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The Phantom of The Grand Hotel: Sicily, the Mafia, a Mystery

By Thom L. Jones

Located in the historical center of Palermo, Sicily. Founded in 1874 and renovated in 1907 by one of the great masters of the Art Nouveau Style, Ernesto Basile, the exquisite Grand Hotel Et Des Palmes hotel exudes historical charm. Grand décor of marble floors and antiques combine nicely with very latest technology to make your stay a memorable one. The recently restored restaurant, bar and banquet room can host all your personal and professional events in great style turning them into unforgettable moments.

                                                                                                  - From the web site of hotel 2015.

There have been some unforgettable moments that's for sure.

It sits on Via Roma at number 398, occupying a block between Via Principe Granatelli and Via Mariano Stabile, seven stories high, with a palm tree to the right and left of the imposing entrance.

Above the doorway, engrave into the entablature, are the words Grande Albergo, the original name of the building.

Built in 1874, originally as a private residence for the Yorkshire, English, Ingham-Whittaker families, specifically Benjamin Ingham, who were involved in the Marsala wine trade, the villa hosted old and sick cantankerous German Richard Wagner, along with his wife, Cosima Liszt, as the composer created part of his famous opera, Parsifal, while a guest in 1882. A little while later, Renoir the painter, popped in to paint Wagner's portrait; prime minister Francesco Crispi lived here for a period, from 1885, and French writer Guy de Maupassant also made a visit; Vittorio Orlando, another prime minister, stayed here frequently after the residence was purchased by entomologist Enrico Ragusa and converted into a hotel in 1907, by the same architect who designed the magnificent Teatro Massimo opera house a few hundred meters to the west of the hotel.

American playwright Arthur Miller came on a visit to Sicily and stayed here, and Uruguayan author José Enrique Rodó passed away in his room in 1917, as did French poet and novelist Raymond Roussel who died of a drug overdose in 1933. Francis Ford Coppola and Al Pacino (whose grandparents emigrated to America from Corleone) stopped by when they were in Sicily during the production of the film The Godfather.

Coppola allegedly had his own bed shipped to the hotel from America.

The hotel also hosted actress Sophia Loren, musician Ray Charles, as well as Giulio Andreotti, the knight of darkness of Italy’s Christian Democrat party and Michele Sindona the Mafia-connected banker with ties to the Vatican.

Luchino Visconti di Modrone, Count of Lonate-Pozzolo, the famous Italian film director, along with actor Burt Lancaster were guests in the early 1960s during the shooting of The Leopard, the film adaptation of Sicily's most famous book of the same name. Ava Gardner, the Hollywood movie star was a customer at the hotel while filming in Sicily in 1960.

Sliding in and out from time to time was a squat, coarse-looking, peasant of a man, always dressed in rough clothes, stained by the tobacco he continually chewed. This was Giuseppe Genco Russo, the Mafia boss of Mussomeli and thought by many as the successor to the late Don Calogero Vizzini as the top Mafia figure on the island. The hotel staff hated him for his disgusting habit of spitting onto the carpets.

The American government requisitioned the hotel on behalf of its military in 1944, by which time the name had changed to its current somewhat chichi French appellation. US Army Colonel Charles Poletti, in charge of civil affairs for the military, set up a base here where one of his translators and aides was New York Mafioso Vito Genovese, who had fled to Italy in 1937 to avoid a murder charge. Although Palermo was heavily bombed by the allies, the hotel escaped almost unscathed. One missile did fall into the lobby by the front door, damaging a table, but luckily, did not explode. Another actually passed through the hotel, on March 22nd 1943, entering and exiting the room of Baron Vincenzo Greco Militello without causing any injury to the startled guest, who had been enjoying an afternoon nap, before exploding outside. The fly on the wall never got a better day than that!

Sometime around the middle of October 1957, (different sources give different dates) it supposedly hosted a congress of Sicilian and American Mafiosi who gathered for a few days in the Sala Azzurra the Blue Room, which can hold up to eighty, to talk about crime and drugs and whatever gangsters chit-chat about when they aren’t running around killing each other. Genco Russo would have most certainly been present, as a man referred to by agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics as “the chief of the Sicilian Mafia.”

Which he wasn't. That was Andrea Fazio, the boss of Trapani.

Twenty-five years later, Palermo was the heroin capitol of the world.

However, of all the interesting, newsworthy players that walked through the doors or slept in a bedroom or drank in the bar, none came anywhere near the tall, distinguished-looking man in the white linen suit, who for close to fifty years wandered through the hallways chomping on a fat Cuban, Romeo and Juliet cigar. He would have to be the most fascinating and elusive of all the guests who ever stayed at a hotel, anywhere in the world. And the longest, permanently paying client, without fear of competition.

Just who he was and why he lived his life in this hotel has been a source of interest and no little confusion for crime researchers and writers, in general, over the years. Sometimes, looking for the truth about anything to do with the Mafia is like looking for a turtle with a moustache, possible but generally, unlikely. What we find is not always what we are looking for. Even on the good days.

The man at the heart of this story is called Giuseppe di Stefano (left,) maybe Baron di Stefano, maybe not. A man of immense wealth, a landowner of some magnitude, or perhaps none of this. Possibly a Mafioso, maybe something else. Allegedly living at the hotel in exile, banished there by the Mafia. Or not.

Toto Librizzi, the head barman at the hotel, knew him as well, if not better, than most. He claimed that “di Stefano maintained it was a fairy tale that he had been sent into exile by the Mafia of Castelvetrano. It was simply a rumor.”

Or was it? A Sicilian with a glance will confer more than a Neapolitan can with a million words. So said Renato Guttuso the famous Sicilian painter who was a frequent guest at Des Palmes and often dined with the Baron.

If it was an exile, the man controlling the destiny of Di Stefano would have been Giuseppe Marotta, capo of the Castelvetrano Mafia clan in the troublesome times following the end of World War Two. Or then again, maybe it was Senor Coppola.

Five feet two with eyes of blue, Francesco Paolo Coppola had been born in Partinico in 1899. After a busy life of crime, he fled Sicily, suspect in several murders, in 1926, heading for the promised land of America. He lived in New York, Detroit, Kansas City, Los Angeles and Rock Island, Illinois, with spells in Mexico. He had helped notorious union leader Jimmy Hoffa's rise to power in the Teamsters Union. Twenty-two years after his arrival, he was deported back to Sicily, with a CV that included murder, bootlegging and numerous drug-trafficking indictments. He arrived in Sicily in January, 1948 and was soon back into the swing of things. Within six months, he was the boss of the Partinico Mafia family.

His return timing was fortuitous. On July 17th, 1948, Santo Flores, the boss of the clan, died, sitting down. It was probably the only way to go as he was so morbidly obese he needed two men to support him when he tried to walk. He was with some of his friends, chewing the fat in the Piazza Duomo when Salvatore Giuliano, the infamous bandit came along and machine-gunned them all into eternity. A dispute over payment for a kidnapping. Something like that. Salvatore had been under the protection of Flores, but thing were starting to turn to custard.

Angelo Siino a Mafioso police informant, would claim many years later, that Giuliano was, in fact, a soldier in the Mafia family of San Giuseppe Jato. The killing of the family boss was the start of a chain of events that would lead to Giuliano sprawled dead in a courtyard, in Castlevetrano in the morning sun, two years later.

Coppola was, according to author Gaia Servadio, “the criminal overlord of one of the most populated areas of Sicily and was implicated in drug trafficking incidents and every major Sicilian criminal incident. Most capocosche never reached beyond their neighborhood, Copolla, however, had vast political links and was the maker of Sicilian and Roman deputies.”

He had, quite possibly, been the Mafia authority behind the murder of Giuliano, the deus ex machina, allegedly finalizing the details of the killing with Ugo Luca (Carabinieri Colonel in charge of a specially created group, the CFRB, set up in 1949 to track down and destroy Giuliano and his band,) the night before the bandit chief was shot dead in Castelvetrano early on the morning of July 4th, 1950.

So the bandit kills the Mafia boss and the new boss helps to kill the bandit who he had been supplying with bombs and guns, funded, it was alleged, by the American CIA through former OSS boss William Donovan.

Undoubtedly an Axelrod complexity of cooperation!

Frank may have been part of the mob meeting at the hotel in 1957, maybe with his best buddy, Charlie Luciano, the infamous New York Mafioso deported to Italy in February 1946, who Frank thought of as “a most exquisite person.” Frank had, in fact, started his American career under Luciano before moving to Detroit in the 1930s.

Luciano had stayed at the Grand in April 1946 when he was thrown out of the US and deported back to Sicily, his birth place. The British Consul at the time reported on Luciano's sojourn at the hotel. "This bandit, or ex-bandit, is very much in the public eye," said the report. "He has two luxurious American motor cars; dresses and lives expensively and is often seen in the company of an elegant but vulgar Italo-American woman, Virginia Massa."

Luciano returned to the hotel for the third time on March 23rd, 1961, for a two-day visit, staying in Room 216. He had come to Sicily by boat from Naples. While here, he telephoned, then met up with, Genco Russo who arrived the following day. They huddled in a closed meeting for over two hours. Luciano held a second session on the same day with his cousin, Salvatore Salemi, Mauro Di Mauro, an investigative reporter for the pro-communist newspaper, Lóra ( he would disappear in September 1970, a victim of lupara bianca-white shotgun, how the Mafia disappeared its victims,) and a mysterious little man called Agostino La Lomia.

More on him later.

Luciano left the following day, flying back to Naples on Air Alitalia Flight 119. He would have had an early start. His aeroplane left Punta Raisi airport at 9:45am.

Maybe Frank Coppola met up with Di Stefano if in fact he did attend the 1957 meeting. The mysterious guest had by then, been a permanent resident of the hotel for eleven years. It was even rumored the Baron had been involved in the setting up of the meeting.

He had it seems, two regular visitors, one at least from America, who were Mafia. One was Calogero Orlando, who according to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics, (FBN) was one of those attending the 1957 meet.

He was born in Terranisi, (a twenty-five minute car drive north of Partinico,) in 1906, and at the age of 16, left Sicily, with $400 in his pocket and high hopes to find his fortune in America, locking into the Mafia family of Detroit and making enough money to be living by 1960, in relative luxury, in a two-story colonial home in the Fieldston section of The Bronx in New York.

Long a target of the FBN, who believed he imported heroin into the USA in tin goods, barrels of olive oil and giant wheels of cheese, for use in his food wholesaling and retailing business, Orlando Food Company based on Hudson Street in Manhattan. When he died in Florida in 1980 at the age of 74, it would be almost certain he had achieved his dream of finding his fortune.

The other man who called to visit was Giacinto Di Simone. He is almost as vague and shadowy a figure as Di Stefano himself.

He was connected with some kind of wine business, based near the railways station in Castelvetrano, and sometime in the 1950s, along with Di Stefano and some other investors, bought up an old, abandoned prison in Palermo, demolished it and sold the vacant lot to the Bank of Sicily who built their headquarters there, before relocating to the Via Magliocca.

In the 1960s it was reported that representatives of the town council of Castelvetrano visited the mysterious hotel guest to arrange the purchase of a large block of land he owned on Via Campobello, which they subsequently developed as a housing and industrial complex.

Over Easter, 1998, Giuseppe Di Stefano died in his suite at the age of 92.

As a rule of thumb, hotels remove their dead through the back entrance. Not a good image carting a coffin through the front door as rich and important guests are checking in. They made an exception for the man who have lived most of his life at 398 Via Roma. The entire staff apparently formed up to salute him goodbye. His funeral was organized by Giacomo Maniscalo, who had attended Di Stefano in the last ten years of his life as a hotel staff member. A private service and cremation were held at Cemetry dei Rotoli, north of the city.

Giuseppe Di Stefano had lived in The Grand Hotel et Des Palms for over fifty years.

But why and how he got there is without a doubt a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, to cite Winston Churchill.

It goes something like this:

He was Baron Sciacca, living on a vast estate in Belvedere, to the north of Castelvetrano. One day, sometime in 1946, while out hunting peasants, with two of his greyhounds, he came across a young man stealing almonds from a tree. Firing his shotgun, presumably to scare off the thief, he inadvertently kills the youth.

That's version one.

Version two has the thief being brought into the Baron's presence, who in rage, kicks him in anger and unwittingly damages the boy so badly, he dies.

Version three, has the Baron out for an afternoon spin in his car, and yes, he knocks this boy down, and he dies.

The one constant in all the stories is that the boy is related to the Mafia of Castelvetrano, and they demand justice, in full.

Traditionally, Mafia would simply take revenge by killing their enemy. Blood washes blood and all that kind of stuff. Di Stefano's position as a nobleman of considerable wealth, however, creates something of a dilemma, a sticky situation. The mob sits down and after many arms waving and deep pauses and agonizing, decide on their solution. The Baron will live but must leave his palatial home and vast estates and spend the rest of his life in exile. He agrees, and catches the next train to Palermo, checks into Grande Albergo and settles down to live the rest of his life in a suite that would change location over the years but finally settles on room 204.

However.

Vito Marino claims in an article on the web at Caselvetranonews.it Giuseppe Di Stefano was born April 13th, 1906 to Giuseppe and Giovanna di Leo at Via Ruggero Settimo 6. This looks promising until you realize that there is no such street. Via Settimo runs into Via Ruggero VII and both contain a house numbered 6. Maybe a hundred years ago it was one street called by that name. Maybe not. More confusion. Turtle revisited!

He had two brothers, Giovanni and Mario. One becomes a lawyer, the other an accountant. But what actually does Giuseppe become?

Rich apparently.

According to the article, he may have married an aunt and through her, acquired the title of Baron.

Alternatively, the Milan-based weekly magazine Famiglia Christiana, in an article published in 1995, maintained Di Stefano's wealth came from an inheritance through an aunt that he never married. This was apparently confirmed by Giuseppe Bongiorno, a sometime mayor of Castelvetrano, Senator in Rome, and at one time, attorney to Giuseppe Di Stefano.

Yet another source claimed the Baron of Sciacca married a young girl and on his death left her as the sole heir to his estate. Di Stefano at this time, the source claimed, was the campieri or estate manager of the baron's property. This was a common occupation of Mafioso in rural areas. He courted the widow, Concettina, and eventually married her. She then became sick and died, but not before making a will in the favor of her husband.

Between the litany of Di Stefano's alleged criminal act against the young boy and the genesis of his career as the world's longest paying hotel guest, there is a mind-numbing Sea of Saragossa, a horse latitude of tangled confusion and unresolved province that is begging a solution, although it will never happen.

So, if the estate manager becomes the Baron, did he, in fact, run afoul of the local Mafia?

That's the big can of worms.

Vito Marino supposed the killing of the young boy was an accident and was recognized as such.

Di Stefano had moved to Palermo simply to be closer to the seat of power in Sicily and to administer his economic interests that went beyond land holdings. He chose to live in a hotel rather than a house for convenience.

Sicilian historian and journalist, Gaetano Basile, believed based on his research, Di Stefano was a Mafioso who chooses to live in the hotel from choice. He was wealthy enough to be able to afford it. Money never seemed a problem. In the hot, summer months, he would move into the Grand Hotel Villa Igiea, another beautiful old baroque home converted in 1908 by Ernesto Basile into a luxurious hotel, on Salita Belmonte, where he could enjoy the cool breezes blowing in off the Gulf of Palermo in the Tyrrhenian Sea. He would travel to Naples each year to either enjoy the opera season or the pleasures of the flesh with a mysterious woman or both, maybe at the same time.

He once attended the theatre in Turin, with his namesake, the well-known Italian opera singer, and Maria Callas. He had a regular suite at the Principe di Savoia, a five-star hotel in Milan and a major landmark in the city.

He would meet on a consistent basis with an official of the Bank of Sicily, which handled his financial affairs, and each day a barber visited to maintain his beard and hair. He allegedly had four-hour lunches, entertaining his friends and associates, and would often instruct the chef on the preparation of meals in traditional and sometimes forgotten, recipes of Sicilian cuisine. He would specify fresh fish to be delivered from Mazara del Varro, a port in western Sicily, spending up to 100 Euros (about US$105) on this daily extravagance, and fruits and vegetables from Castelvetrano.

He spent his mornings caring for and watering the exotic plants in the greenhouse on the roof of the hotel, and some afternoons would stroll the streets around the hotel.

For a man in perpetual exile, it would appear to have been a good life.

The hotel manager said in 1996 in an interview with an AP reporter:

"The myth of the baron is a mystery," said Enzo Caruso. "Sicilians like mysteries. They like to think that a man can live in the shadows. Secrets represent knowledge, so the more secrets he has, the more important a man is."

Caruso acknowledges the publicity isn't bad for the hotel though its history speaks for itself.

Eight years before his death, Di Stefano became the subject of a movie released in 1990: Dementicare Palermo- The Palermo Connection- with iconic actor, Vittorio Gassman, playing the part of the mysterious hotel guest. The film was based on a novel written by French author Edmond Charles-Roux.

Towards the end of his life, Di Stefano retreated to the privacy of his hotel suite. Attended by nurses and hotel staff, confined to a wheelchair, he lived his last years truly as an isolationist, fulfilling the fable and rumors that had frothed around him for so many years. He died peacefully in his sleep on April 5th, Easter Sunday.

Toto Gaziano an executive with the Bank of Sicily remembers the Baron laughing at the rumors that swirled around him like mists of opportunity. An urban legend looking for a home.

"This is a story passed down in a distorted way. Something must have happened in Castelvetrano, many years ago. But no one has condemned the Baron Di Stefano to Palermo into exile. It was his choice to live away from his country residence. He's gone,” he said, “like a candle goes out.”

The Grand Hotel Et Des Palmes has been described as art nouveau, belle epoch, an old, noble lady asleep in the heart of Palermo. Like any hotel with a long history, it has had its share of scandals and ghosts.

In July, 1937, a British secret agent was allegedly knifed to death in room 242. In 1961, a man thought to be an envoy of some authority, while spying it was believed on the Mafia, fell seven stories down through the skylight into the lobby. Giovanni Di Carlo, the hotel's maintenance manager, along with two other men removed the body, leaving only shattered glass, bloodstains and an English wristwatch among the debris. On at least two occasions noblemen fought duels across the marbled floor of the hotel's lobby, and if one mysterious Baron wasn’t enough to satisfy the curiosity of Palermo and Sicily, for good measure, the hotel hosted two!

One of Sicily's most eccentric landed gentry was Baron Agostino La Lomia who had been born in Cianicatti, a commune in Agrigento, in 1905, and was the last in his noble lineage. Growing up and living in a world that seemed alien and unfriendly, he essentially, invented his own. He became notorious for his bizarre and eccentric lifestyle and famous for his poems and writings. He was a member of the Secular Academy of Parnassus Canicatti, founded in 1922 which also included such famous Italians as Pirandello and Salvatore Sammartino.

La Lomia's ancestors under the reign of the Bourbons had become substantial landowners and were awarded titles and important roles in the government of Sicily. By the time he came along, things were on a downward track. He inherited the family home in Ciancatti, a palace in Via Cataneo, in 1928 and used it as a base, surrounded by servants, gardeners and drivers, seven or more, in all. In 1947, he hosted a stay by Charlie Luciano, returning a favor for when he had visited Charlie in New York.

A short, stocky man, bald with a full white beard, he traveled everywhere with a cat and a blackbird in a cage and was a regular at film festivals across Italy and France. He stayed often at the hotel, claiming that he had been conceived in room 124 and insisted on booking into it on his visits. He would write himself letters, addressed to the Grand, and insisted the concierge should shout out his name when they arrived, so visitors and guests knew who he was. He dressed in a crumpled linen suit, often with a cloak thrown over, and always a straw hat with a large feather adorned in it.

His philosophy was “everything in life is more or less important nonsense.” It was a dogma he seemed to follow with great enthusiasm.

I wonder how often the paths of the two Barons crossed? One tall, haughty, completely aloof. The other, short, dumpy, completely weird.

These were two of the ghosts that now occupy space in a building filled with the heady scent of mystery and intrigue taken beyond the liminal of conjecture that would have perhaps fascinated Agatha Christie or Edgar Allen Poe.

The symbiotic relationship between Giuseppe Di Stefano and the Grand Hotel et des Palmes is without dispute. It was a mutualistic alliance forged by either fate or simply convenience. We will never know for sure which one.

Like the hotel in which he lived more than half his life, he left behind a legacy. Not of bricks and mortar, not of candelabras and ballrooms, and the pomp and circumstance of a luxurious lodging, but something much more fundamentally appealing and attractive: a cryptogram, a Gordian knot of the most frustrating complexity:

The mystery of who he really was and why he did what he did.

In the end, he still remains something of a mystery. We should not be surprised: for every human being is a mystery and nobody knows the truth about anybody else.

A.A. Milne.

With reference to British spy, Kim Philby.

You can read more of Thom L. Jones stories at his Mob Corner at Gangsters Inc.

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Copyright © Gangsters Inc. and Thom L. Jones 2015

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Comment by dino ortiz on May 19, 2015 at 1:42pm

Mr. Tom L. Jones,what a fantastic story.Read like a book, a very good book. You my friend are on the very top of my list when it comes to "who will i read today ".Thank you for entertaining us with your fantastic writing.

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