Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, born Benjamin Hymen Siegelbaum (February 28, 1906 – June 20, 1947) was a Jewish American mobster. "Bugsy" was known as one of the most "infamous and feared gangsters of his day". Described as handsome and charismatic, he was also a driving force behind the development of the Las Vegas Strip. Siegel was not only influential within the Jewish mob but, like his friend and fellow gangster Meyer Lansky, he also held significant influence within the Italian-American Mafia and the largely Italian-Jewish National Crime Syndicate.
Siegel was one of the founders and leaders of Murder, Inc. and also a bootlegger during Prohibition. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, he turned to gambling. In 1936, he left New York and moved to California. In 1939, Siegel was tried for the murder of fellow mobster Harry Greenberg. Siegel was acquitted in 1942. Siegel traveled to Las Vegas, Nevada where he handled and financed some of the original casinos. He assisted developer William Wilkerson's Flamingo Hotel after Wilkerson ran out of funds. Siegel took over the project and managed the final stages of construction. The Flamingo opened on December 26, 1946 to poor reception and soon closed. It reopened in March 1947 with a finished hotel. Three months later, on June 20, 1947, Siegel was shot dead at the Beverly Hills home of his girlfriend, Virginia Hill.
Siegel was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to a poor Jewish family from Letychiv, Podolia Governorate of the Russian Empire, in modern Ukraine. However, other sources state that his family came from Austria. His parents, Max and Jennie, constantly worked for meager wages. Siegel, the second of five children, vowed that he would rise above that life. As a boy, Siegel dropped out of school and joined a gang on Lafayette Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He committed mainly thefts, until he met Moe Sedway. With Sedway, Siegel developed a protection racket where pushcart merchants were forced to pay him a dollar or he would incinerate their merchandise. Siegel had a criminal record that included armed robbery, rape and murder dating back to his teenage years.
Bugs and Meyer MobEdit
During adolescence, Siegel befriended Meyer Lansky, who formed a small mob whose activities expanded to gambling and car theft. Lansky, who had already had a run-in with Lucky Luciano, saw a need for the Jewish boys of his Brooklyn neighborhood to organize in the same manner as the Italians and Irish. The first person he recruited for his gang was Ben Siegel.
Siegel became involved in bootlegging within several major East Coast cities. He also worked as the mob's hitman, whom Lansky would hire out to other crime families. Together they formed the Bugs and Meyer Mob, which handled contracts for the various bootleg gangs operating in New York and New Jersey – doing so almost a decade before Murder, Inc. was formed. The gang kept themselves busy hijacking the booze cargoes of rival outfits. The Bugs and Meyer Mob was known to be responsible for the killing and removal of several rival gangdom figures. Siegel's gang mates included Abner "Longie" Zwillman, Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, and Lansky's brother, Jake; Joseph "Doc" Stacher, another member of the Bugs and Meyer Mob, recalled to Lansky biographers that Siegel was fearless and saved his friends' lives as the mob moved into bootlegging:
- "Bugsy never hesitated when danger threatened," Stacher told Uri Dan. "While we tried to figure out what the best move was, Bugsy was already shooting. When it came to action there was no one better. I've never known a man who had more guts."
He was also a boyhood friend to Al Capone; when there was a warrant for Capone's arrest on a murder charge, Siegel allowed him to hide out with an aunt. Siegel first smoked opium during his youth and was involved in the drug trade. By age 21, Siegel was making money and flaunted it. He was regarded as handsome with blue eyes and was known to be charismatic and liked by everyone. He bought an apartment at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and a Tudor home in Scarsdale. He wore flashy clothes and participated in the night life of New York City.
In 1929, Lansky and Siegel attended the Atlantic City Conference from May 13–16, representing the Bugs and Meyer Mob. Luciano and former Chicago South Side Gang leader Johnny Torrio held the conference at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey. At the conference, the two men discussed the future of organized crime and the future structure of the Mafia crime families. At the conference, Siegel stated, "The yids and the dagos will no longer fight each other."
Marriage and familyEdit
On January 28, 1929, Siegel married Esta Krakower, his childhood sweetheart and sister of contract killer Whitey Krakower. They had two daughters. Siegel had a reputation as a womanizer and the marriage ended in 1946. His wife moved with their teenage daughters to New York.
By the late 1920s, Lansky and Siegel had ties to Charles Luciano and Frank Costello, future bosses of the Genovese crime family. Siegel, along with Albert Anastasia, Vito Genovese, and Joe Adonis, allegedly were the four gunmen who shot New York mob boss Giuseppe Masseria to death on Luciano's orders on April 15, 1931, ending the Castellammarese War. On September 10 of that year, Luciano hired four trigger men from the Lansky-Siegel gang (some sources identify Siegel being one of the hitmen), to murder Salvatore Maranzano, establishing Luciano's rise to the top of the U.S. Mafia and marking the beginning of modern American organized crime.
In 1931, following Maranzano's death, Luciano and Lansky formed the National Syndicate, an organization of crime families that brought power to the underworld. The Commission was established for dividing Mafia territories and preventing future wars. With his associates, Siegel formed Murder, Inc. After Siegel and Lansky moved on, control over Murder, Inc. was ceded to Buchalter and Anastasia. Siegel continued working as a hitman. His only conviction was in Miami. On February 28, 1932, he was arrested for gambling and vagrancy, and, from a roll of bills, paid a $100 fine.
During this period, Siegel had a disagreement with associates of Waxey Gordon, the Fabrizzo brothers. Gordon had hired the Fabrizzo brothers from prison after Lansky and Siegel gave the IRS information about Gordon's tax evasion. It led to Gordon's imprisonment in 1933.
Siegel hunted down the Fabrizzos, killing them after their assassination attempt on Lansky as well as Siegel himself. After the deaths of his two brothers, Tony Fabrizzo began writing a memoir and gave it to an attorney. One of the longest chapters was to be a section on the nationwide kill-for-hire squad led by Siegel. The mob discovered Fabrizzo's plans before he could execute it. In 1932, Siegel checked into a hospital and later that night sneaked out. Siegel and two accomplices approached Fabrizzo's house and, posing as detectives to lure him outside, gunned him down. According to hospital records, Siegel's alibi for that night was that he had checked into a hospital. In 1935, Siegel assisted in Luciano's alliance with Dutch Schultz and killed rival loan sharks Louis and Joseph Amberg.
Siegel had learned from his associates that he was in danger. His hospital alibi had become questionable and his enemies wanted him dead. In the late 1930s, the East Coast mob sent Siegel to California. Since 1933, Siegel had traveled to the West Coast several times, and in California, his mission was to develop syndicate gambling rackets with Los Angeles crime family boss, Jack Dragna. Once in Los Angeles, Siegel recruited gang boss Mickey Cohen as his chief lieutenant. Knowing Siegel's reputation for violence and that he was backed by Lansky and Luciano who, from prison, sent word to Dragna that it was "in [his] best interest to cooperate", Dragna allegedly accepted a subordinate role. Siegel moved Esta and their daughters, to California. On tax returns he claimed to earn his living through legal gambling at Santa Anita Park near Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, Siegel took over the numbers racket. He used money from the syndicate to help establish a drug trade route from the U.S. to Mexico and organized circuits with the Chicago Outfit's Trans-America Wire service.
By 1942, $500,000 a day was coming from the syndicate's bookmaking wire operations. In 1946, because of problems with Siegel, the Chicago Outfit took over the Continental Press and gave the percentage of the racing wire to Jack Dragna, infuriating Siegel. Despite his complications with the wire services, Siegel controlled several offshore casinos and a major prostitution ring. He also maintained relationships with politicians, businessmen, attorneys, accountants, and lobbyists who fronted for him.
In Hollywood, Siegel was welcomed in the highest circles and befriended stars. He was known to associate with George Raft, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, as well as studio executives Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner. Actress Jean Harlow was a friend of Siegel and godmother to his daughter Millicent. Siegel led an extravagant life, he bought real estate, and threw lavish parties at his Beverly Hills home. He gained admiration from young celebrities, including Tony Curtis, Phil Silvers and Frank Sinatra. Siegel had several relationships with actresses, including socialite Dorothy DiFrasso, the wife of an Italian count. The alliance with the countess took Siegel to Italy in 1938, where he met Benito Mussolini, to whom Siegel tried to sell weapons—and German leaders Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels. Siegel took an instant dislike to the Nazis and offered to kill them. He relented because of the countess's anxious pleas.
In Hollywood, Siegel worked with the crime syndicate to form illegal rackets. He devised a plan of extorting movie studios; he would take over local unions (the Screen Extras Guild and the Los Angeles Teamsters) and stage strikes to force studios to pay him off, so that unions would start working again. He borrowed money from celebrities and didn't pay them back, knowing that they would never ask him for the money. During his first year in Hollywood, he received more than $400,000 in loans from movie stars.
Greenberg murder and trialEdit
On November 22, 1939, Siegel, Whitey Krakower, Frankie Carbo and Albert Tannenbaum killed Harry "Big Greenie" Greenberg outside of his apartment. Greenberg had threatened to become a police informant, and Louis Buchalter, boss of Murder, Inc., ordered his killing.
Tannenbaum confessed to the murder and agreed to testify against Siegel. Siegel and Carbo were implicated to have shot and killed Greenberg, and in September 1941, Siegel was tried for the Greenberg murder. Whitey Krakower was killed before he could face trial. The trial gained notoriety because of the preferential treatment Siegel received in jail; he refused to eat prison food and was allowed female visitors. He was also granted leave for dental visits. Siegel hired attorney Jerry Giesler to defend him. After the deaths of two state witnesses, no additional witnesses came forward. Tannenbaum's testimony was dismissed. In 1942, Siegel and Carbo were acquitted due to insufficient evidence but Siegel's reputation was damaged. During the trial, newspapers revealed his past and referred to him as "Bugsy". He hated the nickname (said to be based on the slang term "bugs", meaning "crazy", used to describe his erratic behavior), preferring to be called "Ben" or "Mr. Siegel". On May 25, 1944, Siegel was arrested for bookmaking. George Raft testified on Siegel's behalf, and in late 1944, Siegel was acquitted.
Siegel wanted to be a legitimate businessman, and in 1946, he saw an opportunity with William R. Wilkerson's Flamingo Hotel. Las Vegas gave Siegel his second opportunity to reinvent himself. In the 1930s, Siegel had traveled to Southern Nevada with Meyer Lansky's lieutenant Moe Sedway on Lansky's orders to explore expanding operations. There were opportunities in providing illicit services to crews constructing Hoover Dam. Lansky had turned the desert over to Siegel. But Siegel had turned it over to Moe Sedway and left for Hollywood.
Lansky asked Siegel to watch Wilkerson's desert development. Siegel, who knew Wilkerson and lived near him in Beverly Hills, was the obvious choice as a liaison, but Siegel wanted no part in the operation that would take him back to Nevada. It meant leaving Beverly Hills and his playboy life. But at Lansky's insistence, Siegel consented.
In the mid-1940s, Siegel was lining things up in Las Vegas while his lieutenants worked on a business policy to secure all gambling in Los Angeles. Throughout the spring of 1946, Siegel proved useful. He obtained black market building materials. The postwar shortages that had dogged construction were no longer a problem. At first Siegel seemed content to do things Wilkerson's way. His desire to learn about the project took precedence over his sportsman lifestyle. It subdued his aggression. Under Wilkerson's tutelage, Siegel learned the mechanics of building an enterprise. However, Siegel began to feel intimidated and paranoid. He grew resentful of Wilkerson's vision for the desert. Tom Seward, a business partner of Wilkerson, described Siegel as "so jealous of Billy [Wilkerson] it drove him crazy". Siegel began making decisions without Wilkerson's authority. Informing work crews that Wilkerson had put him in charge, Siegel ordered changes which conflicted with the blueprints.
The problem came to a head when Siegel demanded more involvement in the project. To keep the project moving, Wilkerson agreed that Siegel would supervise the hotel while Wilkerson retained control of everything else.
In May 1946, Siegel decided the agreement had to be altered to give him control of the Flamingo. With the Flamingo, Siegel would supply the gambling, the best liquor and food, and the biggest entertainers at reasonable prices. He believed these attractions would lure not only the high rollers, but thousands of vacationers willing to lose $50 or $100. Siegel offered to buy out Wilkerson's creative participation with corporate stock – an additional 5 percent ownership in the operation (Siegel later reneged). On June 20, 1946, Siegel formed the Nevada Project Corporation of California, naming himself president. He was also the largest principal stockholder in the operation, which defined everyone else merely as shareholders. (William Wilkerson was eventually coerced into selling all stakes in the Flamingo under the threat of death, and went into hiding in Paris for a time.) From this point the Flamingo became syndicate-run.
Las Vegas' beginningEdit
Siegel began a spending spree. He demanded the finest building that money could buy at a time of postwar shortages. Each bathroom in the 93-room hotel had its own sewer system (cost: $1,150,000); more toilets were ordered than needed (cost: $50,000); because of the plumbing alterations, the boiler room was enlarged (cost: $113,000); and Siegel ordered a larger kitchen (cost: $29,000). Adding to the budgetary over-runs were problems with dishonest contractors and disgruntled unpaid builders. As costs soared, Siegel's checks began bouncing. By October 1946, the costs were above $4 million. In 1947, the Flamingo cost was over $6 million (around $62,500,000 in today's money).
The first indication of trouble came in November 1946 when the syndicate issued an ultimatum: provide accounting or forfeit funding. But producing a balance sheet was the last thing Siegel wanted to do. Siegel waged a private fundraising campaign by selling nonexistent stocks. He was in a hurry so he doubled his work force, believing the project could be completed in half the time. Siegel paid overtime. In some cases, bonuses tied to project deadlines were offered as a way to increase productivity. By late November, the work was nearly finished.
Under pressure for the hotel to make money, Siegel moved the opening from Wilkerson's original date of March 1, 1947 to December 26, 1946 in an attempt to generate enough money from the casino to complete the project and repay investors. However, Siegel generated confusion with the opening date. On a whim, he decided a weekend would be more likely to entice celebrities away from home. Invitations were sent out for Saturday, December 28. Siegel changed his mind again and invitees were notified by phone that the opening had been changed back to the 26th.
According to later reports by local observers, Siegel's "maniacal chest-puffing" set the pattern for several generations of notable casino moguls. Siegel's violent reputation didn't help his situation. After he boasted one day that he'd personally killed some men, he saw the panicked look on the face of head contractor Del Webb and reassured him: "Del, don't worry, we only kill each other."
Other associates portrayed Siegel in a different aspect; Siegel as an intense character who was not without a charitable side, including his donations for the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund. Lou Wiener Jr., Siegel's Las Vegas attorney, described him as "very well liked" and that he was "good to people".
Defiance and devastationEdit
Problems with the Trans-America Wire service had cleared up in Nevada and Arizona, but in California, Siegel refused to report business. He later announced to his colleagues that he was running the California syndicate by himself and that he would return the loans in his "own good time". Despite his defiance to the mob bosses they were patient with Siegel because he had always proven to be a valuable man.
The Flamingo opened on December 26, 1946. The casino, lounge, theater, and restaurant were finished. Although locals attended the opening, few celebrities materialized. A handful drove in from Los Angeles despite bad weather. Some celebrities present were June Haver, Vivian Blaine, George Raft, Sonny Tufts, Brian Donlevy, and Charles Coburn. They were welcomed by construction noise and a lobby draped with drop cloths. The desert's first air conditioning collapsed regularly. While gambling tables were operating, the luxury rooms, that would have served as the lure for people to stay and gamble were not ready. As word of the losses made their way to Siegel during the evening, he began to become irate and verbally abusive, throwing out at least one family. After two weeks the Flamingo's gaming tables were $275,000 in the red and the entire operation shut down in late January 1947.
After being granted a second chance, Siegel cracked down and did everything possible to turn the Flamingo into a success by making renovations and obtaining good press. He hired future newsman Hank Greenspun as a publicist. The hotel reopened on March 1, 1947,—with Meyer Lansky present—and began turning a profit. However, by the time profits began improving the mob bosses above Siegel were tired of waiting. Although time was running out, at age 41, Siegel had carved out a name for himself in the annals of organized crime and in Las Vegas history.
On the night of June 20, 1947, as Siegel sat with his associate Allen Smiley in Virginia Hill's Beverly Hills home reading the Los Angeles Times, an assailant fired at him through the window with a .30-caliber military M1 carbine, hitting him many times, including twice in the head. No one was charged with the murder, and the crime remains officially unsolved.
One theory posits that Siegel's death was the result of his excessive spending and possible theft of money from the mob. In 1946, a meeting was held with the "board of directors" of the syndicate in Havana, Cuba, so that Luciano, exiled in Sicily, could attend and participate. A contract on Siegel's life was the conclusion. According to Stacher, Lansky reluctantly agreed to the decision.
Although descriptions said that Siegel was shot in the eye, he was actually hit twice on the right side of his head. The death scene and postmortem photographs show that one shot penetrated his right cheek and exited through the left side of his neck; the other struck the right bridge of his nose where it met the right eye socket. The pressure created by the bullet passing through Siegel's skull blew his left eye out of its socket. A Los Angeles' Coroner's Report (#37448) states the cause of death as cerebral hemorrhage. His death certificate (Registrar's #816192) states the manner of death as a homicide and the cause as "Gunshot Wounds of the head."
Though as noted, Siegel was not shot exactly through the eye, the bullet-through-the-eye style of killing nevertheless became popular in Mafia lore and in movies, and was called the "Moe Greene special" after the character Moe Greene—based on Siegel—was killed in this manner in The Godfather.
Siegel was hit by several other bullets including shots through his lungs. According to Florabel Muir, "Four of the nine shots fired that night destroyed a white marble statue of Bacchus on a grand piano, and then lodged in the far wall."
The day after Siegel's death, the Los Angeles Herald-Express carried a photograph on its front page from the morgue of Siegel's bare right foot with a toe tag. Although Siegel's murder occurred in Beverly Hills, his death thrust Las Vegas into the national spotlight as photographs of his lifeless body were published in newspapers throughout the country. The day after Siegel's murder, David Berman and his Las Vegas mob associates, Gus Greenbaum and Moe Sedway, walked into the Flamingo and took over operation of the hotel and casino.
In the Bialystoker Synagogue on New York's Lower East Side, Siegel is memorialized by a Yahrtzeit (remembrance) plaque that marks his death date so mourners can say Kaddish for the anniversary. Siegel's plaque is below Max Siegel's, his father, who died two months before his son.
On the property at the Flamingo Las Vegas, between the pool and a wedding chapel, is a memorial plaque to Siegel. Siegel was interred in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California.