Meyer Lansky (July 4, 1902 – January 15, 1983) known as the "Mob's Accountant," was a Russian-born American organized crime figure who, along with his associate Lucky Luciano, was instrumental in the development of the "National Crime Syndicate" in the United States. For decades he was thought to be one of the most powerful people in the country.
Lansky developed a gambling empire which stretched from Saratoga, New York to Miami to Council Bluffs and Las Vegas; it is also said that he oversaw gambling concessions in Cuba. Although a member of the Jewish Mafia, Lansky undoubtedly had strong influence with the Italian Mafia and played a large role in the consolidation of the criminal underworld (although the full extent of this role has been the subject of some debate).
Early life Edit
Lansky was born Meyer Suchowljansky in Grodno (then in Russia, now in Belarus), to a Jewish family who experienced pogroms. In 1911, he emigrated to the United States through the port of Odessa with his mother and brother and joined his father, who had previously emigrated to the United States in 1909, and settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York. Meyer Lansky was a small man with a height of 5ft 4inches, despite being small he was tough and could defend himself.
Lansky met Bugsy Siegel when they were teenagers. They became lifelong friends, as well as partners in the bootlegging trade, and together with Charles Luciano, formed a lasting partnership. Lansky was instrumental in Luciano's rise to power by organizing the 1931 murder of Mafia boss Salvatore Maranzano. As a youngster, Siegel saved Lansky's life several times, a fact which Lansky always appreciated. The two adroitly managed the Bug and Meyer Mob despite its reputation as one of the most violent Prohibition gangs.
Lansky was the brother of Jacob "Jake" Lansky, who in 1959 was the manager of the Nacional Hotel in Havana, Cuba.
Gambling operations Edit
By 1936, Lansky had established gambling operations in Florida, New Orleans, and Cuba. These gambling operations were successful as they were founded upon two innovations:
First, Lansky and his connections had the technical expertise to effectively manage them based upon Lansky’s knowledge of the true mathematical odds of most popular wagering games.
Second, mob connections were used to ensure legal and physical security of their establishments from other crime figures, and law enforcement (through bribes). There was also an absolute rule of integrity concerning the games and wagers made within their establishments. Lansky’s “carpet joints” in Florida and elsewhere were never “clip-joints” where gamblers were unsure of whether or not the games were rigged against them. Lansky ensured that the staff (the croupiers and their management) actually consisted of men of high integrity.
In 1936, Lansky's partner Luciano was sent to prison. Lansky later convinced the Mafia to place Bugsy Siegel in charge of Las Vegas, and became a major investor in Siegel's Flamingo Hotel.
After Al Capone's 1931 conviction for tax evasion and prostitution, Lansky saw that he too was vulnerable to a similar prosecution. To protect himself, he transferred the illegal earnings from his growing casino empire to a Swiss numbered bank account, whose anonymity was assured by the 1934 Swiss Banking Act. Lansky eventually even bought an offshore bank in Switzerland, which he used to launder money through a network of shell and holding companies.
War work Edit
In the 1930s, Meyer Lansky and his gang claimed to have stepped outside their usual criminal activities to break up rallies held by Nazi sympathizers. Lansky recalled a particular rally in Yorkville, a German neighborhood in Manhattan, that he claimed he and 14 other associates disrupted:
"The stage was decorated with a swastika and a picture of Adolf Hitler. The speakers started ranting. There were only fifteen of us, but we went into action. We threw some of them out the windows. Most of the Nazis panicked and ran out. We chased them and beat them up. We wanted to show them that Jews would not always sit back and accept insults."
During World War II, Lansky was also instrumental in helping the Office of Naval Intelligence's Operation Underworld, in which the government recruited criminals to watch out for German infiltrators and submarine-borne saboteurs.
According to Luciano's authorized biography, during this time, Lansky helped arrange a deal with the U.S. Government via a high-ranking U.S. Navy official. This deal would secure the release of Luciano from prison; in exchange, the Italian Mafia would provide security for the war ships that were being built along the docks in New York Harbor. German submarines were sinking Allied shipping outside the coast on a daily basis and there was great fear of attack or sabotage by Nazi sympathizers.
The Flamingo Edit
During the 1940s, Lansky's associate Bugsy Siegel persuaded the crime bosses to invest in a lavish new casino hotel project in Las Vegas, the Flamingo. After long delays and large cost overruns, the Flamingo Hotel was still not open for business. To discuss the Flamingo problem, the Mafia investors attended a secret meeting in Havana, Cuba in 1946. While the other bosses wanted to kill Siegel, Lansky begged them to give his friend a second chance. Despite this reprieve, Siegel continued to lose Mafia money on the Flamingo Hotel. A second family meeting was then called. However, by the time this meeting took place, the casino turned a small profit. Lansky again, with Luciano's support, convinced the family to give Siegel some more time.
The Flamingo was soon losing money again. At a third meeting, the family decided that Siegel was finished. It is widely believed that Lansky himself was compelled to give the final okay on eliminating Siegel due to his long relationship with Siegel and his stature in the family.
On June 20, 1947, Siegel was shot and killed in Beverly Hills, California. Twenty minutes after the Siegel hit, Lansky's associates, including Gus Greenbaum and Moe Sedway, walked into the Flamingo Hotel and took control of the property. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Lansky retained a substantial financial interest in the Flamingo for the next twenty years. Lansky said in several interviews later in his life that if it had been up to him, "...Ben Siegel would be alive today."
This also marked a power transfer in Vegas from the New York crime families to the Chicago Outfit. Although his role was considerably more restrained than in previous years, Lansky is believed to have both advised and aided Chicago boss Tony Accardo in initially establishing his hold.
After World War II, Lansky associate Lucky Luciano was paroled from prison on the condition that he permanently return to Sicily. However, Luciano secretly moved to Cuba, where he worked to resume control over American Mafia operations. Luciano also ran a number of casinos in Cuba with the sanction of Cuban president General Fulgencio Batista, though the US government succeeded in pressuring the Batista regime to deport Luciano.
Batista's closest friend in the Mafia was Lansky. They formed a renowned friendship and business relationship that lasted for a decade. During a stay at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York in the late 1940s, it was mutually agreed upon that, in exchange for kickbacks, Batista would offer Lansky and the Mafia control of Havana’s racetracks and casinos. Batista would open Havana to large scale gambling, and his government would match, dollar for dollar, any hotel investment over $1 million, which would include a casino license. Lansky would place himself at the center of Cuba's gambling operations. He immediately called on his associates to hold a summit in Havana.
The Havana Conference was held on December 22, 1946 at the Hotel Nacional. This was the first full-scale meeting of American underworld leaders since the Chicago meeting in 1932. Present were such figures as Joe Adonis and Albert Anastasia, Frank Costello, Joseph "Bananas" Bonanno, Vito Genovese, Moe Dalitz, Gaetano Luchese, from New York, Santo Trafficante, Jr. from Tampa, Carlos Marcello from New Orleans, and Stefano Magaddino, Joe Bonanno's cousin from Buffalo. From Chicago there were Anthony Accardo and the Fischetti brothers, "Trigger-Happy" Charlie and Rocco, and, representing the Jewish interest, Lansky, Moe Dalitz and “Dandy” Philip Kastel from Florida. The first to arrive was Lucky Luciano, who had been deported to Italy, and had to travel to Havana with a false passport. Lansky shared with them his vision of a new Havana, profitable for those willing to invest the right sum of money. According to Luciano’s evidence, and he is the only one who ever recounted details of the events in any detail, he confirmed that he was appointed as kingpin for the mob, to rule from Cuba until such time as he could find a legitimate way back into the U.S. Entertainment at the conference was provided by, among others, Frank Sinatra who flew down to Cuba with their friends, the Fischetti brothers.
In 1952, Lansky even offered then President Carlos Prío Socarrás a bribe of U.S. $250,000 to step down so Batista could return to power. Once Batista retook control of the government he quickly put gambling back on track. The dictator contacted Lansky and offered him an annual salary of U.S. $25,000 to serve as an unofficial gambling minister. By 1955, Batista had changed the gambling laws once again, granting a gaming license to anyone who invested $1 million in a hotel or U.S. $200,000 in a new nightclub. Unlike the procedure for acquiring gaming licenses in Vegas, this provision exempted venture capitalists from background checks. As long as they made the required investment, they were provided with public matching funds for construction, a 10-year tax exemption and duty-free importation of equipment and furnishings. The government would get U.S. $250,000 for the license plus a percentage of the profits from each casino. Cuba’s 10,000 slot machines, even the ones which dispensed small prizes for children at country fairs, were to be the province of Batista's brother-in-law, Roberto Fernandez y Miranda. An Army general and government sports director, Fernandez was also given the parking meters in Havana as a little something extra. Import duties were waived on materials for hotel construction and Cuban contractors with the right "in" made windfalls by importing much more than was needed and selling the surplus to others for hefty profits. It was rumored that besides the U.S. $250,000 to get a license, sometimes more was required under the table. Periodic payoffs were requested and received by corrupt politicians.
Lansky set about reforming the Montmartre Club, which soon became the "in" place in Havana. He also long expressed an interest in putting a casino in the elegant Hotel Nacional, which overlooked El Morro, the ancient fortress guarding Havana harbor. Lansky planned to take a wing of the 10-storey hotel and create luxury suites for high-stakes players. Batista endorsed Lansky’s idea over the objections of American expatriates such as Ernest Hemingway and the elegant hotel opened for business in 1955 with a show by Eartha Kitt. The casino was an immediate success.
Once all the new hotels, nightclubs and casinos had been built Batista wasted no time collecting his share of the profits. Nightly, the "bagman" for his wife collected 10 percent of the profits at Trafficante's interests; the Sans Souci cabaret, and the casinos in the hotels Sevilla-Biltmore, Commodoro, Deauville and Capri (part-owned by the actor George Raft). His take from the Lansky casinos, his prized Habana Riviera, the Nacional, the Montmartre Club and others, was said to be 30 percent. What exactly Batista and his cronies actually received in total in the way of bribes, payoffs and profiteering has never been certified. The slot machines alone contributed approximately U.S. $1 million to the regime's bank account.
Cuban Revolution Edit
The 1959 Cuban revolution and the rise of Fidel Castro changed the climate for mob investment in Cuba. On that New Year's Eve of 1958, while Batista was preparing to flee to the Dominican Republic and then on to Spain (where he died in exile in 1973), Lansky was celebrating the $3 million he made in the first year of operations at his 440-room, $18 million palace, the Habana Riviera. Many of the casinos, including several of Lansky's, were looted and destroyed that night.
On January 8, 1959, Castro marched into Havana and took over, setting up shop in the Hilton. Lansky had fled the day before for the Bahamas and other Caribbean destinations. The new Cuban president, Manuel Urrutia Lleó, took steps to close the casinos.
In October 1960, Castro nationalized the island's hotel-casinos and outlawed gambling. This action essentially wiped out Lansky's asset base and revenue streams. He lost an estimated $7 million. With the additional crackdown on casinos in Miami, Lansky was forced to depend on his Las Vegas revenues.
Later years Edit
In his later years, Lansky lived a low-profile, routine existence in Miami Beach. He dressed like the average grandfather, walked his dog every morning, and portrayed himself as a harmless retiree. Lansky's associates usually met him in malls and other crowded locations. Lansky would change drivers, who chauffeured him around town to look for new pay phones almost every day.
Attempted escape to Israel and trial Edit
In 1970, Lansky fled to Herzliya Pituah, Israel, to escape federal tax evasion charges. Although the Israeli Law of Return allows any Jew to settle in the State of Israel, it excludes those with criminal pasts. Two years after Lansky fled to Israel, Israeli authorities deported him back to the U.S. The US government brought Lansky to trial with the testimony of loan shark "Fat Vinnie" Vincent Teresa, an informant with little or no credibility. Lansky was acquitted in 1974.
Lansky's last years were spent quietly at his home in Miami Beach. He died of lung cancer on January 15, 1983, age 80, leaving behind a widow and three children. On paper, Lansky was worth almost nothing. At the time, the FBI believed he left behind over $300 million in hidden bank accounts, but they never found any money.
However, his biographer Robert Lacey describes Lansky's financially strained circumstances in the last two decades of his life and his inability to pay for health care for his relatives. For Lacey, there was no evidence "to sustain the notion of Lansky as king of all evil, the brains, the secret mover, the inspirer and controller of American organized crime." He concludes from evidence including interviews with the surviving members of the family that Lansky's wealth and influence had been grossly exaggerated, and that it would be more accurate to think of him as an accountant for gangsters rather than a gangster himself.
His granddaughter told author T.J. English that at his death in 1983, Lansky left only $37,000 in cash. When asked in his later years what went wrong in Cuba, the gangster offered no excuses. "I crapped out," he said. Lansky even went as far as to tell people he had lost almost every penny in Cuba and that he was barely scraping by. In all likelihood, it was only an excuse to keep the IRS off his back. According to Lansky's daughter Sandra, he had transferred at least $15 million to his brother Jake due to his problems with the IRS. In fact, all of his men seemed to have more money than him. They owned hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, stocks and bonds and some like Sam Cohen even owned banks. "Meyer Lansky doesn't own property. He owns people." said Hank Messick, a journalist for the Miami Herald who had spent years investigating the character. Messick, the FBI and legendary District Attorney, Robert Morgenthau all believed Lansky had kept large sums of money in other people's names for decades and that keeping very little in his own was nothing new to him.
If Lansky's low-key demeanor was fooling many people, it certainly was not fooling the FBI. He was treated like royalty wherever he went and the way some of the most powerful people in Miami conducted themselves around him was enough for them to keep him on the radar until his dying day. The truth regarding Lansky's wealth and influence remains a mystery.
In popular culture Edit
In film Edit
The character Hyman Roth, portrayed by Lee Strasberg, and certain aspects of the main character Michael Corleone from the film The Godfather Part II (1974), are based on Lansky. In fact, shortly after the premiere in 1974, Lansky phoned Strasberg and congratulated him on a good performance (Strasberg was nominated for an Oscar for his role), but added "You could've made me more sympathetic." Roth's statement to Michael Corleone that "We're bigger than U.S. Steel" was actually a direct quote from Lansky, who said the same thing to his wife while watching a news story on the Cosa Nostra. The character Johnny Ola is similar to Lansky's associate Vincent Alo. Additionally, the character Moe Greene, who was a friend of Roth's, is modeled upon Bugsy Siegel. The film reflects real life in that Lansky was denied the Right of Return to Israel and returned to the U.S. to face criminal charges, but fabricated details regarding Roth's attempts to bribe Latin American dictators for entry to their countries, as well as Roth's ultimate fate.
Maximilian "Max" Bercovicz, the gangster played by James Woods in Sergio Leone's opus Once Upon A Time In America was inspired by Meyer Lansky.
Mark Rydell plays Lansky in the 1990 Sydney Pollack film Havana, starring Robert Redford.
The film Bugsy (1991), a biography of Bugsy Siegel, included Lansky as a major character, played by Ben Kingsley, who was nominated Best Supporting Actor for the role.
In the 1991 film Mobsters, he is played by Patrick Dempsey.
Meyer Lansky is portrayed by Dustin Hoffman in the 2005 film The Lost City.
In Television Edit
In the HBO series Boardwalk Empire Meyer Lansky is played by Anatol Yusef.
The 1981 NBC mini series, The Gangster Chronicles, the character of Michael Lasker, played by Brian Benben, was based on Lansky. Because Lansky was still living at the time, the producers derived the "Michael Lasker" name for the character to avoid legal complications.
A 1999 made-for-TV movie called Lansky was released starring Richard Dreyfuss as Lansky, Eric Roberts as Bugsy Siegel, and Anthony LaPaglia as Lucky Luciano. Manny Wiesbord, the mob chieftain played by Joseph Wiseman on Crime Story, was based on Lansky.
Lansky's grandson, Meyer Lansky II, appeared in the "Jesse James vs. Al Capone" episode of Spike's Deadliest Warrior as a Capone expert, credited as "Mafioso Descendant." The senior Lansky was briefly referenced during the episode.
In literature Edit
In the 2010 book of photographs "New York City Gangland", Meyer Lansky is seen "loitering" on Little Italy's famed "Whiskey Curb" with partners Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, Vincent "Jimmy Blue Eyes" Alo, and waterfront racketeer Eddie McGrath. In the 1996 novel The Plan, by Stephen J. Cannell, Lansky and fellow mobster Joseph Alo are involved in putting an anti-Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act presidential candidate into office.
In the 2009 theatrical adaption by Joseph Bologna "Lansky" is portrayed by Mike Burstyn in a one act play.
In the book Havana by Stephen Hunter, Lansky and Fidel Castro are both included as main characters.
In the 2009 novel If The Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr the hero, Bernie Gunther, meets Lansky in Havana.
In the 2009 novel Ride of the Valkyries by Stuart Slade, Meyer Lansky is the President of Mafia run Cuba.
In the 2011 historical novel, "The Devil Himself" by Eric Dezenhall, Meyer Lansky coordinates counterespionage operations with the U.S. Navy to prevent Nazi sabotage in New York and help plan the invasion of Sicily.
He portrays himself in Harold Robbins 1995 follow-up to The Carpetbaggers, The Raiders.
In music Edit
In his 2007 song "Party Life," Jay-Z raps, "So tall and Lanky / My suit, it should thank me / I make it look good to be this hood Meyer Lansky." Raekwon, a member of the Wu-tang Clan referred to himself as "rap's Meyer Lansky" in his song "Glaciers of Ice," a single on his classic 1995 release "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..."
A member of the rap group Wu-Syndicate uses Myalansky as his stage name, referring to Meyer Lansky.
In the 2010 mixtape "Albert Anastasia" by Rick Ross refers to Meyer Lansky in his song White Sand Pt.II: "I put the team together like I'm Meyer Lansky." On Obie Trice's "Outro" off the Cheers album Proof raps, " Know much about Meyer Lansky? / Don't tustle with my hand speed / Clutch your burner, bust it and watch your man bleed."
In 2011 50 Cent's Run Up On Me Freestyle raps, "Got a fetish for the guns Calico drums / Rap Meyer Lansky steady counting my ones"
On the 2011 debut album from South Florida hardcore hip hop group "[dead] P.o.e.t.s." emcee Vice Gripp raps, "Introducing, the Bear Jew, the new Meyer Lansky" on the track "Just Gimme the Money".