Anna Genovese’s life examined in ‘Mob Queens’ podcast, HBO series

Anna Genovese’s life examined in ‘Mob Queens’ podcast, HBO series

Genovese saga is one of several Mob-related television series in production

Anna Genovese, estranged wife of Mafia boss Vito Genovese, after being questioned by a Mercer County, New Jersey, grand jury. The grand jury asked her about eight New Jersey men, including her husband, who attended a Mob summit in Apalachin, New York, on December 17, 1957. Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo

Being married to violent Mafia boss Vito Genovese, according to wife Anna Genovese in a court filing, “endangered her health and made her life extremely wretched,” the New York Times reported in 1952.

This high-profile divorce case resulted in explosive testimony from Anna Genovese regarding her husband’s involvement in organized crime. It also brought her name to the forefront. Mob wives customarily did not step boldly forward with such revelations.

Anna Genovese, standing in an office in Trenton, New Jersey, on December 12, 1957, revealed details of her Mafia boss husband’s criminal activities during divorce proceedings in the early 1950s. Her story has been memorialized in a popular podcast that is being developed into an HBO series. AP Photo

By midcentury, Anna Genovese, in addition to making news regarding her marriage to Vito, had been active on the New York scene, running nightclubs. She died in 1982 at age 77 from a stroke.

Nearly four decades after her death, Anna Genovese is the subject of an HBO limited series, Mob Queens, now in production, with Ruth Wilson set to appear in the lead role.

The television series is one of at least two current projects about women in the Mob. The other, Mafia Mamma, is expected to begin filming in Italy next spring. Starring Toni Collette, Mafia Mamma will follow a suburban U.S. woman who inherits the syndicate operation her grandfather once ran.

As these projects are going into development, two other major Mafia productions, one focusing on a fictional crime family and the other on the real-life Mafia in Sicily, were released in the second half of 2021.

In the fall, The Many Saints of Newark, came out to a lot of fanfare, but mixed reviews. The prequel movie focuses on characters from the popular HBO series The Sopranos during their younger years. The television series features James Gandolfini, who later died of a heart attack at age 51, as fictional New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano. In the prequel, Gandolfini’s son, Michael, plays a young Tony Soprano.

Around the same time, a true-crime series, Vendetta: Truth, Lies and the Mafia, premiered on Netflix, and is still available to subscribers. In six episodes, Vendetta examines a feud between a television reporter and judge in Sicily, both labeling themselves as “anti-Mafia,” but both entangled in apparent ethical missteps that led to dramatic courtroom conclusions for each.

Writing in the Guardian, film critic Stuart Heritage says directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, and Sopranos’ creator David Chase, have left the public with an impression that the Mafia is “something that happened long ago and far away from us.”

However, Vendetta shows that the Mafia is still powerful, Heritage notes. The Netflix series begins during the pre-coronavirus years and ends with people wearing face coverings in court.

“The most chilling aspect of Vendetta is that it underlines how virulent (the Mafia) still is – and how inescapable,” Heritage writes.

‘An opportunist’

Vito Genovese’s role in the Mafia has seen a revival recently, not just with the Mob Queens podcast and upcoming HBO series, but also in print.

Vito Genovese, New York crime family boss, spent the final years of his life in prison after being convicted of narcotics trafficking. This image was taken in 1959. Library of Congress

Last spring, Anthony M. DeStefano, an author and reporter for New York’s Newsday, released The Deadly Don: Vito Genovese, Mafia Boss, a nonfiction book about the Italian-American don.

Rising through the New York underworld with associates such as Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Genovese made his way to the top by violent means and through involvement in illegal enterprises. The Genovese crime family still bears his name

“Vito was an opportunist,” DeStefano said in June during a Mob Museum virtual discussion about the book.

That opportunistic instinct paid off. Thomas Dewey, a prosecutor in New York before becoming governor, called Genovese the “king of the rackets in the United States.”

Mob life

The 12-part podcast on Anna Genovese, also titled Mob Queens, was released in 2019, and is produced and narrated by Jessica Bendinger and Michael Seligman.

The two producers first ran across Anna Genovese’s story while researching 1950s New York gay nightlife. As the pair began to learn more about her, they came to understand that she was “more complicated than they’d hoped,” the podcast website states. “Anna Genovese is a New York drag club maven, self-styled entrepreneur and badass Mob wife.”

The HBO series, based on the podcast, is being written by Lena Dunham, a filmmaker, actor and writer, and Dennis Lehane, author of several best-selling novels, including Mystic River, Shutter Island and Gone Baby Gone.

As the podcast indicates, more than a few aspects of the Genoveses’ lives have been shrouded in mystery. Even the circumstances surrounding Anna’s Depression-era marriage to Vito have been controversial.

After Vito’s first wife died of tuberculosis in 1931, “he fell in love with a married cousin, Anna Vernitico,” according to Selwyn Raab in his book Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires.

According to Raab, a former New York Times investigative reporter, it was thought that Vito might have had Anna’s husband strangled to death so he could marry her. Others dispute that claim.

Narcotics conviction

Decades later, during divorce proceedings, Anna Genovese generated news by publicly revealing her husband’s criminal activities.

In a New Jersey Superior Court, she said he brought in $40,000 a week from illegal gambling, narcotics trafficking, and more, including control of labor rackets on the New York waterfront. In today’s money, that would be more than $414,000 per week. 

In the end, her lawsuit in the divorce case, and his countersuit, were dropped. From that point on, their separate lives, sometimes intersecting, went through highs and lows.

In 1959 Vito Genovese was convicted on a narcotics charge and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He would not come out alive. At age 71, Genovese died of a heart ailment in the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri.

Vito’s death occurred in 1969 on Valentine’s Day. After Anna died 13 years later at the start of a new year, her remains were placed in the Genovese family vault next to Vito’s in Saint John Cemetery in Queens, New York.

“She would spend the rest of time with the crime boss she once told the world she feared but who in the end still cared deeply about her,” DeStefano wrote.

Larry Henry is a veteran print and broadcast journalist. He served as press secretary for Nevada Governor Bob Miller, and was political editor at the Las Vegas Sun and managing editor at KFSM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Northwest Arkansas. The Mob in Pop Culture blog appears monthly.