Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel was born February 28, 1906, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The organized crime boss is best known for his bootlegging and gambling operations that included the Flamingo casino in Las Vegas. He is known by many to be the “Father of Las Vegas.” Bugsy’s legacy is that of being one of the most infamous and feared gangsters of the era.
The son of Jewish immigrants, Siegel was raised in the crime-ridden section of Williamsburg. As a teenager, he is said to have extorted money from pushcart peddlers on New York City’s Lower East Side. Siegel befriended Meyer Lansky and in 1918 the two formed the Bugs-Meyer Gang, a group of contract killers who operated under the name Murder, Inc. Siegel was also a friend of Al Capone and is said to have hid Capone at the home of one of his aunts when there was a warrant out on Capone for murder.
Siegel is said to have made a great deal of money by age 21. His charisma, charm and good looks made him likable to most everyone. A reputed womanizer, Siegel married his childhood sweetheart, Esta Krakower on January 28, 1929. Krakower, the sister of contract killer Whitey Krakower, would divorce Siegel in 1946.
During the late 1920s, Mafia kingpin Charles “Lucky” Luciano and a number of other Italian gangsters organized themselves into a national syndicate, with Siegel becoming a prominent player. With a goal of killing many of New York’s veteran gangsters, Luciano ordered Siegel and three other hit men to execute Sicilian mobster Joe “the Boss” Masseria. Siegel, along with Albert “Mad Hatter” Anastasia, Vito Genovese and Joe Adonis carried out the execution of Masseria on April 15, 1931.
By 1937, Luciano decided that it would be best for Siegel to leave for the West Coast to escape the wrath of his enemies. Siegel located to California, where he befriended many Hollywood stars, as well as studio owners such as Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer. Historians claim Siegel would go on to extort money from both. Siegel would become friends with such stars as Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Carey Grant and Gary Cooper and was a frequent guest at many Hollywood parties.
While in California, Siegel took over local unions and is said to have staged strikes in order to force movie studios to pay him off for getting the unions working again. Siegel borrowed large sums of money from celebrities and refused to pay them back knowing that they wouldn’t ask him for their money back. In his first year in Hollywood, Siegel reportedly received more than $400,000 in one-way loans from movie stars.
On November 22, 1939, Siegel, Whitey Krakower, and two other gang members killed Harry “Big Greenie” Greenberg because he had threatened to become a police informant. In September, 1941, Siegel was tried for the murder. Whitey Krakower was killed before he could face trial.
The trial gained notoriety because of the preferential treatment Siegel was reportedly receiving in jail. He refused to eat prison food and was allowed female visitors. Siegel would eventually be acquitted due to the lack of evidence, but his reputation was tarnished. During the trial, newspapers reported on Siegel’s past and referred to him as “Bugsy.” Siegel is said to have disliked the name and preferred to be called “Ben.”
On March 10, 1944, the Draft Board attempted to draft Siegel in the Army by asking for a waiver of an age limit, but the State Director of Selective Service is said to have refused the waiver because of the reputed legal dealings with Siegel’s attorney that prohibited the induction.
It was in Los Angeles that Siegel met actress Virginia Hill, a money runner for the Chicago Mob, and who had a penchant for blackmailing Hollywood stars. In 1945, the two moved to Las Vegas, where Siegel began working toward his dream of building a gambling mecca in the Nevada desert. With a reported $5 million in funding from the eastern crime syndicate, construction of the Flamingo Hotel and Casino began.
Siegel was convinced that he could draw thousands of vacationers. He began spending enormous amounts of money, demanding the finest building money could buy. The reported figures for the cost of the 93-room hotel were exceeding $6 million. Adding to the problems were said to be dishonest contractors and disgruntled unpaid builders. By day, trucks delivered black market goods. By night the same materials were pilfered and resold to Siegel a few days later. As costs soared, Siegel’s checks reportedly began bouncing.
With the unsuccessful opening of the Flamingo, Luciano demanded Siegel return the $5 million he had been given for the construction. Siegel refused the demand and Luciano ordered Siegel’s execution.
On the evening of June 20, 1947, Siegel was at home in his Hollywood bungalow after returning from getting a haircut. He is said to have been sitting on a sofa in front of an open window reading a newspaper at approximately 10:30 p.m. At age 42, Siegel was dead from shots to the head and lungs.
It was reported that only five people, all relatives, attended Siegel’s funeral. Hill, who shared the Hollywood home with Siegel, was out of the country and could not make it back in time. None of Siegel’s celebrity friends were in attendance.
The movie “Bugsy”, a biography of the life of Benjamin Siegel, was released in 1991, starring Warren Beatty.