One conjecture about why people are so fascinated by organized crime figures attributes it to a timid envy of those who flout the law so boldly.
But after selling his book at a four-hour signing stint at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas, Joe Bonpensiero concludes that it’s much simpler. The book is called Niputi, The Nephew: Life under the Shadow of a Mafia Killer (self-published at CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014).
“People just want to know what those guys were like in person,” the author tells me by phone from the new home he recently purchased in Las Vegas. And Bonpensiero can share a few tidbits: he watched his mother host two of the most infamous mobsters in her home. “They were perfect gentlemen, very polite,” he says.
The word niputi means “nephew” in Sicilian, and Bonpensiero, now 75, is the nephew of the book’s title. The mafia killer is his uncle, Frank Bompensiero, so notorious that his name was used for a character in The Sopranos television series.
“When I was still living at home during my senior year in college,” Bonpensiero continues, “Uncle Frank asked if we could put up a man and his son. They stayed for three days. After they left, my mother recognized the older guy’s picture on a TV news show. ‘That man was in my house,’ she said rather naively. The man was Joe Bonanno.”
Bonanno had been the leader of one of New York’s crime families dating to the 1930s. But in his later life he moved to Tucson. Who knows what connection he had with Uncle Frank? But Bonanno had gone on the lam several times as law enforcement pursued him.
In Niputi, Bonpensiero writes that he was eight in San Diego’s Little Italy when his mother also hosted two guests for Uncle Frank. One was Frank DeSimone, later to head up the Los Angeles crime family. The author uses the word “erudite” to describe DeSimone and remembers him as extremely kind to the hostess, complimenting her profusely on her cooking.
But obviously not all mobsters belong to the gallant type. The book contrasts DeSimone’s civility with the dismissive air that Uncle Frank displayed toward the lady of the house. In preparation for the dinner that night, he ordered her around like she was a personal slave and was irritated by her explaining how she thought the dinner should go. “I rarely observed Uncle Frank being respectful to women, save for his wife Thelma, and his only child, Mary Ann,” writes Bonpensiero. “Frank was not into anyone who disagreed with him, especially women.”
In Niputi, this trait is one of several that characterized a man always wanting others to see him as the big shot, despite his never being able to rise into the crime leadership roles he craved. “The Bomp” was sure the fancy dinner in Little Italy would be a celebration of his appointment to the role of San Diego capo. Instead, he learned that the second guest that evening, Girolomo “Momo” Adamo, would soon be moving from Los Angeles to San Diego. Uncle Frank immediately realized that he was to become a foot soldier to the other man, taking on the dirty work, including “hitting” the organization’s enemies.
The slight spelling difference between the author’s name and that of the Bomp resulted from a birth-certificate misspelling of Uncle Frank’s brother’s last name. The midwife who made the mistake was not the only one who had trouble with the serpentine name. During the author’s career in the Air Force, his commanding officer often called Bonpensiero “Bomb Dispenser.”
Sammy Bonpensiero, Frank’s younger brother, stayed clear of organized crime throughout his life, unless one counts financial and other support he often gave his sibling during hard times out of the Sicilian sense of family obligation. Sammy’s son, Joe, the writer of Niputi, always understood the nature of the obligation but chafed at how it kept an inveterate criminal’s life uncomfortably close.
Niputi is a book that chronicles how Sammy, his wife Mandy, and his son Joey coped with A Bad, Bad Boy. The phrase is the title of another book by the late Judith Moore that first appeared in installments during the early 2000s in these pages. Bonpensiero admires the extensive research Moore did for her stories but complains that she became too close to Frank’s daughter Mary Ann and accepted her viewpoint uncritically.
The author of Niputi maintains that Mary Ann’s father kept her too protectively in the dark for her to be a trustworthy witness. As a result, according to Bonpensiero, Moore’s book ends up romanticizing the mafioso, granting him great sympathy based on how much she loved him and how well she felt he treated her. “The book sparkled,” writes Bonpensiero, “like a Tom Sawyerish takeoff on fun times on the Mississippi.”
A key passage in A Bad, Bad Boy is illuminating. “I believe,” wrote Moore, “that [Frank] Bompensiero understood himself as a soldier in an army. I believe that he killed in precisely the same way that soldiers kill. He did not kill civilians; he killed other soldiers…. He had no skills, really. He couldn’t even shoot straight. He fit himself into circumstances as best he knew how. Often, the fit was awkward. But he fed his family.”
Moore then asked whether the Bomp ever felt remorse. A friend of his in later life “snorted,” she wrote, when she asked him. “Frank said that if God hadn’t wanted ’em dead,” the man said, “He would have stopped the bullets.” Moore added that she thought Bompensiero “intended no irony.”
“I am not here to judge Bompensiero. We are judged even as we attempt to judge. If your Bompensiero is a thoughtless id-ridden thrill killer, an idle rip-off artist, a vicious extortionist, well, then, we know something about you and rather less than but no more about Bompensiero.”
A little closer to home, Joe Bonpensiero is willing, in Niputi, to follow this line of reasoning — to a degree. At a time when he learned the FBI cleared him during a background check for his ROTC application to become an officer in the Air Force, he had been worrying about tickets he thought the San Diego Police Department had given him. He reports appreciatively a comment his father Sammy made at the time. “All mankind would fail the test,” Sammy tells him. “Deep down, everyone has something to hide, especially when you’re trying to protect those you care about. You do whatever it takes.”