As gangster-kingpins went, Charles "Lucky" Luciano was hardly a thug with a heart of gold. By what is said to be his own admission, in a new and suddenly controversial biography, the late Luciano was involved in white slavery, labor racketeering and narcotics. Unlike the movie Godfathers who agonize over the ordering of a "hit," Luciano regarded killing in a somewhat more casual manner—as he once put it, like "some bank tearin' down an old buildin'."

Luciano was born Salvatore Lucania in 1897 in Sicily, where his father worked in a sulphur mine. When he was 9 the family emigrated to New York, where the tough youngster first learned about street theft and, later, adolescent protection gangs. He was 14 when he served his first term, a four-month stretch in Brooklyn's Truant School. By the 1920s he was established as a gangland chieftain, and by the '30s one of crime's overlords. Curiously, his "family" of mobsters were his only kin; although he enjoyed the company of women and kept several mistresses during his lifetime, he never married. He indulged himself with delicatessen food and horse racing and spent most of his time trying to keep a step ahead of the law.

In 1936 a bright and eager special prosecutor named Thomas Dewey obtained a multiple-count conviction against Luciano, proclaiming him the "greatest gangster in America." Luciano rather liked the phrase but was less enthusiastic about his 30-to 50-year sentence to Sing Sing. Ironically, 10 years later Dewey, then governor of New York, commuted Luciano's sentence—in part, it was said, because of the gangster's influence, exerted from behind bars, in encouraging Italian resistance against the Germans during World War II. Luciano was deported to Italy, where he was allowed to settle, although without much enthusiasm from officials. He was ordered out of Rome periodically, and in 1954 the city of Naples declared him a "social menace," banning him from race tracks and nightclubs.

Whatever Luciano lacked in good citizenship, he at least had a keen sense of a marketable story, and in his enforced retirement he tried to interest various filmmakers in a movie biography. At one point he even volunteered to star in it himself, although later, in 1959, while talking with producer Martin A. Gosch, Luciano suggested perhaps Cary Grant might be right for the role. (Gosch thought Dean Martin might be better.) The two men decided to collaborate on Luciano's film idea, only to run into opposition from some of Luciano's still-active colleagues, who were not nearly as anxious as Lucky for the publicity. Undaunted, according to Gosch, Luciano made a book deal with him: If the filmmaker would promise to postpone publication for 10 years after Luciano's death, the gangster would give him his complete cooperation on a biography. Gosch said he agreed, and for the next 11 months Luciano poured out his life story. In 1962, while talking with Gosch, Luciano collapsed and died of a massive heart attack.

The interviews were stashed in a vault until 1972, Gosch said, as per agreement, at which time the producer hired writer Richard Hammer to help put them into book form. By 1973 a manuscript was virtually completed and sold to Little, Brown, the Boston publishers, whereupon Gosch himself died of a heart attack. Inexplicably, Gosch's widow destroyed most of the notes and, accordingly, a squabble has arisen over the legitimacy of the book. Hammer and Little, Brown contend the book is as advertised, an authorized biography. Detractors point out that certain portions of the book are at odds with the facts (a club opening Luciano claims he attended, for example, didn't take place until after the mobster was in prison). A literary canard? Or a literary coup? Luciano, dead 13 years, obviously is in no position to clear up the matter. Even if he were, it seems likely that the old gangster would have much preferred the confusion and, of course, the notoriety.