Last Don Standing: The Secret Life of Mob Boss Ralph Natale by Larry McShane and Dan Pearson uncovers the deadly reign of the last great mob boss of Philadelphia, a tale that covers a half-century of mob lore—and gore (available March 21, 2017).
As the last Don of the Philadelphia mob, Ralph Natale, the first-ever mob boss to turn state’s evidence, provides an insider’s perspective on the mafia.
Natale’s reign atop the Philadelphia and New Jersey underworlds brought the region’s mafia back to prominence in the 1990s. Smart, savvy, and articulate, Natale came up in the mob and saw first-hand as it hatched its plan to control Atlantic City’s casino unions. Later on, after spending 16 years in prison, he reclaimed the family as his own after a bloody mob war that left bodies scattered across South Philly. He forged connections around the country, invigorated the family with more allies than it had in two decades, and achieved a status within the mob never seen before or since until he was betrayed by his men and decided to testify against them in a stunning turn of events.
Using dozens of hours of interviews with Natale along with research and interviews with FBI agents, this book delivers revelatory insights into seminal events in American mob history, including:
– The truth about Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance
– The murder of Jewish mob icon Bugsy Siegel
– The identity of the man who created modern-day Las Vegas
A SIT-DOWN WITH THE BOSS
The last legitimate don of the Philadelphia family of La Cosa Nostra sits alone at a long table in a quiet room.
Ralph Natale, an integral cog in the city’s organized crime scene since his teens, still exudes a bit of genial menace. Now into his eighties, he sports a runner’s physique—the result of a daily morning jog, followed by a weight-lifting session. His salt-and-pepper goatee is neatly trimmed. His eyesight is failing, but his mind remains sharp as a stiletto. Dates and details spill forth as he sits beneath a knit cap, a reminder of his prison days, when Natale struggled to keep his bald head warm inside a chilly cell.
He’s now four years out of prison—his second bid (mob speak for a prison sentence), thirteen years on a drug rap. The earlier stay cost Natale sixteen years, and a large chunk of his five children’s lives: Lost birthdays, graduations, weddings. It was his choice: Natale could have walked free if only he chose to rat out associates such as revered Philly mob boss Angelo “the Docile Don” Bruno, his mentor and friend; legendary Chicago boss Anthony Accardo; and mob-connected union boss Ed Hanley.
He kept his mouth shut and did the time. It was the code that he’d learned and lived on the streets of South Philly. Ralph Natale was the ultimate stand-up guy, right up until the moment he sat down in a witness chair as a government witness in 2000. At that time, he became the highest-ranking Mafia member in history to turn federal witness.
The years in lockup still affect Natale in other ways. He has trouble sleeping in a bed—many nights, he leaves his wife, Lucia, alone to make himself comfortable on the couch. It feels more familiar, reminiscent of his jailhouse lodgings, as he drifts off to sleep. His bottom teeth are gone, lost to lousy prison dentistry—inmate Natale once yanked an achy tooth himself with a strand of dental floss rather than wait for a dental appointment.
And he’s uncomfortable in crowds, with an hour in a room full of strangers leaving Natale disoriented after nearly three decades in the company of nobody but inmates and prison guards.
“It’s what my life was,” he explained. “Even before all that, I watched myself on the street. I was very wary. I watched everything and everyone. I don’t like people behind me. I got threatened every day of my life. I told people, ‘You know where I am. My car is parked outside. Bring it on.’ Every morning I drove away from my house and I looked back in the rearview mirror. Then I made the sign of the cross.
“So far, it’s worked. Look how lucky I was, to end up here.”
He doesn’t reflect much on his old days and his old ways, the days at the track and the nights at the bars, his days as a union boss hobnobbing with Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters hierarchy, the times when he had to pull the trigger or give an order to take a life.
Natale’s voice turns deep and raspy as he growls about his time as a killer, when his preferred tool was a .38-caliber revolver filled with hollow-point bullets.
“Men that can kill without hesitation and it doesn’t bother you, you think, ‘What the hell is wrong?’” he murmurs. “But I did it. It’s just some people are made that way. Not serial killers—they have no reason. If you have a reason, you get it done with, fuck it. Go have a drink somewhere. Maybe today brings something else.”
He would eventually confess to killing McGreal and another man and acknowledge his role in six more murders during a bloody Philadelphia mob war involving his long-shot ascension to head of the local Mafia family—the apex of a five-decade run in “The Life.” But word on the South Philly streets linked Natale to mob murder and menace far beyond those eight deaths.
He shrugs when recalling those days.
“When McGreal got killed, the next morning—‘It was Ralphy!’” he said. “Somebody got killed in Detroit—that was Ralphy. Meanwhile, I was in Philadelphia. I used to laugh. But it was good for the reputation.”
Even now, he takes pride in his efficient lethal work and shows no remorse for anything.
“It’s not that I take pleasure in it,” he explains. “I never take pleasure in killing anybody. I tell you, when it comes to that there, I kill ’em so fast they don’t even know they’re dead. I shoot ’em. Right in the face.”
But his rise from a kid shuffling betting slips in South Philly bars in the 1940s to point man for the mob’s infiltration of Atlantic City in the sixties and seventies to the don of the Philadelphia mob in the 1990s was defined as much by the men he spared as those he killed. Natale’s decisions to let mob associates Charlie Allen and Ron Previte keep breathing—made nearly two decades apart—twice landed him behind bars for double-digit jail terms. And a direct order from boss Angelo Bruno stopped him from killing the treacherous and bloodthirsty Atlantic City mobster Nicky Scarfo, a choice that proved disastrous for the entire Philadelphia mob family after decades of peace and prosperity under Natale’s friend the Docile Don.
“Pinpoints in time,” he now observes with the detachment of hindsight. Life is often about karma and the ever-widening ripples set in motion by a single choice, an ill-chosen word, or the holstering of a handgun. Death can come from a simple hand gesture, a nod of the head, a roll of the eyes.
“No matter how insignificant they appear at the time they occur, these things can determine a man’s life until there is no more,” Natale says.
Atlantic City—viewed as a Garden of Eden for greedy Philadelphia mobsters once gambling was legalized—became a recurring theme that ran through much of his life. Natale was there for the mob’s initial plans to seize control of the casino unions. He stewed behind bars as mob rival “Little Nicky” Scarfo ruined the Philly family and threatened to interrupt the flow of cash from the Jersey Shore. And Natale returned to his hometown from jail determined to reclaim the prize.
Ralph Natale spent twenty-nine years of his adult life in jail. The first stretch was a direct result of another Natale decision: he was no rat. Promises of early parole, lonely years apart from his wife and growing family, a poisonous anger that grew as he felt the betrayal of his fellow mafiosi—nothing could convince Natale to flip and work for the feds.
Until he finally did.
There are things he misses about the mob life, the pumping adrenaline and the high-wire tension of day-to-day life outside the law. It was a man’s world: good men and bad men, killers and thieves, bosses and capos. At one time, men of honor and respect. Later, men considered punks and pretenders by Natale.
This was his world for most of five decades.
“You walk into a room, and you know something’s gonna happen,” he says of those days. “What I see in somebody’s face, what they see and what they’re looking at. Or you’re walking with somebody, and you know in your heart of hearts he wants to kill you. And you’re thinking, ‘I’m gonna kill him as soon as I can.’
“I want you to understand I’m not a maniac or a mob serial killer. I never touched an innocent person in my life. I never touched a woman, or a child. Or a man trying to make a living for his family. I can say that ’cause that’s what I am. But you fuck with me, you’re gonna have a problem.
“Some men are that way. I was that way. That’s what it is.”
Natale explains what he means with a pop culture reference, quoting from a Quentin Tarantino movie.
“Did you ever see the movie Kill Bill, when David Carradine and Uma Thurman are fighting at the end, and he shoots her with the truth serum, and they’re talking? He says, ‘You know, you’re a born killer, and that’s what you’ll always be.’
“And I’m a killer, too.”
Natale is adamant about one other thing: his story is the one true tale of the rise and fall of the family that he twice swore an oath of lifelong loyalty and silence to serve and protect.
“It’s the real Mafia story—no bullshit,” he declares. “When that guy Mario Puzo wrote The Godfather, he had a lot of friends in different families. They told him little episodes. He wasn’t there, but he finally put it all together.”
And then Ralph Natale starts to speak.
Copyright © 2017 Larry McShane & Dan Pearson.
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Larry McShane is a 35-year veteran city reporter currently with the New York Daily News. The award-winning Seton Hall University graduate was a two-time AP New York State Staffer of the Year. He is the author of Cops Under Fire and Chin: The Life and Crimes of Mafia Boss Vincent Gigante.
Dan Pearson is the executive producer of Discovery’s I Married a Mobster and has been an entertainment industry veteran for over twenty years.
I’ve always wondered about the mob and their associates. They fasinate, yet repel me. Would love to read the book.