Karen Gravano Talks Sammy The Bull, John Gotti, Families of the Mafia
Self-proclaimed “Mob Daughter” Karen Gravano has seen her fair share of murder and mayhem as the daughter of infamous former Gambino family underboss turned government cooperator, Salvatore “Sammy The Bull” Gravano. Karen faced her own legal troubles when, shortly after giving birth to her daughter Karina in 2000, her entire family was arrested and charged with running an ecstasy ring in Arizona. Those charges ultimately resulted in her father doing twenty years in maximum security prison. In 2011 Kare Gravano decided to turn a lifetime of legal lemons into lemonade by going public with her own story. She starred for six seasons on the hit VH1 reality show, Mob Wives, and in 2012 wrote her bestselling memoir, Mob Daughter: The Mafia, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano and Me! (St. Martin’s Press).
Now in the second season of the MTV reality show, Families of the Mafia, which Gravano also produces, Karen and the Gravano family finally let viewers inside the complicated dynamic of three generations of a public family mired and mythologized by the legacy of organized crime in America.
Allison Kugel: What three major life events shaped the person you are today?
Karen Gravano: My family getting arrested in 2000, in Arizona. That definitely was a life changing experience, because I had just had a child. Me having my daughter was, of course, life changing. And for me, and when I wrote my book (Mob Daughter/St. Martin’s Press), because that is when my life came full circle and I was finally able to talk about everything I’d been through. I was also on a reality show, Mob Wives, at the time it came out. I really opened up about my experiences and things that I’d felt growing up, and things that I’ve seen.
Allison Kugel: In your 2012 book, Mob Daughter, you say when you were on Mob Wives, your dad, who was in prison at the time, was supportive, but he wasn’t really on board with that show. He didn’t like it. What’s different about Families of the Mafia, which he appears in?
Karen Gravano: Mob Wives, especially when it first came out, was the first of its kind, where we were actually saying the word out loud. In retrospect, a lot of that show was based off my father’s life and who he was. It was the first time we were really addressing the issues publicly, and all the arguing and bickering on that show was not really who I was as a person, like as a mob daughter, or my mother being a “mob wife.” Our life was just different than that. Even though the men in our lives went out of the house and they were criminals, whatever they chose to do outside the house, when you came home it was family oriented and traditional. I don’t think my father liked a lot of the arguing and the fighting on Mob Wives. To him it was petty. He said to me, “You coming back to New York is such a bigger presence than you having to argue or fight with women on a show. You have taken life by the horns, and came back home. You don’t have to prove you are on top.” But when you are caught up on a reality show and everybody has their opinion, it fuels its own fire. Families of The Mafia is a totally different direction. We’re actually digging deep into these different families and it’s a multigenerational story. My father is who he is, and he is able to tell his story on this show.
Allison Kugel: Did your dad being Sammy “The Bull” Gravano make it confusing to decipher right from wrong and good from bad growing up? Like, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys?
Karen Gravano: That’s an interesting question that I think I’m still trying to figure out the answer to, to this day. The way that I grew up in the neighborhoods and the culture I grew up in, the Mob was looked at like Hollywood movie stars. So, here were people praising them. You’re from New York, so you can understand. You go into certain neighborhoods and these men are like gods, right? They can do no wrong. So I never looked at my father as a bad guy. I never really sat down to try and understand what he was doing when he was outside of our house. And for me, I try to live my own life with integrity.
Allison Kugel: My grandfather was in WWII, in the Infantry Division, and his job was to kill the enemy. Of course, he played a pivotal role in liberated Europe from the Nazis. It’s a controversial question, but is it okay to kill a bad guy? Or is it never okay to kill? How do you differentiate these issues, because so many times in life you’re forced into this position where you have to do something bad in order to do something good. Obviously, The Mafia takes that concept to an extreme, but these are philosophical questions that make you stop in your tracks.
Karen Gravano: Well, the lines get blurred. All those men take an oath to that lifestyle that they understand. They willingly join that. You agree to kill, and you also understand that you can be killed, and all those men willingly take an oath to that lifestyle. The way my father described it is, at one time he was a soldier and went to Vietnam and fought for his country, which he believed in. And when he joined The Mob, he became a soldier in Cosa Nostra, and fought for what he believed in. Does that make it right? No. Killing is never the answer to anything. But the reality is, that’s what was required when he went to Vietnam, when he was fighting for his country, because he believed in it and protected it, the same way he believed in his oath and his life in Cosa Nostra. I don’t want to make this sound like a cliché, but they don’t kill innocent people. That’s not what they do. I always got questions, like, “Oh, was your boyfriend scared to date you?” As a father, if someone was being abusive towards me, he would give him the old dad talk, but he’s not going to go and try to take that person’s life unless he was a threat to me, and then any father goes there.
Allison Kugel: How did you convince these different families, especially the ones in witness protection, to be part of a reality television show (Families of the Mafia/MTV)?
Karen Gravano: There is that old myth of what witness protection really is. They have their story of their experiences within the program and what they went through. I do believe if they were still in hiding, they would not come out and appear on a reality show, so it didn’t really take a lot of convincing. I think that sometimes people just want to come out and tell their story for whatever reason. As far as the Cutolo family, I didn’t have a personal relationship with them. I knew of the father, William “Wild Bill” Cutolo because he was an underboss [for the Colombo family]. I knew of his story and I knew my father was close with him. When we reached out to him and started talking, they wanted to share their experiences. We’re not sharing Mob secrets and ceremonies. We are actually dealing with people who are at a place in their lives where they want to tell their story for whatever reason.
Allison Kugel: Since your father worked so closely with John Gotti, as a kid did you and your brother, Gerard, have any type of relationship with the Gotti kids?
Karen Gravano: I didn’t have much to do with them. There were times we went to some parties and we were in the same place. I didn’t really have one-on-one experiences with them until our fathers got arrested in 1990, when we would go to the MCC (Metropolitan Correctional Center) in lower Manhattan and visit, and we would see each other on those visits.
Allison Kugel: Is there bad blood to this day because of what happened?
Karen Gravano: I don’t have bad blood. I think our fathers came into this as partners and they will forever go out as partners. Yes, my father took the stand, but John Gotti put the whole entire Mob on Front Street, and he drew attention. So [John] is part of the downfall in my eyes, and I look at the Gotti kids as I look at myself. We all had these experiences and we all lost, so why hate each other? I can almost sit back and understand, but they don’t like when I speak the truth. The truth is, there were the Gotti tapes. John was going to betray my father. That is not something I’m making up. There have been numerous FBI agents that listened to those tapes and told those stories. I’m not condoning what my father did when he cooperated, but I’m not condoning what John did. My father was extremely loyal to him. When it came time to go to trial and those tapes were presented as evidence where John was bashing my father on multiple tapes, my father said, “Listen, I have to defend myself. I’m going to sever the case. I have to say [John] is lying on these tapes.” John’s answer to that was, “What will my public think?” He was basically going to use those tapes in his own defense. John was going to throw my father under the bus to do life in prison, before my father took the stand and John got life in prison. The whole situation is just screwed up, and I feel like, generations later, why have any more hatred? But I’m not going to sit back and not say the truth. If they can’t handle the truth, that’s on them.
Allison Kugel: In Season 2 of Families of the Mafia, it looks like your daughter, Karina, is struggling with not wanting to be in the shadow of the Gravano name and legacy.
Karen Gravano: I think she feels like this luggage has been dragged around forever, and people always refer to her as Karen Gravano’s daughter or Sammy “The Bull” Gravano’s granddaughter. She wants to have her own identity and build her own path. Karina has seen the downside of this lifestyle, visiting her father in prison, her grandfather in prison, and she doesn’t want that for her life. She has done so much in her life and she’s only 22 years old. She’s in finance and she’s extremely successful. She’s like, “When people talk about me, I get who my family is and I love them, but what about some of the things I’ve done and worked to do at this point?”
Allison Kugel: This show also highlights your relationship with a man named Xavier Williams, who is incarcerated. We’ve all heard these stories where people get married to inmates, and women who write to men in prison, and you always go, “Why?!” So I have to ask you, why?
Karen Gravano: Xavier is someone who I knew before he got incarcerated. We were friends and then he went to prison and we stayed in contact. When I was going through my experiences with the ecstasy stuff in Arizona (Karen and her family were arrested in 2000, and charged with being part of an ecstasy drug ring) and the prosecutors would lie and people would change their stories to get less time… listen, I’m not sitting here saying my father didn’t do anything wrong, but what he did in Arizona, he probably should have goten 5 years. Because he’s “Sammy The Bull” he got 20 years. I started really looking into Xavier’s case. I started to understand mass incarceration and the war on drugs. I started reading cases and realizing there were just such harsh prison sentences that were given to some of these individuals, like life without parole, where other people who killed people were able to come home. I reached out to Xavier and started working with him on the case, and I just love him. I feel like I’m fighting for this man’s life and his integrity, and who he is as an individual allows me to love him. If he comes out of prison, yes, I would be down to go to City Hall and get married, because he is definitely somebody that I love. But the reality is, first, front and center, is fighting for his freedom.
Allison Kugel: Do you have a relationship with your former Mob Wives cast members?
Karen Gravano: We fought for six seasons, whether we were friends or not friends (laugh). I’m only kidding! We all knew each other coming into the show and that is what made Mob Wives so unique, because we all did have a history. There are a few of them that I talk to. The ones I didn’t get along with on the show I don’t speak to, and haven’t seen since the show has ended. Ramona [Rizzo], she is my cousin and she’s always someone who’s going to be in my life. I also talk to Carla [Facciolo] and Marissa [Fiore].
Allison Kugel: What do you think of your dad’s podcast and YouTube channel?
Karen Gravano: Listen, I know my father, so I know the way he tells stories. I’ve heard these stories so many times throughout my life that I felt like he needed to tell them. He is so detailed when he is explaining it, and the one thing about him, whether you like him or don’t like him, he is going to say it how it is. I definitely support him in it, and sometimes I think, “What is he going to say next (laugh)?!” The first episode of his podcast brought back a lot of emotions. The way he did it, by not just telling his story, but the FBI agent who was on the case giving his perspective on the story as well. I never heard someone else’s perspective on how it all went down. To hear it together from the both of them, it was done in an amazing way, and very interesting to me.
Allison Kugel: If you could travel back in time and alter a famous historical event, where would you go and what would you attempt to change?
Karen Gravano: At this particular time, I would say this whole pandemic. I wish this is something that never happened, and I wish I could change the last year of people’s lives. People definitely evolved through it, but we are still in a phase where we don’t know the outcome. If you asked me this question a couple of years ago, I would have changed what happened between my father and John Gotti, but then again, that made me who I am. It’s why I’m here today. As far as anything else in history, those are all things that happen that make us progress in life, and even if it’s a mistake, you have to progress one way or another.
Allison Kugel: What do you think you came into this life as Karen Gravano to learn, and what do you think you came here to teach?
Karen Gavano: I had to learn how to accept myself for who I am, and I think that is a part of what I’m here to teach people. I grew up under the shadows of my father and of his lifestyle. Because people judged him, they automatically judged me. It made me act out or do things that probably were out of my character, because I just wanted to gain acceptance. Now, stepping back and being older, I have a 22 year old daughter that has a lot of friends around her, and they call it their therapy sessions at Karen’s house. She brings all of the girls over. I think the biggest thing I can tell someone is just to be comfortable in your own skin. Nobody is perfect. We are all going to make mistakes, but you have to try and learn from those mistakes. I think I’m a living example of a person that definitely made some mistakes along the way, but who tried to get up and evolve. Every time I fall down, I pick myself back up, whether that is to teach my daughter to be better, or someone else out there.
Allison Kugel: What’s next for you?
Karen Gavano: I’m working on a couple of projects, now, that I’m talking to our team about. My daughter is building a beauty brand, and that’s always been my love. I’ve been an esthetician my whole life. I’m working on projects with my daughter, as well as developing some new shows. I have people I’m currently talking to that I think have amazing stories that would be great to follow, that are not mafia related. I don’t want to be pigeonholed into just that genre. I think everyone has a story to tell.