A Notorious Father, a Marriage Gone Wrong and a Whole Lot of Loss: Inside Victoria Gotti’s Life in Her Own Words

Victoria Gotti, My Father's Daughter

Lifetime

Victoria Gotti is setting the record straight. Again.

A decade after the daughter of the infamous mob boss John Gotti put paper to pen to tell her family’s story as she saw it in her 2009 memoir This Family of Mine: What It Was Like Growing Up Gotti, she’s gotten the chance to see the story come to life on the small screen with the Lifetime Original Movie Victoria Gotti: My Father’s Daughter, which she both executive-produced and served as on-screen narrator.

And in both instances, the story that Gotti has sought to tell is one that flies in the face of the public’s perception of her and her family. If you think being the daughter of a made man-turned-boss of New York City’s Gambino crime family meant she was living like royalty, well, she’d like to dispel you of that notion. 

Rather, the life that Gotti presents is one with a hard-scrabble upbringing that’s marked with several tragedies along the way. So, that mob princess image you’ve got of her? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Whether she liked it or not, the moment that Gotti was born in 1962 saw her immediately ensconced in a life of crime. As she explains in the film, her father John wasn’t present when her mother, also named Victoria, went into labor and birthed their second daughter. (Their first, Angel, had arrived one year earlier.) And when he did show up at the hospital, he wasn’t exactly intent on handling the whole process the traditional way.

“I’ve told this story a million times,” Gotti explained. “About how my father stole me from the hospital since they didn’t have money to pay the bill. It sets my father up as a noble criminal, a Robin Hood. I often joke that stealing me from the hospital was the most lucrative heist of Dad’s life, but looking back on all of it, all I can think of is, ‘Kid, you were royally screwed.'”

Despite attempts at going legit, and despite the arrival of three more children—sons John Jr., Frank, and Peter—Gotti’s father couldn’t stay resist the allure of the life of crime. And that meant that Dad wasn’t around that much. By 1968, he’d been imprisoned three times. It also meant that life in the Gotti home for those he’d repeatedly left behind was challenging, to say the least.

“Now, I could describe it in a more intellectual manner and know what it was: hard,” Gotti told E! News in an interview to promote the Lifetime film. “Then, I didn’t. We were poor, we grew up most of my childhood without my father. My mother was holding down five children and struggling.”

It wasn’t all bad, though. The benefits of a big family meant that she had built-in best friends. “We loved each other and we were like, my siblings and I, we were our best friends,” she told us. “We had friends on the block and all of that. Mom was strict. But we were loved, we knew we were loved. And even the visits to see dad, though not as many as we would’ve liked, we felt secure. We were told how much we were loved. I guess I didn’t have much to compare it to.”

Being poor meant that Gotti and her siblings had to be resourceful when it came to having fun. “It was the biggest deal when somebody on the block got a brand-new appliance for their home,” she revealed. “We waited with bated breath until that truck pulled away and the put the box outside. That was our new fort. Or, when we got done with the fort playhouse…then we would use it to all get in and roll down the block. So, we had fun.”

As Gotti explained, though, the unusual circumstances surrounding her father’s chosen line of work and its consequences certainly took its toll on his young daughter. “I know now what made me a little bit neurotic, what made me painfully shy, what made me overly anxious as a kid into a teenager. I know now why I was always so quiet in a room with strangers, never let anybody in that wasn’t someone i was very accustomed to,” she explained. “And then everything else going on around me—Dad used to joke I was five going on 55. I was very perceptive.”

John Gotti

Ron Galella/WireImage

When her father was “away” while she and siblings were young, the adults in the room went to great lengths to keep Gotti and her siblings in the dark about what was actually happening, but that perceptiveness always kept her questioning. “When you’re being told over and over that this is what dad does for a living and you’re going to a big prison to visit someone that you’re told is building this facility,” she told us, explaining the cover story for her dad’s disappearances. “As a child, I remember looking around one day on one visit, and I had to be no more than five or six…and I happened to look up at this big tower and I’d never see it before all those visits prior. I don’t think any of us did. And I saw this man, and it was kind of a weird moment…and he was by the top of the tower window, and he had this huge big gun that came out. It wasn’t just like a shotgun or a rifle, it was a big gun. And I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that’s scary. Why would anybody have that at my father’s work?'”

“That whole visit, my dad would try to talk to me. I was doubting things that were being told to me. Maybe I got a little angry and my way of showing it was quiet. I just grew quiet. I didn’t speak, but I remember asking him twice about that man,” she continued. But his answer, that the man was just protecting the work going on, combined with the size of the gun worked together to begin to open the young girl’s eyes. “Things started to kind of add up and I grew, I think, more and more into myself.”

By 1972, Gotti’s father was allowed to return home on parole, though that didn’t mean he was spending all his time at home. “He had business to attend to—with his other family,” she explained in the film. By that time, John was an acting capo in the Gambino family’s Bergin Hunt and Fish Club crew, spending a lot of time winning over underboss Aniello “Neil” Dellacroce at the Ravenite Social Club in Little Italy, his headquarters. “My mother was hoping that after he got out, they’d be able to spend time together as a couple. My father was never home, except to eat and sleep. And after a while, it started to take its toll on mom.” So much so that she once stabbed her husband as Gotti watched.

Her father’s rising in the ranks meant that life was getting a little bit nicer. Quickly, John moved his family out of Brooklyn. “For my siblings and me, moving to Howard Beach was like moving to Beverly Hills,” Gotti said in the film. “Our modest, four-bedroom home seemed like a mansion. It was clear that we had left poverty behind. 

However, as she explained, “A nicer neighborhood didn’t mean an easier life.” John Jr. was shipped off to the New York Military Academy for his behavior and, soon, John was on the run again after a botched attempt at abducting another gangster in retaliation for a Gambino family murder. “Mom was left cleaning up the mess.”

“After a year of evading the authorities, my father was arrested in a bar in Queens. Ironically, he had come back to defend a friend who turned out to be an informant. I think he was tired of hiding anyway,” Gotti said. “After the trial and Dad went away, he officially earned his bones, a term used when a man becomes a wiseguy. To me, it was crushing, but I could still hear his voice. ‘You only get so many tears in life. And don’t waste them all up.'”

Identified by eyewitness and a police insider, John struck a plea bargain and received a four-year sentence for attempted manslaughter. He was released by summer 1977 after only two years. “And when he came back, it was a very different house,” Gotti explained. “His baby girls weren’t babies anymore.”

“Being John Gotti’s daughter was a mixed bag and anger towards my father started to fester. It only grew over the next few years. Don’t get me wrong. Being John Gotti’s daughter had perks that most people would relish,” she said in the film, as her driver’s test is depicted, with the test proctor passing her simply out of fear once he sees her last name. “Me? I just wanted to be normal.”

So, when Carmine Agnello entered her life, that perfect storm festering anger and a desire to be normal made him the ideal love interest. He wasn’t afraid of her father. And her father was adamantly against him. Why was he so against it? “I remember looking at my father dead on and saying, ‘Dad, I don’t know why you’re so—what is it about you that you’re so against him? He so reminds me of you,'” she said in the film. “And I thought that was a compliment. Wow. My father just blew up.”

So, he tried to woo his daughter with the promise of a better life, taking her for a night out at the Ravenite to give her a taste of a world that he felt certain Carmine could never provide for her. “it was such a softer side of my father that I had never really witnessed before. We had such a wonderful time. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that night,” she said. “But there was still that intrigue, that whatever that pulled me to Carmine.”

By 1980, though, her secret relationship with Carmine and the mounting evidence that he might be more “rough around the edges” than she’d have preferred paled in comparison to the tragedy that rocked the Gotti family. On March 18 of that year, while he was riding a family friend’s minibike, her little brother Frankie was run over and killed. He was only 12.

“Doctors were too afraid to tell my mother that Frankie had died. Dad had to tell her. He later revealed it was the hardest thing he’d ever had to do ever,” Gotti explained in the film. “To further complicate matters, the man that ran over my brother was our neighbor, John Favara.”

The loss of one of her beloved children, understandably, broke Gotti’s mother Victoria. She attempted suicide three times, was unable to take care of the house (forcing Gotti to step up in her place), and even tried to attack Favara with a baseball bat out of grief. “It was just something that was incomprehensible, I think, to my mother,” she explained. “She’d walk around nights thinking he was still alive. My mother didn’t get better, so my father took her to Florida to see her family for a couple of weeks. By the time Mom got back, people had started asking questions.”

It turned out that, while the Gottis were away, Favara was abducted and presumed murdered. While no one could ever prove it, the presumption was that Gotti’s father ordered the hit.

“What happened to John Favara is still a mystery, but most people assume he’s dead,” Gotti said. “Do I feel bad about it? If I’m being honest, no. After Frankie’s death, my mother was never the same. Actually, nothing was.”

In their time of grief, John began to come around on the idea of his daughter marrying Carmine. Not because he suddenly believed the guy was worthy of his little girl, but something a bit more practical. “Later I learned Dad had changed his mind because he thought we’d elope and he’d never see me again,” Gotti explained. “That was his worst fear. I never said that to anyone. Not even Carmine.”

His daughter’s mounting health issues—which previously simply manifested as anxiety attacks—certainly played a part. Before Gotti and Carmine could tie the knot, trips to the emergency room became more frequent. Eventually, doctors discovered she had severe dysplasia, the presence of cells of an abnormal type within a tissue that may signify a stage preceding the development of cancer, and were recommending a full hysterectomy. 

“Family meant everything to my father. Everything else, he could control with money and power. But those things might not be able to help him now and that really scared him,” Gotti explained. “Hearing the doctor tell me that I might need a hysterectomy by age 25, I was suddenly in a rush to start my family.”

They were wed in 1984 at a ceremony that truly opened up Gotti’s eyes. Up until that point, she’d avoided or written off stories about her father’s criminal ways in the press. But the event that had people “actually selling their plus-one tickets,” as she claimed in the film, felt like irrefutable proof. 

“My wedding did it for me. It really did it for me because I remember that day, and I remember thinking, ‘Why are there so many people lining the streets? Why are there so many people outside this church where it was standing room only?’ I wanted a Christmas wedding, so it would’ve been a cold day. We wound up having a nice day, but I’m saying, it would’ve been. It was in December. And there were so many people,” she told us. “The wedding even, thousands of people. And I went, ‘Wow.’ And then all of these singers, performers coming out and everybody paying homage to Dad. I just remember being a very weary bride that night and my dad would say, ‘Come stand next to me. Get your husband. Come stand here.’ Most of the night, that’s what we did. And we were greeting people I’d never laid eyes on before. Ever…After that, there was no denying. The stories were there all the time, constantly.”

She couldn’t concern herself too much with whatever her father was up to, though. Not after her disaster of a honeymoon in Las Vegas. “I was understandably a little nervous because I had never slept away from my parents’ house before,” she said in the film. And Carmine gambling away $30,000 on the first night and losing his temper when chastised about it certainly didn’t help matters. 

“What I didn’t know was Carmine suffered from manic depression,” she revealed. “I knew before our honeymoon that being married to Carmine wasn’t going to be a walk in the park, but I was determined to prove Daddy wrong. I was a stubborn woman. My father’s daughter.”

However, the honeymoon behavior was enough for her to throw in the towel—until, that is, another trip to the emergency room revealed that she was pregnant and had a congenital heart defect, making the pregnancy high-risk. “That night, I honestly was going to tell my father that he was right about Carmine, but the idea of divorce went right out the window with the news of a baby on the way,” she explained.

In 1985, tragedy struck the Gotti family again when baby Justine arrived stillborn. “You know, when you bury a child, a daughter, it’s so hard. It’s just so hard. You don’t understand why you’ve grown this child and then you go home with no prize,” Gotti said. “You don’t know what went wrong because it happened so quickly. You adjust to it. You never forget it. Every May, I celebrate her birthday. You always think God has this plan…Everybody’s always under the guise that, you know, time heals all wounds.” 

To help his wife heal, Carmine took Gotti away and by the time they returned, she was pregnant yet again. And it was then that the natural brunette made a major change and developed what’s become her signature look. She went blonde. 

As she was, against all odds, building her family, son after son (Carmine Jr. was born in 1986, followed by John in 1987, and Frank in 1990), her father was taking over his other family. In December 1985, John ordered the hit on Paul Castellano, head of the Gambino family, reportedly watching the murder from his car. By January, he was formally named the family’s new boss.

“The change was not without bloodshed. Bodies seemed to drop everywhere around the five boroughs. From that point on, there wasn’t a day that dad wasn’t on the front page,” Gotti explained. “The Gotti name sold papers. Andy Warhol painted Dad’s image for the cover of TIME Magazine. Dad became larger than life. At times, it was unbearable. But was it all bad? Of course not. For a stretch, life was good.”

While John was becoming The Dapper Don, a nickname bestowed upon him thanks to his sartorial style, Carmine’s business, the largest steel-shredder in the country, was making millions. The Agnellos bought land on Long Island and built their dream home, while Gotti began her career as a columnist as the New York Post. And it couldn’t have been easy for her to work there while her dad was making news day in and day out. He was hit with two major trials back-to-back—one for racketeering, in which he tampered with the jury, and the other for assault—both of which yielded him acquittals. “That same newspaper dubbed him “The Teflon Don” because the charges didn’t stick,” she explained. “In time, Dad became the people’s king. He feared no one and nothing. The legend grew and grew.”

“But these things don’t last,” she added. “How can they? When your rivals want you dead, the FBI wants you in jail, the President of the United States wants your head on a silver platter? I should’ve been able to predict it.”

On December 11, 1990, FBI agents and NYPD detectives raided the Ravenite, arresting John. He was later charged with five murders, conspiracy to murder, loansharking, illegal gambling, obstruction of justice, bribery, and tax evasion. As he was driven away in the police car, he said, “I bet ya three-to-one I beat this.”

He didn’t. On April 2, 1992, after only 14 hours of deliberation, he was found guilty on all charges in the indictment and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. “The Teflon is gone,” James Fox, Assistant Director In Charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office, said in a press conference. “The don is covered with Velcro and all the charges stuck.

Victoria Gotti

Ron Galella/WireImage

“Dad being in prison was heartbreaking, but with him away, Carmine working, and the kids in school, I turned my focus on my own career. It was far from easy, and I worked my ass off, but I wrote my first novel, The Senator’s Daughter,” Gotti said. The mystery novel was released in 1997, two years after she’d published a medical journal entitled Women and Mitral Valve Prolapse, which documented her health woes. She had two more novels published in 1998 and 2000.

While her career was on the uptick, her personal life was imploding. In 1998, John was diagnosed with throat cancer. And tensions with Carmine over how legitimate his business might be—spoiler alert, it wasn’t—were mounting in a dangerous way. In January 2000, after threats made to his wife over her desire to leave him, Carmine was arrested and charged with racketeering and arson. 

“I have been told to stay strong my entire life, but that day was too much for me. I didn’t know where to begin. I never imagined myself raising three sons alone, and in my spare time, there was my career, by book contracts, my newspaper column. I fought to stay strong,” she admitted.

By 2001, Carmine had pleaded guilty to receive a lesser sentence: nine years in federal prison with an order to forfeit $10 million in assets to the court. A year later, her father would die in custody, in a prison hospital in Springfield, Miss. “I still cry every night. I don’t know why,” she said in the film. “And when your father’s dying and you can’t be there and you can’t touch him, you’re watching through glass, it’s very disturbing.”

John was given a funeral in New York City the likes that are rarely seen, with an estimated 300 onlookers following the procession. And from there, Gotti began to try and rebuild her life. She divorced Carmine in 2003 on grounds of constructive abandonment. A year later, she and her boys were the stars of the hit A&E reality series Growing Up Gotti, which ran for three seasons. And ever since, she’s remained one of those pop culture fascinations, popping up in places like Celebrity Apprentice, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, and, yes, Lifetime movies.

She wrote her memoir in 2009, in part, to help clear her brother John’s name. According to federal prosecutors, he’d been inducted into the Gambino crime family in 1988 and allegedly was made head of the operation when his father was put away for life in 1992. Since 1998, he’s faced charges four times and served jail time twice. 

“The reason this book was born also, and the reason for this interview even, is that we’re aware as a family that now, in order to save John’s life, my brother, it’s war. It’s all out war,” Gotti told CBS News in 2009. “And we are doing what we can, fighting like hell, to see that he gets a fair trial. That he gets a fair shot. It’s about a life that he’s left long behind him. More than a decade ago. And it’s just something that we feel now should be addressed. And we want to just go on with our lives. We want to put this behind us.” 

That trial, the last to come against her brother, was deemed a mistrial.

The picture that Gotti’s painted of her father in both her book and the film is in step with the individual the FBI successfully made him out to be. And she says that’s how he wanted it. “He said to me before he passed away, ‘One day, you might write about this. Just make me one promise,'” she said in the film. “‘Don’t ever make me out to be an altar boy because I wasn’t.'” 

“I saw him as, always, from a very young age until the day he died, as this strong lion,” she told E! News about her father. “People asked me, ‘What do you miss about him?’ after his death. To this day, I think it’s the protectiveness.”

As she added in the film: “When he went, that went.”

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