Giuseppe Carlo Bonanno was born on January 18, 1905 in Castellammare del Golfo, a town on the northwestern coast of Sicily. When he was three years old, his family moved to the United States and settled in the Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn for about 10 years before returning to Italy. Bonanno slipped back into the United States in 1924 by stowing away on a Cuban fishing boat bound for Tampa, Florida. By all accounts, he'd become active in the Mafia during his youth in Italy, and he fled to the United States after Benito Mussolini initiated a crackdown. Bonanno himself claimed years later that he fled because he was ardently anti-Fascist. However, the former account is more likely, since several other Castellammarese mafiosi fled to the United States around the same time.
Eventually, Bonanno became involved in bootlegging activities, and soon joined a Mafia family led by another Castellammarese, Salvatore Maranzano.
Almost from the beginning, Bonanno was recognized by his accomplices, especially Salvatore Maranzano, in Brooklyn as a man with superior organizational skills and quick instincts; Bonanno immediately became a protege of Maranzano. He also became known to the leader of Mafia activities in New York, Joe "the Boss" Masseria. Masseria became increasingly suspicious of the growing number of Castellammarese in Brooklyn. He sensed they were gradually dissociating themselves from his overall leadership.
In 1927 violence broke out between the two rival factions that shortly developed into all-out war. This war between Masseria and Maranzano became known as the Castellammarese War. It continued for more than four years. By 1930, Maranzano's chief aides were Bonanno (as underboss and chief of staff), Tommy Lucchese and Joseph Magliocco. Tommy Gagliano ran another gang that supported Maranzano. The Buffalo, New York mob boss Stefano Magaddino, another Castellammarese, also supported Maranzano. Magaddino's son was Peter Magaddino, a boyhood friend of Bonanno from his student days in Palermo. Masseria had Lucky Luciano, Vito Genovese, Joe Adonis, Carlo Gambino, Albert Anastasia and Frank Costello on his side.
However, a third, secret, faction soon emerged, composed of younger mafiosi on both sides disgusted with the old-world predilections of Masseria, Maranzano and other old-line mafiosi, whom they called "Mustache Petes." This group of "Young Turk" mafiosi was led by Luciano and included Costello, Genovese, Adonis, Gambino and Anastasia on the Masseria side and Profaci, Gagliano, Lucchese, Magliocco and Magaddino on the Maranzano side. Although Bonanno was more steeped in the old-school traditions of "honor", "tradition", "respect" and "dignity" than others of his generation, he saw the need to modernize and joined forces with the Young Turks.
By 1931, momentum had shifted to Maranzano and the Castellammarese faction. They were better organized and more unified than Masseria's men, some of whom began to defect. Luciano and Genovese urged Masseria to make peace with Maranzano, but Masseria stubbornly refused. In the end, Luciano and Genovese concluded a secret deal with Maranzano. In return for safety and equal status for Luciano in Maranzano's new organization, Luciano and Genovese murdered Masseria and ended the Castellammarese War.
After Masseria's death, Maranzano outlined a peace plan to all the Sicilian and Italian gang leaders in the United States. Under this plan, there would be 24 gangs (to be known as "Families") throughout the United States, each of whom would elect its own boss. In New York City, five Mafia families were established, headed by Luciano, Profaci, Gagliano, Vincent Mangano and Maranzano respectively. At the head of the whole organization would be the capo di tutti capi (the boss of all bosses), namely Maranzano. This final article of the plan did not please many of the gangsters, especially Luciano. As a consequence, Luciano arranged Maranzano's murder.
Bonanno was awarded most of Maranzano's crime family. At age 26, Bonanno became one of the youngest-ever bosses of a crime family. Years later, Bonanno wrote in his autobiography that he did not know about the plan to kill Maranzano, but this is highly unlikely; Luciano would have almost certainly had him killed as well had he still been loyal to Maranzano. In any case, Bonanno had no interest in starting another gang war to avenge his predecessor and quickly reconciled with Luciano.
In place of the capo di tutti capi in Maranzano's plan, Luciano established a national commission in which each of the families would be represented by their boss and to which each family would owe allegiance. Each family would be largely autonomous in their designated area, but the Commission would arbitrate disputes between gangs. The purpose of this organization was to prevent another bloodletting like the Castellammarese War, and according to Bonanno, it succeeded. The establishment of the Commission ushered in more than 20 years of relative "peace" to the New York and national organized crime scene, and Bonanno wrote: "For nearly a thirty-year period after the Castellammarese War no internal squabbles marred the unity of our Family and no outside interference threatened the Family or me."
Bonanno was nicknamed "Joe Bananas" by the papers, a name he despised because it implied that he was crazy; his Family was sometimes called "the Bananas family" after his nickname. A much safer nickname to use around him was "Don Peppino", a diminutive of his original Italian name.
The Bonanno crime family's underbosses were Frank Garofalo and John Bonventre. While it was traditionally one of the smaller ones of the five New York families, it was more tight-knit than the others. With almost no internal dissension and little harassment from other gangs or the law, the Bonanno family prospered in the running of its loan sharking, bookmaking, numbers running, prostitution, and other illegal activities. In 1938, Bonanno left the country, then re-entered legally at Detroit so that he could apply for citizenship.
Bonanno's large cash position gleaned from crime allowed him to make many profitable real estate investments during the Great Depression. His legitimate business interests included areas as diverse as the garment industry (three coat factories and a laundry), cheese factories, funeral homes, and a trucking company. It was said that a Joe Bonanno-owned funeral parlor in Brooklyn was utilized as a convenient front for disposing of bodies: the funeral home's clients were provided with double—decker coffins, and more than one body would be buried at once. By the time Bonanno became a US citizen in 1945, he was a multi-millionaire.
Unlike most of his compatriots, Bonanno largely eschewed the lavish lifestyle associated with gangsters of his time. He preferred meeting with his soldati in his Brooklyn home or at rural retreats. He did, however, have a decided preference for expensive cigars.
The only encounter Bonanno had with the law during these years was when a clothing factory that he partly owned was charged with violating the federal minimum wage and hour law. The company was fined $50; Bonanno was only a shareholder in the company and was not fined. Government officials later arrested Bonanno, claiming he had lied on his citizenship application by concealing a criminal conviction; the charge was dismissed in court.
Despite this, Bonanno was all but unknown to the general public until the disastrous Apalachin Conference of 1957, which he was reported to have attended. Called by Vito Genovese to discuss the future of Cosa Nostra in light of the intrigues that brought himself and Carlo Gambino to power, the meeting was aborted when police investigated the destination of the many out-of-state attendees' vehicles and arrested many of the fleeing mafiosi. Bonanno claimed he skipped the meeting, but the attending capo Gaspar DiGregorio was carrying Bonanno's recently renewed driver's license; when DiGregorio was arrested at a roadblock he was misidentified as Bonanno. An official police report instead lists him as being caught fleeing on foot. 27 Apalachin attendees, including Bonanno, were indicted with obstruction of justice after refusing to answer questions regarding the meeting; Bonanno himself suffered a heart attack and was severed from the resulting trial, and the indictment and resulting convictions were ultimately thrown out.
In 1931, two months after Maranzano was murdered, Bonanno was married to Fay Labruzzo. They had three children: Salvatore "Bill" Bonanno, born 1932; Catherine, born 1934; and Joseph Charles Jr., born 1945.
As he prospered, Bonanno bought property in Hempstead, Long Island and moved his family out of Brooklyn. When Bill was ten years old he developed a mastoid infection of his ear that led to his being transferred to a private boarding school in Tucson, Arizona. Bonanno and his wife would visit their son during the winter months. Eventually, Bonanno purchased a house in Tucson.
By the mid 1950s, the Commission that had held the peace for so many years was unraveling. Vito Genovese and Frank Costello were fighting for control of the Luciano family. Vincent Mangano had mysteriously disappeared in 1951; by nearly all accounts he'd been murdered by Albert Anastasia, one of the most feared men in the syndicate. Anastasia took control of his family, but was gunned down in October 1957. Then in November the New York State Police raided the infamous Apalachin Meeting in rural Apalachin, New York. Dozens of capos – including Bonanno – were captured and charged with various crimes. Then in 1963 Joseph Valachi, a soldier in the Genovese family, under indictment for murderering a fellow inmate, broke the code of omertà. Valachi described in detail the organizational structure of the Mafia, unmasked many of the leaders and recalled old feuds and murders. Although none of his testimony led to any actual prosecutions, it was nonetheless devastating to the mob.
After the death of Joe Profaci, a very good friend of Bonanno and leader of the Profaci crime family, he was succeeded by another good friend of Bonanno's, Joe Magliocco. Soon, Magliocco began to have troubles with the rebellious Joe Gallo and his brothers Larry and Albert, who were now backed by Lucchese and Gambino. Meanwhile, Bonanno was also feeling threatened by Lucchese and Gambino. The two then planned to have Gambino and Lucchese killed, as well as Bonanno's cousin Magaddino and Frank DeSimone in Los Angeles. Magliocco gave the contract to one of his top hit men, Joseph Colombo. However, Colombo betrayed his boss and went instead to Gambino and Lucchese. Gambino called an emergency meeting of the Commission. They quickly realized that Magliocco could not have planned this by himself. Remembering how close Magliocco (and before him, Profaci) had been with Bonanno, it did not take them long to conclude that Bonanno was the real mastermind.
At Gambino's suggestion, the Commission ordered Magliocco and Bonanno to appear for questioning. Bonanno did not show up, but Magliocco did and confessed. In light of Magliocco's failing health, the Commission imposed a very lenient punishment—a $43,000 fine and ordered him to hand over leadership of his family to Colombo. Soon, Magliocco was dead from high blood pressure. They intended to let Bonanno off easily as well, wanting to avoid a repetition of the bloodbaths of the 1930s.
Bonanno was already becoming unpopular with other Mafia bosses. For instance, Magaddino was incensed that Bonanno was moving in on Toronto, long considered part of the Buffalo family's territory. Some members of his family also thought he spent too much time away from New York, and more in Canada and Tucson, Arizona, where he had business interests. After several months with no response from Bonanno, they removed him from power and replaced him with one of his capos, Gaspar DiGregorio. Bonanno, however, would not accept this. This resulted in his family breaking into two groups, the one led by DiGregorio, and the other headed by Bonanno and his son, Salvatore. Newspapers referred to this as "The Banana Split."
In October 1964, Bonanno disappeared and was not heard from again for two years. Bonanno later claimed that he was kidnapped in front of his lawyer's apartment at 36 East 37th Street in New York City by Buffalo Family members, Peter Magaddino and Antonino Magaddino. According to Bonanno, he was held captive in upstate New York by his cousin, Stefano Magaddino. Supposedly Magaddino represented the Commission, and told his cousin that he "took up too much space in the air", a Sicilian proverb for arrogance. After six weeks, Bonanno was released and allowed to go to Texas. Although this account has long been accepted as part of Mafia lore, it is almost certainly false based on contemporary accounts of the time. For instance, it is not likely that Bonanno would have been walking the streets of New York unguarded, knowing that his fellow bosses had put a price on his head. Additionally, FBI recordings of New Jersey boss Sam "the Plumber" Decavalcante revealed that the other bosses were taken by surprise when Bonanno disappeared, and other FBI recordings captured angry Bonanno soldiers saying, "That son-of-a-bitch took off and left us here alone."
Bonanno's hold on his family had become tenuous in any event, however. Many family members complained that Bonanno was almost never in New York and spent his time at his second home in Tucson. He was also facing pressure from U.S. Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who had served him with a subpoena to testify before a grand jury investigating organized crime. The first round of questioning was to start on the day after he disappeared. Bonanno thus faced two bad choices—testify and break his blood oath, or refuse and be jailed for contempt of court.
What is beyond dispute is that Bonanno resurfaced in May 1966 at Foley Square, claiming he'd been kidnapped. He was indicted for failing to appear before the grand jury, but challenged it for five years until it was dismissed in 1971.
Unwilling to accept the loss of his family, Bonanno rallied several members of his family behind him. The family split into two factions, the DiGregorio supporters and the Bonanno loyalists. The Bonanno loyalists were led by Bonanno, his brother-in-law Frank Labruzzo and Bonanno's son Bill. There was no violence from either side until a 1966 Brooklyn sit-down. DiGregorio's men arrived at the meeting, and when Bill Bonanno arrived a large gun battle ensued. The DiGregorio's loyalists planned to wipe out the opposition but they failed and no one was killed. Further peace offers from both sides were spurned with the ongoing violence and murders. The Commission grew tired of the affair and replaced DiGregorio with Paul Sciacca, but the fighting carried on regardless.
The war was finally brought to a close with Joe Bonanno, still in hiding, suffering a heart attack and announcing his permanent retirement in 1968. He also promised to never involve himself again in New York Mafia affairs. After considerable debate, the Commission accepted Bonanno's offer, in view of his status as a Mafia elder statesman. However, they stipulated that if Bonanno broke his promise, he would be killed on the spot. Both factions came together under Sciacca's leadership, though the family would need almost a quarter-century to recover the prominence and wealth it had enjoyed under Bonanno. His replacement was Natale "Joe Diamonds" Evola as boss of the Bonanno family. Evola's leadership was short lived - his death (from natural causes) in 1973 brought Philip "Rusty" Rastelli to the throne.
Bonanno and his son subsequently moved to Arizona, where he was at one time sent to federal prison to serve time for various offenses during his previous stay in that state.
In the late 1970s, his two sons, Salvatore and Joe Jr., brought high heat in Northern California after getting involved with Lou Peters, a Cadillac-Oldsmobile dealer, in particularly San Jose, Lodi and Stockton. As Joe Jr. grew up, Bonanno Sr. laundered his ill-gotten millions through legitimate businesses, many of them in California. In 1977, Salvatore approached the owner of a Lodi Cadillac-Oldsmobile dealership, Louis E. Peters, with an offer to buy him out for $2 million, in which the dealership was valued around $1.2 million. The Bonannos planned to purchase a string of 13 Central Valley car dealerships and launder mob money. Peters would remain a front man. But Peters decided to help take Bonanno Sr. down. Peters turned into an undercover for the FBI, becoming the Bonannos' friend, taping conversations, even staying at Bonanno's Tucson home. After a paranoid Peters saw Bonanno's nephew flirting with his daughter, he moved to an apartment in Stockton, even having Bonanno stay there for three days. Instead, the FBI hit Bonanno with an indictment alleging he obstructed a San Jose grand jury investigation into his California assets. Peters provided key insider testimony. A federal judge smacked the 75-year-old Bonanno with his first felony conviction. Bonanno got five years. Owing to his poor health, he served one.
Despite an arrest record dating back to the 1920s, Bonanno was never convicted of a serious crime. He was once fined $450 and held in contempt of court for refusing to testify in 1985. Assigned federal inmate number 07255-008, he was transferred from the Federal Correctional Institution in Tucson, Arizona to the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri due to ill health at his advanced age and released on November 1, 1986. Upon retirement, he was allowed to live at home in the Catalina Vista neighborhood of Tucson, Arizona with his family.
During Salvatore Bonanno's trial he gave interviews to author Gay Talese that formed part of the basis of his 1971 true crime book Honor Thy Father. Joseph Bonanno was initially infuriated at the book and refused to speak to Salvatore for a year. By the late 1970s, however, Bonanno's attitude had changed; he had become interested in writing an autobiography to offer his own take on his life. Bonanno's book was published in 1983 as A Man of Honor: The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno. The government seized the opportunity and questioned him about the Commission, hoping to prove its existence given that he spoke about it in his book. Technically, Bonanno kept the vow of omertà and answered no questions in government hearings.
Bonanno justified his decision to write A Man of Honor on the grounds that omertà represented a lifestyle and tradition greater than the code of silence it is generally understood to be: as he had not been compelled to reveal his secrets by becoming an informant or government witness, Bonanno reasoned, he did not violate his code of honor. Other New York Mafia leaders were nevertheless outraged by his revelations, and considered it a flagrant violation of omertà. Gambino boss Paul Castellano and Lucchese capos Salvatore Avellino and Salvatore Santoro were all caught on tape expressing their horror that Bonanno discussed the existence of the Commission, with Avellino complaining "What is he trying to prove, that he's a man of honor? [...] [H]e actually admitted [...] that he was the boss of a family." Joseph Massino, who took over Bonanno's family in 1991, was equally disgusted by the book, bluntly telling his colleagues that Bonanno had "disrespected the family by ratting." He was so outraged and embarrassed by it that he renamed the family "the Massino family" (although Massino himself later became a government witness and the "Massino" family name never caught on outside the family).
In April 1983, Joseph Bonanno and his son, Bill Bonanno appeared on the CBS News TV program 60 Minutes to be interviewed by correspondent Mike Wallace.
Bonanno died on May 11, 2002, of heart failure at the age of 97. He is buried at Holy Hope Cemetery & Mausoleum in Tucson.
The Judge Dredd comic strip character Joe Bananas, henchman for Don Uggie Apelino, was named after Bonanno.
There is an urban legend in Orthodox Jewish circles that, at the behest of Rabbi Aaron Kotler, Bonanno saved the lives of several Jewish Rabbis who were trapped in Italy during the Holocaust and were due to be sent back to Germany to a certain death, and he received a blessing for a long life from Rabbi Kotler, to which his advanced age was attributed.
In 1991, Bonanno's daughter-in-law, Rosalie Profaci Bonanno, published the memoir Mafia Marriage: My Story. This book was eventually converted to the 1993 Lifetime network film Love, Honor, & Obey: The Last Mafia Marriage. Bonanno was portrayed by Ben Gazzara.
In 1999, the Lifetime TV network produced a biographical film called Bonanno: A Godfather's Story. The film chronicles the rise and fall of organized crime in the United States. Bonanno was portrayed by Martin Landau.
In 2004 Joe's daughter-in-law began putting Joe's personal items up for auction on eBay. This continued until 2008.
In 2006, episode 66 of The Sopranos, "Members Only", Eugene Pontecorvo wants to retire and uses Joe Bonanno as an example of a retired mob member.
In 2009, Joe's cousin, Thomas Bonanno, participated as a Mafia expert in the filming of Deadliest Warrior: "Mafia vs. Yakuza", demonstrating his skills and marksmanship with a Thompson submachine gun as well as talking about "true" Sicilian Mafia philosophy and culture.