PRINT January 1992


John Gotti

(Editor’s note: the following transcript, edited for clarity, was made from a bug planted in the cell of John Gotti, reputed boss of the Gambino crime family, currently awaiting trial on federal racketeering charges in Manhattan. In this transcript Mr. Gotti, who has been held without bail for more than a year, is apparently talking to the ghost of Carlo Gambino.)

WHERE DOES IT END, CARLO? Where? Here I am, imprisoned by the state, denied bail, and my portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. Pop gangster John Gotti. Immortalized by pop artist Andy Warhol. Could you have guessed it? Could I have?

The picture first appeared on the cover of Time. You wanna know how I feel about it? You wanna know how I feel? Ambiguous. Downright fucking ambiguous. I never asked for this crap. The papers they call me the Dapper Don, the Teflon Don, some a the other bosses think I’m a publicity hound. But I didn’t ask for this, I don’t need this. Wealthy people, high-class people, used to pay this guy Warhol to do their portraits. Mine, it gets done gratis.

The times are different, Carlo. It’s ain’t like when you was coming up. Look at Paul [Castellano]—and by the way, I mean no disrespect, if I’m out of order here say so, but it was the one mistake you ever made, appointing your cousin to take over after you was gone. The guy was a whiner. “Did you really have to whack him?” “Wasn’t there some better way than blowing up his wife and children?” But what I was saying was, look at Paul. Guy spends his whole life trying to keep a low profile and what good did it do? This book about him, Boss of Bosses, was on The New York Times best-seller list for months. Months, Carlo. (Boss of bosses! Don’t make me laugh.) And Paul wasn’t that goddamn interesting. Fuckin’ guy stayed in his house all the time, holed up over on Staten Island. Two books have been written about me, yet neither was best-sellers. So why I ask you?

Lemme tell you. One, the goddamn feds managed to plant a bug in dumb-ass Paul’s kitchen. And two, they learned from the bug that Paul had an artificial rod planted in his cock. Can you believe it? The whole world knows this Mafia boss had a plastic dick. I used to say of my Bergen Avenue crew that we was the toughest fucking guys in the whole fucking world. But whaddaya say about a guy gets a dick implant?

OK, Carlo. The guy’s old, he’s got diabetes, I understand, I sympathize. But an implant? For his maid? From Colombia? Forget about it! The feds might as well have planted the bug in his dick, kill two birds with one stone. You know what I’m saying?

Art. Me, immortalized. Well, the feds already know I have a taste for the long view. They got me on one tap allegedly saying to Joey Massino soon after I allegedly became boss, “With a year run without being interrupted we’re going to put this thing together where they could never break it, never destroy it, even if we die.” Then the feds got me on another tap allegedly saying, “This is gonna be a Cosa Nostra till I die. Be it an hour from now, or be it tonight, or a hundred years from now, when I’m in jail. It’s gonna be a Cosa Nostra.” But these feds, with all their money, all their time, all their equipment, their research and development labs, their “computer enhancements,” their “digital processing,” why, they can make me say anything they want. They’re artists at it. So you know what I do, Carlo? Just to cover my ass I go around in places that I think are bugged and I say things like, “You know who killed Paul? The cops probably killed Paul.” And “The Gambino crime family! What a pipe dream. They oughta talk about ‘The Bush crime family’ and ‘The Rockefeller crime family.’” I create my own little bit of art.

A hundred years from now. My cravings for immortality. Nonetheless, just five years later and I still can’t decide whether I like the Warhol or not. Lemme describe it.

I’m wearing a black suit outlined in red, except the red outline is off, you know, misaligned, like the fucking printer was drunk or something. Who knows? “The colors Warhol used are rather somber and threatening,” says Time’s art director. “Unlike with Michael Jackson, you can’t use bright colors with Gotti.” Shit, gimme a break. Frankie—you remember Frankie?—his boy studied art at Cornell or Berkeley or somewhere—his boy told me it’s off-center because it’s meant to symbolize—shit, I don’t remember what. Society’s misalignment? Like this guy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, where it looks like the dame was dizzy when she put on her fucking lipstick. What the hell, I didn’t go to college. But they say I oughta be proud.

Frankie’s kid also tells me that some critic compared Warhol to Goya, saying someday Warhol’s commissioned portraits will look as deformed as Goya’s portraits of the Spanish court, though it escaped Goya’s contemporaries that they were deformed. I didn’t know what to say to the kid. It’s like he didn’t realize he was telling me to my face that I’m a grotesquery. What am I gonna do, smack the kid upside his head?

The times have changed, Carlo. I walk down Mulberry Street and some girl with rings sticking out of her lips and nostrils is walking down the other side. What I mean is we’re walking down different streets. I’m walking through Little Italy, this girl’s walking through a place called SoHo. Performance artists. Installation artists. Video artists. Artist-artists.

Carlo, you know what a performance artist is? It’s Willie Boy pretending he’s my friend while talking to the feds. What a performance. He broke my heart. And you know what an installation artist is? It’s an FBI agent installing a bug in the Ravenite [Social Club], installing a bug in my phone, installing a bug in Big Paul’s kitchen, installing a bug in a goddamn confessional booth where some of our guys go confess. What happened to respect, Carlo? Whatever fucking happened to respect? It tears me up. A confession booth! So, that’s installation art. And I, the G Man, am the main display of an ongoing, multimillion-dollar piece of installation art. My whole environment—bugged. And you know what a video artist is? It’s Geraldo Rivera dogging me down the street with his crew of assholes. It’s a jerkoff fed sitting with a videocam inside a van with smoked windows shooting footage of me coming and going from the Ravenite. I’m the star, the box-office draw, in hundreds upon hundreds of hours of video art stored in the FBI archives. The FBI’s Museum of Modern Art.

Lemme tell you about art. When The Godfather III came out I couldn’t even go see it. I gotta wait for the video. Not just ’cause I was already in jail. If I’d’ve gone, some video artist woulda probably caught me entering the fucking theater. The six o’clock news woulda been, “Godfather Goes See Godfather III.” Forget about it! I read all these reviews of Goodfellas, the critics horseshitting about the “natural affinity” between mobsters and movie stars, that scumbag pigeon Henry Hill referring to gangsters as “movie stars with muscle.” Don’t make me laugh. The critics talk about how after The Godfather all these younger hoods started looking to the movies for their sense of style. What shit. The movies are still taking from us. Vinnie reported to me that in Godfather III, Michael Corleone says to Joey Zasa, “You know, I hear there’s somebody going around New York saying ‘Fuck Michael Corleone.’ I think a guy like that ought to be shot down like a fucking dog. What do you think?” Now, I once said to that yuppie punk Michael Franzese, “You know, Michael. I hear there’s somebody goin’ around New York sayin’ ’Fuck John Gotti.’ I think a guy like that oughta be shot down like some fuckin’ dog. What do you think?” Vinnie reminded me of this. I’m quoted in that book Goombata. But do you think I’ll ever see a penny from those bums Coppola and Puzo?

No, I don’t get my style from the movies. The movies get their style from me. So what that I wear silk suits and hand-painted ties? So what? I like myself.

Warhol. He knew what I looked like, I knew what he looked like—he probably appeared on as many magazine and newspaper covers as me. I wonder what drove the guy. Time commissioned him to do the cover of me. Would it’ve occurred to him to protest? To say, “Look, I’d rather do so-and-so. There are people out there who are much more serious thieves than Mr. Gotti.” Look at Bush’s son with that S&L crap out in Denver. The guy has to have stolen more money in one scam than 500 Gambino soldiers working overtime for a year. I’d like to see him live for a decade surrounded by hidden videos and bugs, see how clean he comes out. And Charles Keating! These are thieves. But it’s just me, the dumb guinea from the Bronx and Queens who never went to college, who gets subjected to this shit. When will it end?

I got Warhol’s Diaries, checked the index to see how many times I got mentioned. Three. Totally perfunctory. Never any thought, any curiosity, any consideration of who I am. Another day another dollar. Guy was probably just glad the assignment went to him instead of—I dunno—that Doonesbury guy.

Yet reading about Warhol I can see that the guy avoided commitment, avoided human contact. And it occurs to me that he understood that on some level life is a—whatchamacallit—existential endeavor. He must have realized that society’s embracing his emptiness reflected back its own emptiness and that is how it would look—what?—a hundred years from now. Or something like that, Carlo.

Michael Covino is a writer who lives in Berkeley. He is the author of the short story collection The Off-Season, and is completing a novel.