Meyer Lansky was influential enough to draw hundreds of inquiries from law-enforcement agencies during his lifetime, from the FBI, CIA, Highway Patrol offices in dozen’s of states, local police, detective agencies, you name it, somebody wanted to know more about him. Strange, because as dirty and sticky as his hands were for the Mob, no charges seemed to stick to him.
Lansky was born Meier Suchowlanski July 4, 1902 (died Jan 15, 1983) in Grodno, the Russian Empire. His father immigrated in 1909 to Manhattan and the family joined him two years later. By the time he was 13, Meyer was a tough-nosed hood who rolled drunks, manhandled local push-cart owners and hung with a group of like-minded young men who would eventually form a part of Lucky Luciano’s main strong-arm groups and bootlegging gangs.
Bugsy Siegel’s New Blood
Although gang members like Bugsy Siegel seemed to love fights (and Siegel took real pride in his murders), Lansky was more cautious. When Joe Masseria needed to be hit, Lansky handled the details, Siegel, Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia, and Joe Adonis handled the guns. Lucky Luciano held control of the New York Mob for more than two decades, and the men who handled his dirty work at the Villa Tammaro restaurant in Coney Island (on tax day, April 15, 1931) all had long careers in organized crime.
Siegel and Adonis were assassinated, Lansky and Adonis were deported to Italy. Lansky, always in the background when crimes were committed, lived a quiet life in Florida until he died on January 15, 1983. Although he handled hundreds of millions in illegal funds from Mob crimes, he wasn’t lavish in his lifestyle.
After the end of Prohibition in the early 1930s, Lansky setup gambling joints in Florida and Louisiana. He had at least a passing interest in Kentucky and Ohio clubs, but the New Orleans business was special to him, with slot machines sales and income topping the bill. After Lucky Luciano was deported in 1936, Lansky took advantage of the Swiss Banking Act of 1934 and set up a series of shell organizations to help launder both Mob money and his own.with a final holding spot of numbered Swiss bank accounts.
His legitimate business operations had a tendency to lose money, but his casinos were always profitable. As more pressure came from local police and sheriff associations, Lansky paid handsomely to keep his name clean and outside of legal hassles. And, Lansky approved of a move into Nevada casinos in both Reno and Las Vegas. Mob money went straight into clubs like the El Cortez and the Las Vegas Club, with Bugsy Siegel and Dave Berman putting up a chunk of cash.
When the building of Billy Wilkerson’s hotel on the Las Vegas Strip stalled, Lansky was instrumental in convincing his bosses that a more public organization and ownership of the soon to be Flamingo was a good idea. Unfortunately, Siegel was a better hitman than a businessman. The construction was a financial disaster, the casino opened and lost money, and only the death of Siegel would keep the Mob happy.
Lansky didn’t give the order for Siegel’s hit, but he had to give his OK. A meeting in Havana with Lansky, Luciano, and a dozen other family heads sealed Bugsy’s fate. He lasted until June 20, 1947. After that, the team of Gus Greenbaum and Dave Berman handled things at the Flamingo with Moe Sedway managing the casino. Lansky got his weekly cut of the skim via bag man (including Siegel’s ex-girlfriend, Virginia Hill) and funneled the cash through a complicated series of shady but legal enterprises to turn the untaxed cash into clean money. He sent his own share to Switzerland, again, sometimes with the help of Virginia Hill.
With the burgeoning success of Las Vegas, Lansky set his own brother up as a manager at the Thunderbird casino in town and later, when Cuba accepted Meyer as an adviser and then casino owner, he was a part of the Nacional Casino in Havana. Enormous profits were skimmed at the Thunderbird, and the Cuban casinos were a huge source of income.
Lansky and Cuba
It was Lansky who arranged a $250,000 bribe in 1952 for President Carlos Prio Socarras to allow Batista to return to power. Once the military coup of March 1952 took place, Batista allowed gambling to be a major part of the Havana experience. Over the next six years, Batista took a nightly share of the profits from all casinos slot machines, often ignoring the cut of the craps and blackjack tables. This allowed the Mob to help finance the building of several more casinos (although the Cuban government was footing a large share of the cost also).
While the Mob profited, the citizens of Havana as a whole didn’t see much of a change in their living standards. Wealthy tourists flew to the island, spent lavishly in the hotels and casinos, and money flew away to the states (and Switzerland). Casinos like the Capri, Commodoro, Deauvill, and Sevilla-Biltmore were split between several Mob families.
The Nacional, Montmartre Club, and the new Habana Riviera were very successful for Lansky and the New York group, with the Riviera making more than $3 million in its first year of operation. Unfortunately for the Mob, their greed (and Batista’s), were too much for Fidel Castro to stomach. The Cuban revolution of 1959 put an end to the gambling as rebels stormed the hotels, trashed the casinos, broke into the slot machines and even parking meters outside, and the tropical dream came to an end for Lansky. By that time, even his illegal clubs in Miami were under a cloud and soon to be closed.
Back to Vegas
Although the Mob’s losses in Cuba (and Lansky’s, estimated at nearly $10 million) were substantial, Las Vegas was still a great stream of skimmed cash. When the US Government indicted several casino executives of illegal cash transactions, Lansky was never touched, although he drained millions from clubs like the Thunderbird, Flamingo, Tropicana, Sands and even Caesars Palace.
He was indicted for income tax fraud and fled to Israel (if this sounds familiar, yes, the Hyman Roth character in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was patterned after Lansky) but returned to the US and stood trial in a botched case that he easily beat. He lived another ten years, lamenting his losses, dabbling in real estate, and at one point, transferring $15 million to his brother Jake’s bank account when he was having more trouble with the IRS – this according to his daughter Sandra.
How close was the Hyman Roth character to Meyer Lansky? Roth’s statement to Michael Corleone of “Michael, we’re bigger than US Steel,” was a direct quote from Lansky to his wife in their Miami home that was picked up on tape by the FBI. Lansky passed away on January 15, 1983, a free man.
Thanks for reading – Al W Moe