“Bugsy” Siegel is still an enduring icon of Hollywood, the Mob, and Las Vegas. Quite a legacy, really. Growing up in the Williamsburg district of Brooklyn (Feb. 28, 1906), no one expected the tough, skinny kid to even live long enough to have an impact on the world.
Siegel was already street-wise by the age of nine, rolling drunks and stealing from merchants, and he and Moe Sedway set up their own protection racket in the neighborhood, but his life took a real turn when he and new pal Meyer Lansky got involved in a fight with a dozen other kids over who would run a craps game on a stretch of sidewalk outside a sweet shop. A gun was drawn but knocked to the ground, and it was Ben and Meyer who found themselves fighting over it. Meyer was stronger and smarter, and as the boys ran from the sound of police whistles, Ben cowed to Meyers age and influence.
When The Volstead Act was enacted making bootlegging the greatest gift a government could ever do for criminals, Ben was 14. Old enough to drive, and he and Meyer had their own gang of all-Jewish hoodlums later dubbed the Bugs and Meyer Mob. They were tough, but there were already stronger gangs handling booze, and soon the partners were working for Arnold Rothstein’s group, with Frank Costello, Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, and soon Albert Anastasia.
Benjamin Siegel got a taste of the good life when the money from bootlegging started rolling in, and he wasn’t about to give it up. Ben’s solution to business problems certainly wasn’t a negotiation, it was death, and he had no issues with helping out other gangs, for a price, as a very successful hitman.
While Siegel was charismatic and tough, Lansky was shrewd and grew more polished, and trusted by rival groups. During the late 1920s, the gangs of New York were considered Murder, Incorporated, as Siegel started joining in on even more Mob hits. At the direction of Lansky (for Frank Costello – future boss of the Genovese family), Siegel joined Joey Adonis, Albert Anastasia, and Vito Genovese to gun down mob boss Joe Masseria on tax day, April 15, 1931.
Bugsy on his Own
On his own, “Bugsy” pushed and bullied his way into any business he wanted, and took offense to any slight from a rival. When bootlegger Waxy Gordon wouldn’t share some gaming locations in New York, “Bugsy” and Meyer paid-off an IRS agent to look at his income and Gordon was indicted for tax evasion. Cranky, Gordon sent a trio of brothers to kill Meyer and Siegel, but the story got out before they were successful, and two of the Frabrazzo brothers were killed.
That wasn’t enough for “Bugsy,” and in September of 1932, Ben checked himself into a hospital with stomach cramps. That evening, he slipped out of the hospital, picked-up two triggermen, and they went to a small, poorly lit home where they posed as detectives to entice Tony Fabrazzo to come out onto the stoop. When he did, “Bugsy” came out from the darkness and rained the remaining brother with lead.
Afterward, Siegel felt better, returned to the hospital, and had a sound nights sleep. His alibi was scrutinized closely, but it held up. However, by this time, while working for local Mobs as well as the Chicago outfit led by Al Capone, “Bugsy” had truly earned his nickname and twisted the internal workings of every major crime family in the country. His future looked best far away, and he moved to California, leaving his wife, Esta, in Scarsdale.
Officially, his move was to cement a relationship with Jack Dragna, crime boss of California, but “Bugsy” wasn’t happy with just that. While on the West Coast helped establish a drug route from Mexico to the US, infiltrated and extorted Hollywood unions, took-over the Trans-Union race wire through Chicago, and set up plenty of gaming houses in Los Angeles.
The money was good on the coast, and he made plenty with the Santa Anita Horse race track and his involvement with the Agua Caliente casino in Mexico, but he also took a huge chunk of money from the Trans-Union, about $25,000 a week. He considered every race book in Nevada to be his own income since they had to pay a weekly fee to get results and stay in business. While he was a great earner for the Mob, he was a loose cannon.
Bugsy in Las Vegas
He had offices in the boiler room of the Las Vegas Club and also owned the El Cortez in downtown Vegas in the early 1940s, but he did think a larger club out on the Los Angeles highway would be very successful. He and Moe Sedway had purchased some sandy desert, and eventually made a deal with Hollywood restauranteur Billy Wilkerson for a nice hotel.
Once Wilkerson got the money coming in and the groundbreaking started, so did Siegel. He got Wilkerson to agree to his help in acquiring materials, which were hard to come by in the postwar market of 1945, and soon US Senator Pat McCarran arranged the priority lists to allow the newly named Flamingo to get whatever it needed.
When cash ran short, Siegel talked more businessmen into investing, and of course, the Mob had a stake in the property. Before it was halfway finished, Wilkerson was a bystander, Ben’s girlfriend Virginia Hill was in charge of decorating, and the construction was hemorrhaging money. By the opening time, the $1.5 million dollar property had cost nearly $5 million, and the Mob was holding the bag for $3 million of it.
“Bugsy” was determined to open for New Year’s Eve 1946, but the hotel rooms weren’t done. The casino and restaurant opened on December 26th, but the mobster’s luck was bad, as a winter storm kept the Constellation he had chartered to fly his Hollywood guests to Vegas were grounded on the tarmac in Los Angeles.
Old friend and Hollywood star George Raft made it to the Flamingo, losing $65,000 for the week, but the club had a rocky start and lost $300,000 as players got lucky, and regardless of the mobster’s reputation, the old hands in Vegas weren’t impressed: dealers and pit bosses stole easy pickings and put the casino in bad shape.
The club was shut down while construction was finished and a new opening took place on March 1st when the showroom featured Jimmy Durante, the Xavier Cugat Band, and “Baby” Rosemarie. Rosemarie (of later Dick Van Dyke Show fame) recalled waiting for her first number when a handsome but tough-looking gentleman walked up to her, gave her a stack of $100 bills, and told her to go learn to play craps. She did, losing half the cash, and later was scared to death when she had to return what was left to him. Apparently, he just laughed, refusing the money, but he had little to laugh about.
Although the property started to earn a little money, it was too late. He had too many enemies by this time, and even Meyer Lansky’s pleading couldn’t help him. He was gunned down in Virginia Hills home in Beverly Hills while calmly reading the paper. The best guess is that Moe Sedway arranged the hit, using Frankie Carbo as the driver and an unknown sharpshooter at the window of the once-named living room. The hit left “Bugsy” less handsome, but more famous than ever.
Simultaneously, the Flamingo was taken-over by Gus Greenbaum, Davie Berman, and Morris Rosen. Sanford Adler of the El Rancho casino up the street was chosen to front for the club, but manager Rosen had to knock the man down a few times before he packed up and headed to Reno where he still had some influence.
With Siegel’s death, money skimmed from the count room finally started making it’s way to Meyer Lansky so he could share it with the Mob families of New York, Chicago, Kansas City, and even Miami. While Siegel’s cash had nearly dried up, Lansky was reported to have saved nearly $300 million from his decades of involvement with the Mob and casinos from New York to the newly legal clubs of Nevada. Who ended up with lion’s share of that cash after Lansky died in 1983 has never been established, but casino gambling is still attributed to Las Vegas more than any other place!
Thanks for reading – Al W Moe