From a young age human beings are taught a simple principal: the good will be rewarded, the bad will be punished. From this doctrine, society and those within its restraints vie to be as goodly towards each other as they possibly can, all the while abiding by the law in the hopes that eventually, there promised reward will come. Then comes along a man men such as Lucky Luciano, and the world is turned upside down.
Originally born in Sicily in the year 1897, Salvatore “Lucky” Lucania is a prime example as to how the bad and their actions are more often then not romanticized, even idolized, as opposed to vilified by the media. At age ten, Salvatore and his family immigrated to the United States, settling in New York’s lower east side at 265th east 10th street in an apartment where the young Sicilian would remain for most of his life. It was in New York where Lucky (now legally named “Charles Luciano”) quickly gained a reputation for being a bit of a hooligan, dropping out of school at fourteen and making a living through the newest up-and-coming drug on the market, heroin. Yet the heroin business was merely Luciano dabbling. From the Prohibition right up until his death in 1962, Luciano would not only commit such vile acts such as pimping and murder, but would also become known as the so-called “Father” of the organized crime model, instilling a continuation of these acts and the tragedies which surround them to this day. Yet despite the deplorable lifestyle, the media image of Luciano remains a type of awe, a borderline admiration of someone whose gritty lifestyle and tough persona excuses their sins because they were willing to forget former childhood teachings and defy the law.
One may look no further than Luciano’s portrayal in HBO’s original series, Boardwalk Empire. Despite it’s richness in violence and gratuitous sex, the show can’t but help to paint Luciano as a “cool” if not lovable ruffian who struggles to prove his self worth to a boss that constantly condescends him. In an interview for the Atlanta premiere of the show’s second season, Vincent Piazza, who plays Luciano on the show, describes his character as “[seeing] himself more as a businessman, but he’s [Luciano’s] achieving his assets to get what he wants.” In a separate interview, Piazza describes Luciano as having a rough life at a young age, his time working in the sulfur mines in Sicily only to grow up in an unwelcoming new country “taking away most of his innocence at a young age.” Similarly in an TIME magazine article, Luciano is described as having “downsized…restructured…and used Standard & Poor’s as much as Smith and Wesson to change forever the face of Organized Crime.” The media’s opinion of Luciano, then, is of an underprivileged boy who grows up hardworking and ambitious, succeeding in rising above the odds. This would resonate deeply in a country where hard work to achieve higher status is prized, explaining why Luciano and so many other criminals like him (think Bonnie and Clyde) are more folk heroes then felons.
Yet in their desire to relate to someone supposedly unshackled by society’s restricting boundaries, people tend to forget how exactly the means by which this type of success is achieved. The TIME‘s article even attributes the term “gangster chic” to Luciano’s lifestyle, watering down Luciano’s life to nothing but fancy cigars and grand hotels. Yet articles found in the New York Times archives dating back to the thirties speak of a different kind of Luciano. Most likely due to the fact that time has a habit of dispelling former sins through colorful storytelling, the articles are more clear cut to Luciano’s criminality not only due to the stylistic requirement, but because living and seeing such acts committed is much different then simply hearing of them. Reading his actions so starkly printed puts a grave reality of what monstrosities men can be capable of in their greed. The shooting of pedestrians, one being an eight year-old girl in New York only for the weekend; the finagling of money; the bribing; the prostitution: countless lives were either directly or indirectly affected by this man, and not in a positive way. By showing solely the glamorous side, modern-day portrayals place Luciano upon a pedestal as one who started from the bottom and reached the top by defying societal structures while ignoring what he really was: a ruthless and notoriously vicious criminal.
At the end of the day, people are drawn to drama. The intrigue and the boundaries broken by criminals are enough to gain them fame if not admiration long after their dead. But one must keep in mind just how they became famous, being wary that those that are so feared and abhorred today may be the next decade’s Lucky Luciano.