Jewish World Review Nov. 7, 2002 / 2 Kislev, 5763

Jerry Della Femina

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Here's a dirty little secret: Most Italians sort of like the Mafia | My last column appearing in JWR was about the New York City Columbus Day Parade organizers and their refusing to allow two actors from "The Sopranos" to march in their parade. The e-mails poured in -- 90% agreed with me but, Oh! that 10% who disagreed . . . the language! The threats! Fuhgedda about it! My wife, the beautiful Judy Licht, is getting tired of waking up a half-hour early every morning to go out and start my car.

I recall the first time I wrote about "The Sopranos." I started the column by saying: "I'm about to squeal on a few million of my fellow Italians. These are honest, upstanding Italians so I guess you can call this a 'Half Valachi.'"

Here's our dirty little secret: Most Italians sort of like the Mafia. Secretly, we root for them. Italians like the Mafia for the same reason WASPs admire Microsoft. Guys who "coulda been contenders" always identify with guys of the same ethnic persuasion who got to the top of the heap -- no matter how ugly the heap may be.

The Mafia has been around longer than Microsoft but the parallels between the two corporations are there. Both are winning, efficient organizations who are merciless with their competition. Bill Gates crushes competitors economically and leaves them the walking dead.

The Mafia, on the other hand, goes that little extra step and actually whacks its competitors and leaves them very, very dead wedged in the trunks of cars. Both organizations have had to put up with government interference. Both will prevail. Bill Gates and his executives will duke it out with the government and then pay a few-billion-dollar fine and go on their way. The wise guys will do their stretch in the slammer and come back to the old neighborhood the better for it.

So the Mafia doesn't have a web site and isn't listed on NASDAQ. Big deal! The Mafia has something that Microsoft will never have. The Mafia has its own television show and everybody loves it. It's "The Sopranos" on HBO.

"The Sopranos" is doing for Italians what The Goldbergs did for Jews and I Remember Mama did for the Norwegians. "The Sopranos" have taken over Sunday nights at 9 p.m. and they've whacked the competition.

Tony Soprano, a New Jersey Mob boss (brilliantly played by James Gandolfini), is a Mafia guy who is having anxiety attacks. Just like the rest of us. He has to take Prozac. Just like the rest of us. His wife loves him, his kids trouble him. Just like the rest of us. He has an old Uncle (Junior, who runs the mob) who's a pain in the butt. Tony's afraid of dying. He's got the hots for his attractive female shrink (Lorraine Bracco). In short, he's exactly like you and me, except he occasionally murders people.

The writing is superb and Gandolfini, who looks like every Italian's "Uncle Tony," can, with an lifted eyebrow, or a shy, sad smile, sum up the essence of what it's really like to be Italian.

Italian men who perpetually project an open, happy-go-lucky persona always have secrets they can never reveal. Not even to their shrinks. In Tony Soprano's case the secret is that under that mild soft exterior there's a killer.

The episode that won me over was when Tony took his daughter off to visit some colleges. In the car there was that slightly awkward father-daughter conversation that we have all lived through. Suddenly, his daughter asked him if he was in the Mafia.

"Whaddya mean? Whaddya mean, I'm in waste management. Where do you get that stuff?" he sputtered.

"It's not every daughter who can go on an Easter egg hunt when she's nine and find $50,000 in cash and a loaded submachine gun in the basement," she replied.


The next scene had Tony sitting on a bench outside the college admissions office watching his daughter go in for her interview. As she opened the door, Tony flashed a little proud smile. He waved to her. His eyes teared up and he sort of gave a little shrug with his shoulders that said he couldn't believe that Tony Soprano's daughter could be on her way to college in a place like this, with all these "Americans."

At that point he looked like the most gentle of men. Minutes later he was strangling a former associate who was in the witness protection program and made the mistake of choosing to hide out in the little college town where Tony spotted him.

That's the Italian scene. It's never what people think it is. The simple, happy, mandolin-playing people never existed. Ninety-nine percent-point-nine of Italian Americans would never even jaywalk but that doesn't keep them from enjoying the tough killer reputations of the .1% who belong to the Mafia. For honest Italians, this grudging admiration comes to them with a certain amount of paranoia.

Here's how it worked out for me: A number of years ago my advertising agency received a call from a large corporation telling us they were interested in our handling their advertising account. I checked into the company and found the chairman was Italian from my old neighborhood in the Avenue U section of Brooklyn.

"Nothing doing," I told my staff. "If he comes from my old neighborhood, he's got to be connected and I'm not going to deal with anyone who is connected to the Mafia."

My associates persisted. "You're not being fair," they said.

"Okay, let's investigate this guy before we take his account."

So we hired a private detective to tell us all about the company chairman. The report came back: "He's clean. An upstanding member of the community. Straight as they come."

So we took the account. We did a lot of good work for the company and both our firms prospered. One day the chairman invited me out to his Greenwich, Connecticut home for dinner. We talked about the old days in Brooklyn. He was older than I was and I got up the nerve to say, "You know, when you wanted to hire us I knew you were from the old neighborhood and I had you investigated."

He looked at me and laughed. "You jerk," he said. "What do you think I did before we called you?"

We spent the night laughing about the Mafia.

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JWR contributor Jerry Della Femina was recently named by Advertising Age as one of the 100 Most Influential Advertising People of the Century. He's perhaps the most sought-after advertising expert in the country, there is no network, no publication and no organization on which, in which, or before which Mr. Della Femina has not appeared. He is also the author of two books, From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor (a best-seller), and An Italian Grows in Brooklyn (a non-seller). Comment by clicking here.


10/17/02: Bloomberg for Honorary Italian of the Year

© 2002, Jerry Della Femina