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Bonanno tells a tale of the Mafia's decline

BOUND BY HONOR; By Bill Bonanno; St. Martins, $24.95, 279 pages.Mafia buffs and Kennedy conspiracy theorists should be lining up for the latest "inside" story on the American mob, Bill Bonanno's intriguing, entertaining and factually titillating memoir "Bound by Honor."

This is not a mob tell-all, but rather a treatise on the demise of the American Mafia told from the perspective of someone, a mobster and the son of a major Mafia don, who witnessed and experienced it firsthand.

Focusing primarily on the 1960s and the mob war that ripped his father's crime family apart, Bonanno used the assassination of President Kennedy as the linchpin for his story. Kennedy's murder in Dallas was a mob hit, he says. And by the end of the book, Bonanno claims to have discussed the assassination with the primary hitman, Chicago mobster Johnny Roselli.

It is Bonanno's premise that had the Mafia Commission that once controlled the underworld and settled disputes between mob families still been functioning, the assassination of the president would not have occurred. Old-line men of honor like his father, Joe Bonanno, would never have sanctioned the rubout.

By way of historic reference, Bonanno claims that when mob leaders Albert Anastasia and Dutch Schultz wanted to gun down mob-busting New York prosecutor Thomas Dewey in 1938, they were talked out of their plan by Joe Bonanno, who emerged as a highly regarded leader of one of the five New York crime families.

"My father talked Albert out of the plan, made him see the danger in it to all Families," Bonanno writes.

Instead, Bonanno said, an "accommodation" was reached with Dewey, whose campaign for governor of New York was financed in part with a $250,000 contribution from the wiseguys.

A similar accommodation, Bonanno contends, could have and should have been reached with the Kennedy brothers, John and Robert. But mob leaders in Miami and New Orleans and their anti-Castro allies turned to violence instead of mediation. By then the Mafia Commission, racked by an internecine and largely philosophical power struggle, was no longer operating.

Bonanno contends the assassination had long-term negative repercussions for organized crime -- not to mentioned Roselli, who turned up dead and stuffed into an oil drum found floating in the Biscayne Bay. The political assassination, he argues, undermined the alliance between politicians and Mafia leaders who for several decades had quietly worked hand-in-hand to further each other's interests. After Kennedy was killed, neither side could trust the other.

"Everything we were about was based on cooperation, not confrontation," Bonanno noted. "Our power was based on handshakes and payoffs, not guns and clandestine plots."

It was the loss of values -- the loss of honor and loyalty and a to-die-for belief in an ancient code of conduct -- that brought an end to what Bonanno repeatedly refers to in his book as "our world."

Bonanno writes about a parallel, Mafia-centric universe in which, he admits, his loyalty to his mob boss father and his crime family was paramount; more important than any other relationship, including his marriage to Rosalie Profaci, the niece of New York mob leader Joe Profaci.

He does not apologize for what he was or what he did. Indeed, he writes longingly of a better time when honor and loyalty, not guns and money, were the cornerstones of the Mafia. It is a fascinating description.