No cops or FBI agents were waiting outside with cameras.
No flower cars accompanied the hearse and the three black limousines that pulled up to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church.
And unless you knew otherwise, you would not have imagined that the bronze coffin borne up the steps contained the mortal remains of New York’s last bigtime Mafia boss.
The first hint to someone not in the know only came when the priest, Monsignor David Cassato, offered a joke.
“There’s an expression, there’s two things in life you’re sure of, right?” Cassato said. “Death and…
“Taxes,” a number of the roughly 75 mourners joined him in saying.
“If you’re smart, Sonny told me, you can avoid some of those taxes,” Cassato said, drawing laughter even from those who appeared to be feeling the loss most keenly.
John Franzese, known as Sonny, had been the federal prison system’s oldest inmate and its only centenarian when he completed his last stint behind bars in 2017. He died in a Queens nursing home at the age of 103, having lived long enough to become known as the Nodfather for dozing off in court.
By one account, Franzese became a full-fledged “made” member of the Mafia at 14, the same year Al Capone went to prison, two years before the end of Prohibition forced organized crime to find primary sources of income other than bootlegging. Franzese is said to have run a craps game and to have gone into loan sharking.
In 1963, Joe Valachi became the first big Mafia informant, testifying before Congress and giving America its first look inside the mob. The made members Valachi named included Franzese, and law enforcement became so determined to build a case against him that agents installed a bug in his kitchen as his new home was being built.
Other recordings were made with the help of informants. He could be heard saying on one tape that he had committed numerous murders, but he was acquitted the only time he was ever charged with homicide. The victim in that case was a one-eyed, hook-nosed hitman known as “the Hawk,” whose body was found in Jamaica Bay.
“I never hurt nobody that was innocent,” Franzese once told Newsday.
By 1967, Franzese had gone into the music business, running Buddah Records and such groups as the Shirelles. He subsequently invested in films like Deep Throat and Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
He dressed like the gangsters of lore and was seen in the company of Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. His pals included some of the biggest entertainers of the time, and a Newsday reporter would later ask if he knew Frank Sinatra.
“You asked the question the wrong way,” Franzese replied. “You should have asked, ‘Did Frank Sinatra know Sonny Franzese?’”
In 1967, Franzese was arrested for a series of bank robberies. The charges were—and continue to be—widely viewed as false. But one of the actual bank robbers took the stand to say Franzese had overseen the heists. The informant got off with probation and was allowed to keep the money he had stolen. Franzese was sentenced to an indeterminate term with a maximum of 50 years, which essentially meant he could get out if he decided to cooperate with the government. He repeatedly refused.
In 1978, he was paroled, only to be sent back to prison five times for consorting with known felons, which apparently included almost every guy he knew besides Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.
In 2010, at the age of 93, he was indicted for attempting to shake down two night spots and a pizzeria. His own son, John Jr., testified against him.
During a break in the proceedings, the elder Franzese rolled into the men’s room in a wheelchair. He apparently assumed his estranged wife would not follow him there. He was wrong.
“I just want to go to the bathroom!” Franzese could be heard pleading.
His wife made clear her displeasure with him over the crooked path their son had taken before becoming an informant. Franzese returned to the courtroom, where the jury made clear its view that he was guilty. He was sentenced to eight more years.
On June 23, 2017, he was released, having spent a total of 35 years behind bars. He enjoyed his final years with his grandchildren. Two of them delivered eulogies at Friday’s funeral, making it grander by another measure than the mob boss sendoffs of old.
After Frank Uale, aka Frankie Yale, owner of the Harvard House bar in Coney Island, became the first hoodlum in New York killed with a Thompson submachine gun, his funeral procession had 36 flower cars.
But neither Frankie Yale nor any other mob boss is known to have had a granddaughter stand before his coffin and recount how “Sonny Grandpa” gave her wise advice as she became what she termed a “rising young business executive.”
“He challenged me to exude confidence… no matter what,” she said. “Allowing someone to see that they got under my skin was not an option, as he explained, because they would learn my weakness and exploit it for their own benefit, for their own use to climb ahead.”
She added, “Interestingly, he didn’t want me to employ that same strategy. He didn’t believe it would get me very far.”
He counseled her to “know and study what others are doing.”
“Do it better, or don’t do it at all,” she recalled him telling her. “Be the best.”
That advice was accompanied by a warning.
“He also said at work not to trust anyone,” she recalled.
That initially struck her as a very lonely way to proceed.
“Upon reflection, what he meant was that everyone in any work situation was ultimately always going to put themselves first, even if subconsciously. It’s human nature.”At the same time, he advised, “As a leader, I needed to subdue my ego and do what’s best for the organization.”
She reported his essential advice for all his grandchildren.
“He said, ‘You’re nothing without an education, you got to he smart about life.’”
“And of course to take our zinc and our vitamins,” she said.
She noted that he did not take drugs or drink. She had once asked him how he managed not to imbibe and still fit in during his days as a “man about town” at nightclubs with “the real lookers.”
“He said the waiters only put just enough white wine in the seltzer so others would think he was drinking,” she remembered. “Spritzers, really weak white wine spritzers. He said he likes to keep his wits about him and remember things.”
She reported, “You better believe I started drinking white wine spritzers at work functions. Still do.
She added, “I give that advice to all my female colleagues, too. It changed the dynamics of these parties, but I think we’re all better for it.”
She closed by reading a note her Sonny Grandpa had written to her.
“You are a spark plug, ready to attack any situation. You are spunkier than all the women I met in life. You won’t disappoint. Your goal in life is to succeed.”
A grandson also spoke. He recounted a time when he was starting out in music and grew weary of playing classical works.
“I told him, ‘Grandpa, I really want to play rock and roll,’” the grandson recalled. “He said, ‘If you want to play rock and roll, first you have to play blues, then you have to play jazz. And then you’ll be ready to play rock and roll because you have to know where the music comes from.”
The grandson now marveled, “And to hear that from an old Italian guy. How does he know this?”
The elder Franzese clearly did more than just cash in on the Shirelles. Both the grandson and the granddaughter recalled Sonny Grandpa saying that you have to listen to gospel music. The granddaughter had arranged for a gospel group headed by a singer/piano player known on Instagram as The Black Franz Liszt to perform at the funeral. He and three fellow Brooklyn vocalists made the send-off all the more unlike what anybody might expect.
A reminder of the life the elder Franzese had lived came with a eulogy by a man who introduced himself as Maurice, an “unofficial adopted son” and proprietor of Cinema World Studios in Brooklyn. He was beginning to address the mourners when a glass collar at the top of a burning Paschal candle suddenly shattered.
“See?” Maurice said. “He is here with us right now, and he wants to make sure I’m not gonna say certain things. That I promise.”
Maurice recalled monthly visits to see Franzese at “college,” as prison is termed in the mob world.
“In college you couldn’t bring a phone book with you,” Maurice noted, saying Franzese “could remember a thousand different phone numbers.”
“He would rattle off these phone numbers, rattle off these names, tell you what to do,” Maurice recalled. “You had to remember it without writing anything down.”
Maurice also recounted a story from the 1960s, before Franzese was sent to prison. A couple who had just gotten engaged were walking at dusk through the streets near the church. They planned to buy an engagement ring, and the woman had the money in her purse. A gunman suddenly appeared and took it. They went to the church for help, lacking even the subway fare to get home.
“The pastor said, ‘I will make a phone call,’” Maurice recounted. “Within 30 minutes, Sonny came with the pocketbook with all the money, plus some money that didn’t belong to them. And he apologized for what happened, especially near his church.”
That had been before Cassato’s time. Cassato had come to the parish in 1985 and by all accounts was a major force in reviving the neighborhood before he was transferred to another part of Brooklyn in 2001.
He was back at Mount Carmel on Friday for the funeral. He told the mourners during his homily of a moment after his transfer. He was in his new parish when his administrative assistant had announced that a “very handsome man” had come to see him.
“Did he give you his name?” Cassato remembered asking the assistant.
“Yes,” the assistant said. “Sonny.”
Franzese came in and sat down.
“‘You know, I’ve been away at college for a couple of years,” Franzese said.
“I know,” Cassato replied.
“I heard about you,” Franzese said. “When I was away I heard about you.”
Franzese went on to say that he had been told of the great good Cassato had done.
“That was my parish,” Franzese said. “And you saved my parish and I want to thank you for that.”
“Anything you need, you call me,” Cassato said.
Cassato now reported what followed.
“Lo and behold, he went away to school again!”
The mourners laughed as they had at the line about taxes, making it two laughs more than at your basic old school mob boss funeral.
Cassato turned solemn without being somber at the end of the funeral, saying that Franzese now rested in God’s love and grace. Cassato’s words of forgiveness had added significance because he is also a highly regarded NYPD chaplain.
And “Amazing Grace” was the recessional performed by Black Franz Liszt and his vocalists. The bronze coffin was covered with an American flag in recognition of Franzese’s service during World War II, even though it was cut short for reasons that are not entirely clear.
The mortal remains of John “Sonny” Franzese were then carried back out to the hearse. The mourners who came down the steps included 90-year-old Dr. Louis Barricelli, who grew up with Fanzese and was his physician. Barricelli joked that he had not yet signed the death certificate.
“So he’s not dead,” the doctor joked.
The procession then departed, taking with it an era and in no need of flower cars.