I met him late in his life, when my girlfriend and I began selling his father's memorabilia for him and his wife on eBay. Whatever his past, I knew him as a decent and immensely interesting man. He loved to tell stories, and I loved listening to them. They weren't stories that would interest a mob fan; they weren't stories of gun battles, hits, or crime capers. They were stories about people.
Not all the people he told stories about were involved in the things most people want to hear about from mobsters. Some were, but what made the stories interesting is that they were always about the people, not the events, and about history.
The mafioso - "man of honor" in Sicilian - tradition goes back 800 years. For centuries, Sicily had been invaded and re-invaded. Everyone from the Pope to the French to the Bourbons to the Moors to the fascists controlled the island at some point. The one constant were the men of honor, the heads of families, local leaders, who kept some sense of order and stability. They were in a sense a shadow government whose traditions remained while a succession of foreign conquerors came and went.
These traditions were brought to America by those, including Bill's father, who fled here from Mussolini. Many say that these traditions were corrupted by the interaction with America's freedom, immense wealth, and opportunities. Bill himself has written about how the old ways were changed by it. But he and his father lived by those values, and tried, futilely in the end, to keep them alive in the new context. In part, it was this resistance of the "mustache Pete's" to the new breed of American born mobsters to whom those traditions were nothing more than show that helped end the Senior Bonanno's hold on power, and with it, Bill's aspirations.
It is the stories of those traditions and values that Bill told me over dinners and lunches. Having come from a family where traditions and heritage were not major influences, I was fascinated by these first-hand accounts. I enjoy the freedom of making my own way, finding my own values, and would not want to live the kind of life he did, but I can see the value and appeal of knowing where you come from in such an immediate way, of knowing what you and your family are all about.
Critics accused Bill of twisting his stories for his own purposes, for self-aggrandizement or the minimization of things he's not proud of. I can't say whether this was justified or not, because those criticisms pertain to his public stories, to his public image. What I heard were the personal stories. Sure, they too could have been embellished to polish his image, but for the most part, they weren't about him, and their meaning remains however the details were presented.
Bill made his way later in life as a writer and occasional expert source for documentaries (the first time I'd ever heard of him was seeing him on the History Channel). He was planning to write a history of La Cosa Nostra - "our thing". It wasn't going to be the history of the mob, but the history of the men of honor dating back to the founding of the Sicilian Kingdom in the twelfth century. As a history buff, I told him I couldn't wait to read it, and offered to help him edit his drafts, mostly so I could get a look at it sooner. That history will now likely never be written, at least not from the perspective he would have had to offer, and that's a loss to the world. But me, I'll miss the stories, as well as the man.