Last Don Standing: The Secret Life of Mob Boss Ralph Natale

Book jacket
Book jacket
Ralph Natale, center with mustache, with organized labor and mob friends.
Ralph Natale, center with mustache, with organized labor and mob friends.

Open the “Last Don Standing” and you’re transported to the mafia underworld in Philadelphia through the eyes of former mob boss Ralph Natale.

The new book, by New York Daily News veteran reporter Larry McShane and television producer Dan Pearson, reads like an episode of “The Sopranos” except that it’s true. Natale — who, in 2000, became the highest-ranking Mafioso to become an FBI witness testifying against fellow mobsters — rose through the ranks of the Philadelphia mafia. The story details a who’s who of mobsters, crooked labor bosses and politicians, who siphoned money out of Atlantic City casinos. Natale lived through the bloody period of mafia in-fighting marked by murders in South Philadelphia bars, restaurants and along the Schuylkill Expressway as mobsters vied for control after Angelo Bruno, known as “the Docile Don,” met his untimely demise.

“I’ve been in trouble since the day I came out of my mother’s womb,” Natale says in the book.

McShane, who reported for The Associated Press before his current newspaper job, said that he covered New York City in the 1980s when “the big FBI crackdown on the mob” happened. And, McShane is also the author of another mafia book, “Chin: The Life and Crimes of Mafia Boss Vincent Gigante.”

Advertisement

Pearson, who produced the Discovery Channel’s “I Married a Mobster,” said that he met Natale after Kitty Caparella, a former Philadelphia Daily News reporter, introduced him to a woman who was Natale’s girlfriend. As he got to know Natale, Pearson said, “I realized the things he told me were true. I reached out to different people in La Cosa Nostra and guys that had done time with him.” Natale was known for “loyalty and as a stone-cold killer,” said Pearson. “As we went on with the relationship and the conversations, I realized this was American history with the mafia.”

Pearson is now turning “Last Don Standing” into a movie with actor Frank Grillo lined up to play Natale.

“It’s going to do for Philadelphia what ‘Goodfellas’ did for New York,” Pearson said. “The Ralph Natale story is about a boss,” he said. “It ensconces the mafia world from all around the country with legendary names like Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa.” Natale admitted to eight murders while “in ‘Goodfellas’ Henry Hill never admitted to one,” said Pearson, 57. “There’s a big difference between being a (mob) associate and being a boss. We’re going to set the record straight.”

At 11 years old, Pearson was homeless and living in Brooklyn in an abandoned car when he saw another kid being beaten up and intervened to stop it.

“The kid follows me,” said Pearson, who ended up living with that boy’s family. “The kid’s father wound up being the underboss of one of the five families. The father (whom he declined to name) became a father figure to me. He always called me ‘Danny Boy.’ All the Italians called me ‘Danny Boy.’ That’s how I had these relationships. They knew me. If they didn’t know me, someone would vouch for me. When I created the show, ‘I Married a Mobster,’ no one had the access I had.”

“From being a homeless child living an abandoned car, I’ve always believed dreams can come true,” said Pearson. “And now I’m a film producer.”

“I don’t condone murder or lawless acts,” said Pearson. “What I do is tell a story and why it happened. A story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Ralph’s life had a beginning, middle and a new beginning. Who gets a new beginning at 82? Ralph (Natale) did.”

Natale is “not getting anything from the film or the book,” said Pearson. “He wanted to tell the story. He’s 82 years old with a six-pack (abdomen). He runs a half hour every day and he lifts weights seven days a week. He’s a vegetarian. He won’t kill an animal but if he feels you’ve done him wrong, you have a problem.”

McShane, 58, joined the project on the recommendation of his agent after another writer withdrew. He has no worries about retaliation from writing about the mafia, he said. For the Gigante book, McShane interviewed that mob leader’s brother, a Catholic priest.

“He was very helpful,” McShane said.

For “Last Don Standing,” McShane interviewed Natale and also had access to numerous yellow legal pads where Natale had drafted a memoir while in prison in two different stints totaling 27 years.

“If anything came up (that) I wasn’t sure about,” McShane said, “I could just call him and ask.” (Last Don Standing/St. Martin’s Press/$25.99)