Back in the day, Donald J. Trump was known to study New York’s larger-than-life figures, swashbucklers like George Steinbrenner and Frank Sinatra, to develop the swagger he wanted to have as he rose in prominence. And then there was John Gotti, the crime boss.
“I know that they knew each other,” said his daughter Victoria Gotti, on a recent evening over home-cooked dinner at her mansion in Nassau County, N.Y. Light from a fireplace spilled onto the Tuscan columns and dark-wood-paneled walls of a rococo den, while a likeness of her father grinned inside the frame of a nearby oil painting.
With a dollop of rigatoni in veal Bolognese on her plate, Ms. Gotti, 56, formerly a columnist for The New York Post and David Pecker’s Star magazine, recalled a particular churning of the city’s tabloid underworld.
“I was working at The Post and Trump asked me to do a piece on the Atlantic City fiasco,” she said, referring to one of the future president’s failed casinos. “He was upset at how The Daily News perceived it and wanted to go on the record, so he called me and I went to his office. I’d seen him in passing and he always was very generous, he’d either pick up a bill or stop at the table. But then he said to me: ‘Your dad and I, we’ve been in each other’s company. We know a lot of the same people.’”
It isn’t hard to imagine that Mr. Trump was influenced by Mr. Gotti: brawler, loving father of five, master media manipulator and glitzy avatar of 1980s New York.
The two shared an attorney, Roy Cohn. The president has even imported gangster vernacular like “rat” and “slime ball” into the Oval Office. All the talk of loyalty oaths and “flipping” coming out of the West Wing have led many, including James Comey, the former F.B.I. director who helped bring down the mob, to conclude that the place is being run like the Ravenite Social Club.
When Ms. Gotti mentioned Mr. Trump’s comments to her father a month later, while visiting him in prison, “he looked very kind of perplexed,” she recalled, “like, ‘Why would anybody even bring that up,’” and to his daughter of all people. But her famously taciturn father “just kind of brushed over it, he never elaborated.”
Ms. Gotti found herself revisiting many memories of her father recently while at work on her first screenplay for a movie about her life. Producers assigned a screenwriter to work with her. He seemed right at first.
“He talked a really good game, and he said he was from Brooklyn,” Ms Gotti said. But she thought his script “read like an after-school special.”
She said she ditched his version, downloaded a script-writing program, fittingly called Drama Queen, and pumped out “My Father’s Daughter,” which aired on Lifetime last weekend. (Lifetime said the screenwriter, David Schneiderman, deserves the credit that he was given, and said that Ms. Gotti “wanted to do a pass to best capture her voice.” Through his agent, Mr. Schneiderman declined to comment.)
The project was initially called “More Than My Father’s Daughter,” until the words “More” and “Than” were whacked in later drafts. And that’s the way it often goes for John Gotti’s daughter.
“I know that the world wants to know mostly ‘My dad this, my dad that,’” Ms. Gotti said, “but I’m so anti-that.” Though she has cashed in on her famous and fear-inducing last name — “mobsploitation,” as The New York Times’s former critic Alessandra Stanley once put it — Ms. Gotti long practiced her own kind of omerta about the family business.
Her career as a columnist, author of pulpy whodunits and the star of “Growing Up Gotti,” a reality television show that was a primogenitor for “Jersey Shore” and “The Real Housewives,” was always detached from and unrelated to “the life,” as she refers to it. Not that the temptation to play the mafia princess didn’t exist.
Publishers were clamoring for a Gotti tell-all by the time her father’s funeral procession made it through Queens, from Ozone Park to Howard Beach. “I sat across from Harvey Weinstein at Bob De Niro’s place in TriBeCa,” said Ms. Gotti of a lunch at the Tribeca Grill, a former Miramax haunt. “I can’t tell you the millions I was offered. My agent was there, I thought he was going to pass out at the table when I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ (Through a representative, Mr. Weinstein denied having this meeting.)
“It’s so boring,” she said with some exasperation about the Cosa Nostra-related queries that have dogged her through her adult life. She is tired of people asking about money buried in her backyard, and if she never hears the theme music from “The Godfather” again, that would be O.K. But, mostly, she said, “I didn’t feel I had the right to tell someone else’s story.”
That changed in 2009 when her younger brother, John A. Gotti (known as Junior), faced a possible sentence of life in prison after charges of conspiracy to commit murder (among other crimes).
The son’s follow-up act as acting boss of the Gambino crime family was bumbling, yet nearly as bloodthirsty as that of Gotti père. After wiggling out of prosecutors’ grip three times, Junior was back in court and the family was falling apart.
The Gotti clan decided to mount a charm campaign with Victoria as messenger, in hopes of swaying the minds of jurors and the public. She would tell the bloody Oedipal drama in full.
“I wanted to explain everything that had never been explained before,” Ms. Gotti said, sweeping her platinum blond mane over black-clad shoulders as she cracked open a can of Coke. “I felt like I was doing something to save his life.”
“This Family of Mine,” Ms. Gotti’s sympathetic portrait of the Gotti brood in book form, was rushed out on the eve of Junior’s trial. It told of Gotti Senior’s early life: “the fact that his father threw him out in the street at 12 years old and said, ‘Don’t come home tonight unless you have something to contribute to the dinner table,’” his daughter said. “And my grandfather meant steal it.”
‘A Mother Who Cares’
In the end Junior walked free. And his sister acquired her own peculiar form of celebrity.
Her 2004 star turn in “Growing Up Gotti” was short-lived, though the reality show, draped in Rocawear and dripping in hair gel, remains a cult classic. The show’s theme song featured Lil’ Kim rapping over Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” It had as much to do with the mob as “The Osbournes” had to with heavy metal.
“The only way I would even sign on to the show was I had to have in my contract — I would not fool around, and they must have thought I was insane — but I would not allow the word ‘mob’ to even be used in the same premise as my show,” Ms. Gotti said. “I never used it, I didn’t feel that people should use it to me, or against me.”
It was a show about a woman raising three rowdy sons after divorcing her offscreen husband, Carmine Agnello, a “made” man who scraped a fortune from scrap-metal junkyards and firebombed those who got in his way.
“The best reality TV characters are bigger versions of ourselves living in more outlandish situations,” said Liz Gateley, the producer of some of the decade’s biggest reality TV hits (“Laguna Beach,” “Teen Mom”) and the former head of programming at Lifetime. “I think the reason people related to her and loved her on ‘Growing Up Gotti’ was because she was a single mother fighting with and for her teenage sons, and obviously she’s a walking character: the blond hair, the straight talk.”
Ms. Gateley added: “But underneath she’s a mother who cares, a fighter trying to make the best of the cards she was handed.”
Just as Ms. Gotti may have later inspired “Mob Wives,” on VH1, and made cameos on “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” her three sons were exemplars of what came to be known as the “gym, tan, laundry” lifestyle, popularized on “Jersey Shore.”
“I don’t know if I should be thanked for that or scolded beyond belief,” Ms. Gotti said, of her place in the pantheon of reality television, “because I know they call it ‘ratchet TV.’”
Not unrelatedly, MTV’s latest teen-dream scheme, “Made in Staten Island,” a show focused on mafia-adjacent youngsters, has incited local rage. That show’s executive producer is Karen Gravano, whose father is Salvatore (Sammy the Bull) Gravano, a former Gambino hit man turned government informant and mortal enemy of Gottis everywhere. (Ms. Gravano’s daughter is a star of the show.)
In 1992 it was Mr. Gravano’s nine-day testimony as the prosecution’s chief witness that secured Mr. Gotti’s life sentence. Mr. Gravano detailed Mr. Gotti’s role in murders including the assassination of Paul Castellano outside of Sparks Steak House.
There’s not exactly a rush to tune in to the new show in the Gotti household. “I saw one commercial where she said something like, ‘As my grandfather says, if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you a boss,’ and I looked over at my son,” Ms. Gotti said with raised eyebrows. She trailed off before adding: “God bless.”
‘Now It’s My Time’
Contrary to wiseguy lore, Ms. Gotti said she was never close with the man who betrayed her father. She met him only once, at her brother’s wedding. “I didn’t take to him at all,” she said. “My mother always said it to us, ‘There was just something about him.’ She said she would catch him staring at Dad when he didn’t think anybody was looking.”
Ms. Gotti, who said her primary income these days is from a number of commercial properties she owns in Queens, has plans for some counterprogramming. “We’re coming back to TV,” she said, refusing to share details other than that one plot point will be her quest to find conjugal bliss with “the next Mr. Gotti.”
After her divorce from Mr. Agnello, Ms. Gotti said she chose to stay single while raising her sons, who now help manage her real estate. “Young men don’t want their mom to date,” she said. “It’s a hard problem. But it’s now my time.”
In the meantime, channel surfing carries the risk of glimpsing at least one more Gotti family nemesis: Rudolph Giuliani, so effective at flipping mobsters during his time as United States Attorney for the Southern District that his office was nicknamed the “House of Pancakes,” is now a regular combatant on cable news, where he says things like “Even if he did do it, it wouldn’t be a crime.”
“It’s no secret that Dad wasn’t a fan of Giuliani’s,” Ms. Gotti said. Indeed, when the heads of the five families met in 1987 to vote on whether to murder Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Gotti voted in favor. (Fortunately for Mr. Giuliani, Vincent (the Chin) Gigante, of the Genovese crew, cast the deciding “no” vote.)
But were he alive today, Mr. Gotti might not reach for the remote as quickly as one would think. Once, during a prison visit near the end of his life, Ms. Gotti was shocked by something her father told her.
It was late 2001 and Mr. Giuliani, despite having withdrawn from his Senate race against Hillary Clinton the year before, was burnishing his national image after his widely applauded handling of 9/11. At that time, chatter about who might become the first African-American or female president caused Mr. Gotti to opine that Mr. Giuliani could rightfully become the first “Italian president.”
“I just thought, Wait, we’re not supposed to like him, right?” Ms. Gotti said. “I was a kid, a young adult, when he was prosecuting Dad. I always thought, you know, he’s the enemy.”
“But then he told us,” Ms. Gotti said, “‘Hey, if the Italians are known for nothing more, it was always to root for each other.’”