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Former Philadelphia mob boss Ralph Natale’s Last Don Standing reveals a gangster desperately in search of respect

By David Amoruso

Ralph Natale was the first official boss in the American Mafia to become a turncoat and testify against his former underlings. During a short spell in the 1990s, he led what was left of the Philadelphia crime family after nearly two decades of violence. In his biography Last Don Standing: The Secret Life of Mob Boss Ralph Natale, he looks to share his side of the story, portraying himself as a stone cold killer and – in general – a standup guy who was betrayed by a long list of wiseguys and hoodlums.

A lot has already been written about the Philadelphia mob, in news articles and books, much with the help of former Mafia members. In many of these accounts, Ralph Natale is named as an out of touch boss who was used as a lightning rod by Joseph Merlino and his crew to take the heat from law enforcement off them. Written by New York Daily News reporter Larry McShane and I Married a Mobster executive producer Dan Pearson, this book is Natale’s chance to separate fact from fiction and shed some light on the post-Stanfa period in the Philly mob during which he was the man in charge.  

A KILLER’S KILLER

“Killer.” The word hits you right off the bat when you begin reading Natale’s book. Though he hasn’t even begun telling his story yet, the word ogles at you as it is one used to describe Ralph Natale. Even for the most seasoned mob buffs this comes across as something of a rare occurrence. Sure, mobsters often share their murder stories, but they seldom describe themselves in such a way.

Especially not when they have gone as high up the food chain as Ralph Natale, who became boss of a family. Though that position is mentioned in his character description as well, right after “union leader and organizer.” But apparently, “killer” needs to be emphasized. It stands out for him. He sees it as an important piece – a strong side - of his character.  

It becomes weird when the book gives the character description of former Philadelphia mob boss Nicky Scarfo, known specifically for his bloodlust, as an “Atlantic City-based Mafioso who took over the family following Testa.”

Quite an understatement compared to the “killer” description Natale received.

It’s these kinds of statements that, early on, make the reader wonder where this true story about the life and crimes of former Mafia Don Ralph Natale is headed. Is he pumping himself up as a big bad crime boss to combat allegations he was just a figurehead? Is he overcompensating? It’s a thought that remained with this reader throughout Last Don Standing.

As expected, Natale kicks off his book with a mob hit. As he went out on Christmas Day in 1973, he “felt like the only human being on earth.” He packed his guns and, before leaving his home, checked them several times because, “It was an old habit. And old habits die hard,” as Natale’s co-authors add with a whiff of Hollywood noir.

Natale then meets his friend and intended target for the usual small talk before they and another man get in a car. Natale takes a seat behind his victim as they take one last ride. When the men arrive at their destination, his buddy begins to worry, asking “What’s up, Ralph?” Ralph replies with a line straight out of any random action movie ever made: “Here’s what’s up, my friend.” He then pulls out his .38 snub nosed revolver and shoots him in the head.

The moral of Natale’s story? Don’t fuck with Ralph Natale, self-proclaimed natural born mob killer. At least, that’s the idea one gets before he hits us with how neighborhood gossip would link him to any murder that occurred, even if he could never have been involved. “I used to laugh,” he writes. “But it was good for the reputation.”

Is he giving it to us straight right here? Is he dispelling the reputation he just spent several pages establishing? Only for a minute. Throughout his book, he embellishes his killer reputation by referring to all the “work” he did for mob bosses across the country – from Angelo Bruno in Philadelphia to Carlo Gambino in New York and Tony Accardo in Chicago, even Jimmy Hoffa was a good friend in need of his expertise.

Though he remains vague about his “work,” which can also mean union business or beatings, Natale still makes himself out to be a killer of many more men than just the two he testified to having personally murdered and the others he ordered whacked when he became boss.

All the bravado aside, Natale would never have kept any bodies hidden from the feds when he began cooperating with them as it would have ruined his agreement and kept him locked up for the rest of his life. With that in mind, Natale’s continued emphasis on his deadly capabilities creates a sense of distrust with the reader. What else is he exaggerating?

BECOMING A MADE (UP) MAN

A big chink in Natale’s Mafia armor is the story about how he became an initiated, made, member of La Cosa Nostra. Until recently, the general story, according to the words of Natale and other turncoats, is that he was made by Joseph Merlino, then just a mere soldier in the family, after he got out of prison in 1994.

The fact that a soldier would, by himself, make a member, and that the two of them would subsequently name themselves boss and underboss was seen by many as another example of how dysfunctional the Philadelphia crime family had become. But this was how Natale officially came into “the life” and how he ascended to the throne. It’s obviously not the most glamorous way and it seems to have eaten away at Natale’s Mafia ego.

Because Natale now writes in Last Don Standing, that his mob induction went totally different. He claims he was made decades earlier, in the late 1960s during La Cosa Nostra’s heyday, and that he only accepted Merlino’s offer to become a member to keep peace among various factions of the family.

Just like his ceremony with Merlino, his first initiation ceremony was a bit unusual as well. This time, however, it did have that tinsel town glamour, this time he was accompanied by two men, not lowly soldiers like Merlino, but two bosses. There, in the late 1960s, at the induction ceremony of Ralph Natale of South Philly, stood mob bosses Angelo Bruno of Philadelphia and Carlo Gambino of New York.

“Ang and Carlo got together, and they told me, ‘Don’t tell anybody about this,’” he writes. “We pricked our fingers and put out blood together. Carlo Gambino told me, ‘You belong to me now, and you belong to Ang.’ Of course, I was honored.”

Well, of course. This despite the fact that he had earlier told his mob mentor John “Skinny Razor” DiTullio he had no interest in becoming a made member. DiTullio, by the way, did not attend the initiation ceremony of his own pupil. Which is weird. DiTullio was one of Bruno’s trusted lieutenants and the one who brought Natale into “the life.”

Something doesn’t add up.

Anyhow, regardless of that, let’s go along. After Bruno and Gambino had made Natale an official member, he was not to tell anyone. We can presume that would go both ways and both Bruno and Gambino would remain silent about Natale’s new status as well, otherwise why bother? This secrecy would create some awkward moments when Mafia etiquette was at stake. Natale was neither a friend of ours nor theirs. One could slap him around with impunity, maybe even try to seduce his wife. How was another mobster to know he was breaking cardinal mob rules?

It’s one of the stories that Natale recounts in his book that seems far-fetched at best. For a man who claims to have been so close to both Bruno and Gambino he offers little to no personal stories about them. Though the reader is confronted with countless of personal conversations – placed in quotation marks - between Bruno and Gambino and other higher ups where neither Natale nor the book’s authors were present, Natale himself is lost for material on rackets and mob anecdotes to entertain us with.

LOCKED UP FAR AWAY FROM THE GRAPEVINE

It is understandable, of course, that Natale did not have that many stories to offer. He spent 16 years behind bars. He was locked up when Angelo Bruno was murdered. He was in his cell when Bruno’s successor, Phil Testa, was killed by an explosive and Nicky Scarfo began his vicious reign. He was running the prison yard when Scarfo went away to prison for life and the Sicilian-born John Stanfa took over a crumbling family. He was still eating prison food when tensions between Stanfa and a crew of young gangsters led by Joseph Merlino began turning violent.

He was out of the loop during all those years, looking in from the outside, collecting tidbits of information where he could. And biding his time, as he writes in his book, waiting for the perfect moment to make a comeback.

His opportunity arrived when Joseph Merlino entered his cell block. With the crime family severely weakened, Natale seized the opportunity to use his reputation as a standup guy to join Merlino’s faction and place himself at the top of the family. Still, it didn’t give him much more mob stories to share with readers that weren’t already known. 

“NO TRUE KING”

Instead, Ralph Natale seems to use this book as a way to cement his mob legacy. At 82 years old, that’s all he has left. After becoming a turncoat, his reputation was shot to shambles. When stories began popping up describing him as a figurehead, his place in crime history became tarnished as well. It looks like he wanted to put a stop to that.  

Last Don Standing thus offers readers some interesting insight into a man who is trying very hard to come across as a Mafia boss straight from The Godfather. But the more he hypes himself as a capable killer, the more he comes across as the latest wannabe tough guy auditioning for The Sopranos.

It’s like in Game of Thrones when Tywin Lannister tells his son, “Any man who must say, ‘I am the king’ is no true king.” Ralph Natale is the man who is very loudly proclaiming to be a killer, to be the boss, to be a standup guy. And with every sentence, every action, he weakens his claims.

At the beginning of the book he portrays himself as an obedient smart young up and coming wiseguy. He only speaks when spoken to. Skip forward a few pages and he is giving his boss Angelo Bruno a piece of his profanity-laced mind – and Bruno likes him for it, or so he claims.

He portrays himself as a family man, one who only became a turncoat because Joseph Merlino and his crew refused to support his family while he was locked up. Yet, as a free man, Natale spent all his time playing mob boss and sleeping around with his mistress.

He abhors modern-day bosses like John Gotti and Nicky Scarfo for organizing large gettogethers with underlings – even saying that Bruno hated such public displays - yet does the exact same thing himself, inviting associates, soldiers, and captains to his racetrack restaurant, where he gives long speeches about how they should run their criminal business – much of it picked up on wiretaps and bugs by authorities.

Philadelphia mobster-turned-informant Ron Previte summed up the kind of mob boss Natale was pretty nicely, “Ralph was the type of guy you petted. You call him Godfather and you pet him very lightly.”

Ron Previte & Ralph Natale

Last Don Standing: The Secret Life of Mob Boss Ralph Natale by Larry McShane and Dan Pearson is available online at Amazon.com and at bookstores near you.

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