knew him very well. Many years ago when we were working in Atlantic City I wanted to kill Nicky Scarfo. It came out. I asked Angelo Bruno. No, Ang said, his uncles are my friends, and he’s this, he’s that. I said he’s going to give us trouble. But Ang said, with half a smile, don’t do this. It can’t be done. He put all those guys, all men, in prison.
Davis: There is some question of who is the South Philly and South Jersey boss today. Do you know who it is?
Natale: There is no boss! There is no more mob there. They are not recognized anywhere in the country because of what they did and who they were. They don’t even know how to walk on Passyunk Avenue. The men who came home can and I wish them all well. It’s not like before.
Davis: Can you describe your homecoming when you became the boss?
Natale: When I came home the first thing I did was walk from Jefferson Hospital, where I arranged to have a hernia operation later, to South Philly. I wanted to see South Philly again. When I went down Ninth Street at the Italian Market, all the guys working behind the stands came and we hugged and kissed. They already had the word because the news media had me as the new boss. It was so warming for me. And then we stopped at the Villa de Roma and we had a little drink – it was in the afternoon – and then we went home. That’s what South Philly was to me. I lived my life pretty good in South Philadelphia. Walk up and down every street and find out how I treated my friends and other people that I barely knew, and then you’ll know what kind of man I was. Then you’ll understand me.
Davis: How difficult was it to become a government witness after a lifetime in Cosa Nostra?
Natale: It wasn’t difficult for me. I’m not going to cry like other people. I wanted to get those punks. When my wife and family had nothing and I gave those punks everything? It was so easy. Done and done.
Davis: If you look back in crime history, Cosa Nostra took pains to support the families of guys who went away to prison. This was key, along with a threat of death, that there is no record of any Cosa Nostra member becoming a government witnesses prior to Joe Valachi, and not many afterwards until much later, when greed, along with the RICO statute, changed all of that.
Natale: It was like that. When I was away at Lewisburg I got subpoenaed to appear before a Senate Investigation Committee On Organized Crime. This was in 1982 and I had the first three years of a 23-year sentence. When they took me there they told me if you give us the right answers you’ll have your sentence reduced and you’ll be home within three months from today. I said you got the wrong guy. There were just three guys there. There was Nicky Scarfo, who had just become the boss, and the old man from Chicago, Anthony "Joe Batters,” Accardo. and me. I was the only one in prison and I was in jeopardy of getting another sentence for perjury, for this, for that. I did what I had to do. It was on C-Span and I still got the clip. I didn’t say a word about anybody. I could have put in prison half of New York, half of Chicago and all of Philadelphia. And you know who went to jail? Me. And that’s the truth. That I’m proud of.
Davis: What do you think of Ron Privite, the man who wore an FBI wire, recorded you and testified against you?
Natale: Anybody who testifies against me was what he was. I have no ill feeling about anything or anybody. I look at him, and say, well, you know, he did what had he had to do to save his ass. That’s what kind of name he’s got and that’s it. I ain’t got time for hate. I intend to live to be a hundred, but if I die tomorrow, I don’t have any hate in my body for anybody that did anything against me.
Davis: Are you concerned about your personal safety? Is there an open contract on you?
Natale: Who’s going to come after me (laughs)? I’m still a man. I was always known as a dangerous, dangerous man. That’s all I can tell you.
Davis: There is that interesting story of “Harry the Hunchback” Riccobene, an elderly man, who took a couple of bullets but still managed to take the gun away from the hit man who was a young guy. Did you know him?
Natale: Let me tell you a story about Harry Riccobene. You’re the first guy I’m going to tell it to, a South Philly guy. When I was home and I was the boss, I was down at 8th and Tasker, at Frankie’s bar and I had to see him about something. I ran into a couple of my old school chums from Bartlett Junior High and one of them came over and said can I speak to you? Yeah, what is it? He said he gets a call every week from a man who praises you and loves you. He said if I ever ran into you I should arrange for you to come to my home and talk on the phone to him. What’s his name, I asked? Harry Riccobene. Little Harry? I love him. You make the arrangements and we’ll get it done. I did go over the week after. That was a real man. You know what he told me? He was glad I got it. He said I deserved it more than anybody. I said thanks Harry. He said he was fine - he had a ton of money. You remember I love you, ever since I was a boy, I said, and he said he loved me too. He died at 93-years-old, I think.
Davis: He was a tough old guy.
Natale: Harry Riccobene was a notorious killer. He used to drive Skinny Razor around and they were the men that I knew and they watched me grow up. I loved and respected them with all my heart.
Davis: You write about Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa in you book. Are you aware that Martin Scorsese is making a film about Frank Sheeran, the former Teamster and hit man who claimed to have murdered Hoffa as well as “Crazy Joe” Gallo in New York?
Natale: Let me tell you about Frank Sheeran. He’s nothing but a drunk and he imagines things. He begged for me to see him when I was home and I did. I went over to South Philly and I met him there. He was half-drunk and that was it. He said he killed Jimmy Hoffa. I know who killed Hoffa. I have a picture in the book with me and a few of the guys from Lewisburg and one of the guys in the photos was one of the three guys who killed Hoffa. His name was Tommy Andretta. His brother was with him and there was the other guy they killed in New York, Salvatore Briguglio. This was a hit squad from “Tony Pro” Provenzano, who was my dear friend. He was a capo. I get a little angry. You know how guys claim to killed Jimmy Hoffa? I think 15.
Davis: And he’s buried here, there and everywhere.
Natale: I just gave you the three guys. It will come out.
Davis: Why do you believe he was he murdered?
Natale: Because he wanted to come back and take over the union. I got a whole chapter in there. He asked me to help him and it explains it in the book. He was killed because he made the first major mistake in his life. If a man is a gambler, a drinker, a womanizer, he’s got other things to do when he’s retired, you know. Hoffa had only thing – the union. He loved it. He was a rich man but he wanted that union back. I met Hoffa and told him if Ang wants me to help you, fine but if not, I can’t serve two masters. Sorry. That was the last time I saw Jimmy Hoffa and then he was dead.
Davis: In your book you debunk the idea that Cosa Nostra was against drugs. You write that everybody sold drugs. But why did some bosses like Paul Castellano in New York prohibit them in such a strong way?
Natale: Listen to me. Let me break that fable. Every mob in New York, Chicago, Philly, always has a man who sells drugs. Everybody handles drugs. There was Joe Bonnano, who in the beginning said no drugs, no drugs, meanwhile he became the biggest rat in the world. You get the bosses money, and that’s it.
Davis: After Bonanno was exiled from New York to Arizona he was suspected of running a major heroin operation from Mexico.
Natale: Listen to me. There is no crime that cannot be done if you belong to the mob.
Davis: You spent a good many years in prison and your descriptions of prison life in the book seem almost nostalgic. Was prison life for you like the scenes from the movie Goodfellas? Did you live fairly well inside?
Natale: That’s another thing they overdid. It’s all bullshit. You go to prison and you got time to do. You do it and it’s hard. Some guys can do it and some guys can’t. I did almost 30 years in prison. So I know what prison is about.
Davis: Are there plans to make a film from your book?
Natale: We’re ready to make one. Dan Pearson will be leaving in a couple of weeks to go to Hollywood and sit down and talk turkey with some real big people. You’ll hear about it in two or three weeks. We’re going to make a beautiful movie.
Davis: Are they going to shoot the film in South Philly? I hope they don’t film it in Pittsburgh or Scranton like they did the film 10th and Wolf. I grew up near 10th and Wolf.
Natale: It is going to be filmed in South Philly and Jersey.
Davis: Who was the most impressive man you came across?
Natale: I would have to say that the most impressive man I ever been around was John DiTullio, Skinny Razor. He was the most feared man in the United States, you know. He was number one. And I give you the Chicago guy, Anthony Accardo. When I met him, I thought I was meeting God.
Davis: What is your life like now?
Natale: I love my family. I enjoy my wife and all my children. I had five children and they had ten children and now we have 12 great-grandchildren. Can you image that? They are all beautiful and smart and entertaining. They are great looking people.
Davis: Thanks for talking to me.
Note: You can read my Washington Times review of Last Don Standing via the below link: