The Teflon Don, the Dapper Don, folk hero and brutal Mafioso: the legend of John Gotti contained more than one narrative. Originally published in Issue 53 of The Rake, James Medd writes that Gotti, the fifth of 13 children born to Italian immigrants, couldn’t handle the role of Mob boss. In the end, this insecure, violent, swaggering outlaw was the man who broke the family business.
The Dapper Don impeccably dressed in a double-breasted grey flannel suit following his trail for racketeering, 1986. (Photo via Getty)

On June 10, 2007, HBO showed the final episode of its modern-day Mafia saga The Sopranos. Despite the much-discussed ambiguity of its final scene, the thrust of the series was clear: the era of the gangster was over. Ten years on, there is no doubt. The Mafia — for The Sopranos still a current event — is now history. In 2017, we look to the business world to provide our larger-than-life baddies.

Following The Sopranos, HBO made Boardwalk Empire, a period drama about the birth of the American gangster. Later this year we will have a view of its death, when John Travolta stars in The Life and Death of John Gotti. The film tells the story of the man often called The Last Don. As boss of the Gambino family from 1986 to 1992, he ran the most powerful crime syndicate in America. His interests in construction, waste, money-lending, gambling, extortion and hijack brought in hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

While enthusiastically embracing the darkest side of the American dream, Gotti also embodied another national obsession, the outlaw. In a time before mayor Rudy Giuliani’s great clean-up of New York, when the city was forever on the verge of bankruptcy and positively revelled in its seediness, squalor and status as a crime capital, Gotti was a folk hero. This will be far from the first time he has been portrayed on screen: four T.V. movies and a cinema release carry his name, and he inspired a character, Joey Zasa, in The Godfather Part III. His daughter even had her own reality television show, Growing Up Gotti. And back when hip hop stars still took the Mafia as their role model, he was name-checked by the Notorious B.I.G., Dr Dre, Jay Z and 50 Cent. For five years, he was king of New York. And it was he who consigned the Mafia boss to history.


James Medd


February 2021


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