Lansky also headed up Murder, Inc. for The Commission and was largely responsible for the Mafia's development of Las Vegas and a financially beneficial relationship with the corrupt Cuban regime of Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar. Although Jewish (Jewish mafia), Lansky undoubtedly played a central role in the Italian Mafia's organization and consolidation of the criminal underworld (although the full extent of this role has come under some debate).
Meyer Lansky was born in Grodno, Russia (now Hrodna, Belarus) to Max Suchowlijanski and his wife Yetta Lansky. In 1911 the family emigrated to the United States and settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York. While Lansky was in school, he allegedly met young Charles "Lucky" Luciano, who tried to shake him down (extort money). When Lansky refused to pay, Luciano was impressed with the younger boy's bravery and the two became friends for life. Lansky met Bugsy Siegel when he was a teenager. They also became lifelong friends, and together with Luciano, formed a lasting partnership. Lansky was instrumental in Luciano's rise to power by organizing the 1931 murder of Mafia powerhouse 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.
By 1936, Lansky had established gambling operations in Florida, New Orleans, and Cuba. This was the same year that his partner Luciano was sent to prison. As Alfred McCoy records: "During the 1930s, Meyer Lansky 'discovered' the Caribbean for northeastern syndicate bosses and invested their illegal profits in an assortment of lucrative gambling ventures... He was also reportedly responsible for organized crime's decision to declare Miami a 'free city' (i.e., not subject to the usual rules of territorial monopoly)." Later, Lansky convinced the Mafia to place Siegel in charge of Las Vegas, and became a big investor in Siegel's Flamingo Hotel project. After Al Capone's 1931 conviction for tax evasion & prostitution, Lansky realized his own vulnerability to this type of prosecution. In response, he transferred illegal funds from his growing casino empire to Europe, where he opened a numbered bank account following the 1934 Swiss Banking Act. Later, according to Lucy Komisar, Lansky would even buy an offshore bank in Switzerland, which he used for money laundering through a network of shell and holding companies.
A close associate of Lucky Luciano who would attend Mafia conventions with the head of the Luciano crime family, Lansky would not sit in on Mafia discussions.
In the 1930s, Meyer Lansky and his gang 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 and 14 other hoods disrupted: The stage was decorated with a swastika and a picture of 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 US government recruited criminals to watch out for German infiltrators and submarine-borne saboteurs. According to Lucky Luciano's authorized biography, during this time, Lansky helped arrange a deal with the US Government via a high-ranking Navy official. This deal would secure the transfer of Lucky Luciano to a minimal security prison; in exchange the Mafia would provide security for the docks in New York Harbor. German submarines were beleieved to be entering the harbor at this time undetected, and there was great fear of attack or sabotage by Nazi sympathizers. (See "The Merger", by Paddy Kelly for detailed account). During the 1940s, Lansky associate Bugsy Siegel persuaded the crime bosses (including Lansky) 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 soon went back into the red. At a third meeting, the family decided that Siegel was finished. He had humiliated the organized crime bosses and never had a chance. It is widely believed that Meyer 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, Bugsy 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 FBI, Lansky was to retain 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 to the Chicago crime families. 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 American government succeeded in pressuring the Batista regime to deport Luciano. As Luciano's Cuban revenues grew and the tourism and gambling business blossomed, with Batista taking his own cut, Lansky himself started investing heavily in a Cuban hotel project called the Havana Riviera.
However, the 1959 Cuban revolution and the rise of Fidel Castro changed the climate for mob investment in Cuba. The new Cuban president, Manuel Urrutia Lleó closed the casinos and nationalized all the casino and hotel properties. This action essentially wiped out Lansky's asset base and revenue streams. Lansky left Cuba for the Bahamas and other Caribbean destinations. With the additional crackdown on casinos in Miami, Lansky was forced to depend on his Las Vegas revenues.
In his later years, Meyer Lansky lived a low-profile, routine existence in Miami Beach, making life difficult for the FBI. Lansky's associates usually met him in malls and other crowded locations. Lansky's chauffeur drove him around town to look for new payphones almost every day. Lansky was so elusive that the FBI essentially gave up monitoring him by the mid-1970s.
Lansky invariably kept very little property in his name throughout his career, concealing his equity through partnerships, and appeared to be just another struggling old man. Among Lansky's frontmen were men like Sam Cohen, Ben Siegel and Alvin Ira Malnik. Malnik had originally started working for Lansky associate Al Mones in the late 1950s. Malnik's rise in the Lansky organization was fast and by 1970, he had seemingly become the most valuable player. After Lansky's death in 1983, Alvin Malnik's power became more visible than ever. Law enforcement officials have long suspected him to be Lansky's sole "heir". During the 1970s, Lansky fled to Herzliya Pituah, Israel, to escape federal tax evasion charges. Two years later, Israel deported Lansky back to the U.S. However, the government's best shot at convicting Lansky was with the testimony of loan shark Vincent "Fat Vinnie" Teresa, an informant with little or no credibility. The jury was unreceptive, and Lansky was acquitted in 1974.
Lansky's last years were spent quietly at his home in Miami Beach. On January 15, 1983, he succumbed to lung cancer, at 80 years of age, leaving behind a wife and three children. On paper, Meyer 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.