Meyer Lansky’s Mob Influence

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.

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

 

 

"Bugsy" Siegel Still an Icon

“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.

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.

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

 

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