"A Family Business" was the real-life version of "The Godfather," the movie adaptation of which was released the same year. But [anthropologist Francis] Ianni's portrait was markedly different from the romanticized accounts of Mafia life that have subsequently dominated popular culture. There were no blood oaths in Ianni's account, or national commissions or dark conspiracies. There was no splashy gunplay. No one downed sambuca shots at Jilly's, on West Fifty-second Street, with Frank Sinatra. The Lupollos lived modestly. Ianni gives little evidence, in fact, that the four families had any grand criminal ambitions beyond the illicit operations they ran out of storefronts in Brooklyn. Instead, from Giuseppe's earliest days in Little Italy, the Lupollo clan was engaged in a quiet and determined push toward respectability.
By 1970, Ianni calculated, there were forty-two fourth-generation members of the Lupollo-Salemi-Alcamo-Tucci family—of which only four were involved in the family's crime businesses. The rest were firmly planted in the American upper middle class. A handful of the younger members of that generation were in private schools or in college. One was married to a judge's son, another to a dentist. One was completing a master's degree in psychology; another was a member of the English department at a liberal-arts college. There were several lawyers, a physician, and a stockbroker. Uncle Phil's son Basil was an accountant, who lived on an estate in the posh Old Westbury section of Long Island's North Shore. "His daughter rides and shows her own horses," Ianni wrote, "and his son has some reputation as an up-and-coming young yachtsman." Uncle Phil, meanwhile, lived in Manhattan, collected art, and frequented the opera. "The Lupollos love to tell of old Giuseppe's wife Annunziata visiting Phil's apartment," Ianni wrote. "Her comment on the lavish collection of paintings was 'manga nu Santa' ('not even one saint's picture')."
The moral of the "Godfather" movies was that the Corleone family, conceived in crime, could never escape it. "Just when I thought I was out," Michael Corleone says, "they pull me back in." The moral of "A Family Business" was the opposite: that for the Lupollos and the Tuccis and the Salemis and the Alcamos—and, by extension, many other families just like them—crime was the means by which a group of immigrants could transcend their humble origins. It was, as the sociologist James O'Kane put it, the "crooked ladder" of social mobility.
Six decades ago, Robert K. Merton argued that there was a series of ways in which Americans responded to the extraordinary cultural emphasis that their society placed on getting ahead. The most common was "conformity": accept the social goal (the American dream) and also accept the means by which it should be pursued (work hard and obey the law). The second strategy was "ritualism": accept the means (work hard and obey the law) but reject the goal. That's the approach of the Quakers or the Amish or of any other religious group that substitutes its own moral agenda for that of the broader society. There was also "retreatism" and "rebellion"—rejecting both the goal and the means. It was the fourth adaptation, however, that Merton found most interesting: "innovation." Many Americans—particularly those at the bottom of the heap—believed passionately in the promise of the American dream. They didn't want to bury themselves in ritualism or retreatism. But they couldn't conform: the kinds of institutions that would reward hard work and promote advancement were closed to them. So what did they do? They innovated: they found alternative ways of pursuing the American dream. They climbed the crooked ladder.
All three of the great waves of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European immigrants to America innovated. Irish gangsters dominated organized crime in the urban Northeast in the mid to late nineteenth century, followed by the Jewish gangsters—Meyer Lansky, Arnold Rothstein, and Dutch Schultz, among others. Then it was the Italians' turn. They were among the poorest and the least skilled of the immigrants of that era. Crime was one of the few options available for advancement. The point of the crooked-ladder argument and "A Family Business" was that criminal activity, under those circumstances, was not rebellion; it wasn't a rejection of legitimate society. It was an attempt to join in.
Ianni didn't romanticize what he saw. He didn't pretend that the crooked ladder was the principal means of economic mobility in America, or the most efficient. It was simply a fact of American life. He saw the pattern being repeated in New York City during the nineteen-seventies, as the city's demographics changed. [...] The newcomers, he predicted, would climb the ladder to respectability just as their predecessors had done. "It was toward the end of the Lupollo study that I became convinced that organized crime was a functional part of the American social system and should be viewed as one end of a continuum of business enterprises with legitimate business at the other end," Ianni wrote.
That's why the crooked ladder worked as well as it did. The granddaughter could end up riding horses because the law—whether from indifference, incompetence, or corruption—left her gangster grandfather alone.
The idea that, in the course of a few generations, the gangster can give way to an equestrian is perhaps the hardest part of the innovation argument to accept. We have become convinced of the opposite trajectory: the benign low-level drug dealer becomes the malignant distributor and then the brutal drug lord. [...] The crooked-ladder theorists looked at the Mafia's evolution during the course of the twentieth century, however, and reached the opposite conclusion: that, over time, the criminal vocation was inevitably domesticated.
Malcolm Gladwell. "The Crooked Ladder: The criminal's guide to upward mobility". The New Yorker | Urban Chronicles | August 11, 2014 Issue.