Meyer Lansky, one of the great Jewish mobsters, ran gambling in much of the United States and helped build the National Crime Syndicate that ran organized crime in the 1930s and ‘40s. He was known as the “Mob’s accountant,” and he ranks as one of the most powerful gangsters in history.
Lansky, a Jewish immigrant, was by birth excluded from the Italian-American Mafia. But he worked closely with its members for much of his life, especially key early figures such as Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
Meyer Suchowljansky, as he was originally named, was born in the Belarussian city of Grodno, then part of Russia, on the fourth of July, 1902. His family was the victim of violent pogroms and anti-Semitism, and in 1911 Lansky, his mother and his brother immigrated to New York, where they settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with his father.
Lansky made important underworld connections early. He became close friends with Benjamin Siegel as a teenager. Benjamin, known as “Bugsy,” would go on to join Lansky as
one of the premier Jewish gangsters of the 20th century. Siegel saved Lansky’s life more than once, and Lansky never forgot it.
It was also during this formative period that Lansky met Luciano, a member of the Broadway Mob bootlegging gang. These three men allegedly joined with a number of other prominent mobsters to create a National Crime Syndicate.
The Syndicate, as it was known, was essentially a partnership between Italian and Jewish gangsters in the bootlegging trade. Founding members included Al Capone, Frank Costello, Dutch Schultz and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, among others.
During this time, Luciano’s new boss, Joe Masseria, was trying to consolidate power over every underworld organization in New York. His actions led to a major Mafia war. In part to stop the bloodshed, Luciano and Siegel turned against Masseria.
In April 1931, Masseria was assassinated, allegedly with the help of Siegel, Luciano and Lansky. They then joined the crew of their old boss’ rival, Salvatore Maranzano.
But that partnership soon soured. Luciano, Siegel and Lansky were new-fashioned mobsters. They were comfortable crossing ethnic lines if it meant greater profits and more successful crimes. Maranzano and his older generation believed in excluding all non-Italians, even all non-Sicilians.
Maranzano expected trouble from his new underlings, so he set a trap to kill them. But they figured out his plans ahead of time and sprung a trap of their own, sending four men provided by Lansky to murder Maranzano. Lansky’s crucial role in organizing the hit resulted in Luciano’s rise to the head of the family – and, soon after, to the head of the Commission that governs Italian organized crime in America.
Lansky got his real criminal start in bootlegging, along with Siegel. Together they ran the Bugs and Meyer Mob, an extremely violent street gang, during Prohibition. Their primary crimes were bootlegging, extortion, murder, hijacking and gambling.
Lansky handled the thinking work while Siegel, known for his sadism and bizarre behavior (which earned him the nickname he hated), took care of the muscle. The Bugs and Meyer Mob eventually morphed into the enforcement arm of the Syndicate, known famously as Murder Inc.
But by the time Maranzano was dead and Prohibition had ended in the early 1930s, the shape of the underworld had changed and focus had shifted from booze to other illicit activities. Lansky now turned his attention to gambling.
He set up operations first primarily in the South and in Cuba. His joints were high-class establishments: Gamblers could rest assured the games weren’t rigged, while police were bought off and competition was kept away. These operations were highly lucrative for Lansky and his partners.
By the time World War II arrived in 1941, Luciano was behind bars on a prostitution beef and the hands of his crime family had changed. But he and Lansky saw an opportunity to get him out of jail and back in power, and to help the Mafia in the process.
With Lansky’s help, Luciano arranged a deal with the government that allowed him to leave prison early. In return, the New York Mafia, which controlled the docks and shipyards along the waterfront, agreed to report and prevent sabotage by feared Nazi infiltrators.
Whether the arrangement helped the United States is highly debatable – Luciano himself later claimed it was a sham. But it drew heat off organized crime for several years and made it easier for them to operate.
As his gambling empire spread across the country, Lansky joined Siegel in a grand venture: the Flamingo Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. In late 1945, Siegel, Lansky and other mobsters bought a two-thirds stake in a lavish property under planning just outside of town.
But Siegel, who was responsible for the project, was in over his head. Construction costs skyrocketed, and once the hotel and casino opened, it started losing its Mafia owners’ money.
Lansky, like other gangsters, suspected his friend Siegel was skimming money from the casino. It was either Bugsy, Lansky charged, or his girlfriend, Virginia Hill, who had run
off to Switzerland with $2.5 million.
After a rocky road, the Flamingo finally started to pull a profit. But it was too late: Soon after the money started flowing, Siegel was shot to death in his Hollywood home. Lansky held off the hit as long as he could, but in the end, it’s believed he was the one who ordered it on his longtime friend.
Twenty minutes after Siegel’s death, Lansky’s associates took over the Flamingo. Lansky himself held onto a large interest in the property for many years.
Lansky next moved his sights to Cuba, where he developed close ties to President Fulgencio Batista. Batista allowed the gangsters to run gambling in Cuba in exchange for kickbacks. Lansky even secured a position as an unofficial minister of gaming on the island.
But the Cuban revolution of 1959 soured paradise for the mob, and drove Lansky out. When incoming President Fidel Castro outlawed gambling, Lansky lost an estimated $7 million.
For many years afterward, Lansky lived a life of quiet disguise, running his operations in the United States from Miami Beach while presenting himself as an everyday old man. But in 1970, the government decided to prosecute him for income tax evasion and he fled to Israel.
He didn’t stay long. Two years after his arrival, the Israeli government deported him on the grounds that the Law of Return doesn’t apply to Jews with criminal histories. Nonetheless, Lansky was acquitted at trial after the government’s main witness turned out to have no credibility.
Meyer Lansky died on January 15, 1983, of lung cancer in Miami Beach. Some investigators believed he left hundreds of millions of dollars hidden away. But as far as anyone could prove, the Mob’s accountant died almost penniless.