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Wednesday 7 April 2010

Icon Series: Meyer Lansky - the thinking man's gangster?

Meyer LanskyImage via Wikipedia

Of all the main icons of the Prohibition/gambling era of gangsters, Maier Suchowljansky, known as Meyer “The Brain” Lansky ( July 4, 1902 – January 15, 1983) is perhaps the most understated. In fact, he is famed for being the reserved “chairman of the board” in popular mythology. 

When Patrick Dempsey portrays him in the hugely entertaining and equally inaccurate biopic “Mobsters”, he is described by his friend Charlie “Lucky” Luciano as looking more like a bookkeeper than a gangster. In this film, Meyer is the rational member of the gang who maps out their plans for the future and seems to understand everything about their enemies. Meyer is also deeply in love with his wife and they share an idyllic life unaffected by mob activities. 

This is something the film uses to contrast with Luciano’s relationship. The film did much to glamorize the characters and at the end of the picture, the clever organizing of the Five Families through the National Crime Syndicate wins Luciano and Lansky long lives and peaceful deaths. Lansky, it is added in the end notes never served a day in prison. Although it is true that they both died from non-violent causes – Luciano from a heart attack and Lansky from lung cancer – Lansky certainly did time.

 “The Godfather Part II” introduces us to the latter years of Meyer Lansky in the fictional character of Hyman Roth, played by Lee Strasberg, who famously declares “We’re bigger than US Steel!” Lansky apparently called Strasberg complimenting him on his performance; his only criticism being that he was not made sympathetic enough. We see this image of the straight businessman, family man and calculating criminal genius that controlled the mafia’s US Syndicate in movies like “Bugsy” and “The Lost City”. All paint him as the rational quiet man who is responsible for amassing hundreds of thousands of money through his careful organizing.

Does this measure up to the real man? The truth is I don’t really know and neither do most living people. Lansky worked hard to keep a relatively low profile. However, this only helped created a shadowy persona in the public and the low mobster’s mind. I first read about Lansky in the wildly speculative and downright inaccurate “true” crime collection, “The World’s Most Evil Men”. Among the historic and legendary ghouls reported in these pages there was a section on organized crime. It presented all the most fanciful descriptions of criminals you could shake a Tommy gun at, and began with an introduction to whole US scene. Like most true crime journalism that has been spewed out since the first major senate investigations were conducted in the early 1950s, the book confuses the “Cosa Nostra” (the Sicilian Mafia) with all other forms of organized crime. True, Lansky did exert a huge amount of influence over the Sicilians through Luciano, but his roots were firmly in the Jewish Mob. Lansky, again, was portrayed as a good poor son of Jewish immigrants who fell in with a bad crowd, Luciano’s gang, and became their organizing force. Lansky, according to the book, would have nothing to do with the prostitution rackets Luciano controlled due to some terrible episode in his youth. The part about the honest Jewish parents is correct, but Lansky was getting involved in gambling from an early age. He strayed off the straight path long before he met Luciano.

Despite Lansky’s conscious efforts to stay out of the public light and the huge amount of speculation that has been put forward by both criminals and historical hacks, there is actually a lot of evidence that paints an interesting picture of the man. He definitely had a talent for numbers, but he certainly wasn’t worth the hundreds of millions of dollars as many claim. A lot of Lansky’s image, it seems, stems both from the awe the heads of the National Syndicate was held in and also a good degree of anti-Semitism. Lansky inevitably gets mixed in with the fictional images of Shylock and Fagin as a greedy, cold-hearted, money-grubbing villain. His family life was also far from idyllic, as I will discuss in my review of Robert Lacey’s book “Little Man”...

  "Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life" is one of the most thoroughly researched books on the mafia and organized crime I have read. It sets out to carefully examine the facts surrounding the life of the man who inspired the Hyman Roth character in the movie "The Godfather Part II". Was he a cold-hearted killer? Was he a cool calculating genius behind Murder Incorporated and the chairman of the board of organized crime's infamous commission? Did he make hundreds of millions of dollars?

Lacey's story goes through virtually every aspect of Lansky's life, including interviews with his family. He is often painted as being the conservative part of the gang that included "Lucky" Luciano, Frank Costello and "Bugsy" Siegal. Lansky is the family man that carefully separates his private life from his criminal activities. He is the man that made crime pay. The evidence reveals a far less successful life. Lansky was born into virtual poverty, in a Jewish ghetto in Manhattan's Lower East Side, but was the son of honest hardworking immigrant Polish parents. Lacey argues that his undeniable talent for figures could have pulled him up by honest means, but he had a strong criminal streak running through him that warped his moral compass. This is not to say that if casinos had been made legal during his career he wouldn't have stayed straight, but far from being a staunch disciplinarian he moved towards easy money over what required hard graft. Cut away his infamous business dealings and even more notorious business acquaintances and Lansky was essentially an insufferable gambler.

He began with gambling literally on the streets with the local teenagers, where he ended up running games. After forming a gang first with fellow Jew Siegal and then with the Sicilians, Luciano and Costello, he saw the opportunity offered by the newly introduced Prohibition of Alcohol Act. This era helped forge the businesses of many of 20th century's most famous gangsters. Interestingly Lacey claims that only 25 per cent of the alcohol business was run by Sicilian gangs; another 25 per cent going to the Irish. He says that the Jewish gangs controlled the remaining 50 per cent. It's an image that is not often portrayed through popular media of the time or in subsequent years.

After Prohibition Lansky was drawn to his first love, gambling, and he was heavily involved with the casinos set up in Cuba before the revolution ousted the gangsters. Lansky went on to live in Florida in seclusion among its community of ex-Cuban patriats, sympathetic to the Batista regime. The book does cover the period where Lansky's old childhood friend Bugsy Siegal was assassinated for supposedly embezzling the Commission's money in his casino, the Flamingo, in 1947. Here, Lacey, a stickler for only reporting evidence rather than speculating, agrees that at the very least Lansky was involved with the people who had Siegal killed.

Lansky the millionaire is not reflected in the inheritance his family received, including his handicapped eldest son. He might have been a gangster involved in big money, but after his death there is little evidence to show that he had anything like the fortune the movie world and much of the true crime written about him implies. His gambling streak appears have sent him on at least as many financial lows as highs. Like his business partner, Luciano, whatever money he did have was not enough to allow him to live where and how he wanted. Luciano was forbidden re-entry into the USA after his release from prison and Lansky, despite pouring what he could afford into the new state of Israel after the Second World War was forbidden entry.

Lansky the family man is another myth shot to pieces. He seemed pretty much estranged from his children, his first wife was semi-psychotic and the second marriage didn't very well either. According to the interviews Lacey conducted with his available family members, the Lansky family home was far from being unaffected by his life as a mobster.

In addition to providing an extensive and objective view of Lansky's life, "Little Man" also takes a very rational and historical look at the mafia in the USA. It is easy for critics to look at Lacey's empirical and primary source evidence approach to reporting with eyes that have become pseudo-jaded by our popular perception of the mafia, and argue that Lansky obviously kept a tremendous amount secret. This argument would be in line with the way a huge amount of suppressed information that was revealed during the 1950s and '60s when the existence of the mafia was admitted by J Edgar Hoover, and also with the Omerta (code of silence) sworn among the Cosa Nostra and similar organized crime outfits. However, Lacey also reveals the tremendous amount of half-factual books on gangsters that were mass produced after the 1950/51 Kefauver Hearings and the 1962 Valachi Hearings. These two major investigations revealed a tremendous amount of information and misinformation on organized crime. It put faces to the leading mobsters who had started their careers around the time James Cagney and other actors were glamorizing them, the two married in the public consciousness. If we look at this through another set of jaded eyes and acknowledge that perhaps professional criminals - shock, horror even stool pigeons - are not famed for their honesty, then we can begin to understand why Lacey is not so easily led by what everyone supposedly knows.

Furthermore, and this is an aspect that really fascinated me, he actually looked at the "true" crime books that have influenced subsequent books on gangsters. Most of them read like pulp fiction thrillers with the authors reporting what gangsters supposedly thought at the time and even conversations that they have no source of proving actually happened. From my own experience I have read several variations in less than scholarly books on crime on how much Al Capone was involved with the assassination of "Big Jim" Colosimo, each one reports it as if their version was the only one. Lacey appropriately names these books "pulp non-fiction". It is a term I have used ever since.

Lacey's own work may frustrate some with how little he will admit to Lansky's involvement in murders, but aside from this you will get a far more comprehensive detailed and less hysterical analysis of a criminal icon.


Meyer Lansky, like many other gangsters, was born into poor circumstances. We share the same birthday and were both born into minority cultures, but I am not even going to pretend to understand or relate to the hardship he grew up in during the turn of the 20th century as an immigrant Polish Jew in the Lower Eastside of Manhattan. He rose out of the ghetto and turned his mathematical brain towards a life that helped him prosper financially, but ultimately brought with it other types of hardship. His family suffered because of the life he led and many people would have suffered as an indirect result of the violence caused by the Mafia. Bugsy Siegal may have joked when he was setting up the Flamingo that “We only kill our own”, but the truth is more complex. 

If you enjoyed the review of "Little Man" please vote for it on Dooyoo. If you enjoyed this article then please vote for it under "Commentary on the Life of Meyer Lansky" on Helium

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