Legendary Colombo family capo John “Sonny” Franzese, who rubbed elbows with Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe before a bank robbery rap eventually made him the nation’s oldest federal inmate, died Monday morning from an infection. He was 103.
“Tough loss at any age,” his son Michael told the New York Daily News. “He was so much a part of who I am as a man, good or bad. He loved his children. No doubt about that.”
Franzese died in an unidentified hospital.
The renowned tough guy did his prison time without ever turning on his mob associates following a 1967 conviction that was widely considered both inside and outside organized crime as a setup.
After he was sentenced to a 50-year stretch, Franzese offered only this prescient observation: “I’ll bet I do every one.”
Franzese, widely admired and respected in the Mafia for sticking to his oath of “omerta,” was finally freed in 2017 at the age of 100. His son Michael, who initially followed his father into the mob, eventually left organized crime to become a born-again Christian and motivational speaker.
The elder Franzese was born in Sicily, moving with his family as a child to Brooklyn. Mob lore held that the precocious gangster became a made man at age 14, and was soon running a mobbed-up craps game.
Over the years, Franzese listed his legitimate work as a tailor, a baker and a salesman. But his real job was as a gangster, living the high life.
Franzese, dark-haired and handsome, would claim dalliances with Monroe and fellow sex symbol Jayne Mansfield. He hung out with Sinatra and fellow Rat Pack member Sammy Davis Jr. at the legendary Copacabana.
Once asked if he knew Sinatra, the gangster was quick to correct his inquisitor: “You asked the question the wrong way. You should have asked, ‘Did Frank Sinatra know Sonny Franzese?’”
But the business side of Franzese was darker: He once acknowledged killing 10 men during a 2006 chat with a mob informant, with other estimates of his mob murders running as high as 60.
There was an oft-told story on the streets of Brooklyn about the night when a man walked into the back room of Sonny’s club for a sit-down. An argument ensued. Franzese won: He shot the other man dead. The body was carried outside, and 100 eyewitnesses swore they saw nothing.
Most importantly in his mob career, Franzese was an earner, making money for the family in a variety of ways. He worked in the record business and put up some of the cash behind the mob’s $22,000 investment behind the classic porn flick “Deep Throat” – securing a piece of its supposed $600 million gross.
Franzese returned to his family in Brooklyn after his release in 2017 from the Federal Medical Center in Danvers, Massachusetts, leading a quiet life far from the spotlight of his youth.