If the beginning of a book has to be good enough to grab your attention, “Sam Giancana: The Rise and Fall of a Chicago Mobster” by Susan McNicoll has such a start. The six-year-old Sam is beaten periodically by his father, Antonio Giancana. He is tied to an oak tree in the backyard and whipped with a razor strap until he bled. McNicoll writes, ” the beatings at the oak tree were gruesomely regular, from then on but perversely, this abuse spawned in the boy a ferocious driving force. There was nothing he could not withstand, there was nothing he could not do. And the world paid heavily for the man that boy became.”The Patch was a notorious neighbourhood in Chicago mainly inhabited by immigrants. Here you had to be tough to survive and be ruthless to get ahead in life. It was in such an environment that Sam Giancana was born in 1908. It was here that the young Sicilian-American cut his teeth. He became even when in his teens a getaway driver for the legendary Al Capone, head honcho of the dreaded Mafia. Sam later joined a gang called the 42 where he was soon identified as being competent and cut throat in a job he liked best, knocking off enemies of the underworld gang he belonged to.
Over time, Sam became the boss of the Chicago underworld and later was considered one of the most influential gangland bosses in the United States. When Joseph Kennedy needed help when the New York gangsters leant on him he sought it, for a huge fee of course, from Sam Giancana. Sam intervened and resolved the matter. Sam however felt that Kennedy had double crossed him. He had earlier led him to believe that his son, John F Kennedy a rising star in US politics would be forever indebted to him. This gave Sam hopes of being even more influential with the soon to be President of the United States in his corner.
This was not to be, as subsequent events proved. Robert F (Bobby) Kennedy came after Giancana and the Mob though outwardly they still had ties and friendships mainly facilitated through Hollywood’s famous Rat Pack comprising Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford ( a husband of one of JFK’s sisters) and Sammy Davis Jr. It was through his Hollywood contacts that JFK met a woman he was supposed to have fallen in love with, Judith Campbell Exner. She was at that time close to Sam Giancana. He also met another flame, the super star Marilyn Monroe through his Hollywood friends. The love-hate relationship between Sam and the Kennedys is important as later there were rumours of his involvement in the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.
The book also dwells on Giancana’s role in the CIA driven plot to assassinate President Fidel Castro of Cuba. It speaks of how Sam extended his empire so much that he perhaps became too smug and complacent. His rivals amongst the gangland bosses envied his influence, contacts, and business successes. Once jealousy started amongst his peers, Sam was on the way downhill. His own foolishness in loose talks and overt threats made his hitherto strong position a bit shaky. He did not see the writing on the wall and failed to build bridges with his enemies, in and outside the Mafia.
If you like stories about the Mafia and one of its most visible personalities, you will definitely like reading this book. It is informative and objective. Author Susan McNicoll , the well-known Canadian writer of history, paints Sam Giancana as he was, warts and all. He had his weaknesses. He was, like anyone else, fallible in the end.