Frank Costello’s voice has become the most imitated and recognizable in all of mob lore. Thanks to the Kefauver Committee, and some bad advice from attorney George Wolfe, who suggested Frank not show his face on camera, Costello’s husky rasp has become the stuff of legend.
It is well known that Marlon Brando watched the televised spectacle that was the Kefauver hearings and based Don Corleone’s voice on Costello’s, but what is not so clear is how his voice became that way.
In the Last Testament of Lucky Luciano, Lucky speaks as if Costello’s voice was damaged when they met in their youth. You had to move in close to hear Frank, he said, because his voice couldn’t get much louder than a whisper. As he goes on to explain, in those days, Italian mothers would often fret over their children’s health and have their adenoids removed prematurely. According to Lucky, this was the case with Frank, but the doctor accidentally paralyzed his left vocal cord during the operation.
In the book Uncle Frank, however, author Leonard Katz claims his voice began to change sometime in 1933, much later in life. Costello had three vices: gambling, showgirls, and smoking up to three packs of English Oval cigarettes a day. According to Katz, his voice began to change and he was suffering from chronic sore throat, so he sought a throat specialist.
A tumor was found and treated with radiation, paralyzing the vocal cord. Either story sounds plausible to this author. It is possible the records Katz came across during his research had been altered. During the Kefauver hearings, Frank’s council struggled to make him appear in ill health. Frank was close to his doctor (he sometimes used the doctor’s office for business to avoid bugs), and he could have easily had his records falsified. Costello himself confided in author Peter Maas, explaining he suffered from nodes on his vocal chord and the treatment left him with throat damage.
“I went with the wrong doctor,” he joked.
Whatever the truth may be, that voice will forever be associated with the real Godfather.
Author Santha Rama Rau, remembered the boss’s voice having an amazing effect on people. When the two would share a cab she said the cab drivers, without turning around would recognize his voice, turn off the meter, and take them anywhere they wanted, knowing full well Frank would pull out a wad of bills much larger than any fare as a tip. She also remembers the drivers running red lights, making illegal turns, and speeding, with no fear of receiving a ticket when Frank was in the cab.
Costello was self conscious, not only of his voice, but also of his street-wise dialect. He struggled to improve his vocabulary with large words that sounded incongruous with his east Harlem diction. Try as he might, he was never able to lose the deeze‘ and dooze‘, dis‘ and dats‘ in his speech.
The video below, frustrating as it may be due to the frenetic editing, has more of Frank talking than any clip we have come across so far.
Background photograph taken 1952 by Alfred Eisenstaedt.
Courtesy of Life Images. Copyright Time Inc.