Rita Gigante on her first birthday in her father’s arms
“He controlled everything,” says Rita, now 46. “Even if he didn’t do all the
horrible things himself, he directly ordered others to do them.” He
certainly ordered the murder of his rival, the head of the Gambino crime
family, John Gotti, in 1986. The attempt failed, though when Gotti was
jailed six years later Vincent became recognised as the most powerful crime
boss in America.
But although his reputation on the streets was fearsome, at home Vincent’s
“business matters” were shrouded in secrecy, and until she was 16 Rita had
no idea that her father was in the Mafia – let alone its most powerful
Even when Vincent was jailed for five years in the 1960s, the children were
never told the truth; instead they were led to believe that their father was
away, serving in the army. “When you grow up being told, ‘Don’t ask
questions,’ you really learn not to,” Rita says with a shrug.
Now, eight years after Vincent’s death aged 77, Rita is finally able to talk
about him, her family and childhood, and this week her memoir, The
Godfather’s Daughter, will be published in Britain.
On a stormy summer afternoon, in the height of hurricane season, I cross the
George Washington Bridge, linking New York City to New Jersey, to meet Rita
in the leafy suburb of Tappan, only a mile and a half from her childhood
home and where her father was once accused of keeping the entire five-man
police force on his payroll. There’s a reason The Sopranos was set
Vincent ‘the Chin’ Gigante as a teenage boxer.
Today Rita lives in a modest but lovingly decorated house with Bobbi
Sterchele, her partner of six years and wife of just six weeks. To add
another layer of secrecy to her youth, Rita knew she was gay from the age of
12, but kept her sexuality hidden until her twenties for fear of what her
father – and the rest of her devout Italian-Catholic family and community –
would say. The couple also live with Bobbi’s 19-year-old son, Joey.
Rita and Bobbi greet me together at the front door; Rita is small and slight
with short, curly dark hair, her face make-up-free, while Bobbi is blonde
and carefully groomed, with thick rows of false eyelashes and bright-red
fingernails. Behind them trails Angel, their fluffy white three-legged
mongrel, a refugee from the Chilean earthquake, who was rescued by a friend.
Both are gentle and solicitous, and it comes as no surprise to learn that
Bobbi is a nurse and that Rita now works as a “healer”, helping others work
through their emotional and spiritual difficulties using reiki, massage
therapy and readings.
Although these days her accent is pure “Noo Joisey”, Rita was born across the
Hudson River and for the first year and a half of her life lived with her
parents, Vincent and Olympia, her four older siblings, her grandmother and
two German shepherd dogs in a cramped four-room apartment in the West
When her father moved them out to New Jersey, the explanation given was that
he wanted more space and a better quality of life for his family. In
reality, Olympia ran the new house alone while Vincent stayed behind in the
city, living with his mother – and running the nation’s most powerful
organised crime syndicate. “Looking back, I am certain it was best for me,
growing up out here away from all of that,” Rita says.
The youngest of the family by 10 years, Rita has some fond memories of her
father. “I remember sitting on his lap, and how he’d rub my back to help me
get to sleep. And I remember him dancing in the lounge to Elvis, who he
loved.” He also worshipped Marlon Brando, she says, in particular his turn
as Vito Corleone in The Godfather.
Rita with her parents at a meal after her confirmation
While her upbringing was comfortable, Rita was far from being the Mob princess
of legend, club-hopping across the city, dripping in diamonds and wrapped in
furs. There were no large cars, exotic holidays or other gaudy symbols of
“My parents both came from very poor Italian-immigrant families, so were
conscious and careful with money. My mother still saves paper towels to
reuse them; I find them in her handbag,” says Rita.
The only hint of ill-gotten gains came at Christmas, when Vincent would give
out gifts of tightly rolled wads of cash, secured with a rubber band. At the
time, Rita assumed that it was entirely normal. Looking back, she says, it
was one of many clues as to her father’s true identity. Throughout her
childhood, there were plenty of odd events and strange behaviours that never
quite added up.
For example, during visits to her grandmother’s apartment – which Rita called
The Dungeon because heavy curtains blocked the view into every window –
different men would come and go (Big Dom, Skinny Dom, Domenick the Tailor,
Jerry Bulldog) but everyone would whisper and the radio was always turned
Vincent himself rarely spoke, preferring to write notes to the men, even when
they were sitting right by him, and he refused to talk on the telephone. It
was only years later, after learning the truth about her father’s Mafia
connections, that Rita realised that all this was designed to evade police
Similarly, when Rita asked why her father always wore pyjamas and didn’t go
out to work, she was told he was ill. “If anyone asks, Daddy is sick,” she
was ordered by her mother and sisters. In fact, Vincent’s “illness” was an
elaborate cover – if he ever stood trial, his plan was to claim he was
mentally ill and thus avoid jail.
He went to extraordinary lengths to convince the authorities that he was
unwell, conning doctors into diagnosing him as psychotic and a paranoid
schizophrenic, and enlisting his children to hold his arm as he played the
deranged outpatient who would talk to parking meters on his walks around the
neighbourhood. He even went as far as arranging sporadic stays in a mental
hospital. All of this earned him the nickname The Oddfather in the tabloid
Vincent and Olympia with Vincent’s mother in ‘the Dungeon’
When Rita discovered the truth – that he wasn’t ill at all – she was
infuriated. “To see him faking it, I was beside myself,” she says now,
shaking her head. “I just felt like he was making a mockery of this
There were other suggestions, unspoken but detectable, even to his children,
that he wielded real power and influence. Rita became aware that when she
and her mother parked the car near her grandmother’s apartment they never
had to queue and pay, as everyone else did. On special occasions, when
Vincent took the whole family out to eat – including spouses and
grandchildren – they never needed a reservation, even on Christmas Day.
And when an elderly Italian crossing guard touched a young Rita
inappropriately, her mother made her swear not to tell Vincent. Tearful and
confused, Rita found this hugely unfair. “Daddy should do something to him,”
she thought, not realising that it was the scale and severity of Vincent’s
reaction that her mother feared.
When she was 16 the whispers about her being a “Mafia princess” became too
loud for Rita to ignore. She demanded that a family friend tell her the
truth. And while the facts explained some of her father’s behaviour, other,
larger concepts were impossible to process.
“I didn’t even know how to begin to deal with the fact that he was a murderer,
and all the horrifying, illegal things that he was involved with to gain
money and the power,” she says. “It took me an awfully long time to really
work all that out.”
For the next years the stress of having to keep her father’s identity secret
manifested itself in real physical and psychological symptoms, including
crippling stomach conditions, anxiety, panic attacks, depression and
“The OCD was definitely a part of trying to make things normal, trying to get
some control, because everything felt so out of control, and I never really
felt safe,” she says. Although she now knew about her father’s business,
further secrets were yet to be revealed.
When Rita was in her early twenties, her mother explained that Vincent had a
family in Manhattan whom he supported. More pieces of the puzzle fell into
place, from her mother’s bouts of depression to the decision to ship the
family off to New Jersey.
Rita with Bobbi last year
In 1990 all the secrecy and theatrics finally came to an end when Vincent was
arrested and charged with racketeering and murder. A judge rejected his
mental-health plea and in 1997 he stood trial. To add to the drama of the
proceedings, it was in court that Rita first met her two half-sisters and
The half-siblings made efforts to get to know one another, but when Vincent
was found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in prison, the embryonic
relationships soon broke down. “They were very protective of him, and were
angry that I didn’t go to visit him,” Rita says. “But I found it easier to
write to him in prison. I didn’t want to see him in a place like that.”
Ten years later, in 2007, Vincent died in prison and Rita felt an overwhelming
mix of emotions: grief and shock, but also enormous relief – for the whole
“It was a huge adjustment, but it was a shift that my mother needed, the whole
family needed, because they didn’t know how to say no to him, they didn’t
know how to be their own person,” she says. Olympia, now 84, has been
enjoying a new sense of freedom, even while mourning her husband.
Rita says she has a better relationship with her father now than when he was
alive; as a spiritual healer, she believes she has communicated with him.
But her decision to write a book, six years after her father’s death, was
controversial within the family. Her sisters understood her motivation: not
simply to help sift and settle her own, highly personal story, but also to
help others going through similar difficulties. “Some people relate to the
anxiety, others relate to the OCD; people who have lost someone close to
them after years of conflict, people who have had two families…” she says.
Her brothers and half-siblings, however, vehemently opposed it. “They simply
saw it as a betrayal, that I was airing my dirty laundry in public,” she
sighs, as Bobbi slides in beside her on the sofa, and squeezes her hand
Her mother fully supports Rita, but has not read the book herself. “I’m happy
about that – she doesn’t need to rehash it all, at this stage,” says Rita.
“But she sees other people’s reactions to it, and she knows it has a happy
“The Godfather’s Daughter”, by Rita Gigante and Natasha Stoynoff, is
published by Hay House, £13.99