It is a Tuesday evening in the Waldenbooks at the Staten Island Mall, and former mobster turned media entrepreneur Bill Bonanno is ready to meet his public. Wedged between Star Wars displays and Buns of Steel, Bonanno sits in front of a massive pile of copies of his new book, Bound by Honor: A Mafioso’s Story, and greets his three middle-aged customers with the slightly formal politeness of exiled royalty. For the scion of the Bonanno crime family – and the son of the man who ran the family for almost 40 years – it’s a style that comes naturally.
“Sure, I knew your cousin,” he says to one woman, sounding for a minute like the old don himself. “And how’s her boy? Getting married? Time does fly.” A few mall rats circle through the store. “Bill Bonanno!” they whoop. “Bonanno! Bonanno!” Bill Bonanno waves them off. They belong, he knows, to a newer generation – one that could never understand This Thing of Ours.
“The Mafia I knew is over. Bonanno, Anastasia, Profaci. All finished. What they call the Mafia today,” he says, shaking his graying head, “is not the kind I’m from.” Behind his thick aviator glasses, his eyes are filled with regret. “I was born to something different, a noble, honorable tradition.”
That’s the message he gave 28 years ago, when he was the subject of Gay Talese’s book Honor Thy Father, and it’s the message of Bonanno’s Bound by Honor. In fact, all along, he’s made his membership in a crime family sound like some sort of higher calling. But in between Bonanno’s biography and autobiography came Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas, which showed La Cosa Nostra feeding off of robbery, shakedowns, and plundering. And then came those famous FBI tapes of a grunting and greedy John Gotti. Not to mention the most famous underboss, Sammy Gravano, who helped murder Paul Castellano, shot and dismembered his brother-in-law for a business advantage, and then turned on his best friend, Gotti, rather than face jail.
Bill Bonanno waves his hand. He wants to distance himself from those unpleasant parts of mob life.
“Those things that happened – none of that ever had anything to do with me, with the traditions I am from.” Except, of course, that the Bonanno family profited from crimes like these for years – along with labor racketeering, gambling, and drug trafficking. Where is the honor in that?
“I didn’t ask where the money came from,” he says. He sees eyebrows shoot up around the table. “I don’t recognize your laws,” he adds, sounding defensive. “I feel I can pick and chose the ones I will obey.” Then he recovers his bearing. “The thing is, I accept the consequences of my actions. And I have. I’ve served time in jail.”
Nearly a dozen years altogether. Enough to convince him there is an easier way to make money. Now he peddles Mafia Lite: elevated, sanitized, and made-for-TV. After Honor Thy Father, the don himself, Joe Bonanno, published Man of Honor, and Bill’s wife published Love, Honor and Obey, a kind of Married to the Mob memoir. Bill helped turn his wife’s book into a movie six years ago, and this July, Showtime will air Bonanno: A Godfather’s Story, a two-part drama based on his life. Bill was executive producer on that one, and he has the Hollywood bug. When Bonanno is not playing with his grandchildren in Tucson, Arizona, where he lives, or watching The Sopranos, he’s planning his next movie project.
“There is an insatiable appetite for this kind of story,” he says, disingenuous and charming again. “I can’t imagine why. And of course, it’s not my business to make it pay, but if it does, I’m not going to say no.”